To rightly distinguish Law and Gospel is the most difficult and highest Christian art – and for theologians in particular. It is taught only by the Holy Spirit in combination with experience.
When I was a seminarian one of the things that annoyed me most was being told that I would “understand once you get back from vicarage.” Of course, then, this changed after vicarage to “you’ll understand when you’ve served a parish as pastor for a couple years.” Let me tell you, this got under my skin like no other. Truth be told I saw this as an attack on what I had learned… and also as an attack on my previous experience as a layman who worked in the secular sector(as secular as Thrivent was) and who was active in my home parish on various boards and in different areas of involvement.
Truth be told these comments weren’t such an attack (for those first/second year Seminarians that read this, take what I have to say to heart). Nor were these comments intending to undermine that which is objectively true.
What Walther is getting at is that it is no easy task to discern when to speak Law and when to speak Gospel to someone. This is one of the big reasons why mechanical evangelism techniques are at best problematic and at their worst abusive. To speak God’s Word rightly, the speaker ought to know the person he is speaking to (Walther touches upon this in later theses, so I will leave that statement unsupported). But even knowing the hearer, the speaker, especially a preacher, has quite a difficult task of rightly speaking Law and Gospel at the right times. Walther even notes Luther had this difficulty!
Walther also makes a point that it is the Holy Spirit who teaches this along side the experience one has. Of course, the Holy Spirit comes and acts by means none other than the Word of God.
In this translation of Law & Gospel, Rev. Tiews really tries to bring out Walther’s earthiness. Here’s a great example of what’s at the heart of this thesis:
Preach in such a way that people in the congregation would think: “He means me. Sure enough, he has described me – a hypocrite – exactly as I am.” On the other hand, you the preacher would have to describe a person afflicted with temptation so plainly that this victim of tribulation would have to admit: “That’s my condition without a doubt.” Conversely, when listening to the preacher, a penitent person would think: “That comfort is meant for me; I need to embrace it.” At the same time, an alarmed soul must be led to think: “Oh, what a joyous message. He means me!” Yes the impenitent, too, must be made to acknowledge: “That pastor has me down to a T.” (page 60)
There’s much more good to be said about this chapter. Walther puts a great deal of responsibility on the shoulders of the Pastor and expresses the difficulty of this task. One last piece of advice that was given to me that relates quite well to this thesis was that a preacher knows himself best. So when he goes about crafting his sermons, especially when it comes to how one needs to hear both Law and Gospel rightly, he should preach concerning himself, convicting him of his own sins and comforting his terrified conscience with the Gospel. Then, and only then, will he also be able to connect to the consciences of his flock.