My dearest fellow Sinner/Saint,
I heartily sympathize with you and earnestly pray our Lord Jesus Christ to strengthen you and give you a cheerful heart. I should like to know, and am making diligent inquiries to find out, what your trouble may be or what has caused your breakdown. I am told by some that it is nothing else than depression and heaviness of heart, caused by a particular sin which for whatever reason seems to be most terribly vexing to you. If this is true, I beseech you most urgently not to become self-centered and heed the thoughts and sensations of your own heart, but to listen to me, your brother, who is speaking to you in the name of Christ. Otherwise your despondency will grow beyond endurance and kill you; for St. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 7:10, “Worldly grief produces death.” I have often passed through the same experience you are now in. I also witnessed the same thing in 1540, in the case of my friend and colleague, Master Philip, who was nearly consumed by heaviness of heart and despondency on account of his own sin. However, Christ used my tongue to raise him up again. I say this on the presupposition that you have sinned and are to blame for causing harm to another by that sin because, at that time, you even approved of it.
[Listen to me! Wake up from your slumber. If I were there, I would shake you so your ears would ring clear of the clog Satan has placed there. Oh, that you would hear and receive the comforting Word of Christ which He is trying to give you through me. But since I am not there, let my words shake you and by some great grace of God cause your ears to be clear and accept Christ’s Word.]
I shall go further and dare even to say this: Even if you had committed more numerous and more grievous sins in this present and other instances than Manasseh, the king of Judah, you should not despair of the great storehouse of forgiveness which has already been set aside to cover the debt of all your sins and more. Manasseh, committed offenses and crimes which could not be eradicated throughout his posterity down to the time when Jerusalem was destroyed. In comparison, your offense is very light, because it concerns a temporal interest and can be easily remedied. Nevertheless, I repeat it: Yes! Granted you are to blame. But even if your guilt were worse than Manasseh’s, are you going to worry yourself to death over it and, by doing so, kill yourself and commit a still more horrible sin against God?
[It would be a greater sin now to despair of the mercy of God than it was to commit such and such sins as you did in the first place. For despairing of God's mercy is always the most horrible sin, because it means that we declare God to be a liar.]
It is bad enough to know that you made a mistake in this matter. Now do not let your sin stick in your mind, but get rid of it. Quit your despondency, which is a far greater sin. Listen to the blessed consolation which the Lord offers you by the prophet Ezekiel, who says, in chapter 33:11, “As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live.” Do you imagine that only in your case the Lord’s hand is shortened? (Isaiah 59:1). Or has He in your case alone forgotten to be gracious and shut up His tender mercies? (Psalm 77:10). Or are you the first man to sin so badly that henceforth there is no longer a High Priest who can be touched with the feeling of our infirmities? (Hebrews 4:15). Do you consider it a new marvel when a person living this life in the flesh, with innumerable arrows of so many devils flying about him, is occasionally struck by one and knocked out of the fight for awhile?
[Why are you surprised at your grievous fall? That is a common occurrence. What is truly terrible is when we refuse to be lifted again by the gracious hand of God, and like a swine, desire instead to be left to our sorrows and misery, wallowing in the muck and mire of our sinful despair. We think that the throne of grace is too grand for filthy wretches like ourselves. See what ignorant fools we become when we listen to the devil? Is not the only purpose of a throne of grace too obvious? Its sole purpose is to welcome rotten sinners and call us close to touch it and be cleansed!]
It seems to me, my dear Sinner/Saint, that you have still but a limited experience in battling against sin, an evil conscience, the Law, and the terrors of death. Or Satan has removed from your vision and memory every consolation which you have read in the Scriptures. In days when you were not afflicted, you were well fortified and knew very well what the office and benefits of Christ are. To be sure, the devil has now plucked from your heart all the beautiful Christian sermons concerning the grace and mercy of God in Christ by which you used to teach, admonish, and comfort others with a cheerful spirit and a great, buoyant courage. Or it must surely be that up till now you have thought of yourself as only a small and trifling sinner. Perhaps you have only been conscious of paltry and insignificant faults and frailties.
A spiritual father in the faith of mine once comforted me on a certain occasion when I was a “patient” in the same “hospital” and suffering the same affliction as you, by relaying this wisdom to me: “Aha! You want to be a painted sinner and, accordingly, expect to have in Christ a painted Savior. You will have to get used to the belief that Christ is a real Savior and you a real sinner. For God is neither jesting nor dealing in imaginary affairs, but He was quite serious when He sent His own Son into the world and sacrificed Him for our sakes, etc. (Rom. 8:32; John 3:16). These and similar reflections, drawn from consolatory Bible-texts, have been snatched from your memory by the accursed Satan, and hence you cannot recall them in your present great anguish and despondency. For God’s sake, then, turn your ears hither, brother, and hear me cheerfully singing — me, your brother, who at this time is not afflicted with the despondency and melancholy that is oppressing you and therefore is strong in faith, so that you, who are weak and harried and harassed by the devil, can lean on me for support until you have regained your old strength, can bid defiance to the devil, and cheerfully sing, ‘I was pushed hard, so that I was falling, but the Lord helped me.’” (Psalm 118:13).
Imagine now that I am Peter holding out my hand to you and saying to you, “In the name of Jesus Christ, rise up and walk.” (Acts 3:6). For I know I am not mistaken, nor is the devil talking through me; but since I am laying the Word of Christ before you, it is Christ who speaks to you through me and bids you obey and trust your brother who is of the same household of faith. It is Christ that absolves you from this and all your sins, and I am a partaker of your sin by helping you to bear up under it.
Therefore my faithful request and admonition is that you join our company and associate with us, who are real, great, and hard-boiled sinners. You must by no means make Christ to seem paltry and trifling to us, as though He could be our Helper only when we want to be rid from imaginary, nominal, and childish sins. No, no! That would not be good for us. He must rather be a Savior and Redeemer from real, great, grievous, and damnable transgressions and iniquities, yes, from the very greatest and most shocking sins; to be brief, from all sins added together in a grand total.
[I shall assume the responsibility for what I am doing, for I know that on the great day of Judgment Christ will say to me, “You did right; for he came to you with a bruised conscience, and it was proper that you ministered the Gospel to him.”]
See that you accept and appropriate to yourself the comfort I am offering you; for it is true, certain, and reliable, since the Lord has commanded me to communicate it to you and bidden you to accept it from me. For if even I am cut to the quick by seeing you in such awful distress because of your deep melancholy, it gives God a far greater displeasure to behold it; “for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster.” (Joel 2:13). Therefore do not turn away from him who is coming to comfort you and announce the will of God to you and who hates and abominates your despondency and melancholy as a plague of Satan. Do not by any means permit the devil to portray Christ to you differently from what He is in truth. Believe the Scripture, which testifies that “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.” (1 John 3:8).
Your melancholy is a work of the devil, which Christ wants to destroy if you will only let Him. You have had your fill of anguish; you have sorrowed enough; you have exceeded your penance. Therefore, do not refuse my consolation; let me help you. Behold my faithful heart, dear Sinner/Saint, in dealing with you and speaking to you. I shall consider it the greatest favor that I have ever received from you if you allow the comfort which I am offering you, or rather the absolution, pardon, and restoration of the Lord Christ, to abide in you. If you do this, you will, after your recovery, be forced to confess yourself that you have offered the most pleasing and acceptable sacrifice to the Lord by your belief. In Psalm 147:11 it is written, “The Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love.” Again, in Psalm 34:18 it says, “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” And in Psalm 51:17: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
Therefore let the accursed devil with his despondency scamper away like a whipped dog. He wants to make me sad on your account; he wants to blast my joy in the Lord; yes, if he could, he would swallow us all up in one gulp. May Christ, our Lord, rebuke and chastise Satan, and may He strengthen, comfort, and preserve you by His Spirit! Amen. Comfort others with these and your own more effectual words. I do not have the leisure to write to everyone.
Given at Zeitz, August 21, 1544 by Martin Luther. Adapted & Edited from C. F. W. Walther's Law and Gospel by Brandon Hanson.