By Paul Koch –
Everyone ought to know a few Latin phrases. Just have them stowed away in your memory bank to pull out at certain times to impress your friends and gain admiration. In fact, you don’t necessarily have to know what the Latin phrase means; just speak it as if you do, with the right tone and inflection. In whatever the situation, you will look witty and insightful. In fact, if you can conspire with a friend, you could learn complementary phrases so you can appear to hold conversations in Latin. This would simply blow everyone’s minds. However, there are a few Latin phrases that I think we should know. Not only should we commit them to memory but we need to know what they mean. They are the phrases that have been used again and again throughout the history of the church to guide and enlighten our understanding of the faith. Arguably first among the important Latin phrases is one coined by Luther himself, “Simul iustus et peccator.”
Simul iustus et peccator. It rolls beautifully of the tongue doesn’t it? Iustus means “righteous”, as in a holy person or a “saint.” Peccator means simply a “sinner.” The Simul at the beginning of the phrase is easy enough, it’s where we get our own English word “simultaneous” which means “at the same time.” So this great phrase confesses that we are at the same time saints and sinners. Or to better impress your friends, Simul iustus et peccator. Now, the temptation is to remove the Simul from the beginning of the phrase. To speak about Christians as being saints and sinners is commonplace; it’s not that shocking or revolutionary. Heck, I even had a beer once in a biker bar called “Saints and Sinners.” But to speak about us as being saints and sinners at the very same time, not moving from one to the other but being both simultaneously, that is something altogether different. It is the Simul that makes this phrase so crucial to our understanding of the faith.
This Sunday we set aside to reflect upon the baptism of our Lord. We recall the rending of the heavens and the decent of the Spirit upon our Lord as the Father declares His pleasure at His Son’s entrance into those waters. There He is to repent for sins that are not His own. There He stands ready to be the curse that we deserve so that we might be the righteousness that He rightly possesses. But how are these gifts, these incredible outpourings of grace, made ours today? How do the actions of God’s beloved Son become our blessing today? The answer is found in our Romans, where Paul directs us not to our Lord’s baptism but to our own baptism. We move from the Jordan River to the moment you were washed in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Notice how clear and bold Paul is in Romans 6. He says, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” Our baptism was no empty ritual. It was a burial, our burial, joining us to our Lord upon the cross. On that day when you were brought to the font, maybe you were just a baby and don’t remember or perhaps you came when you were older to these living waters. Whenever it was, at that moment, there in those waters, the judgment upon our sin was carried out in the body of our Lord Jesus Christ. The timeline shrank; you joined our Lord in His death, “in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”
Now to drive his point home concerning the amazing thing that has happened in the waters of our baptism, Paul speaks of the peculiar freedom that comes in death. After all, we already know that the wages of sin is death. Death comes to sinners. But if you have already died, why then, sin has lost its hold over you. By dying with Christ in the waters of Holy Baptism sin has been emptied of its great claim. So Paul says, “For one who has died has been set free from sin.” And if that isn’t enough, Paul reaches the climactic highpoint of his argument when he daringly proclaims, “So you also must consider yourself dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” Baptism has killed you and brought you back to life. It has drowned your sin and set you free.
And we hear that word. We hear the declaration that we are free, that we are not slaves to sin, that instead we live as the saints of God. But we wonder if that is really true. Is that really who we are? It makes sense that we wonder. After all, we don’t often look like saints. In fact, we look a whole awful lot like sinners. If we are free from sin, then someone needs to explain the realities that I see in the mirror, because that doesn’t look much like freedom from sin. Think of your own life. Think of the times that your thoughts have fixated on the very things that God has forbidden. How often have you gossiped even though you knew what you were doing? Or how many times have you lusted or coveted what was not yours? Are these not sins? Are these not the very sins for which Christ died on that cross? How can we speak of freedom when we find ourselves mired in them?
Perhaps our baptism didn’t take. Perhaps there was more that we needed to do to make it complete. Our sainthood seems to be shot full of holes and we act more often like sinners than anything else. We need to dig deeper then! We need to try harder! We need to resolve to be better Christians. Some will go so far as actually getting re-baptized. After all, the first one didn’t seem to work so let’s try it again. Others will just flat out chase down their own sin. They will pick a particular sin and bend their whole will to eradicate it from their life. We even cheer them on; for at least they have the courage to try and fix what is wrong. They work at it and work at it and work at it some more. And if they can’t quite figure it out, if they can’t remove the sin, the result is devastating.
I’ve met them, and I’m sure you have as well. I’ve met the ones who have worked so hard to free themselves from the sin that so easily entangles. In fact, I think we have all been there at one point or another. In order to justify our faith, in order to make sure of our salvation, we find that there is something we must fix and correct. When the solution isn’t found in the endeavors of our own hands, despair sets in. It’s a dark road when the sinner dominates our identity and we can’t see our way back to the saint we were declared to be. If we’ve placed our trust in solving that one small piece of the puzzle, the one we thought we could fix in ourselves, then all our assurance and hope hangs on that one little piece.
This is what happens when we lose the Simul. This nightmare of uncertainty is the reality of a confession that moves from sinner to saint back to sinner without any assurance of where you really are. But the life of God’s people in this age is found in the Simul. The Simul in Simuil iustus et peccator turns us again and again away from our own works. It turns us from our own blood, sweat, and tears to trust in the Words of another. It turns us to trust the blood, sweat, and tears of our Lord himself.
It is the promise of God that makes you a saint. It is the Word of God combined with the water of Baptism that buried you with Christ and declared you to be free from sin. You are free despite your efforts. You are redeemed this day outside of your works. You are forgiven and loved only and always because of our Lord’s gracious work. And so you live in the Simul: free from sin in Christ alone but plagued by sins threats each and every day as you stumble and fall. You are at the same time saint and sinner. That old evil foe will come, calling. But when he whispers into your ears and points out your sin and says, “Look at what you’ve done! You are guilty”, you can stand tall and declare, “Yes I see; what of it? For I have a promise from the Author of life itself! I have already died to those sins in His death and now I live each and every day in Him! He is my hope, my life, my assurance.”
Oh, a day will dawn when the sinner will be no more and we will see ourselves as the saints our Lord has declared us to be. But until that glorious day, you are Simul iustus et peccator. So you must consider yourself this very day to be dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.