“Thesis XV—In the eleventh place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the Gospel is turned into a preaching of repentance.”
Have you ever been misunderstood in a text that you have sent? One thing that texting has taught me is that words matter. Just because I understand what I am writing doesn’t mean that my message will be understood by its receiver. Modern communication reminds me of an Emily Dickinson poem I learned in high school: “A word is dead when it is said, some say. I say it just begins to live that day.” How much more so is this an important reminder for those who share the truth of God’s Word. Because His words matter, our words matter.
Based on how he addressed his seminary students, Walther agreed. He said that equally important to a pastor having genuine faith was his ability to present the truth in “sound words,” that is, “in clear, plain, unmistakable, and adequate terms.” Over the ages, numerous doctrinal controversies have arisen due to a lack of a clear understanding of words and their meanings, both in scripture itself and in the interpretation by fallible humans. Heretics, in order to cloak their heresy, make use of scriptural terms but alter their meanings. It is incumbent upon an orthodox minister to choose his words carefully and to be certain that they precisely reflect Scripture. Once spoken, they “begin to live that day.” Walther emphasized the importance of prayerful study in sermon preparation so as not to say anything that could be misinterpreted by the congregation, to rightly divide the Law and the Gospel, and to “find a way of making a goodly haul with the Gospel net.”
In his fifteenth thesis, Walther focuses on how the words “Law” and “Gospel” have been misused. Both terms are used in Scripture in both the wide and narrow (strict) senses. For example, in Romans 2:16, “Gospel” is used in the wide sense to mean all of God’s Word, including the Law. However, most references to the Gospel speak of it in the strict sense, “of nothing but consolation, mercy, and forgiveness of sins.” That is why it is both dangerous and harmful to equate the Gospel message with an angry God calling on sinners to repent. For it is the Law that reveals our sin, not the Gospel. Antinomians were one group who ascribed to the Gospel in the strict sense something that only could be ascribed to the Gospel in the wide sense. As students of Scripture, it is important to know which passages use the term “Gospel” in the wide sense and which in the strict sense. Walther provides guidelines as to when “Gospel” is used in the strict sense (pages 294-295). Throughout Scripture God would have poor sinners know that the Gospel focuses on the work of Christ granting us salvation by grace through faith. It is the proclamation of sins forgiven and righteousness obtained for us.
In this thesis Walther also includes some encouragement for young people to consider the preaching and teaching ministries as a profession, the blessings of which are often overlooked, both in his day and ours. Despite being rejected by many in this world, Gospel work is glorious. It works to the benefit of immortal souls and people’s spiritual welfare. It requires the daily use of God’s Word, both to the benefit of oneself and others. It provides a reason to be happy in this life and promises eternal happiness in the life to come. The work is never in vain, and the rewards are great!
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.