The Triumphant and the Militant Christian: “Thomas Christian” as the Anthropological Expression of Imputed and Formal Righteousness

The following guest post is an excerpt from an essay by Rev’d Dr. Holger Sonntag, translator of Only the Decalogue is Eternal: Martin Luther’s Complete Antinomian Theses & Disputations (see above). The essay, “God’s Last Word”, serves as an extended introduction to Luther’s theses and disputations.

Are you puzzled by the phrase simul iustus et peccator, so frequently invoked as a shibboleth of Lutheran theology? Is it your favorite phrase in the world for some reason? Whatever the case may be, your understanding of the Lutheran theology— yea, of the Gospel itself— will be greatly aided by a reading of Dr. Sonntag’s fine translation of what is justly considered some of Luther’s most mature and pastoral theology. Enjoy!

The Triumphant and the Militant Christian: “Thomas Christian” as the Anthropological Expression of Imputed and Formal Righteousness

REv'd Dr. Holger Sonntag

Rev’d Dr. Holger Sonntag

Luther explored the relationship between the imputed and the formal righteousness in greater detail to show their causal relationship. It is best to discuss in this context briefly also Luther’s anthropology that undergirds it all. Since the Antinomians taught that the law was not the way to bring about repentance among Christians, Luther concluded from this that they must think that there is no sin left in Christians anymore. Otherwise, the law would not only have to be preached; it would simply be present in sinners before any preaching could “proclaim” it to them, by virtue of that sin in human nature, as was pointed out earlier.

This is to say, Luther believed that the Antinomians had practically given up on the fundamental distinction between imputed and formal or inherent righteousness, claiming that Christians are formally righteous, that is, righteous in themselves, only in need of being warned concerning future, not present, sin. Against this view that must lead to carnal security, Luther articulated his anthropology of the “Thomas Christian.”

The transition from the militant unbeliever who fights against God and hates his law to the militant believer who love God’s law and fights against his sinful nature in the power of the Holy Spirit with prayer is worked in conversion by the Holy Spirit by means of the gospel. In other words, justification by imputation was not understood by Luther to be a game stopper or soft cushion made for spiritual sleep, but rather as the beginning of the Christian’s life­long battle against himself:

Thus we are righteous by reputation, but still in such a way that we are placed in alien territory and we have to fight against the remaining sin which clings to the flesh, as Paul says (Hebr. 12:4): “You have not yet resisted to flesh and blood.” Likewise (Rom. 7:23): “I feel another law in my members.” This is why God wants us to be strong soldiers against the sin which is still present in, and clings to, man’s flesh, as Job says (7:1): “Warfare is man’s life on earth.” Several times Paul wants us to take up the weapons of light. (Only the Decalogue is Eternal, 141)

A little later he stated:

By this divine reputation— that your sins are forgiven you freely for Christ’s sake— you are sent, as it were, into lifelong military service and battle array, in order to fight and combat sin, the world, the devil, and your own flesh. These enemies will never cease nor rest. By day and night they will call you to do the worst within and without, against God and man, in the First and Second Table, in order to lead you away from that reputation and Christ— because of whom you are righteous and whole before God— so that they might bring you into the kingdom of darkness and so that you might follow those things which pertain to the carnal man and the old Adam. (ODE, 142)

Therefore, by virtue of the fact that you are completely justified by the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, you are sent out to do battle against “sin, the worlds, the devil, and your own flesh,” to expel sin against God’s law in you more and more.

How does the law and its accusation fit into this scenario? Luther here restated that, insofar as we are completely justified by Christ’s righteousness, we are completely free from the law’s accusation. In Christ, we triumph over sin and the condemning law. However, in our concrete persons, we are not such because we are not free from sin yet, no matter how hard we strive to be such. Therefore, we are also not free from the law’s accusation insofar as we must still struggle against sin:

This is why the law needs to remain and to be sharpened carefully in the militant part, that is, insofar as we live and act here in the flesh and here among people. For as long as we live in this life we will never be so pure that the law will not find some blemish—indeed many of them!—in us. For from youth we are inclined to evil. Thus the law belongs to the militant, not the triumphant, part, that is, when justification and peace of conscience are treated, because here we are in the Lord, who is our bridegroom. (ODE, 146)

But had not Luther said before that the law is not to be imposed on the Christian? He answered this question as follows:

As you heard above, the Christian is a veritable Thomist Thomas or twin (cf. John 11:16), namely, a militant and a triumphant Christian. Insofar as he is triumphant, and dwells under the shadow of the wings of his Lord (cf. Psa. 36:7), as it is said (Psa. 32:1­2), “Blessed are those whose sins are covered and whom the Lord did not impute their sins” so far there is nothing about law. Here let Moses depart, let him go away to the ravens with his stuttering tongue, here I do not hear anything, neither heaven nor earth. … Insofar as the Christian is a Christian, leave him in peace and unconfused. For being accused and convicted, and being—or being regarded—righteous, cannot stand at the same time. Yet the Christian is righteous by faith in Christ. In himself, however, he still has inherent sin.

Here now I come to another area, which is widely different from that above, to the militant Christian, who still lives in the flesh, and I come to me and my person. Alas, how much wretchedness I see here! Here I, and you, insofar as we as such, would do all shameful acts in our power, if only they could be done secretly, without the knowledge of people. (ibid.)

Evidently, the distinction between triumphant and militant Christian is not the same as the more familiar one between saint and sinner in the Christian because the sinner in the Christian is not a militant Christian— in fact, he is no Christian at all! The key for understanding this unusual manner of speaking seems to lie in the expression Luther uses when he begins to talk about the militant Christian: “Here now … I come to me and my person.”

Therefore, while the triumphant Christian is indeed the one who is completely righteous in God’s judgment by faith, the militant Christian is the Christian as he concretely exists in his person and as he is both incipiently, but inadequately righteous in himself and still filled with “much wretchedness” that just waits for an opportunity to come to the fore unless vigorously combated by the new man in the Christian.

In other words, the concrete person of the Christian is here not described as totally sinful man before God, an expression which Luther can also use in the Antinomian disputations, but as a Christian, that is, as a believer who, while already justified and triumphant over all sin and condemnation before God for Christ’s sake, still battles his way forward on the path of progressive sanctification.

This means that Luther here conflates, without any confusion of faith and works in the article on justification, two related ways of describing the Christian as, on the one hand, totally righteous and totally sinful (totus iustus, totus peccator) and as, on the other hand, partly righteous and partly sinful (partim iustus, partim peccator). He does so in order to be able to express anthropologically what happens in the battle in us that is progressive sanctification. In other words, Thomas, the Christian twins in us, corresponds to the two kinds of Christian righteousness, the imputed and the formal one. Or, using different terminology, he corresponds to the forensic and effective justification or justification and sanctification. In all these different terminological expressions of the same truth, the former sustains the latter while the latter without the former is worthless.

The good works done by this believer, although inherently stained by original sin, are regarded by God as good and please him for Christ’s sake, while the actual sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake. These actual sins of the Christian will be venial sins, which, regardless of their inherent magnitude, are done against the renewed will of the Christian. They are ruled sins. Mortal sins, regardless of their inherent magnitude, are done with the full consent and pleasure of those who either never had or who have now lost Spirit, faith, and therefore also their renewed heart and are thus no (longer) Christians. These are ruling sins.

[A]s soon as these things take place, and as soon as this law or this carnal nature infected by the venom of Satan in Paradise rears its head and incites the poor Christian to lust, to greed, to despair, or to hatred of God, there, I say, the Christian stirs himself up and says, as if in wonder: “Look! And you are still here! Welcome, Mr. Sin. Where were you? Where did you spend your time so long? Are you still alive now? From where do you come to us? Away with you to the cross! It will absolutely not be so! I will protect my virgin and will do what is just, even against your will. And the more you torture me, even challenge and incite me to dishonor, lust, despair, the more I will laugh at you with a spirit that is both confident and strong! Trusting in the help of my Christ I will scorn you and crush your head (cf. Gen. 3:15). What do I have to do with you? I have another Lord in whose camp I am now a soldier. Here I will stay, here I will die.” This one is that glorious soldier and strong George who makes a great massacre in the army of the devil and wins gloriously, as Paul says (Rom. 8:37): “In all these things we overcome through Jesus Christ,” and he does not permit sin to devour in his flesh.

Indeed we, each in his age and situation, cannot but encounter a great number of sins and evil desires. But with God’s help, we will nevertheless not permit them to rule. I witness my flesh having a taste for the same things as the Turk, the pope, and the entire world, but don’t assent! Let him not allow the lice to build nests in the coat. Thus Paul has sin, but conquered and faint. The impious have living, ruling, triumphant sin. (ODE, 151-152)

In this life­long struggle and military service, the believer is not left to his own devices, but has been provided by God with the powerful weapons of the Holy Spirit, including prayer, as Luther points out a little later:

[T]here is now no youth, or adolescent, who is not moved more strongly than an old fool when he sees some beautiful girl, even if this pious man were to fight day and night. The impious, however, follows every lead, not thinking whether it is just or unjust. Christ fulfilled the law, but it needs to be added: “Later see to it that you lead a holy, pious, and irreproachable life, as it is fitting for a Christian. This is what you have heard so far: Be forgiven. But lest you complain that you are utterly forsaken, I will give you my Holy Spirit, who makes you a soldier; he will even produce mighty and unspeakable cries against sin in your heart, so that you thus finally do what you wish.” But am I not unable? “Pray that I may hear you, and I will make you able.” (ODE, 164)

Here the most appropriate petitions are taken from the Lord’s Prayer: Hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, and lead us not into temptation:

If you are a saint, why do you cry? Because I feel the sin clinging to me, and this is why I pray: “Hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come.” “O Lord, be merciful to me.” But you are a saint. But you are a saint? In this way, insofar as I am a Christian, because to that extent I am righteous, pious and belonging to Christ, but insofar as I look at me and my sin, I am wretched and a very great sinner. Thus, in Christ there is no sin, and in our flesh there is no peace and quiet, but perpetual battle as long as this old Adam and this corrupt nature last. They are destroyed only by death itself. (ODE, 153)

This dovetails nicely with what Luther wrote in at the beginning of the Third Chief Part of his Large Catechism (III.1­2):

We have heard what we are to do and believe. The best and most blessed life consists of these things. Now follows the third part, how we are to pray. Mankind is in such a situation that no one can keep the Ten Commandments perfectly, even though he has begun to believe. Besides, the devil, along with the world and our flesh, resists our efforts with all his power. Consequently nothing is so necessary as to call upon God incessantly and drum into his ears our prayer that he may give, preserve, and increase in us faith and obedience to the Ten Commandments and remove all that stands in our way and hinders us from fulfilling them.

So far Sonntag.

Be sure to read the full essay, and do consider buying his translation of the Antinomian Disputations! Much that may have been unclear to you about Luther’s own personal theology— and that which he inculcated in the theologians and pastors of the churches of the Augsburg Confession as a doctor of the Church— is made clear in this little book.