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 IV—The true knowledge of the distinction between the Law and the Gospel is not only a glorious light, affording the correct understanding of the entire Holy Scriptures, but without this knowledge Scripture is and remains a sealed book.”
Harvard’s Intro to Computer Science is a fast-paced course with the assignment to produce a program in a new computer language each week. Who thought something based on binary code, a combination of 0’s and 1’s, could be so complicated? Most weeks, I’d end up with a flashing screen or a calculator which claimed 3 x 4 was 7. I submitted my code regardless, foolishly hoping the grad student grading my assignment couldn’t do grade-school math.
I had all the zeal, pressure, and anxiety; but without the knowledge, all I could produce was programming that was as broken as my user error.
Spiritually speaking, Scripture teaches a total corruption of our deepest inner calculations: “The imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” (Genesis 8:21) This original sin is so ingrained that even plain Scriptural truth sent through the bare processor of the human mind can produce only incorrect output:
• That the Ten Commandments must be goals we can accomplish.
• That the Bible is a self-help user’s manual to a more successful life.
• That figures like Noah, Abraham, and David are examples we should try to follow.
The Apostle teaches that such faulty conclusions arise from user error: “They have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge,” based in the fundamental fallacy of “seeking to establish their own righteousness.” (Romans 10:2-3)
Yet our God, Who takes great responsibility for whatever He starts, addresses man’s evil imagination by reformatting it: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you.” (Ezekiel 36:26)
He does so through His Word: “The entrance of Your words gives light; It gives understanding to the simple.” (Psalm 119:130)
The power of this Word is founded on a binary structure, the 0’s and 1’s of Law and Gospel.
The Law shows us our sin. It reveals our inability to complete the assignment of righteousness we’ve been handed.
The Gospel shows us our Savior. It reveals the true completed project, the Savior Who fulfilled the Law we cannot, and offered His life on a cross as the passing grade in our place.
Through these two fundamentals, the Spirit realigns our hearts away from the fatal error that we can do it, to faith in everything Christ has done for us.
Without this proper work of God’s Law and God’s Gospel, we are left in the dark, but when the true light enters in, the Spirit reprograms our inner workings with repentance and faith. From this initial spark, the Scriptures as a whole come into focus:
• God presents Noah, Abraham, and David not as examples of personal righteousness, but of contrition and faith.
• No mere self-help guide, the Bible is the story of God doing everything to help us.
• The promise that God sent His Son to save us shines as the central theme throughout.
Knowing your Law from your Gospel is no Harvard course. God’s Spirit alone grants this correct understanding of His Word, the binary structure which brings clarity to everything He has to say.
If you ever find yourself with nothing but wrong answers—when life doesn’t seem to work—repeat it
again, “The Law shows me my sin . . . the Gospel shows
me my Savior,” and marvel how divine wisdom can be both so basic, yet at the same time, so advanced.
Timothy Daub is pastor of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Hecla, South Dakota.
[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]