Dirty Ethics for Bold Sinning

[1] The only kind of ethics that could accompany the aphorism, sin boldly!, is dirty ethics.[1] The dirty ethicist acknowledges that washing away evil with pure goodness is not an option in our everyday world. Yet, though dirty, we must still be responsible to God’s call for us to love our neighbor. A Responsibility Ethic asks us to be willing to get dirt on our hands while embracing practical moral tasks. To illustrate, we will look briefly at U.S. drone warfare. If President Barack Obama would draw a line between good and evil and then tell us that killing people with drone strikes is a good thing, he would be telling us a lie. Killing is not a good thing, regardless of whether it might be the right thing to do in one situation. Any disciple of Martin Luther should be ready and willing to tell the truth about our dirt.

[2] The way disciples of Martin Luther go about ethics is subtle, but vitally important. Virtually every average person is an ethicist, so to speak; because multiple times per day each one of us draws a line between good and evil. Once the line is drawn, we place ourselves on the good side of the line. After all, being thought of as good is the aim of ethics, right?

[3] No, not for the disciple of Luther. Rather, for Luther’s followers, ethical deliberation aims at a different target, namely, what best serves our neighbor’s well being. This makes ethics practical, very practical.

Drawing Lines Between Good and Evil

[4] If by ethics we refer to moral deliberation at the theoretical level, we should include an observation in our own theorizing. We observe how garden variety ethics follows a predictable pattern: we draw a line between good and evil and then we place ourselves on the good side of the line. Sometimes this includes placing someone else on the evil side of the line. The one on the evil side is judged to be immoral, sinful, threatening, and even disposable. Because we have placed ourselves on the good side of the line, we presume that we belong to eternity. After all, goodness is eternal, right?

[5] When Luther read the Bible, he discovered something counter-intuitive. He discovered that when we draw lines between good and evil, curiously, God places the divine self on the evil side of our line. Take, for example, 2 Corinthians 5:21 (NRSV): “For our sake he [God] made him [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness [dikaiosu,nh] of God.” By these divine actions, says Luther, “I [shall] be justified, through them saved, through them set free from all sin and evil.”[2] What a shock! If we have invested the ethical effort in establishing a zone of goodness and placed ourselves in that zone, it will come as bad news to discover that we have estranged ourselves from our gracious God. By washing away evil, we’ve failed to notice that God has dirty hands. This is the subtle yet prodigious observation of Luther’s reading of Scripture.

[6] When we are engaged in ethics, it is difficult to see God on the evil side of the line. Our own sin takes away our sight. Without sight, we are unable to see God. In order to see God we have to see ourselves realistically. “Luther rightly insisted that the unwillingness of the sinner to be regarded as a sinner was the final form of sin,” comments Reinhold Niebuhr. “The final proof that man no longer knows God is that he does not know his own sin. The sinner who justifies himself does not know God as judge and does not need God as Saviour. One might add that the sin of self-righteousness is not only the final sin in the subjective sense but also in the objective sense. It involves us in the greatest guilt. It is responsible for our most serious cruelties, injustices and defamations against our fellowman. The whole history of racial, national, religious and other social struggles is a commentary on the objective wickedness and social miseries which result from self-righteousness.”[3] Historical observation demonstrates that our social miseries — racial prejudice, political repression, class domination, child abuse, war mongering, and even genocide — are prompted by some person or group who believes they themselves are on the good side of the line. Virtually all injustice is perpetrated by self-justified parties who have drawn a line between good and evil. What blinds us about ethical deliberation is that it blinds us to our own self-justification.

[7] One purpose of the New Testament gospel is to replace self-justification with justification by divine grace. The term the NRSV translates as ‘righteousness’ in 2 Corinthians 5:21 is actually, dikaiosu,nh, the word frequently translated by theologians as ‘justice’ or ‘justification’. Because Christ has become sin, we sinners have become just or justified. Because of this action by our gracious God, we no longer need to place ourselves on the good side of any line we draw. Like God, we can jump over to the evil side of the line–not to perpetrate evil but rather to identify with evil–and…then what? Answer: sin boldly!

[8] There is bad news that comes with this gospel, namely, we belong on the evil side of most lines we​​ draw. “Everyone of us is a broken, sinful human being,” says ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton. “There are no degrees of who is more sinful than someone else.”[4] Coram Deo we are just, while coram homo we remain card carrying members of the sin club. This means that we delude ourselves with our attempts to draw fictional lines between ourselves and those evil or sinful others. The gospel, among other things, reveals to us that we cannot get away with this fictional self-justification.

[9] That’s the bad news. The good news is that God justifies us. Romans 8:33b: “God is the one who justifies” (qeo.j o` dikaiw/n). We can find justification in this messy world, to be sure; but our justification is not something we ourselves accomplish. It comes to us as a gift of divine grace.[5] Until we get this through our heads, we will continue to reap violence and suffering in our vain attempts to make ourselves look and feel like we belong on the good side.

[10] In Paul Hinlicky’s new systematic theology, Beloved Community, we find the Reformation understanding of the gospel stated forcefully. “United now with Christ the Son by Spirit-wrought faith, the believer is justified before His Father already now in spite of persisting sin; hence he is at peace already now with the God whose kingdom comes and therefore already now fit for new service in the mission to the nations…. In theology the claim is that this interpretation of human experience in the world — justification by faith alone — is the true one because it knows and articulates the divine perspective.”[6]

[11] Subtly, this makes the discipline of ethics the most ungodly of human enterprises. Why? Because our ethics insults the God who graciously justifies us when declaring us good. In addition, knowing this should make us aware of how moral leadership in religious, social, or political domains becomes suspect. What does an ethicist or a moral leader do other than try to draw a line between good and evil and place our people or our interests or our nation on the good side? Ethics is the very form of human thinking that makes the moral person feel superior to our fellow human beings while it also estranges us from God. Once we have been justified by God’s grace, we no longer need to place ourselves on the good side of the lines we draw.

[12] So, then, why pursue ethics anymore? Once we have heard the gospel message, should we still engage in ethics or try to lead moral lives? Answer: yes, we should pursue ethics for the practical purpose of supporting and edifying the neighbor or, as Jesus put it in the parable of the sheep and the goats: giving drink to the thirsty, food to the hungry, healing for the sick, and company to those in prison (Matthew 25). Risto Saarinen affirms that “justified sinners are called to care for justice in their families, communities, societies, and in the world as a whole.”[7] Just how should we go about this? Do it responsibly.

Bold Sinning

[13] As an ethicist in the Lutheran tradition, Dietrich Bonhoeffer became reluctant to draw a line between good and evil. So, he opened his widely read book on ethics with this: “the knowledge of good and evil seems to be the aim of all ethical reflection. The first task of Christian ethics is to invalidate this knowledge.”[8] Get this: the first task for the Christian ethicist is to invalidate the knowledge of good and evil.

[14] Why invalidate drawing the line between good and evil? Because, in the actual human condition, no ethical option can be guilt free. There is no good, at least in its pure form; so if we manufacture what we think is good for our own benefit we are creating a lie. Bonhoeffer interpreter Lisa Dahill puts it this way: for Bonhoeffer “no option was guilt-free, this willingness to move into actual political action also meant the willingness to incur guilt: to act in ways of love even if that meant one’s own hands got dirty.” [9] The only ethics Bonhoeffer could come to know was dirty ethics.

[15] Here’s the problem for any of Luther’s disciples: “every ethic directs the Christian away from the freedom we have in Christ,” writes Thomas Pearson; “there can be no Christian ethic.”[10] What then is an ethicist to do? Answer: sin boldly!

[16] This theological sound bite, sin boldly, amounts to much more than an obscurantist slogan. It marks a juncture, so to speak, in moral thinking. This theological sound bite recalls some advice Luther was giving to his Wittenberg colleague, Philip Melanchthon:

If you are a preacher of grace, then preach a true and not a fictitious grace; if grace is true, you must bear a true and not a fictitious sin. God does not save people who are only fictitious sinners. Be a sinner and sin boldly,  but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly, for he is victorious over sin, death, and the world. As long as we are here [in this world]  we have to sin. This life is not the dwelling place of righteousness,  but, as Peter says,  we look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. It is enough that by the riches of God’s glory we have come to know the Lamb that takes away the sin of the world.  No sin will separate us from the Lamb, even though we commit fornication and murder a thousand times a day. Do you think that the purchase price that was paid for the redemption of our sins by so great a Lamb is too small? Pray boldly—you too are a mighty sinner.[11]

This is by no means a moralist manifesto or a blueprint for ethical theory. Nevertheless, it fires the starting gun for a new ethical race.

[17] With sin boldly! Luther is not advocating antinomianism or eudemonism. He’s not removing all restraints on pride or narcissism or pleasure-seeking. He has something quite different in mind. The Reformer recognizes that we find ourselves frequently in moral dilemmas. If we are conscientious and want to pursue the right path, we may find that the right path leads to collateral damage. In some situations of conflict, even no action may yield moral damage. Damned if you do; damned if you don’t. In such a dilemma, Luther reminds us that grace covers us. Make a decision. Take some action. We will not have to justify ourselves, because we have already been justified by God. Therefore, sin boldly!

Practical Discernment in Responsibility Ethics

[18] What bridges the gap from sin boldly! to ethical deliberation? The bridge is the practical question: just how does a liberated sinner go about loving the neighbor? Or, more precisely, just what contributes to the neighbor’s welfare in a specific situation? Rather than establish what is universally or generally or categorically or always the good thing, the disciple of Luther presses toward an action that makes an actual difference in a concrete situation.

[19] This task might include an honest quandary. “Quandary ethics deal with concrete, objective human situations. In addition, it is here that human reason, science, and human experience predominate,” contends Charles Curran.[12] The quandary feeds into a plan for responsible action. Perhaps the label, Responsibility Ethic, fits best for what would follow. A responsibility ethic, according to Roger Willer, would focus on “discerning what is a fitting response within the extremely complex situations of contemporary life that always include manifold competing demands and moral challenges….responsibility [is] the moral frame for moral thinking and…an operational mode that is not reducible to an ethics of duty or virtue.”[13]

[20] When we wake up and find ourselves thrown into this world, as philosopher Martin Heidegger describes us, we realize we have inherited responsibility. We are not independent. Rather we are interdependent. And entailed in this interdependence is a silent yet potent command: love your neighbor!

[21] Our responsibility is inescapable. “By our very attitude to one another we help to shape one another’s world. By our attitude to the other person we help to determine the scope and hue of his or her world, we make it large or small, bright or drab, rich or dull, threatening or secure,”[14] writes Knud Løgstrup. This philosopher, like Luther, believes each of us can serve as “daily bread” for those around us. Our impact on another person “may be a very small matter, involving only a passing mood, a dampening or quickening of spirit, a deepening or removal of some dislike. But it may also be a matter of tremendous scope, such as can determine if the life of the other flourishes or not.”[15] We have inherited a responsibility; and a Responsibility Ethic offers an operational mode in which we pursue neighbor-loving (Nächtstenliebe).

[22] The door of a responsibility ethic opens out toward selecting between imperfect alternatives, between the better path rather than the purely right path. “It is better that a life should contract many a dirt-mark, than forfeit usefulness in its efforts to remain unspotted,” wrote William James.[16] Responsibility ethics is unavoidably dirty ethics.

Dirty Ethics in Just War Deliberation​​

[23] Let’s begin our dirty ethics with a moral vision. “The three most important norms, or mandates, for politics under God are the preservation of justice for all people, the special protection of the weak and marginal, and the imperative to treat all humans as image bearers of God.,” writes Mark Noll.[17] Having been inspired by such a vision, we then ask: how do we dig into the actual situation where we live? Answer: by getting our moral hands dirty.

[24] If, as Bonhoeffer claims, there is no distinctively Christian ethic, then we can applaud or critique ethical deliberation wherever we find it, even in secular politics. For both Christians and non-Christians, politics is unavoidably dirty. When a political leader draws the line between good and evil and places himself or herself on the good side of the line, he or she is lying to us.

[25] The mandate to sin boldly! means a politically responsible individual must make moral decisions carefully yet courageously. If sinful action is unavoidable, we can offer a maxim: be honest and follow the best path your judgment can set out. Make moral decisions carefully yet responsibly!

[26] Might such moral logic fit concrete application of Just War Theory? On May 22, 2013 U.S. President Barack Obama addressed the student body at the National Defense University at Fort McNair. He appealed implicitly to Just War criteria to justify his use of drones in foreign countries to bomb terrorist targets. “America’s actions are legal. We were attacked on 9/11. Within a week, Congress overwhelmingly authorized the use of force. Under domestic law, and international law, the United States is at war with al Qaeda, the Taliban, and their associated forces. We are at war with an organization that right now would kill as many Americans as they could if we did not stop them first. So this is a just war – a war waged proportionally, in last resort, and in self-defense.”[18] A war that is proportional, a last resort, and in self-defense is a just war. And, it’s legal, because it is congressionally authorized. Just war theory among Christian ethicists has for centuries provided us with a version of the sin boldly principle. To perpetrate violence in war leads to evil and suffering, pure and simple. Even in a so-called justified war, countless people die. The pursuit of justice is violent. That’s inescapable reality. Make no mistake: justice kills just as much as injustice kills.

[27] In addition to this appeal to legality, Obama’s justification also appealed in part to what Luther might call the mandate to sin boldly. The problem the president was confronting was a situation where non-action would be already deadly. Passivism would be deadly. He had to weigh alternatives, some leading to more deaths and some to fewer deaths. Drone killing saves lives, he argued. This rhetoric was not a smoke screen. The president actually believed this to be the case. Because all persons — both Americans and non-Americans alike — possess dignity, then it is his moral obligation as Commander and Chief to reduce as much as possible the death toll of collateral damage. “Before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured – the highest standard we can set,” he said.

[28] This was followed by a weighing of the alternatives: attack or not attack? “This last point is critical,” said the president, “because much of the criticism about drone strikes -– at home and abroad –- understandably centers on reports of civilian casualties….[I]t is a hard fact that U.S. strikes have resulted in civilian casualties, a risk that exists in all wars. For the families of those civilians, no words or legal construct can justify their loss. For me, and those in my chain of command, these deaths will haunt us as long as we live, just as we are haunted by the civilian casualties that have occurred through conventional fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.” Of all the alternatives including doing nothing, the alternative that best preserves human lives includes counter-terrorism attacks with drone deaths.

[29] The president’s appeal to a stripped down just war theory provides us with a secular example of the logic of sin boldly. In this life, the sanctified life is not possible, even for a person justified by God in his or her faith. Even if motivated in some instances by pure love to be effected through just action, the effect cannot be simply what we intend. No matter which way we turn, collateral damage will be included in the fall-out. The person of faith has no choice but to live simultaneously as saint and sinner, simul iustus et peccator. To be sanctified in this situation is to return again and again to our gratitude to God for justification. According to the late Gerhard Forde, “The simul makes all such schemes of progress impossible. The justification given is a total state, a complete, unconditional gift. From that point of view true sanctification is simply to ‘shut up and listen!’. For there can be no more sanctification than where every knee bends and every mouth is silent before God, the Holy One.”[19]

[30] In light of what we have just said, we must honestly acknowledge that President Barack Obama is a killer. We dare not draw a line between good and evil for the purpose of placing the president on the good side. He belongs on the side with all other killers in history. What we observe is that he has sinned boldly. [20]


[31] In conclusion, the concept of dirty ethics for bold sinning presupposes two inescapable realities: first, the impossibility of pure moral action devoid of self-interest and; second, the acknowledgement that moral action frequently takes place within a contextual situation where non-action is morally problematic. If the moral agent need not concern himself or herself with self-justification coram Deo, then he or she is liberated to render the best practical judgment and act accordingly. Sin boldly!


[1] The argument here develops the position taken in Ted Peters, Sin Boldly! Justifying Faith for Fragile and Broken Souls (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015).

[2] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, American Edition, Vols. 1-30, edited by Jaroslav Pelikan (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing Company, 1955-1967); Vols. 31-55, edited by Helmut T. Lehmann (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1955-1986) 44:299; hereinafter abbreviated: LW.

[3] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man: A Christian Interpretation (2 volumes: New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1941) I:200. See: Robert Benne, “Reinhold Niebuhr as a Perennial Resource for Public Theology, Journal of Lutheran Ethics, 11/1/2010; http://www.elca.org/JLE/Articles/249 .

[4] Elizabeth Eaton, “2013 Commencement Address at Trinity Lutheran Seminary,” Trinity Seminary Review 34:1 (Winter/Spring 2014) 5-10: 7.

[5] “The gospel is not merely a doctrine about the nature of God, a high ethical standard, or the way to an enriched and refined spiritual life, or the like. The gospel is the proclamation of the work wrought by God when He sent Jesus Christ into the world.” Anders Nygren, Commentary on Romans, tr., Carl C. Rasmussen (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1949) 25.

[6] Paul R. Hinlicky, Beloved Community: Critical Dogmatics after Christendom (Grand Rapids MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2015) 31.

[7] Risto Saarinen, “Ethics in Lutheran Theology: The Three Orders, Seminary Ridge Review (Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg), 5:2 (Spring 2003) 37-53.

[8] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, ed. by Eberhard Bethge, tr. by Neville Horton Smith (London: Collins, Fontana Library, 1949) 17.

[9] Lisa Dahill, “Bonhoeffer and Resistance to Evil,” Journal of Lutheran Ethics, 8/01/2003; http://www.elca.org/JLE/Articles/837 .

[10] Thomas D. Pearson, “Bonhoeffer and the End of Christian Ethics,” Journal of Lutheran Ethics, 8/1/2004; http://www.elca.org/JLE/Articles/741 .

[11] Martin Luther, Letter to Philip Melanchthon, August 1, 1521, LW, 48:281-282.

[12] Charles E. Curran, “How Does Christian Ethics Use Its Unique and Distinctive Christian Aspects?” Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics, 31:2 (Fall/Winter 2011) 23-36: 25.

[13] Roger Willer, ” Community of Moral Deliberation and an Emerging Responsibility Ethics,” Journal of Lutheran Ethics, 4/1/2014; http://www.elca.org/JLE/Articles/56 .

[14] Knud Ejler Løgstrup, The Ethical Demand (Notre Dame IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1997) 18.

[15] Ibid., 15-16.

[16] William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, Gifford Lectures on Natural Religion 1901-1902

(London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1928) 354.

[17] Mark A. Noll, “What Lutherans Have to Offer Public Theology,” Lutheran Quarterly XXII:2 (Summer 2008) 130.

[18] “President Obama’s Speech on the Future of the War on Terror,” Washington Post, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/05/23/read-president-obamas-speech-on-the-future-of-the-war-on-terror/, (accessed 5/23, 2013).

[19] Gerhard Forde, Justification by Faith–A Matter of Death and Life (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1982) 50.

[20] Daniel Bell may mislead us slightly when he comments on Obama’s drones: “Perhaps churches that embrace just war need to speak up and remind those leaders…that we are willing to bear the risk, the cost, the sacrifice necessary to avoid killing civilians and shattering communities…in short we are willing to bear the costs of waging war justly.” Daniel M. Bell, Jr., “Drone Wars and Just War,” Journal of Lutheran Ethics, 6/01/2014; http://www.elca.org/JLE/Articles/71. Waging war is not just in any categorical sense; so, let’s not try to measure the value of lost lives by the standards of justice. It is preferable, in my judgment, to think of drone killing as better than the alternatives. When a still better alternative presents itself, then the U.S. president would be morally obligated to stop this form of killing.

Ted Peters

Ted Peters is an author, professor, and pastor. He is Research Professor Emeritus in Systematic Theology and Ethics at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary (PLTS), the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences (CTNS), and the Graduate Theological Union (GTU) in Berkeley, California.