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date: 06 March 2021

Martin Luther’s Teaching on Sinlocked

  • L'ubomír BatkaL'ubomír BatkaComenius University in Bratislava


Martin Luther did not write a specific treatise solely on sin. Nevertheless, the topic of sin is important to him. There are very few treatises where the topic of sin does not appear, as there are few treatises where Luther would not use Scripture as the base for his argumentation. Luther’s hermeneutical preconditions for development of the doctrine on sin are both Old Testament and New Testament passages. The beginning of Luther’s doctrine of sin is tied to his discovery of Augustine’s anti-Pelagian writings during his “Lectures on Romans” (1515–1516). Luther equated concupiscence with original sin and reasoned about human passivity in the process of salvation. With the formulation of new reformational theology, the emphasis on original sin as the corruption of bodily and spiritual powers in its universal, total, and radical aspect grew. Luther came to the conviction that peccatum radicale is unbelief in God, a distrust in Christ’s promises, as clearly expressed in his treatise “The Freedom of a Christian.” The reformer did not develop his teaching on original sin from some sort of “original state theology.” A helpful tool to approach Luther is to use the parable from New Testament (Matt. 7:16–20 and 12:33, Luke 6:43–45) about a good tree bearing good fruits. This motive became the central place in the iconographic depiction of the process of salvation by Lucas Cranach’s woodcut Law and Grace (1529/1530). In its illustrative power it offers generally understandable conclusions and is pedagogically effective: good works do not make a good man, but a good man does good works; evil works do not make a wicked man, but a wicked man does evil works. Under the law, the sinner is entirely and totally without good fruits coram deo. Luther became firmly convinced that the true nature of sin is to be found entirely in peccatum radicale and not in peccatum actuale. The essence of the “root sin” is the disobedience to the first commandment and unbelief as lack of trust in God’s promises. Luther was rather unspeculative on the question about the origin of sin. His radical perspective related to sin has the advantage of being able to point to the tragical effect of sin on human beings bearing “fruits of sin”, making them captive to self-destructive conditions as perdition. Luther’s doctrine of sin is holistic, and it formed his homiletical, catechetical, and pastoral language with the conviction that “making sin great” is inseparably connected with exalting only God’s grace and salvation only in Christ only through faith.

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