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Simultaneously Saint & Sinner

It is a truism in Lutheran theology that the human psyche is complicated and the human will is divided. This is especially true when in comes to distinctions between law and gospel, obedience and disobedience, sanctification and justification, saints and sinners. That is because there is great ambivalence in the Christian struggle of discipleship. For instance, there is always the existential possibility that any action performed by a Christian can simultaneously be interpreted as disobedient and journeying away from God’s will or, on the other hand, as taking refuge in the grace of God. It is no wonder then that Christians may radically doubt at any point whether they have made any progress towards perfection in their lives. At such moments, the theological art of caring for souls must make a distinction between law and grace; an openness to condemn the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. In short, it must have the transforming power to cause a doubting soul and a penitent heart while, at the same time, lead the believer to experience the gift of forgiveness.

There is no easier or less complicated way to capture the full significance of the fact that in this life the Christian remains simul justus et peccator [simultaneously saint and sinner]. That formula must always be taken in two somewhat different ways; for God’s grace in Christ is both transforming power and declaration of pardon (Gilbert Meilaender, The Freedom of a Christian, p. 32)

The paradoxical situation of a deeply divided self that is simultaneously redeemed and damned is further complicated by the difficulty of distinguishing actions that follow Christ and those that do not. Clearly, there are some wrong steps in the journey of obedience but for the most part the situation is much greyer. In other words, life is beset less with questions of right and wrong than with deciding upon the undecidable—morally ambiguous decisions. Then again, on closer scrutiny, every decision has a radical impact on the thick web of cosmopolitan relations; e.g. what you consume, where you work, how you spend your free time. And due to the noetic effects of sin and/or structural evil, sometimes “sinning” is virtually impossible to avoid. As the saying goes, sometimes evil is necessary.

As Meilaender puts it, “at any moment we may experience ourselves as caught between the continuing hold of sin and our liberation in Christ” (p. 40). Meilaender’s ostensible solution is not to view this chronic grip of sin as the failure of a Christian. Rather, the only decision contrary to the path of discipleship is resting content in this stasis. He conceives of Lutheran theology in a dialectical framework which dispenses with linear notions of progress and growth in righteousness; eschatology over teleology (see here). In the end, justification and sanctification are not entirely safe without the other.