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What Do You Mean by Faith?

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 XIV–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 the 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 they are told to keep on praying and struggling until they feel that God has received them into grace.”

It’s a rule of grammar that is easy to break. When referring to yourself, should you use “I” or “me?” The rule: if you are the subject, use “I”; if you are the object or recipient, use “me.”

This is more that good grammar; it’s good theology. Jesus explained it in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. Just follow the pronouns in the story: one man uses I and the other me. One made himself the subject of his salvation, while the other simply wanted to be the object of God’s mercy. One was saved and the other lost.

This principle is also at the heart of Thesis XIV.

All Christian churches claim to teach salvation by faith, but what do they mean by “faith”? Is faith an effort or decision that man makes? Is it believing in Jesus with a list of rules to follow? Is it something that God starts and we must finish? Is faith an emotional feeling within us, so that a lack of feeling indicates a lack of faith? Is my faith or the fact that I would have faith the reason God chose me?

In 1817, the king of Prussia merged his wife’s Lutheran Church with his own Reformed Church. On the surface, both appeared to be agreed on the cardinal doctrine of Scripture: justification by faith. But a royal decree wouldn’t settle the differences for any who bothered to ask the question, “What do you mean by faith?” The answer led many to emigrate to America and was the impetus for establishing confessional Lutheranism as we know it today.

The end of the 19th century brought another battle over “faith.” This time, the debate took place within Lutheranism. The Election Controversy tried to answer why some people were chosen by God to be saved, while others were not. Some argued that “by faith” means, “on account of faith,” while others suggested that God looked into the future and chose people “in view of the faith” that they would have. Both broke the rule. Both used “I” when the only correct pronoun is “me.”

Walther correctly explained that we are not justified on account of our faith. Faith is not a merit or work; it is merely the instrument God uses to make what Jesus did for all people our very own. “It is an awful perversion of the Gospel,” he wrote, “to treat the command to believe as a condition of man’s justification and salvation.” The only thing I contribute to my salvation is my sin. Everything else is God’s work for me. By the faith that He creates, I receive all of the benefits Jesus gives. God gives and sustains my faith through the Gospel in Word and Sacrament. It depends entirely on Him, not me. To teach otherwise, says Walther, “subverts the entire Gospel.”

When people tell you that they believe in salvation by faith, be sure to ask what they mean by “faith.” If their spiritual grammar is wrong, they don’t really understand the beauty of God’s grace. And you can help them.

James Albrecht is pastor of St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Okabena, Minnesota.

[To read Walther’s The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel for free on-line, and to access related Bible class materials, go to]