January 18, 2021

Luther on Sin and Grace

glass_down_south_2_closer.jpgThere are lots of Luther resources available from our sponsor, New Reformation Press.

I attended Southern Seminary in 1979, 1982-84, and 1986-87. I earned the M.Div and 36 hours of doctoral work. During that time, I studied with Dr. Timothy George in several classes. One J-term- I believe it was summer- I took Dr. George for “The Theology of Martin Luther.”

Up until that time, I had some notion of justification by faith alone, but it was not an existential grasp that grabbed ahold of ME, and made ME the recipient of grace and unassailable hope in Jesus. During Dr. George’s lecture on Luther and Justification, I had what I can only describe as a mystical experience. It was as if God were on one side of the universe and I was on the other. He was in heaven, and I was in hell. Then Christ himself, through his incarnation, overwhelmed and obliterated that chasm. God took me, from where and I what I was, and brought me into himself. There are, truly, no words for the experience. I realized that I and the universe were still as we always were, but at the same moment, God had come completely to me and there was no separation, no divide, no chasm. And all of this was because Christ, somehow, became both God AND the divide between us.

From that moment, it became completely clear to me how something can be both in the utter absence of God, yet also be completely in union with God. The good news was the good news of God, and what brought all of this into my reality was faith; trust in this God who, at every moment, refused to be separated by the great separation, but took the separation into himself in the person of his son.

It was the first existential inkling of light in my mind as to what it means for Jesus to be eternal, all-sufficient mediator.

Luther’s understanding of what it means to be a sinner and righteous, simultaneously, is at the heart of the Gospel for Michael Spencer.

Here is Luther from the Preface to his Lectures on Romans. (Far from his best stuff, by the way.)

“Since the saints are always conscious of their sin, and seek righteousness from God in accordance with his mercy, they are always reckoned as righteous by God (semper quoque iusti a deo reputantur). Thus in their own eyes, and as a matter of fact, they are unrighteous. But God reckons them as righteous on account of their confession of their sin. In fact, they are sinners; however, they are righteous by the reckoning of a merciful God (Re vera peccatores, sed reputatione miserentis Dei iusti). Without knowing it, they are righteous; knowing it, they are unrighteous. They are sinners in fact, but righteous in hope (peccatores in re, iusti autem in spe)…

It is like the case of a man who is ill, who trusts the doctor who promises him a certain recovery and in the meantime obeys the doctor’s instructions, abstaining from what has been forbidden to him, in the hope of the promised recovery (in spe promissae sanitatis), so that he does not do anything to hinder this promised recovery…Now this man who is ill, is he healthy? The fact is that he is a man who is both ill and healthy at the same time (immo aegrotus simul et sanus). As a matter of fact, he is ill; but he is healthy on account of the certain promise of the doctor, who he trusts and who reckons him as healthy already, because he is sure that he will cure him. Indeed he has already begun to cure him, and no longer regards him as having a terminal illness. In the same way, our Samaritan, Christ, has brought this ill man to the inn to be cared for, and has begun to cure him, having promised him the most certain cure leading to eternal life…Now is this man perfectly righteous? No. But he is at one and the same time a sinner and a righteous person (simul iustus et peccator). He is a sinner in fact, but a righteous person by the sure reckoning and promise of God that he will continue to deliver him from sin until he has completely cured him. And so he is totally healthy in hope, but a sinner in fact (sanus perfecte est in spe, in re autem peccator). He has the beginning of righteousness, and so always continues more and more to seek it, while realizing that he is always unrighteous.

Luther’s Sermons are generally available cheap, but you should start with Selected Writings of Luther in the one volume edition or the four volume edition.

Of course, selections of Luther are all over the net.


  1. Amen brother. Justification by grace alone through faith alone is a beautiful, comforting and transformative doctrine!

  2. Well done good and faithful servant.
    Your words went right to my heart, and I thank you for clarifying some of my own feelings through your use of the English language.
    Language is so important.
    It is one of the things that makes us human.
    Praise the Lord from whom all blessings flow.

  3. Amen! Now that’s a shepherd cut from Christ’s cloth.

    It was one level of Gospel for me to “get it” that He died FOR ME. An entirely new level that His righteousness itself was imputed to me and literally nothing is left TO BE DONE (to the chagrin of far too many deluded pastors today). The blessed double exchange, NOTHING like it when it hits.


  4. My problem (and this is entirely a personal, relational problem, but may be common to others) is that the vast array of seemingly equally-valid soteriological theories makes the physician analogy rather scary–how do I know if I am following the doctor’s instructions, or what (applied specificially to the obscenely wealthy world of middle-class Americana) those instructions look like?

    I think this was a central struggle for Luther, too. On the one hand, he insists vigorously on the importance of Christ’s justification, on the other hand he recognizes that faith without works is dead–faith in one’s cure is expressed by following the Divine Physicians orders, and therefore attaining his cure. I sometimes wonders if his compromise wasn’t centred around the Eucharist (hoc est corpus meum) as a physical, touchable locus of Christ’s unearned favor–something more immediate than the vain striving for indications of good works indicating faith.

  5. Much of your writing has sounded so very Lutheran to me…it’s no wonder. Great post, Michael.

  6. anon evang says


    Michael, I had the exact same experience when I was an undergraduate (at a secular college). I was a history major, and for “Reformation History” we read a lot of Luther.

    I remember reading his Commentary on Galatians. I had just received the Lord through a group of evangelicals preaching the gospel on campus. As I read Luther, it was indeed a mystical experience. Every word of his seemed to be shining with light. I was so aware of my sinful nature (having just started to overcome drug addictions), and of my own inability to heal myself. And I was daily experiencing what it was to be saved and freed. But Luther described it and explained it in a way that still fills me with joy when I reflect on that period of my life.

    I remember highlighting and underlining so much of the Commentary that those things became superfluous. Everything was underlined and highlighted. I was a bit crazy with love for the Lord, so I wrote “Amen!” lots of times in the margins. Then a friend of mine in the same class, who didn’t know that I had become a Christian, borrowed my copy. Now that was funny. She was a bit wide-eyed.

    No matter how many “deeper” things I’ve studied since then, concerning Biblical interpretations, Luther still trumps them all with his simultaneous depth and simplicity. I really owe the man, centuries after his existence. He helped me give myself to the Lord.

  7. Great stuff.

    ‘Course, now you’ll have all the Professional Lutheran Apologists on your back. 😉

    Good to see the reference in there to Christ being “our Samaritan”. Recognising that the Samaritan in the parable is Christ and we are the man dying by the roadside is a transformative perspective on the parable. As a Lutheran pastor once put it to me, “Jesus never tells a parable in which the hearer is invited to see himself as the good guy!”

    (For more on this interpretation of the parable, see this post on my blog, based on a sermon by that pastor.)

  8. I, and not for one, as evidenced by the other comments, had a similar experience of having ‘my light swith turned on’ during a Romans class. I realize that Faith comes to people in many different ways, but for me it was in the first chapter of Romans when Paul was just explaing who he was! At that moment (I believe) my baptism was complete.

    Luther called the book of James, “the epistle of straw”.

    Not because he didn’t see any value in it but because the central message of Grace alone, through Faith alone took a backseat to our efforts.

    Works are an outcome of Faith and not the other way around is something basic to the understanding of Luther.

    That’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it!

    Thanks for a wonderful post I.M.

  9. “Luther’s understanding of what it means to be a sinner and righteous, simultaneously, is at the heart of the Gospel for Michael Spencer.”

    Just out of curiosity, what is your view of Witherington’s (and many other scholar’s) critique of simul justus et peccator?

  10. Patrick Kyle says


    I will not presume to speak for Mr.Spencer, but from the research and reading I have done, these critiques usually take one or both of the following paths.

    1. They “de-fang the law, or water it down so it becomes doable. So failure to completely embody the Sermon on the Mount, is a matter of just”growing more in grace” The old “When Jesus said ‘Be Perfect..’ He didn’t mean REALLY perfect.” line that you hear. Or the sincere intent to live out the law makes up for our incomplete odedience.

    2. The believer hasn’t really “committed” enough. In Holiness groups this becomes “entire sanctification” as a second work of grace, completeing what was left undone at conversion. (See Wesley’s idea of Christian Perfection)

    If you take the words of Jesus at face value we are either simultaneously sinners and saints, or none of us is really Christian. Ask yourself the hard questions.

    Some criticize the sinner/saint view on the grounds of Romans 7 being Paul before he was a Christrian. The problem with this view is that Paul uses the same language to describe the life of the believer in Gal.5:17.

    What about the war going on in you right now concerning your pet sin, whatever it may be? You have three options;
    a.You are really simultaneously sinner and saint, and you go back and forth fighting yourself over your sin.
    b.You are really a “carnal Christian” and need to “re-dedicate” and truly mean it this time. (Note: This is a form of “simultaneously sinner and saint” too.)
    c. You are not really a Christian, and your repeated defeat at the hands of this sin is proof you were never converted.

    As for me and my house, we go for Romans 7 as indicative of the normal Christian life

  11. Hi Patrick Kyle,

    Thanks for taking the time to respond, I appreciate it. However, it seems that the criticisms about the concept understand the things that you’ve mentioned. Here is one of the things I was referring to:

    “Unfortunately simul justus et peccator is not good Pauline theology. It comes directly from Luther’s dependency on Augustine, and what can only be called a bad reading of Romans 7. Fortunately, many many scholars (including some Lutherans) are now making clear how false this theology is.

    It is simply not true that a person can both be in the bondage to sin and at the same time be set free from the rule of sin and death by the Holy Spirit. If you read carefully Romans 7.5-6 and Romans 8.1-2 the description of the Christian life there is clear. We were in such a condition prior to conversion, and we are not in that condition now.

    This is not to say that Christians do not have to wrestle with inclinations to give in to temptation. Paul describes the tug of war between the inclination to sin (called flesh) and the rule of the Spirit in the Christian life in Gal. 5.

    The point is that while sin remains, it no longer reigns in the Christian life. The Christian is not in bondage to sin, and willful conscious sin is not inevitable for a Christian.

    Indeed, Paul says in 1 Cor. 10 that no temptation has overcome us that is not commmon to humanity such that with the temptation God can provide a means of escape. This is certainly not a simul justus et peccator theology. It is a theology that says ‘greater is he who is in you, than the temptations that you face.’ If Jesus is Lord of your life, then sin is not. Period.”

  12. I love this post! It is well written and everyone’s comments are thought provoking. Justification by faith is a wonderfully facinating truth.

    The beauty of this post for me lies in the ‘mystery of faith’. Many refer to the eucharist or the trinity as mysteries but for me the big one is faith.

    Was exactly is faith?
    As best as I can understand it faith is a coin with two sides: believing on one side + doing on the other. One cannot only posess one and claim to be living by faith. We must posess both. The two in fact are inseperable. As James points out, it was not enough for Abraham to simply believe what God was telling him was truth, he had to do what God said. The statement that really makes me scratch my head is when James says that we are justified by what we do and not by believing alone (James 2:24).

    Steve, this would be the only point I would disagree with you on. You stated that works are the outcome of faith. I would suggest that works (combined with belief) are faith itself, not the fruit (or the outworking) of faith.

    Thus the ‘mystery’ factor comes in to play here for me. If faith is Believing + Doing, then God is giving us His gift of salvation by breathing His grace in us simultaneously through both believing and doing.

    I would love everyone’s thoughts on this as I do not claim to be an expert on Luther.

  13. Patrick Kyle says

    Part of the above quote says

    “The point is that while sin remains, it no longer reigns in the Christian life.”

    So if sin nremains how are we not simultaneously saint and sinner? Our theology affirms that sin no longer reigns. It is a mischaracterization of our position to say that because we affirm simul justus et peccator we deny that sin no longer reigns.

    Secondly, this explanation embraces the point I originally made.

    “and willful conscious sin is not inevitable for a Christian.”

    The Biblical concept of sin is wider than what we willfully or knowingly participate in. We can commit sin unwillingly and with ignorance. To say otherwise would make something a sin or not based on our relation to it and not on God’s decree.

    Again, I ask, do you know any Christians who commit absolutely no sin at all?

    Lastly I disagree with the above quote in their assesment of Romans 7. I think theirs is the faulty interpretation. There is plenty of scholarship out there if you care to look. The denial of our continuing sinfulness is one of the main contributors to people walking way from the faith. This kind of theology doesn’t allow us to tell the truth about the Christian life and places impossible demands and unrealistic expectations on believers. Check out this chilling article about ministers who become atheists.


    Make no mistake, a theology that denies our continuing sinfulness and the battle that entails, contribute to stuff like this.

  14. The biggest Luther fan I know (Mike Reeves) has just launched this: http://theologynetwork.org which features some good stuff on Luther, amongst other stuff.

    Luther’s Galatians is so refreshing.

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