Today’s bit of Latin lingo is often linked to Luther. Martin Luther often gets the credit for noticing the biblical teaching that each Christian is “at the same time just and a sinner” (simul iustus et peccator). Certainly he was not the last theologian to insist on this — countless others after him, both Lutheran and Reformed, have said the same. It cannot be labelled one of Luther’s idiosyncrasies.
To understand the meaning of this seemingly contradictory statement, one has to grasp the doctrine of justification in general, and the meaning of imputation in particular. Without those well in hand (or mind), human nature will invariably lead one to extreme views. Typically, because we overestimate our own condition even as Christians, the view will almost always be imbalanced towards the iustus side of things. So let’s review justification and imputation to avoid imbalances and extremes.
Justification is God’s declaration that a person is right with him on account of what Christ has done in his perfect life and death on the cross. It is a judicial declaration — which means that the Judge issues it from his bench. His declaration is more than acquittal and forgiveness, as wonderful as those are. More, the declaration includes positive righteousness. Because of Christ all our wrong-doing is pardoned, and also because of Christ, God’s requirement for perfect law-keeping in the present and future is fully met. Justification is a one-time event, not a process to be repeated — once justified, always justified. As a result of this one-time judicial declaration, the person justified is adopted into God’s family. We go from the courtroom to the family room. We no longer relate to God as a Judge, but as our heavenly Father.
So what is imputation and how does it fit into the doctrine of justification? Imputation is often described as crediting or accounting. Our English word “imputation” translates the Greek logizomai. You find that word used in the original of Romans 4:3, “Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness.” While the word logizomai is not used, the idea of imputation is also found in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” At the cross Jesus was made to be sin — though he was of himself innocent, he became the thing against which God has infinite wrath: sin. How did this happen? Through imputation. Our sin was imputed to him (credited) to such a degree that the Holy Spirit says he was “made to be sin.” And remember: all the while, in himself he was perfectly righteous. Now notice that there is a double-imputation in 2 Corinthians 5:21. All our sin was imputed to Christ, but his righteousness is imputed to us. I like to call this “the sweet swap.” God credited our sin to Jesus, and God credited Jesus’s righteousness to us. The righteousness of the Redeemer is imputed to us (credited) to such a degree that the Holy Spirit says we become what God loves, “the righteousness of God.” But just like the imputation of our sin didn’t change Jesus into a sinner in himself, so also the imputation of Christ’s righteousness doesn’t change us into perfectly righteous people in ourselves while we live on this earth.
Imputation is at the basis of our justification. We are justified, declared righteous, because our sin was imputed to Christ and he bore it for us at the cross as our substitute. We are declared righteous because all of his perfect obedience and righteousness is credited to us by God. In his eyes, it is as if we had lived the perfect God-pleasing life ourselves. The key words there are “as if.” Just as it was as if Christ was a sinner (when he was not), so it is also as if we ourselves had fulfilled all the righteous requirements of God’s law (when we haven’t and don’t).
Consequently, each Christian is both righteous and a sinner. Each Christian is righteous — this is our status before God. We have been declared just in his eyes and are now his beloved children. This status is precious and to be highly treasured. Yet it is presently a status which comes to us via imputation. As a result, the reality is that we continue to be sinners when it comes to our sanctification. Even as that “new creation” in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17 — right before the “sweet swap”!), we sin against our Father, and if you sin, you are a sinner. This is what righteous Paul acknowledges in 1 Timothy 1:15 when he says Christ “came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.” Notice the present tense there. At that moment, Paul was a justified sinner, not a condemned sinner, but a sinner just the same. So it is with all Christians.
Let me put it as simply as I can: Christians are both saints and sinners. We’re saints by virtue of the status declared in our justification (on the basis of imputation). We’re sinners because of the struggle that still exists in our sanctification. The former encourages us, the latter humbles us. Biblical, Reformed theology has always acknowledged this truth.
Ours is not an age renowned for thinking deeply about theology, or anything else for that matter. This is surely part of the reason some Christians object to simul iustus et peccator. While insisting that Christians are not “sinners” in any sense, they are (usually) inadvertently undermining imputation and the very basis of their justification. Not only that, they are also contradicting the clear testimony of Scripture regarding the real struggle with sin that Christians experience in this age (Romans 7:21-25 & Galatians 5:17). Do some research and you will discover that the origins of the denial of simul iustus et peccator in Protestantism are not with those orthodox in their theology. For example, it was the Pelagian and rabidly anti-Reformed revivalist Charles Finney who opined that this formula was an error which had “slain more souls, I fear, than all the universalism that ever cursed the world.” Finney viciously repudiated biblical imputation and justification, and so had a reason to hold this opinion.
A few years ago, after encountering the denial of this teaching in our Reformed churches, I wrote a series of articles for Clarion entitled “Are Christians Sinners or Not?” In that series, I looked at the biblical basis for simul iustus et peccator, how it’s expressed in our Reformed confessions, the importance of maintaining it, and the historical and theological background to denials of it. You can find that series of articles here.