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.
W. Clark Gilpin
Sin and salvation, as an interconnected pair of ideas, imply that human life as it is ordinarily lived has been diverted from its true good or distorted from its proper form. Taken together, these paired ideas thus imply a narrative of human transformation, a redemptive process that recovers human life from erroneous ways and reorients it toward an ultimate goal or a transcendent power through which life is fulfilled. Narratives of redemption from sin have taken many forms in the course of American history, but in considering any specific example it is useful to recognize its relationship to two especially common patterns. In some cases, the redemptive narrative is organized around a decisive personal experience, and autobiographical accounts of “conversion” that describe such transformative events are common in American religious literature. In other cases, the redemptive narrative accentuates the gradual process of shaping a way of life that incorporates an individual into the ongoing social practice of a community, through spiritual disciplines ranging from meditation and prayer to acts of public witness and compassion. In either of these versions, redemptive narratives frequently hinge on the reconciling work of a transcendent power, in which salvation represents the event or process that incorporates individual persons into a society or a natural order of existence that is itself the subject of a larger, even cosmic history of redemption. In all of these variations, American narratives of redemption have interacted with broader cultural ideas of human nature and the possibilities for human psychological and societal change.
Though it is well-known that Martin Luther stood in some connection to the late medieval theologians of his Order and that he intensively studied Augustine’s works in the mid-1510s, the exact nature of the influence either or both exercised upon the development of his theology is disputed. Arguably his adoption of advanced anti-Pelagian convictions aligns him with Gregory of Rimini contra pelagianos modernos in the realm of scholastic theology, while the pastoral theology he imbibed from Staupitz places him in a living tradition of “Augustinian Frömmigkeitstheologie” within the O.E.S.A. (the Hermit Order of St. Augustine). However, the most important impetus Luther received from late medieval Augustinianism was its determination to do theology in conversation with Augustine’s own works. Probably in 1514, Luther read the anti-Pelagian writings contained in the 1506 Amerbach edition of the Opera Omnia, and made his own both the iustitia passiva from sp. litt. 9.15 and the nexus of doctrines associated with residual “sin” in the baptized, which was increasingly emphasized in Augustine’s later works against Julian. Though young Friar Martin’s “Augustinianism” shifted in several respects, it possessed an enduring significance in Luther’s evangelical theology.
Alister E. McGrath
Following the deep and unsettling questions raised about the legacy of German Protestant theology as a result of the Great War (1914‒1918), a new interest emerged in returning to the fons et origo of Protestant theology in the writings of Martin Luther and other reformers. This was given additional impetus through the work of Karl Holl, who is widely credited with shaping the “Luther Renaissance” of 1919‒1921. Dialectical theology was a movement focused on Karl Barth that arose within German-speaking Protestantism in the aftermath of the Great War. The reception of Luther within the dialectical theology movement is complex and not easily reduced to simple categorizations. The diverse theological and confessional commitments within the movement led to various readings of Luther, generally mediated through secondary sources or channels. The movement portrayed itself in terms of a theocentric new reformation, breaking free from the cultural compromises and entanglements of German liberal theology in the first two decades of the twentieth century, particularly in relation to anthropology, Christology, and the understanding of sin. The movement presented itself as both the heir and reinterpreter of the theological legacy of the Reformation, particularly the theology of Martin Luther, most notably its emphasis on divine revelation. Yet its leading representatives—Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, Rudolf Bultmann, and Friedrich Gogarten—understood Luther in somewhat different manners. It is therefore important to consider the use made of Luther by each of these figures individually, rather than try to collapse them into a single generic approach which is held to be representative of dialectical theology. The high profile these four writers accorded to Luther unquestionably stimulated Luther studies in the postwar period and contributed significantly to the current appreciation of Luther in contemporary theological debate.