Simul Iustus et Peccator, or On the Problem with Grace

January 15th, 2013 5:45 pm

Marta Gustavsson

In someone’s personal Internet presentation I once read:

”If I would choose one religion, I’d be a Christian. You can do absolutely anything and God would still forgive you”.

The sentence was meant ironically but also gives a mirror to a central theological problem. How can we reflect on the relationship between grace and action? Is Christianity the religion in which nothing is expected? Can Christianity be accused of being the religion that in effect produces totally unchanged followers? And maybe worst of all, can the Christian concept of Grace be used to cover human evil and wrongdoings, claiming them as a necessary implication of our original and inherited sinfulness that God anyway accepts. Would this not be a psychopath’s dream, that any outer moral standards anyway would be overruled by a principle of acceptance?

This is a question of how the situation of being saved relates to the goal of being holy, that is, to actually live according to God’s will (which we here presume is a will of goodness). Are we saved although we never will be holy or will we necessarily be holy because we are saved? There is always a risk in communities where the former is accentuated, that no search for sanctification is needed. On the other hand, in many Christian communities, the later view has questioned the state of salvation of people. Unless they forced themselves to a certain amount of “holiness” (according to the norms of the group) their reception of Christ would not be counted as valid. This view, I believe, shows too little understanding for the limits of human life. The Gospel is then transformed into yet a law, more heavy than any.

There are probably many reflections about this over the history of theology, and I can only present a small share, but I’d like to contribute with a reflection of the Lutheran concept of simul, which, I believe,can be helpful for us to find a way through. To be simul iustus et peccator, that is, both justified and sinner, was in Luther’s view the central expression for the situation of the Christian. It expressed that the new situation of a human being in the acceptance of Christ would not make you less a sinner, it just make you justified as well.

The expression, I think, must not be understood in the sense that grace would be a useless but comforting fact for a hopeless human condition. Instead, grace should be the comfort for the believer that although the old Adam seems difficult to get rid of, he is already somehow dead in the eyes of God and through the works of Christ. Simul expresses that the process of sanctification follows the fact of salvation, not that salvation stands alone without the aspect of sanctification. The factor needed to make the leap from salvation to sanctification, would be gratitude. This seems also to be the lack in the claim made by the quote in the Internet presentation. If doing nothing, expecting everything and not being grateful would be the Christian experience par excellance, we clearly did something wrong. Now, luckily, I don’t believe this is the common view of Christians.

Maybe these views are self-evident not only for Protestants but even for Christians of all denominations, although others may express them different from Luther. But my concern is not only to frame Christian teachings to defend them from the heresies of bad practice, but also to discuss how good teachings actually give rise to good practice. In the face of the evils of this world, the Christian discussion should not only be about how our dogmatics are pointing towards the good but also about what would be required to show the world that they are also better in effect.

If we believe that what comes after our redemption in Christ is better than what we can achieve by just knowing moral standards, then we should also have as aim to make action an integral part in our teachings on justification. I will here give a threefold contribution on how the concept of simul can be a call for resistance to a theology without consequences:

  1. The condition of a Christian knowing her ambiguous state as both justified and sinner, calls us never to take the love of God for granted. This is not a call for an image of a God whose wrath and love are equally close, but instead the conviction that God’s love calls for our renewed response. The Christian Church should be eager in its wish to overcome the gap to its beloved, just as God is passionate about finding and keeping close to us. This is what I mean by gratitude, and this should be Church’s collective step toward a willingness for action.
  2. The concept of simul can be understood as the acknowledgement that a perfect set of righteous actions do not bring salvation and that salvation does not bring a perfect set of righteous actions. It is the claim of sorrow, that even in the community of strong belief, human brokenness will be present. The Christian community in which the confession of sins is a common element, knows this. The practise of continuously praying for forgiveness and receiving the absolution of sins can bring her ambiguous state into light, where it can become a fertile ground for the hope that brings action. The calling of God does not search for a more holy community than the Church, but it searches for the Church to be more holy.
  3. When expressing a Christian as simul iustus et peccator, one gives a focus to the perspective of order. However critical we can be towards grace without action, I believe calling for action without preaching grace is even more frightening. The Christian view must be that action is a consequence of grace, that sanctification follows salvation. Why does a Christian fulfill the will of God? Because it is already her truth. The freedom of the holy life in Christ is also what makes it sustainable.

If this is true, it is nevertheless a problem to have the calling for holy actions but no place to act. What Church in much is about is to be a space for action, discipleship and difficult meetings. Church should not only prepare the inner life of believers for living holy as an effect of salvation, but should in itself be the place where such expression is possible and even necessary. The serving attitude, the search for holiness, the responsibility for humankind, the facing of various sufferings and the sharing of the common good should not just be an encouragement within Church, it should constitute Church and be done by Christians together.

I believe the accusation of grace being just an excuse for not acting has its validity. I believe we are often too concerned with the comfortable settlement of the soul without preaching or encouraging action as an integral part of faith. The closeness is my point; being simultaneously justified and sinner means that grace and work is the same movement.


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