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. treebeard — What I discovered about what I was doing in my search for the “right church” was that I was trying to find a denomination whose take on the Gospel matched my already screwed up mindset. One “answer” is to find the group of “worshipers” who have the same diagnosis you have. You will definitely feel comfortable there.

    But you won’t get better.

  2. @treebeard:

    Maybe it could help you if you thought about the fact that the world was created by God and everything that is good and beautiful about it comes from Him. Maybe you can thank God for the composers’, filmmakers’, actors’ and performers’ talent when you watch a movie or listen to a piece of music?

    I have actually made the experience myself that since I’m a Christian (I’m a Catholic) – I used to be an agnostic before -, I have enjoyed music, art, nature etc. much more than before, because I am now seeing God’s hand in it…

    About the Luther quote: I also found it somewhat troubling – like someone else above – that Luther is calling having harmless fun “sinning”. I mean Jesus “ate and drank” all the time, and he wasn’t sinning even a bit, quite evidently…

    Ascetism is very important in the Christian life, but it doesn’t contradict enjoying the goods of Creation – rather on the contrary… Discipline rather contributes to the good and right enjoyment of things.

  3. “Should we seek to improve ourselves? Yes, by all means, but one way we usually need to improve is in the way of humility.”

    nicely put

  4. As someone who suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder that frequently manifests as scrupulosity (religious OCD, basically), this post nearly made me cry in relief. Thank you, thank you, a thousand times thank you, iMonk.

    Regarding the subsequent discussion about when it’s appropriate to be hard on ourselves and when it’s appropriate to take Luther’s quoted advice, I think for a a lot of us it’s both at different times or in regard to different things. One of the areas in which I most need the stern words of the Law is getting off my dead duff and actively using my talents for the glory of God, but “bean-counting my Brownie Points With God” is something I do constantly and habitually, and breaking myself out of that anxiety loop is absolutely essential to my getting anything done at all, frankly.

  5. JonathanM says

    We should be careful not to miss, or maybe skirt or too lightly hit on what I believe to be the main point of Luther’s comment. That is, that when we face temptation, rather than focusing on resisting it, which is drudgery and a losing battle, we are to flee it, run from it, as the Bible so often instructs. But when running FROM something we have to be running TO something at the same time. Thus, Luther is advocating running to Christ and, yes, enjoying all the freedom and delight He affords us. In such fellowship with Him, seeking to please Him and enjoy Him, there is no sin, even if it includes enjoying a celebratory champaign or glass of wine or loud and raucous laughing.

    Basically, we are to show both Satan and ourselves that we have something BETTER than that with which he was tempting us. When he offers us empty cotton candy, we’re to run to Christ and enjoy the smorgasbord of incredibly rich and satisfying delectables He affords us. In the process, we may be required to get our minds used to the idea that deep, rich chocolate really IS better than cotton candy, but that’s where trust comes in; we trust that Christ really does provide fullness and richness in our lives. He IS the Richness, He IS the Fullness, He IS the Satisfaction. As we practice what Luther suggests, we gradually learn this to be true, and no longer desire anything else.

  6. Just one thing —

    Does this mean that my own father who identified himself as a confirmed atheist was also not a smelly alcoholic …?

    All those defiant cigar smoking boozing days and nights he was a Lutheran all along.

    My mother tells me he picked up those habits in Germany at the end of WWII. I guess it was some sort of ancient religious osmosis, or something …. 🙂

  7. And, it could also be that Martin Luther had a sense of humor.

  8. I love Luther’s thought, but is it scriptural? I am certainly against legalism, but where do we find Christ, in his repudiation of the legalism of his day, as demonstrated with the Pharisees and Saducees, ever advocating that we go out and sin a little? And how do we reconcile this with his admonition of “Be ye perfect, just as my father is perfect.”?

    I have another view that I think reconciles with these passages well.

    We already have such sin in our lives. Why would we need to go add a little more unless we were blind to the sin we already have?

    We need to open our eyes and hearts to see that even in our attempts at being perfect, we are NOT perfect and therefore ultimately rely on God’s grace.

    I don’t need to get a little tipsy to thwart legalism. I broke the speed limit yesterday, lusted after a beautiful woman just a few days before, and have been proudful more times than I can count all SINCE coming to Christ!

  9. Jesus said the Pharisees considered him to be a drunkard and a glutton.

  10. The only two major “sins” that Christians were explicitly warned to avoid in the NT are idolatry and sexual immorality.

    We become so focused on activities like drinking, entertainment and vices that we overlook the fact that people are losing faith in Christ and surrending to sexual anarchy.

    Let’s stop straining for gnats and focus on the camels (Matt. 23:24).

  11. treebeard says

    Petra: “…the world was created by God and everything that is good and beautiful about it comes from Him. Maybe you can thank God for the composers’, filmmakers’, actors’ and performers’ talent when you watch a movie or listen to a piece of music? … I have enjoyed music, art, nature etc. much more than before, because I am now seeing God’s hand in it…”

    Thank you, Petra. That is a very helpful perspective.

  12. the “be ye perfect” thing – i just don’t see Jesus looking at the Pharisees big long list and grabbing it from their hands and pushing it at me.

    In fact, what i love about Jesus most i think is that He boiled it all down to two things – Love God, Love others as yourself.

    Now, i was brought up a “don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t chew, don’t dance, don’t etc etc..” and i still don’t do any of those things (although i would love to be able to dance, but i think my dancer is permanently burned or inhibited by my previous life 🙂

    But i think when Jesus says “be perfect as I am perfect” – can we look at this other saying, as well? Being perfect *starts* and ends with loving God and loving others. Now just those two things could take me my whole life to master, and in doing that, i know He will change in (and has changed me, and is continuing to change me) – and other things will be pulled out or planted… But why get all “this means i have to do all 653 things commanded all at once, perfectly…”

    Like a previous poster wrote, it’s a form of religious OCD. I am trying, very deliberately, to extricate myself from religion, and only do what i hear God saying to me. Just about impossible! I’m married (14 years) so dh has a say, i’ve got seven little children that i worry about screwing up – and yet, i know if i could find a way to be free from religion, they would be free, too – and maybe they would grow a way that i can’t even imagine…

    We are going to church again after “doing homechurch” for years. and it’s hard – all those little extras that are tucked into every single thing. all of the polite ways that denigrate truth or politely ignore when truth is deftly deked…

    i’m loving this blog for being bold *for* me. I’m exploring this or trying to on my blog, with my friends, but i love reading here (and the comments too) and feeling a kinship, that i’m not alone in feeling like there’s more going on than i’m comfortable with…

  13. Luther’s “On Christian Freedom” is my favorite.

    Luther is strong on sanctification there:

    “Here is the truly Christian life, here is faith really working by love, when a man applies himself with joy and love to the works of that freest servitude in which he serves others voluntarily and for nought, himself abundantly satisfied in the fullness and riches of his own faith.”

  14. The Pharisees thought of Christ as a drunken glutton, but was he? Scripture seems to indicate that they were judging with a “guilt by association” attitude.

    A legalist is blind to the sin they already have. I am suggesting that the antidote is not go sin a little more, but its to recognize the sin we already have.

  15. Ah, yes, the famous “sin boldly” quote from Luther. I can’t think of many things the man said, of the about a billion things he did say, or write, that has so horribly misunderstood and misapplied, by Roman Catholics and Protestants alike. The ecumenical Luther, if you will.

    Interesting to read this chat about it.

  16. Oh, by the way, I’d recommend to folks who want to read what Martin Luther was all about, down to his toes, to read what he regarded as one of his best books: The Small Catechism, and then check out a document he wrote, convinced while he was writing it he was soon going to die, called The Smalcald Articles.

    You tend to say what is on your heart when you are trying to explain the Christian faith to children and their parents, as he does in the Small Catechism, and when you think you may be writing your own last will and testament, as he did with the Smalcald Articles.

    Those interested can find both of these documents here:


  17. Ouch, Monk! your comment about Lutheran church planting hurts! The truth is, 20 yrs after evangelicals, the LC-MS is deep in the throes of the church growth movement. We’re actually doing a fair deal of church planting, but you wouldn’t recognize us. Instead of capitalizing on gems like the distinction between law and gospel, grace, and justification by faith which could set us apart, our new churches look an awful lot like any evangelical church built around the attractional model rather than the Great Commission.
    Lutherans are just venturing into the vast wasteland that you are fleeing (venturing isn’t the word for it;actually, we are diving headfirst into the shallow end of the pool with our eyes closed). That’s why you resonate with me and other Lutherans so much!

    For some great vintage monk, go to one of my favorites and my introduction to the world of iMonk: “Throw Luther from the Train.” You’ll find it in the archives!

  18. Just struck me, that I forgot to comment on something Pr. Cwirla said. The “Weak on Sanctification” t-shirt is a very bad idea. Or, put it this way, it is as a good as an idea as walking around with a t-shirt that says, “Weak on the Gospel” or “Weak on Christ” or “Weak on justification.”

    I understand the threat of legalism, but I’ve also seen the problems of antinomianism crop up in Lutheran circles I’m familiar with, people abusing the doctrine of the Gospel and the understanding of sanctification, to justify persisting in sinful behaviors.

    I ran across a bunch of thirty-somethings a few years back trying to convince me that Christians could “enjoy” slasher-porn movies. Yup.

    Weak on sanctification? To be sure. It is not something to joke about, or brag about, but to confess and repent of.

  19. Stan Hankins says

    The most miserable of all people is the one who tries to be righteous in his flesh. If we struggle against a besetting sin, and pray for deliverance, God knows that if we do overcome, PRIDE will creep in– which will be 7 times worse than the sin we overcame.
    His grace is sufficient!! Praise Him guys!

  20. Stan Hankins says

    One other thing of great importance. This is where Calvinism beats luckism to pieces. We are saved by the grace of Jesus through faith in Him alone. We are forever saved and cannot lose our salvation. If it were possible for us to lose our salvation, then we would. When you know that our eternal destiny rests 100% on Jesus Christ, it removes a burden from us that we were never equipped to carry. “When we sin, we have an advocate with the Father”
    Remember, the worst sin by far is pride. It is satan’s original sin. When you struggle against sin and mourn and weep over your sin and trust only in Jesus for your salvation, where is pride?

  21. Nathan L Peterson says

    Of course we can’t live our lives in Christ as worldly self-focused people. Unfortunately, Marty’s quote shows how self-righteous he actually was.

    We Christians surely are called to strive toward the goal, love our neighbors, etc.

    Read 1Cor. 10:23-31 for a discussion on the freedom we have in Christ: “Everything is permissible”—but not everything is beneficial…

    Proverbs, along with common sense, has plenty to say regarding the perils of drunkenness.

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