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How to Handle the Word of God

handlingtruthIn the newly revised edition of Handling the Word of Truth, John Pless explains C. F. W. Walther’s simple, yet complex, art of how to distinguish between Law and Gospel in faithful preaching and in Christian conversations. The following excerpt is from chapter 4, in which Pless expounds on Thesis VI of Walther’s Law and Gospel, instructing Christians not to mix God’s Law with the Gospel.

The Mix Makes the Muddle

You are not rightly distinguishing Law and Gospel in the Word of God if you do not preach the Law in its full sternness and the Gospel in its full sweetness. Similarly, do not mingle Gospel elements with the Law or Law elements with the Gospel.—C. F. W. Walther (Thesis VI [Law and Gospel, 89])

To bring the Law into the domain of the Gospel is to undermine the good news of Jesus Christ, transforming a pure gift into a human achievement. Such mingling of Law with Gospel dilutes the precious promises of God with demands for works. In short, the Gospel is polluted and rendered impotent. To use another biblical metaphor, a pinch of the yeast of the Law hidden away in the dough of the Gospel ruins the whole lump. We are not left with the bread of life but with stale rations that cannot sustain those who journey through the valley of death’s shadow.

On the other hand, to mix the Gospel into the Law is to create the illusion that the Law offers hope. Inserted into the Law, the Gospel weakens but does not remove the threat of the Law. Such a blending of Law and Gospel invites sinners to place their confidence in their own efforts—“motivated by the Gospel,” as it is said. The Law is lifted up as a set of principles or rules that may be obeyed and fulfilled with the aid of God’s grace. This synthesis of Law and Gospel corrupts both, driving broken sinners either to a false security or to unholy despair.

In his defense of Thesis VI, Walther turns to Galatians 3:11–12 where the apostle Paul says: “Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’ But the law is not of faith, rather ‘The one who does them shall live by them.’ ” The Law has absolutely no power to make human beings righteous. It has nothing to say about God’s grace in Jesus Christ. It cannot create faith. The faith that the Law demands is not a work that we can accomplish. Faith is purely passive, completely receptive of the gift of forgiveness bestowed by the Gospel alone. “For when God creates faith in man, this is as great a work as if He were to create heaven and earth again,” says Luther.[1] This faith comes by hearing the Gospel, not the Law. “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). The Law creates the knowledge of sin, but it is powerless to give the knowledge of salvation (Romans 3:20).

There is no sweetness in the Law. Walther warns against every attempt to take the edge off the Law by making it less lethal than it is. He says:

No Gospel element, then, must be mingled with the Law. Anyone explaining the Law shamefully corrupts it if he adds grace to it—the grace, loving-kindness, and patience of God who forgives sin. That person would be like a nurse who fetches sugar to sweeten bitter medicine, which the patient dislikes. What is the result? Why, the medicine would not work, and the patient would remain feverish. In order to retain its strength, the medicine should not have been sweetened. A preacher must proclaim the Law in such a way that nothing in it is pleasant for us lost and condemned sinners. Any sweet ingredient injected into the Law is poison. It renders this heavenly medicine inactive. It neutralizes its effectiveness. (Law and Gospel, 90)

The Law remains Law and the Gospel remains Gospel. Jesus did not come to destroy or displace the Law but to fulfill it (see Matthew 5:17–19). So in proclaiming the Law, its threats must be spoken without adulteration. “Whenever you preach the Law, you must always bear in mind that it makes no concessions. That would be completely contrary to the character of the Law, because it makes only demands” (Law and Gospel, 90).

God gave humankind His holy Law imprinted on the heart and inscribed on tablets of stone at Sinai. He gave the Ten Commandments, not the “ten suggestions,” as one wag put it. God’s Law is not an arbitrary imposition on human beings. It is a divine requirement that imposes itself “out of the conditions of creaturely life,”[2] to borrow a phrase from James Nestingen. It will not relax its limits. The Law cannot be toned down as though God were not absolutely serious in His demands for perfection. It is impossible to whittle the Law down to manageable size as though the Almighty, like a doting schoolteacher, might grade on a curve, relaxing His stringent standards.

[1] LW 30:14.
[2] James Arne Nestingen, “The Lord’s Prayer in Luther’s Catechisms,” Word & World 22 (Winter 2002): 39.

From Handling the Word of Truth, Revised Edition, pages 53–55 © 2015 John T. Pless, published by Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved.

To order Handling the Word of Truth, 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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