Simul justus et peccator
"Simul justus et peccator." This Latin phrase was used by the great reformer Martin Luther to describe the tension that exists in the lives of every believer. It translates to "simultaneously justifed and sinner;" and it means that Christians live in both a state of freedom from the just penalty of sin, yet also in a state of human brokenness that still often leads us to sin.
This reality can lead to all types of struggles and confusion in the lives of believers. When we find ourselves continuing to struggle with besetting sins, this often leads us to doubt the validity of our salvation. I think much of the confusion surrounding this issue is rooted in some bad teaching that has become engrained in Christian culture. The problems are rooted in our understanding of what our salvation accomplishes and how the Holy Spirit works in the lives of believers.
First, let's look at what our salvation accomplishes. Luther, in his famous phrase, refers to our justification. We've talked about this numerous times at The Journey, but justification is a legal term that refers to one being found not guilty by a judge. This verdict for sinful human beings is made possible through Christ's atoning work on the cross. Quite literally, Jesus bore the wrath and punishment from God for of our sins upon the cross. At the same time, he clothed us in his righteousness and sealed us within himself. This means that when God looks upon us in judgement, he doesn't see the filth of our sins, rather he sees the beauty and holiness of Christ that covers us. This is why Paul so often describes our new life in Christ as the putting off of the old and putting on of the new.
This doesn't mean that Jesus does the work of erasing our sins. Sin always needs to be dealt with. For God to effectively sweep them under the rug would make him an unjust judge. It also doesn't mean that Jesus somehow miraculously converted our sins from bad to good. Again, we need to understand that our sins were fully punished upon the cross. We just, through Christ's gracious work on our behalf, didn't have to pay the debt ourselves.
I think in Christian circles we have a tendency to view salvation in a number of ways that lead us to think and believe wrongly. Sometimes we view it as a get out of jail free card like in the game of Monopoly. But as we have already established, God, as the just judge, must punish sin. So, we are not simply "let off the hook" for our sins, rather our debt has been paid by another...Jesus.
Another way we often view salvation wrongly is to view it as some sort of ultimate goal for our lives. As if our greatest calling in this life is to achieve the award of salvation. A better understanding of salvation is as a starting point for life. If we understand scripture rightly, we know that without saving faith in Christ, we are spiritually dead. That means that when we are saved, we are given not just new life, but life in general. A Christian understanding of human life is that we proceed from the womb as stillborn children. You are not truly alive in the most important sense until you are made alive in Christ. That may seem like a gloomy way to look at things, but no one ever said the reality of sin wasn't dark and unpleasant.
Now this is all well and good, but if we concede that perhaps we may have a propensity for viewing salvation wrongly...how do we go about viewing it rightly? The answer to that question is not easily boiled down to one simple sentence, but I will do my best to distill it into something we can take away with us today.
I think we need to begin by shifting our mindset away from viewing salvation as something done to us, and rather viewing it as something done for us. If we stay with the analogy of crime and punishment, I think we can see what I mean here. If you committed a crime and were sentenced to a punishment (a fine, jailtime, execution, whatever it may be...), but someone volunteered to serve that punishment on your behalf, then, at least technically speaking, justice would still be served. In other words, the debt for the transgression would still be paid. Now, does that gracious work by another ultimately change the reality of what we did? I mean, if I stole from someone and someone else dealt with the punishment for my crime, in reality I'm still a thief right??? This is why we are, according to Luther, "simul justus et peccator."
However, there is a second aspect to our salvation that we can't overlook. Remember, prior to being saved, we are spiritually dead, but in Christ we are made alive. Dead people can't do things (unless you are living in an episode of the Walking Dead), but living people can. This is where the work of the Spirit enters into the equation. Through the power of the Spirit we are now able to really live. This means that we have the ability to choose to live in light of who we were truly created to be in fellowship with our Creator. But it doesn't mean that we don't have the ability to "play dead."
The opportunity that the believer has that the non-believer doesn't is that the believer can choose. A dead body will always be dead, it has no power to do anything. But a living body can make choices. Apart from Christ, we are all spiritually dead and we will continue to stay that way unless the Spirit works in our hearts and minds to bring us to life. Moreover, it is the work of the Spirit in us to not just grant us the ability to choose, but to change our desires to choose rightly. But this is a lifelong process and it doesn't look the same for every person.
Here's my point and how we can tie this back to this week's lesson from Hebrews and to offer us encouragement in our daily lives. As Christians, when we choose to return to sinning, we are like a wealthy man who would choose to sift through trash cans for something to eat. I can confidently say that if you asked someone who is suffering from intense poverty and forced to eat garbage or starve if they would prefer to have the wealth to eat fine foods, they would say yes every time. No one chooses to eat from the garbage...they do it out of necessity. But when we who have been set free from sin choose to sin, we are choosing the dine from the trash.
Why would we do that? Well, there are many reasons. For starters, it is easy and comfortable. After all, we have gotten good at surviving on the trash. The trash is all around us, but choosing to prepare a good and healthy meal takes some real effort. Ultimately though, it is a mindset change. This is what repentance is...a changing of direction. I think we mist often pursue the things that hurt us because deep down inside we don't believe we deserve the good that has been given to us...and rightly so, we don't! But when we fail to embrace the gracious gift we have been given, we are squandering the precious blood of Christ that purchased that gift for us. Let that sink in.
Jesus died to pay the debt for our sins. He has already accomplished his work on the cross. We have been set free from the penalty we rightly deserve and given a new life to live. What we choose to do with that opportunity is up to us. The encouragement of scripture is to make the most of every opportunity for our ultimate good and the glory of Christ, the giver of life.
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Part 24 - Don't Shrink Back
Questions discussed in this sermon:
1. How are we supposed to read these warnings as believers?
2. Do you "deliberately" sin?
3. How would this passage have encouraged his 1st century readers?
Next week's lesson: Hebrews 11