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Where Does Contrition Come From?


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 XI In the seventh place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when there is a disposition to offer the comfort of the Gospel only to those who have been made contrite by the Law, not from fear of the wrath and punishment of God, but from love of God.

A middle-aged man once came to our church asking to be baptized. He was a resident of the halfway house down the street. When asked, “Why do you want to be baptized?” the man, obviously anxious and agitated, replied, “Because I’m a sinner, and I don’t want to go to hell!” That’s a pretty good reason.

C.F.W. Walther says, “When we behold someone in terror of hell, we are to comfort him.” (page 241) The Gospel was proclaimed to this alarmed sinner and, a couple of witnesses having been enlisted, he was baptized forthwith.

That man’s contrition came from the Law—the knowledge of his own sin, and terror of the coming Judgment. In his Eleventh Thesis, Dr. Walther says that this is as it should be—contrition comes from the Law. Further, Walther calls out the false teachers (especially among the Roman Catholics) who say that true contrition must flow, not from the Law, but from a person’s love of God. They teach that an unbeliever, if he will only try hard enough, can produce contrition in himself, and that this contrition is a good work that merits God’s forgiveness! Dr. Walther answers, “We must not imagine that contrition is a good work which we do, but it is something that God works in us. God comes with the hammer of the Law and smites our soul.” Contrition is “produced not by man, but by God Himself. God has no regard for any miserable product of man.” (page 240) By the way, we should note that Walther’s focus in this section is on contrition in unbelievers. Believers too experience contrition and repentance, of course, but Walther will deal with that subject in a later chapter.

Walther quotes the Apology of the Augsburg Confession in support of his thesis: “The Law does nothing but accuse the conscience; it commands people what to do and terrifies them. In this connection the adversaries [Roman Catholic theologians] do not say a word concerning faith, hence they do not teach one word regarding the Gospel, or Christ, but their teaching is entirely from the Law. They tell people that with their pain, contrition, sorrow, and anguish they are meriting grace, provided their contrition is from love of God and provided they love God. Good Heavens, what kind of preaching is that to consciences that are in need of comfort!”

By contrast Scripture—and the Lutheran church—teach that an unbeliever has no power in himself to produce contrition, through love of God or anything else. Rather, that is accomplished by the Law.

However, once the sinner is conscious of and alarmed by his sins, only the sweet comfort of the Gospel is to be pronounced to him. Walther cites the example of the jailer at Philippi in Acts 16, “The jailer fell writhing and trembling at the apostles’ feet and asked: ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ Nothing but his fright and terror moved him to do that. Now Paul does not say to him: ‘First you must become contrite from love of God,’ but: ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus, and thou shalt be saved and thy house!’” (page 239)

Paul Naumann is Academic Dean 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 online, and to access related Bible class materials, go to]