Sermons and Papers

Walther, Law and Gospel
The State of the Church Today

by Rev. Daniel Preus

C.F.W. Walther, one of the founding fathers of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, was not a particularly original theologian, nor did he wish to be. And he made it clear frequently in his speeches and in his writings that the theologian he most admired and trusted was Martin Luther. There is no other theologian or source, other than the Bible, which he quotes nearly as often as Luther. So significant is his dependence on Luther and so prevalent is his use of Luther’s writings, that he has frequently been called ‘The American Luther.’ He was referred to often as a repristination theologian and particularly a Luther repristinator, especially by those who disagreed with his theology. My predecessor at Concordia Historical Institute used to call him Luther’s archivist.

Walther himself was not ashamed to be seen as one who was dependent on Luther. He had no desire to be original or to make a name for himself as a theologian. It was his foremost wish to establish a truly Lutheran church on the American continent and for Walther this meant a church firmly based on the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions. Such a church, in his view, ought to see Luther as her premier theologian. Walther believed… "that to build his doctrine on the organic foundation of Scripture and to employ the terminology and frame of thought of Lutheran fathers was a mark of a good dogmatician. In this sense he indicated that to him the only good dogmatician is a repristination theologian, who leans on his forebears as he summarizes and presents the faith."1 And the forefather most to be studied and honored was Luther. However, he was also very well acquainted with the orthodox Lutheran fathers and frequently quoted John Gerhard, Martin Chemnitz, Hunnius and others, especially in his lectures on Law and Gospel.

My presentation today will be divided into three parts, the first dealing with Walther’s historical background. I hope this will be helpful for those who are rusty regarding Walther’s background and the history of Lutheranism in America. The second part will cover his teaching on justification particularly as presented in his lectures on Law and Gospel. The third part of my presentation will provide an application to the theological and ecclesiastical church situation today in this post-modern age.


C.F.W. Walther is arguably the most important theologian the Lutheran Church in America has ever had. Other names come to mind when one mentions American Lutheranism – Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, Charles Porterfield Krauth, S.S. Schmucker ( if one can consider him Lutheran), Francis Pieper – but it is doubtful that any of these had the influence on his church body that C.F.W. Walther did in the Missouri Synod. His writings were prolific. Although he never wrote a systematic theology, he covered a broad expanse of Christian doctrine simply through those writings authored to address the theological issues facing the early Missouri Synod. Thus, he wrote extensively on church and ministry, predestination, justification, Scripture and many other topics. Over one thousand of his sermons are extant and it is estimated that he wrote about 800 letters a year over the course of his ministry in America, which spanned forty years. Those writings for which he is most well known and which have most influenced the theology and life of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod are those, which cover the topics of church and ministry and Law and Gospel. Today we will consider his focus on justification, particularly as this teaching is presented in his lectures on Law and Gospel.

First, however, permit me to provide you with a few details about Walther’s life so that you may have a context within which to appreciate this outstanding theologian and the circumstances under which he wrote.

Carl Ferdinand Wilhelm Walther was born October 25, 1811 in Langenchursdorf, Saxony, the eighth of twelve children. His father, grandfather and great grandfather had all been pastors. Walther entered the Gymnasium in Schneeberg at the age of ten and was immersed in a rationalistic environment. Though his father had been a believer and raised Ferdinand as a conservative Lutheran, Walther confessed later in life, that during his years at the Gymnasium he had not been a Christian. In 1878 he wrote, "My dear God-fearing father had taught me from earliest childhood that the Bible is God’s Word. But I had to leave my father’s house very early, in my eighth year, to live in unbelieving circles. I did not lose the historical faith. Like an angel of God it accompanied me through life. But during those more than eight years of Gymnasium life I was unconverted."2

Thus, when Walther finished his studies at the Gymnasium, it is little surprise that he had no desire to study theology. His true love was music. At that time he wrote in his diary, "I feel that I was born for nothing but music."3 His father, however, disapproved and pressured his son to attend the University of Leipzig to prepare for the office of the ministry. At the time Walther did not even own his own Bible, testimony to the effect of rationalism, as well as little money. On December 9, 1829, he wrote in his diary regarding his ignorance of God’s Word, "Today I read in the Bible, namely in the Book of Acts, in order, first of all, to become more at home in it – for I know very little about the apostles, and I can hardly repeat their twelve names – and then to edify myself with the examples of the effects and evidences of an immovable faith."4 Elsewhere he says,

After graduating from college, I entered the university. I was no outspoken unbeliever, for my parents were believers. But I had left my parents’ home already when I was eight years old, and all my associates were unbelievers; so were all my professors, with the exception of one, in whom there seemed to be a faint trace of faith. When I entered the university, I did not know the Ten Commandments by heart and could not recite the list of the books in the Bible. My knowledge of the Bible was pitiful, and I had not an inkling of faith.5

If the rationalistic influence at the Gymnasium in Schneeberg was significant, it was even worse at Leipzig. The attacks on those who believed the Bible was God’s Word were frequent and forceful. In a desire to find a firm foundation, Walther looked for spiritual guidance elsewhere. His brother Otto Walther introduced him to a group of Bible students who considered themselves spiritually awakened true believers. Unfortunately, this group of Bible students eventually came under the influence of a severe pietist, so that the comfort Walther had been receiving was soon lost. This man introduced Walther to the writings of Fresenius and the more he read in Fresenius’ book On Confession and Communion, the worse his spiritual condition became. According to Walther,

The farther I got in reading the book, the more uncertain I became whether I was a Christian. An inner voice kept saying to me: "The evidence that you have the requirements of a Christian is insufficient…." At that time, when opening any religious book treating of the order of grace and salvation, I would read only the chapter on repentance. When I would come to the chapters on the Gospel and Faith, I would close the book saying: "That is not for me." An increasing darkness settled on my soul as I tasted less and less of the sweetness of the Gospel. God knows I did not mean to work a delusion on myself; I wanted to be saved. In those days I regarded those as the best books, which spoke a stern language to sinners and left them nothing of the grace of God.6

A couple events in the life of Walther served to direct him away from the influence of Pietism toward orthodox Lutheranism and the first of these had a dramatic impact on his later understanding and teaching regarding justification and the distinction between Law and Gospel. Due to a period of prolonged illness during the winter of 1831 to 1832, Walther left the university of Leipzig for a time and returned to his home. Here he dedicated himself during the time of his illness to the study of the writings of Martin Luther. It was in reading Luther that Walther heard the clear voice of the Gospel as Luther’s teaching on justification made a strong impression on him. Luther’s clear distinction between the Law and the Gospel served to lift Walther out of his spiritual depression.

At the same time Walther had begun to correspond with a pastor named Martin Stephan who served the Bohemian congregation of St. Stephen in Dresden. This man rejected the rationalistic approach to Scripture so common in Saxony at the time, embraced the spirit of the Erweckungsbewegung, as promoted by Klaus Harms and others, and proclaimed the Gospel clearly to the members of his congregation. At that time there was no question as to Stephan’s orthodoxy and commitment to Lutheran doctrine. He himself stated, "What I have preached I myself believe with my whole heart. I am firmly convinced that only the Bible can be a fountain of pure Christian doctrine. Out of this our pious forefathers have drawn and preserved the pure doctrine in the Confessional Writings of our Evangelical Lutheran Church for us."7 Stephan also brought comfort to Walther in his struggles with pietist theology. He became an extremely strong influence upon Walther and a number of other pastors and laymen who eventually followed him to America, claiming that persecution on the part of Saxon authorities made the conscientious practice of their faith impossible. Over 700 immigrants followed Stephan to St. Louis and became one of the groups that formed the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod in 1847.

I wish it were possible for me to do justice to all the events that influenced the later formation of the Missouri Synod and its theology. But that will have to wait for another opportunity. I will give simply those details that provide understanding of the person of Walther and his theological development.

It was not long after they arrived in St. Louis that severe problems threatened to destroy the Lutheran community that followed Pastor Martin Stephan to America. Some dissatisfaction with Martin Stephan had already arisen due to his authoritative and sometimes dictatorial leadership. Not only had he directed his followers to invest him with the office of bishop while on the ship traveling to America. He had also required them to swear an oath of fidelity to him as their leader in both spiritual and temporal affairs. The immigrants had all pooled their money into a common treasury for the purposes of traveling to America, purchasing property for their spiritual community and erecting buildings, etc. When they arrived, many had difficulty providing for their own physical needs, while Stephan provided himself with many luxuries and a well stocked wine cellar.

Dissatisfaction changed quickly to open rebellion, however, when one Sunday after hearing a particularly powerful sermon, two women confessed to Pastor Loeber that they had committed adultery with Bishop Stephan. C. F. W. Walther was commissioned by the other pastors to visit with Stephan and apply the appropriate measures. His discussions did not result in any confession from Stephan, but, due to the testimony of the women and much evidence of Stephan’s autocratic approach, he was charged with false doctrine, defrocked as their bishop, rowed across the Mississippi River to Illinois and instructed never to return to Missouri.

Without their bishop, the Saxons were thrown into theological turmoil and began to question their motives in leaving Germany as well as their status as church. It’s hard to imagine today how great their disillusionment must have been. The immigration had been harrowing enough, involving the sale of their homes, departure from friends and loved ones in Saxony and the criticism and ridicule, which resulted from their decision to leave. Then the voyage which took 43 to 62 days depending on the ship – accompanied by sickness, a number of deaths and even the loss of one of the five ships, the Amalia, which was never heard from again. In New Orleans before the trip by river up to St. Louis some of the members of the Gesselschaft, the Society, defected from the company. Then following their arrival, mismanagement of funds by Stephan became apparent as well as extravagant expenditures by him, housing difficulties in St. Louis, the search for affordable housing in the land which they did purchase, all these difficulties served to demoralize and discourage. And then, to discover the infidelity of their bishop!

These poor people were so confused they were asking themselves whether they could be a church at all since they no longer had a bishop. And did they have the right to call their own pastors? In a book entitled Zion on the Mississippi, the author through a series of questions, provides good insight into what must have been the mental state of the Saxons at this time.

Everyone had been so completely unnerved by the tempest that literally no one knew where he stood. Had the pastors the right to serve congregations? Had they been justified in leaving their congregations in Germany? Or ought they return? Had the entire emigration been justifiable? Had the idolization of Stephan deprived them of the claim to being Christians? Were they a church or a "mob?" Were they the Lutheran Church or a Stephanistic association? Had they the right, if they were congregations, to call pastors and teachers? Had they the right to depose those now in office? If they had this right, were they obliged to do so? What of the tarnished record of these men? More fundamentally, What was a church? What was the office of the ministry?… These and a thousand other questions agitated the minds of the people, who were beset by economic difficulties, remorse of conscience and shame before the public.8

At this very difficult time God used C.F.W. Walther to reestablish order and bring hope and peace once again into the minds of these people. As before in Germany when he had been sick, Walther immersed himself in the writings of Martin Luther and the other Lutheran orthodox fathers. Following extended study, in a debate with one of the laymen who held that the Saxons were not a church and did not have the right to call or depose pastors, Walther presented a series of theses on Church and ministry, which not only convinced the people they were indeed a church with the right of calling pastors, but also became the position of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod which would be founded about eight years later.

Although Walther, in this debate did not give a great deal of attention to the topic of justification, I believe it is important to share this background information with you so that you may understand the context out of which Walther’s entire theology developed, including his understanding of justification and the distinction between Law and Gospel. I emphasize again his dependence particularly on Luther, his trust of Luther as a theologian and teacher of the church and his own desire to be truly Lutheran in his teachings and in his own convictions.

Finally, I need to provide a brief explanation of the American context as introduction to Walther’s teaching on justification. When the Saxons arrived in Missouri, the United States was experiencing a very stormy and uncertain religious climate. The Revolutionary War, sometimes called the War for Independence, had not only won independence for the 13 colonies, but had also created a spirit of independence in the hearts and minds of the people. This spirit exhibited itself not only in the civil sphere, but also in the religious sphere. Ties to the old established religions were cut off as new sects and cults were formed.

These were the years when the Mormons, the Christian Scientists, the Adventists and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, claiming new visions or insights into Scripture founded their respective cults. The religious movements of the day "…challenged common people to take religious destiny into their own hands, to think for themselves, to oppose centralized authority and the elevation of the clergy as a separate order of men."9 "These movements also allowed common people to trust their own religious impulses. They were encouraged to express their faith with fervent emotion and bold testimony."10

These were Walther’s times and to understand a theologian, at least to understand why he dealt with the subjects he did, it is helpful to know the times in which he lived. Walther’s theological treatises, his lectures, his essays and sermons reflect the time during which he lived, his own life experience, the events he had witnessed and the issues of his day. His writings give abundant evidence of his exposure to liberalism, rationalism, pietism, individualism, legalism, and sectarianism. He had seen personally that all of these posed a threat to the proper understanding of the doctrine of justification. Thus, in his major work on The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel Walther gives attention to all these threats to the pure doctrine.


As I mentioned earlier, Walther was a prolific writer. What may be his best work, however, is not the result of an effort on his part to produce a book containing a systematic presentation of his doctrine on Law and Gospel. Rather, it is the reproduction of student notes taken by a stenographer from Walther’s lectures on Law and Gospel while he was a professor at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis. In fact, the book was not even published until ten years after Walther had died. Walther’s teaching on the subject of Law and Gospel was presented in a series of 39 lectures given on Friday evenings, beginning September 12, 1884 and ending November 6, 1885. The lectures were given on the basis of thorough notes, which Walther had prepared ahead of time and there is little doubt that the stenographer was completely faithful and accurate in reproducing Walther’s presentation on this topic.

I can recommend few books as highly as Walther’s Law and Gospel. For it excels not only in pointing out the dangerous errors of Rome and Geneva, of liberalism, rationalism and enthusiasm. It not only demonstrates clearly the many ways in which both the Law and the Gospel can be perverted and rendered unable to perform their proper work. It also lays out the true comfort of the Gospel for every reader as it shows over and over again how our gracious Father, who has justified all the world through the suffering, death and resurrection of His Son, delivers his gifts of life and creates true faith in the hearts of sinners by means of His precious Gospel. True Lutherans will always treasure "the true knowledge of the distinction between the Law and the Gospel" and will place this distinction at the center of all their theology, their discussions and their spiritual life.

Walther’s 39 lectures are based on 25 theses concerning Law and Gospel. Although all of the theses are considered important and scriptural, not each thesis receives the same attention. In the English version of the book which takes up 413 pages, Thesis XIII, for example, covers only 8 pages, while Thesis IX, considered the central thesis, covers almost 84 pages and reflects Walther’s extensive experience with Pietism and his complete understanding of its dangers.

There are many ways one could describe the organization of Walther’s lectures. Let me provide first a chronological description of the arrangement of his lectures; then I would like to provide a more analytical description. Walther’s intention in the first eight lectures seems to be simply to explain the basic differences between Law and Gospel, to clarify the distinction between the two as much as possible and to lay the foundation for an understanding of the following lectures. In his ninth to thirteenth lectures he considers the various ways in which the proper distinction between Law and Gospel can be distorted or confused. The core of the entire lecture series is clearly the 14th through 19th lectures in which Walther clearly reflects his own experience with pietism, its legalistic approach and the importance of objective means of grace and objective justification. It is ironic that Walther relies so heavily on his experience with pietism to discount the value of experience in establishing a person’s justification before God. But he bears out his own position stated in Thesis III: "Rightly distinguishing the Law and the Gospel is the most difficult and the highest art of Christians in general and of theologians in particular. It is taught only by the Holy Spirit in the school of experience."11 The final twenty lectures, relying heavily on Luther, elaborate on previous points and provide support for that which has gone before. Lectures 29 to 32 are very practical in nature and appear directed toward those who will be the future preachers of the church.12 Thus you have a brief overview of the chronological structure of Walther’s Law and Gospel.

But in my opinion a more profitable way to summarize Walther’s treatment of Law and Gospel during his evening lectures is to note his consistent emphasis throughout his lectures on three aspects of justification. In the first place, one finds Walther’s emphasis on Christ’s perfect redemption of all men. Secondly, he focuses on the means of grace (the Word and the sacraments). Thirdly he gives attention to faith as that which receives the promises offered.13 Permit me to look in some detail at each of these three aspects of Walther’s treatment of Law and Gospel. I would like to treat these topics together, however, rather than separately since the salvation which Christ has achieved for all the world through His incarnation, life, suffering, death and resurrection can only be mediated to us through the Gospel and the Sacraments which in turn create faith in order that the benefits of what Christ has achieved for all may be received by individual sinners.

Of course, in speaking of the distinction between Law and Gospel, one cannot speak only of justification. One must speak also of sin, one must speak of punishment and judgment. But the purpose of the law is to prepare people for the Gospel. The Holy Spirit must do his opus alienum, ut faciat opus proprium, that is, the Holy Spirit must do his alien work in order that he may do his proper work. Thus, law and Gospel must both be preached but Walther notes in his final thesis, "…the word of God is not rightly divided when the person teaching it does not allow the Gospel to have a general predominance in his teaching."14 And so, in my presentation today, the Gospel, the doctrine of justification, will have a definite predominance.

Christ has perfectly redeemed all people. Walther believed in objective justification. His 14th thesis reads: "In the tenth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when faith is required as a condition of justification and salvation, as if a person were righteous in the sight of God and saved, not only by faith, but also on account of his faith, for the sake of his faith, and in view of his faith."15 In explanation of this thesis, Walther writes,

What God’s Word really means when it says that man is justified and saved by faith alone is nothing else than this: Man is not saved by his own acts, but solely by the doing and dying of his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of the whole world. Over against this teaching modern theologians assert that in the salvation of man two kinds of activity must be noted: in the first place, there is something that God must do. His part is the most difficult, for He must accomplish the task of redeeming men. But in the second place something is required that man must do. For it will not do to admit persons to heaven, after they have been redeemed, without further parley (talk). Man must do something really great – he has to believe. This teaching overthrows the Gospel completely.16

For Walther faith is never a condition of salvation; grace is not offered with the condition that a sinner accept it. Grace is unconditional and faith simply receives that which is freely offered. In connection with the predestinarian controversy that raged among the Lutherans in America for a number of years in the late nineteenth century, Walther, and the Missouri Synod with him, rejected the intuitu fidei formula which held that God justified men in view of that faith which He foresaw that they would have.

According to Walther, the German theologians of his day who insisted that men are justified intuitu fidei, claiming that they have only taken this concept from the orthodox theologians, have completely misunderstood the use of that term by those theologians. Walther states, "If John Gerhard and Egidius Hunnius were to rise from the dead and see that our adversaries in the present controversy on predestination appeal to them as their authorities, they would be amazed; for it can be plainly shown that they have rejected and abominated the doctrine of the adversaries."17

Walther quotes Osiander: "Faith does not justify in so far as it is obedience in compliance with a command, - for thus viewed, it is an action, a work, and something required by Law, - but only in so far as it receives and is attached to justification after the manner of a passive instrument."18 Also John Gerhard: "It is one thing to be justified on account of faith and another to be justified by faith. In the former view, faith is the meritorious, in the latter, the instrumental cause. {There must be an organ by which I come into the possession and enjoyment of what some one offers me.} We are not justified on account of faith as a merit, but by faith which lays hold of the merit of Christ."19 Justification, therefore, is per fidem, non propter fidem.

Thus Walther condemns certain statements of Melanchthon that would attribute the cause of a person’s election to something, which God foresees in that person. Quoting Melanchthons’s Loci Communes of 1552, Walther says,

Melanchthon writes, "You say you are unable to obey the voice of the Gospel, to listen to the Son of God, and to accept Him as your Mediator?" This question Melanchthon answers: "Of course you can!" An awful answer, this! When a parishioner comes to you complaining of his inability to believe, you must tell him that you are not surprised at this statement; for no man can; he would be a marvel if he could. And you must instruct him to do nothing but listen to the Word of God, and God will give him faith.20

In other words, it is the Word of the Gospel that mediates Christ’s benefits to the sinner in order that faith may be created. Some of Walther’s best advice to preachers comes, in my opinion, in the context of his understanding of faith not as a work which man does, but as a work that the Holy Spirit does in man in response to the preaching of the Gospel. Walther states in thesis XIII, "In the ninth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when one makes an appeal to believe in a manner as if a person could make himself believe or at least help toward that end, instead of preaching faith into a person’s heart by laying the Gospel promises before him."21 In explanation of this thesis, he says,

A preacher must be able to preach a sermon on faith without ever using the term faith. It is not important that he din (shout) the word faith into the ears of his audience, but it is necessary for him to frame his address so as to arouse in every poor sinner the desire to lay the burden of his sins at the feet of the Lord Jesus Christ and say to Him: "Thou art mine, and I am Thine."

Here is where Luther reveals his true greatness. He rarely appeals to his hearers to believe, but he preaches concerning the work of Christ, salvation by grace, and the riches of God’s mercy in Jesus Christ in such a manner that the hearers get the impression that all they have to do is to take what is being offered them and find a resting-place in the lap of divine grace.22

In the words just cited, Walther reveals once again the necessity of the means of grace. Luther preached the Gospel; that is the message about Jesus Christ, who He is and what He has done. A good Lutheran preacher will follow the example of Luther and preach the Gospel. He will not command faith; rather he will use those means by which God has promised to create faith. Only the means of grace can create faith and only the means of grace can bestow that which faith receives. Let me repeat that: Only the means of grace can create faith and only the means of grace can bestow that which faith receives, namely the forgiveness of sins, life and salvation. In fact, it is in the very process of offering and bestowing these things and it is through the offering and bestowing of these things that faith is created and nourished and preserved.

However, that which only the means of grace can bestow and that which only faith can receive is not something, which is conditioned in any way by the faith which receives it. Rather it is something, which has been achieved by Christ objectively, apart from any participation on the part of man, and in no way dependent upon man’s faith. In the discussion of his ninth thesis, Walther’s insistence on the objective nature of justification comes through forcefully. The ninth thesis reads,

In the fifth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when sinners who have been struck down and terrified by the Law are directed, not to the Word and the Sacraments, but to their own prayers and wrestlings with God in order that they may win their way into a state of grace; in other words, when they are told to keep on praying and struggling until they feel that God has received them into grace.23

In his discussion of this thesis Walther attacks the pietists and the sects who deprive Christ of His glory and thus call his complete redemption into question by insisting on some kind of proper attitude and preparations for receiving God’s salvation, and so on. Against the pietists, Walther insists, "Grace is not something for which I must look in my heart. It is in the heart of God. Grace cannot be found in me, but is outside of me."24 Again Walther says,

The sects picture reconciliation as consisting in this, that the Savior made God willing to save men, provided men would be willing on their part to be reconciled. But that is the reverse of the Gospel. God is reconciled. Accordingly, the apostle calls on us: "Be ye reconciled to God." That means: Since God has been reconciled to you by Jesus Christ, grasp the hand which the Father in heaven holds out to you. Moreover, the apostle declares: "If one died for the sins of all men, that is tantamount to all men’s dying and making satisfaction for their sins. Therefore nothing at all is required on the part of man to reconcile God; He already is reconciled. Righteousness lies ready; it must not first be achieved by man. If man were to attempt to do so, that would be an awful crime, a battle against grace and against the reconciliation and perfect redemption accomplished by the Son of God.25

Franz Pieper, later president of Concordia Seminary St. Louis and also of the Missouri Synod, in describing Walther’s understanding of the article of justification quotes a portion of Walther’s report to the Western District in 1875.

While all religions, except the Christian, teach that man himself must do that by which he is delivered and saved, the Christian religion teaches not only that all men should be eternally saved but also that they already have been saved. According to the Christian faith, man is already redeemed; he is already delivered and freed from his sin and all its evil consequences. He is already reconciled unto God. The Christian religion proclaims: You need not redeem yourself nor secure reconciliation between God and yourself, for all this Christ has already accomplished for you. Nor has He left anything for you to do but believe this, i.e., to accept it!" Here indeed is the point of distinction between Christianity and all other religions.26

In Walther’s Easter sermons this focus on objective justification is especially prominent. In a sermon on Mark 16:1-8 Walther preaches on the theme, "Christ’s Resurrection – Your absolution." In this sermon he declares,

Jesus, when He was raised from the dead, was absolved for all sin, but since it was not for Himself but for all people that Christ died, who was it really that was set free, who was it really that was absolved when Jesus rose from the dead? It was all people! Just as all Israel triumphed when David defeated the giant, so all humanity triumphed when Jesus defeated sin, death and Hell. And so we hear Paul saying in his second epistle to the Corinthians, "We are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died." And again in his epistle to the Romans, "Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men." Just as Christ’s condemnation was the condemnation of all mankind, Christ’s death the death of all mankind, Christ’s payment the payment for all mankind, even so Christ’s life is now the life of all mankind, His acquittal the acquittal of all mankind, His justification the justification of all mankind, His absolution the absolution of all mankind.27

Walther never softened the message of the law. His sixth thesis insists that "the Word of God is not rightly divided when the Law is not preached in its full sternness,"28 but it was his insistence on the truth of objective justification that enabled Walther to preach the Gospel in its full sweetness. It is this message of Christ’s complete redemption of all the world that causes Walther to apply the Gospel message in such a powerful and comforting way to his hearers in this same Easter sermon of 1846.

The riches of the comfort provided in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is… therefore greater than a humble tongue can express or than a human heart can comprehend. Now that Christ has been raised from the dead, no one needs to think to himself, "If I approach God with my sins, what will God do? Will He really forgive them?" No, whoever you are, you may know without any doubt that God has already forgiven your sins, forgiven them already 1800 years ago when in Christ, through His resurrection, He absolved all for whom Christ suffered such bitter death.29

But after this beautiful proclamation Walther goes on to say immediately, "One thing needs still to happen in order that you may have this gift and that one thing – is faith. For every person who wants to be saved must believe that this general absolution pronounced at Christ’s resurrection 1800 years ago was also pronounced upon him."30

Walther believed in universal, objective justification, but Walther was no universalist. There is no salvation apart from faith in Christ. That which Christ has purchased through His substitutionary suffering, death and resurrection must be conveyed to the sinner in such a way that it becomes his own (subjective justification). In other words, the sinner needs to believe that all that Christ has accomplished for him is truly his. And so God has provided His means of grace to bring the benefits of Christ’s life, work and death to the sinner and to create that faith. These are the Gospel and the Sacraments. Only the Gospel and the Sacraments mediate Christ’s benefits. "Accordingly," Walther writes, "preachers who do not clearly and plainly proclaim the Gospel… are not faithful in the discharge of their ministry and inflict great injury on men’s souls. Instead of advancing Christians in the knowledge of the pure doctrine, they allow them to grope in the dark, nurse false imaginations in them, and speed them on in their false and dangerous path."31 Martin Luther makes similar observations. Speaking about bishops as servants of Christ, he says, "It is their duty to tend His sheep and give them pasture. Therefore to give pasture is nothing else than to preach the Gospel, by which souls are fed and made fat and fruitful, and that the sheep are nourished with the Gospel and God’s Word. This alone is the office of a bishop."32

Luther speaks of the Gospel as "…a word of salvation, a word of grace, a word of comfort, a word of joy, a voice of the bridegroom and the bride, a good word, a word of peace,"33 and sees it as the clear duty of every preacher to proclaim this precious Gospel. In fact, says Luther in his Explanations of the Ninety-five Theses, "May every single sermon be forever damned which persuades a person to find security and trust in or through anything whatever except the pure mercy of God, which is Christ."34 Luther’s condemnation of many of the priests of his day was not because of immorality, but because they did not preach the Gospel and apply the means of grace which alone can bestow the fruits of Christ’s atonement. In Luther’s day, certain priests were consecrated only for the purpose of offering the sacrifice of the mass. What does Luther say of such priests because they don’t offer the Gospel?

They do not preach. They do not baptize. They do not administer the sacrament. They do not absolve. They do not pray (except to intone badly and hiss the words of the Psalter). They do not exercise the office of the care of souls, nor do they do anything with the dying; rather, they are a useless, lazy idle crowd who alone, as they suppose handle the sacrament and sell it as a sacrifice and good work.35

Thus Walther once again recapitulates Luther when he insists that only the Gospel brings Christ’s benefits. Accordingly, in his 27th evening lecture he says, "According to Luther’s description of the Gospel as the last will and testament of Christ, the Gospel is not a doctrine teaching us how we make ourselves worthy in the sight of God, but what we are to receive from God."36 The Gospel conveys, remits, gives Christ’s benefits and all that he has achieved for us. The great sin of a heretic, then, in not preaching the Gospel is not so much that he corrupts God’s Word, which he surely does, but that he deprives sinners of that salvation which only the Gospel can bring.

Walther has no use for the sects, therefore, which insist upon inner spiritual struggles before one can have certainty of faith. "For the confounding of law and Gospel that is common among the sects," says Walther, "consists in nothing else than this, that they instruct alarmed sinners by prayer and inward wrestling to fight their way into a state of grace until they feel grace indwelling in them, instead of pointing them to the Word and the Sacraments."37 Only the Word and the Sacraments convey grace.

And because of this belief that only the Word and Sacraments convey grace, Walther warned forcefully against depending on one’s feelings as a sign that one had received grace. In a report delivered in 1872 to the Synodical Conference,38 Walther stated,

We by no means deny that the Spirit of grace makes Himself felt in the hearts of sinners… But it is a colossal mistake if the feeling which the enthusiasts arouse by their praying and wrestling is regarded as grace. At best – for often this feeling is effected by other causes, and not by God’s Spirit – that which the enthusiasts call grace is a gracious effect produced by the Holy Ghost. But that grace by which we are justified and saved is something outside us and not anything in us. Therefore when a penitent sinner comes to a Lutheran pastor with the question: "Where may I, a lost and condemned sinner, find grace?" the Lutheran pastor will answer him: "Comfort yourself with God’s grace, as it is stored up for you in the Gospel and the holy Sacraments. Believe what God tells you there, and be of good cheer because of the grace which is granted to you in the divine Word. Receive absolution, and go to the Lord’s Table, for it is there that God offers, imparts, grants, and seals to you His grace and the forgiveness of all your sins."39

Dependence on feelings was one of Walther’s favorite targets because it created such uncertainty and deprived sinners of comfort, pointing them finally to something in themselves. In an essay delivered in 1859 he asserts.

The enthusiasts declare that they distinguish themselves from the papists in that they are sure of their state of grace.40 Nevertheless, the enthusiasts revert to the papistic principle of justification because their assurance of salvation rests not upon the eternally abiding Word, but upon their own vacillating feeling; hence they are bound either to become hypocrites or often to lament that they have lost Christ. It is for this reason also that they put forth such efforts to arouse their feelings by all manner of means and that now this one and then another boasts of his conversion, while in a short time they are obliged, because of their lack of comfort, to return to the mourners’ bench.41

Much of the confusion regarding the distinction between Law and Gospel is the result of a misunderstanding regarding the nature of faith. Faith is not a cause of forgiveness, faith does not effect salvation, faith does not bring about any of the blessings which it receives. Faith is pure receptivity. Faith simply receives that which is offered.

This point is important when Walther speaks of the Reformed view of the Lord’s Supper. Once again he emphasizes the objective nature of Jesus’ redemption as expressed in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. It is not faith which produces the benefits received in the Lord’s Supper; faith simply receives that which has been procured by Christ and is offered in the Sacrament.

By the words, "for you" He invited the disciples to ponder the fact that they were now receiving and eating that body by the bitter death of which on the cross the entire world would be redeemed. He meant to remind them that they ought to break forth with joy and gladness because the ransom that was to be paid for the sins of the whole world was, so to speak, put in their mouths. Offering the disciples the cup which He had blessed, Christ said: "This is the cup, the new testament in My blood, which is shed for you." Why did He add the words "shed for you"? He meant to say: "When receiving the blood of redemption in this Holy Supper, you receive at the same time what has been acquired on the cross by means of this sacrifice."42

Thus, also in his view of the Lord’s Supper, the part which faith plays is simply that of receiving. Faith has no merit of its own; its merit lies in that which it receives. Faith takes no credit; faith only receives credit.

Thus, faith is a powerful thing for faith has Christ and everything He offers – forgiveness of sins, life and salvation. And only the one with faith has these things. The one with faith has God Himself as Father and an eternal kingdom as an inheritance. Yet faith, of which such glorious things can be said, contains no merit of its own except that which it receives from Him in whom faith trusts.

And so everything comes from God through Christ and in the matter of salvation only God is glorified and men can be comforted because salvation is only by grace. Lex semper accusat. (The Law always accuses.) The Law must be preached. If it is not, no one will ever embrace the Gospel. And the law must not be softened in its proclamation to impenitent sinners. It must be preached to them in its full severity. No preacher has the right to withhold the law from his messages for in so doing, he will undermine his own purpose to preach the Gospel most effectively because only sinners aware of their condition and hopelessness in and of themselves in the face of a righteous God will desire grace. Therefore the law must be preached. But the Law always accuses; it never comforts; it cannot save. Only the Gospel can actually deliver forgiveness, life and salvation. Therefore it is a terrible thing for a preacher to mix or confuse Law and Gospel and, as Walther says in his fourth thesis, echoing the Formula of Concord, "The true knowledge of the distinction between the Law and the Gospel is not only a glorious light, affording the correct understanding of the entire Holy Scriptures, but without this knowledge Scripture is and remains a sealed book."43


Almost exactly a year ago in Augsburg, Germany on October 31, representatives of Lutheran churches all around the world and representatives of the Roman church signed a document called Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. According to this document, those signing it declared that they had reached a consensus on the doctrine of justification and that the condemnations which the two churches had directed at each other during the 16th century no longer apply to the way the churches understand this teaching today. I am assuming that all of you are somewhat acquainted with the events surrounding the signing of this document since they have been pretty well publicized over the last few years. The Missouri Synod, the Wisconsin Synod, the Evangelical Lutheran Synod and many other Lutheran churches around the world declined to sign the Joint Declaration, insisting that consensus had not been reached and that it would be dishonest to sign a document stating that it had. The ELCA, of course, has signed the document.

Permit me to emphasize at this time the fact that Lutherans, or at least people who call themselves Lutheran, signed this document and in this context continue to talk about more recent events and how they relate to our church situation today. The Church of Rome has not changed its position on Purgatory, merits of the saints, prayers to the saints, indulgences, the place of human works in the meriting of salvation, works of supererogation, the mass as a sacrifice of Christ by the priest for the sins of the living and the dead. Nowhere will you find any indication that Rome has changed its positions on any of theses teachings, all of which impinge directly on our understanding of the doctrine of justification.

Neither has Rome has changed its definition of the word ‘grace’. And it’s extremely important to point this fact out. Because in the Joint Declaration the participants all claim that they agree that sinners are saved entirely by God’s grace. However, they have completely different definitions of the word grace. Lutherans define grace as the free and undeserved favor of God, whereby without any merit or worthiness on our part, He declares sinners righteous and just in his sight for the sake of the all-sufficient life, suffering, death and resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ. According to the Lutheran view, justification is forensic and takes place outside of us. It is not something that happens in us. It is rather a declaration of God upon us. "For the sake of what my Son Jesus Christ has done as your substitute, keeping all my law perfectly on your behalf, bearing your sin and guilt, while on the cross, enduring God’s wrath upon your sin, dying your death and rising again to life, because of what he has done, I declare you just, righteous in my sight, innocent of all guilt." This is the Lutheran view of grace and justification.

This is not by any means the Roman view of grace and justification. The Roman view of grace teaches that through His suffering, death and resurrection Jesus Christ merited grace for mankind. Grace is a power or virtue or quality which is infused by God, poured by God, so to speak, into the sinner. This grace, which is a quality or power from God, is an action whereby God pours into the human heart the gifts of faith, hope and charity and thus gives humans the ability to please God with their good works and thus merit His favor. Thus justification takes place, according to the Roman view within the human being. And grace, in the Roman view does not exclude works but makes possible those works which merit salvation. To put it very simply, Lutherans believe that the work of Christ is mans justification (objective justification); Rome believes that the work of Christ makes possible man’s justification. Grace, according to the Roman view makes it possible for human beings to do those works which merit God’s favor and aid in attaining salvation. Grace comes from God but works also merit salvation. Lutherans reject all works as meriting salvation. Lutherans believe St. Paul who says, "Therefore by the deeds of the law, no flesh will be justified in His sight." Romans 3:20. Lutherans believe St. Paul who says, "Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law." Romans 3:28 Lutherans agree with St. Paul who says, "…knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified." Galatians 2:16 Lutherans believe St. Paul who says, "By grace you have been saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast." Ephesians 2:8-9 As you can see, the Lutherans and the Roman Catholics have very different definitions of the word ‘grace.’ And the classical Roman view is not biblical.

But the Joint Declaration, which claims that Lutherans and Roman Catholics have arrived at consensus on the doctrine of justification, scrupulously avoids defining the word ‘grace.’ Why? In order that agreement may be declared, an agreement which both parties know very well does not exist. As Robert Preus noted in his book, Justification and Rome, the participants in the Lutheran/Roman Catholic dialogues appear to have tacitly agreed to a dialogue process which involved massive equivocation, in order that an artificial and entirely misleading consensus might be declared.44

Thus, the objective of the dialogue process was not that the participants might together arrive at the truth. The objective was to declare agreement, even if such a declaration had to ignore the fact that words were being defined differently. The objective of the dialogue process was not to promote doctrinal harmony in the church which is the body of Christ and thus hidden from the eyes of the world. The objective of the dialogue process was to declare doctrinal harmony to all the world, knowing that such a declaration was not based on agreement on the truth, but on a common commitment to an objective. In other words, we wish to be united; therefore, we will declare ourselves to be united.

Perhaps you consider my assessment of the intentions of those involved in the dialogue process too harsh. Then please listen for just a few moments to official Roman Catholic theology on this subject. During the very midst of the dialogue process, about a year before the Joint Declaration was signed, around the time the ELCA declared their commitment to the Joint Declaration, the Roman Catholic Church stated, "eternal life is, at one and the same time, grace and the reward given by God for good works and merit."45 Let me repeat that. "Eternal life is, at one and the same time, grace and the reward given by God for good works and merit." These words are not ambiguous. They may be false doctrine, but they are certainly easy enough to understand.

The historic positions of Lutheranism and Romanism are well-known to and understood by any serious theological students. Even confirmation students in our Lutheran churches, if they have good pastors, know not only their own teaching on the topic of justification, but that of the Roman Catholics as well. This is because Rome, like the Lutheran Church, has clearly stated its position in the past. Consider, for example, Rome’s declarations at the Council of Trent – very relevant to our discussion today. Let me share some of them with you.

Canon 9 If anyone says that the sinner is justified by faith alone, meaning that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to obtain the grace of justification, and that it is not in any way necessary that he be prepared and disposed by the action of his own will, let him be anathema (cursed).46

Canon 11 If anyone says that men are justified either by the sole imputation of the justice (righteousness) of Christ or by the sole remission of sins, to the exclusion of the grace and the charity which is poured forth in their hearts by the Holy Ghost, and remains in them, or also that the grace by which we are justified is only the good will of God, let him be anathema.47

Canon 12 If anyone says that justifying faith is nothing else than confidence in divine mercy, which remits sins for Christ’s sake, or that it is this confidence alone that justifies us, let him be anathema.48

Canon 14 If anyone says that a man is absolved from his sins and justified because he firmly believes that he is absolved and justified, or that no one is truly justified except him who believes himself justified and that by this faith alone absolution and justification are effected, let him be anathema.49

Canon 18 If anyone says that the commandments of God are, even for the one that is justified and constituted in grace, impossible to observe, let him be anathema.50

Canon 24 If anyone says that the justice (righteousness) received is not preserved and also not increased before God through good works, but that those works are merely the fruits and signs of justification obtained, but not the cause of its increase, let him be anathema.51

Canon 32 If anyone says that the good works of the one justified are in such manner the gifts of God that they are not also the good merits of him justified; or that the one justified by the good works that he performs by the grace of God and the merit of Jesus Christ, whose living member he is, does not truly merit an increase of grace, eternal life, and in case he dies in grace, the attainment of eternal life itself and also an increase of glory, let him be anathema.52

At this point perhaps someone will say, "But that is Rome in the 1500’s. Things have changed quite a bit since then. Well, then, let’s look at the Catechism of the Catholic Church, (1994) which is described by Pope John Paul II as a catechism, which shows, "carefully the content and wondrous harmony of the catholic faith."53

We can therefore hope in the glory of heaven promised by God to those who love him and do his will. In every circumstance, each one of us should hope, with the grace of God, to persevere ‘to the end’ and to obtain the joy of heaven, as God’s eternal reward for the good works accomplished with the grace of Christ.54

By hope we desire, and with steadfast trust await from God, eternal life and the graces to merit it.55

With justification, faith, hope and charity are poured into our hearts, and obedience to the divine will granted us.56

Justification is conferred in Baptism, the sacrament of faith. It conforms us to the righteousness of God, who makes us inwardly just by the power of his mercy.57

No one can merit the initial grace which is at the origin of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit, we can merit for ourselves and for others all the graces needed to attain eternal life, as well as necessary temporal goods.58

The Council of Trent teaches that the Ten Commandments are obligatory for Christians and that the justified man is still bound to keep them; the Second Vatican Council confirms: "The Bishops, successors of the apostles, receive from the Lord… the mission of teaching all peoples, and of preaching the Gospel to every creature, so that all men may attain salvation through faith, Baptism and the observance of the Commandments."59

Merit is to be ascribed in the first place to the grace of God, and secondly to man’s collaboration.60

Those who believe that significant changes in Roman Catholic doctrine have actually brought us closer together in our understanding of justification are in a dream world, blindly listening to the ecumenical spin-masters. Consider the fact that one month before the signing of the Joint Declaration, the Vatican released a new edition of its Manual of Indulgences. According to Agence de presse internationale catholique, a French language news agency in Switzerland, "This manual of a hundred pages, published by the Apostolic Penitencery, the Vatican body responsible for matters of conscience, explains in 33 points the concrete methods for remission of sins – by prayer, receiving the sacraments, works of charity and acts of penance."61 In connection with the release of this manual, Vatican theologian, Ivan Fucek, a Jesuit priest stated that "Catholic doctrines on indulgences and Purgatory, approved by the Council of Trent in the 16th century, were a doctrine of ‘faith’ and therefore not up for discussion."62

In the document entitled Incarnationis Mysterium, also known as the Bull of Indiction of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, Pope John Paul II states that "every sin, even venial, entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here on earth, or after death in the state called Purgatory. This purification frees one from what is called the ‘temporal punishment of sin’, and this expiation removes whatever impedes full communion with God and with one’s brothers and sisters."63 According to this same decree,

All the faithful, properly prepared, can fully enjoy, throughout the Jubilee, the gift of the indulgence, in accordance with the following norms.

While indulgences granted either generally or by special rescript remain in force during the Great Jubilee, it should be noted that the Jubilee indulgence also can be applied in suffrage to the souls of the deceased: such an offering constitutes an outstanding act of supernatural charity, in virtue of the bond which, in the Mystical Body of Christ, unites the faithful still on pilgrimage here below and those who have already ended their earthly journey. Then, too, the rule that a plenary indulgence can be gained only once a day remains in force during the entire Jubilee year.64

The Bull then enumerates various ways in which the indulgence can be acquired through certain pilgrimages, certain acts of charity and so on and states in addition that, "Participation in the Eucharist, which is required for all indulgences, should properly take place on the same day as the prescribed works are performed."65

To conclude this particular subject before we move on, let me cite once more The Catechism of the Catholic Church. What is an indulgence?

An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfaction of Christ and the saints.

An indulgence is partial or plenary according as it removes either part or all of the temporal punishment due to sin. Indulgences may be applied to the living or the dead.66

Did I say I was concluding this subject? I simply have to share just a couple more quote since they relate so well to some of my earlier remarks about Walther’s commitment to the doctrine of objective justification. On September 29, 1999, Pope John Paul II held a General Audience in which he addressed the topic of The Gift of Indulgences. "The point of departure for understanding indulgences is the abundance of God’s mercy, made manifest in the cross of Christ. Jesus crucified is the greatest ‘indulgence’ that the Father has offered humanity, allowing the forgiveness of sins and the possibility of filial life (cf Jn 1:12-13) in the Holy Spirit (cf Gal 4:6; Rm 5:5; 8:15-16)."67 I would like to make two observations.

First, the pope says, "Jesus crucified is the greatest "indulgence." (Emphasis added) He is the greatest indulgence? This would certainly imply that he is not the only indulgence. And indeed, Roman Catholic doctrine holds that works of supererogation performed by the saints are added to the treasury of merits available for application to the faithful upon the performance of sincere acts of penance. Within the Roman Catholic doctrinal system Jesus truly does lose his place as the one to whom alone glory is given in matters of salvation. It is no surprise then to hear this pope calling Jesus’ mother Mary co-redemptrix (co-redeemer).

Second, the pope says, "Jesus crucified is the greatest ‘indulgence’ that the Father has offered humanity, allowing the forgiveness of sins…." (Emphasis added) In the Roman view, once Jesus has completed his mission as Savior, forgiveness is now available, justification is now possible, reconciliation now can and may happen. But within Roman Catholicism there is no concept of a God whose wrath has been completely stilled by the sacrifice of His Son. They cannot, therefore, properly understand Jesus’ words on the cross, "It is finished." John 19:30 What did Walther say? "The true knowledge of the distinction between the Law and the Gospel is not only a glorious light, affording the correct understanding of the entire Holy Scriptures, but without this knowledge Scripture is and remains a sealed book."

Within Roman Catholicism there is no concept of complete and total forgiveness, according to which God would actually say to a sinful world, "You are now completely righteous and innocent in my eyes, because of what my Son has done for you." The teaching of objective justification is foreign to Roman Catholic ears. They cannot properly understand the words of John the Baptizer who said, "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." John 1:29 They cannot properly understand the words of St. Paul, "God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation." 2 Co 5:19 In fact, what does Pope John Paul II say in this same document to which I have been referring? "In light of this principle it is not difficult to understand how reconciliation with God, freely offered and rich in mercy, implies at the same time a laborious process, which involves man’s personal responsibility and the Church’s sacramental mandate. For the pardon of those sins committed after baptism, this process is centered on the sacrament of penance…."68 Again what does Walther say? "The true knowledge of the distinction between the Law and the Gospel is not only a glorious light, affording the correct understanding of the entire Holy Scriptures, but without this knowledge Scripture is and remains a sealed book."

Roman Catholic doctrine hasn’t changed. The issues dividing Rome from the Lutheran Church are no different today than they were in the 1600’s, all of the ecumenical hype notwithstanding. Luther’s hope that the Church of Rome would be reformed and come to embrace the pure Gospel did not materialize in his day, nor has his hope been realized today. And the Joint Declaration is an act of treason on the part of those who, bearing the name Lutheran, signed it.

In this day of what approaches ecumenical mania a sober reading of Walther’s Law and Gospel will provide a beneficial inoculation against the feverish rush toward new and wrong declarations of fellowship or mutual understanding. Where true unity exists, the church rejoices in her declaration of fellowship or consensus or convergence. But when the doctrine is not purely taught and believed by the participants, when the Law is called Gospel and the Gospel is so conditioned that it turns into Law, such declarations not only lack integrity, but also serve to destroy the very church they claim to unite. One wonders what would have happened had the Lutheran participants in the Lutheran/Roman Catholic dialogues insisted that a proper distinction between Law and Gospel be an essential part of the discussions and any subsequent agreements. It is hard for me to imagine that a declaration of consensus would ever have been reached. For this distinction, which was at the heart of the Reformation, is one which Rome to this very day does not understand.

But would a heavier emphasis on objective justification during the Lutheran/Roman Catholic dialogues have resulted in a clearer agreement on the article of justification than that which was achieved? Quite the contrary! In my view, had the Lutherans insisted on presenting the actual Lutheran view on justification, that in Christ God truly reconciled the entire world to Himself, it is probable that a more honest conclusion would have been reached – that is, we are clearly not in agreement on the article of justification. And indeed, while liberal Lutherans around the world cling feverishly to their Joint Declaration, believing it to be a true ecumenical breakthrough, we hear Rome saying, "that the Roman Catholic condemnations, made at the time of the Reformation, might still apply to points of Lutheran doctrine as outlined in the joint declaration."69


Let me conclude my presentation today by touching upon a few recent events and then providing what I see as necessary direction for confessional Lutherans today.

This last summer a document entitled Dominus Iesus was released in Rome, "from the Offices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith." At the very end of the document we read the following words, "The Sovereign Pontiff John Paul II, at the Audience of June 16, 2000, granted to the undersigned Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, with sure knowledge and by his apostolic authority, ratified and confirmed this Declaration, adopted in Plenary Session and ordered its publication."70

The document makes many statements with which we would agree. For example, the document condemns, "… certain presuppositions of both a philosophical and theological nature, which hinder the understanding and acceptance of the revealed truth. Some of these can be mentioned: the conviction of the elusiveness and inexpressibility of divine truth, even by Christian revelation; relativistic attitudes toward truth itself, according to which what is true for some would not be true for others."71 I think all of us here today would agree with these words. But the document created a tremendous stir because of the way it spoke about other churches. The document states,

The Church, constituted and organized as a society in the present world, subsists in [subsistit in] the Catholic Church, governed by the Successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him". With the expression subsistit in, the Second Vatican Council sought to harmonize two doctrinal statements: on the one hand, that the Church of Christ, despite the divisions which exist among Christians, continues to exist fully only in the Catholic Church, and on the other hand, that "outside of her structure, many elements can be found of sanctification and truth", that is, in those churches and ecclesial communities which are not yet in full communion with the Catholic Church. But with respect to these, it needs to be stated that "they derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Catholic Church.72

Again this document declares, "… the ecclesiastical communities which have not preserved the valid Episcopate and the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic mystery, are not Churches in the proper sense; however, those who are baptized in these communities are, by Baptism, incorporated in Christ and thus are in a certain communion, albeit imperfect, with the Church."

Rather than focusing on the doctrinal problems inherent in these statements, such as the belief that one can be baptized in the name of the Triune God, yet have only an imperfect communion with the Church, I would like to look at the reaction to these declarations.

In Hanover, Germany, Manfred Kock, the council president of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) described the document Dominus Iesus as "a strengthening of the traditional self-image of the Roman Catholic Church and a set-back for ecumenical cooperation." He said the document meant that "in Rome’s view the churches of the Reformation were at the ‘lowest level of the order of ecclesiastical precedence’, and that Rome had rejected the principle of equal treatment ‘with a clarity that leaves no room for doubt.’"73 Dr. Adair Mateus, secretary of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, was very displeased with Dominus Iesus. "We had expected that after almost 40 years of dialogue, the Roman Catholic Church would be more sensitive to how it refers to other world communions. In my view, it was not necessary that a declaration on inter-religious dialogue should include a couple of paragraphs ‘on ecumenical relations] phrased in a very insensitive way."74

Reaction to Dominus Iesus was intensified by comments made about the same time by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to the effect that the Protestant churches should not be called "sister churches".75 More liberal Roman Catholics also described the document as "very, very backwards… enormously negative."76 At the same time certain Protestant churches, though critical of the document conceded that it "contained nothing that had not been said before."77 In other words, nothing has changed.

On the other hand, a subsequent statement by the pope, on September 28 of this year, was described by some Protestants as encouraging. In this statement the pope had insisted that "the commitment of the Roman Catholic Church to ecumenical dialogue is ‘irrevocable.’"78 Many Protestants were pleased to hear this statement. Thus, it appears to me that certain liberal Lutherans and Protestants are unhappy that the Church of Rome has asserted its superiority and primacy over other churches but mollified that the Church of Rome is still committed to ecumenical dialogue. They’re unhappy that the Church of Rome does not consider them ecclesiastical equals but they are happy that Rome is still willing to talk.

Before they become too content, however, they need to hear what I consider to be one of the most important statements included in the declaration Dominus Iesus. Toward the end of the document we read, "Because she believes in God’s universal plan of salvation, the Church must be missionary. Inter-religious dialogue, therefore, as part of her evangelizing mission, is just one of the actions of the Church in her mission ad gentes."79 Did you hear that? Rome considers dialogue to be evangelism. Let me say it again: Rome considers dialogue evangelism.

I doubt that the same thing can be said about many of the liberal Protestants and Lutherans who have been engaging in ecumenical dialogues with each other and/or with Rome. In many cases, dialogue seems rather to have been compromise or concession or treason. A case in point would be the recent (1998) declarations of fellowship between the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and three Reformed church bodies, the Presbyterian Church USA, the Reformed Church in America, and the United Church of Christ. These declarations of fellowship all took place after dialogue between the respective church bodies with the result that you now have people communing at the same altar, some of which believe that we receive the body and blood of Jesus, together with forgiveness, life and salvation and others of which believe that we receive none of these things in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. These kinds of decisions on the part of so-called Lutherans represent what I would refer to as reckless ecumenism and a direct assault on Christ whose body and blood we receive in the Sacrament.

So how should confessional Lutherans act over against other denominations? Should we dialogue with them? What is our place within the so-called ecumenical movement? Are Lutherans ecumenical? I don’t have time to answer these questions thoroughly today but I would like to make a few brief remarks and then conclude. I think Lutherans should have no problem engaging in dialogue with members and representatives of other church bodies. St. Peter says, "Always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear." I Peter 3:15 But St. Peter also says, "Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. Resist him, steadfast in the faith…." I Peter 5:8-9 And we should not be so naive as to think that the devil, like a gentleman, absents himself while we are engaged in theological dialogue and that he just watches passively as we conduct our discussions.

As mentioned above, Rome considers dialogue evangelism. I don’t particularly fault Rome for her desire to evangelize, but for her desire to spread a false Gospel. After all, isn’t it true of us also that in the context of dialogue we seek to evangelize, whether that is dialogue between two laypeople on the street, between a pastor and a layman in the context of a pastoral call, between a Lutheran pastor and a Methodist pastor or between the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod and some other denomination? Shouldn’t we, in all of our dialogues, in all of our conversations be seeking to evangelize – to proclaim the praises of Him who has called us out of darkness into His marvelous light? I Peter 2:9 I certainly hope our main reason for engaging in dialogue with other denominations is not that we might learn from them, but that we might reveal the truth more clearly to them and bring them to a better understanding of the Gospel. In order to bring our witness to the world most effectively, we would do well to return frequently to our own Lutheran Confessions which contain such a clear exposition of God’s Word. Let these symbols remain our confession in a world which more and more despises the truth and despises even the claim that there is such a thing as religious truth.

On the basis of these confessions we need to seek and establish fellowship with those with whom we are in doctrinal agreement and on the basis of these confessions we need to decry and condemn those fellowship declarations and decisions which cry out, "peace, peace," when there is no peace. To this end may our gracious Father in Heaven guide us by His Word and Spirit and may he instill in us that same spirit displayed by those confessors who in 1580 attached their names to the Book of Concord. We would do well to listen today to their words as we look ahead to the future of the Lutheran Church and the proclamation of the Gospel in our age.

The most acute and urgent necessity demands that in the face of so many invasive errors, aggravated scandals, dissensions, and protracted divisions a Christian explanation and accord of all the disputes that have arisen come into being—one well founded in God’s Word and one according to which the pure teaching will be differentiated from the false and everything will not be left free and open to restless, contentious people, who do not want to be bound to any fixed form of pure teaching so as to excite scandalous disputes at will and to introduce and defend absurd errors from which can only result that in the end right teaching will be entirely obscured and lost and that nothing else will be transmitted to future generations than uncertain opinion and dubious, disputable imaginations and views.80

Tomorrow our Lutheran Churches will be celebrating the Festival of the Reformation. Will our congregations be observing simply an historic tradition with little bearing on the religious situation of our day. I certainly hope not! The threat today upon the church by those who would trade away her heritage is greater and far more dangerous than it has been for many years. The Gospel itself is at stake which means souls are at stake. May we never be involved in trading away our birthright, our precious Gospel and our precious Savior for a bowl of pottage called consensus which is no consensus. May we never be guilty of crying ‘peace, peace’ when there is no peace.

Let us tell the truth and let us speak it clearly – for the sake of the church. Only in this way will we glorify Christ.


1.Arthur Drevlow, Ed., C.F.W. Walther: The American Luther, (Mankato, MN: Walther Press, 1987), 151.

2. Lewis W. Spitz, The Life of C.F.W. Walther, (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1961), 10.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid., 13.

5. C.F.W. Walther, The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel, (St. Louis, Mo.: Concordia Publishing House, 1928), 141. All subsequent references to this work will be abbreviated Law and Gospel.

6. Law and Gospel, 142.

7. Spitz, 20.

8.Walter O. Forster, Zion on the Mississippi (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1953), 516-517.

9. Nathan Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1989), 58.


11. Law and Gospel, 42.

12. Robert Kolb & Thomas Manteufel, eds., Soli Deo Gloria: Essays on C.F.W. Walther, (St. Louis: Concordia Seminary Press, 2000) 61-81. I express appreciation to Richard Kraemer whose article in this Festschrift in memory of August R. Suelflow provides an excellent analysis of the chronological structure of Walther's Law and Gospel.

13. This description of Walther's emphasis on justification is provided by Franz Pieper, noted Missouri theologian, professor at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis and president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. Franz Pieper, Dr. C. F. W. Walther as Theologian, Concordia Theological Monthly, Vols. 55 & 56 (December, 1955 & January, 1956).

14. Law and Gospel, 403.

15. Ibid., 268.

16. Ibid., 269.

17. Ibid., 271.

18. Ibid., 272, italics in the original.

19. Ibid., 273, italics in the original.

20. Ibid., 264.

21. Ibid., 260.

22. Ibid., 260.

23. Ibid., 129.

24. Ibid., 145.

25. Ibid., 136, italics in the original.

26. Franz Pieper, Dr. C. F. W. Walther as Theologian. Concordia Theological Monthly, Vol. XXVI (December, 1955), 921.

27. Preached, Easter Day, 1846, translation by Daniel Preus. Mark 16:1-8 was apparently one of Walther's favorite pericopes. He preached on this text no less than 16 times.

28. Law and Gospel, 79.

29. Sermon on Mark 16:1-8, Easter, 1846.

30. Ibid.

31. Law and Gospel, 276.

32. Luther's Works, Jaroslav Pelikan and Walter A. Hansen, Eds. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1967) vol. 30, 134. Subsequent references to this 55 volume set of Luther's writings will be abbreviated LW.

33. LW, 31, 231.

34. Ibid., 209.

35. LW 38, 179.

36. Law and Gospel, 291.

37. Ibid., 153.

38. The Synodical Conference was a federation of American Lutheran synods organized in 1872 by confessionally minded Lutheran church bodies for the purposes of promoting unity in doctrine, external expression of such unity, mutual encouragement in faith and confession, providing a common front against false doctrine and working together for common goals. The conference was dissolved in 1967 due to disagreements among some of the member synods.

39. Synodical Conference Report, 1872, 23.

40. This quotation from Walther contains a footnote at this point which reads, "The Papists, as is well known, regard it as a criminal presumption for the ordinary Christian to claim to be sure of his state of grace.

41. C.F.W. Walther, The Lutheran Doctrine of Justification, an essay delivered at Addison, Ill., 1859.

42. Law and Gospel, 152.

43. Ibid., 60.

44. Robert D. Preus, Justification and Rome. (St. Louis: Concordia Academic Press, 1997), 33 & 111.

45. Ecumenical News International, ENI News Service, June 25, 1998.

46. Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, H. J. Schroeder, ed., (St. Louis, MO: B. Herder Book Co, 1941), 43.

47. Ibid.

48. Ibid., 43-44.

49. Ibid., 44.

50. Ibid.

51. Ibid., 45.

52. Ibid., 46.

53. Catechism of the Catholic Church, (New York: Image, Doubleday, 1995) 6.

54. Ibid., 500.

55. Ibid., 504.

56. Ibid., 536.

57. Ibid.

58. Ibid., 545. Emphasis added.

59. Ibid., 558.

60. Ibid., 545.

61. Ecumenical News International, ENI News Service, September 23, 1999.

62. Ibid.

63. Incarnationis Mysterium; Bull of Indiction of the Great Jubilee of the Year, 2000, Catholic Information Network, December 6, 1998.

64. Ibid.

65. Ibid.

66. Catechism of the Catholic Church,(Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1994), 370.

67. The Gift of Indulgences, Pope John Paul II, General Audience, September 29, 1999.

68. Ibid.

69. Ibid.

70. Declaration "Dominus Iesus" on the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church, (Rome: Offices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, August 6, 2000).

71. Ibid.

72. Ibid.

73. Ecumenical News International, ENI News Service, September 5, 2000.

74. Ecumenical News International, ENI News Service, September 28, 2000.

75. ENI, September 5, 2000.

76. Ibid.

77. Ibid.

75. Ecumenical News International, ENI News Service, September 28, 2000.

79. Dominus Iesus, section 22.

80. The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, eds., (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 14.

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