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 V—The first manner of confounding Law and Gospel is the one most easily recognized—and the grossest. It is adopted, for instance, by Papists, Socinians, and Rationalists and consists in this, that Christ is represented as a new Moses, or Lawgiver, and the Gospel turned into a doctrine of meritorious works, while at the same time those who teach that the Gospel is the message of the free grace of God in Christ are condemned and anathematized, as is done by the papists.”
Perhaps the easiest way to understand Dr. Walther’s point in this thesis is to consider how the sacraments are understood throughout the various Christian denominations. In the Lutheran Church, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are looked to as ways Christ our Savior promised to “give, offer, and convey” to the sinner the forgiveness of sins which He died to obtain for us. In this view, the Sacraments are about what God is doing for us and for our salvation. In Baptism, the Holy Spirt buries the individual sinner with Christ and raises him to newness of life with Christ (see Romans 6). In the Lord’s Supper, God gives to the sinner the very thing by which Christ obtained forgiveness for us, which is His body—which was given to bear our sin and punishment, and His blood—which was shed on the cross to cleanse us from all sin. Thus, the sacraments are a true means of grace, giving to us that grace of God by which we are saved.
Outside of the Lutheran Church, there is no such understanding of the Sacraments. Instead, they are treated as works on our part, ranging from symbolic acts of obedience to Christ to works that we must perform to obtain some forgiveness for our sins. Though the latter version sounds much worse than the first, they are identical in nature. They both proceed from an understanding of Christ as a new Lawgiver, one Who came to tell us how to live rather than to give us life through the forgiveness of our sins. In both cases—and in every version of the Sacraments in between—Dr. Walther’s analysis rings true: “Anyone, therefore, imagining that Christ is a new Lawgiver and has brought us new laws cancels the entire Christian religion. For he removes that by which the Christian religion differs from all other religions in the world.” (p. 71)
What is that difference between the Christian religion and “all other religions”? In a word, grace. Salvation comes only as a free gift of love from God to the sinner. While it is true that, during His ministry, Christ taught the Law forcefully and sternly, He did so only in the desire that sinners might recognize their inability to meets its demands so that they would then take refuge in Him and the salvation He came to provide. He did not come to heap upon sinners more obligations in addition to the ones we already could not keep.
By contrast, the Holy Scriptures teach us that the Gospel is true grace and that salvation comes only by Christ’s work for us. On the cross, He purchased our redemption. Now, through the Gospel in Word and sacrament, He brings that redemption to us. The message of the Gospel is simple. In the words of Jesus to the paralytic, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” (Matthew 9:2 ESV)
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]