I started wrestling with the idea of dual identity a few months back, having discovered ing Gerhard Forde’s A More Radical Gospel a section where Martin Luther describes simul et justus et peccator, which means simultaneously saint and sinner. Around that same time, the new NBC series Awake was coming out, and I began to see some parallels when I saw the show’s illustration of living in 2 realities at the same time. In the series, detective Britten is in a car crash along with his wife and son. After the crash Britten discovers that every time he goes to sleep he switches between two realities, one in which his wife died in the crash and one in which his son died. I’m still wrestling with this dual identity, and I’ve been reading the words and reflections of Christian “heroes” (or alternately, saints), and it seems like they’re firmly rooted in their identity as criminals. This place of honest reflection – understanding who we are, what we’re born with, and born into (i.e. sin) – is not easy, but I find comfort from those honest about their sin. We’re in bad company with those Christian criminals.
An astonishing example of this honest reflection is found in St. Augustine’s writings, especially as his thoughts on human goodness and willpower matured after his appointment as bishop. One biographer writes:
“Though initially optimistic about the ability of humans to behave morally, at the end of his life he is pessimistic, and thinks that original sin makes human moral behavior nearly impossible: if it were not for the rare appearance of an accidental and undeserved Grace of God, humans could not be moral.”
-Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, St. Augustine bio
Augustine’s initial perspective is hopeful in the human condition and our ability to not be criminals, but after having lived more in the world, he sees himself and others for what we truly are. He calls a thing what it is… we are all born criminals.
Martin Luther understood this fantastically, famous for claiming that “We are beggars. This is true.” Scribbled on a piece of scrap paper, these are reportedly the last words Luther would write before his death on February 18, 1546.
Similarly, St. Paul was the first to affirm his identity as criminal:
“The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.”
-1 Timothy 1:15
Being rooted in an identity as sinner forces us to a position of humility, killing all self-righteousness. This has been especially important as I’m going through Tim Keller’s DVD “A Reason for God” with a non-Christian friend and digging into some tough questions like “How Can You Say There Is Only One Way to God?”, and “What About Other Religions?” These are some gritty conversations. Maybe God doesn’t reveal all the answers to keep us in a place of need for Him. From the outside looking in that may seem controlling & oppressive but can be comforting to be sinners in the hands of a forgiving God.
Then we camped out on the idea of Law and conscience, the Law being the great leveler and common thread between all major religions, the Golden Rule. The major difference in Christianity, however, is that we are born criminals in desperate need of outside help; when we’re honest, our conscience reveals that to us. This is by far the scariest place to stand – knowing the Law before the intellectual and emotional revelation of grace. To know of your need for a Rescuer and not have to one, to stand accused without a Mediator or Advocate. It’s a hard thing to watch a friend suffer under the weight of the Law, but what an honor to kneel with them as a fellow beggar. To beg, plead, pray, and grab hold of the gifts of mercy, grace, and faith in the One and only Innocent Criminal (Jesus Christ) in all of history.