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We Receive the Benefits of the Sacraments by Faith Alone

Thesis XXI – In the seventeenth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when men are taught that the Sacraments produce salutary effects ex opere operato, that is, by the mere outward performance of a sacramental act.”

The topics addressed in Walther’s Thesis XXI occupied two evening lectures, the first of which came after the summer academic break at Concordia Seminary. This meant that new seminary students were in his audience who would need to be caught up on the lecture series. Also of note is that Walther’s wife of forty-four years, Emilie, the mother of their six children, had died only weeks earlier.

As was typical, Walther began his lecture by offering advice to his seminary students. He impressed on them the importance of a thorough knowledge of the doctrines of Scripture. As a medical doctor equips himself with remedies for physical woes, a minister of the Word should equip himself with remedies for the soul. In addition to doctrinal knowledge, however, a minister needs to possess understanding of when and how to apply each remedy. Mixing remedies or misdiagnosing an ailment can lead to tragic results. Courage and a love for the souls in his care will assist his efforts. Enthusiasm for the work, not the material rewards of the job, should be his motivation.

We now turn to Thesis XXI itself. Upon first reading, it is clear that the definition of ex opere operato is important to the meaning. In English it means “from the work performed.” In Walther’s day there was a debate about how church sacraments accomplished their work. Catholics and others believed that the mere act of performing the sacrament gave it efficacy. To them, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper worked automatically and mechanically. The doing of the acts themselves, then, became a work people could perform to merit God’s favor. This belief contradicts the clear teaching of Scripture of salvation “by grace alone.” “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.” (Romans 3:28) In explanation Walther writes, “Now, if the mere act of being baptized and partaking of Holy Communion brings grace to a person, the Gospel manifestly has been turned into a law, because salvation then rests on a person’s works. Moreover, the Law has been turned into a gospel, because salvation is promised a person as a reward for his works.” (Page 351)

We teach that those who are baptized or receive Communion will not enjoy the benefits of these sacraments apart from faith in their hearts. In fact, Scripture teaches that those who commune without faith do so to their spiritual harm. (1 Corinthians 11:27-29) Without faith, the mere outward performance of a sacrament brings no spiritual benefit, just as the spoken Gospel will bring no benefit to one who rejects its message. Faith is the key to the blessings received! And faith can be worked only by the Holy Spirit through the means of grace.

In Walther’s day, and perhaps even more so in our own, those who emphasized “pure doctrine” were looked upon as heartless, unloving, and conceited because they claimed to know the truth. But in 1 Timothy 4:16 Paul writes, “ Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you. ” The reason to be vigilant in preserving the truth is that false teaching, even a little, can erode the Gospel message. Walther points to Augustine and Luther, who, at great personal risk, stood up for the truth. So should we!


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.