WALTHER’S LAW AND GOSPEL
One of the hallmarks of the Lutheran Church is its proper understanding and application of the
Bible’s two main teachings—Law and Gospel. Dr. C.F.W. Walther’s seminal work, The Proper
Distinction Between Law and Gospel, is the basis for this two-year series. Note: page numbers given are accurate for the 1929 and 1986 editions of the book.
“Thesis II—Only he is an orthodox teacher who not only presents all the articles of faith in accordance with Scripture, but also rightly distinguishes from each other the Law and the Gospel.”
Anyone who stands in front of a Christian congregation or classroom should have two primary concerns on his mind: present the truths of God’s Word as God has revealed them to us in His Word, and apply them in such a way that keeps the Law and Gospel in their proper functions. It is a sad statement about the world in general and about Christendom specifically that such a statement must be made. The many denominations within Christianity are in existence because one or the other, and often both, of these principles is abandoned.
Concerning the first principle, God says pointedly, as Dr. Walther reminds us, “He who has My Word, let him speak My Word faithfully. What is the chaff to the wheat?” (Jeremiah 23:28) For this reason every preacher should be able to step out of the pulpit having confidently proclaimed God’s Word pure and unadulterated.
That alone, however, doesn’t guarantee that a preacher preaches rightly, as Dr. Walther also says, “Of the same building materials furnished two architects, one will construct a magnificent building, while the other, using the same materials, makes a botch of it.” (page 32) So it happens also in preaching that while no lie was spoken, the entire sermon was wrong. When this is the case it is because the preacher was not careful to rightly divide Law and Gospel, leaving his hearers themselves as confused as the sermon itself was concerning their salvation.
The Holy Spirit impresses upon pastors and preachers, “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15) Just as a doctor must prescribe medications that address the specific ailments of his patient, so also a preacher should be careful that those who are comfortable in their sin, remaining impenitent, should hear the Law with its full force; while those who are terrified in their consciences because of their sin should receive “the sweet voice of the Savior’s grace.” (page 33)
It should be remembered that both the Law and the Gospel are God’s Word and effectively accomplish in the hearts of sinners God’s intent. Quoting Luther, Walther points out that “the Law has its goal fixed beyond which it cannot go or accomplish anything, namely, until the point is reached where Christ comes in. It must terrify the impenitent with threats of the wrath and displeasure of God. Likewise the Gospel has its peculiar function and task, viz., to proclaim forgiveness of sin to sorrowing souls. These two may not be commingled, nor the one substituted for the other, without a falsification of doctrine.” (page 35)
Thus, it is necessary, in every sermon, that the preacher lead his hearers first to Mt. Sinai that they might tremble in the wilderness of their sin before the holy God, knowing for certain that God’s wrath is against them for the corruption of sin at work in them. Then, when all hope appears to be gone for the soul that sins, the preacher becomes the travel guide to Golgotha, where the judgment of God against our sin is carried out on His innocent Son. In Him alone is hope. In Him alone is salvation.
Frank Gantt is pastor of Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church in Loganville, Georgia.
[To read Walther’s The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel for free on-line, and to access related Bible class materials, go to www.ilc.edu/Walther]