Law and Gospel: One Small Step Toward Unity?

I spent a week’s vacation last week with my family behind the “Cheddar Curtain” in Wisconsin, as well as in southeast Minnesota. Though I was riddled with lower back pain and sciatica, it was a restful week spent reading the first half of C.F.W. Walther’s timeless classic, “The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel.” I appreciate what Concordia Publishing House has done with the “Reader’s Edition.” Walther’s words are brought into easy to understand English. It is as if the man himself were speaking to me.

What strikes me most about this book is the fact that I am once again convicted of preaching non-specific Law and Gospel in my sermons. Walther makes it quite clear that both Law and Gospel should specifically be preached to the congregation. It should be as if the hearer says to himself, “He is talking about me!” The heart of the matter is that the preacher should say this about his own self first of all. Preacher: Preach to yourself! Convict yourself of unbelief, then bring comfort in the grace and peace of Jesus Christ.

This brings me to a modest proposal I have either for the simmering “Koinonia Project” or for possible continuing education among pastors of the Missouri Synod (but is easily adaptable to other Lutheran synods). Wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing to have most, if not all, circuits in The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod reading and discussing “The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel” for an extended period of time? Yes, I realize this is perhaps an impossible dream. Many circuits in my beloved synod are dysfunctional. Some don’t even meet on a regular basis. Nevertheless, if pastors were to lay aside all malice, buy the book, and read it together as brothers-in-office, perhaps this exercise could begin to teach pastors anew the proper distinction between Law and Gospel.

Sometimes it’s best to start at first principles to get a discussion going. Walther’s lectures on Law and Gospel may be the best place to start. All pastors could use a refresher course in distinguishing Law and Gospel. Once this book is read and discussed, perhaps pastors could move on to something else, like Blessed Martin Luther’s “The Bondage of the Will” or, for something not quite as heavy, Henry Hamann’s “On Being A Christian.” Start with works that may bring easy agreement, then work toward differences after mutual agreement on first principles are made. You can’t get more basic than distinguishing Law and Gospel. Perhaps the Reader’s Edition of “Law and Gospel” is the best way to learn how to walk together using the tiniest of baby steps.

About Pastor David Juhl

The Reverend David Michael Juhl was born June 1, 1972 in Du Quoin, IL. He was born from above by water and the Holy Spirit on June 18, 1972 at Bethel Lutheran Church, Du Quoin, IL. He was confirmed on March 23, 1986 at Bethel congregation. He attended Du Quoin public schools, graduating from Du Quoin High School in 1990. He attended John A. Logan Junior College, Carterville, IL, and Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, IL, graduating with the Bachelor of Arts in Radio and Television in 1994. Before attending seminary, Pastor Juhl was a radio disc jockey, working for WDQN Radio in Du Quoin, IL and volunteering at WSIU/WUSI/WVSI Radio in Carbondale, IL while a student at SIU. Pastor Juhl is a 2002 graduate of Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN. He served his vicarage at Faith Lutheran Church, Tullahoma, TN. His first charge after graduation was Trinity Lutheran Church, Iuka, IL, where he was ordained and installed on July 7, 2002. He served Trinity until March 4, 2007, when he accepted the Divine Call to serve Our Savior Lutheran Church, Momence, IL. Pastor Juhl is married to the former Rebecca Warmuth since October 3, 2003. They have one daughter, Catherine, born September 3, 2004, and two sons, Matthew, born October 11, 2008, and Christopher, born August 12, 2010.


Law and Gospel: One Small Step Toward Unity? — 16 Comments

  1. I wouldn’t mind doing so in our circuit. It has been a long time since I read “Law and Gospel,” but we are already reading through the A.C. together.

  2. Lame lay question – why spend so much time studying books about the Bible?  If you had a great teacher like Pastor Woo in Daly City, you would much prefer to study the Bible, itself.

    OK Pr Woo is a great teacher probably because he has studied many other books as background.

  3. Thanks, David, could not agree more.

    And particularly now that we have a translation of Law and Gospel that really allows the original language to shine forward, instead of making Walther sound like a 19th century British academic.

  4. In college, God’s No and God’s Yes: The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel (CPH 1973) provided a helpful framework for evaluating and responding to what I was hearing from a variety religious perspectives at the time.

    Returning to the text some years later, I remain appreciative but also find portions problematic.

    Under Thesis X: “The believer need not at all be exhorted to do good works; his faith does them automatically.”

    My difficulty with that statement is that I see much in the Bible that indeed amounts to an exhortation to do good works. Search for the term “exhort” and you will find a variety of passages, including this one: “But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” (Hebrews 3:13) If God tells us to exhort one another, how can we accept Walther’s claim that it is not necessary?

    Under Thesis XI: “Since the Fall the Law has but a single function, viz., to lead men to the knowledge of their sins.”

    How can that statement be reconciled with the widely published and accepted three uses of the Law? How can it be reconciled with the many and various expressions of the Law throughout the Bible? For example, did God give Moses the Ten Commandments only to lead the Israelites to the knowledge of their sins?

  5. @John Rixe #2
    Mr. Rixe, books can be great teachers as well! 🙂 We do not study them to the exclusion of the Bible, but instead as study aids. They direct us back to the Bible, and may help the Scriptures to be clearer to us.

  6. @Carl H #4

    As to Thesis X, a thorough reading of the book makes clear that the Law is absolutely to be preached to the Christian. The point here is that the Law has nothing to say to the New Man. Nothing at all. The New Man only and always does good works. In fact the only good works that the Christian does, he does entirely without the preaching or compulsion of the Law.

    You second question, on Thesis XI, is related to the first. The Law always accuses. It never heals. It never increases righteousness. It has no power to create, encourage, or in any way provide motivation to do good works. “By the Law is the knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). The three uses of the Law are not to be treated like three different ways that we are to apply the Law. Rather they are the three things that the Law does. The three effects that it has: To curb sin, to reveal sin, and to discipline the flesh of the Christian. But the Law, in all three of its uses, still always accuses.

    It is a mistake to treat the third use of the Law like a recipe book. (What good works am I going to whip up today?) It is likewise a mistake for any preacher to try to use the Law for some specific use. The preacher does not get to choose which of the three uses the Law will have on any given person. That is I entirely the work of the Holy Spirit.

  7. At my winkle we make it a regular agenda item to read and discuss a section of the Confessions, and an evening lecture of Law and Gospel, at each conference, year round. It is time well spent, and I strongly encourage other winkles to do the same. It has been a blessing for all of us.

  8. @Rev. Paul T. McCain #6: “Of course, we must relieve Dr. Walther of the burden of infallibility.”

    That burden was lifted 173 years ago in a September 19, 1839, Protestation document. At the Altenburg Debate C.F.W. Walther himself acknowledged what that document had done.


    Walther, Law and Gospel
    The State of the Church Today

    by Rev. Daniel Preus

    C.F.W. Walther, one of the founding fathers of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, was not a particularly original theologian, nor did he wish to be. And he made it clear frequently in his speeches and in his writings that the theologian he most admired and trusted was Martin Luther. There is no other theologian or source, other than the Bible, which he quotes nearly as often as Luther. So significant is his dependence on Luther and so prevalent is his use of Luther’s writings, that he has frequently been called ‘The American Luther.’ He was referred to often as a repristination theologian and particularly a Luther repristinator, especially by those who disagreed with his theology. My predecessor at Concordia Historical Institute used to call him Luther’s archivist.

  10. Pr. Martin Diers #14: “I think his Rechte Gestalt had done a pretty good job of that.”

    Let the reader decide. C.F.W. Walther’s Die rechte gestalt einer vom staate unabha?ngigen evangelisch-lutherischen ortsgemeinde (Gedruckt bei A. Wiebusch u. sohn, zu haben bei M. C. Barthel, agent fu?r die Deutsche evang.-luth. synode von Missouri, Ohio u. a. st. in St. Louis, Mo, 1864, 228 pg) is available for reading online or downloading in various formats.

    An English translation of Walther’s book, “The Proper Form of an Evangelical Lutheran Congregation Independent of the State” is in The True Visible Church and the Form of a Christian Congregation (2005) which is for sale by CPH or Amazon, using a translation done in 1961 by… (drum roll)… Prof. John Theodore Mueller!

    Another CPH publication Walther and the Church (ed. Wm. Dallmann, W.H.T. Dau, and Th. Engelder. St. Louis: CPH, 1938) also contains a copy of “The Proper Form of an Evangelical Lutheran Congregation Independent of the State”, translated by by Dr. Th. Engelder. In the Preface, the editors refer to The Proper Form of an Evangelical Lutheran Congregation Independent of the State as “Dr. Walther’s second classic on the doctrine of the Church” and then go on to state:

    “Who originated the ideas back of this Proper Form of a Lutheran congregation? Not Walther. The original is found in Luther, and Luther found the principles in Scripture. Luther knew very well what form a Christian congregation should have. A study of the writings of the fathers of the Lutheran Church ‘shows that, even though the Lutheran Church existed in those days as a State Church, these men, guided by their doctrine of the Church, the Ministry, Church Government, etc., conceived of exactly such a form of a local church independent of the State as is presented in this book [The Proper form….].’ (Preface p. IV.)”

    One can also read online Engelder’s translation of “The Proper Form of an Evangelical Lutheran Congregation Independent of the State”.

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