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Exactly the Wrong Medicine

Written by | August, 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 VIII–In the fourth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the Law is preached to those who are already in terror an account of their sins or the Gospel to those who live securely in their sins.”

Imagine two desperately ill patients, one in a diabetic shock and another whose heart had stopped beating. Now imagine if a doctor were to give the first patient a shot of adrenalin, and the second a shot of insulin. Such a doctor would lose his license to practice medicine, and rightly so! Yet an even more serious case of malpractice obtains when the Gospel is proclaimed to secure sinners, or the Law is proclaimed to alarmed sinners. In both these cases, exactly the wrong medicine is applied. 

In his twelfth and thirteenth evening lectures, Dr. Walther deals the two halves of this important Eighth Thesis. “Not a drop of evangelical consolation is to be brought to those who are still living securely in their sins. On the other hand, to the broken-hearted not a syllable containing a threat or a rebuke is to be addressed, but only promises conveying consolation and grace, forgiveness of sin and righteousness, life and salvation.” (Page 102)

The Gospel message—that God forgives sins freely for Christ’s sake—is the sweetest message there could possibly be. But that sweetness is wasted on those who, unrepentant, feel no need of forgiveness or a Savior. It’s like giving water to someone who’s not thirsty, or food to someone who’s already full. Dr. Walther refers to such people as “secure in their sins,” feeling confident in their own good works, and having no need of repentance. He says (page 118), “Accordingly, we may not preach the Gospel, but must preach the Law to secure sinners. We must preach them into hell before we can preach them into heaven. By our preaching our hearers must be brought to the point of death before they can be restored to life by the Gospel. They must be made to realize that they are sick unto death before they can be restored to health by the Gospel. First their own righteousness must be laid bare to them, so that they may see of what filthy rags it consists, and then, by the preaching of the Gospel, they are to be robed in the garment of the righteousness of Christ.” 

Which brings us to the more important part of Thesis VIII—to those poor people who are repentant, who truly do realize their sinfulness and their desperate need of forgiveness—to such people only the sweet, unconditioned Gospel must be presented, and not a word of Law! 

This is what Jesus did. When He was speaking to alarmed sinners who desperately needed and wanted His forgiveness, He had only sweetest Gospel for them. To the sinful woman who anointed His feet He said only, “Your sins are forgiven.” (Luke 7:48); to the woman taken in adultery, “Neither do I condemn you.” (John 8:11); to Zacchaeus, “Today salvation has come to this house.” (Luke 19:9)

This advice isn’t just for pastors, but for anyone who wants to witness God’s truth to people they care about. Give them the right medicine! If you’re talking to a secure sinner, apply the Law. Then, when the Law has done its work and the sinner, in alarm, asks, “What must I do to be saved?” with joy you may reply, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved!” (Acts 16:30-31)

Paul Naumann  is a professor at Immanuel Lutheran College in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and editor of the Lutheran Spokesman.

[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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