Note from CM: This is one of my favorite posts that I have written. The concept I discuss here is, in my view, a genuine key to Christian self-identity and practice. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to understand at a glance, so I hope you’ll take some time thinking about what I write here and that we can talk about what it signifies for our daily lives.
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I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.(Gal. 2:20, KJV)
You died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. (Col. 3:3, CEB)
On a Monday afternoon a few years ago, as I was waiting to board the bus to return home from Chicago, I walked across the street from the south side station to McDonalds. I had to go to the bathroom…bad.
This particular restaurant is not in the greatest neighborhood, and I noticed a sign on the wall that the bathroom was locked because of vandalism; one had to ask at the counter for someone to open the door. So I stood at the side of the counter and the young clerk looked rather disdainfully at me and said, “The restroom is for purchasing customers.” I said OK and waited. I was going to buy something, but a bodily need more urgent than thirst was demanding my attention.
I didn’t realize right away that she wanted me to buy something first before she would open the bathroom, so I stood there hoping she was just finishing up with her customer and then she would help me. She, however, interpreted my standing there as stubborn insistence that I wasn’t going to buy anything but was going to sneak in the bathroom when someone else entered. So she raised her voice at me and said it again: “Paying customers only!”
I got a little angry. I told her I really wasn’t interested in buying food and then taking it into the bathroom; that I was going to buy something but wanted to use the bathroom first. I might have muttered something unkind under my breath as well. She would have none of it. So I went to the counter and bought a Diet Coke. The girl said she would hold it for me until I came out.
There I was, a chaplain, a pastor. Inspirational black gospel music was playing in the restaurant. I had just spent the morning learning and discussing theology with my sainted professor and fellow divinity students. And I was on the verge of cussing out a young woman in public because she wouldn’t open the bathroom door for me.
I could have blamed it on the fact that I had been up since two a.m. with only a few fitful hours of sleep. I was tired and ready to go home. I was in a bit of a time crunch, fearing I might miss my bus. My bodily needs were screaming at me. I had my reasons.
Also, I think of myself as a fairly trustworthy person, and to be honest, it was insulting that she didn’t trust me. Of course I understood where I was and the kinds of people she had to deal with all day. I’m sure I didn’t appear all that impressive to her — in dungarees and ball cap, with scraggly beard and circles under my eyes. But her automatic dismissal and distrust awakened the dragon in me.
I had, at that moment and upon further consideration, yet another opportunity to reflect on what Jürgen Moltmann calls, “the notion of paradoxical identity,” his phrase for the famous theological dictum, “simul iustus et peccator” (at the same time righteous and a sinner).
But I think somewhat differently about that concept these days. I’ve come to understand it in eschatological terms.
Many people understand the sinner-saint duality as an ontological, psychological reality: part of me is a saint, part of me is a sinner; I am a mixture and no matter how hard I try, I will regularly fall short because I am, after all, never fully free from my sinful condition. However, I also have the seeds of sainthood in my spirit, and there is a godly part of me that wants to do and is capable of doing good.
In other words, I live a kind of Jekyll and Hyde existence — this is now my nature as a Christian.
However, there may be a better way of thinking about this. Let’s start with a quote from Wilfried Joest:
The simul is not the equilibrium of two mutually limiting partial aspects but the battleground of two mutually exclusive totalities. It is not the case that a no-longer entire sinner and a not-yet completely righteous one can be pasted together in a psychologically conceivable mixture; it is rather that real and complete righteousness stands over against real and total sin…The Christian is not half-free and half-bound, but slave and free at once, not half-saint, but sinner and saint at once, not half alive, but dead and alive at once, not mixture but gaping opposition of antitheses.
• quoted in Justification Is for Preaching
Joest goes on to point out — and I agree with him — that I am both a sinner and a saint is not so much a description of my inner constitution as it is a statement about my participation in both this age and in the age to come. It is a statement of eschatological realities.
Paul speaks of this age as the realm of sin, the flesh, the world. It is the domain that is “in Adam,” and under divine condemnation, for God has passed judgment on it. As a human being who has not yet been glorified, I live in this realm. I participate in the death-dealing thoughts, words, and actions that characterize this kingdom. As much as I might try to justify myself, the divine verdict always comes back: sinner. As long as I live in this transient reality, I live under this verdict. I am sinner.
On the other hand, in Christ, another verdict has been declared toward me. United to him by God’s grace through faith, I have a share in all that is his. Like Abraham who believed, faith has been reckoned to me as righteousness. The verdict of my standing before God as a member of his people at the final judgment has been declared in anticipation of that event: I am saint. “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6:11).
So, the eschatological reality is: I am both total sinner and total saint. 100% of each.
As long as I live in this age — in the flesh, in the world, beset by sin — I will never be not-sinner.
As long as I am in Christ — I will never be not-saint.
Both of these statements reflect the truth about me.
I think the verses quoted at the beginning of this post reflect this reality. In Galatians 2:20, the apostle expresses the simultaneous dualities of my life eloquently:
- I am crucified but nevertheless alive;
- I live, yet not I but Christ lives in me;
- I live my life in the flesh but I live by Christ’s faithfulness.
We also see this concisely stated in Colossians 3: I have died and my life is hidden with Christ in God. Paul goes on in that context to talk about those aspects of my life that “remain upon the earth.” Though he is using spatial imagery here, the framework is actually temporal — my life in the present age vs. my life in the age to come; my part in the old creation vs. my part in the new creation.
What then of sanctification? If we look at life from an eschatological perspective, then sanctification is not a matter of me becoming less and less a sinner and more and more a saint. God has already declared me both a total sinner and a total saint. I am not growing toward sainthood and leaving my sinful status behind.
Rather, it seems that we should track “progress” from the other direction.
Any ability I have to display the character of Christ, or to exhibit the virtues of faith, hope, and love, and any success I have in contributing to God’s mission in the world comes as I experience more and more of the in-breaking of God’s kingdom into this present age.
And this is where the realities of Church, Word and Sacrament, and the presence and power of the Holy Spirit come into play. God’s kingdom comes, and his will is done on earth as it is in heaven as he communicates more and more of his grace to his people through the means he has chosen. It is not our movement toward holiness that matters. It is God’s ongoing movement toward us that is decisive.
As Paul says, “The life I now live in the flesh [that is, in this present age] I live by the faithfulness of the Son of God.” And, “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh” (Gal. 5:16).
However, if you see me at McDonalds one day and I don’t impress you with my saintliness, I’ll have to confess that, much of the time, my life is “hidden with Christ in God.”