January 16, 2021

A Luther Quote To Wake Up The Sleepers

This post is from November of ’04. It’s a little quote from Martin Luther that’s the kind of anti-legalism/moralism injection all of us need occasionally. Some of you won’t like it for better reasons than others. I like it because Luther gets Jesus and isn’t afraid to be provocative to help me get him too.

This woud be a great excuse for you to buy the NRP “Weak on Sanctification” t-shirt.

“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.


  1. To give cred to the LCMS brothas, perhaps Thesis VIII from Dr. C.F.W. Walther’s The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel is appropriate here:

    “In the fourth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the Law is preached to those who are already in terror an account of their sins or the Gospel to those who live securely in their sins.”

  2. I’m still pondering this. This is a serious question. I’m not trying to pick an argument.

    What about putting off the old man and putting on the new man? What about resisting the devil and he will flee? These sound like trying/actions.

    My post-Baptist friend would ask – what about “be holy as I am holy.”? She’s a proponent of “fake it until you make it”.

    We both are somewhat perplexed by this. I’m….I…. I’m a poor miserable sinner and I trust in Christ alone for my justification. I’m a beggar. But, as a thankful beggar, I wish to not sit idle and think “I’ll be plagued by x sin until God sees fit to remove it from me” if it’s something I think I can get mostly under control. I’ll never be sin-free in this life. I don’t aspire to be. I think cooperating towards the the little victories is a good thing. no? There’s no merit in it. I just don’t want to, as a new creation, act like a dead bump on a log.

    I think this is worthy of another post from you on the topic. Thanks.

  3. My goodness!
    I didn’t know I was Luthern.

  4. matt redmond says

    I love Luther like a fat kid loves cake.

  5. A local church near our home town has the following on their sign out front:

    “Did you make God smile today?”

    So sad….

  6. Surfnetter,

    Fwiw, the Pope smokes Marlboro Reds. For absolute serious.


  7. I am in the midst of Holy Week services (two a day plus preparation). But, sometime in the future I would like to comment more on this quote from the venerable Luther. I both agree and disagree with it. And, I fear that if I dash off a quick reply that I will miss some balances.

    I will think about it after Pascha, maybe over a rum and coke, but no cigar. And, uhm, I do suspect that Pope Benedict XVI probably does enjoy a good German lager, but I doubt a cigar.

    Matt did ask some good questions and make some good comments and they go to the heart of my agreement/disagreement with Luther.

  8. For those of us maybe not as enthusiastic about Martin 😉

    St. Teresa of Avila, and the various versions of what I have heard attributed to her as “When partridges are in season, eat partridges”:

    (a) it was during Lent, and either she or another nun were fasting and unwell at the time, when they got a gift of partridges and she had them roasted for dinner, saying “When patridges are in season, eat partridges”

    (b) she was visiting a monastery and for dinner there was a special meal of roast partridge, which she tore into with such abandon that the abbot rebuked her, to which she replied “When it’s prayer time, pray! When it’s partridge time, partridge!”

    (c)The other sisters discovered her in the kitchen, enthusiastically devouring a partridge. Responding to their shocked protestations, Teresa exclaimed: “When I fast, I fast; and when I eat partridge, I eat partridge!”

    (d) When someone was shocked that she was going to eat well, she answered, “There’s a time for partridge and a time for penance.”

    Other quotes:

    “May God protect me from gloomy saints.”
    To her brother’s wish to meditate on hell, she answered, “Don’t.”
    “If this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so many enemies” or “If this is how you treat your friends, Lord, no wonder you have so few!” (allegedly said as she was bucked off her horse into a river on the way to visit one of her monasteries).

    And of course, the famous episode when she decided in childhood that the quickest way to get to Heaven was to be martyred by the Moors:

    “Autobiograpy of St. Teresa of Jesus, Ch. I “Childhood and early Impressions:

    One of my brothers was nearly of my own age; and he it was whom I most loved, though I was very fond of them all, and they of me. He and I used to read Lives of Saints together. When I read of martyrdom undergone by the Saints for the love of God, it struck me that the vision of God was very cheaply purchased; and I had a great desire to die a martyr’s death, — not out of any love of Him of which I was conscious, but that I might most quickly attain to the fruition of those great joys of which I read that they were reserved in Heaven; and I used to discuss with my brother how we could become martyrs. We settled to go together to the country of the Moors, begging our way for the love of God, that we might be there beheaded; and our Lord, I believe, had given us courage enough, even at so tender an age, if we could have found the means to proceed; but our greatest difficulty seemed to be our father and mother.”

  9. I like it when Luther says stuff that makes God’s people squirm. My slightly twisted sense of humor is very tickled by it.

    Not to mention that it’s also totally true!

    Y’all hear the interview on Steve Brown, Etc. last Friday with Cathleen Falsani on her book “Sin Boldly”? Great stuff. And she got the title from another Luther quote.

  10. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    Snark aside, I have no idea how to take this quote. — Patrick Lynch

    I take it as “Don’t get too uptight. Don’t bean-count your Brownie Points with God. Enjoy yourself. Enjoy life. Here, have a beer.”

  11. iMonk:

    The Richard Marius book – Please tell me what’s great about it. I own a copy – it was given to me as a Christmas present a couple of years ago – and I started to read it and stopped because something I read early in the book ticked me off. Can’t remember what it was. I’d be interested in your assessment of the book.

    As for the quote, I think some people completely miss the point. It’s not that Luther is recommending sin as therapy, rather he is saying, “Trust in Christ and stop trying to trust in your own ability to be righteous.”

    I believe that there’s a whole myriad of spiritual, psychological and behavioral problems among Christians that could be vastly mitigated if people would simply accept their own imperfection and trust in the one who is perfect.

    Should we seek to improve ourselves? Yes, by all means, but one way we usually need to improve is in the way of humility. Humility tells me that the more clearly I see myself, the more I understand that I am wrong. Eighteen years ago when I discovered I was wrong, I trusted in Christ. Shall I handle it differently now?

  12. Marius isn’t a Christian, and he occasionally throws a pitch at the batter. But his book is first rate and is a needed balance to hagiography, which is a huge issue with Luther bios.

    Just my recommendation.

  13. sue kephart says

    Luther’s wife owned and operated a brewery.

  14. iMonk:

    You mean Roland Bainton wasn’t entirely objective? 🙂

  15. I read him as saying simply that it’s not all about sin. It never is. To attend to karmic acts, deeds, and thoughts alone is to stop seeking, to stifle the active spirit. The cleverest devil would heap congratulations on the man who had put his whole effort into abstaining from sinful acts, saying, “You win. I’m beaten. You’re just too good for me. I will trouble you no more.” And then he would chuckle.

    He would cease to chuckle when he contemplated another man whose seeking brought him a natural easy aversion to sin, a man for whom temptation held no terrors and whose human nature did not distract him from his task. What’s a poor devil to do with such a man when even a well-targeted temptation only tempers his spirit?

    The Buddhist story comes to mind of the old monk and the novice traveling together when they encountered a beautiful and shapely young woman wishing to cross a stream. The old monk took her on his back and carried her across, and the two monks went on their way. After a time, the novice asked the old monk how he can casually carry such a woman. “Her firm young breasts were pressed into your back. Your hands were on her silken legs. Her fragrant hair swept your face.” The old monk replied, “Oh, I was very aware of those things, for she was indeed desirable, and I am a man as well as a monk. But I see that while I put her down after we crossed the stream, you are still carrying her.”

  16. Thanks for this…one I had not heard!!!

    Looks like Luther wrote this in 1530 in a letter to Jerome Weller. I Googled the first sentence, and the quote showed up on pg. 324 of an old book titled “The Life and Letters of Martin Luther” by Preserved Smith published in 1911.

  17. That’s a fun Luther quote and would make a “Lutheran” out of anyone who likes to drink and cuss. Of course, context is everything. This is written to one who is “harassed by the devil.” Most of us need far less motivation. Luther’s equally famous “sin boldly” quote was written to Philip Melanchthon who suffered from severe melancholy and spiritual anxiety.

    Speaking as a Lutheran, I don’t think it’s wise to boast to the world that one is “weak on sanctification” since “Christ is our sanctification” (1 Cor 1:30) and good works necessarily flow from justifying faith.

    I write this, lest readers get the wrong impression concerning Lutheran theology and piety.

  18. I’m puzzled that Ol’ Martin seems to think drinking and joking somehow constitute sin. His essential point is a good one (Biblical, even), but it seems to me that he has too scrupulous a view of what sinful behavior is.

    My two cents…
    Sam Urfer

  19. Just ordered it. You just keep screwing me up in my resolve to just read crap and chick lit.

    Didn’t Luther also thank God for good beer and women with big breasts?

  20. Ky Boy but no now says

    Can this be taken as Satan is saying you shouldn’t drink because drinking can make you drunk and Luther saying enjoying a drink and having a good time isn’t a sin as long as you don’t take it too far.

    I read this as rebuking the no dancing, no alcohol, no card playing, no women in slacks, no fish on Friday, etc… that we come up with to “ruleify” our Christianity.

    Or am I all wet?

  21. Matt Jamison says

    The first phrase “when the devil harasses you” is key. Luther was a man who struggled ferociously with the demands of God’s law and the terror of damnation. Melancthon (recipient of the “sin boldly” quote) was another such soul.

    I’m not like that. Pace Walther, I’m the type of Christian who sometimes needs the law preached against my complacency, laziness, and drunkenness.

    Luther is not excusing or promoting these sins, far from it. Instead, he is offering a word of comfort to Christians who have a tendency to keep an inventory of every little sin and are tormented by their inability to stop sinning. Luther preached the law rather sharply against drunkenness, among other sins.

  22. Matt Jamison says

    I see that I misused “pace” as a preposition in the last comment.

    What I meant was that I agree with Walther’s distinction between those who need to hear the law and those who need to hear the gospel; though Walther would certainly argue that everyone needs both preached to them at the appropriate times.

  23. Imonk can you reconcile this quote to Romans 6:1 for me. I am very confused.

  24. Pastor Cwirla,

    C’mon, can’t we have a little fun?

    Seriously though, don’t take the ‘Weak on Sanctification’ out of context. The shirts are meant more as a joke and a conversation starter. Also, we are ‘weak on sanctification’ when the term is used to mean our moral efforts to avoid sin(which is how the term is used in a lot of Evangelicalism.)
    Even a casual survey of Lutheran doctrine, preaching, and the words of Luther himself, will dispel any notion that we promote antinomianism.

    In addition to the above,we have no shortage of Lutheran moral and doctrinal police on the web,who are willing to liberally apply the Law in almost every situation.

  25. Irfan and others:

    Luther isn’t talking about a life that sins in every way so that sin may abound. He’s talking about the demonic tactic of goading us with accusations of failing to be Christian perfectionists. This is about the tactics of the devil, not the Christians approach to all things. It means, “I know I’m not perfect and I’m not going to try and establish my righteousness by being perfect. I’m going to enjoy the grace of God in my inevitable imperfection.”


  26. In his monastery years, Luther discovered that ascetic practices (avoiding X, not doing Y, doing Z) were not the path to holiness that Jerome had touted them to be, especially when motivated by self-righteousness. (“I’m better than those people because I’m not like that”; or “At least I don’t do that….”)

    If it takes a little sinning just to help you realize you’re a sinner, then by all means. It’s self-righteousness that is the most dangerous and probably the most prevalent sin of Christianity—religion simply as an ego booster.

    “Those who are well have no need of a physician….”

  27. Imonk,
    I first ran across your site when you re-posted the “when i am weak” article a few days ago. I must admit I found that article challenging, confusing, and maybe a little unnerving all at once. It seemed almost fatalistic to me. Can you give me a little clarity. I understand that sanctification is a process but isn’t it exactly that.
    I appreciate your frankness,it was a breath of fresh air, and not often seen in the circles I run in. However, if our life is a mess, shouldn’t it be less of a mess as we go through the process of sanctification. Ten years after salvation I am certainly not the man I want to be but not the man that I once was. Shouldn’t the marks of God’s handiwork be evident outwardly (flowing from inward change of course), shouldn’t I struggle less with Pride, Envy, Lust or whatever sin besets me. Shouldn’t there be the signs of Christian maturity by which the love of Christ constrains me.

  28. irfan:

    I really can’t write a treatise on sanctification better than When I am Weak and this one on Grace:


    Let me suggest that the problem isn’t should we seek to be Holy. We should.

    The problem is that we can’t do it perfectly enough to suit our consciences, the devil, religious people or the law.

    Once you understand that all your righteousness is filthy rags, it makes Christ’s Gospel make sense.

    Luther is just saying, “Be the prodigal and don’t try to be anything else.” Amen.


  29. A very common misunderstanding by those who quote Luther, but have not read him, is to fail to see the Law and the Gospel in its proper application. Luther was a master at this. To those beset by sin, guilt and the devil, Luther’s “sin boldly and have a drink” passages apply. To those who would revel in their sin and use the free forgiveness of sin as a license for sin, Luther says this:

    “Listen to the Word of God, which says, ‘Keep sane and sober,’ that it may not be said to you in vain. You must not be pigs; neither do such belong among Christians. So also in 1 Cor. 6: No drunkard, whoremonger, or adulterer can be saved. Do not think that you are saved if you are a drunken pig day and night. this is a great sin, and everybody should know that this is such a great iniquity, that it makes you guilty and excludes you from eternal life. Everybody should know that such a sin is contrary to his baptism and hinders his faith and his salvation.”

    Sermon on Soberness and Moderation (1539) LW 51:293-4

    So it all depends on who is asking and why.

  30. Bill Cwirla: Taking All the Fun Out Of Lutheranism. 🙂

  31. I know I’m not perfect and I’m not going to try and establish my righteousness by being perfect.


    Matt 5:48 Seems to contradict that,

    “Be you therefore perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect.”

    I’m assuming God is not commanding something impossible, or is at the very least, here, asking us to try.

    We seem to be making excuses for Luther’s flawed paradigm. Trying to interprete in the worst possible light, but still it’s opposition to scripture no matter how you cut it.

  32. Sorry i meant “trying to interpret in the best possible light”

  33. Parker W:

    How’s that being perfect thing working out for you?

    If that’s Christianity, let me off at the next exit.

    Thank God for Law and Gospel. And for a Greek New Testament.

    When Jesus said your righteousness must exceed the Pharisees, you think he was shutting me up to produce that with my obedience?

    That’s shutting me up so his righteousness is the only answer.


  34. “Bill Cwirla: Taking All the Fun Out Of Lutheranism. ”

    Nah. Just making sure you’re not cherry picking our boy Luther for fun.

  35. I was coming to your church picnic, but not now. Just another showing of Facing the Giants and Ice Water. Boooo 🙂

  36. It occurred to me today that not only does Mat. 5 change the focus of our behavior from offending God to hurting our fellow humans, but the Lord’s Prayer also does this.

    And this:

    Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. Mat. 5:25-26

    What is this …? Purgatory …? I think not. Jesus said several times in various ways that we judge ourselves. If we don’t make amends to the people we hurt, it is our own consciences that keep us imprisoned. That’s how good those in the Spirit are — we lock ourselves up when we’re wrong.

    Keeping straight with God is the easy part, I think ….

  37. Without being disagreeable I was responding to your claim that “I know I’m not perfect and I’m not going to try and establish my righteousness by being perfect.” Which seems to be in opposition to Matt 5:48 .
    Of course there a people who live that command everyday. But i don’t want to get into it because it will digress from the main topic to ascetism. I’m not one of them, but i know it is possible.

  38. The problem I have is that when we start saying OK Matthew 5:48 is the directions for Christians to live the Christian life what’s produced isn’t pretty.

    In my life, I start lying. I avoid God. I eventually despair of Christianity. If I’m like a lot of people, I get into a church where legalists lay into me for being less than perfect in my attitude, or dress, or prayer life.

    I mean, this verse alone is the law in full force. The perfect that is produced by the Gospel is 1) the perfection of Jesus and 2) a genuine fruit grown in the soil of grace, not law.

    I appreciate your comment.



  39. Surfnetter: more likely the Pope would drink a Bavarian doppelbock, perhaps a Paulaner Salvator (aka “Holy Father Beer” http://www.allaboutbeer.com/columns/style1.html)

    Denise, maybe it’s just me, but I think you’d best re-read your Bible, and pay special attention to when Jesus talks about sin, the part about “whatever you do/fail to do for the least of my brothers” and also the part about when people say “Lord, Lord…”

    Not pointing fingers or judging your soul, just sayin…

  40. I appreciate were you’re coming from. You might be interested (if you’ve not already read it) in the Conferences of John Cassian. [Some parts online are redacted b/c of the subject matter, so you might along with that, purchase, “Cassian on Chastity.”]

  41. iMonk,

    I think the problem with Matt 5:48 is only a problem when it’s not taken in the total context of the complete Gospel. That is why I believe, as a Roman Catholic, that auricular confession is the second greatest give our Lord gave us (the first being Eucharist) and having a confessor give spiritual guidance, INCLUDING keeping perspective of who we are (fallen man) and not to rely on ourselves. True WE cannot become sinless by ourselves, and probably never will (99.9999% odds.) But all things are possible with GOD, though, given our sinful nature, we tend to ignore God and give in to temptation. At least that’s been my personal impression from my own life.

    I don’t see the NEED to intentionally sin. I think our human will almost guarantees that we will by default. It’s the willful, obstinate sin that’s a problem.

  42. I think the word “perfect” in Mat. 5:48 is better translated “whole” or “complete”. It is from a Greek word meaning “to set out” as in accomplishing a task.

    And — again – the entire discourse — right up to this line — is about how we are to behave toward each other:

    “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Mat 5: 43-48

    Jesus is saying that this is the intrinsic nature of the Father. Be like this and you will be His sons.

    It is counter intuitive — not just to those taught by the Pharisees of old, but even to our ears — The Father loves His enemies …? Is good to all …? Sends greetings to those who are not His brethren …?

    Sounds to me that the Father’s love is like the sun, and the rain — indiscriminate in their blessings. And Jesus is saying that we should aspire to attain that posture with the love deposited within us.

    I expect to always be a work in progress in this regard in this life.

  43. Wonderful post. I’m in agreement with JohnO. I “get it”. Self incrimination is an even bigger joy killer than legalism. If the Son sets you free, you are free indeed!

  44. surfnetter,

    When the Anglican Archbishop of York showed up to meet the Pope he brought a couple cases of the local brew made in York

  45. Memphis Aggie says

    Seems to me that given the rise in secularism and the prevalence of easy undemanding cross-less Christianity and New Age Oprahesque fluff, excessive legalism or Jansenism is not the high priority it might have been in Luther’s time.

  46. So the Pope drinks and smokes — I guess he’s human, too.

    Does He ____ in the woods …?

    Are bears Catholic …?

    (Did I mix that up, too …?) 🙂

  47. If I could ask a question, to iMonk and others: What do you do if you feel condemned for stupid things, that aren’t even sinful but could be considered “worldly”? The Bible says “Love not the world, nor the things of the world.” For some reason these things bother my conscience more than the obvious sins. So I listen to music in my car, or watch TV, or see a movie, and I have this gnawing sense of guilt. I know the doctine, I know Christ died for me, but that doesn’t stop the sense that I’m displeasing Him. I should be praying or reading my Bible or caring for people or something.

    I really love this Luther quote, but it’s hard to shake off the self-imposed legalisms. Anyone have any suggestions? How do you get rid of the sense of condemnation? How do you silence the devil’s voice?

  48. You are what that quote is all about. Separating the rules of men from the Gospel is what we must do. Many of us have been exposed to churches and teaching that flat out told us that we were to establish our own righteousness via obedience. Or that we were to guarantee our own election by perfectionistic behavior.

    Here’s the thing: there are millions of people who can handle this without going nuts. And there are millions of people who, if they get under this teaching will spend their entire LIVES hating
    themselves, running from and avoiding a God they fear, blaming themselves for being human and seeking to win the righteousness Olympics.

    Luther is taunting the Devil for trying to draw him into that game. He knows that God loves him. God doesn’t require him to be something other than a human beings. He can live his life in the light of the Gospel without guilt and condemnation for not doing more and more and more and more (and endless search) to establish his own righteousness.

    I don’t know what kind of church you are in but go somewhere you can hear the Gospel as GOD’S provision, supply, promise and not you signing up for someone’s religious definition of “a godly person.”

    This kind of thing can drive you crazy. Take care of yourself.

  49. Thank you, iMonk. Wonderful answer.
    Just briefly, I think my legalisms come from my own disposition (which is a lot like Melanchthon, actually). Plus I was indeed in a very legalistic place for several years. That church was big on “denying the self,” “bearing the cross,” living by the spirit and not by the soul, etc. It became one big mess of introspection and self-criticism, reinforced by others.
    Now I’m meeting with a local Vineyard, and am truly rediscovering the joy of the gospel. But the self-condemnation for trivial things still lingers. Hence my question. But your answer is great. Thanks. Maybe I need to read lots of Luther for awhile so that I can be free.
    I cannot express in words how thankful I am for your blog. Much grace to you, iMonk.

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