The Preeminence Within the Simul (Iustus > Peccator)

I would like to give some thoughts concerning what we often refer to as the simul, Hans Holbein the Younger's Allegory of the Old and New Testamentsshort for simul iustus et peccator, “at the same time righteous and sinner.” When we think of this paradox we might think of Romans 7:15ff and Galatians 5:16-17. But I want to argue that these two passages do not properly describe the simul. They rather describe the life of the Christian who lives out his life as a Christian. They describe the result of the greater part of the simul (iustus) over and against the lesser part (peccator). The simul is rather more properly described by Romans 5:20, “Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.” In his essay, Luther: Word, Doctrine, and Confession, Robert Preus gives some insight, which I believe offers much food for thought on this issue:

To Luther the paradox simul justus et peccator is not an ontological description of man as righteous and a sinner, nor a statement about the old and new man, but a simple affirmation of two biblical assertions concerning man, the assertion of the law that man is a sinner and under God’s wrath and the assertion of the gospel that man is righteous and God is at peace. Both assertions are true in fact, ontologically. The second verdict, however, or assertion, takes total preeminence over the first by virtue of the principle of solus Christus. Christ is Lord! He is Lord of the Scriptures, of all doctrine, theology, and “everything.” (1)

So why is this important? It is important so that we learn to distinguish between what we experience in ourselves and what God’s Word says. We experience a conflict between our good desires of the Spirit and our evil desires of the sinful flesh (Gal 5; Rom 7). This keeps us from doing what we want to do. This is sanctification as we do not let sin reign in our members making us obey its passions (Rom 6). But this is all based upon the preeminence of Christ, his work, and his grace. This is what Preus calls the solus Christus principle. In his Smalcald Articles Luther subordinates everything to this chief article (SA II, 1), and anything that goes against this principle must be rejected, whether it is the abomination of the Mass and the invocation of the saints (SA II, 2:1, 7, 12, 21, 24, 25), chapters and cloisters and monastic vows (SA II, 3:2; III, 14:1), or anything else. This principle is not an extra-biblical principle imposed on the text.  It is rather taught by Scripture in Romans 5:20 quoted above. The law and the gospel are not realities of man, but God’s revelation about man from outside of him. The gospel is simply the greater reality. Grace abounds all the more.

So Romans 7 and Galatians 5 more properly describe the result of the law and the gospel concretely carried out in faith working through love (Gal 5:6). This necessarily involves a battle against the sinful flesh as well as an overcoming of the sinful flesh. Though I serve the law of sin with my flesh, I serve the law of God with my mind. In other words, even though I feel in my members what the law rightly says about me, I assert with my heart and mouth (Rom 10:10) the justification and salvation I have been given. My mind is renewed by the greater reality of God’s mercy (Rom 12:1-2).
We don’t identify the paradox of the law and gospel within ourselves. We identify it outside of ourselves – two assertions, which describe two realities. But we identify the assertion of the gospel as the greater one, since Christ has fulfilled the law (Rom 10:4). While we live in the law we are not under it, but under grace (SD VI, 18; Rom 6:13-14; Gal 5:18).

So we don’t identify ourselves as simul iustus et peccator. We identify ourselves as iustus, the greater assertion. We are in Christ Jesus, and there is therefore now no condemnation (Rom 8:1). And for this reason, the righteousness of the law is being fulfilled in us (Rom 8:4). Certainly we plead guilty of our sins and our sinful nature before God. This is assenting to the true assertion of the law. But our identity is hidden in God with Christ. This is what we embrace over and against the law’s assertion. The law thereby becomes our servant, since we have the love of God (Rom 5:5), and the whole law is fulfilled by love (Rom 13:8; Gal 5:14). This is what it means to walk in the law and not under it. It is to identify ourselves as that which we already are by God’s grace, and thereby to insist on living that way. It is to consider ourselves to be what God considers us to be, dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus (Rom 6:11). The greatest virtue God works in us is love, not because it justifies, but because it will be perfected and last forever (1 Cor 138-13). But the greatest assertion of God’s Word is the gospel received through faith, because it was perfected by Christ’s suffering (Heb 2:10) and his mercy endures forever (Ps. 118).

By grace! On this I’ll rest when dying;
In Jesus’ promise I rejoice;
For though I know my heart’s condition,
I also know my Savior’s voice.
My heart is glad, all grief has flown
Since I am saved by grace alone.

(1) Robert Preus, “Luther: Word, Doctrine, and Confession,” Concordia Theological Quarterly 60, no. 3 (July 1996): 194.

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