Saints AND Sinners

Is that the headline for an NFL matchup between New Orleans and Cincinnati?   Nope.  It’s a concept that’s often described as the very heart of Luther’s Reformation theology.  (Apologies to the good folks of southern Ohio, but that little joke was irresistible to a Steelers fan!)*

In an earlier Fish Hooks (The Divine ‘And’) we discussed how that little conjunction ‘and’ is essential to understanding some of the most important truths about God and His ways – how we can miss the boat when we try to force His truth into an ‘either/or’ box.  We emphasized that sometimes the contradictions intrinsic to the use of that word ‘and’ are not just symbolic or semantic, but a way of expressing deep and humanly-unfathomable truths.

It’s the same for the even shorter word ‘et’ (and) which Luther employed in his famous description of the true state of a Christian:

“Simul Justus et Peccator”

That Latin phrase is commonly translated as “simultaneously saint and sinner.”   Simul is easily recognized as the root of our word ‘simultaneously’ and peccator simply means ‘sinner.’  But that Latin word justus requires a bit of explanation: though it is correctly translated as ‘saint’ it isn’t the Latin word that would conventionally be used to indicate a ‘particularly holy’ person: that would be ‘sancta’ as in Sancta Petrus (Saint Peter).  Rather, the word justus carries the meaning of ‘one justified’ – that is ‘one made right with God.’  So, though Luther did use that word to emphasize that every Christian is indeed a ‘saint’ in the sense of truly being God’s ‘holy person,’ his choice of words also emphasizes the way that such holiness is achieved. The phrase might thus be paraphrased:  “Made fully holy by God while, at the same time, fully a sinner.”

Read that again!  Luther wasn’t just saying that “sometimes we act like saints and sometimes like sinners” nor was he saying “at any given time we are some fraction saint and the rest sinner.”  And certainly, he isn’t saying “once we were sinners, but now we’re saints.”  Rather, he is saying that at every instant of our life on earth a follower of Jesus Christ stands before God as both a woeful sinner and a fully righteous saint!

But isn’t that a contradiction?  Some are of that mind and say it must only be a matter of perspective: from our human point of view we are sinners in terms of our continuing struggles, but from God’s view we are saints because Christ’s holiness is imputed to us (like covering the filth of our sins with Christ’s garment of holiness).  That is certainly a true observation, but it doesn’t embrace the full import of what Luther is saying:  our ‘saintliness’ isn’t only a matter of God becoming blind or indifferent to who we really are, but rather it’s the ‘Amazing Grace’ of His forgiveness: He knows exactly what kind of hopeless sinners we are, yet still pronounces us truly Holy through the sacrifice of His Sinless Son!  And when we look into the mirror, we should see exactly what God sees – a shattered vessel that He chooses to restore to its intended glory as the container of His own Holiness.

This is one of those scriptural truths that we’ll never fully get our head around, no matter how we try to make sense of it.  So, it was part of Luther’s genius as a theologian that he did not shy away from ‘paradoxes’ such as this – he did not try to minimize them or interpret them through the lens of human reason.  Rather, he stood firmly on the words of Scripture and embraced the divine truths that our minds cannot fully reconcile.

But, if we can’t really understand it, why is this so important to our Christian life?  It’s important because during this earthly life we are actually living in two realities.  The one is the reality that we are fallen creatures whose wills are never fully aligned with God’s – thus we are sinners and will remain so till our last breath.  This should humble us and drive us to our knees in daily repentance.  AND it should also be a source of complete confidence to know that despite our sinfulness – even as we helplessly continue to sin – in God’s incomprehensible love He still claims us in Baptism as His Holy People – fully justified in the blood of Jesus Christ our Savior.

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”  (2 Corinthians 12:9)

* At the time this Fish Hooks was written, the Cincinnati Bengals still had on their roster a player who is widely regarded as the ‘dirtiest’ player to ever play in the NFL.  Over the course of his seven years with the Bengals, he forfeited over $4 million in fines and suspensions — and over $1 million of that was for infractions committed against the Steelers!

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