Debating with the Devil: Luther on God’s Extravagant Grace

By Neil Earle

Luther trying to study.

A biographer of Martin Luther has made the point that based on quotes from his more extreme writings and speeches, the German Reformer Dr. Martin Luther would not pass a modern-day psychological profile for teaching theology at a seminary.

This may be so but even in Luther’s odd- sounding (to our ears) all-or-nothing way of writing and teaching, it is possible to discern some of the clearest statements anywhere about the fullness of God’s grace towards repentant sinners. The following excerpt from a 2005 blog dealing with Reformation views illustrates this total conviction Luther had that real Faith triumphed over our Sins.

As a sinner I find it wonderfully encouraging, so here goes Luther in his own words:

“Therefore let us arm our hearts with these and similar statements of Scripture so that, when the devil accuses us by saying, ‘You are a sinner; therefore you are damned’ we can reply: ‘The very fact that you say I am a sinner makes me want to be just and saved.’

‘Nay, you will be damned,’ says the devil.

‘Indeed not,’ I reply, ‘for I take refuge in Christ, who gave himself for my sins. Therefore you will accomplish nothing, Satan, by trying to frighten me by setting the greatness of my sins before me and thus seducing me to sadness, doubt, despair, hatred, contempt, and blasphemy of God.’

Indeed, by calling me a sinner you are supplying me with weapons against yourself so that I can slay and destroy you with your own sword, for Christ died for sinners.

‘Furthermore, you yourself proclaim the glory of God to me; you remind me of God’s Fatherly love for me, a miserable and lost sinner; for he so loved the world that he gave his Son (John 3:16).

‘Again, whenever you throw up to me that I am a sinner you revive in my memory the blessing of Christ my Redeemer, on whose shoulders and not mine, lie all my sins; ‘for the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all’ and ‘for the transgression of his people was he stricken (Isaiah 53:6-8).

‘Therefore when you throw up to me that I am a sinner, you are not terrifying me, you are comforting me beyond measure’” (Ewald Plass, What Luther says, 3:1315).

Philip Melanchthon (Wikipedia)

Sinning Boldly? says this in setting the context for Luther’s oft-quoted word to Philip Melanchton to “sin and sin boldly:”

“When assaulted by the fear and doubt of Christ’s love because of previous sins or the remnants of sin in one’s life, one is thrust back into the arms of Christ. Rather than promoting license to sin by saying ‘sin boldly’ Luther compared the sinner to the perfect Savior.

By Christ’s victory over sin, death and the world we stand clothed in his righteousness, the recipients of his grace no matter what we have done. “

Actual words of Luther again To Melanchton (August 1, 1521) Vol. 48, pp. 281-2. He says:

“If you are a preacher of Grace then preach a true and not a fictitious Grace.

“If Grace is true you must bear a true and not a fictitious sin. God does not save people who are only fictitious sinners. Be a sinner and sin boldly but believe and rejoice in Christ ever more boldly…as long as we are here we have to sin…

“No sin will separate us from the Lamb even though we commit fornication and murder a thousand times a day.”

Wow! How about that. Is Luther the minister of Sin? No. Apparently Luther writes here to young Melanchton about to get married and uptight about whether he would enjoy the delights of the marriage bed too much, a hangover perhaps from a monastic past. Luther loves to exaggerate but his main point is “Let your sins be strong but your Faith in Christ always be stronger,” the comparison factor in teaching effectively.

Few of us Sunday preachers would be so bold as to speak like Luther but then again… none of us were called to reform the Church!! Along the way, Luther colorfully spells out the supreme overarching backdrop of Grace in the Christian life echoing Jesus who said “all manner of sin can be forgiven.” And advancing what St. Paul called a “superabundance of Grace,” which – Luther knew – if we really meant what we said when we sing “Amazing Grace” we would agree with him, even if he put it more forcefully than any modern writer.

Truly, as some ministers say, If you are really preaching Grace you will often be accused of teaching Sin.

But then again, the fear of Sin did not terrify Luther. Luther knew he was a sinner and knew where to go for forgiveness, an admirable trait in any preacher or theologian.