A fundamental question motivates these historically grounded reflections on sin: How can we talk about sin today? With a view to illuminating the answer, the following will reflect on certain conceptual dilemmas that came to define sixteenth-century Lutheran reflection on sin, and have punctuated it ever since. Our point of departure will be the Reformation’s radicalization of sin and its conceptual implications. In this light, we shall then consider how sin is disclosed. This will show the overarching dilemma in the relationship between law and gospel. When seen through the lens of sin, this relationship, I shall argue, appears to be more complex than the customary linear sequence in which the comfort of the gospel follows the accusation of the law and the conviction of sin. In fact, precisely this view leads to the loss of sin’s radical character, so crucial to Luther’s protest. The argument advanced here will be that, unless the gospel is related to the disclosure of sin, the Reformation’s insight about sin’s radicalness will be compromised, in the end minimizing not only sin but also grace. In the final section the essay addresses this very process by considering the impact which post-Reformation tensions, related to the nature of sin, exerted on the rise of autonomous human agency and being.
In Search of a Category
Philip Melanchthon’s charge in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession (1531) is that “the scholastic teachers . . . trivialize original sin.”[i] This should give us pause. For it is hard to overlook the proliferation, in the late Middle Ages, of confessional manuals notorious for giving detailed instructions to priests on how to tease out admission of guilt from unwilling penitents.[ii] Nevertheless, as early as Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation (1518), there is a clear sense that there is more to sin. Sin is not just a transgression of the law, or a failure to keep it. Nobody in his right mind, including both Luther and his opponents, was interested in debating whether a crime was sinful. But Luther was vitally interested in debating whether, in addition to crimes, also those “works of man [which] always seem attractive and good . . . are nevertheless likely to be mortal sins.”[iii] Luther readily admitted that the works he had in mind were “not mortal sins . . . as though they were crimes [crimina].” But he still concluded that the good, attractive, even law-abiding works that humans perform could, in fact, be sins meriting eternal damnation.
Seen from this angle, the Reformation began as a controversy over sin and good works, provoked by Luther’s indictment of good works, regardless of whether they were self-devised or perfectly consonant with the law. This is how Luther’s first opponents saw it, forcing him to clarify that he was not, in fact, against doing good works but against the self-righteousness and self-congratulation—in short, against sinful pride—that naturally attend good works.[iv] Already in the Ninety-five Theses (1517) Luther drew attention to the necessity and importance of doing good works, such as providing for one’s family.[v] This did not prevent Luther’s colleague, Nicholas von Amsdorf, from later making the notorious claim that good works were detrimental to salvation. Von Amsdorf’s view is certainly extreme, though not without precedent in Luther’s writings.[vi]
By contrast, today one rarely, if ever, hears Lutheran pastors speak to the good works of their congregants as likewise not immune to the danger of condemnation, perhaps even more in danger of it. After all, nobody wants to own their failures, but everyone wants to claim their successes. Today preaching sin seems to be confined largely to the law’s transgression. This brings us to the Reformation’s fundamental conceptual insight which, I think, ought to inform our consideration of sin today. It will not do simply to equate sins and crimes, sin and lawlessness, hamartiology and morality. But if we are not simply to equate them, how are we to relate them? Here two alternatives present themselves. The first option would be to regard crimes (crimina), as Luther understands them, merely as a subset of sin. Sin is simply a broader category: all crimes are sins, but not all sins are crimes. The larger set would then include also good works—those good works that are somehow deficient. With recourse to Kant, for example, we might blame this deficiency on the works being done only in accordance with duty, but not really out of duty.[vii] In that case, the opposite of sin would be virtue, wholehearted obedience to the law, which results not only in apparently or externally good works but in intentionally good works.
The alternative is sharply to distinguish sin and all works, including crimes, as belonging to entirely different categories. Distinction does not, of course, mean separation. To quote Eberhard Jüngel, “the necessity of distinguishing as sharply as possible emerges at the very point at which the things to be distinguished are bound together as tightly as possible.”[viii] But the relation is more complicated than that of larger sets to their subsets. The categorical distinction is, actually, the path taken by Luther and, albeit inconsistently, as we shall see, in the Lutheran Confessions. When one speaks of sin, it is certainly not enough to juxtapose evil deeds and good works—the goodness of good works is not determined ex opere operato, it is not automatic. But neither is it sufficient to place, on one side, evil deeds and only externally good works, and then juxtapose them with works that are truly intentionally law-abiding.[ix] Luther insists we must get at the root of the problem, “the inherited sin (Erbsünde), or the chief sin.”[x] This, for Luther, is unbelief. Although never quite transcending the category of human action and responsibility, unbelief belongs to a different category. Unbelief, the Reformer writes in his Preface to Romans (1522/1546), is “the root and source of all sin . . . unbelief alone commits sin . . . unbelief [is, in fact,] the only sin!”[xi] As early as The Babylonian Captivity (1520), we find Luther insisting that “no sin can condemn . . . save unbelief alone.”[xii]
One profound implication of this categorical shift, as Kierkegaard perceptively noted against the pious moralism of his own day, is that “the opposite of sin is by no means virtue.” “In part,” writes Kierkegaard, “this is a pagan view, which is satisfied with a merely human criterion and simply does not know what sin is, [namely,] that all sin is before God. No, the opposite of sin is faith, as it says in Romans 14:23: ‘whatever does not proceed form faith is sin.’ And this is one of the most decisive definitions for all of Christianity.”[xiii] In this respect, Kierkegaard may be seen as a good student of Luther, who likewise draws attention to the same juxtaposition. In his Sermons on the Gospel of John (1537), Luther contrasts sin and faith by noting that
unbelief retains all sin and cannot obtain forgiveness, just as faith delivers from all sin. Hence without this faith everything, including even the best works and life of which man is capable, is and remains sinful and damnable. Good works may be praiseworthy in themselves and commanded by God; but they are vitiated by unbelief and for this reason cannot please God just as all the works and life which spring from the faith of a Christian are pleasing to God. In brief, without Christ all is damned and lost; in Christ all is good and blessed.[xiv]
Locating sin beyond ethical categories raises some dilemmas, two of which I discuss in what follows. In this section we ask whether a rational case can be made for sin. In the ensuing sections we consider sin’s relation to our humanity. To consider whether a rational case can be made for sin, we must begin with the question of how sin is disclosed. The Lutheran commitment to preaching the law rests on the assumption that sin can be rationally brought to light—even if the Formula of Concord adds the caveat that without the Holy Spirit’s alien, convicting work the chances are rather slim![xv] However, in light of what has been said, it is not unreasonable to ask whether preaching the law can get at sin at all, with or without the Holy Spirit. But then why specifically preach the law? Can a jump be made from the knowledge of oneself as an occasional, or even habitual, law-breaker and impurely-motivated doer of the good to the knowledge of sin? Can a jump be made from an empirically established “tendency of man’s heart and nature,” as Jonathan Edwards would have it, to the knowledge of oneself as a sinner?[xvi] It seems the only way this can be done is by invoking some Anselmian assumption of debt that becomes infinite on account of the offended party: then a single offense, however slight in itself, makes one inescapably into a sinner. But even if we were to follow this route, is it at all commensurate with the insight that sin is, fundamentally, unbelief? In short then, what is it that we do when we preach the law? And in what sense does the illumination of legal failure prepare one for the gospel? Does the gospel play any role beyond being that for which the law prepares the way? These are some questions that, I believe, deserve more reflection than they customarily receive (Article V of the Formula of Concord notwithstanding). The “Lutheran” answers, it seems to me, cannot simply be taken for granted.
[i] Ap II.7: The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, ed. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000), 113 (hereafter, BC); Die Bekenntnisschriften der evangelisch-lutherischen Kirche (11th ed., Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1992), 148 (hereafter, BSLK).
[ii] To this end, some of the manuals contained elaborate hierarchies, for example, of sexual sins; see Thomas N. Tentler, Sin and Confession on the Eve of the Reformation (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1977), 91, 141-2. For Luther’s reaction against excessive sexualization of sin, which obscures its true character, see his Lectures on Genesis (1535-45); in Luther’s Works, American Edition, 82 vols. (Philadelphia: Fortress and St. Louis: Concordia, 1955ff), 1:114 (hereafter, LW); D. Martin Luthers Werke, Kritische Gesamtausgabe, ed. J. F. K. Knaake et al., 57 vols. (Weimar: Böhlau, 1883ff), 42:86 (hereafter, WA).
[iii] LW 31:39; WA 1:353.
[iv] Luther writes in The Freedom of a Christian (1520): “Our faith in Christ does not free us from works but from false opinions concerning works, that is, from the foolish presumption that justification is acquired by works” (LW 31:372-3; WA 7:70).
[v] Theses 41-46 (LW 31:12; WA 1:235).
[vi] See the editorial footnote appended by the Kolb/Wengert edition of The Book of Concord to Art. IV of the Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration: BC 574, n. 139.
[vii] Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, ed. Mary Gregor et al., rev. ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 13.
[viii] Eberhard Jüngel, “On Becoming Truly Human,” Theological Essays II, ed. J. B. Webster (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1994), 218.
[ix] Rejected are also other views which tend to minimize the seriousness of sin, such as Peter Lombard’s teaching that “original sin is merely a reatus (obligation resulting from a debt incurred by someone else) without any corruption of our nature” (FC, Solid Declaration, I.17; BC 534-5; BSLK 850).
[x] Smalc. Art., III.1.1 (BC 310; BSLK 433).
[xi] LW 35:369; WA DB 7:7-8.
[xii] LW 36:60; WA 6:529.
[xiii] Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death, ed. H. V. Hong and E. H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980), 82 (emphasis added).
[xiv]LW 24:344; WA 46:42.
[xv] FC, Solid Declaration, V.11 (BC 583; BSLK 955).
[xvi]The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended (1758; London: Johnson and Keith, 1766), 32 [Part I, Chapt. I, Sect. III].