by Charles Fry /
LUTHER’S UNDERSTANDING OF THE GOSPEL, Part 6
At the Same Time Just and a Sinner
Those who have read anything of Luther’s life and theology will be familiar with his phrase, simul iustus et peccator.[i] That is, the true Christian who has trusted Christ alone for salvation is at the same time just before God and also a sinner. Perhaps the chief passage for this truth is found in Romans 7:14–20, where Paul confesses his failure to obey the law of God and to avoid that which he should not do. Yet Paul did not lose his justification before God, for he stood before the majesty of God not by his own record of obedience but by the obedience of Christ.
Luther grasped this reality and believed that a wholehearted embracing of this truth was critical to appropriating the gospel and living in the joy and freedom of the gospel.
For as long as I live in the flesh, sin is truly in me. But because I am covered under the shadow of Christ’s wings, as is the chicken under the wing of the hen, and dwell without all fear under that most ample and large heaven of the forgiveness of sins… And although we see [our sin], and for the same do feel the terrors of conscience, yet flying unto Christ our mediator and reconciler (through whom we are made perfect), we are sure and safe… Thus a Christian man is both righteous and a sinner, holy and profane, an enemy of God and yet a child of God. [ii]
Christian culture today is saturated with messages from well-meaning Bible teachers who long to see believers living “the victorious Christian life.” Although such perfectionistic, higher-life teaching comes in many forms, at the core is the message that if one follows a particular program of surrender (or repentance or other works-based techniques), he or she will rise above known sin. Though few actually claim that a Christian can be perfect, these method-based teachings do imply that such attainment can be ours if we work long and hard enough.
This general message can be traced to a compromise on the doctrine of man. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, much of the Western church came to embrace various forms of Pelagianism. Named after a 5th-century teacher, Pelagianism in its original form claimed that man’s nature is fundamentally good and therefore perfect obedience to God is within man’s ability. In Semi-Pelagianism, man is seen as sinful yet still able to keep the law of God without sin.
All such Pelagian-influenced views prevent an individual from facing the full reality and implications of sin in his or her life. This often leads either to doubt or arrogance. If I wonder, “How can I be a Christian and still be stuck in this same sinful habit?” I will begin to doubt my salvation, the Bible, or both. If I think I am actually keeping the law of God and meeting his standard of perfection, I will become arrogant. Any sort of perfectionistic belief will also tempt me to judge and condemn others for their failings and indwelling sin. I will respond in pride to Christian brothers and sisters, rather than in humility and gentleness.
Perfectionism may have had a slightly different form in Luther’s day, but he still encountered this false theology. Naturally, he faced it squarely and rejected it, considering it to be a denial of the gospel. His biblical observation of simul iustus et peccator allowed the believer to face the truth of his life, while still enjoying confident acceptance by God in the gospel.
The truth that the believer is at the same time justified before God and yet still a sinner is a doctrine we must know, lest we be driven to despair and discouragement. Others have also believed and taught this doctrine. For example, The Heidelberg Catechism, published in 1563, answers a significant question after looking at the law of God: “But can those who are converted to God perfectly keep these commandments? No, but even the holiest of men, while in this life, have only a small beginning of this obedience…” (HC 114)
Making a similar point, the Puritan Thomas Watson wrote,
Man is a self-exalting creature; and if he has anything but of worth, he is ready to be puffed up; but when he comes to see his deficiencies and failings, and how far short he comes of the holiness and perfection which God’s law requires, it pulls down the plumes of his pride, and lays them in the dust; he weeps over his inability; he blushes over his leprous spots… God lets this inability [to keep his law] upon us, that we may have recourse to Christ to obtain pardon for our defects, and to sprinkle our best duties with his blood. When a man sees that he owes perfect obedience to the law, but has nothing to pay, it makes him flee to Christ to be his friend, and answer for him all the demands of the law, and set him free in the court of justice.[iii]
The great Princeton professor A.A. Hodge was also quick to see the reality of sin in the believer’s life:
The more holy a man is, the more humble, self-renouncing, self-abhorring, and the more sensitive to every sin he becomes, and the more closely he clings to Christ. The moral imperfections which cling to him he feels to be sins, laments and strives to overcome them… it has been notoriously the fact that the best Christians have been those who have been the least prone to claim the attainment of perfection for themselves.[iv]
Part 15 of an extended series drawn from A World Upside Down: The Life and Theology of Martin Luther, by Charles E. Fry.
Chuck Fry holds degrees from Marshall University, Moody Bible Institute, and Christ College. He has been in discipleship ministry since 1989 and is on staff with The Navigators in Huntington, West Virginia. He and his wife, Lisa, organize and host the annual Majesty of God conference, held each April.[i] Luther used this phrase in at least two different places in his commentary on Galatians.
[ii] A Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians: Based on Lectures Delivered by Martin Luther at the University of Wittenberg in the year 1531 and First Published in 1535, Philip S. Watson (ed.), A revised and completed translation based on the “Middleton” edition of the English version of 1575 (Logos Bible Software), 225, 226.
[iii] Thomas Watson, The Ten Commandments (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1692, 1995), 186, parenthesis added.
[iv] A.A. Hodge, Outlines in Theology (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1860, 1999), 539.