Thesis Thursday

One of the great things about Table Talk Radio (and Lutherans in general, whom we like), is their emphasis on Law and Gospel. Table Talk Radio turned me on to C. F. W. Walther’s The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel. As far as I can tell, Walther was the Machen of the Missouri Synod. In this work, Walther provides and expounds on 25 theses (them Lutherans sure love their theses!); 4 positive, and the rest negative.

For Thursdays going forward, I plan to leisurely blog through Walther’s theses, not necessarily a whole thesis every time, just as much interesting stuff will fit in a decent-sized post.

So let’s just dive right in then for our first installment!

Now, of all doctrines the foremost and most important is the doctrine of justification. However, immediately following upon it, as second in importance, is this, how Law and Gospel are to be divided. …

Comparing Holy Scripture with other writings, we observe that no book is apparently so full of contradictions as the Bible, and that, not only in minor points, but in the principal matter, in the doctrine how we may come to God and be saved. In one place the Bible offers forgiveness to all sinners; in another place forgiveness of sins is withheld from all sinners. In one passage a free offer of life everlasting is made to all men; in another, men are directed to do something themselves towards being saved. This riddle is solved when we reflect that there are in the Scriptures two entirely different doctrines, the doctrine of the Law and the doctrine of the Gospel!

Thesis I

The doctrinal contents of the entire Holy Scriptures, both of the Old and the New Testament, are made up of two doctrines differing fundamentally from each other, viz., the Law and the Gospel.

It is not my intention to give a systematic treatment of the doctrine of the Law and the Gospel in these lectures. My aim is rather to show you how easy it is to work a great damage upon your hearers by confounding Law and Gospel site of their fundamental difference and thus to frustrate the aim of both doctrines. You will not begin to be interested in this point until you place yourselves in clear outlines the points in which the Law and the Gospel differ.

The point of difference between the Law and the Gospel is not this, that the Gospel is a divine and the Law a human doctrine, resting on the reason of man. Not at all; whatever of either doctrine is contained in the Scriptures is the Word of the living God Himself.

Nor is the difference, that only the Gospel is necessary, not the Law, as if the latter were a mere addition that could be dispensed with in a strait. No, both are equally necessary. Without the Law the Gospel is not understood; without the Gospel the Law benefits us nothing.

Nor can this naïve, yet quite current, distinction be admitted, that the Law is the teaching of the Old while the Gospel is the teaching of the New Testament. By no means; there are Gospel contents in the Old and Law contents in the New Testament. Moreover, in the New Testament the Lord has broken the seal of the Law by purging it from Jewish ordinances.

Nor do the Law and the Gospel differ as regards their final aim, as though the Gospel aimed at men’s salvation, the Law at men’s condemnation. No, both have for their final aim man’s salvation; only the Law, ever since the Fall, cannot lead us to salvation; it can only prepare us for the Gospel. Furthermore, it is through the Gospel that we obtain the ability to fulfil the Law to a certain extent.

Nor can we establish a difference by claiming that the Law and the Gospel contradict each other. There are no contradictions in Scripture. Each is distinct from the other, but both are in the most perfect harmony with one another.

Finally, the difference is not this, that only one of these doctrines is meant for Christians. Even for the Christian the Law still retains its significance. Indeed, when a person ceases to employ either of these two doctrines, he is no longer a true Christian.

Next week, we’ll continue looking at Thesis 1, learning some ways that Law and Gospel do differ. Meanwhile, discuss…

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This entry was posted in Gospel, Law/Gospel Distinction, Lutheranism, Protestant preaching, Quotes, The Protestant Reformation, Thesis Thursday. Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to Thesis Thursday

  1. Montani Semper Liberi says:

    Excellent!

    Thank you. Looking forward to more of this.

  2. Tony says:

    Walther was brilliant – and handsome! (JK on the second point.) Seriously, I have found that an appreciation and practice of making the proper distinction between Law & Gospel is a rare find among those in the Westminster tradition. It’s a bit frustrating. It is not explicitly stated in the Westminster Standards. Though if you have a L & G understanding going in, you might be able to draw it out (i.e., cov of works / cov of grace – though WCF 7.5 uses the terms “law” & “gospel” in a historic sense). However, it would be far more challenging to ESTABLISH the Law & Gospel hermeneutic directly from the Standards.

    It’s much more evident in the Heidelberg Catechism (and Ursinus’ commentary on it). I think this is due, in part, to the geographic / historical proximity to the original Lutheran Reformation, and the fact that the continental Reformed maintained the centrality of JBFA. Where you find this, you will find a concern to properly distinguish between L & G. By the time Westminster makes its confession, God’s glory / eternal decree have become more prominent, the hermeneutic of L & G is no longer made explicit, and JBFA is just one doctrine among others. No wonder our perennial debates such as theonomy, 2K v. 1K, worship, culture wars, FV, etc. Argh.

    And no wonder I find myself enjoying TableTalk, Issues, Etc, and The God Whisperers so much. Christ is central, and the proper distinction between L & G is a constant pursuit.

  3. RubeRad says:

    and handsome! (JK on the second point.)

    Well, we should cut him some slack here. I purposely chose this picture of the very old Walther because it is, um, striking, but he looked much more normal when he was younger (and had teeth). Although this is probably about what he looked when he delivered the lectures in 1884-85, because he died in 1887 (and the lectures were published posthumously).

    I have found that an appreciation and practice of making the proper distinction between Law & Gospel is a rare find among those in the Westminster tradition

    Have you heard of Westminster Seminary California?

    However, it would be far more challenging to ESTABLISH the Law & Gospel hermeneutic directly from the Standards.

    A very interesting assertion. Off the top of my head, I can’t contest it. I’d love to see a response from R. Scott Clark, who pops in here occasionally…

  4. RubeRad says:

    I just noticed an error in the text I’m copying from:

    My aim is rather to show you how easy it is to work a great damage upon your hearers by confounding Law and Gospel site of their fundamental difference…

    Does anybody reading own a hardcopy that can check on that for me? I’m guessing “in spite of”…

  5. RubeRad says:

    in the New Testament the Lord has broken the seal of the Law by purging it from Jewish ordinances.

    What does that mean? What is the “seal of the Law”?

  6. RubeRad says:

    Furthermore, it is through the Gospel that we obtain the ability to fulfil the Law to a certain extent.

    Who ever said Lutherans deny the third use of the law?

  7. Tony says:

    You wrote: Have you heard of Westminster Seminary California?

    Sure have, and greatly appreciate their work, and that of Modern Reformation, White Horse Inn, Scott Clark, etc. To WSC’s credit, as a faculty, they embrace both The Three Forms of Unity and Westminster Standards.

    What of WTS Philadelphia (Shepherd controversy, anyone)? What of the PCA? The OPC? The RPCNA? Is there a consistently articulated commitment to the L & G hermeneutic? IMO: As an exception, yes (i.e., WSC). As a rule, no.

  8. Rob H says:

    Does it maybe mean that the sacrificial ordinances, which were futile attempts to access keeping of the Law, were that seal? Eliminating the sacrificial system by the one once-for-all sacrifice broke the seal, enabling that 3rd use.

    And it opened up the access to non-Jews too.

    Something like that?

  9. Rob H says:

    “Finally, the difference is not this, that only one of these doctrines is meant for Christians. Even for the Christian the Law still retains its significance. Indeed, when a person ceases to employ either of these two doctrines, he is no longer a true Christian.”

    A rather severe judgement on our “by your bootstraps” mainline preachers who seem only to have the ability to preach the Law in that classic Pharisaical way (adding and adding). What you win them with is what you keep them with.

  10. John Yeazel says:

    Thanks for posting this Rube. I am still confused as to how Lutherans and Calvinist differ in regards to their understanding of the Law and the Gospel. How the benefits of the Gospel are “appropriated” to us subjectively seems to be a key point of differentiation between the two traditions. Calvin wrote much more than Luther did on how the Holy Spirit works the benefits of Christ work into us. Luther stayed focused on the objective work of Christ and how the preached Word and sacraments bring the obedience of Christ to us. Luther seemed to have a revulsion toward anything appropriated to us inwardly. So, the whole issue gets to be a bit difficult to come to terms with. This debate goes on ad infinitum which I cannot wrap my understanding around and if it really has serious implications attached to it, ie., how it works itself out in our individual lives. Some people end up falling into and struggling with sin more than others.

    Looking forward to the future posts.

  11. John Yeazel says:

    Nice change to the Outhouse but where’s the Outhouse?

  12. Rob H says:

    Hear Hear! Crop that outhouse picture and put it in the sidebar or something.

  13. John Yeazel says:

    “Some people end up falling into and struggling with sin more than others.”

    Is it because they have not appropriated the work of Christ into their lives more effectively than someone else? I think it gets to be a bit more complex than that and some sins are more obvious than others.

  14. RubeRad says:

    Please excuse our dust, we’re currently under construction…

  15. RubeRad says:

    Yeah, I think Lutherans and Calvinists would be on the same page wrt Law and Gospel and their importance until we get to some specific examples. Lutherans would say that Calvinists turn baptism into Law instead of Gospel by denying regeneration, for instance.

    Maybe some of these things will come out as we dawdle through Walther’s theses, but I’m expecting to agree with him (and learn from him) throughout.

  16. John Yeazel says:

    There it is- you might want to put a bunch of outhouses out there; some of us might have to get comfortable there for awhile. See Darryl Hart’s latest post. At least the weather is starting to get warm.

  17. RubeRad says:

    My favorite part of this quote is the very bold “we observe that no book is apparently so full of contradictions as the Bible,” which then gets untangled by the rest…

  18. Pingback: Thesis Thursday | The Confessional Outhouse

  19. Pingback: Thesis Thursday | The Confessional Outhouse

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