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 VI–The Word of God is not rightly divided when the Law is not preached in its full sternness and the Gospel not in its full sweetness, when, on the contrary, Gospel elements are mingled with the Law and Law elements with the Gospel.”
When you were young, did you ever have a parent or teacher tell you to “just do your best” and everything would be fine? You were probably told that because they wanted you not to worry about the result, but rather to put in your best effort. No doubt that is appropriate advice at times. In this lecture of Walther’s, however, he warns against such advice when it has spiritual application. The problem is that “our best” is incapable of meeting God’s perfect standards. Everything will NOT be fine when we come up short. It is the purpose of the Law to show us that.
If in our preaching we water down the message of the Law by mingling in the Gospel, it loses its effectiveness. If we are left with the impression that we contribute to our salvation, or that faith itself is a good work on our part, or that God really isn’t going to punish us if we try hard enough, then the Law has not done its job and the heart is not being prepared to hear the Gospel. Walther states: “A preacher must proclaim the Law in such a manner that there remains in it nothing pleasant to lost and condemned sinners.”
The Law cannot save us, only condemn us. “But that no one is justified by the law in the sight of God is evident, for ‘The just shall live by faith.’” (Galatians 3:11) The Law makes no concessions; it only makes demands. As Luther rightly pointed out from Scripture in his explanations to the Ten Commandments (“What Does This Mean?”), God condemns not only sinful acts, but the condition of the heart. People who give up outward vices, feeling they are now Christians because of that, have not received the true impact of the Law, which should focus on the attitude of the heart. The Law makes no one godly. Too often, people wrongly criticize preachers for making them feel uncomfortable by exposing their sin. They prefer preachers who tell them how good they are, to their own spiritual detriment.
God Himself did not sugarcoat the giving of the Law to the Israelites at Mount Sinai; nor should we. Parents and other teachers of the young do children a deadly disservice if they minimize the effect of sin. Promoting self-righteousness in youth will create little Pharisees who will see no need for a Savior. Likewise, the Catholic Church is wrong when it teaches that only outwardly sinful acts are condemned by the Law. God is clear about the deadly nature of sins of the heart, “Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.” (1 John 3:15)
In conclusion, the sweetness of the Gospel message will only be welcomed by a heart utterly convicted of sin by the Law. This is what Walther is saying. This is what the Bible teaches. See Titus 3:3-7.
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 www.ilc.edu/Walther]