That cheeky saying attributed to Martin Luther has been fondly repeated by many Lutherans (particularly those of college age) and can be found emblazoned on various items of merchandise such as T-shirts, chocolate bars, and beer glasses. For Lutherans who purchase and display such items it’s presumably a playful reminder that Martin Luther was not some austere moralizing prude, but an earthy medieval German who lived his life with the gusto of one who had complete confidence in God’s grace.
Not surprisingly, however, many Christians also find that slogan quite problematic. An illustration of the problem is a coffee mug offered by a major on-line retailer that displays this message:
License to Sin
The bearer of this license is given a free pass to
Authorized by Martin Luther
Advertised as a “perfect gift idea” to “celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation,” this item plays on the notion, harbored by some critics, that Luther condoned willful sinfulness – that in his zeal to emphasize that we are saved by grace and not works that he actually crossed the line into the error of Antinomianism (teaching that God’s commandments are irrelevant). This has been a traditional accusation leveled against Lutherans by Catholics, and is taken up today by many Evangelical Christians. In fact, even many of us Lutherans today share this concern when viewing trends within the more liberal Lutheran bodies of North America and Europe. So did Luther actually say those words? And if so, what did he mean?
In a literal sense, Luther certainly didn’t say those exact words since he didn’t speak English! Instead, they’re a loose translation of a phrase in a personal letter which Luther dashed off from Wartburg Castle in 1521, while he was being hidden to prevent execution as a ‘dangerous heretic’ following the Diet of Worms (see also A Diet of Worms ?). The letter was a reply to one from Philip Melanchthon, his good friend and co-reformer, who was trying to ‘hold down the fort’ back in Wittenberg while the firestorm of the growing reformation movement continued to heat up, and there was a lot of debate about how much of Roman Catholic practice should be retained or abandoned. Though Melanchthon’s letter is lost to us, we can gather from Luther’s response that he thought that Melanchthon was getting too bogged-down in hypothetical hair-splitting scenarios (would it be worse sin to discontinue a permissible Catholic practice or to continue to practice a questionable one?) and was thereby missing the critical reality of God’s overriding grace. Luther’s reply read in part (emphasis added):
“God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong [or sin boldly], but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. We will commit sins while we are here … Pray hard for you are quite a sinner.”
It’s very clear in context that Luther wasn’t minimizing the gravity of sin. Rather he was chiding his dear friend for obsessing over the recipe for perfectly righteous behavior – as if! Luther recognized sinlessness as an impossibility for mortal humans. Even though we are now fully justified (that is, made right with God) by the atoning sacrifice of Christ on the cross, the Holy Spirit’s work of sanctification (shaping our will to God’s) will not be completed on this earth. During this life we are and will remain “simultaneously saints and sinners.” So Luther’s advice to Melanchthon was in effect to “own up to the inevitability of your sinfulness and get on with doing the best you can in the assurance of God’s grace.” Good advice!
One wonders: had Luther any idea how those particular words would be quoted (and misquoted) as a simplistic slogan five centuries later, would he still have written them? Perhaps — they do provide us with a vivid reminder of how God’s radical grace always triumphs over our weakness. But surely he would have wanted us to understand (and explain) what he consistently taught – Christ’s forgiveness gives us the license to LIVE BOLDLY!