Luther once said, “Sin boldly, but believe more boldly still.”
This statement has stirred no little controversy today. It is used by Roman Catholics to show that Luther’s theology was bent toward licentiousness rather than holiness. I myself don't like the way that Luther phrased this. It's too close to the line in my opinion. But the interpretation that sees it as a love of licentiousness lacks the context of other statements Luther made that indicate that Luther did not believe that licentiousness, rather than a seeking after holiness, was appropriate for anyone claiming to be a follower of Jesus Christ.
In thinking about our struggle with sin the other day, I was considering how defeated we often feel for not overcoming temptation, but by rather being overcome by it. I was further pondering the nature of salvation, and what it means to be saved here in the “in between,” when we have already been declared to be righteous, but have not yet completely been made righteous. I was further thinking about the nature of reforming the church in doctrine and practice, and thought to myself, “How can I purpose to reform the church if I cannot even reform myself?” We are meant to be beautiful roses to God, but we often feel like very little rose and a whole lot of thorns instead.
But then it occurred to me that my definition of reform was distorted. If by “reform” we mean that we need to try and make the church, and ourselves, perfect, we will end our lives in discouragement, disillusionment, and depression. Perfection is not available to us in this life, not because it is not offered or possible with God to accomplish it, but because of the presence of our former atheistic selves and their continual desire to take hold of us once again.
If, however, by “reform” we mean that we set the church, and ourselves, in a direction that leads toward maturity and holiness in a vital relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ, such a feat is not only possible, but we who are saved are already having this accomplished through us.
You see, if God uses the evil that is done against us as a means to bring us into a closer relationship with Him, He also uses the evil that we do to do the same thing. Hence, “all things,” including even our failures in sin, are producing in us a closer relationship with God and working toward, rather than against, our salvation.
What would become of me if I never sinned again here? Would not my atheistic heart forget about God? Would it not begin to trust in my own goodness, rather than Christ’s? Would not the gospel become a distant need, a secondary thought, something that perhaps others need, but not me? What does my failure in temptation do, then, but remind me of my need for God, my reliance upon Christ and His work? Does it not push me, in a day that a thousand other concerns would cause me to forget, to enter into God’s presence through His mercies and Christ’s sacrifice and mediation that has been, and is being, performed daily on my behalf?
I am not perfect, but I am being perfected through a relationship with God through Christ, and this work of making me like Christ is being performed even in my failure to overcome temptation, even by means of my evil.
Does this mean that we should continue to purposely sin, and not resist temptation with the help of Christ and the power of God given to us to seek holiness, so that God’s work in this way might increase? As Paul said, “May it never be.” We are to work against enslavement, not toward it; but in those times that we fail to work toward it ourselves, we know that God is working toward it even in our failures.
So in this way, we can reform the Church by setting those things in place that seek a relationship with God through the truth and in holiness, but we should not lose heart because it, or we, fail to be the perfect reflection of Christ we wish to be, because if it is set on the path toward a genuine relationship with Him, it is set on the path toward a loving relationship with God that will work toward that goal on its own.
So our true response to our, or the Church’s, failures is to immediately seek out reconciliation with God the Father through Jesus Christ our Lord by the power and drawing of the Holy Spirit. In doing so, sin itself has become a means to our salvation rather than damnation, and so nothing will separate us from the love of God, not even our failure to live up to the standard to which Christ has called us.
I think this is what Luther meant by his statement to “sin boldly, but believe more boldly still.” I think he meant that the question isn’t whether one sins, but whether his sin drives him further toward or away from God. Does it increase or decrease his reliance upon Christ and His work of grace in our lives? Does it call our idolatrous hearts back to remembrance of our need for the only true God to be in our lives daily? It calls us to the throne room of our Father to seek communion with Him with all the more urgency, as we are afraid to be cut off from Him even for a moment. Luther is saying, I believe, that one should focus, not on his failures, but on Christ and His victory. Sin, but let your sin drive you to Christ all the more. In doing so, it is contributing toward its own death. In other words, have a theology of sin and salvation that makes sense of failure in the context of a salvation that is working in you.
If you don't, you're going to simply start believing that the church, and others, and you, are hopeless and damned. Who can be reformed if perfection is the standard? Who is saved if perfection is the evidence of salvation? No one. But salvation comes to us through our working out our salvation in fear and trembling, and part of that includes the times we fail to worship God in doing what is right.
So seek to refrain from evil and do good always, but when you fail, know that if your sin drives you toward Him (as it does Peter after he denied Christ), rather than away from Him (as it did Judas after he betrayed Christ), then even in this, God is working out His victory for you, and there is a need to rejoice even in a life of individual failures, because the whole of the life has sought to please and love God in a relationship with Him through the death and resurrection of His Son. And in doing so, even our thorns will work to guard our roses.