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 IX—In the fifth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when sinners who have been struck down and terrified by the Law are directed, not to the Word and Sacraments, but to their own prayers and wrestlings with God in order that they may win their way into a state of grace; in other words, when told to keep on praying and struggling until they feel that God has received them into grace.”
The majority of Walther’s twenty-five theses discussed in The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel are fleshed out in a single lecture or, at most, two or three. Thesis IX, however, is the topic of six of his lectures (over 80 pages). Why did he devote so much time to this particular thesis? I believe he did so because the false teachings addressed here—that humans in some way, great or small, must contribute to their own salvation—are incorporated in nearly every false teaching. Walther levies this charge against the Reformed as well as the Papists.
He states that “the Reformed Church is not in agreement with us; it does not point the right way to grace and salvation.” Although these groups speak of being saved by grace alone, “you immediately discover that, while they hold this truth in theory, they do not put it into effect.” Instead of reassuring repentant sinners of their unconditional forgiveness and salvation in Christ’s redemptive work, they would have poor souls wrestle with God through uneasiness, struggle, and prayer to earn their way into a state of grace. Conditions and attachments? This is not how Peter on Pentecost, or Paul to the jailer at Philippi presented the Gospel and forgiveness. Regarding his own conversion, Paul was not instructed to fervently pray until he felt a sensation of inward grace; he was immediately comforted by the Gospel and was baptized.
The Reformed do a disservice to sinners convicted by the Law by leaving them in doubt about their spiritual condition before God. So much relies on feelings, which can change from hour to hour, that uncertainty is the result. They teach that “after Christ has done His share, man must still do his, and man is not reconciled to God until both efforts meet.”
Walther also takes exception to the Reformed view of the means of grace, “the source from which all false teachings of the Reformed churches have sprung,” which view he traces to the teachings of Ulrich Zwingli. Zwingli taught that Baptism and the Lord’s Supper were mere symbols, believing that the Holy Spirit did not require any means, or vehicles, to convey grace. He viewed the sacraments as works that we do for God. Scripture, however, clearly teaches that the sacraments, along with the Word, are the only means given by God through which the Holy Spirit creates and sustains faith.
Walther also addresses the Papists in this thesis, for they too do not teach the assurance of salvation. To them, atonement for sin has not been fully accomplished, purgatory awaits, doubt plagues their earthly existence, and heaven is no certainty. They also limit the scope and power of absolution by teaching that only ordained priests, and not all members of the Holy Christian Church, have been given the power to remit and retain sins. To them, perfect contrition must be felt, confession must enumerate all sins, and the satisfaction prescribed by the priest must be performed. This is a denial of the full and free forgiveness that the Bible teaches.
Finally, Walther wants to dispel the notion that earthly trials come to people to indicate, to some degree, that God is displeased with them. Conversely, people who have few problems must be in God’s favor. Once again, these teachings find no support in Scripture.
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]