One of the hallmarks of the Lutheran Church is its proper understanding and application of the Bible’s two main teachings—Law and Gospel. This article concludes our series on Dr. C.F.W. Walther’s seminal work, The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel.
“Thesis XXV– In the twenty-first place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the person teaching it does not allow the Gospel to have a general predominance in his teaching.”
Especially among our well-educated CLC membership, it can be tempting to think that the more-familiar doctrines “go without saying.” Add to that anyone’s self-conscious fear of repeating himself, and Gospel preachers can too easily end up becoming Gospel mentioners instead. In his concluding thesis, Walther warns against this most subtle form of Law/Gospel confusion: “When the Gospel is preached along with the Law, but is not the predominating element in the sermon.” (page 406)
Preaching means making a persuasive oral argument. Thus, Gospel preaching means presenting an irrefutable case that the hearers may put their faith in Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God: “Whoever is engaged in this preaching of the pure Gospel and thus directs men to Christ, the only Mediator between God and men, he, as a preacher, is doing the will of God.” (page 413)
Week after week, the preacher’s chief task is to explain the merits of Christ as both true God and true man, to proclaim His all-atoning sacrifice, and to tell his hearers, “The forgiveness of sins is now yours by means of His cross and empty tomb. ‘For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.’” (I Corinthians 15:3)
Walther reminds preachers that the most eloquent three-point theological theme can fall far short: “It is not sufficient for you to be conscious of your orthodoxy and your ability to present the pure doctrine correctly.” (page 406)
Mentioning the Gospel is likewise insufficient, “for there are many who . . . know how to talk a great deal about it, but . . . glorifying Christ, or believing in Him, is nothing else than being assured that whosoever has Him has the Father and all grace, divine blessings, and life eternal.” (page 409).
When the Gospel “goes without saying,” the preacher invariably ends up confusing the Gospel with its results—how the Christian should feel or strive to be. This is nothing other than Law preaching with a smile: “The preacher may think that he has proclaimed the evangelical truth quite often, [but] your hearers will be spiritually starved to death if you do not allow the Gospel to predominate in your preaching . . . because the bread of life is not the Law, but the Gospel.” (pages 406-7)
Christ’s victory over sin, death, and the devil is the greatest divine truth revealed to man. Never to be taken for granted, it is imperative to preach the Gospel with absolute explicitness: “And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day.” (John 6:40)
Every sermon is a golden opportunity to present God’s saving truth as if being heard for the first time: “It should be the preacher’s aim to proclaim the Gospel to his hearers till their hearts are melted, till they . . . confess that the Lord has been too strong for them, and hence forth they wish to abide with Jesus.” (page 406)
In dire terms Walther warns how easily a well-meaning Lutheran pastor can become a mere Gospel mentioner. Such empty preaching runs rampant in Reformed churches and is increasingly tolerated even among Lutherans. The fatal consequence of thinking that “the Gospel goes without saying” is just that—when it’s not said, it goes.
So, if your preacher doesn’t say it, talk to him about it! He will thank you for the advice, because only by faithfully proclaiming the Gospel will he hear his members say, “Our minister has given us what we could not get anywhere else. He is a true Lutheran minister and pours out a great treasure for us every Sunday!” (page 409)