Simul Justus et Peccator: A Reformation Day Meditation

By God’s grace I became a teacher this year. This past week, in one day, I taught on the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee to a 7th grade class, the book of Leviticus to my 9th grade class, and the doctrine of salvation (Soteriology) to my 11th grade class. I was yet again amazed at the thematic and doctrinal unity of the Bible, particularly in it’s presentation of the great doctrine of our salvation: we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone – the great truths we celebrate on Reformation day. 

 The particular focus of the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee is God’s disposition toward the contrasted attitudes of the two men in question. The Pharisee is proud, self-satisfied, and looks down upon the Tax Collector. The Tax Collector, by contrast, is humbled, contrite, and looking to God for mercy. Though the main point of the parable is tutelage in the humble disposition which pleases God, the actual climax of the parable is found in verse 14: “I tell you, this sinner, not the Pharisee, returned home justified before God. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

The word here translated justified is from the same root used by Paul in his extensive treatment of Justification in Romans 3 (dikaios). There the same word is used in answer to the question of how a sinful people can stand before a holy God. At one level of analysis we can say if Luke 18 provides an example of what true, justifying faith looks like through the humbled example of the Tax collector (Sola Fide), then Romans 3 answers the question of how a just and holy God has provided a way that unholy people can justly be reconciled to God. The answer is through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ (Sola Christus). 

The significance of Paul’s extended dialogue on Justification in Romans 1-5 is helpfully understood in light of the Old Testament context which undergirds and informs Paul’s entire Theology. In Genesis 3 humanity violates God’s righteous requirement and is cast away from His presence. In grace, God promises salvation through the offspring of the woman. To Abram, God focuses the peculiar line through whom this savior will come.

After allowing the offspring of Abraham to go into bondage, God redeems Israel in the Exodus. Through God’s dealings with Moses, the family of Israel is constituted as a national body. As such, he provides them with His law and also a Tabernacle for worship (the tent of meeting). The dramatic tension of the Exodus narrative is heightened when, after the construction of the tabernacle, “And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle” (Exodus 40:35). 

Though the children of Israel are God’s people, they are still unholy and sinful. God will not be approached by the impure. Who can dwell in God’s presence? Only the perfect (Psalm 15); and the mass of fallen humanity, the children of Israel included, were imperfect. The book of Leviticus, the center of the Pentateuch, comes as an answer to the problem of a sinful people dwelling with YHWH, the holy God. In other words, the same problem which Paul is dealing with in Romans 1-5 is the same problem that Moses is dealing with in the entire book of Leviticus. 

Both of their answers to the problem are the same and are helpfully encapsulated by the word atonement. The book of Leviticus is the center of the Penteteuch. And the day of atonement is the center of the book of Leviticus. And just as the Bible is one under God through Christ, so too the Theology of reconciliation and approach is one across both testaments. The manner in which a sinful and estranged humanity is reconciled to a holy God is through the sacrifice of atonement. What Leviticus foreshadows, Christ fulfills.

The goal of atonement is communion between formerly estranged parties (reconciliation). The manner in which this reconciliation is achieved is through a satisfactory sacrifice. The penalty of sin is death and so death is the equal sacrifice given in order to satisfy the claims of justice. The peculiar manner in which this sacrifice is to be understood is encapsulated by the word vicarious. The atonement is a vicarious, satisfactory, reconciliatory sacrifice. Vicarious means “as by substitute” or simply “substitutionary.” When the Hebrew worshiper laid his hand upon the animal he was identifying himself with the animal. When it was slaughtered, he was slaughtered. When its pleasing aroma ascended into the presence of God, he, vicariously, ascended into the presence of God (1), (2).

The Apostle Paul and the author of Hebrews pick up on this atonement theme throughout their writings in answering the question of how a sinful people can dwell in the presence of a holy God. How is it that we are accepted? How is it that we are justified? Their answer is through the once for all sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The goal of Christ’s sacrifice is our communion with God and His glory thereby. Meritoriously, the savior paid an absolutely equal and just satisfaction for His people. And by the power of God He did so as a vicarious substitute (2 Corinthians 5:21). In a real sense, I was united with Christ on the tree and by His wounds I have been healed. The author of Hebrews says that through His once for all sacrifice, the grounds of our acceptance before God has been achieved. What was foreshadowed in the Levitical sacrifices need no longer be performed because Christ, our redeemer, has purchased our redemption. This is what we mean when we confess the Reformation truth Solus Christus. Christ alone. 

The personal and pastoral ramifications of these great doctrines of faith alone, grace alone, and Christ alone cannot be overstated. Though Reformation day is certainly a day where we rejoice in being our freedom from Roman oppression this relief is superseded by the relief and joy we experience at having been freed from the terror of the wrath of God (Romans 5:1). In addition to this, we also rejoice at the full assurance of heaven upon death that we as Protestants confess in accordance with the clear teaching of Scripture. 

As I taught the eleventh graders the differences in the doctrine of salvation between Catholics and Protestants I was reminded of the great Protestant teaching of assurance of heaven upon death. Because Jesus has paid a perfectly equitable legal penalty for my sins, and because of the assurance that I have by God through the Gospel by faith, I can know, with certainty, that upon my death I will be with king Jesus in paradise. The beauty and glory of the Gospel, as well as a polemic against Roman Catholicism’s doctrine of purgatory, is contained in the assurance of pardon that the thief on the cross receives from Jesus in his final hour. 

After living a life of sin and iniquity, and after having formerly reviled Christ along with the other thief he was crucified with, God the Holy Spirit through the preaching of Jesus caused a sin-laden man to repent and believe in Jesus. You recall the man? In his final hour he was converted. And with a mustard seed of faith He pleaded with the Lord Jesus for forgiveness. He had no hope of salvation in his own personal work. His strength, knowledge, prestige, or person were brought to nothing on that cross; he had nothing in his hands to bring to God for acceptance. He simply looked upon the Saviour and said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” The Lord Jesus’s response to Him was simple yet paradoxical, “And he said to him, ‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.’”

The logic of Reformation Theology, indeed all of Calvinism, is contained in the exchange between Jesus and the thief on the cross. If the trait of empathy be of any use it is at this point in the narrative. The drama of the analogy between the thief on the cross and our natural condition in sin cannot be overstated. I am the thief. The Bible says that according to my natural condition apart from grace I am of sin alone. Spiritually I am like the man born blind. Spiritually I am the leper healed by Jesus. Spiritually I am dead and vile. Wicked, erring, unclean am I in Adam. And yet my Saviour looks upon my humble plea for salvation that He himself caused and proclaims back to me, “Justified. Accepted. Reconciled.” and through His work, the inheritance of heaven is mine. 

You see the beauty of the paradox don’t you? The same parched mouth which bore my sins even unto death proclaimed me justified. The same hands which were stretched out and pierced came to hold my outcast hand when I was undeserving. And the heart which was pierced was borne by the one whose soul proclaimed “Forgive them for they know not what they do.” While we were at our worst, Jesus gave us His best (Romans 5:8). And so I can say with Luther, simul justus et peccatores. I am at one time sinful and yet justified. I am justified by no work of my own but by simply receiving the Savior (Sola Fide). The righteousness I receive is on the basis of His finished work alone (Sola Christus). And the manner in which I receive that faith, indeed the totality of that finished work is by grace alone. It is because of this grace that I have full assurance that upon my death I will immediately enter into the fullness of heaven’s joy. I am assured, because it is finished and the price has been paid. Upon my death I will be with my Lord who bled and loved me. Indeed, all things are mine through Jesus Christ my Lord. This is the hope of the Gospel. This is why we celebrate Reformation day. 

Soli Deo Gloria,

Patrick Steckbeck

  1. Anything true and good in this section was received from Michael Morales in his book, “Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord.” I highly recommend the book. https://www.amazon.com/Who-Shall-Ascend-Mountain-Lord/dp/0830826386#:~:text=%22Who%20shall%20ascend%20the%20mountain,%2C%20indeed%2C%20of%20life%20itself.&text=Under%20the%20Mosaic%20covenant%2C%20the,temple%2C%20its%20priesthood%20and%20rituals.

2. It is hard to overstate the importance of “Vicariousness” in the Theology of the Bible. Though Theologians generally talk about vicariousness with reference to the atonement, the same phenomena undergirds all of Paul’s Theology of “Union with Christ.” In Scripture, the believer is placed into a spiritual union with the Lord Jesus such that we are made progressively more holy and are, in a real sense, seated with Him in the heavenly places (and much more!).