“Witnesses Preach Law and Gospel” (Acts 2:14a, 36-41)
Maybe you noticed, maybe you didn’t: The hymn we just sang, “He’s Risen, He’s Risen,” was written by C. F. W. Walther. Carl Ferdinand Wilhelm Walther was, of course, the first president of our Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and really the leading figure in our synod’s history. This year we are celebrating the 200th anniversary of Walther’s birth in October of 1811. Yesterday, May 7, was the commemoration of his death, and so it is very appropriate that we sing his Easter hymn today. “Oh, where is your sting, death? We fear you no more; Christ rose, and now open is fair Eden’s door. For all our transgressions His blood does atone; redeemed and forgiven, we now are His own.” Walther loved nothing better than to preach Christ’s victory over, sin, death, and the devil, so that troubled sinners could find comfort for their consciences and salvation for their souls.
One of Walther’s greatest contributions to the life of the church was his series of lectures on “The Proper Distinction between Law and Gospel.” Generations of Missouri Synod pastors have been taught Walther’s theses on this subject, and it continues to shape our preaching. Walther’s great concern was that the preachers of our church would understand and be able to apply both the Law and the Gospel without confusing the two. Law: God’s message that we all are sinners, guilty of breaking God’s commandments and unable to save ourselves. Gospel: God’s sweet word of forgiveness and everlasting life, freely given to us for the sake of Christ and received by faith apart from any contribution on our side. To properly distinguish the demanding, condemning word of the Law from the freeing, forgiving word of the Gospel, to preach the Law in its full severity and the Gospel in all its sweetness–this is the highest art of the preacher. Those who bear witness to Christ–“Witnesses Preach Law and Gospel.”
The danger, though, is either to soften the Law, so that it does not convict us as sinners, or, on the other hand, to turn the Gospel into Law–in other words, that we change it from gift into demand. We do not want people to get the idea that, although they have failed at keeping the Ten Commandments, now here is one commandment you can keep and must keep, and that is, to make your decision for Jesus, and that is up to you. “God did his part, but now you have to do yours.” No, we should avoid that kind of preaching, for it will turn people back on their own efforts instead of looking to Christ alone for their salvation.
For instance, in Thesis IX of “Law and Gospel,” Walther states: “You are not rightly distinguishing Law and Gospel in the Word of God if you point sinners who have been struck down and terrified by the Law toward their own prayers and struggles with God and tell them that they have to work their way into a state of grace.”
So how would Walther react to our text today from the Book of Acts? Was Peter, on the Day of Pentecost, properly distinguishing Law and Gospel when he preached to the people, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation”? “Save yourselves”? If you went up to Concordia Cemetery in St. Louis, where Walther is buried, would you have heard a loud spinning sound this morning as this lesson was being read?
Well, let’s look at this verse in its context and see who is right, Peter or Walther. And this is not just an academic question; there’s a lot riding on it–for you. If it is up to you to “save yourself,” then the question becomes, “Have I done enough?” You see, your personal salvation is at stake.
As I say, this text is from Peter’s Pentecost sermon. And Peter has, up to this point, certainly preached the Law to his hearers, to convict them of their sin, their sinful blindness toward God. Earlier he told the crowd gathered there in Jerusalem: “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know–this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.”
Whoa! That takes some fortitude, to tell a crowd of several thousand people: “God sent his own man to you, who did all sorts of wonderful divine works in your midst, so that you are without excuse. And what did you do? You killed him! You did not receive him, you did not believe in him. No, you had him crucified!” And Peter goes on to say: “This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses.” “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”
“This Jesus whom you crucified.” That shows how far off-base these people were in reading the will of God. Their sin had blinded them from seeing God’s Messiah. “You killed him; God raised him up.” Basically, Peter has been telling his hearers, “You blew it!”
This preaching of the Law is sharp and penetrating, as their reaction shows: “Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart.” The Word was working repentance in their hearts. They were realizing how badly they had misread God, how they had failed to do God’s will, big-time.
How about you? Have you missed the boat on knowing and doing God’s will? Have you blown it? Has God’s word come to you, telling you what you ought to do, and you have not done it? You’ve tuned out God’s word, pushed it aside, in order to do what you want to do. Yes, that’s me. That’s you. Too many times than I care to recall, I have turned a deaf ear to God’s commandments: His commandments on listening to his word; on honoring the authorities he has established; on loving my neighbor and helping him; on honoring marriage; on respecting other people’s property and their reputation; on being content with how God provides for me. Even though I know God’s way is best, I have not done it. I am the sinner that the Law condemns, and rightly so.
Men and women of Bonne Terre: It was your sins for which this Jesus was crucified. You deserved it; he suffered it. Do you see that it is you who should have died? Do you feel God’s word of Law cutting you to the heart?
Peter’s listeners were cut to the heart, and they asked him and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” What was Peter’s answer? “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.”
Well, now, this is good Gospel preaching! Peter recognizes that God is working repentance in these people’s hearts, bringing them to turn from their sins toward God. Now Peter gives them Gospel promise to cling to: Baptism in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins. The Lord is calling people to himself. God is doing his work in their hearts, creating saving faith in Christ, faith in God’s promise of forgiveness, enacted in Holy Baptism.
Friends, this promise is for you, and for your children, too! God loves sinners today as much as he did back then. The Gospel works today just as well as it did on Pentecost Day. God is saving sinners and giving them forgiveness and life in Jesus’ name. This is for you! Believe and receive what all God is giving you today. This precious promise, the greatest gift of all, you will not get anywhere else. Moms, your children may give you presents today, but nothing to match what you get only in the preaching of the Gospel. Flowers and chocolate are nice, but they can’t hold a candle to the forgiveness, new life, and eternal salvation that are yours in Christ!
This is good news! This is wonderful! This is sweet music to a sinner’s ears! Free forgiveness, all by grace, pure gift, pure Gospel. So what is this seemingly discordant note that follows? “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” “Save yourselves. . . .” Well, part of the problem is that this is really not the best translation of the Greek. Now overall, the ESV is a pretty good translation. But this verse can be a little misleading, especially if it is taken out of context. And the ESV is not the only one that has “Save yourselves.” The NIV and KJV have it this way also. But the NKJV and NASB translate it the way I think is better: “Be saved.” That’s what the Greek verb actually says. “Be saved from this crooked generation” gets it right, grammatically and theologically. God is calling you to faith, yes, but it is God who is doing the work. “Be saved” by faith. “Be saved” by God. And you will be saved from the judgment that will come on this crooked and perverse generation. That is God’s sure promise to you, the promise of salvation.
So really, there is no conflict between Peter and Walther. We do not have to make any “Proper Distinction between Peter and Walther.” They both are agreed. Every one of us is a sinner, convicted and condemned by God’s Law. And all of us are saved purely by grace, for Christ’s sake, without any contributing cause on our part. This is the Gospel.
This is a relief! This is a joy! It’s all God’s doing. Of that we can be sure. If it were up to me, I could never be sure I had done enough, or made my decision for Jesus strong enough, or anything like that. But God’s work, God’s Word–of that we can be certain.
Faithful witnesses like Peter and Walther preach both Law and Gospel: The Law to show us our sin and our need. The Gospel to show us our Savior and God’s answer to our need. Friends, both Peter and Walther would direct you to where you can find Christ your Savior today. You will find him in the Word and the Sacraments: In Holy Baptism; in Holy Absolution; in the preaching of the Holy Gospel; and in the Holy Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood. Receive, believe, and be saved!