“Sins were sweeter to me than honey and honeycomb. That they are now pungent and bitter, I owe to You who gave me spiritual taste…” – John Gerhard
“I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek your servant, for I do not forget your commandments.” – Psalm 119:176 (last verse)
I recently took the time to listen to a podcast which featured four converts to Lutheranism talking about how historic Lutheran theology had literally become their salvation. Each of these men had come from non-Lutheran backgrounds, but found a spiritual home there after experiencing great doubts over whether or not they truly were Christians.
One man, around the 27 minute mark, talked about working as a youth minister and knowing full well that he wasn’t “pulling it off” – the Christian life, that is. “I may have been fooling everyone else around me”, he recalled, “but I knew the joke was on me”. He talked about being curled up on the floor at one point in his life – crying – because he was convinced that he was going to hell. He, like the rest of these men, had only found peace and comfort in the church’s teachings highlighted during the Lutheran Reformation.
As I listened to these men, I rejoiced – here is Christ finding lost sheep and bringing them into the fold! Here is Christ finding them and carrying them home on His shoulders – literally doing all the work (see John 6:28) – all the while talking about the joy in heaven over one who repents! And listening to these men reinforced what I had often thought: namely, that it is not only the doctrine of justification that is a critical component of Christian proclamation, but the doctrine of man – our anthropology.
Make no mistake: these are core issues. There certainly is a sense in which this idea of “simul iustus et peccator” can be said to reflect biblical teaching and help Christians understand who we are – even if it seems this phrase was not used much by early Lutherans themselves. The “simul” can help explain the desires, thoughts, words, and deeds that we have – and even, in a very real sense, be said to be a “cause” of these things.
I submit that this is why this idea is so important for Christians to hear – and why, incidently, confessional Lutherans also take so seriously the tyranny of fruit-checking. That said, I think there are also things that came up in the discussion mentioned above that have the potential to confuse.
For example, one guest said the following:
“[The danger has always been to say] in my flesh I’m sinful but because of the Holy Spirit, who is in me, therefore I am righteous in myself also… The church becomes a whole bunch of individuals who are struggling to be holy. Or struggling to be more Christ-like and less sinful. And if you put a whole bunch of people together who are kind of turned in on their own holiness or their own pursuit of being more one thing and less the other thing, well you can imagine the kind of violence that erupts in a congregation or in a church when you have a whole bunch of individuals who are just there for themselves because they’re thinking “well, I’ve got to go to church, I’ve got to hear the word, I’ve got to go to the baptismal font, I’ve got to go to the communion rail, I’ve got to go to Bible study because Christ is alive in me and I’ve got to show the fruits of Christ in me so that again, I’m working out my salvation in fear and trembling” – and a lot of people interpret that text to mean “I’ve got to do something” vs. what we’re really teaching which is that ‘over there on the cross is your righteousness, over there at the font is your righteousness, over there being spoken to you – that word from God – is your righteousness, and that’s all outside of you…
… You literally have to trust that God who says you’re holy on account of Christ means it, because in yourself there’s nothing there’s no evidence whatsoever or in other people that you’re actually holy.”
There is no doubt that this is a difficult and complicated topic – and so the desire to simplify it and make it easily graspable is, I think, at once a commendable thing as well as a temptation… In the process, we might truly want to uphold the Word of God and yet unintentionally end up discounting it. With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at some of the ideas expressed here.
On the one hand, should we really be under the impression that we whom “he has made perfect forever” and yet “are being made holy” (Hebrews 10:14) do not need to actively struggle in faith? (see Rom. 8:5 and 8:13) On the other hand, I’d have to agree in part: not only can persons feel like they should go to church even if they aren’t Christians, but Christians certainly can be obsessed with themselves and do all kinds of things for the wrong reasons. Why would we assume, for example, that we do not gather for worship primarily for the benefit of our neighbors? (see Hebrews 10:25 and the surrounding context) – even as God graciously, tenderly, and personally feeds and preserves each one of us as we gather around His word and sacraments? In fact, because on this side of the grave we are always saints and sinners the motivations underlying our actions are inevitably going to feature a mix of good and evil. And it is really because of this that sometimes it may look and feel like there is literally nothing good that is happening in us – again, even causing us to doubt whether we are truly Christians. In times like this the doctrine of justification is needed so that Christ might come to our rescue even for our good works which are always tainted by sin! As Luther reminds us:
Amen indeed. The doctrine of justification for the ungodly! The reason for the Reformation! All is well…
And it truly, truly is. Period. We are justified. Saved. In Christ alone our sure hope is found.
That said, there are still questions the Christian will surely have that that deal with the “now what” – and this also means questions I do not see many modern articulations of the “simul” seriously addressing.
- If I want to be better than what I am – to hurt those around me less and actually love them more and more – is that only my old man craving love and acceptance – and trying to earn my salvation before God?
- If I desire strongly for my “kids to turn out OK” does that mean I should necessarily conclude that I am only focused on myself (my own need for validation) rather than their good (as well as their neighbors whom they will affect?)
- Even as our repentance surely occurs imperfectly, am I wrong to desire that my repentance would be more deeply sincere and true? Or is that kind of activity fundamentally unable to be focused on Christ, but rather only on one’s self?[i]
- Is it really always the old man and only the old man who wants to strive for holiness (yes, we know the Pharisees “strove for holiness” to, but is there any distinction to be made here at all?) attempting to “bring God down to earth”, to our level, ultimately insisting He submit to us and our self-righteousness? (i.e. we do not necessarily believe in justification by works theologically, but we, seemingly without any new man to speak of, must do so functionally)
- Is the Christian life more than feeling guilty about not feeling guilty enough so that one can really appreciate the Gospel and be transformed as one ought to be? In other words, if I cannot seem to feel guilty the way that I should, does that mean that I am cursed to never really begin to know the Gospel that compels true love?
- As I mature in Christ, does this mean that my realization of myself and individual identity is in some sense completely lost?
- Again, is it only our old man, always seeking to justify himself, who wants to be urged on to do good works?[ii]
In addition to this, I also see some dangers that accompany modern articulations of the “simul” – and the “Law-Gospel” reductionism that seems to go hand in hand with it. What kinds of dangers? Here are a few that come to mind:
- In efforts to emphasize how we are all equally sinners before God, does not the world get the impression that we do not acknowledge that the effects of some sins are more serious – and yes, therefore invite more serious earthly consequences – than others? (see here ; and might I John 5’s distinctions between sins, traditionally called mortal and venial, have any connection with this?)
- If we, for example, think that “we are all the Duggars”, are we as able or willing to recognize and appreciate the persons among us who not only say what we think is good but who truly are exemplary in the faith? And are we as able to defer to them or obey them if we are called to do so? Or does a toxic doubt come to rule us – “they are too good to be true…” (especially because they talk about sanctification too much!)?
- Unlike the Apostle Paul, do we no longer believe that persons can disqualify themselves from, for example, the office of pastor?
- While we may continue to acknowledge that even one sin certainly disqualifies us from communion with God, might we nevertheless become blind to the reality that all sins are not necessarily equal in their spiritual effects: when it comes to sin’s ability to war against faith, wicked deeds can indeed bind us more than words and words can do so more than thoughts? (see this long excerpt from the Lutheran theologian Adolf Köberle, for example)
- Might we begin to think that our old Adam is only interested in legalistically justifying himself before the God he knows exists – by the works of the divine law, or good works derived in accordance with it, or any standard he sets for himself? (Pastor Tullian Tchividjian is right that this legalism is always primarily a human, not a cultural problem)
- Might we fail to remember that old Adam is also interested in simultaneously living as he deems fit without any accusation that reminds him of God (if this can also responsibly be called legalistic self-salvation, as Tchvidian posits, it is nevertheless also still “antinomian” or “lawless” in that it is against the divine law).[iii] I think that this is, for example, the double reason old Adam would like to see someone like Tim Tebow fall.[iv]
- If we fully embrace some of the things we like from what has been called “Radical Lutheranism” (see Elert, Forde, Bayer, Paulson), will we necessarily end up embracing any number of theological errors? (I’d say “yes” – if you disagree, please listen to this thoughtful and penetrating critique of Steven Paulson’s popular book Lutheran Theology and see my critical review of Timothy Wengert’s book Reading the Bible with Martin Luther)
If so, the simul becomes the one ring to rule them all. But this simply can’t be right, because the Scriptures say that Christians are those who are increasingly transformed into His image (see 2 Cor. 3:18) – which in part means that they want to do the right thing for the right reasons – and also are fighting so that they actually do it.[v] If one insists otherwise, in effect asserting an “imputation-only world”, just how can we say that Christians are really being transformed in any substantial way?
I suggest that a statement made by one of the men in the discussion points us towards a way forward. This gentlemen spoke of how early on in his Christian life he wanted to do the right things – and not just in an “ought-to” kind of way, but having a genuine desire to do what was right – even if he came to realize that he could not, like Paul in Romans 7, carry it out….
The “simul” has to do with the doctrine of justification. According to this teaching, we are sinners in ourselves and righteous not in ourselves, but in Jesus Christ[vi] – and this saving declaration is something we passively receive by faith. But in the above paragraph, we are talking about the Christian’s genuine and active desire to be sanctified by and for His Good Shepherd – something that occurs precisely because He knows himself to have true peace with God (even as doubt always comes). This aspect of faith does not belong to justification then, but rather to sanctification, as the new man looks to Christ for his neighbor’s sake. I’ll close with a quote from Pastor Holger Sonntag, as he sums up Luther’s take on the situation in his Antinomian Disputations:
“Therefore, while the triumphant Christian is indeed the one who is completely righteous in God’s judgment by faith, the militant Christian is the Christian as he concretely exists in his person and as he is both incipiently, but inadequately righteous in himself and still filled with ‘much wretchedness’ that just waits for an opportunity to come to the fore unless vigorously combated by the new man in the Christian.
“In other words, the concrete person of the Christian is here not described as totally sinful man before God, an expression which Luther can also use in the Antinomian disputations, but as a Christian, that is, as a believer who, while already justified and triumphant over all sin and condemnation before God for Christ’s sake, still battles his way forward on the path of progressive sanctification.
“This means that Luther here conflates, without any confusion of faith and works in the article on justification, two related ways of describing the Christian as, on the one hand, totally righteous and totally sinful (totus iustus, totus peccator) and as, on the other hand, partly righteous and partly sinful (partim iustus, partim peccator). He does so in order to be able to express anthropologically what happens in the battle in us that is progressive sanctification.”[vii]
Evidently, Martin Luther used the words simul justus et peccator just two times in his life.[viii] In any case, Luther’s understanding of “the simul” clearly had room for this “partim” (in this post, called “Habitual sin and perpetual pardon, power, and progress”, I tried to account for both in a very Gospel-centered way). Can today’s Lutherans keen to emphasize “the simul” say the same?[ix]
I hope I’ve been convincing in showing why that question matters – but if you doubt, please feel to engage and push back below. May Christ guide and lead His church!
[i] “[W]e certainly require good works, since we teach that this faith arises in repentance, and in repentance ought continually to increase; and in these matters we place Christian and spiritual perfection, if repentance and faith grow together in repentance.” – Apology to the Augsburg Confession.
[ii] I provided most of this list in this post: “Does God have a concrete plan for your life?: Goals of the Gospel”.
[iv] From the end of the article (bold mine):
“We’re not afraid of a hypocrite; in fact, hypocrisy relieves us. We’re hypocrites. That, we get. We fear the thing that judges us. True righteousness throws our sinfulness into sharp relief. Clearly, Tebow (and he would, no doubt, be the first to admit that he isn’t) is not truly righteous. Nonetheless, his apparent righteousness inspires hate, because it reminds us all of our shortcomings. We don’t spend every summer overseas teaching poor children about Jesus. We don’t reject endorsement deals on moral grounds. We didn’t save ourselves for marriage. We aren’t as conscientious or hard-working. And if we did or were, we’d certainly brag about it. Compared to Tim Tebow, we are all sinners.
We rebel against God for the same reason. We must run from righteousness because it will destroy us, so far from its perfection are we. In the same way that standing in a room with Brad Pitt only serves to remind us how unattractive we are, being in a relationship with God serves to remind us how unholy we are. We need Tim Tebow to fail, and so we root for it, so that he can be shown to be imperfect, just like us.
[v] Like Luther did in his sermons, I am simply assuming that those who have true faith are concerned to demonstrate their faith by works – they realize faith and works go hand and hand and make their confession believable. And ideally, this attempt to “let their light shine” is really not for their own sake – that others would recognize them as real Chrisitians – but for the Gospel that they proclaim – they desire to bring no shame on their Lord but rather to lift up His Name! Those who don’t have true faith don’t have this concern, even if they were at one point baptized. (note: edited this footnote since publishing of original post)
[vi] An excellent quote from one of the participants in the discussion: “We believe that justification is the foundation of the Christian faith… The foundation of the Christian life. We understand ourselves as being 100% fully sinful and at the same time 100% fully righteous in Christ outside of ourselves.” As this is speaking about the justification of the sinner before God, this is an excellent statement. The only question I have is what the phrase “outside of ourselves” should be taken to mean. Simply that, when it comes to being justified before God, we do not claim any of our own righteousness – even that which we might have in, with and through Christ and His Spirit? And perhaps also simply that, before God, it is not even the righteousness of Christ that we have in us that justifies us before God? Or is this phrase meant to imply something even more than this? Here, I think Pastor Jordan Cooper’s recently given talk on justification at the Imago Dei conference might be of particular help.
[vii] More Luther on “the partim”:
“And when I exhort you to walk in the Spirit, that you obey not the flesh and fulfill not its concupiscence, I do not require that you should utterly put off the flesh or kill it, but that you should bridle and subdue it. For God will have mankind endure even to the Last Day. And this cannot be done without parents, which do beget and bring up children.
These means continuing, it must be that flesh also must continue, and consequently sin, for flesh is not without sin.Therefore in respect of the flesh we are sinners; but in respect of the Spirit, we are righteous: and so we are partly sinners and partly righteous. Notwithstanding our righteousness is much more plentiful than our sin, because the holiness and righteousness of Christ our mediator far exceeds the sin of the whole world, and the forgiveness of sins which we have through Him is so great, so large, and so infinite, that it easily swallows up all sins, if we walk according to the Spirit, etc. (Great Galatians Commentary, Ch. 5)
In the Large Catechism:
57] Meanwhile, however, while sanctification has begun and is growing daily, we expect that our flesh will be destroyed and buried with all its uncleanness, and will come forth gloriously, and arise to entire and perfect holiness in a new eternal life.
58] For now we are only half pure and holy, so that the Holy Ghost has ever [some reason why] to continue His work in us through the Word, and daily to dispense forgiveness, until we attain to that life where there will be no more forgiveness, but only perfectly pure and holy people, full of godliness and righteousness, removed and free from sin, death, and all evil, in a new, immortal, and glorified body.
59] Behold, all this is to be the office and work of the Holy Ghost, that He begin and daily increase holiness upon earth by means of these two things, the Christian Church and the forgiveness of sin. But in our dissolution He will accomplish it altogether in an instant, and will forever preserve us therein by the last two parts. (LC, The Creed, Art. III, 56-59)
[viii] According to a paper by Dr. Thomas Winger in Lutheran Theological Review (1999).
[ix] Of course all of this is related to what is called “the third use of the law”. In this post, I point out the different ways that the Apostle uses the law of God in Romans 3 and 12ff respectively. I think this particular post is valuable in part because of the conversation that took place after the post – it addressed these issues in a significant amount of depth.