Walther had taken stock of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod. He had sat in the pew on Sunday mornings. He feared that her preaching was not up to snuff, that it leaned toward legalism, that his students did not quite know what they were getting into, and maybe even that they had too much right doctrine and not enough practical application. Thus he made one last ditch effort to send out his last crop of students as those dedicated to the doctrine of justification who would, above all else, preach the Gospel.
It is admirable goal. The lectures are a blessing to us. The book that came from them is a true treasure. It is, however, like all good things, subject to abuse. If it is taken out of context or simply used as a source for pull quotes, it might well mislead us into Gospel reductionism or a bias against dogmatics as being “of the law” or of thinking that we can see into men’s hearts and know exactly when to apply the Law or the Gospel. So also it might give us the false impression that the proper distinction between Law and Gospel is a task that we can master.
I don’t mean this as a critique of what Walther wrote. I think what he wrote is beautiful and right. I love and use it. I mean this as a critique or a warning of how Walther has sometimes been used and mis-read.
By way of example, one of Walther’s phrases that is most helpful and which is also often pulled up as a kind of buzz word or slogan comes from his last and summary thesis: "You are not rightly distinguishing Law and Gospel in the Word of God if you do not allow the Gospel to predominate in your teaching" (Walther, 455).
I suspect that every pastor in the LCMS is familiar with this thesis and the idea behind it. The Gospel must predominate. This is Walther’s entire concern. He wants his church body to be built upon the doctrine of Justification because he wants to be the Church of the Augsburg Confession and the Formula of Concord, the Church that knows the Catechism by heart and makes a quia subscription to the Book of Concord of 1580. That, of course, is not all spelled out in the lectures. We learn that from Walther’s many other writings, but we need to keep it in mind.
In Thesis XXV Walther is talking about preaching but he also has in mind the entirety of the pastor’s ministry. He doesn’t much use the word justification though he does quote Augsburg IV. For the most part, not just here but throughout the lectures, he simply talks about the Gospel, the Good News of our reconciliation to the Father by the death and resurrection of the Son that is received by faith. Preachers don’t proclaim justification. They proclaim the Gospel. Ministers aren’t ministers of justification but of the Word. Proclamation effects justification. The Gospel then, as justification, must do more than simply drive all of our doctrine, practice, and preaching. It must be the goal and purpose of our work. This is entirely correct. Walther’s admonition is well put and needs to be held before us at all times.
But if we don’t read this lecture carefully and take it in context as what it is meant to be, but instead only hear the words “the Gospel must predominate” we might get the mistaken impression that Gospel predomination means Gospel domination and Law subjugation, that is that the Law is not even necessary or that the Law is a negative reality that we must pass over quickly. We might even think that the more Gospel words and phrases a sermon has, and the less Law it has, the more beneficial and Lutheran it is.
In fact, in this lecture, Walther gives a long quote from Luther as an example of how to preach good works according to the Gospel and it is full of Law. Luther preaches the Gospel not simply for the forgiveness of sins, but also to change the hearts of the hearers so that they would do good works. It is important that we notice that this is in the middle of the lecture that extols the virtues of Gospel predomination. For he does not mean Gospel as license or Gospel that abrogates the Law and removes the need for instruction. The Luther quote used by Walther speaks directly to these false idea that Christians don’t care about the Law and morality:
They would change their tone if they landed in this prison. When they stand at the left hand of the Judge, and anguish and terror get hold of them, they will experience what this prison means. Therefore, this is not a sermon for people’s flesh and blood, as if they were given freedom to do according to their desires. But the point of Christ’s ascension and His rule is to make sin captive, to prevent eternal death from putting us in shackles and keeping us there.
Now, if sin is to be made captive, I – a believer in Christ – must live in such a way that I am not overcome by hatred and envy of my fellow humans or by other sins. Rather, I must fight against sin and say, “Listen, sin! You want to stir me up to become angry, to envy, to commit adultery, to steal, to be unfaithful, etc. This I will not do.” Likewise, if sin wants to assault me from another angle and fill me with terror, I must say: “No, sin. You are my servant, and I am your lord. Have you never heard what David sang about my Lord Jesus Christ, ‘You ascended on high,’ etc.? Until now, you have been a hangman and a devil to me. You have taken me prisoner. But now I believe in Christ and you will be my hangman no longer. I will not permit you to accuse me, for you are prisoner of my Lord and King, who has put in the stocks and cast you beneath my feet.”
Understand this matter correctly: By His ascension and by the preaching of faith, Christ does not mean to rear lazy and sluggish Christians who say, “We will now live according to our pleasure, not doing good works, remaining sinners, and following sin like captive slaves.” People who talk in this way do not have a right understanding of the preaching of faith. Christ and His mercy are not preached so that people should remain in their sins. On the contrary, this is what Christians doctrine proclaims: The prison should release you – not so that you may do whatever you desire, but so that you will sin not more (Walther, 461-462).
Walther then goes on to tell the students some people will abuse the Gospel and take false comfort in it apart from actual repentance and faith. They will claim to use the Gospel as an excuse to remain in their sins and not change. Those people, says Walther, will go to Hell, but the students should not try to keep them from Hell by more Law preaching. They should preach the Gospel and take the risk that it be misheard or misappropriated for it is the Gospel that changes hearts. The preachers should, as Luther did, warn their hearers. They should preach the Law sternly and call for repentance and a change, but they should also preach the Gospel and suffer the consequences, leaving it in God’s hands.
If Walther’s words were taken apart from his long example, which he claims is proper Gospel predomination and Gospel motivation for good works, and apart from his other lectures, let alone his many sermons and other writings, we might misunderstand Walther to mean that the Law wasn’t needed as a warning to the hearers or that the preacher should make no attempt to be clear in their distinction between Law and Gospel but should simply preach the sweet words of the Gospel without concern for how they were received. We might think that Walther’s attempt to comfort his students with trust in the Holy Spirit’s promise to work through the Gospel meant that no warnings were needed or even that men couldn’t fall away or abuse the Gospel. This is not Walther’s meaning or intent.
The example he gives from Luther includes much law. It even has “must” language and descriptions of fighting against sin or being damned. Walther doesn’t see this as contradictory to the Gospel or Legalism but actual Gospel preaching. To say that Christ did not mean to rear lazy and sluggish Christians is not only an accusation against our fallen flesh. It does not forgive sins. It is not the Gospel. It is the Law. But besides being and accusation, it is also a description of what the Gospel promises and gives. In forgiving our sins, the Gospel gives us the Holy Spirit who fights against sin and unbelief in us and gives us the strength to fight with Him. Conversion is monergistic.
Before man is illuminated, converted, reborn, renewed, and drawn by the Holy Spirit, he can do nothing in spiritual things of himself and by his own powers. In his own conversion or regeneration he can as little begin, effect, or cooperate in anything as a stone, a block, or a lump of clay could. (SD. II. 24. Tappert)
But sanctification is synergistic. Christians learn from the Law what is good and what God wants and by the Gospel they desire to fulfill it and to cooperate with the Holy Spirit:
From this it follows that as soon as the Holy Spirit has initiated his work of regeneration and renewal in us through the Word and the holy sacraments, it is certain that we can and must cooperate by the power of the Holy Spirit, even though we still do so in great weakness. (SD. II. 65, Tappert).
The Luther quote from Walther teaches by example how the Christian is to think and speak as a Christian. The Christian learns to say “Listen sin! You want to stir me up to all sorts of evil. This I will not do,” and again: “Sin you are my servant. I am not yours.”
Later in his lecture when Walther says that “whoever is engaged in this preaching of the pure Gospel and thus directs people to Christ, the only mediator between God and people, he, as a preacher, is doing the will of God (Walther, 466)” we must understand that the pure Gospel is not only the fulfillment of the Law but also is defined by the Law. There is no pure Gospel apart from the Law and no service is done to hearers if they are not warned and instructed by the Law along with being accused. Thus Walther says that this preaching of the Gospel is the “genuine fruit” of true prophets “by which no one is deceived or duped (Walther, 466).” Those who mishear or misunderstand our preaching of the Gospel as license to sin, and likewise those preachers who preach to itchy ears and ignore the warnings and instructions of the Law, have not heard the pure Gospel. Walther wants to comfort his students with God’s promises. He wants to teach them to leave this in God’s hands and trust the Gospel At the same time, Walther in no way wants them to ignore the dangers of sin or to make no attempts to address it. The example from Luther and the deep and varied examples from the body of Walther’s own preaching shine with true God-pleasing and accurate Gospel predomination.