C.F.W. Walther: Preacher of the Gospel

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Walther’s living legacy is his enduring teaching on how to distinguish the law and the gospel in the Church’s proclamation.

May 7 is the commemoration of C. F. W. Walther, who was one of the founding fathers of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, its first president, and the first president of Concordia Seminary. Undergirding his foundational significance for this denomination is Walther’s identity as a believer and preacher of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Walther understood, held fast, confessed, and proclaimed that Christ alone has accomplished the salvation of sinners. As a theologian and churchman, Walther always insisted on the purity of this message and vehemently rejected any attempt to add doing good works or human choice to the work of God in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

For Walther, the categorical nature of salvation as God’s work alone necessitated that the message of this salvation in the gospel must always be distinguished clearly from that of God’s law. Through the law, God reveals his will, tells us the difference between what is right and what is wrong, and condemns us for not keeping the law in its entirety. In the gospel, however, God reveals his salvation in Christ that comes to us by faith alone, apart from obedience to the law. [1] Following Martin Luther and the Lutheran Confessions, Walther consistently taught that maintaining this distinction was absolutely essential for theology and proclamation that proclaims Christ alone as Savior from sin, death, and the devil. [2]

Walther’s insistence on this distinction was not merely an attempt to be faithful to the teachings of Holy Scripture, the Lutheran Confessions, and Martin Luther. Walther’s commitment to this fundamental distinction also flowed from his own experience of hearing the law and the gospel. When he was a student at the University of Leipzig, Walther experienced an intense trial of his Christian faith. At this time, much of German Lutheranism was in the grip of the movement known as Pietism. Following the popular currents of rationalism, individualism, and the birth of the modern scientific method, Pietists taught that true Christians could only be assured of their salvation if they performed good works that evidenced a truly converted life. As Walther would later criticize, Pietism looked to what a Christian does for evidence of salvation rather than to what the Holy Scriptures say about what Christ has done for us. [3] This focus on individual works of piety rather than on the Good News of what Jesus has done drove the young Walther into a downward spiral of introspection and despair. When he looked at himself, Walther perceived such a lack of piety and so much sin that he began to doubt his salvation. [4] 

Walther concluded that the distinction between the law and the gospel must always be made in Christian theology, proclamation, and practice in order to preserve the purity of the gospel’s teaching.

Walther’s spiritual trial worsened until he encountered the pure and gracious gospel of Christ. Walther heard this gospel proclaimed to him by Lutheran preachers in Leipzig and Dresden and also read it in Luther’s works. From these sources, Walther heard that salvation comes from the work of Christ alone, apart from anything we do, and the assurance of faith in Christ comes from hearing the Gospel. [5] His encounter with the gospel proved formative for Walther’s theology and indeed of his entire life. Walther concluded that the distinction between the law and the gospel must always be made in Christian theology, proclamation, and practice in order to preserve the purity of the gospel’s teaching, free from any notion that humans contribute to salvation through their own efforts.

The most enduring testimony to Walther’s theological commitment to the distinction between law and gospel is a series of 39 evening lectures he gave at Concordia Seminary in 1884-1885. These lectures were entitled, The Proper Distinction between Law and Gospel. The lectures were published in German by Concordia Publishing House in 1887, the year of Walther’s death. This theological and pastoral legacy of Walther’s has since undergone translation, retranslation, and condensation. [6]

In these lectures, Walther identifies and expounds upon twenty-five theses on properly distinguishing law and gospel. Throughout the entire series, Walther’s motivation shines through. The elder professor and pastor wanted his students and successors to grasp the importance of how to properly handle law and gospel in preaching. This, in turn, is motivated by Walther’s unshakeable belief that the goal of preaching is to assure those listening that Christ alone saves them, and that no efforts of their own contribute to this salvation in any way.

These overriding concerns manifest on every page of Law & Gospel as Walther works his way through each thesis. Walther demonstrates how the two do not contradict one another but work together in a complementary fashion and how they each run through all of Scripture. Although they are structured in academic style, the lectures are intensely practical, as through them Walther shows how and how not to preach.

Don’t even, says Walther, turn the proclamation of the gospel into a call to repentance and amending one’s way of life.

Don’t, says Walther, try to take the bite out of the harsh medicine of the law by trying to weaken down so it can be easily swallowed. [7] At the same time don’t detract from the sweetness of the gospel by trying to inject some form of command into it. Don’t even, says Walther, turn the proclamation of the gospel into a call to repentance and amending one’s way of life. In reading these admonitions to his students, we must keep in mind that Walther and his contemporaries in North American Lutheranism lived in a time when revivalism dominated American Christianity. Revivalism relied on a harsh preaching of the law followed not by the pure gospel that God saves sinners for the sake of Christ, but by an appeal to make a decision for God and then evidence one’s salvation by a strong emotional response to the preaching and by straightening out one’s behavior. To preach like this, says Walther, is to turn the gospel into a new law, taking away the crucified and risen Christ and putting the individual’s performance in His place. [8] 

Under his discussion of Thesis VII, Walther goes so far as to give six incorrect sermon outlines. In this section, Walther states that sermons that begin and end with instruction on “true Christian living” are “simply horrible.” [9] This is because, for Walther, as sermon must end with the unconditional gospel that God saves sinners on account of what Christ has done for them by his life, death, and resurrection. This wisdom from Walther is an insight missing from much of preaching today. The preacher, says Walther, must conclude with the gospel because “the law is merely an auxiliary doctrine.” Its job, says Walther, is to convict and “penetrate the stony heart” of the hardened sinner so that “the real doctrine of Christ,” the gospel, can be heard. [10] The law is actually an alien function of preaching that is needed in order to prepare the heart for receiving the pure grace of Christ. [11] 

And yet, Walther argues the law comes from God. The law is God’s Word, and it reveals the will of God for human beings, telling us what works God would have us do and what works he would not have us do. [12] Because the law is good and has this function, it must also be preached to the Christian. The Law identifies for the Christian what good works look like, though the power to do such works comes through the gospel alone. Thus, it is important for instruction in Christian living to preach both law and gospel. [13] 

While he affirms that the law continues to be of importance in the life of the believer, for Walther, the overarching goal of properly distinguishing law and gospel is to keep the gospel free from any notion of adding human activity to the finished work of Christ. In the explanation of his last thesis, Walther wraps up his teaching with an appeal and warning to Lutheran preachers. Walther says the preacher must let the Gospel predominate for his preaching to be truly evangelical and life-giving. [14] If he does not do this, then he does not truly serve the pastoral office as Christ ordained it and “is not a true servant of the Gospel.” [15]

Walther’s significance in American Christianity is not relegated to his prominence in the founding of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod and of Concordia Seminary. As important as these are, Walther’s living legacy is his enduring teaching on how to distinguish the law and the gospel in the Church’s proclamation. His message to preachers is clear as a bell: Preach the law; preach the gospel; don’t mix them; and make the gospel the big deal. For it is the gospel that brings Christ to sinners, and Christ alone saves them. [16] Anyone who is a preacher or who is preparing to be a preacher should read Walther’s Law & Gospel. Here, he will hear the warm and evangelical wisdom of a preacher and Christian who believed, held fast, and proclaimed that Christ died for sinners and saves them on the basis of his work alone.

[1] C. F. W. Walther, Law & Gospel: How to Read and Apply the Bible, A Reader’s Edition, trans. Christian C. Tiews, ed. Charles P. Schaum, John P. Hellwege, Jr., and Thomas E. Manteufel (St. Louis: CPH, 2010), 1-17.

[2] Walther, Law & Gospel, 73.

[3] “Law & Gospel in Walther’s Teaching,” in Walther, Law & Gospel, xviii-xix.

[4] “The Life of C. F. W. Walther,” in Walther, Law & Gospel, xx.

[5] Ibid.

[6] W. H. T. Dau first translated the lectures into English in 1929. Walter Pieper condensed this translation in his volume, God’s No and God’s Yes, published in 1973. In 1981, Hebert J. A. Bouman further condensed and abridged Dau’s translation. William J. Schmelder, “Foreword,” in Walther, Law & Gospel, ix. In 2010, CPH published a study edition with a fresh translation by Christian Tiews of Walther’s German original.

[7] Walther, Law & Gospel, 90, 93.

[8] Walther, Law & Gospel, 309-311, 321-323, 333-334.

[9] Walther, Law & Gospel, 106.

[10] Walther, Law & Gospel, 457.

[11] Ibid

[12] Walther, Law & Gospel, 12, 14.

[13] Walther, Law & Gospel, 364.

[14] Walther, Law & Gospel, 459.

[15] Walther, Law & Gospel, 456.

[16] Walther, Law & Gospel, 459.