Luther’s “Simul” Distinction in Lutheran Pastoral Care
God justifies the ungodly. Who are the ungodly? The atheist? The lesbian? The abortionist? The pornographer? Christians? Many Christians ignore that they too are in the company of the ungodly who need justification by God’s grace.
Too easily we imagine that we at one time were among the ungodly, but now enjoy our own inherent righteousness, or “sanctification.” We behave as if that’s what keeps us right in God’s eyes. Far too many Christians, even those in the churches who bear Luther’s namesake, ignore the dual reality that the German reformer articulated in his famous dictum that we are simultaneously justified and ungodly: fully sinner and wholly saint at the same time.
For Lutheran pastoral care this means the key to the proper application of the “simul” distinction is acknowledging that the sinner cannot be rehabilitated by the Law, or good works. He can’t be coerced to do them by threats either. Death and resurrection is the mechanism by which God saves him. There’s no progress in holiness. There’s no ladder to climb. There’s no becoming less a sinner and more a saint. Every day the old man in Adam must die; the new man in Christ must rise. This is also key to understanding the proper function of the Law. It curbs, mirrors, and instructs the old man in Adam, the sinner. It does so to his death.
Distinct from this the new man in Christ needs no law. He needs no instruction. He perfectly knows and does the will of God because he has the mind of Christ. It is solely the old man in Adam who needs instruction. He needs to be shown what God’s will is for him. The Law must demand, coerce, and even bribe him to go along with God’s will. Why? Because, as Luther said in the Large Catechism, the old man in Adam is, “like a recalcitrant ass.”
Thus, to return to the thesis, the Latin phrase “simul iustus et peccator,” that a Christian is “simultaneously justified and a sinner,” is the hinge on which not only Lutheran pastoral care hangs, but Lutheran theology as a whole, especially as regards justification.
This formulation distinguishes Lutherans from the Roman Catholic and Reformed understanding of justification and sin in a particular way. For Lutherans, without this “simul” distinction pastoral care lapses into moralism. Salvation is reduced to a process of self-improvement in which God and man each contribute their fair share and man’s progress is measured against a scale of increasing holiness. To Lutherans this is totally unacceptable as it is incompatible with Scripture. It terrifies consciences because it doesn’t hold the old man in Adam and the new man in Christ in tension. Pastors then don’t treat the people under their care, as Luther wrote, “… according to the Divine reckoning,” that, “we are in fact and totally righteous, even though sin is present. So we are in fact at the same time and altogether sinners.” [Third Antinomian Disputation, 1538]
That’s the root of the Gospel. The good news about God’s justification of the ungodly in Christ. That, as Luther wrote, “Whatever sins I, you, and all of us have committed or may commit in the future, they are as much Christ’s own as if He Himself had committed them.” [Galatians Lectures, 1535]
This means there’s a difference when Lutheran pastors counsel a Christian “in concreto,” as distinct from, “in abstracto.” In the abstract, we may speak of the Christian as being a total sinner under the Law and a total saint under the Gospel. But in concrete reality it’s simply a both/and. Therefore, in this life, the “improvement” we pastors listen for and diagnose is nothing other than a death rattle, the daily death of the old Adam and the rising of the new man in Christ.
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