Simul Iustus et Peccator: Should it Divide Us?

(This is Neil) A few days ago, while marking the signing of the Catholic-Lutheran Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification in 1999, the Pope said, “This anniversary… is an occasion to recall the truth about man’s justification, testified together, to come together in ecumenical celebrations and to reflect further on this and other topics that are the object of the ecumenical dialogue.” Well, then, let’s do just that. (This post can be read together with my short post about the unlikely possibility of a supposed “fundamental difference” between Catholics and Lutherans.)

In this post, I’d like to discuss a helpful article, written by Vitalis Mshanga, that asks whether the Lutheran teaching that the justified person is simultaneously righteous and a sinner (simul iustus et peccator) should be church dividing. The article, in the current Australian E-Journal of Theology, can be found here [PDF].

Luther claimed that the theological origin of the claim that the believer is both righteous and a sinner was Augustine. For Augustine, the root of all sins is found in concupiscence, which he says is “perversity and lack of order, that is, turning away from the Creator who is more excellent, and a turning to creatures which are inferior to him.” Through baptism, we are cleansed from original sin, but concupiscence remains, not being in itself a sin. For Luther, sin does remain after baptism, even if its power and much of its substance are taken away – it is a “ruled sin.” This difference about baptism and sin, as we will see, will prove to be significant.

The point of the simul, for Luther, is that we are still in need of daily forgiveness. We are righteous, but still the old Adam. Luther compares the situation of the justified to a man who is sick, but has been promised a cure from his doctor, and is living as though he will soon be recovered.  “He is sick in fact but he is well because of the sure promise of the doctor, whom he trusts and who has reckoned him as already cured, because he is sure that he will cure him.” Here Mshanga points us to Ted Dorman’s claim that the early Luther saw saving faith as looking backward to Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross for our sins, but also looking forward to a more complete future healing – “the forward look of banking one’s hope on God’s promises of ultimate deliverance from the presence of sin (full health!), as well as the penalty of sin.” Thus, we live “in fact,” but also “in hope.” We are now only partly righteous, “in heaven” with Christ, and partly still in the flesh.

But we can make sense of the simul another way. Mshanga also introduces a distinction between “substance ontology” and “relational ontology.” “Substance ontology” sees the identity of a being in terms of its own properties. As you might expect, “relational ontology” sees the identity of a being in terms of its relationship with one or more other beings. In terms of “substance ontology” – that is, in terms of just himself or herself, the believer is a sinner. But, when defined in terms of his or her relationship to Christ, the believer is “righteous.” Thus, as Luther says, the believer is righteous “through the forgiveness of sins, that is, though the judgment of God who accepts him as righteous for Christ’s sake,” but he is a sinner “in himself, that is, as he now exists as a human being.” Thus, we are now both totally righteous and totally sinners.

So, we can see that, even if we ultimately feel that we can’t fully embrace Luther’s teaching, we can grasp it. It is intelligible.

What has happened in ecumenical discussions? Both Catholics and Lutherans have agreed that justification is God’s work and is not a legal fiction: God forgives sins and make us righteous. But remember the difference between Augustine and Luther. Catholics want to say that in baptism, all sin, all the effects of sin, and all guilt are cleansed from us. Only concupiscence remains, and because of this we must ask for forgiveness. Catholics do not want to call concupiscence sin – the Council of Trent’s Decree on Justification: “This concupiscence, which the apostle sometimes calls sin, the holy Synod declares that the Catholic Church has never understood it to be called sin ….” For Catholics, one does not have to consent to concupiscence; concupiscence is merely “incentive” to sin. But Lutherans want to call it sin, even if it is a peccatum regnatum, or a weak sin that can be “ruled over” (see here.)

The Joint Declaration did not come to a consensus about whether concupiscence is sin or merely an inclination to sin, although it was agreed that:

[The justified] are continuously exposed to the power of sin still pressing its attacks (cf. Rom 6:12-14) and are not exempt from a lifelong struggle against the contradiction to God within the selfish desires of the old Adam (cf. Gal 5:16; Rom 7:7-10). The justified also must ask God daily for forgiveness as in the Lord’s Prayer (Mt. 6:12; 1 Jn 1:9), are ever again called to conversion and penance, and are ever again granted forgiveness.

So, regarding the simul itself, are we at an impasse?

Not necessarily. First, we can ask whether the Lutheran and Catholic conceptions are really so far apart. Theodor Schneider and Gunther Wenz have asked, “[H]ow great is the difference between a conception in which the concupiscence present in the baptized is really sin, but does not separate one from Christ, so long as one does not let sin rule, and a conception in which concupiscence, because it does not separate the baptized from Christ, is only a tendency to sin and only becomes sin, i.e., only separates from Christ, when one consents to it?” If the views are relatively close, should Catholic and Lutherans regard one another as meriting condemnation based on their differences on the simul?

Well, it should be noted here that the official “Response of the Catholic Church” to the Joint Declaration claimed that the two conceptions were far apart – that the formula “at the same time righteous and sinner” was “not acceptable” because it “does not in fact seem compatible with the renewal and sanctification of the interior of man of which the council of Trent speaks.” Thus, the official “Response” claimed that it was very hard to see how the doctrine of simul iustus et peccator was “not touched by the anathemas of the Tridentine decree on original sin and justification.” (See the “Official Response” here [PDF].)

Given that any perceived similarity between the Lutheran and Catholic conception has not impressed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith or the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, are we at an impasse?

Again, not necessarily. The Catholic Church does teach a certain simul. In Lumen Gentium, the fathers of the Second Vatican Council maintained that the Church “containing sinners in its own bosom, is at one and the same time (simul) holy and always in need of purification and it pursues unceasingly penance and renewal.” In Unitatis Redintegratio, the Council fathers said, “this people of God, though still in its members liable to sin, is ever growing in Christ during its pilgrimage on earth, and is guided by God’s gentle wisdom, according to His hidden designs, until it shall happily arrive at the fullness of eternal glory in the heavenly Jerusalem.” Thus, as Mshanga writes, it is presented as a clear fact that “after baptism, believers continue to sin.” The church is a church of sinners to the point where Pope John Paul II could even speak of “the Church, living, holy, and sinful” at a prayer vigil.

Thus, Catholic and Lutherans agree that the justified are forgiven, renewed, and sanctified; that there is a propensity to sin in the justified; and the justified must struggle with this propensity through life. Lutherans claim that human beings are always sinful. Catholics claim that human beings (save for Mary) are potential sinners, although this potential has apparently always been actualized. Thus, in reality, Lutherans and Catholics agree that all believers are sinners.

The question, then, is whether disagreement about concupiscence should be regarded as a stumbling block to church unity? Or can this disagreement be seen as a mere matter of theological opinion? (I don’t see that it has to be church-dividing.)

What do you think?

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Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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5 Responses to Simul Iustus et Peccator: Should it Divide Us?

  1. Liam says:

    I would suggest that the Catholic understanding may have somewhat more of an eschatological dimension than the Lutheran understanding: the idea of baptism as a participation in the new creation – the emphasis on baptism’s tie to the Paschal Mystery, a mystery that marks the commencement of that new creation. From that perspective, the potential that one might freely choose not to sin is important, not a minor detail.

  2. Henry Karlson says:


    I am out of town right now, and so only looking at things quickly. I need to look at your post later when I get back home (Tuesday or Weds). One thing I would say is if you have not read it, read Balthasar’s book on Barth. It is, imo, a good source for Catholics looking to these issues (you also get Balthasar talking about Luther elsewhere, like in the Theo Drama)

  3. Neil says:

    Dear Liam and Henry,

    Thank you for writing – I am sorry about my delay in responding (I have a terrible cough). I read Balthasar on Barth several years ago, and will look again to see specifically what he says about Luther.

    Regarding Liam’s point about “baptism as a participation in the new creation,” I do think that it probably is a good critique of the view that sees us as (partly) sinners “in fact” and (partly) righteous “in hope.” After all, that view of the simul seems to separate the present from a future that we can only confidently expect.

    But, I’m not sure that it is as good of a critique of views of the simul that stress the difference between a relational and a substantial ontology. The Lutheran could response that baptism definitely is a participation in the new creation insofar as we are united with Christ. But, insofar as we can still always regard ourselves in isolation, we are still potentially sinners.

    The question, too, is whether the Catholic insistence that “one might freely choose not to sin” is significant, but not dogmatic.

    Thanks again.


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  5. Ann says:

    I think this is where the non denominational have an edge. Even if someone is baptized as an infant the Holy Spirit comes calling at some point. Sin is a good indicator of where someone’s faith is. Grave sin really shows one’s faith. Grave sin for me showed that I truly did not believe upon Jesus Christ -I was a hypocrite. Until one is born again of the Spirit (and of water which is secondary) I think it is like talking to a stone. A conversion – which I’ve seen children have- in my bedroom happened through not only the confession of sin but the epiphany that I had tried to be God. My conversion was a two year fight with God though I didn’t see it that way until I was born again of the Spirit. Catholicism makes the best theological sense and I respect it’s legacy. However nothing will make sense until one converts to Christ. I remember trying to read the Bible before I was converted and it was just words like a puzzle but after I came to Christ the Bible was as though it were a letter written to me – even King James was totally understandable with some study. I have heard many of the same testimonies. Perhaps this is what happened to Luther though his theology was very crude in the way he expressed it (I totally disagree that after conversion the old man is still the controller). The natural man cannot understand. After conversion is where we are in need of true theology. I am attracted to Catholic theology but I get a different reaction when I walk into a Catholic Mass. I feel confusion. The only thing that makes sense to me is the miraculous Eucharist – Jesus- but I don’t get the impression people really believe He is there. Lack of modesty being one, chatter, hidden tabernacle, trying to keep up with the Jones’s ie Calvary Chapel. I sense the whole beauty of the Catholic faith when I go to Adoration and occasionally play the Latin Mass from a French monastery on my iphone while walking in the evening which is transporting. But becoming Catholic at this point in it’s history is scary to me.

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