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 XIII— In the ninth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when one makes an appeal to believe or at least help towards that end, instead of preaching faith into a person’s heart by laying the Gospel promises before him.”
The day before leaving for seminary, a father offered his son the best pastoral advice he ever heard: “I’m just a farmer. I don’t know much about theology. But I do know if you dig up a seed every day to check if it’s grown, it never will.”
When you don’t see the results you want, the urge is to micromanage or nag. No one likes to hear that his best efforts to help are getting in the way. But being of the Law, all our digging and checking can do is push away those you intend to help.
Yes, sin in the heart must be tilled and exposed. But the Law can neither create faith nor make it sprout up above the soil.
The Savior’s gracious invitation itself calls forth from the heart the response He desires: “Come, for all things are now ready.” (Luke 14:17) The Gospel alone nourishes all spiritual growth: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes.” (Romans 1:16)
One who proclaims the Gospel must fight the temptation to dig in and check what faith looks like. Sadly, the Gospel can be presented in a Law-ish manner, as if by repeating the importance of believing often enough, such preaching might finally poke faith into the hearer’s heart: “You need to have faith!” “If you only truly believed . . .” In the furious attempt to water the seed, the preacher’s own doubt tears up the soil before him with a power washer, causing the hearers to fear that “something is required of them and . . . to worry whether they will be able to do it.” (p. 261)
True Gospel proclamation does not merely preach faith, but preaches THE faith: “the work of Christ, salvation by grace, and the riches of God’s mercy in Jesus Christ.” Thus, Walther advises a counterintuitive approach: “A preacher must be able to preach a sermon on faith without ever using the term faith.” (p. 260)
Jesus never once commanded the thief on the cross to “believe.” Rather, the glorious sight of His all-atoning suffering and death was sufficient to work faith in the heart of the thief, who longed to be welcomed into His kingdom (Luke 23:42). Likewise, the centurion marvels: “Truly this was the Son of God!” (Matt. 27:54) And when three women go check on Jesus’ body planted in the earth, they discover Him already gone, sprouted up from the dirt of death, and you with Him into eternal life.
Like a thirsty plant, living faith reaches out for living water: “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” (John 12:21) He commissions you to give the souls in your life what they need: “Preach the Gospel!” (Mark 16:15) Confidence in the Gospel’s power to save offers patience for every trying situation. It provides the clarity of mind to recognize the growth He promises as, by the power of God, the seeds take root and begin to sprout all around you.
That farmer knew far more Lutheran theology than he admitted. Sowed into my ear by his son, I pass it along to you as the best pastoral advice I ever received myself. Don’t go digging around for faith, or it’ll never grow!
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 online, and to access related Bible class materials, go to www.ilc.edu/Walther]