A paradox, a paradox!
It sounds like double-talk, but it’s really profound truth-telling
The idea of ambiguity makes some people a little bit crazy. “Either it’s right or wrong. Either it’s true or false. Either it’s black or white. Don’t give me any of this ‘either-or,’ ‘both-and,’ ‘shades-of-gray’ stuff.”
It’s been argued that conservative churches thrive because their leaders dissolve the ambiguity and lay it all out, stark and plain, with no need for discussion or puzzlement. Conversely, mainline denominations — and Lutherans in particular — are saddled with constructs like ambiguity and paradox.
Martin Luther gets his due this month (remember, to be Lutheran means to celebrate Reformation Day, not Halloween, on October 31). And Luther liked the construct called paradox. The concept is this: two truths stand parallel, even though they sound like opposites and, therefore, seem contradictory.
Perhaps the most famous Lutheran paradox of all is the one summed up in a Latin phrase: simul justus et peccator (translation: simultaneously righteous and sinful). Martin Luther drew significantly on the Apostle Paul when doing theology (Lutherans, therefore, tend to be a “Pauline” church). On the basis of his reading of Paul, Luther came to the inconvenient but inescapable conclusion that we cannot describe our human condition, once Christ has entered our lives, as anything but — paradoxically — both righteous and sinful at the same time.
What does this mean for us?
It makes no sense to say that we will reach the land of perfection if we just “try harder.” (We may reach it in eternity, but don’t bet the farm on getting there before then.) Therefore, beware of false prophets who tell you that you can become pure or “a perfect Christian” if you just stay at it and work harder.
It also makes no sense to say there is no hope for improvement and that we might as well wallow in our sins. Christ has redeemed us. We are righteous for his sake and on account of his saving death. Sinful, we can still imitate Christ, however imperfectly.
A paradox. And, paradoxically, the truth.