Joel Woodward on the misuse of “the simul”


In 2008 Joel Woodward, the author of the “A Lutheran Beggar” weblog, published a very well-balanced critique of the way in which the theological maxim “simul iustus et peccator,” a.k.a., “the simul,” is misinterpreted and misrepresented in contemporary Lutheran theology. The whole piece is excellent — a “must-read,” I would say. However, for now I simply wish to commend to your consideration the fourth and final error that Woodward treats, as I find it to be the most germane to the current Kirchenkampf against “Radical Lutheranism”:

The fourth error is probably the most pervasive among Lutherans, especially among laity. The argument goes something like this: “Because we will always be peccator, we shouldn’t ‘get all crazy’ about sanctification.” They would say, yes, go about your daily business, fulfill your vocation, help your neighbor once in a while. But they would sneer and push up their noses at those who have dedicated their lives to fulfilling the commands of the Sermon on the Mount, claiming these attempts as mere self-justificatory pipedreams. Larry Vogel has an amusing assessment of this understanding of vocation:

We Lutherans may be particularly vulnerable to see our new life as meaning something quite safe. After all, is that not the meaning of the doctrine of vocation? Is it not simply a kind of domesticated godliness that says: “Pay your taxes. Quit your vices. Go to work. Go to church. Go to the polls. But, don’t get crazy about godliness. After all, those hard words of Jesus were only meant to get us to admit our guilt and give up on our own righteousness. They serve no other purpose.” (“A Third Use of the Law: Is the Phrase Necessary?” Concordia Theological Quarterly 69, no. 3-4 [2005], 218)

[Here] is a common example of this being played out. It is an ad for a “simul iustus et peccator” t-shirt:

“In a time when there is an increasing push for Christians to please God with their own works, this shirt helps push back in the understanding that Christians remain sinners, even in faith, and continue to need the perfect works of Jesus imputed to them since all our works will always be as “filthy rags” to God. The only thing that we have to offer to our salvation is our sin.”

While nothing is inherently wrong in this statement, it reflects a pervading distaste in Lutheran circles to approach sanctification seriously. It is an attitude, not necessarily a teaching, and it goes something like this: “You’ll never be able to get too far, so don’t waste your energy.” There is no “hunger and thirst after righteousness” (Matt. 5:6) The assumption is that any “push” to encourage sanctification is a push towards self-justificatory activity. This error is exactly the center of why we need to keep clear the distinction of justification and sanctification and why we need to keep the language of the simul out of our understanding of sanctification. When they are confused it is assumed that sanctification language is attacking simul language. I find it no surprise that this same company sells a “weak on sanctification” t-shirt. While they admit that it is “tongue-in-cheek” it reflects a pervasive preconceived attitude of distrust about sanctification language.

It is as if all Lutheran talk of sanctification needs a warning label before it to make sure it is not abused, while justification language is impossible to be abused. It begs the question: “What are we fighting against? And, what are we fighting for?” If all our language turns out to be fighting against misunderstanding sanctification and fighting for justification then we are not preaching the full council of Scripture. We need to be fighting against all error, and fighting, eagerly and zealously, for all upright teaching.

So far Woodward. Do take time to read his excellent piece.


Sven st-Claire