Simil Justus et Peccator: Saints Are Still Sinners (Part 1)

Detail from Saint Peter Penitent, Gerard van Honthorst (1592 - 1656)

Christian biographies are a great means of edification and godliness. And yet, their benefits aren’t free from dangers. One danger that comes to mind is that of developing an unrealistic view of the Christian life. Often, Christian biographers maximize the virtues and minimize the faults of the saints. The picture they paint has too rosy a hue. We can partly understand this. Obviously, we want to view Christians in the best light. We want to give them the benefit of the doubt. We want to showcase their faithfulness to God. But we can come away with the idea that genuine Christians rarely, if ever, commit sin. This perspective begins to affect the way we view ourselves and one another.

Thankfully, the Bible doesn’t make that mistake. While it does extol the virtues of the saints, it also exposes their sins. Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and Peter were all great men of God. And their godly lives are worthy of imitation. However, the Bible doesn’t hesitate to present the other side of the story as well. Though it portrays these men as eminent saints, it also portrays them as sinners. Perhaps nowhere is this reality stated more concisely than in the last verse of Psalm 119, which reads,

I have gone astray like a lost sheep;
seek your servant,
for I do not forget your commandments (119:176 ESV1).

This little text of Scripture unfolds the experience of a genuine believer. Its message for us is simple yet profound. What it teaches is this: true saints are still real sinners. Or, as Martin Luther would phrase it, “The righteous man is simultaneously a sinner” (simul justus et peccator).

Why This Truth Is Important

Before I expound this truth, let me clarify my purpose. I’m not trying to furnish backslidden Christians with an excuse to continue in sin. Nor am I trying to foster a critical or cynical attitude towards other believers. Rather, my purpose for addressing this theme is two-fold:

First, I hope this message will encourage the believer who is striving to live a God-pleasing life. An unrealistic view of the Christian life is often at the root of defective character, defective worship and defective service to God. If we’re to live victorious life, we must bring our perspectives in line with the Scriptures. The Bible teaches that Christians still commit sin. That’s an undeniable reality. But if we don’t remember that fact and if we give in to the accusations of the devil, we’ll sink in despair and live in defeat.

Second, I hope this message will encourage believers to be more patient and gracious towards one another. A church is a community of believers. The more time we spend time together, the easier it becomes to notice one another’s faults and besetting sins. In such a context, a hyper-critical spirit can develop. Such a spirit will hinder the unity and growth of that church. Unwarranted disunity is something we should detest.

An Honest Confession: “I’ve gone astray like a lost sheep”

To open this up, we’ll look at the confession and the confessor.

The Confession

The Bible often uses the imagery of a stray sheep in order to depict an individual who has fallen into sin. Perhaps the most well known example is found in the famous 53rd chapter of Isaiah’s prophecy. The first part Isaiah 53:6 reads: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned–every one–to his own way.” We know the prophet is referring to sin because he continues: “and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” Going astray and turning to our own way are references to sinning. That’s what the Psalmist has in mind. When he says, “I have gone astray like a lost sheep,” he’s making an honest confession before God—not merely that he is a sinner in a general sense but that he has committed particular sins.

The Confessor

Many psalms begin with the author’s name; this one does not. However, a number of commentators believe David is the author of Psalm 119.2 Others believe the Psalm was written later and that Daniel may be the author.3 In any case, there are a number of things about the author of this confession of which we can be sure:

1. He has a fervent passion for God’s Word.

Oh how I love your law!
It is my meditation all the day (119:97).

How sweet are your words to my taste,
sweeter than honey (119:103)!

Therefore I love your commandments
above gold (119:127).

I rejoice at your word
like one who finds great spoil (119:162).

Charles Bridges is right when he says, “The prominent characteristic of the Psalm is a love for the Word of God.”4 Oh that we might have such a passion for God’s Word!

2. He has spiritual insight and maturity.

Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies,
for it is ever with me.
I have more understanding than all my teachers,
for your testimonies are my meditation.
I understand more than the aged,
for I keep your precepts (119:98-100).

This man was not a spiritual babe. He was well versed in the Scriptures and had a mature grasp of God’s Word.

3. He makes righteous resolutions.

I will delight in your statutes;
I will not forget your word (119:16).

The LORD is my portion;
I promise to keep your words (119:57).

I have sworn an oath and confirmed it,
to keep your righteous rules (119:106).

And he not only had good intentions; he carried out those intentions.

4. He has an obedient heart and a holy life.

I have stored up your word in my heart,
that I might not sin against you (119:11).

The wicked have laid a snare for me,
but I do not stray from your precepts (119:110).

I keep your precepts and testimonies,
for all my ways are before you (119:168).

The Psalmist had the testimony of an obedient life. But he did not keep God’s law in his own wisdom and strength. Rather …

5. He completely relies on God’s grace.

Teach me, O LORD, the way of your statutes;
and I will keep it to the end.
Give me understanding,
that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart.
Lead me in the path of your commandments,
for I delight in it.
Incline my heart to your testimonies,
and not to selfish gain!
Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things;
and give me life in your ways (119:33-37).

By way of summary, here we have a man who passionately loves God’s Word, who has a mature knowledge of God’s Word, who has resolved in his heart to keep God’s Word, who has to some degree carried out his resolutions, and who is a humble man that relies entirely on God’s grace. Can we ask for a better portrait of a godly believer?

Yet this godly man concludes his Psalm with a confession! In Judgment Day honesty he exclaims, “I have gone astray like a lost sheep.” The great saint is still a sinner! This is further brought out as we come to the second part of verse 176.

Notes

1 Scripture quotations are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

2 Here are some reasons: (1) David is the author of many other psalms; (2) David had a deep love for God’s written Word (Ps 19:7ff); (3) David viewed the Lord as his Shepherd who restores his soul to the paths of righteousness (Ps 23:1, 3). For these reasons, it’s possible that David authored these words.

3 Brian Borgman makes a case for this in his recently published An Exile’s Guide to Walking with God: Meditations on Psalm 119 (Free Grace Press, 2020).

4 An Exposition of Psalm 119 (Banner of Truth, 1987), xi–xii.

Bob Gonzales bio


Dr. Robert Gonzales (BA, MA, PhD, Bob Jones Univ.) has served as a pastor of four Reformed Baptist congregations and has been the Academic Dean and a professor of Reformed Baptist Seminary (Sacramento, CA) since 2005. He is the author of Where Sin Abounds: the Spread of Sin and the Curse in Genesis with Special Focus on the Patriarchal Narratives (Wipf & Stock, 2010) and has contributed to the Reformed Baptist Theological ReviewThe Founders Journal, and Westminster Theological Journal. He blogs at It is Written.

1671 reads
801 reads

Help keep SI’s server humming. A few bucks makes a difference.