Derek Johnson Muses

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Reopening Walther’s Law and Gospel: Being Mastered by the Scriptures

I first read C.F.W. Walther’s Law and Gospel the summer between junior and senior of college. The book was compilation of evening lectures that Walther gave to seminary student about good preaching: setting for the Law, God’s judgment on sin, and the Gospel, God’s grace for the repentant sinner. I was stuck by Walther’s precision as he went though his points and carefully set forth the truth of the gospel. It was a great time in my life to have such a reading, as I going to chapel every day, which allowed my to apply Walther’s guidelines to the sermon of the day. Not that I was trying to be negative; preaching should be scrutinized closely. Since then, Walther’s lectures always hang out in the back of my mind, and as I now have been preparing a Bible study on Isaiah, I decided to reopen the book.

Thumbing through it, the first thing that I noticed is that Walther devoted the most time to (six lectures) was the problem of repentant sinners being directed to their own piety for their salvation. It is no wonder that Walther would be so fixated on the issues of piety. While Islam and Deism presented not-so-subtle conflicts with Christianity, the Pietists sought to turn people to their own thoughts, prayers, and works. Granted, we may have a high points in our faith, but those high points should not define us. Christ crucified for sinners should defined us.

Walther’s first example in how to switch cleanly between Law and Gospel uses Peter’s sermon in Acts 2. When Peter drives his hearers to sorrow over their sins and “they were cut to the heart” (v. 37 ESV), he doesn’t give them anything to do. Peter tells them “Repent (to Walther, this means to have faith) and be baptized…in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.” (v. 38). Peter commends these sinners to Christ’s work on their behalf.

The part of Law and Gospel preaching I struggle with as I read this is the sudden change in voice in the text, or in a sermon. It’s like a movie with a huge twist ten minutes before the end: I’m being told that I’m terrible, and I can feel that guilt and conviction. But then all of sudden, God swoops in and says, “You’re forgiven.” This also happens when I’m reading the Bible, as I am doing right now for my Isaiah study. The prophet will shift gears so quickly-going from seven women claiming one man as their husband, then shifting to the grandeur of the coming kingdom of the Lord. (Is. 4:1-2). I find this confounding, and sometimes, I feel like I’m getting a mixed message.

But who am I to question how my Lord should come to me? He comes to us in the middle of a world that I broken and hurting and proclaims radical grace. The devil tempts us to sin and tells us, revel in the evil like the world does. It’s easy, all you have to do is feel sorry for yourself. But that is what makes the Gospel a stumbling block: it goes against what our nature wants. And what makes the Gospel so amazing is that it can surprise after we have found ourselves trapping in our sin and even mourning it, and from there, it lifts us up.

The main point about Law and Gospel that stuck with me was that God is always dealing with us, whether that is through correction or through encouragement. The key to understanding that, as Walther says in his first thesis, is experience, and that God works through every experience we have. That is the greatest comfort of this understanding of scripture.


"The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore." Psalm 121:8

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