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 XXII– In the eighteenth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when a false distinction is made between a person’s being awakened and his being converted; moreover, when a person’s inability to believe is mistaken for his not being permitted to believe.”
Several years ago, some fellow church members and I attended a small-town Baptist revival as a Bible study field trip. We went to observe this thesis in action and debrief together afterwards.
The revival preacher knew his audience. Staring intently toward our pew of Lutherans, he let us have it: “You may think you believe. You may attend church every week. You may even know every Gospel detail in your head. But unless you this night feel the fire of hell, come forward to accept Jesus, and change your earthly life, you have no guarantee of eternal life.”
He used qualified nouns throughout—“ true believer, genuine Christian, heart-felt faith”—instead of “believer,” “Christian,” and “faith.” He based this on a false distinction between those he considered merely awakened and those who are truly converted.
He wanted us shaking in our seats, as if God withholds true saving faith until you suffer a specific kind of spiritual struggle.
Like the priests of Baal who thought their self-mortification brought about divine intervention, and the Pharisees who doubted how Jesus could forgive, a wide spectrum of false teachers—from Catholic to Baptist—withhold the assurance of salvation from souls until they can see contrition with their eyes.
The root error, Walther diagnoses, is a denial of the simplicity of conversion. Conversion does not come because of any struggle or conflict on our part, but by the Gospel’s power alone. There is no spiritual limbo; in a moment God brings the soul from darkness to light: “You He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins.” (Ephesians 2:1) Thus, once the Law was clearly communicated, the apostles refused to withhold God’s unconditional forgiveness: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household.” (Acts 16:31)
Scripture does depict some as merely intrigued by Gospel details: Herod Antipas, Felix, Festus, Agrippa. But since no man can peer into the heart, Walther says, “We are cheerfully to proclaim the universal grace of God freely and leave it to God whether people will believe it or misapply it.” (page 377)
He rightly warns (page 371), “In every man there is hidden by nature a blind, self-righteous Pharisee.” The revival preacher deep within each of us makes us doubt one another: “How can he call himself Christian and do what he’s done?”
Look no further than Peter, who openly confessed Jesus as Christ but then denied Him thrice, who welcomed Cornelius into the church but later acted as if believing Gentiles weren’t genuine Christians.
To wrestle with sin and to struggle with the exercise of patience and love are part of the cross every Christian bears after conversion, not something that separates you from Jesus before it. Whenever your conduct makes you worry whether you’re a true believer, the Law has done its work. It has revealed your sin so that, in the Gospel, you might treasure all the more the Savior’s blood shed for you.
I no longer take Bible study groups on field trips now that the internet allows you to observe from a healthy distance. But witnessing error in action renewed our confidence in “rightly dividing the Word of truth,” and I advise you to “test all things” yourself. Learn to recognize Law/Gospel confusion in every form, especially as it festers within the other Lutheran synods today, lest you take for granted the treasure God yet preserves among us; namely, that the Gospel alone “is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes.” (Romans 1:16)