Some Thoughts on Walther’s “Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel”

Considering Walther

I’ve been reading Lutheran theologian C.F.W. Walther’s famous lectures published as The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel. I was enjoying every minute of it, until I got to Walther’s criticisms of Reformed theology. Granted, what passed as reformed theology, which he describes in some detail, did indeed confuse Law and Gospel, making the salvation of a sinner dependent upon his work of self-preparation for receiving the Gospel, sufficient contrition and repentance, among other things. However, reformed theology properly done places no emphasis on me, but all glory is attributed to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit Who, alone, saves men from their sins.

Where this is especially evident is in the doctrines of grace (i.e. the five points of Calvinism), which seek to stress (i.)man’s utter sinfulness before God, (ii.)man’s inability to come to God of his own power/volition, (iii.)the limited group for whose sins Christ has made atonement for (i.e. the fact that God saves, solitarily, by His own choosing and power), (iv.)God’s raising of dead men to life and their inability to do anything but “come forth,” as Lazarus did four days after having died, and (v.)God’s ability to keep His own people, whom He has saved by His own will and power, and to lead them into the presence of Christ to dwell with Him forever.

The preservation of the saints, I think, is one of the strongest points that the New Testament lays stress upon in places like Romans 8, Ephesians 1, and John 10. Can Christians fall into sin? Of course they can, but they will, by God’s Holy Spirit, get back up again, no matter how feeble they may be when they do. As the London Baptist Confession of 1689 states:

“THE saints are those whom God has accepted in Christ the Beloved, and effectually called and sanctified by His Spirit. To them He has given the precious faith that pertains to all His elect. The persons to whom such blessings have been imparted can neither totally nor finally fall from the state of grace, but they shall certainly persevere in grace to the end and be eternally saved, for God will never repent of having called them and made gifts to them. Consequently He continues to beget and nourish in them faith, repentance, love, joy, hope, and all the graces of the Spirit that issue in immortality. Many storms and floods may rise and beat upon them, yet can never be moved from the foundation and rock on which by faith they are firmly established. Even if unbelief and Satan’s temptations cause them for a time to lose the sight and comfort of the light and love of God, yet the unchanging and God remains their God, and He will certainly keep and save them by His power until they come to the enjoyment of their purchased possession; for they are engraven on the palms of His hands, and their names have been written in the book of life from all eternity.

-Chapter 17, Art. 1 (emphasis added)

Note well that the emphasis in this article is not upon the individual continuing of his own power in God’s graciousness by continuing in faith by his own power, but the emphasis is upon God who does this work in them, and for them. He has chosen them, washed them, given them a new heart, given them His Holy Spirit, and has sworn to never cease from doing good to them (cf. Ezekiel 36:24-27; Jeremiah 31:33-34,32:37-41). The entirety of man’s salvation is God’s work, and this includes his perseverance in repentance and faith.

This is what C.F.W. Walther seems to not understand in his lectures against the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. He writes:

“This is an awful doctrine. Men who believe it will not worry about repenting when they have committed such crimes as adultery and murder. When Cromwell, the miscreant, who sentenced his liege, the king, to death and instituted murderous and bloody trials throughout England, was at the point of death, he became alarmed. Summoning his chaplain, he asked him whether a person who had once been a believer could lose his faith, which the miserable chaplain negatived. Cromwell thereupon concluded that all was well with him, because he knew that once upon a time he had been a believer. Remembering the profound impressions which the Word of God had made upon him at certain time in his life, he relied on the abominable comfort which his chaplain had offered him, zi., that, since he had faith once, he still had it. This instance shows the awful effect of this doctrine of the Calvinists.

-The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel: Thirty-Nine Evening Lectures, C.F.W. Walther; Concordia, p.215

I, along with Walther, think that the chaplain was wrong for misleading Cromwell to think that he was a Christian. No true Calvinist would tell a man who has no remorse over his sins and no desire to repent, to turn and seek the mercy of God, that all was well with him. Not at all! Walther’s argument is set against a strawman, a caricature of Calvinism that, unfortunately, often passes for Calvinism by hypocritical “believers” who are seeking to justify their love of sin. “A good tree bears good fruit” is a simple but profound maxim that tells us: Anyone who has been born of God cannot continue in sin, he has desires that run contrary to the one desire to sin that formerly ruled in his mind and body, thoughts, words, and deeds.

Perhaps Walther’s greater misunderstanding is that all of salvation is of grace, and not just the initial breathing of life into an individual. God saves His elect, and no man – not even themselves – can pluck them out of His omnipotent hand. For it is by grace you have been saved, not by the exertion of effort in placing one’s faith in Christ day by day. The irony of Walther’s position is that it is a profound confusion of Law and Gospel. On pages 216-217, Walther writes:

“The light of faith can be extinguished not only by gross sins, but also by any willful, intentional sin. Accordingly, defection from faith occurs far oftener than we imagine. Faith ceases not only in those who lead a life of shame, but also in such a spirit as permit themselves to be led astray against their better knowledge and the warning of their conscience. They plan to do a certain thing and carry out their purpose, although they know it is contrary to God’s Word. In such instances faith becomes extinct; however, the person caught in this snare promptly recovers his faith if he promptly arrests himself in his wrong-doing, as the instance of Peter shows. Peter did not harden himself. When the glance of Jesus met his eyes, he went out and wept bitterly. That glance made him repent of his sin, causing him to realize the enormity of his offense and the unspeakable greatness of his Lord’s mercy. It seemed to say, “Poor Peter, repent!” and pierced his heart like a dagger. Happy is the man who, after falling, rises at once, immediately, and does not delay his repentance, lest he arrive at a stage where his heart is hardened.

Walther’s thinking here completely contradicts his entire thesis on the proper distinction between Law and Gospel, for repentance, which is a gift (cf. 2 Tim 2:25), is here attributed to the individual who sins, as if repentance originates with him. Salvation, then, ultimately does not rest upon God’s doing, but upon man’s repenting of those sins which he deems to be intentional sins against the Word of God! Conditional security undermines the Law/Gospel distinction by making the gifts of God revocable. If man can lose his salvation by not repenting, then it follows that man can gain his salvation by his repenting. I’m not sure if my Lutheran brethren understand this in its fullness, but that is the logical outcome of believing that a man can have genuine saving faith at one moment, and sin it away in the next.

I love Walther’s writing against the Roman Catholic Cult, as well as his very helpful distinction between Law and Gospel in matters of pastoral ministry, but he was greatly in error when he spoke so harshly against the preservation/perseverance of the saints. Christians have been saved by God’s grace, are being kept by God’s grace, and will be saved by God’s grace. All that come unto the Father Christ will by no means cast out.

It is because salvation is all of God’s work that none of them which the Father has given Christ will fall away unto perdition.

Sola Gratia.

-h.

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5 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Walther’s “Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel”

  1. Joel Baseley says:

    Thanks for reading Walther!

    Walther does not contradict himself in this any more than the Bible contradicts itself. The Bible commands one to be contrite and to examine himself and if you isolate those bits of Scripture, as you are isolating Walther’s thoughts, then the Bible indeed teaches man participates in his conversion and salvation. But in every instance of this Walther says that though the Bible commands such things, man is incapable of doing them and God must do all for him. Even in your quote regarding Peter ‘catching himself’ as he was falling, he was only caught when THE LORD gazed upon him. And that, indeed, is the struggle that a saint/sinner is engaged in to work out his salvation in fear and trembling, FOR IT IS GOD IN HIM that is working to will and to do what is pleasing in his sight. The Holy Spirit in us shows us a glance of Christ, and our sin is checked by him. Walther is merely saying what Paul says in Romans 7 and Gal. 5; the flesh and spirit contend but when he is tripped up the repentant sinner gets up again in the Gospel (Christ and his Spirit) to fight again another day, under no condemnation in the Gospel.

    The sorting paradigm of Law and Gospel is that in salvation all glory and credit goes to God, but the other side is also true. If one is damned all the credit for his damnation is his own due to the sin of Adam and his own sin. And that is what irks many about Walther in his sermons. When he homoleticly addresses the unconverted in his congregation he chastizes them, not because they are not of the elect, but because in Christ God has saved all men and the Gospel applied to all men, and they are refusing him and conversion. It’s their fault so he tells them the truth. It’s not God’s fault they are not saved because God did not elect them, but their own fault for their stubborn rejection of the Gospel. He is more than consistent in this in all I’ve read (and I have translated over 2000 pages of his extant writings) with the distinction of Law and Gospel.

    Walther leans upon Luther and the theology he brought to light. As Luther was asked if man, though he does not actively participate in his conversion, nevertheless cooperates in his his sanctification, Luther answered, yes, as a flea harnessed to a race horse. Walther is not a first tier theologian in the ranks of a Luther, but he is a good confessor with Luther, and we do well to read and seek to understand him and let him help us understand the Biblical doctrine. While I agree that Walther should be read with the same skepticism we read any flawed human being, he has earned enough respect that if we can’t nail him square with his error, with appropriate Scripture being obviously twisted by him, one might end up merely rendering his own credibility compromised by criticizing him. Criticizing Walther is a very popular to do so these days amongst his ‘sons’ in the Missouri Synod.

    But discussion is always good and challenges are opportunities for growth that should never be disparaged! Throwing ourselves up against the writings of Walther and Luther are like testing spaghetti by throwing a strand up against the wall. Once we stick, we’re probably well prepared.

    JRBaseley
    Dearborn, MI

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  2. Heather says:

    Lutheran doctrine is not a really familiar thing to me, but that which I’ve encountered has been a bit of a puzzle. There are points on which I wholly agree, but some assertions, such as this one, look so much like the view concerning self-directed free choice and loss of salvation.

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  3. Hiram says:

    Joel,

    Thanks for stopping by! I appreciate your work on Walther, but I still think that the theology he presents is inconsistent. Even if it is the Lord who looked upon Peter, according to Lutheran theology, as best as I understand it (I’m just getting my feet wet right now, but I hope to learn a bit more), Peter’s repentance or lack of repentance would be attributed to him. I don’t see any way around this, unless we disregard large portions of Scripture that clearly address that God’s elect will be kept by Him until they are glorified.

    Scripture does not contradict itself regarding the preservation of the saints, but clearly presents this as one of the very fundamental promises of the New Covenant, into which all Christians have been placed by God (I gave some references to these passages above, but Hebrews 8 also addresses this).
    Perhaps one of the strongest points at which I find myself in disagreement with Lutheran theology, at least what I’ve become familiar with so far (which isn’t very much at all ;) ), is the idea that there are irreconcilable paradoxes in Scripture.

    With regard to Peter, according to the Scriptures, it was the Lord who had granted Satan permission to tempt Peter. It was also the Lord who would keep Peter by His intercession for Peter. And it was the Lord who spoke these words to Peter:

    ““Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”
    -Luke 22:31-32

    Peter was going to return to Christ, there was no question about whether or not he would. Christ had interceded for His sheep and, therefore, he could not fall away unto perdition. Judas, on the other hand, would not come to repentance and faith in Christ and never would. He was a devil, the Lord Jesus says, and he was the son of perdition born specifically for the purpose of fulfilling the Scriptures. Man is responsible for his sin, yes. However, God is Sovereign over who He chooses to save, or who He does not choose to save.

    Thanks, again, for stopping by :)

    -h.

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  4. Craig says:

    Please continue this discussion if possible. Im ex charismatic and would consider myself reformation orientated if such a description exists. Have dipped into calvinism and now lutheranism (confessional). Have had a nightmare time getting rid of the charismatic junk and am hyper aware of the possibility of error so really do benefit and enjoy historical christian theological discussion. Thankyou all concerned.

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