Skip to content

Sinners Still, but Not Ruled by Sin

Thesis XVIII– In the fourteenth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the universal corruption of mankind is described in such a manner as to create the impression that even true believers are still under the spell of ruling sins and are sinning purposely.”

As was his custom before addressing his thesis for the evening, Walther would often give advice to the seminary students in his audience. Before this lecture, he spoke of reasons why some who have the gifts for the ministry choose not to become pastors. He said that they wrongly conclude that they would have to “sacrifice their life’s happiness and their freedom.” However, every Christian, whether in the public ministry or not, when called upon, must live a life of sacrifice, forsaking the world for the sake of the Gospel.

What is necessary for a pastor is that he be a sincere Christian, one who is committed to live not for himself, but for Him Who died and rose again for his sake. Unfortunately, it is possible for people to intellectually know the truth of Scripture but not believe it or apply it to themselves. Shepherds of this type will not sacrifice for Christ or His flock. They will not stand by the Word when assailed by those of the world.

In Thesis XVIII itself, Walther warns against using broad brushstrokes in characterizing all Christians as those who still live in open, unrepentant sin. One should, however, be bold in describing the only two spiritual classes of people there are—believer or unbeliever, converted or unconverted. There is no in-between place where a second chance at faith is granted once one dies. The outcome is either heaven or hell. Many in our world today don’t want to hear of such stark realities.

Walther makes a clear distinction between believers, who still have a sinful flesh clinging to them, and unbelievers, who willfully lead sinful lives with no desire to repent and turn from their sinful lifestyles. Sin has dominion over them. A Christian turns to Christ daily for forgiveness, trusting he will receive it. Christians still daily sin much, but their desire is to serve their Savior. A hypocrite, no matter how pious he pretends to be, allows sin to rule him. To illustrate, Walther uses the analogy of a traveler who is attacked by robbers on his journey. He is overtaken because of his weakness. It is not his desire to be overcome and killed. He wants to escape and find refuge. So it is with a Christian who attempts to fend off temptation and yet falls into sin. His desire is to escape and serve his Lord.

Walther rightly criticizes Calvinists who teach that once a person is converted, he can never lose his faith. The Bible does not teach that. Some do lose the saving faith they once had through their own rejection of the Gospel message. Rather than repent, they choose to cultivate the sins that draw them away from Christ and into damnation. Pastors do their congregations a disservice by avoiding sermon texts that clearly present these truths. There are only two classes of living people, believers and unbelievers. There are only two final destinations for all people, heaven or hell. May God help us to clearly proclaim this message for the eternal benefit of His children.


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.

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

Joe Lau is a professor at Immanuel Lutheran College in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.