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A Most Difficult Christian Art


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 III—Rightly distinguishing the Law and the Gospel is the most difficult and highest art of Christians in general and of theologians in particular. It is taught only by the Holy Spirit in the school of experience.”

In introducing this thesis, Walther warns his audience (primarily seminary students) of conceit, thinking they know more than they do—perhaps akin to teenagers believing they know more than their parents. Upon first impression, we too may consider this thesis overstated. Is distinguishing Law and Gospel really that difficult? After all, weren’t these basic concepts mastered in catechism class? Walther rightly makes clear, however, that the more one knows, the more one grasps the vastness of one’s ignorance. It is not the defining of “Law” and “Gospel” that poses a challenge, but the application and use of these doctrines. Walther argues that only the Holy Spirit can teach these things, using the school of experience.

Walther cites two biblical examples—David and Peter—who, although both thoroughly familiar with the Law and the Gospel, yet had difficulty applying this knowledge to themselves after committing the grievous sins of adultery, murder, and betrayal. It is only after the work of the Holy Spirit that they could express a confidence in their forgiveness in Christ. Likewise, Martin Luther was plagued over the guilt of his sins and received comfort only after the Holy Spirit worked through the Gospel message. Luther writes, “O yes, we can readily make the distinction in words and preach about it [the Law and Gospel], but to put it to use and reduce it to practice, that is a high art and not easily attained.”

Satan strives to confuse believers by mingling Law and Gospel, especially as the hour of death draws near. He wants the dying to doubt their worthiness to enter heaven. He wants them to focus on the Law and its condemnation. Luther wrote, “In your tribulations you will become aware that the Gospel is a rare guest in men’s consciences, while the Law is their daily and familiar companion.” Luther acknowledged himself to be nothing but a feeble novice in applying Law and Gospel, and that without the Holy Spirit’s intervention his efforts would be fruitless.

Walther warns his students (and us) that those possessing the greatest knowledge are more easily tempted to self-reliance in applying these doctrines. He targets Chrysostom and Osiander, two well-known theologians, whose arrogance led them to destructive false teachings that confused Law and Gospel. Conversely, those preachers who humbly dwell in the Holy Spirit’s classroom, even if not as intellectually gifted, frequently become the best preachers. “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (II Timothy 2:15) Rightly dividing the word of truth means giving people God’s Word at the right time, in the right amount, using the right words. How can people possibly do that, either in the pulpit or in their personal ministries?

An experienced preacher will get to know his members and will share the Law and Gospel in a way that provokes them to say “I am convicted” and “I am forgiven” with every sermon. Walther credits Luther with mastering this. “Luther’s sermons are full of thunder and lightning, but these are speedily followed by the soft blowing of the Holy Spirit in the Gospel.” Walther also cautions his students to study carefully and prepare in such a way that every word from the pulpit is clear and not misleading. Pastors should explain difficult statements and flesh out the doctrines they present. In private counseling, these challenges may be even greater. Unlike God, humans cannot see into the heart and must rely on outward confessions and actions. Some are addicted to vices; others are self-righteous. They come with different personalities and dispositions, but are all in need of the appropriate Word and the Holy Spirit to bring success. Walther concludes Thesis III with this thought, “Not man, but God, makes theologians.”

Joe Lau is a professor at Immanuel Lutheran College in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.

[To read Walther’s The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel for free on-line, and to access related Bible class materials, go to]