Sinning Boldly: On the Killing of Osama bin Laden

“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 a new heaven and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.” –Martin Luther in a letter to Philip Melanchthon, 1521

As word broke Sunday night that Osama bin Laden had been killed and the country began celebrating this terrorist mastermind’s demise, I found it difficult to rejoice. Is the taking of life ever something to be celebrated? Granted, Osama bin Laden was a man who plotted and executed some of the worst violence our generation has seen. But it seems a sorry state of affairs when a brutal killing becomes the source of so much joy and celebration.

Martin Luther believed that Christians are saved by grace through faith, that we cannot earn God’s favor by good works. God has already provided for our salvation, he said, and so we need not be concerned about ourselves. Instead, in all that we do, we should concern ourselves only with our neighbor’s needs, trusting that our own salvation is already secure.

Luther also recognized that we live in a broken world where sin is an ever-present reality. Love of neighbor in such a world sometimes requires us to sin. Luther therefore encouraged his friend Philip Melanchthon to “sin boldly” when faced with a difficult moral dilemma. We should, of course, acknowledge the sinfulness of such actions but nonetheless feel emboldened to act, confessing our sin and trusting in the promise of forgiveness.

The German Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously participated in a failed effort to assassinate Adolf Hitler as he became aware of the horrendous atrocities being carried out by the Nazi regime. He recognized the sinfulness of his action but felt compelled by necessity to take Hitler’s life. Bonhoeffer writes, “When a man takes guilt upon himself in responsibility, and no responsible man can avoid this, he imputes his guilt to himself and no one else; he answers for it; he accepts responsibility for it…. Before other men he is justified by dire necessity; before himself he is acquitted by his conscience; but before God he hopes only for mercy.”

Love of neighbor may well have justified the killing of Osama bin Laden. But let us call it what it is: an act of sin for which we must ask forgiveness. Let us lament that we live in a world where such sin becomes necessary and pray for a new heaven and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.

The featured image for this post, “Hamid Mir interviewing Osama bin Laden” with modifications made by The Man in Question, is made available under an Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license Creative Commons license. Image has been cropped.

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