The popular, but flawed, interpretation of Luther’s “simul” doctrine

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(NB: I’ve been working on a more formal article on Martin Luther’s use of the phrase “simul iustus et peccator” for a few months now, so this topic has been on my mind a lot. Please bear with me; what follows is not my paper, but a loose abstract of my thesis and some of my findings.)


There is a very popular summary of “The Simul” going around consisting of a picture of a chalkboard with two outlines of a man (who looks kind of like Jesus, or maybe a homeless person). One side says, “Romans 7:21: 100% Sinner, sins all the time, Old Man, in Adam”; the other side says, “1 John 5:18: 100% Saint, does not sin, New Man, in Christ.” (See above)

This image is sort of clever, but before you share it around, you should know that Luther simply did not speak this way about “the simul.” His explication of the idea that the Christian is simul iustus et peccator appears most prominently in his glosses and scholia of Romans 4, Romans 7, Galatians 3, and Galatians 5. (Just as a point of note: the exact phrase “simul iustus et peccator” only comes up once, in his 1535 commentary on Galatians 3:6; there are some close derivations, e.g., “Ideo sum simul peccator et iustus“, but only about three appearances of these.)

The problem is this: the notion that the Old Man constitutes a second personal identity in the Christian is unclear at best and heterodox at worst. If it’s in Luther, I haven’t seen it, and even if it is, well, what would that prove? Luther often said things rhetorically that, if taken dogmatically lend themselves to faulty, even mischievous thinking. This is not a scandal. (If you read the rhetoric of the day, especially that of theological and political debates, everyone spoke in that way, but Luther’s quips seem to lend themselves especially well to the mischief of friend and foe alike.) But again, one is hard pressed to find such a gloss of Christian anthropology in Luther. Luther did not speak of the Old Man as a continuing alter-ego with a separate will and personal identity, as though the Christian is two persons overlaid in one being.

2006-09-12_11-20-23notes-from-underground-moviWhat is the “Old Man”? The “Old Man” is a metaphor for original sin/concupiscence— that’s it. “But what is the Old Man?” Dr. Luther asks in his Large Catechism (IV.66-67, Of Baptism), and answers thus: “It is what is born in us from Adam: anger, hate, envy, unchastity, stinginess, laziness, arrogance— yes, unbelief. The Old Man is infected with all vices, and has by nature nothing good in him.”

Metaphysically speaking, the Old Man’s relationship to human nature is that of an “accident”— a deep, pernicious, and ruinous accident, yes, but an accident nonetheless. “He” is not a separate “substance”; “he” is not a he. When we say “sinful nature”, what this means is that our human nature is corrupted, defective, not as it should be, etc. We don’t mean that we have a human nature, but we also have a separate sinful nature. Sin does not have a nature in the strictest sense of the term, because sin is not a creature, not a “thing”, i.e., it is not created.

Concupiscence infects us this whole life long, and if St. Paul is to be believed, it is indeed sin. However, it is not imputed to those who are in Christ. At the same time, it not only can but must be restrained in Christians by the power of Baptism so that they do not despise the gift of salvation and rest in a “false Epicurean delusion.” As Dr. Marquart reminds us, such restraining is not an automatic thing, but something that we must be diligent in practicing:

Sometimes we are told that sanctification is best left to itself, that conscious attempts to please God lead to hypocrisy, and if we just preach the Gospel, sanctification will happen automatically.

No. We are not automata, “dead machines”; we have a renewed will which ‘is not idle in the daily practice of repentance, but cooperates in all the works of the Holy Spirit that He accomplishes through us.’ If being branches in the True Vine (St. John 15) means that, like plants, we have no conscious intentions but simply produce fruit automatically, then the same applies to the Vine Himself! And that is as absurd as saying that since Christ is the Way and the Door, He is as indifferent as ways and doors are as to who is passing over or through them.

This pseudo-biblical argument is exactly parallel to that of the old antinomians, who argue that Christians will do the right things ‘without any teaching, admonition, exhortation, or prodding of the Law, just as in and of themselves the Sun, the Moon, and all the stars follow unimpeded the regular course God gave them once and for all’— so just as you don’t need to admonish the Sun and the stars, you don’t need to admonish us, either.

Nonsense! Clearly, the New Testament exhortations to love and good works require conscious effort, not unthinking, automatic compliance with inner instincts. Thus St. Paul begs the Roman Christians “by the mercies of God”— which he had expounded in the preceding eleven chapters— to present their bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, as their reasonable worship (Romans 12). And of himself he writes, “Forgetting what lies behind and straining”— straining!— “towards what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14). No automatism or somnambulism here!

Modern Lutherans seem to hate such statements, identifying them with “pietism”, but that’s simply not the case. If it is, then Lutherans have always been pietiests, because this sort of language is all over our Confessions, and it’s all over Luther, Chemnitz, Gerhard, Quenstedt, Calov, Walther, Pieper, etc.

In a recently translated portion of Luther’s Third Antinomian Disputation (soon to be published in the American Edition!), Dr. Luther poses an argument and then gives his answer to it:

Argument: The benefit of Christ— justification, vivification, liberation from the law— pertains to the entire person. Therefore this particularity is not to be posed, that we are partly righteous, partly unrighteous. I prove the consequence because we are totally righteous or totally sinners.

I [Luther] respond: By way of reputation, that is. For this is true that by way of divine reputation we are truly and totally righteous, even though sin is still there. For we ought to retain this synecdoche that, when someone was wounded and is already healed, then the entire man is called healed. We likewise say that the man is wounded, even though barely one limb is wounded. Thus, insofar as we look at ourselves and the first birth, we are also truly and totally sinners. But contrariwise, insofar as Christ is given for us, we are totally holy and righteous. Thus we are said to be at the very same time righteous and sinners in different respects. (trans. Rev’d Dr. Holger Sonntag)

Luther never dispenses with the nuanced distinction between partim/partim and totus/totus, and he strenuously maintains that the doctrine of “simul iustus et peccator” speaks of both these realities, not just the totus/totus. This is abundantly clear from statements of his such as the following:

For there is no such Christ that died for sinners who do not, after the forgiveness of sins, desist from sins and lead a new life. Thus [the antinomians] preach Christ nicely with Nestorian and Eutychian logic that Christ is and yet is not Christ. They may be fine Easter preachers, but they are very poor Pentecost preachers, for they do not preach de sanctificatione et vivificatione Spiritus Sancti, “about the sanctification by the Holy Spirit,” but solely about the redemption of Jesus Christ, although Christ (whom they extoll so highly, and rightly so) is Christ, that is, he has purchased redemption from sin and death so that the Holy Spirit might transform us out of the old Adam into new men— we die unto sin and live unto righteousness, beginning and growing here on earth and perfecting it beyond, as St. Paul teaches. Christ did not earn only gratia, ‘grace,’ for us, but also donum, ‘the gift of the Holy Spirit,’ so that we might have not only forgiveness of, but also cessation of, sin. Now he who does not abstain from sin, but persists in his evil life, must have a different Christ, that of the Antinomians; the real Christ is not there, even if all the angels would cry, ‘Christi! Christi!’ He must be damned with this, his new Christ… Our Antinomians fail to see that they are preaching Christ without and against the Holy Spirit because they propose to let the people continue in their old ways and still pronounce them saved. And yet logic, too, implies that a Christian should either have the Holy Spirit and lead a new life, or know that he has no Christ. (Blessed Martin Luther, On the Councils and the Church, LW 41:113-114)

Here Luther paraphrases St. Paul in Galatians 5:16, explicitly saying that Christians are “partly sinners and partly righteous”:

[It is as though Paul were saying:] “Moreover, when I say that you should walk by the Spirit and should not obey the flesh or gratify the desires of the flesh, I am not requiring of you that you strip off the flesh completely or kill it, but that you restrain it. God wants the world to endure until the Last Day. This cannot happen unless men are born and reared; and this, in turn, requires that the flesh continue, and consequently also that sin continue, since the flesh cannot be without sin. And so if we look at the flesh, we are sinners; if we look at the Spirit, we are righteous. We are partly sinners and partly righteous. Yet our righteousness is more abundant than our sin, because the holiness and the righteousness of Christ, our Propitiator, vastly surpasses the sin of the entire world. Consequently, the forgiveness of sins, which we have through Him, is so great, so abundant, and so infinite that it easily swallows up every sin, provided that we persevere in faith and hope toward Him.” (Lectures on Galatians, 1535; LW 27:69)

There are numerous others, but this is supposed to be a shorter article.

The existentialized rendering of “the simul”, in which the Christian is spoken of as being comprised of two persons, one a sinner, one a saint, is nowhere to be found in Luther. It’s a modern superimposition that has trickled down to us, and it should not simply be repeated and shared blithely and unquestioningly. For obvious reasons it fits hand-in-glove with neo-antinomianism of the sort promoted by the ELCA false teacher and “pastrix” Nadia Bolz-Weber and the ELCA theologian Timothy Wengert, whose heretical “bound conscience” teaching which paved the way for the ELCA’s affirmation and celebration of homosexuality. (On that note, I wonder how many are aware of this: on Wednesday, August 19, 2009, right after the ELCA voted to condone active homosexual clergy, a tornado touched down in Minneapolis and deftly ripped the cross and steeple off of the church where they were gathered in convention before ascending and dissipating. No, this is not a joke— that actually happened. I’m not a fan of John Piper, and I’m not one to try to spot the hand of God, but his take on the matter at the time was interesting, to say the least.)

When you get right down to it, the existentialistic denial of essence undermines the doctrine of creation, but that’s a topic that deserves its own proper treatment at another time. For now, I will simply say this: the popularized view of “the simul” relies on such a denial of essence, or at least a confused and uncareful way of speaking about it. You might think that existentialism is pretty cool, but you’ll have to look elsewhere for support for it: Luther and his contemporaries were thoroughly classical in their metaphysical convictions, and substance ontology is all over the Lutheran Confessions. From a Christian standpoint, philosophic existentialism is radically flawed, especially when one takes it to its logical conclusion in the rest of theology. Luther was by no means an “existentialist” (that’s anachronistic, anyway), nor was he a “nominalist”; the Lutheran Church is no more beholden to nominalism than it is to realism. Luther’s critiques of the nominalist Gabriel Biel are probably even more strident than his critiques of Thomas Aquinas, whose work he probably hadn’t read much of, anyway, partially because Aquinas wasn’t really considered to be much of an authority by Rome at that time. But I digress…

Wait, no I don’t…I’m done!

So that’s about all I have to say about that. For now.

wisdom-thinking-man

 

 

 

 

 

 

Appendix:

According to the Index to the American Edition of Luther’s Works (AE 55:297), the basic concept underlying the “the simul” (i.e., simul justus et peccator​) is exposited or alluded to in all of the following locations (see after my comments).

Luther used the exact phrase “simul iustus et peccator” only once: in his 1535 Lectures on Galatians (ch.3 v.6): “Thus a Christian man is righteous and a sinner at the same time (simul iustus et peccator), holy and profane, an enemy of God and a child of God. None of the sophists will admit this paradox, because they do not understand the true meaning of justification.” There is a note in the AE referring the reader also to 27:231, Luther’s 1519 Lectures on Galatians (ch.2, v.18):

A similar contradiction may be seen in Job, whom God, who cannot lie, pronounces a righteous and innocent man in the first chapter (Job 1:8). Yet later on Job confesses in various passages that he is a sinner, especially in the ninth and seventh chapters: ​'”Why dost Thou not take away my iniquity?​”​ (9:20; 7:21.) But Job must be speaking the truth, because if he were lying in the presence of God, then God would not pronounce him righteous. Accordingly, Job is both righteous and a sinner​ ​(simul iustus, simul peccator)​. Who will resolve these contradictory aspects? Or where are they in agreement? Obviously at the mercy seat, where the faces of the cherubim, which otherwise are opposed to one another, are in agreement.’

Other syntactically similar constructions appear earlier, in his 1515 Lectures on Romans, starting with his scholia on ch.4, v.7:

“God is wonderful in His saints (Psalm 68:35). To Him they are at the same time both righteous and unrighteous.

And God is wonderful in the hypocrites. To Him they are at the same time both unrighteous and righteous.

(“Mirabilis Deus in sanctis suis”, Cui simul sunt Iusti et Iniusti.

Et Mirabilis in hipocritis Deus, Cui simul sunt Iniusti et Iusti.)

For inasmuch as the saints are always aware of their sin and seek righteousness from God in accord with His mercy, for this very reason they are always also regarded as righteous by God. Thus in their own sight and in truth they are unrighteous, but before God they are righteous because He reckons them so because of their confession of sin. They are actually sinners, but they are righteous by the imputation of a merciful God. They are unknowingly righteous and knowingly unrighteous; they are sinners in fact but righteous in hope…​ ​Therefore, wonderful and sweet is the mercy of God, who at the same time considers us both as sinners and nonsinners. (Igitur Mirabilis et dulcissima misericordia Dei, Qui nos simul peccatores et non-peccatores habet.) Sin remains and at the same time it does not remain. Therefore, this psalm must be understood according to its title. On the other hand, His wrath is also wonderful and severe, for at the same time He regards the ungodly as both righteous and unrighteous. And at the same time He both takes away their sin and does not take it away.” (AE 25:259-260​; Lectures on Romans, 1515: ch.4, v. 7​)

​Later, in his gloss of ch.7, v.16-18:

v.16: ​Now if I do, with my flesh, what I do not want, in the spirit, namely, to lust, I agree that the Law is good. For I want the good in the same way as that which says, ​”​You shall not covet​”​ (Ex. 20:17). Therefore I am at the same time a sinner and a righteous man, for I do evil and I hate the evil which I do. ​(“Ideo simul sum peccator et Iustus, Quia facio malum et odio malum, quod facio.” (WA 56:70)​]​​ v.17​:​ So then it is no longer I, as a spiritual man in the Spirit, that do it, that is, lust, but sin, both the tinder of sin and concupiscence, which dwells within me, through my whole life. Blessed Ambrose, in his De sacramento regenerationis, says, ​”Sin works many things in us. Very often pleasures revive and rise again as from the grave, even when we are unwilling.​” v18. For I know, through the spirit and the experience of contending against sin, that nothing good, that is, purity or lack of concupiscence, dwells within me, as a carnal man, from which it follows, that is, in my flesh, in my outer man.​ (AE 25:63-65)​

​And in his scholia on ch.7​, v.18:

The sixth expression: For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. (v. 18). See how he attributes to himself flesh which is a part of him as if he himself were flesh. Thus he has said above: ​”​I am carnal​”​ (v. 14); and therefore he now confesses that he is not good but evil, because he does evil things. Because of his flesh he is carnal and wicked, for there is no good in him, and he does evil; because of the spirit he is spiritual and good, because he does good. Therefore we must note that the words ​”​I want​”​ and ​”​I hate​”​ refer to the spiritual man or to the spirit, but ​”​I do​”​ and ​”​I work​”​ refer to the carnal man or to the flesh. But because the same one complete man consists of flesh and spirit, therefore he attributes to the whole man both of these opposing qualities which come from the opposing parts of him. For in this way there comes about a communication of attributes, for one and the same man is spiritual and carnal, righteous and a sinner, good and evil.​ (Sic enim fit communio Ideomatum, Quod idem homo est spiritualis et carnalis, Iustus et peccator, Bonus et malus​.)​​ (AE 25:332-333)​

These are the strongest references to “the simul” that I am aware of. As you can see, it’s a lot more complex than its haphazard use as a slogan and hashtag would suggest. Oh, well— as my college mentor always used to say, “Why read something when you can quote it?”

​Without further ado, here is the list​:​

2:166, 168f, 171f, 204, 240

3:70, 259–261, 355

6:18, 57–59, 102, 172, 177, 181, 404, 7:28, 234f, 281

8:10, 259, 267f, 9:185, 10:123, 12:143, 186, 234–236, 262f, 319f, 325, 327f, 330, 344, 350, 357f, 376, 384

13:138, 271, 321, 393

14:141

16:179, 333

17:181,​ ​326f

18:263

19:4–6, 27f, 45, 47, 178

22:127, 140, 178f, 258f, 262, 270, 272, 304, 394

23:49, 107, 146, 235, 24:340, 344, 359

25:239, 247,​ ​258f, 262f, 268, 332f, 335f, 338, 453

26:108f, 133, 188, 230–232, 235, 260, 285, 376

27:21f, 40f, 54f, 68, 71, 73f, 78f, 82, 84, 86f, 96f, 109,​ ​227, 230–233, 237, 361, 365f, 372

30:17, 27, 40, 47, 68–71, 118f, 229f, 236, 269, 326, 31:214

32:19–29, 37f, 43f, 53, 84, 93, 151, 159f, 176,​ ​180f, 188f, 210f, 210, 254

34:152, 167, 181

35:xi, 31, 377

36:355

37:233, 365

44:37, 268

47:ix, 102

54:374

 

+VDMA

11 Comments

  1. I have afflicted others with this post. Thank you for writing it. This has been a topic of conversation, so it’s good to get more thoughts on it.

    God’s peace. †

  2. I don’t think it’s quite right to equate the Old Man with concupiscence. The “Old Man” does have personal and substantial identity. It’s the concupiscent Me. Old Man = Me in my flesh, New Man = Me in Christ.

    • Interesting. Luther seems to say it’s both, but that could just be metonymy/synecdoche. There’s an interesting variance in LC IV.67; here’s the Triglotta:

      But what is the old man? It is that which is born in us from Adam, angry, hateful, envious, unchaste, stingy, lazy, haughty, yea, unbelieving, infected with all vices, and having by nature nothing good in it. Now, when we are come into the kingdom of Christ, these things must daily decrease, that the longer we live we become more gentle, more patient, more meek, and ever withdraw more and more from unbelief, avarice, hatred, envy, haughtiness.

      Here’s the Reader’s Edition:

      But what is the Old Man? It is what is born in us from Adam: anger, hate, envy, unchastity, stinginess, laziness, arrogance— yes, unbelief. The Old Man is infected with all vices, and has by nature nothing good in him. Now, when we have come into Christ’s kingdom, these things must daily decrease. The longer we live the more we become gentle, patient, meek, and ever turn away from unbelief, greed, hatred, envy, and arrogance.

      The German might be revealing. Unfortunately, ich spreche keine Deutsch.

      • In both the German and the Latin, that’s a list of adjectives, not nouns. I don’t know why the Reader’s Edition translates it that way, but I don’t think it means to equate the Old Adam with those vices. It’s just giving the list of vices that characterize it.

        An interesting difference between the German and the Latin is that the former says the Old Man is angry, hateful, envious, etc. The latter says the Old Man is “THE FACT THAT WE are wrathful, harsh, envious, etc.”

  3. Would it be a diversion to consider a few other Scriptures in this mix? James (1:8) warns against becoming a “two-souled” man, and then admonishes those that have done so (4:8). In Psalm 103, which contains some fascinating anthropology, the palmist addresses his own soul. Who’s talking in vv 1-5, and who’s listening? These scriptures seem (to me, at least) pointedly relevant, and I’d hope their consideration might illuminate rather than obfuscate the matter you are exploring, Trent. I’m following along behind with keen interest to see where you ( and we) will end up.

    • Pastor Nus! So nice to have you comment here. So sorry that I have taken as long as I have to get back to this comment.

      Thank you for the suggestions; I had not thought of their relevance before, but you are right— they are indeed germane, or so it seems to me. And it is sheer nonsense that you are “following along behind”! I am the one who is following along behind faithful pastors such as yourself. Thanks again for commenting. Hope our paths cross again soon.

  4. simui justus et peecator
    SIMULTANEOUSLY JUST OR RIGHTEOUS AT THE SAME TIME SINNER
    Perhaps the formula that Luther used that is most famous and most telling at this point is his formula simul justus et peccator. And if any formula summarizes and captures the essence of the Reformation view, it is this little formula. Simul is the word from which we get the English word simultaneously. Or, it means ‘at the same time.’ Justus is the Latin word for just or righteous. And you all know what et is. Et the past tense of the verb ‘to eat.’ Have you et your dinner? No, you know that’s not what that means. You remember in the death scene of Caesar after he’s been stabbed by Brutus he says, “Et tu, Brute?” Then fall Caesar. And you too Brutus? It simply means and. Peccator means sinner.
    And so with this formula Luther was saying, in our justification we are one and the same time righteous or just, and sinners. Now if he would say that we are at the same time and in the same relationship just and sinners that would be a contradiction in terms. But that’s not what he was saying. He was saying from one perspective, in one sense, we are just. In another sense, from a different perspective, we are sinners; and how he defines that is simple. In and of ourselves, under the analysis of God’s scrutiny, we still have sin; we’re still sinners. But, by imputation and by faith in Jesus Christ, whose righteousness is now transferred to our account, then we are considered just or righteous. This is the very heart of the gospel.
    Will I be judged in order to get into heaven by my righteousness or by the righteousness of Christ? If I had to trust in my righteousness to get into heaven, I would completely and utterly despair of any possibility of ever being redeemed. But when we see that the righteousness that is ours by faith is the perfect righteousness of Christ, then we see how glorious is the good news of the gospel. The good news is simply this, I can be reconciled to God, I can be justified by God not on the basis of what I did, but on the basis of what’s been accomplished for me by Christ.
    But at the heart of the gospel is a double-imputation. My sin is imputed to Jesus. His righteousness is imputed to me. And in this two-fold transaction we see that God, Who does not negotiate sin, Who doesn’t compromise His own integrity with our salvation, but rather punishes sin fully and really after it has been imputed to Jesus, retains His own righteousness, and so He is both just and the justifier, as the apostle tells us here. So my sin goes to Jesus, His righteousness comes to me in the sight of God.

    • It doesn’t seem like you read this post. The Latin lesson is not necessary— I am, in fact, a Latin teacher by vocation. Moreover, if you read the post, you will see that no one else in the Lutheran family-fight to which it alludes needs you to translate the words for them, either.

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