Simul Justus et Peccator – et Semper Penitens?

I have just started reading a little book by Andre Louf called “Tuning into Grace” (1992). In the first chapter he makes the obvious point that in Christ we meet not only God’s grace, but initially and very concretely God’s wrath (Matt 3:7, Rom 1:18 etc.). The point at which the experience of wrath becomes the experience of grace is the point of repentance, of conversion (Matt 3:2).

He goes on to speak of the way in which, throughout our life as baptised people of faith and in our daily encounter with Christ, we occupy a space between sin and grace. That place is the place of conversion, which must be a daily experience, and can never be “once and for all”. He cites one of the desert fathers who wept on his death bed because he had “only just begun” the journey of conversion.

Now, as a Lutheran in communion with the bishop of Rome, I live within two Christian traditions, and am forever seeking the points of contact and contrast between the two. I could not fail to recognise how close what Louf was saying was to what Luther himself proclaimed, especially in the spirituality of “simul justus et peccator” (at the same time both saint and sinner). While that spirituality describes a real experience for the Christian, it has always had the problem of never leading anywhere. Or rather, where it leads is to the old saying “Sin boldly, yet even more boldly believe in Christ.” It takes grace too much for granted. “As long as I have faith, I don’t need to fear my sin”, sort of thing. There is no advancement in holiness – in fact, since holiness is taken as a “given” attribute of the Christian, it isn’t even seen as something to which we are “called”.

I’m not saying that that is what Luther meant, but he has certainly been interpreted in that way, and that is how it often pans out in the lives of faithful Lutherans.

Now it is very interesting to read the passage from the Large Catechism of Dr Luther which my friend Fraser dug up recently in discussion with Pastor Paul McCain:

‘Meanwhile, however, while sanctification has begun and is growing daily, …we are only half pure and holy, so that the Holy Ghost has ever to continue His work in us through the Word, and daily to dispense forgiveness, until we attain to that life where there will be no more forgiveness, but only perfectly pure and holy people, full of godliness and righteousness, removed and free from sin, death, and all evil, in a new, immortal, and glorified body.’ (Creed, Third Article, 57-58)

That is a little different from the “total sinner/total saint” approach more common in Lutheranism. It suggests a journey, a goal, which takes place in this life even if it is only completed in the next. In the middle is what Luther calls the work of the Holy Ghost thorugh the word in dispensing forgiveness. That points to something he more clearly stated eleven years earlier in the very first of his 95 theses:

When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.

And that fits better with what Louf said.

So, to sum up: In our encounter with Christ as sinners we encounter the wrath of God (what Lutherans classically call “the Law”). He leads us to know and receive God’s forgiving grace (again, what Lutheran’s classically call “the Gospel”). However, what is so often missed out in Lutheran preaching and teaching (I mean in practice here; they would never deny it in theory) is Luther’s original emphasis (still evident in his Catechisms) of daily repentance and conversion. And I would assert that it is in this daily repentance and conversion that one actively answers the universal vocation to holiness of which our beloved John Paul II taught so much.

One last point, I wonder if this emphasis on simul justus et peccator without the corresponding emphasis on semper penitens might be behind the disappearance of the practice of private confession in the Lutheran churches? (See Fraser’s comments here).

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0 Responses to Simul Justus et Peccator – et Semper Penitens?

  1. William Weedon says:

    Your comments here reminded me of my Old Lutheran Quote for today. It was from Walther:

    Therefore, whoever has trusted in a Christ who would allow him to remain in his sins yet come into heaven without repentance, without conversion, without sanctification, and without self-denial needs to know that there is no such Christ. — C. F. W. Walther, *God Grant It!* p. 889

  2. Schütz says:

    Here’s a question for you, Bill.

    I am coming to understand that there are two things about the life of a sinner: one is sin itself – which Christ absolves and forgives in the penitent sinner, the other is the attachment to sin, which, often despite our best efforts and most earnest desires and most abundant grace from God, is much harder to shake off.

    “Repentance”, “Conversion”, and “Sanctification” – with the aid of God’s grace – are certainly the means by which such attachment is weakened and destroyed – and yes, “self-denial” (not “gratifying the desires of the flesh” as St Paul put it in Gal 5) is certainly the path toward such unattachment.

    But what of the poor bloke who, though penitent and fully forgiven in Christ at the time of his death, still dies with remnants of such “attachments” to sin?

    What does Walther’s Christ do with such a poor beggar?

  3. Joshua says:

    Thanks, David, for your post, which I have just referred to inter alia on my own blog. I think semper pænitens is a most thoroughly orthodox way of expressing the truth about our Christian lives.

  4. William Weedon says:


    The great Lover of Mankind will be granting His forgiveness at the end of the lives of His greatest saints, for there will always be more corruption in the saints than even they are aware of. The person who dies still “attached” to remnants of sin will suffer no harm provided his longing is for Christ to finally and fully set him free from all sin.

    About “semper penitens” – my goodness that sounds rather much like the first of the 95, no? “When our Lord Jesus Christ commanded men to repent He meant that our entire lives should be lives of repentance.”

  5. Schütz says:

    Well, that was the point of my blog, wasn’t it. I am rather fond of the 95 theses, especially that first one. They are more Catholic than many are aware of! The errors they oppose were generally recognised by the Church to be errors at the time of the Council of Trent.

    Still, I think there is a difference between forgiving guilt and cleansing of sin. I can be totally forgiven the guilt of my sin, and still stained by it. Purgatory, it seems to me, is concerned with the purging of those stains, those attachments – finally getting rid of the curse of concupiscence, if you like – than forgiving the guilt of sin.

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