Martin Luther

Thesis 12.
“In the sight of God sins are then truly venial when they are feared by men to be mortal.”

This becomes sufficiently clear from what has been said. For as much as we accuse ourselves, so much God pardons us, according to the verse, “Confess your misdeed so that you will be justified” [Cf. Isa. 43:26], and according to another [Ps. 141:4], “Incline not my heart to any evil, to busy myself with wicked deeds.” (LW 31, 48).

In the earlier thesis, Luther asserts that only when all humans fear the judgment of God, they can avoid pride and have true hope. In this thesis, Luther emphasized that, “In the sight of God sins are then truly venial when they are feared by men to be mortal.” While thesis 11 pertains to the work of humans, thesis 12 pertains to the affections of humans. In other words, we must fear judgment in all aspects of ourselves; not only in our works, but also in our affections.

According to the Catholic tradition in the Middle Ages, the, ‘sin,’ in Scripture can be classified in several ways: 1) Vice and sin considered in themselves; 2) their distinction; 3) their comparison with one another; 4) the subject of sin; 5) the cause of sin; 6) the effect of sin (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Volume 2, Question 71). However, Luther denied this classification. He asserts that, ‘Sin,’ is used in Scripture in one simple way; not in many ways. For this, Luther said: “First of all, do not doubt that, 'sin,' is used in Scripture in a single very simple way, not in many different ones. Do not let those verbose sophists wrest this away from you. Indeed, sin is simply that which is not in accord with God’s law.” (LW 32:195)

Luther also denied the scholastic tradition in Middle Ages that distinguished sin in accordance with the gravity of the sin. According to the scholastic tradition, there was, “venial sin,” and, “mortal sin.” A mortal sin is generally regarded as a transgression of God’s law of such seriousness that it causes loss of the effects of grace, rendering the sinner subject to eternal punishment. It can involve excommunication as well. A venial sin is a more minor error and does not yield the loss of grace. However, it does require some submission to penitential discipline.

However, here Luther rejected this distinction of sin by the scholastic tradition in Middle Ages, and asserted that, “In the sight of God, sins are then truly venial when they are feared by men to be mortal in every work, not only in our works but also in our affections.” In other words, sins are truly forgivable when they are feared to be damning.

So, what sin can be forgiven if one only has the fear of human sin?

No! In the proof of this thesis, citing Isa. 43:26, Luther emphasizes: “Confess your misdeed.” In other words, when Luther said that “In the sight of God sins are then truly venial when they are feared by men to be mortal,” he was talking about the sinner who not only has the psychological fear, but repents of his sin with that fear. Only those who have such fear can confess their sins before God. For this Luther said: “It can be hurtful to none to acknowledge and confess his sins. Hast thou done this or that sin?-what then? We freely, in God’s name, acknowledge the same, and deny it not, but from our hearts say: “O Lord God! I have done this sin.”(Table Talk of Martin Luther, CCLIV)

Luther, in this thesis, asserts that in spite of standing as a sinner before God, humans always want to be the judge. They try to understand God in their own way. They like to find others’ sin, but not their own sin. Luther explains this reason: “Although thou hast not committed this or that sin, yet, nevertheless, thou art an ungodly creature; and if thou hast not done that sin which another has done, so has he not committed that sin which thou hast done; therefore cry quits one with another” (Table Talk of Martin Luther, CCLIV)

In the Korean Church, the problem of sin would be treated lightly. Many pastors talk as if sin is nothing: “Sin, sin is nothing; God will receive sinners; He himself tells us they shall enter the kingdom of heaven.”

This message prevents the Christians in Korea from deeply thinking about the problem of sin, and clearly this is a problem. For this, Luther spoke with finality: “Sin, for God will receive sinners; Well, we’ll sin then, Tis a most erroneous doctrine. What is announced as to God’s receiving sinners, applies to sinners who have repented” (Table Talk of Martin Luther, CCLVIII).

As Luther mentioned in this thesis, sins are feared by men to be mortal. In fact, we have no way to stop the wrath of God. However, there is one way; residing in God’s mercy and confessing our sins. This is because only the repentance of sin is the solution to avoid the wrath of God. It is very clear in the first article of his Ninety-Five Theses: ”When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” [Matt. 4:17], he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” (LW 31:25)

If the judgment of condemnation is not feared in every aspect of our lives, not only in our works but also in our affections, there is no true hope built on the work of man. True hope is found only in the fear of condemnation. Let’s not forget that this paradox is just the way of the Cross.

Jin O Jeong

Reverend and Doctor Jin O. Jeong is an assistant pastor for Korean congregation at Zion Lutheran Church, Belleville, IL. He graduated from Luther University and received a Ph.D from Yonsei University. He was also a Research Fellow at Hebrew University and Visiting Scholar at Yale Divinity School. Tel: 618-920-9311 Email: