’If you are a preacher of mercy, do not preach an imaginary but the true mercy. If the mercy is true, you must therefore bear the true, not an imaginary sin. God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. 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, for this life is not a place where justice resides. We, however, says Peter (2. Peter 3:13) are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth where justice will reign. It suffices that through God’s glory we have recognized the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. No sin can separate us from Him, even if we were to kill or commit adultery thousands of times each day. Do you think such an exalted Lamb paid merely a small price with a meager sacrifice for our sins? Pray hard for you are a mighty sinner.’
This is an often misunderstood quotation – on the surface it appears that Luther is advocating a ‘we’re going to sin, but we have grace, so if we sin, sin big, because we have grace,’ kind of thinking, and while it is a seemingly comforting way of thinking, it is directly opposed to what Scripture actually teaches about the nature of sin and grace. St. Paul’s very familiar rebuke, ‘Do we sin more, that grace may abound? By no means!,’ (paraphrase) deals well with that mentality – grace covers our sins, but by no means does it give is license to sin. One can imagine someone in the early church thinking just that: ‘Well, if grace abounds in sin, then let’s sin away!’ To which St. Paul offers his excellent rebuke.
Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoffer had this to say about Luther’s stirring oration quoted above:
“For Luther, ‘sin boldly’ could only be his very last refuge, the consolation for one whose attempts to follow Christ had taught him that he never could become sinless, who in his fear of sin despairs of the grace of God. As Luther saw it, ‘sin boldly’ did not happen to be a fundamental acknowledgment of his disobedient life; it was the gospel of the grace of God before which we are always and in every circumstance sinners. Yet that grace seeks us and justifies us, sinners though we are. Take courage and confess your sin, says Luther, do not try to run away from it, but believe more boldly still. You are a sinner, so be a sinner, and don’t try to become what you are not. Yes, and become a sinner again and again every day, and be bold about it. But to whom can such words be addressed, except those who from the bottom of their hearts make a daily renunciation of sin and of every barrier which hinders them from following Christ, but who nevertheless are troubled about their daily faithlessness and sin? Who can hear these words without endangering his faith but he who hears their consolation as a renewed summons to follow Christ? Interpreted in this way, these words of Luther become a testimony to the costliness of grace, the only genuine kind of grace there is… We Lutherans have gathered like eagles round the carcass of cheap grace, and there we have drunk of the poison which has killed the life of following Christ… What happened to all those warnings of Luther against preaching the gospel in such a manner as to make men rest secure in their ungodly living? …The word of cheap grace has been the ruin of more Christians than any commandment of works. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, pp. 56-59).
While I am not a Lutheran, these statements ring true for anyone. The only kind of grace is costly grace – any attempt to cheapen it by using it as an excuse to continue in a lifestyle of sin changes it from grace to damnation.