In a letter to Phillip Melanchthon, Martin Luther wrote:
“God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong (sin boldly), but let your trust in Christ be bolder, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world.”
This has to be one of my favorite sayings of all time but I happen to know from experience that this particular quote can be very tricky (the response typically ranges somewhere between confusing to off-putting), so to share my appreciation for Luther’s call to “sin boldly”, I will need to do a little explaining. Now, since I can’t address every possible reaction, I’ll start by focusing on one for now, namely the bug-a-boo that surrounds words like, sin or sinner.
The word sin and sinner has been gradually fading from the vernacular for some time and for good reasons. The biggest problem with, “sinner” is that people tend to use it as a swear word to demean others; like when certain “righteous ones” want to label the morally inferior people around them. In the same way that people use, “liberal” or “conservative” or “socialist” to malign their political opponents, the word sinner has for centuries been used to label, discredit and marginalize. Not surprisingly, other than for doctrinal reasons, few people are ready to admit that they are themselves inherently “sinful.” Now given that words are always changing, falling in and out of use, is there anything we can do to extend the shelf life of such outdated words like sin and sinner? To use another metaphor, is there a “baby” worth rescuing from the proverbial “dirty bath water?”
Okay, let’s do a little ancient-language-geeking. In the New Testament, the English word, sin, comes from the Greek word ἁμαρτία and originates in Classical Greek (think Homer, Iliad and Odyssey). “The terminology has a wide reference. It covers everything from crime to harmless faults. It includes moral actions but also intellectual and artistic failings. The same writers use it in many senses.” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964–), 297. When “sin” (ἁμαρτία – ha-amartia) appears in the NT it is used to denote both failure as well as personal guilt, but thankfully it does not carry the degrading swear word connotation that we are so familiar with. In the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry, sinners are neither despised nor rejected by God. In fact, it is the sinner who has become the object of God’s grace and mercy.
The first appearance of the word sin (ἁμαρτία) in the NT appears in the first chapter of Matthew in the prophetic foretelling of the birth of Christ, “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Mat. 1:21). According to Matthew, God is not interested in rejecting his people, but rather, he is committed to helping and saving them in spite of, or perhaps because of, their moral weakness. So where do we find the “damnation for sinners” message in the NT, perhaps in the letters of Paul (wasn’t he the one who was all uptight about sin?).
Now I’m not a professional scholar but for my grad thesis in seminary, I wrote an eighty page paper, which dealt with the basic conception of “salvation” i.e., how one experiences the favor and good graces of God. The thrust of that paper centered on one crucial passage in Paul’s letter to the Romans. In my research, I discovered that the entire passage hinges on and is interpreted in light of one mind-blowing statement by the author, a statement about sin, sinners and God. The statement is this, “for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God and are justified by his grace as a gift . . .” (Ro. 3:23).
So what is Paul saying here about sin, sinners and God? Paul is saying a good deal; for one, he tells us “all have sinned.” It turns out that the Greek word for “all” is the same as English – “all” means “all.” According to Paul, the term sin is what is known as a universal. In other words sin is so basic to being a human being that no one can claim that they are without it. It reminds me of the the children’s book I saw recently in the bookstore titled, Everyone Poops. Part of the “good news” is that because sin and sinner are universal, we are never at the mercy of those who would claim “sinless” superiority over us. In fact, those who presume to possess a certain moral superiority, are simply suffering from a kind of delusion, the delusion that their “poop doesn’t stink!”
Contrary to popular belief, in the New Testament “sinner” is not a code word for “the damned”, or “the despised” but as we’ve seen with Matthew and Paul, God is revealed as compassionate not condemning, one who comes to the aid of sinners. Now in my thesis I wrote an entire chapter on the meaning of this one term, “justified”, but here are the Cliff notes. According to the apostle Paul, God as the judge of the universe has issued his verdict on all of the sinners and astonishingly, instead of the anticipated verdict of condemnation, the heavenly judge ruled in favor of the accused! You can read the verdict for yourself, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God and are justified” (Ro. 3:23)!
If this is true that God has declared sinners justified as opposed to “condemned”, then why are so many people ignorant of this liberating truth? Why do so may people believe God has rejected them on account of their sinfulness (i.e., moral weakness, flaws, short-comings and failures)? Why do we continue to miss the “good” part of this “good news”? The reason that we miss and continue to miss the liberating truth is because the truth is what we might call, “too good to be true.” In a word, the message of God siding with sinners is simply scandalous! To be sure, this message was scandalous from it’s very inception – in Paul’s day people literally threw rocks at him for saying this!
Now we all judge people around us and our judgments are often harsh, without mercy or compassion. We judge people for their weaknesses and for their failures and to make matters worse, people mercilessly judge one another in the name of god or “good”. But the God who Jesus seeks to introduce us to is not like us. It turns out that this God is not what we imagined. What we discover in Jesus of Nazareth, is that he is constantly correcting our broken image of God. According Jesus, the God of heaven and earth is not a stern judge who reluctantly saves, but rather, he is a loving savior who mercifully judges. The judgments of this merciful God are given to defend and liberate those who are need protection and freedom.
A powerful example of this new, liberating image of God is graphically portrayed in the following account taken from Mark’s gospel. Here Jesus is seen protecting and defending those who had been labeled by the religious elite as “sinners” (used as a swear word). These social misfits had found a safe place to gather, for Jesus was not only the center but the shelter of this little fellowship of sinners. These “sinners” had discovered that there is no need to hide from someone who is sincerely for you, someone who is genuinely committed to helping you in any way they can. Consider the following account of Jesus acting as the defender of his people, and the advocate of the accused.
When the scribes who were Pharisees saw him eating with sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” When Jesus heard that, he said to them, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor; those who are sick do. I’ve come to call sinners, not people who think they don’t have any flaws.” Mk 2:16–17.
God loves his people and in the face of their deepest flaws and our most epic failures, he longs to show them his mercy. When Luther, made this discovery, the fact that God is for and not against sinners, his life was turned upside down. Luther also rightly understood that the only way for a person to miss out on experiencing God’s favor is to reject the terms on which the gift is offered. Because God’s mercy and grace is for those who recognize their need for it, the only way to miss out on God’s grace and mercy is to pridefully insist that you don’t need grace for your life. The problem, of course, with those who are so confident in themselves that they don’t feel the need for grace or mercy in this life, is that they not only deny the gift for themselves but they are typically not very good at offering grace to the people around them – in other words, this affects us all!
We have looked at two reasons why we constantly miss the “good” part of the “good news.” When we lose sight of our own sinfulness we lose sight of God’s gracious pardon or “justification”, since his grace and forgiveness is for real people (people who sin) and not for some imaginary “perfect beings.” The other hang-up we have is with the word or concept called “judgment.” Everyone wants justice, but no one wants judgment. We fail to consider that God’s verdict is a judgment of forgiveness and liberation and not a judgment of rejection and condemnation. God’s judgment on sin and sinners has come and his judgment is this:
“Sin in all of its insidious and destructive forms continues to trip you up and pin you down, but I have intervened on your behalf so that tragedy and failure will not have the last word. I see your struggle, I know that you regularly ‘fall short’ but I have not rejected you. I see what haunts you, what torments your mind and I have sent my light to outshine your darkness. See, I have not rejected you, I am your advocate, your defender, your champion.”
So when God refers to us as, sinners, it is only because he pities us and desires to rescue us from the tyranny of the sin virus (addiction, compulsion, phobias, malice, pride, etc.); but as Luther reminds us, “God does not save imaginary sinners.” So here is the question. Will you accept God’s judgment, the judgment of his mercy and his grace for sinners like you? Will you let God do for you what he delights in doing for all his beloved “sinners” and that is, defend them, pardon them, and rescue them? Will you stop trying to defend or accuse yourself with your own judgments and the wothless judgments of those around you; and will allow Jesus to come to your defense as your faithful advocate? Will you accept Luther’s admonition be the sinner that you are, “sinning boldly” but learning to “trust Christ more boldly still”?
Remember these posts are not intended as monologues but as catalysts for thought and conversation starters. Let us know what you think (even if it’s, “Chris, I love you but I think you are nuts!” At the very least, just say “hey” to let us know you were in the OC today!