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Distinguishing Law and Gospel

531166On September 12, 1884, students piled into the auditorium of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, for Professor C. F. W. Walther’s usual Friday evening “Luther Hour” lecture. The new topic, which would last every Friday evening for one and a half school years, was the proper distinction between Law and Gospel. Walther recognized the apparent contradictions in Scripture, with the greatest apparent contradiction being about the purpose of the Bible—how we come to God and are saved—and concluded that the answer to that and all other contradictions is found in the proper distinction between Law and Gospel.

Walther’s students later compiled their notes from his lectures and published them. The compilation underwent numerous printings and spans multiple editions in both German and English. The latest English edition, Law and Gospel: How to Read and Apply the Bible, contains a wealth of introductory and contextual information, providing the most in-depth study available on this essential text.

The following excerpt is Walther’s own introduction to the lecture series.

My Dear Friends: —

If you are to become efficient teachers in our churches and schools, there is no doubt that you need extremely detailed knowledge of every doctrine of the Christian revelation. However, that is not all. What you need to know as well is how to apply these doctrines correctly. Not only must you have a clear understanding of these doctrines, but they must also enter deeply into your heart, so they can reveal their divine, heavenly power. All these doctrines must be so precious, so valuable, so dear to you that you cannot but profess with a glowing heart in the words of Paul: “We also believe, and so we also speak,” and in the words of all the apostles: “For we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” Although you indeed have not seen these things with your physical eyes or heard them with your physical ears (as the apostles did), you ought to experience them with the eyes and ears of your spirit.

While in our dogmatics lectures my goal is to ground you in every doctrine and make you certain of them, I have designed these Friday evening lectures to make you truly practical theologians. I wish to talk the Christian doctrine into your very heart, enabling you to come forward as living witnesses with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power. I do not want you to be standing in your pulpits like lifeless statues, but to speak with confidence and cheerful courage, offering help where help is needed.

Now, of all doctrines, the first and foremost is the doctrine of justification. However, immediately following upon it—and almost equally as important— is the doctrine of how to distinguish between Law and Gospel. Let us now focus on this distinction between Law and the Gospel—a task to which we want to apply ourselves diligently.

Luther says that the man who possesses the skill of distinguishing Law and Gospel is foremost among his peers and should be regarded as a doctor of theology. But I would not have you believe that I regard myself to be foremost among my peers or that you should regard me as a doctor of theology. It would be a great mistake if you were to believe that. While I admit that people sometimes do address me by that burdensome title of “Doctor of Theology,” I would prefer to remain a humble disciple and sit at the feet of our Dr. Luther, just as he learned the teachings from the apostles and prophets.

As often as you attend these lectures, I want you to come breathing a silent prayer in your heart that God may grant us His Holy Spirit abundantly, that you would profitably hear, and that I would effectively teach. Let us then take up our task, trusting firmly that God would bless our souls and the souls of those whom we are to rescue.

When we compare Holy Scripture with other writings, we notice that no book seems to be as full of contradictions as the Bible. And this seems to be true not only in minor points but also even in its main point, namely, regarding the doctrine of how we may come to God and are saved.

For instance, in one passage, the Bible offers forgiveness to all sinners, yet in another passage forgiveness of sins is withheld from all sinners. Or, in still another passage, life everlasting is offered freely to all people, but in yet another, people are directed to do something themselves in order to be saved. This riddle can be solved when we consider that there are two entirely different doctrines in Scripture: the doctrine of the Law and the doctrine of the Gospel.

Footnotes omitted.

From Law and Gospel: How to Read and Apply the Bible, pages 9–10 © 2010 Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved.

To order Law and Gospel, please contact CPH at 800-325-3040 or visit www.cph.org.

Written by

Sarah Steiner

At CPH since 2009, Sarah Steiner was a production editor for the professional and academic book team. She worked on many academic titles, including coordinating the peer review books, and also helped out with Bible resource projects.


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