Today I am going to start a project. Over the next few weeks I will be reading through C.F.W. Walther’s Law & Gospel (the new Reader’s Addition translated by my classmate, Christian Tiews). If you have ever struggled with trying to read and apply the Bible (and I would guess this applies to every person that has tried to read and apply the Bible), you HAVE to read this book. I highly urge you to buy a copy for yourself. This isn’t just a book for pastors, but one that I seriously believe every Christian should read. Click here to order it from CPH. My format will be as follows: State the thesis (in italics) and then have a short commentary/summary/highlight of Walther’s unpacking of each thesis. Everything I quote and put in italics is quoted from this edition. Let’s dive right in:
The doctrinal contents of all Holy Scripture, both of the Old and the New Testament, consist of two doctrines that differ fundamentally from each other. These two doctrines are Law and Gospel.
First we must begin by definitions (from the Glossary). The Law is simply this: “God’s will, which shows people how they should live in order to please God, condemns their failure to fulfill His will (sin, and threatens God’s wrath because of sin.” In other words, if a statement involves you doing something it is Law. The Gospel, then, is simply this: “The Gospel of Jesus Christ, in its proper and narrow sense, is the glad tidings of forgiveness, peace, life, and joy; the eternal divine counsel of redemption, of which Christ Himself ever was, is, and will be the living center, the very heart and soul. The Gospel (a) imparts the forgiveness of sin; (b) produces true joy and zeal to do good works; and (c) destroys sin both outwardly and inwardly.” In other words, the Gospel is what Jesus has done (is doing, will do) for us, especially on the Cross, His Resurrection, and in His Reappearing.
With this we must then also be very clear. Both Law and Gospel come from God. Both are His Will. Both are necessary for us. To understand/benefit from one the other is necessary. Furthermore, we should not think of Law as something of the Old Testament and Gospel as something of only the New Testament. Also we should not think of the Law as only for condemnation and the Gospel as only for salvation. “The purpose of both is the salvation of human kind – except that ever since the fall,the Law has not been capable of leading us to salvation. It can only prepare us for the Gospel.” Finally, these two do not contradict each other as God speaks without contradiction in Scripture.
There are distinct differences between Law and Gospel.
First they differ in how they were revealed to us. The Law was set in place and is revealed through creation. This is why natural law: what you can’t not know, or as Paul says, what is written on the heart, is important. The Gospel, on the other hand, is not self evident. But this “free act of divine grace” is revealed to us in the Word (I use this because I mean both the written Word, Holy Scripture, and also in the Person and Work of Jesus Christ, whom we of course know through Scripture).
Second, the contents of each are different. The Law tells us what to do, the Gospel tells us what God is doing.
Third, the promises of each are different. The Law has conditional promises: if you do x you will be blessed… Oh… and that condition… it’s complete perfection and if you’ve already made a mistake (including being conceived with the stain of original sin), you are too late. The Gospel comes without condition. God blesses you with forgiveness and eternal life through no merit of your own. As I’ve told evangelical friends, “My testimony is that I was brought kicking and screaming against my will into God’s family, the Church, through the waters of Holy Baptism.” I’ll unpack that at a later date.
Fourth, the two differ in that if the Law is not kept perfectly, it brings with it a threat of condemnation. The Gospel on the other hand “does not contain any threats whatsoever — only words of consolation“
Fifth, the two have very different effects. Even though “the Law tells us what to do, it does not give us the strength to carry out its commands.” Thus it on its own it sets us against God! Do we wonder that in a nearly Christless Christianity why so many are turned against God and the Church? It’s because they have only heard the Law since their “conversion”! The Law also “uncovers a person’s sins“. Third, “the Law does indeed produce feelings of contrition by conjuring up the terrors of hell, death and the wrath of God.“
On the other hand the Gospel’s effects are quite different. The Gospel itself demands faith… but it also gives this faith as well as a free gift (Ephesians 2:8-9) through the Word (Romans 10:17). The Gospel brings joy to the saddened, comfort to the distraught, and peace to those in terror. The Gospel changes us. As the Psalmist says, “Create in my a clean heart, O God.” This new creation desires to do good works, even though they are not a condition of receiving the Gospel. In other words, the one touched and changed by the Gospel cannot help but to do the good works God has set before them (Ephesians 2:10).
Sixth, and finally, the two are different in that the Law and Gospel are to be proclaimed and applied to different people. If a person is secure in their sin, they need to hear the Law. If the person is terrified and guilt stricken… then they need to hear the Gospel. This is why every sermon should strike each one of us at the heart in security over our own sin and why every sermon absolutely MUST bring us the comfort and consolation of the Gospel. Now it is true that there are times when a person can be in such security or such grief that they will not hear the Law or the Gospel… trust me, I’ve been in both places… but the continual hearing of Law and Gospel rightly divided and applied is truly a gift sweeter than the finest honey.
If you are following along, we are through page 24. I’ll cover the rest of Walther’s unpacking of Thesis I next time.