December 1, 2020

iMonk Classic: Sin to Spite the Devil

From 2004.

“Whenever the devil harasses you, seek the company of men or drink more, or joke and talk nonsense, or do some other merry thing. Sometimes we must drink more, sport, recreate ourselves, and even sin a little to spite the devil, so that we leave him no place for troubling our consciences with trifles. We are conquered if we try too conscientiously not to sin at all. So when the devil says to you: do not drink, answer him: I will drink, and right freely, just because you tell me not to.”

Martin Luther

Martin Luther is certainly my favorite person in church history. Time and again his grasp of the Gospel and unabashed honest humanity have come to my rescue. Luther has an ability to make the Gospel as outrageous as possible, and to chase the rats of legalism out of the attic before they make a nest.

The above quote is a good example. Luther recommending sin? Well…he doesn’t mean adultery or stealing. What Luther is talking about here is something C.S. Lewis talks about in Chapter 14 of The Screwtape Letters: the particular temptations that come to the person who is aware of his/her own righteousness. Even if it is an awareness of love, forgiveness or humility– all bring the possibility of self-centeredness and pride. But Lewis (and Luther) were especially aware of the spiritual dangers of trying to not sin. Yes…trying to not sin.

Since encouraging people to try and not sin is a major occupation of confused evangelicalism, Luther sounds strange. But it’s clear what he means: we can’t get caught in the trap of trying to generate our own righteousness, even in the name of obedience. Luther’s encouragement to sin just to spite the devil is his provocative way of suggesting a Christian TRUST CHRIST and have confidence in justification by faith. So much so, that instead of living in a state of perpetual self-examination, we live with the freedom to be less than perfect.

Isn’t sinning intentionally a really bad thing? A Christian’s attitude toward sin must be based on a thorough acceptance of the fact that our depravity isn’t going to be erased by efforts. Even our righteousness and obedience are thoroughly tainted with sin. Luther says we need to take the sting out of the devil’s condemnation with a willingness to be human, and rejoice that God loves us and Christ died for us.

Let Luther bother you a bit. Particularly if you are starting to get miserable in this Christian life, and wonder where the laughter and honesty are among Christians. We can find it again, but it comes with embracing justification by faith existentially, and not just as a doctrine. In other words, have a drink on Dr. Martin.


  1. Allow myself to make mistakes, so that I can depend on God. So that I can receive his forgiveness and in this found humility forgive others. This is what Jesus taught! And then to laugh and smile and enjoy this wondrous life God has given. This is grace. Hallelujah! Amen!

  2. Cambridge English dictionary….reconcile: to find a way in which two situations or beliefs that are opposed to each other can agree. Christiane quoting Bonhoeffer: this new nature we now enjoy means that we too must bear the sins and sorrows of others. Another Bonhoeffer: live together in the forgiveness of sins. It’s not loving someone and simultaneously hold the bad things they may have done even to you in the past against them. Whenever you think about that person and you remember this or that incident, you will certainly be reminded in detail. Reconciliation; not reckoning people’s trespasses to them, not keeping a record of wrongs and going through the record in our mind…but showing others how blessed it is to love one another. To me Luther and Internet Monk are showing us how we should live.

  3. Iain Lovejoy says

    Sin is an absence, not a presence. “Trying not to sin” fails because we sin through an absence of love, and if we have restricted and crabbed ourselves out of loving, so that temptation to sin fills the vacuum left, being even more restricted and crabbed in how we live to try and crush this sin will only make it worse.
    Luther’s quote I agree with, but not at all your understanding of it. Luther says “seek the company of men” and do some “merry thing”, which are not in themselves sins. Luther’s problem was scrupulosity and depression, not pride in his own righteousness, and this is his cure.
    Luther’s point in modern parlance seems to be “don’t sweat the small stuff” (“troubling our consciences with trifles”). Luther definitely doesn’t say (at least not in this passage) “don’t try to be righteous” or “don’t try not to sin” but don’t “try too conscientiously not to sin at all”. What we should try and do, and what the important stuff is, he doesn’t deal with here, and this is not what the passage is about, as far as I can see.
    I think you are reading into this Lutheran theological concepts about faith and sin and righteousness which aren’t really there at all.

    • Well, in another context (pastoral advice to Philip Melancthon) Luther did indeed say, “Sin boldly and repent boldly for Christ loves a lusty sinner”. 🙂

      • Iain Lovejoy says

        Context is all, but that sounds like decidedly bad advice to me, if “sin” really means “deliberately sin” rather than e.g. “risk being wrong”. That which is truly a sin isn’t fun, or exciting, or an adventure but straightforward harm to oneself or others.

        • Adam Tauno Williams says

          > rather than e.g. “risk being wrong”

          Notably we – honestly – have no other choice.

          “advice is a dangerous gift …. and all courses may run ill.” — Tolkien

          So we might as well relax a bit, make the best choices we can, and keep moving.

          • Iain Lovejoy says

            If the advice meant “if you think you’re right, go for it, if you’re wrong, you’re wrong; God will forgive” that can be good advice in a lot of circumstances. If it meant “sin all you want, you can always repent later” this is always a bad idea.

            • The funny thing is, people will make it whatever they want to make it. I just read a book called “Embracing Exile” that I heard some criticize because it promoted a “bunker” mentality. I didn’t see any of that mentality being promoted at all, but people read the same words in the Bible and reach different conclusions, too.

              Bottom line: people often take statements meaning one thing and turn them into what they want to hear.

  4. Steve Newell says

    We gain a false sense of security when we rely on our own righteousness as a measure of God’s grace in Christ. We will continue to sin, PERIOD. What do we do? We can only rely on God’s grace in Christ. When you hear “sin less” you are hearing the Law. This is the point of an earlier post this week of how many Protestants teach and preach “Law-Gospel-Law”

    If we say that we will do better and we will sin less, we are missing the point. We sin because we are sinners by nature, not the we are sinners because we sin. Every Sunday, we acknowledge this reality when we confess that we are poor miserable sinners and all we can do is ask God for forgiveness and mercy.

  5. I took this thinking on as my salvation. Maybe to the extreme. From about 1985 to 2000 I made it my business to ground myself by sticking my feet in the mud (smoking, drinking, sex and drugs). I had to escape the unholy holiness of my life with a vengeance. It worked. Now I’m not impressed with the “sinners”, nor do I long for their life. Neither am I impressed by the “holy”. I do my best to avoid them. The differentiation between sinner and saint is largely lost both inside and out. Relief! Rest! No fortress to maintain.

    • This.

      Our salvation is to be enjoyed, not endured, and our salvation should bring us rest, not burden.

      I’m both sinner and saint, with moments of holiness mixed with moments not so holy.

      I praise my Lord Jesus for his saving grace.

  6. “Shall we sin that grace may abound? God forbid.” —St. Paul

    Doesn’t jibe with Luther’s view at all.

    • Context is everything. Paul was arguing against a (probably hypothetical) antinominaliam. Luther was offering pastoral advice to people who were struggling with hyperactive consciences and expectations of perfection.

      • flatrocker says

        There’s also a good chance Luther was just sticking a thumb in the collective eye of clericalism as well.

        However, with that said, words do matter. He may have been pithy. He may have been a little too cute as well. And he may have provided some necessary snickering relief for the perfectionist crowd. But pastoral? In a true shepherding sense? Not so much.

        Anything that requires this much analysis on Luther’s true contextual meaning is a much longer putt.

        • –> “Anything that requires this much analysis on Luther’s true contextual meaning is a much longer putt.”

          LOL! And, yes…probably.

    • Clay Crouch says

      But we do send, and grace does abound.

    • Paul was not the product of 500 years victimization by Rome. Remember, Luther was teaching people who had been taught that any mortal sin could damn them, and for that matter, an angry priest could damn them. Context is def key, as I do not believe any statement – by Luther, Paul, or Christ himself – should be taken as Law or as absolute.

  7. This is my collective reply to several good points made above. For many of us who came out of a discipleship mentality (for me it was The Navigators) or maybe evangelicalism in general, we especially relate to Luther’s—post-thesis—perspective on grace. We understand, now, the futility of latrine scrubbing. We too were led to believe that within the process of sanctification, moral perfection (aka Godliness), was not only obtainable but was the expected course of our lives. Otherwise, we would face God’s constant disappointment.

    However, when reality stands in contrast to what we believed, we had once choice and that was to create a façade of our godly selves. At the same time, we knew deep within our secret places we were a fraud. When we, fortuitously discovered one of the “godly person’s” secret life of habitually visiting prostitutes, we seemed shocked. When we witnessed several people who, on a dime, turned from a deeply godly life to tossing all of Christianity out the window and diving head first into debauchery, it seemed like a paradox. But the distance between the “holy us,” which we projected, and real nasties was really quite short.

    So, on this side, the Gospel seems so much more tangible. My sin accentuates the power of the Gospel’s righteousness. But it’s not that I need to seek more sin, but that I now must seek a deeper awareness of my true inadequacies, unabashedly, so that the Gospel’s power can be fully realized.