A very strong case can be made that apart from the Book of Concord, the single most important theological text for the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod has been C.F.W. Walther’s The Proper Distinction between Law and Gospel. Walther’s discussion of the distinction between Law and Gospel treated the subject in a pastoral fashion that addressed the preaching task and also pastoral care for the individual.
Walther’s Law and Gospel has been such a central text in the formation of the theological worldview of the LCMS that we often overlook how unique it was. As Scott Murray notes, “except for Walther’s pastoral approach, American Lutheranism before 1940 virtually ignored Law and Gospel” (Scott R. Murray, Law, Life and the Living God: The Third Use of the Law in Modern American Lutheranism, 26).
Murray has made the helpful observation that:
Walther did not advance the discussion about the third use of the Law because he did not treat it directly in his lectures. This omission occurred for several reasons. First, Walther focused on the accusing nature, or the second use, of the Law. Second, Walther’s interest in the Law and Gospel dialectic was uniquely pastoral (Law, Life and the Living God, 26).
This emphasis on the Law’s role in accusing the individual of sin in preparation for the Gospel dominates the work. Thus Walther quotes Luther: “The Law tells us what we are to do and charges us with not having done it, no matter how holy we are. Thus the Law makes me uncertain; it chases me about and makes me thirsty” (C.F W. Walther, The Proper Distinction of Law and Gospel; tr. W.HT. Dau, 22) In response to this preparation of the Law the Gospel “is any doctrine or word of God which does not require works from us and does not command us to do something, but bids us simply accept as a gift the gracious forgiveness of our sins and everlasting bless offered us” (19).
Walther writes for the sake of the Gospel, as his Thesis XXV indicates: “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” (4). He leaves no doubt that that the assurance of forgiveness before God must be the ultimate goal of all preaching:
The minister wants to rouse his people and warn them against self-deception. However, that cannot be his ultimate aim. His ultimate aim must be to lead his hearers to the assurance that they have forgiveness of sins with God, the hope of the future blessed life, and confidence to meet death cheerfully. Anyone who does not make these things his ultimate aim is not a evangelical minister (308; emphasis original).
Yet at the same time, Walther’s Law and Gospel contains an emphasis on the importance of good works and the Christian struggle against sin. It also includes remarkable statements about the need to urge Christians in this regard. The presence of statements about urging good works, cooperation with God’s grace and the increase of the Christian life in Walther’s Law and Gospel are all the more interesting because they are themes that many modern Lutherans consider to be contrary to a true Lutheran understanding of preaching (see What is softantinomianism?). Walther’s Law and Gospel demonstrates how misguided modern Lutheranism and its soft antinomianism is, and provides valuable guidance for Lutheran preaching today.
Walther clearly affirms that it is the Gospel that changes people and creates individuals who now do good works and live in God pleasing ways:
In the third place, the Gospel does not require anything good that man must furnish: not a good heart, not a good disposition, no improvement of his condition, no godliness, no love either of God or men. It issues no orders, but it changes man. It plants love into his heart and makes him capable of all good works (16).The Gospel does not say: You must do good works, but it fashions me into a human being, into a creature of such a kind as cannot but serve God and his fellow-man (16-17).Only by a strict separation of justification and sanctification a sinner is made to understand clearly and becomes certain that he has been received into grace by God; and this knowledge equips him with strength to walk in a new life (92).“By grace are ye saved; but by grace ye are created unto good works.” When you have received grace, God has created you anew. It in this new state you have to do good works; you can no longer remain under the dominion of sin (93).Here are are told that grace is brought to us first, and then this grace begins a works of education upon us. We are placed under the divine pedagogy of grace. The moment a person accepts that grace which brought God down from heaven that grace begins to train him. The object of this training is to teach him how to do good works and lead and upright life (93).
Walther maintains that this change produced by the Gospel yields an individual who, insofar as he is new man, produces good works spontaneously:
True, he did not say that, to be saved, a person must have faith and, in addition to that, good works, or love; but he did teach that those who would be saved must have faith that produces love spontaneously and is fruitful in good works (210; emphasis original).The believer need not at all be exhorted to do good works; his faith does them automatically. The believer engages in good works, not from a sense of duty, in return for the forgiveness of sins, but chiefly because he cannot help doing them. It is altogether impossible that genuine faith should not break forth from the believer’s heart in works of love (210-211).A fruitful tree does not produce fruit by somebody’s order, but because, while there is vitality in it and it is not dried up, it must produce fruit spontaneously. Faith is such a tree; it proves its vitality by bearing fruit (211).
Walther says that it is God alone who prompts and enables such truly good works:
The objection is raised against us that in sanctification a person is surely doing something himself. But a person never begins any good work on his own accord. God must prompt him and work in him even to will, to desire to do, the good work that he is to perform. Accordingly, whenever Christians seem to do something good, it is by the power and operation of God in them that they do it (226).
Because it is the Gospel that has the power to change the individual and it is God alone who enables the individual to do good works, the means by which people are enabled to do good works instead of sin is the preaching of the Gospel. Where the preacher desires his people to live as Christians, the answer is to preach the Gospel, rather than more Law:
Do not follow your reason, which will tell you that by preaching the Gospel to them you will make your hearers secure. It is not so; on the contrary, when the grace and glory of the Gospel are truly held out to men, this rouses them, makes them joyful and therefore willing to do good works and, as it were, kindles a heavenly fire in their hearts (292).The attempt to make men godly by means of the Law and to induce even those who are already believers in Christ to do good by holding up the Law and issuing commands to them is a very gross confounding of Law and Gospel (381).Even the most corrupt congregation can be improved, however, by nothing else than the preaching of the Gospel in all its sweetness. The reason why congregations are corrupt is invariably this, that its ministers have not sufficiently preached the Gospel to people (388).Luther is willing to be the reproach of being called a “sweet,” that is comforting, preacher. He will regard that as a very trifling charge when people say that his preaching prevents men from doing good works, because he is sure that by his preaching he is changing men’s hearts, so that they will do good works (410).
While the Gospel alone can produce new life in Christians, Walther is also well aware that the old man hinders this. He quotes Luther’s House Postil which says:
Understand this matter aright: By His ascension and by the preaching of faith, Christ does not purpose to rear lazy and sluggish Christians, who say: We shall now live according to our pleasure, not doing good works, remaining sinners, and following sin like captive slaves. Those who talk thus have never had a right understanding of the preaching of faith. Christ and his mercy are not preached to the end that men should remain in their sins. On the contrary, this is what the Christian doctrine proclaims: The captivity is to leave you free, not that you may do whatever you desire, but that you sin no more” (411; emphasis original).
Walther says that Christian doctrine requires instruction on how Christians are to live. He writes:
Let us pass on to the apostolic epistles, especially to that addressed to the Romans, which contains the Christian doctrine in its entirety. What do we find in the first three chapters? The sharpest preaching of the Law. This is followed, towards the end of the third chapter and in chapters 4 and 5, by the doctrine of justification – nothing but that. Beginning at chapter 6, the apostle treats nothing else than sanctification. Here we have a true pattern of the correct sequence: first the Law, threatening men with the wrath of God; next the Gospel, announcing the comforting promises of God. This is followed by an instruction regarding the things we are to do after we have become new men (93).
Though never to be mingled with the justification of the sinner, exhortation is necessary in addressing Christians about what they are to do. Walther quotes Gerhard who says, “For this reason men should be exhorted to perform good works according to the norm of the Law. These works, however, must not be brought into the august place where our justification in the sight of God occurs” (38).
In Thesis XVII Walther maintains that “the Word of God is not rightly divided when a description is given of faith, both as regards its strength and the consciousness and productiveness of it, that does not fit all believers at all times” (308). This prompts Walther to consider how Christians demonstrate the presence of the old man to various degrees. He points to the disciples' behavior and notes, “Christ did not for that reason denounce them as unconverted, but treated them as converted people who, however, still carried a pretty vigorous portion of the Old Adam with them” (315).
This leads Walther to conclude with a quotation from the Church Postil on the epistle (Eph 4:22-28) for the Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity (found in Lenker 8:304-316). There Luther writes:
That explains why St. Paul admonishes his Christians to such an extent as it make it appear as though he were overdoing it; for in all his epistles he is so determined about inculcating these matters upon them as if they were so stupid and ignorant, so inattentive and forgetful, that of themselves they did not know them and would not do them, but only on being told and urged to do them. He knows that, although Christians have made a beginning of faith and are at that stage where they are to show forth the fruits of their faith, still they have not yet done so, nor have they finished their task. Accordingly, it will not do to think and say that it is sufficient to preach the doctrine to them and that, where the Spirit and faith are at work, the fruits of faith and good works will follow of themselves. For though the Spirit is present and, as Christ says, operates in believers and makes them willing, still the flesh, on the other hand, is also present and the flesh is always weak and tardy; moreover, the devil never rests but tries by tribulations and temptations, to cause the Christian to slip and fall because of the weakness of his flesh , etc.For this reason we must not treat our hearers as if they were in no need of being admonished and urged by God’s Word to lead a godly life. Beware of negligence and laziness in discharging this duty! For the flesh is slothful enough to obey the spirit, as Paul says, Gal 5,17: ‘The flesh lusteth against the spirit, …. So that you cannot do the things that ye would.’ Therefore God must act like a good and diligent manager of an estate or magistrate who has a lazy servant or slothful officials under him, although in other respects they are not unfaithful or wicked. Such a one must not think that he has issued one or two orders, the task that he wants done is accomplished; he must be continually afterr his workmen and urge them to do their workLikewise we have not reached the point where our flesh and blood would be active and leap forward with sheer joy and delight to do good works and obey God, such as our spirit desires and our faith demands; on the contrary, will all our incessant urging and prodding we can scarcely get them to move. What would happen if we were to quite our admonitions and our urging and assume – as many secure spirits do – that everybody knows well enough what he has to do, having heard his duties recited to him so many years and having even taught them to others, etc.? I believe that, if preaching and admonition were to cease for a year, we should become worse than the most heathen (315-316; emphasis added).
Walther’s quotation of this text is notable because it is precisely the Church Postil referenced by the Formula of Concord as it describes the third use of the Law:
“Therefore, in this life, because of the desires of the flesh, the faithful, elect, reborn children of God need not only the law’s daily instruction and admonition, its warning and threatening. Often they also need its punishments, so that they may be incited by them and follow God’s Spirit, as it is written, ‘It is good for me that I was humbled, so that I might learn your statutes’ [Ps. 119:71]. And again, ‘I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified’ [1 Cor. 9:17]. And again, ‘If you do not have that discipline in which all children share, you are illegitimate and not his children’ [Heb. 12:8]. Similarly, Dr. Luther explained this in great detail in the summer part of the Church Postil, on the epistle for the nineteenth Sunday after Trinity” (FC SD VI.9).
Thesis XVIII states that “the Word of God is not rightly divided when the universal corruption of mankind is described in such a manner as to create impression that even true believers are still under the spell of ruling sins and are sinning purposely” (318). Walther warns that believers can lose faith if sin is allowed to rule over them. He cites 1 Cor 6:7-11, 2 Pet 2:20-22, Rom 8:13-14, Gal 5:19-21 and Eph 5:5-6 in making the point that Christians must resist sin and that they cannot simply live in sin. The he adds:
I wish to call your attention to the fact that passages like those which I quoted, are found in the periscopes. They should prove valuable to you when use them for a lively presentation of the doctrine now under discussion. I am always pained when I attend church and find that these splendid texts are not used for the sermon. You ought to form the resolution that, when the particular time for a periscope containing these texts arrives, you will expound them to your hearers and tell them that, as God lives, they will be damned if they live in this or that sin. If you only tell them that Christians remain sinners until they die, you will be frequently be misunderstood. Some will lull themselves to sleep with the reflection that they are poor and frail human beings, but that they have faith in the Lord Jesus Christ – however, a lip faith (322; emphasis added).
As we have seen, Walther is very clear that only the Gospel can produce God pleasing behavior, and not the Law. He is also leaves no doubt that admonition against sin is necessary. Yet in a fascinating move, he describes exhortation addressed to Christians as if it is not really an accusing word - and indeed, quotes Luther in order to do so. Walther states:
Even the most corrupt congregation can be improved, however, by nothing else than the preaching of the Gospel in all its sweetness. The reason why congregations are corrupt is invariably this, that its ministers have not sufficiently preached the Gospel to people. It is not to be wondered at that nothing has been accomplished by them; for the Law kills but the Spirit, that is the Gospel, makes alive.
The in order to explain this, Walther quotes Luther’s comment on Rom 12:1:
Paul does not say: I command you; for he is preaching to such as are already Christian and godly by faith, in newness o f life. These must not be coerced by means of commandments, but admonished to do willingly what has to be done with the old sinful man in them. For any person who does not do this willingly, simply in answer to kind admonition, is not a Christian; and any person who wants to achieve this result by force applied to such as are unwilling is not a Christian preacher or ruler, but a worldly jailer. A preacher of the Law comes down on men with threats and punishments; a preacher of the divine grace coaxes and urges men by reminding them of the goodness and mercy God has shown them. For he would have no unwilling workers nor cheerless service; he wants men to be glad and cheerful in the service of God. Any person who will not permit himself to be coaxed and urged with sweet and pleasant words, which remind him of the mercy of God abundantly bestowed upon him in Christ, to do good joyfully and lovingly in honor of God and for the benefit of his fellow-man, is worthless, and all that is done for him is labor lost (388; emphasis original).
Note how in the quotation Luther distinguishes “kind admonition” and “coaxes and urges” from “threats and punishments." While the text does discuss telling Christians how to live, it is not understood here as being a truly accusatory word. This not an isolated thought since Walther himself writes earlier:
As to the apostles, no sooner had their hearers shown that they were alarmed than they seemed to know nothing else to do for them than to comfort them and pronounce absolution to them. Not until that had been done, would they say to their people: “Now you must show your gratitude toward God.” They did not issue orders; they did not threaten when their orders were disregarded, but they pleaded and besought their hearers by the mercy of God to act like Christians” (94).
As Walther talks about Christian life that is produced by the Gospel, he is very explicit in saying that Christians are urged to cooperate in this work. He writes:
When the Gospel enters his heart like a blessed water of life from heaven, faith is kindled there. It is at first feeble like a new-born babe, which sees, hears, tastes, moves, has a certain amount of strength, and can eat and drink. Not until this has taken place may you urge the person to cooperate with divine grace. We do not by any means reject cooperation on the part of man after his regeneration; we rather urge it upon him lest he die again and incur the danger of being lost forever (264-265; emphasis original).
Walther describes the daily struggle against sin as one the Christian must undertake in cooperation with divine grace:
After a person has been converted, he must be told that henceforth he will have to be engaged in daily struggles and must think of making spiritual progress day by day, exercising himself in love, patience, and meekness and wrestling with sin. That is a lesson for converted Christians, who begin to cooperate with divine grace in them (368).
In this statement Walther refers not only to cooperation but also to “spiritual progress day by day.” Law and Gospel leaves no doubt that Walther believes we can and should talk about progress in a Christian’s life. He first quotes Luther in Concerning Councils and Churches as Luther says:
They are excellent preachers of the Easter truth, but miserable preachers of the truth of Pentecost. For there is nothing in their preaching concerning sanctification of the Holy Ghost and about being quickened into a new life. They preach only about the redemption of Christ. It is proper to extol Christ in our preaching; but Christ is the Christ and has acquired redemption from sin an death for this very purpose that the Holy Spirit should change our Old Adam into a new man, that we are to be dead unto sin and live unto righteousness, as Paul teaches Rom. 6, 2ff., and that we are to begin this change and increase in this new life here and consummate it hereafter. For Christ has gained for us not only the grace (gratiam), but also the gift (donum) of the Holy Ghost, so that we obtain from him not only the forgiveness of sin, but also the ceasing from sin (121-122; emphasis original).
Walther’s own comment on this text is significant as he writes:
Luther’s remarks about Easter and Pentecost preachers deserve to be remembered. It is well if on Easter Day you emphasize with great force, and expatiate on, the victory of Christ over sin, death, devil and hell. But you must also be good Pentecostal preachers and say to your hearers: “Repent; for then the Holy Spirit will come with his grace and comfort, enlighten and sanctify you.” We shall never attain to perfect sanctification in this life, but we must make a beginning and progress in this endeavor. For he that does not increase, decreases, and he that decreases will ultimately cease entirely using what God has given him. Finally he will be a dead branch on the vine (123).
On the one hand, Walther is clear that perfection is no attainable. But on the other hand he has no difficulty in describing the Christian life using the language of “progress.”
In discussing progression, Walther also takes into account retrogression. He believes that both are possible. In addition, he provides a third possibility that may explain the experience of a Christian:
It may seem to a Christian that there were times when he was holier and could overcome sin better. That may actually have been the case, and his present condition may be due to his spiritual retrogression. But the correct explanation of his present state may also be this, that he sees more plainly now what a frail being he is (309-310).
In Law and Gospel Walther clearly teaches a number of items that post-WWII Lutheranism often rejects. He teaches that exhortation is a necessary part of Christian preaching and sees the apostolic exhortation of the epistles which is addressed to believers to be something that differs from the purely accusing law that works repentance. It is a “kind admonition” that “coaxes and urges” and “pleads” Christians to act like Christians because of what God has done for them in Christ.
Walther speaks robustly about the cooperation with God’s grace that the believer undertakes in the struggle against sin and in living the Christian life. He freely encourages Christians to seek to make progress in their spiritual life, even as he acknowledges that perfection is unattainable.
Walther offers a very different understanding of the Law and the preaching task than is offered by the soft antinomianism of modern Lutheranism. Yet it is critical to recognize the source of Walther’s position: It is Martin Luther. Law and Gospel contains massive amounts of material from Luther. Many of the citations are taken from Luther’s postils. Walther sees Luther as the prime exemplar for preaching that properly distinguishes Law and Gospel. Walther’s words about Luther continue to apply to the Lutheran Church today: “Oh, would to God that these dear men had the humility to sit down a Luther’s feet and study his postils! They would learn how to preach effectively” (100).