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Was Martin Luther an Antinomian?

Question: I found a quote from Luther while I was doing an internet search on justification: ‘...we find in one of Luther's letters, written to Melancthon in 1521, the following sentence: "Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ more strongly, who triumphed over sin, death, and the world; as long as we live here, we must sin."’

Answer: There are two great enemies of the Gospel: Antinomianism and Legalism. Antinomianism (meaning ‘against the law’ or lawlessness) says: Believe in Christ and you are saved. Obedience to God’s law is optional; you are still saved even if you keep on sinning. On the other hand, legalism says: Believe in Christ but you need to contribute the merits of your good works to be saved. Both notions are damnable heresies and a denial of the Gospel of Christ. Contrary to legalism, the Gospel says, salvation is a free gift of grace, received by faith, and not of human works. Contrary to antinomianism, the Gospel insists that we are saved by grace unto good works that we should walk in them.

My primary objective in "Just for Catholics" is the biblical presentation and defense of the Gospel. However, I cannot help but react to the gross misrepresentations of Martin Luther by certain Roman Catholic apologists, who wrest his words out of context to demonize him. I must also add that Luther was neither morally perfect, nor was he infallible. So I'm not trying to excuse him for his errors and sins. To his credit, Luther was instrumental to restore the Bible and Grace in their central place when Christianity was engulfed by superstition and pathetic attempts to merit God’s favour.

Take this quotation for example. Luther writes to his friend Malanchton: “If you are a preacher of mercy, do not preach an imaginary but the true mercy. If the mercy is true, you must therefore bear the true, not an imaginary sin. God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong, but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides. We, however, says Peter (2. Peter 3:13) are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth where justice will reign. It suffices that through God's glory we have recognized the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. No sin can separate us from Him, even if we were to kill or commit adultery thousands of times each day. Do you think such an exalted Lamb paid merely a small price with a meager sacrifice for our sins? Pray hard for you are quite a sinner.” (A Letter From Luther to Melanchthon, Letter 99, 1 August 1521).

That is a shocking statement! Is Luther encouraging Christians to practice sin as much as they like? It certainly seems so, but it is just as certain that he is not! On the contrary, this is a honest admission of our sinfulness, and a bold affirmation of the grandeur of God’s mercy and the sacrifice of Christ.

Protestant theologian, Dr John Gerstner, writes:

‘Scott Hahn, in his deliverance on the radio, did refer to a very criminal statement on the part of Martin Luther, that he could commit adultery several different times a day and still be justified by faith alone. Luther had an unhappy way, and very graphic manner, of expressing certain convictions which, when taken literally, are not only horribly anti-Christian, but are also horribly anti-Martin Luther. He wrote two dissertations against the Antinomianism which was troubling the Lutheran movement in his day, as Scott Hahn and his students of the Reformation know very well. The statement cited by Hahn was just an inexcusable but unforgettable way of Luther’s trying to say that his works, or his morality, was not the foundation of justification by faith alone. While doing research recently at St Vincent College in Latrobe, PA, I read a recent Roman Catholic writer who said: “Luther never meant that a habitual adulterer, murderer, liar, could be justified by faith alone. Otherwise he would not have opposed Karlstadt, Agricola and other easy-believers of his time”’ (Gerstner, JH, Rome Not Home in Justification by Faith Alone, Soli Deo Gloria, 1995, p. 176).

Martin Luther was not an antinomian! Those who malign him in this way are simply being dishonest.

Interestingly, the apostle Paul was also accused of antinomianism. “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?” (Romans 6:1). Paul preached salvation by grace through faith, apart from human works. His enemies alleged that Paul was teaching that since salvation is by grace, it doesn’t really matter whether a person repents or keeps on living in sin. Tactics haven’t changed much over the past two thousand years.

© Dr Joseph Mizzi