One of the slogans that came out of the Reformation was the Latin phrase “simul iustus et peccator”. Iustus means just or righteous, and peccator means sinner. Translated then, the phrase means “the righteous person is at the same time a sinner”.
What does this phrase mean? Robert Jenson, in his book Lutheran Slogans, offers the problem of interpreting this phrase:
There is a problem of interpretation: what is it which is supposed to have “at once” a predicate, iustus, and its contradictory, peccator? At first glance there seem to be only two possibilities: it is either the righteous person who is also a sinful person, or it is each act of the person that is at once righteous and sinful (p 71)
In other words, to what does this simul refer? Does it refer to the person as person? Or to his acts as such? Is the Christian a mixture of sinfulness and righteousness? This is certainly a common Reformation interpretation when viewed in the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. If righteousness is imputed rather than imparted, then a Christian viewed as righteous while still being sinful. This option produces what Jenson calls a platitude. “When the devote parish secretary falls into backbiting the organist, she does not merely thereby cease to be a righteous person” (p 71). Well, yes, we can agree. But I would also add that this also leads to an overly extrinsic understanding of salvation. Does God merely “cover” our unrighteousness, and not change us? Polemics against this type of construal have called it a legal fiction: God judges us as good when in reality we aren’t. That, I believe is problematic.
Jenson offers the second option, that the simul refers to the actions of the Christian. Every action a Christian does, even righteous, is “stained” with sin. It is mixed. This leads, Jenson says, to “moral nihilism”: “surely the justified must sometimes do a good thing” (p 72). But very often Christians, in the name of “humility”, will not recognize any good they have done. But we know that Christians are enabled to do good!
Jenson offers another interpretation of this phrase:
In Luther’s own theology, the preferred framework for discussion of such matters is a dualism of “the old man” and “the new man”. The old man is drowned in the waters of baptism and the new man is born of them; baptism makes a definitive before and after. Yet the old man must thereafter “daily be drowned and put to death”; he has not simply gone away but again and again intrudes into the present from the past. This by no accident reminds us of Paul’s ability at once to speak of himself and all believers as dead to sin, and nevertheless, in the first person and the present tense, to lament the sin which inhabits him and cry for delivery “from this deathly body”.
Having regard to both Luther and Paul, I suggest that simul iustus et peccator is properly a slogan for the eschatological situation of believers.
Jenson means to say that in baptism, the old sinful man is killed, and the new man comes forth out of the waters. This is properly an eschatological reality: we have already died and risen with Christ in baptism. And thus we are a new man. And yet, the old man can swim, as it were. He comes to bother us from our past, and thus, Luther says that daily we must put him back into the waters and drown him.
Gerhard Forde has spoken of the simul as two total states:
Luther’s view of justification can be understood only as a complete break with the attempt to view it as a “movement” according to a given standard or law, either natural or revealed… [For Luther, justification] does not come either at the beginning or end of a “movement.” Rather, it establishes an entirely new situation…
Luther proposes a thinking ad modum scripturae in which the divine imputation is the creative reality which, by the fact of the imputation, unmasks the reality and totality of sin at the same time.
(A More Radical Gospel: Essays on Eschatology, Authority, Atonement, and Ecumenism, Kindle loc 2552-2554, 2571-73)
Forde introduces the concept of divine imputation being a creative reality: God declares us righteous for Christ’s sake, and in so doing, creates new creatures. He does his word to us. For Luther, Forde et al, justification not a process of improvement. Rather, it is the death of the old man, and the resurrection of the new. There is no movement from unholiness to holiness as such. Rather, God by his baptismal-word effects in us death and resurrection. And in so doing, he kills the old man, and raises up the new. Forde continues:
If one persists in thinking in terms of a process, the simul iustus et peccator will of course turn to poison, perhaps at best a false comfort for lazy sinners. It becomes merely the word that no matter how hard we try, we have to settle for the fact that we will never completely make it because we are, after all, simul iustus et peccator. (Kindle Loc 2580-2581)
For Forde, this totally misunderstands the issue. The phrase means that in justification God does away with the old man as total sinner, and brings the new man as totally righteous out of the waters of baptism. There is a total break between the two. There isn’t some strange mixture. And thus, as Jenson says, “The peccator I still am after baptism is precisely my ‘old man’, my pre-baptismal self, reaching from that past needing to be thrust back again and again” (Lutheran Slogans, 74).
And this is why Luther conceived of sanctification as a return to baptism. What do we do there? We put the old man back where he belongs, and live out our baptismal identity. There is of course improvement, but as Jenson says elsewhere,
Sanctification is the continual return to baptism, from the errors and forgettings and perhaps plain unbelief or crime into which life after baptism will lead us. Baptism is always there as a fact in my past… And if indeed I do become more sanctified as time goes on,… this will be because such fresh starts come closer together and are each time more drastic (A Large Catechism, p 55)