In August of 1521 Martin Luther wrote a letter to his friend, Philip Melanchthon, and near the end of the letter he wrote these now famous words: “Pecca Fortiter, sed forties fide et gaude in Christ”—“Sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly!”
Luther’s words have often been misunderstood as granting permission to sin or encouraging people to sin, but I’d like to suggest another view which perhaps can help all of us deal with our daily struggles with temptation, failure, disappointment, or despair.
Who hasn’t experienced the disappointment of trying to move forward only to fall back? Of trying to keep a promise only to forget? Of trying to overcome only to give in? Of trying to do what’s right, think what’s right, and follow what’s right only to fail? We all have.
When we experience these disappointments, set backs and failures, we tend to slip into one of two patterns. First, we enter into what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called a “cheap grace,” where we dismiss our sin in light of God’s grace with no inner transformation. This is a “boys-will-be-boys” mentality of accepting our sin as an outflow of our human nature. The Apostle Paul described this tolerance of sin in Romans 6 when he wrote, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” And Paul responds with an emphatic, “By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Romans 6:1). This first pattern is one of flippancy toward sin where we dismiss it and continue to repeat the cycle of sin, brief regret, quick prayer, moving on, back to sin, brief regret, etc. The problem is the cycle goes unbroken, and we do not experience the transforming power of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The other pattern is where we are overwhelmed with guilt and shame and withdraw to a defeatist mentality. We either become a legalist where we hide behind a mask of pseudo-righteousness while struggling with guilt underneath, or we develop spiritual stage fright, where we hide behind our anxieties of “what-ifs” and fail to step out with bold obedience. As is the case with those who follow the “cheap grace” pattern, the legalists attempt to overcome their sin patterns by external means rather than the transforming power of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
I believe the words of Martin Luther are helpful to us in whichever pattern we find ourselves. Following Jesus is a call for us to die to self and be reborn with the power of His indwelling Spirit (Mark 8:34; Romans 8:1-2). We are being transformed into the likeness of Jesus Christ (Romans 8:29). “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God…” (2 Corinthians 5:17-18a). In other words, we cannot do it on our own. We cannot overcome our sins in our own strength and power. Therefore, we live our lives boldly in the transforming power of God’s grace. We don’t walk in fear of failure but in the love of Jesus Christ.
Martin Luther’s words are not given as a license to sin but to stop living in the fear of sinning. I’ve never walked a tightrope strung across two high rises, but I imagine that the person doing so must focus on the destination rather than on what lies below. If we live our lives thinking most about not sinning, we most likely find ourselves in the disappointing posture of sinning. It’s when we live our lives thinking most about the love of Jesus Christ that we find ourselves on His path of righteousness.
And when you do fall, because you will fall, get up, turn from sin and shame, live in the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and refocus your life on Him. An old proverb says, “Fall seven times, stand up eight.” As long as you keep getting up, you’re not failing. Don’t be anxious about sinning, but rejoice in Christ.