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Law First, Then Gospel

Written by | July, 2021
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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 VII–

In the third place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the Gospel is preached first and then the Law; sanctification first and then justification; faith first and then repentance; good works first and then grace.”

A farmer told me the best hired help he ever had was a seminary student on summer break. 

Other farmhands felt the basics were beneath them and rushed headlong into what they thought best, making a mess of things in the process. But this young man from Eau Claire, with no prior experience in manual labor, listened intently to the farmer’s every word and followed his instructions in precise order.

A worker who sticks to the fundamentals as the key to success is a rare find, because most people are insulted by such entry-level training. Sadly, when it comes to God’s Word, it is no different. 

Law first, then Gospel. It doesn’t get simpler than this.

This is the order in which each is solemnly revealed in Holy Scripture: Sinai first, then Calvary.

This is the Apostle Paul’s systematic approach to Christian doctrine in his epistle to the Romans. Walther says, “Here we have a true pattern of the correct sequence: first the Law, threatening men with the wrath of God; next the Gospel, announcing the comforting promises of God.” (page 94)

Luther’s Small Catechism is structured the same: Commandments first, then Creed.

Only the meticulous tilling of sin and sowing of grace bring forth true spiritual fruit. Walther says, “I must first know that God has forgiven my sins, that He has cast them into the depth of the sea, before it affords me real joy to lead a sanctified life.” (page 91)

But the sinful flesh is like the farmhand who knows better than his boss: “Man is by nature a conceited being.” (page 97) Not content with God’s straightforward counsel, many preachers venture headlong into more “advanced” topics:

• The Bible as a book of tips and tricks for achieving a happier life

• Motivational talks concluding with a courtesy mention of Jesus

• Manipulating worship styles to achieve a more “exciting” spiritual experience

I have not always been part of the Church of the Lutheran Confession. The saddest part of my time in other Lutheran synods was watching people grow fascinated with trends like these, instead of sticking to the simple proclamation of Law and Gospel. We rightly identify the error of those synods by their public statements which conflict with Scripture, but the real danger lies in the pulpit. For without true confessional integrity, men begin preaching, unchecked, in any way that seems good to them. By trying to improve on God’s simple instructions, they end up making an awful mess of His saving truth.

Law first, then Gospel. This isn’t just the first step in preaching. This is the whole job, and a blessed job it is!

Maybe, then, it wasn’t lack of experience which made that seminary student the best help that farmer ever had, but the meticulous training he received in the early days of Immanuel Lutheran Seminary: “Hold fast the pattern of sound words.” (2 Timothy 1:13) It is by grace alone that such attention to detail still flourishes among us today, as the Spirit keeps us focused on one clear message: “Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” (I Corinthians 2:2)

So, if you ever find your preacher a tad boring or wonder whether there’s not more to be had in the Christian life—don’t get ahead of yourself!  Repeat it again: “The Law shows me my sin . . . the Gospel shows me my Savior!” Marvel at 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]

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