Simul Iustus et Peccator: An Impetus for Sanctification from Martin Luther
This year is the 500th year anniversary of the Reformation. As a result, I’ve been spending some time reading and reflecting on a somewhat controversial yet colossally important figure I had previously neglected: Martin Luther. In my experience, Luther has been read by his critics as holding a laissez-faire attitude towards sin that is functionally antinomian. Often, they misquote his infamous motto, “Sin boldly” (which is much more descriptive than prescriptive and is meant to emphasize assurity in confession).1 Furthermore, based on a number of critiques, I was led to believe that the extent of his teaching on sanctification was another classic Lutheran adage, “Remember your baptism.” This is a robustly sacramental starting point for that discussion but in and of itself, it is insufficient.
Another Luther quote has made me appreciate him more lately: “Simul iustus et peccator.” In English, it translates to, “Simultaneously righteous and a sinner.” This works on a number of different levels but ultimately should lead us to a place where sanctification, that is the process led by the Holy Spirit in which we are further conformed to the Image of Christ, becomes a vital part of the Christian life.
First, this phrase is a reminder that we are not sufficient to bring about sanctification in our own lives. 1 Corinthians 6:11 (RSV) states, “you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” By recognizing that, as Christians, we are in a constant state of becoming, we are implicitly admitting we are not there. This is a continual reminder that we are unable to bring about our desired end without an external force, namely the Holy Spirit working in us. While this recognition may be quickly assented to by many Christians, to have intimate experience with this reality is liberating. It is one thing to be continually confronted with our failures, over and over again. It is entirely another thing, however, to be constantly made aware of God’s salvific activity on our behalf. One breeds angst and despair well the other a sense of awe and appreciation. In this light, Luther’s words “sin boldly” are not prescription to sin but rather a description of our assurance in God’s saving grace.
Which leads to a second point regarding this phrase “simul iustus et peccator:” We should regularly admit the ugly reality that we are sinful. Words have power. By admitting our sinfulness, we shift away from trusting in the facade of our own piety. Instead, we cast ourselves at the feet of a God of infinite love. In Anglicanism, it is for this reason we pray the Prayer of Humble Access every Mass before taking Communion:
“We do not presume to come to this Thy table O merciful Lord trusting in our own righteousness but in Thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under Thy Table. But Thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy. Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of Thy dear Son Jesus Christ and to drink his blood, that we may evermore dwell in him and he in us. Amen” (emphasis mine).
This prayer shatters our egos as we move toward the Table of the Lord, emphasizing the constancy of his mercy, depth of his grace, and the assurance of his pardon. We decry any merit of our own, not in an act of torturous self-hatred but in a freeing declaration of dependency.
Third, and finally, “simul iustus et peccator” reminds us that these two realities of saint and sinner exist simultaneously. Our self-reflection can become destructive when we unhealthily emphasize one at the expense of the other. I am righteous. I am the worst of sinners. If I think of myself as exclusively righteous, I lose that freeing sense of dependency on the Lord. If I think of myself as exclusively sinful, I engage in an exercise of narcissism whereby I act as thought the depths of my depravity are deeper than even Christ is willing to go. To be a Christian with a proper understanding of this dynamic is to live in the tension that from one angle I am a saint and from another, I am a wretch. Yet, I have been saved, I am being saved, and I will be saved.
Still, some may struggle to find the impetus for sanctification in this quote. If the statement “simul iustus et peccator” is read within a Lutheran pneumatological framework, it could be restated, “I am simultaneously righteous and sinful but by the work of the Holy Spirit, I shall be conformed to the Image of Christ.” It is not a statement of complacent self-indulgence but of confident trust that Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient and God’s love is infinite. As a result, we can embrace our identity and cast ourselves at the foot of the cross as the Holy Spirit perfor,so his sanctifying work in us.
 It was not even really a motto. It was a line from a private letter to his friend Philip Melanchthon.