Simultaneously Ungodly and Righteous

The gospel writer Luke recounts the time in Christ’s earthly ministry when he sat down for a great feast with a large company of tax collectors. The religious leaders, with great grumbling, asked Jesus’ disciples why he would be eating with sinners like tax collectors.

Aware of their complaining, Jesus responded, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31-32). Jesus’ response is shocking and provocative.

Let’s observe some of the sins that identify the sinners that God saves to understand the shock value that the Pharisees experienced. God saves adulterers, perverts, murderers, pedophiles, traitors who betray and sell out Christians (like tax collectors), witches, sorcerers, and homosexuals, but He does not save the honest person, the faithful spouse, the one who sacrifices his life to save another, the religious church member, or the loving parent because of their good efforts.

This is a shocking, almost revolting statement of Jesus, isn’t it? As Paul noted in 1 Corinthians 6:11, with regard to these sins, “Such were some of you.” God does not save good, upstanding people. God does not let self-righteous people into His holy kingdom because humanity’s best efforts are actually filthy rags to God (Isaiah 64:6).

As to the matter of entrance into God’s kingdom, all humanity is equally condemned. There is no scale for God’s acceptance. There is only the righteousness of God and the self-righteousness of the flesh, which is rubbish to God. All of it.

Then what value does honesty and faithfulness provide? Ecclesiastes observes that both the do-gooders and the evil-doers end up in the same place – the grave (9:2). So, as to the pragmatic end, there is no benefit. As to the horizonal perspective, there is a temporary benefit for our neighbors in that we show love by being honest, kind, and sacrificial. 

But, as to the vertical dimension, with regard to God, Philippians 3:7-9 reminds us that it is all rubbish.

So, how do we explain God’s salvation of sinners, if he doesn’t save the righteous? The reformers delineated this apparent paradox whereby God saves sinners by describing Christians as sinner-saints.

That is, those whom God saves are sinners (and continue to be sinners) while their legal status has changed through the imputed righteousness of Christ. That is, God declares the sinner simultaneously legally-righteous. Simultaneously is the operative word.

How can one be a sinner and saint, unrighteous and righteous at the same time without being accused of contradiction? Sinner and saint can be said of the same person according to two different perspectives or relations.

According to the flesh, on this side of heaven, the believer is in a spiritual union with the earthly man Adam and as such his condition is depraved, corrupt, and sinful before God. Yet, according to the Spirit, the believer is in the second Adam (Jesus Christ) and as such has been declared a new creation, legally righteous according to the just bar of heaven by virtue of his or her spiritual union with the Heavenly Man.

In this legal sense, the old has passed and the new has come. Certainly, the Spirit of Christ provides a sanctifying work within the believer by virtue of a heavenly principle, a regenerative life principle, conforming the believer to the image of Christ.

Yet, until glory, until heaven, the believer still has the principle of the flesh, the principle of hell, if you will, derived from Adam. Of course, this is not a dualistic tension or equal pull of two negative and positive principles, for as the apostle Paul teaches, the inner man is being renewed day by day while the outer-man is decaying or growing powerless (2 Corinthians 4:16).

The apostle Paul underlines this apparent antinomy in his letters to the Colossians and Ephesians. According to Colossians 3:5-10, Paul exhorts believers to, “Put to death what is earthly in you”, seeing that, “You have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its Creator.”

Furthermore, they are to, “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts” (verse 15), and “Let the word of Christ dwell in you” (verse 16). In other words, both realities are true according to different relations.

The old self (Adamic-self) has been put off with its practices and the new self (Christ-self) has been put on. Notice the past, definitive certainties: “have put.” Based on this certainty, Paul calls upon the members of the Colossian church to presently, “Put to death what is earthly in you,” because, “You have put off the old self,” and instead “let the peace of Christ” and the “Word of Christ” rule the heart. 

At surface level the exhortation seems contradictory: “Be doing what was already done.” Huh? The difference is the distinction between legal-positional and practical-present.

Martin Luther explained it this way:

Thus a Christian person is righteous and a sinner at the same time, holy and profane, an enemy of God and a child of God. None of the sophists will admit this paradox, because they do not understand the true meaning of justification. This was why they forced men to go on doing good works until they would not feel any sin at all. By this means they drove to the point of insanity many people who tried with all their might to become completely righteous in a formal sense but could not accomplish it. And innumerable persons even among the authors of this wicked dogma were driven into despair at the hour of death, which is what would have happened to me if Christ had not looked at me in mercy and liberated me from this error.

We, on the other hand, teach, and comfort an afflicted sinner this way: “Brother, it is impossible for you to become so righteous in this life that your body is as clear and spotless as the sun. You still have spots and wrinkles (Eph. 5:27), and yet you are holy.” But you say: “How can I be holy when I have sin and am aware of it?” “That you feel and acknowledge sin—this is good. Thank God, and do not despair. It is one step toward health when a sick man admits and confesses his disease.” “But how will I be liberated from sin?” “Run to Christ, the Physician, who heals the contrite of heart and saves sinners. Believe in Him. If you believe, you are righteous, because you attribute to God the glory of being almighty, merciful, truthful, etc. You justify and praise God. In short, you attribute divinity and everything to Him. And the sin that still remains in you is not imputed but is forgiven for the sake of Christ, in whom you believe and who is perfectly righteous in a formal sense. His righteousness is yours; your sin is His” (Martin Luther, Lectures on Galatians, Luther’s Works, volume 26, pp. 232-236).

The righteousness of God is always held in the hand of Christ for us. For this reason, the righteousness we have received is described as imputed righteousness, reckoned righteousness, or righteousness according to the declaration of God.

Since Christ has acted on behalf of believing sinners as the Righteous One, righteousness always and forever belongs to Christ and derivatively, by way of legal declaration, sinners are pronounced “saints” in Christ.

God has assured us by declaration (justification) and we thereby rest in His promise for the confidence of our righteous position, our legal identity even while we are yet sinners in our practice.

For this reason, the scriptures never speak of believers as Christians according to dual identities: “I am a Christian adulterer, “I am a Christian liar,” or “I am a Christian drunkard.”

No, our new legal identity is Christ alone, therefore we are identified as Christians, period. We can however speak according to this dual relationship: “I once identified myself as _________ (fill in the identity) characterized by the sin of ___________ (fill in the sin), but now I am a Christian, identified with the name of Christ and I, in practice, put off _________ (fill in act of disobedience) and put on _________ (fill in the act of obedience) out of thanksgiving for Christ’s identification with me.”

We can also say, “Now that I have put on Christ and have put off the old Adam (legally) through faith in Christ, yet as a sinner, I am growing in the practice of replacing my lies with truth, stealing with giving, immorality with faithfulness because I have been united legally to Christ and His name, as a saint.” The apostle Paul captures this beautiful simultaneity with the phrase, God “justifies the ungodly” (Romans 4:4).