C. F. W. Walther: Applying Law & Gospel

C. F. W. Walther is a household name to some, but an unknown figure to many. He is largely responsible for bringing Lutheranism to the United States. According to theologian Robert Kolb, Walther “shaped his epoch by adapting Luther’s teachings to the needs of nineteenth-century German immigrants on the American frontier.” What is especially unique about Walther is his work in applying Martin Luther’s doctrine of Law and Gospel. The scholar Victor Veith writes, “Perhaps more than any other theologian, C. F. W. Walther applied himself to understanding the application of law and gospel. Indeed, Walther’s exhaustive analysis of this issue was unparalleled in his time and has not been equaled in our era.” Because of Walther’s concern to carry on the Reformation that had begun with Luther, his life and thought deserves attention.

Walther’s Background

Carl Ferdinand Wilhelm Walther was born in 1811 in Saxony, Germany, the eighth of twelve children. Ferdinand, as his family called him, received his initial education from his father, a pastor. While studying theology at Leipzig, Walther spent much time reading Luther’s works and became convinced of confessional Lutheran doctrine. After passing his exams, Ferdinand was ordained as a pastor in 1837.

Carl Ferdinand Wilhelm Walther was born in 1811 in Saxony, Germany, the eighth of twelve children. Ferdinand, as his family called him, received his initial education from his father, a pastor. While studying theology at Leipzig, Walther spent much time reading Luther’s works and became convinced of confessional Lutheran doctrine. After passing his exams, Ferdinand was ordained as a pastor in 1837.

The congregation Walther inherited gave him little hope that the Gospel could be proclaimed effectively in such an environment. The rationalist Christians of his day opposed the orthodox Christian faith, and sermons of the day focused on topics such as “Profitableness of Potato-raising,” “Importance of Genuine Sanitation,” and “Tree-planting a Necessity” instead of the Gospel and grace of Jesus Christ.

In search of greater religious freedom, Walther and a group of Lutheran immigrants set out for the United States in 1838, ultimately settling in Missouri. Walther began to pastor a church in St. Louis, where he served until his death in 1887. Walther and his wife had six children. During his ministry, he served as the president of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, as the first president of Concordia Seminary, and as the head pastor of four Lutheran congregations in St. Louis.

Walther’s Theological Distinctives

Theologically, Walther was an orthodox Lutheran as well as a Pietist. However, he criticized the Pietists for their focus on human experience at the expense of the Word of God. Their focus on works, for Walther, distracted from the Gospel and justification. As an orthodox Lutheran, he worried that the union of the Lutherans and the Reformed in the Kingdom of Prussia was misguided “because it glossed over the errors of Reformed theology.”

Law and Gospel

What Walther is best known for his is persuasive, passionate, and powerful teaching about how to understand the Law and the Gospel. The distinction between Law and Gospel is one to which Luther gave great weight, writing, “Whoever knows well this art of distinguishing between the Law and the Gospel, him place at the head and call him a doctor of Holy Scripture.” Walther’s theological significance lay in working out the application of this crucial distinction, and he found at least twenty-one ways Christians and Christian teachers tend to misapply and confuse Law and Gospel.

In Walther’s most influential work, The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel, he showed how the one word of grace depends on the two words of God—Law and Gospel (alternatively, judgment and love, or threat and promise)—being related and reconciled in the crucifixion of Christ. His first three “theses” on Law and Gospel provide an important foundation for how to read and teach the Bible:

Thesis 1: “The doctrinal contents of the entire Holy Scriptures, both of the Old and the New Testament, are made up of two doctrines differing fundamentally from each other, viz., the Law and the Gospel.”

Thesis 2: “Only he is an orthodox teacher who not only presents all articles of faith in accordance with Scripture, but also rightly distinguishes from each other the Law and the Gospel.”

Thesis 3: “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.”

Walther explains that both Law and Gospel are equally necessary for salvation, but the Law cannot lead us to salvation; it can only prepare us for the Gospel. The Law has nothing to say about grace, but only contains commands and threats, which reveal to us our need for the Gospel. The Gospel, in contrast, offers only grace, peace, and salvation.

The Law tells us what to do, but it does not enable us to obey; the Gospel gives salvation freely and empowers joyful obedience in response. Walther was adamant that no Gospel element should ever be combined with the Law; instead, the Law should be proclaimed first, and then the Gospel should follow. The Law says “Do!” and the Gospel follows and says “Done.” It is also necessary to recognize the context when preaching, because “the Word of God is not rightly divided when the Law is preached to those who are already in terror on account of their sins, or the Gospel to those who live securely in their sins.”


Walther’s robust doctrine of justification set him apart from the other theologians of his day, as well as many today. Theologian Franz Pieper writes, “After Luther and Chemnitz no other teacher of our church has attested the doctrine of justification so impressively as did Walther.” Walther spoke of justification as the characteristic mark of the Christian religion, and declared that any error in the doctrine of justification necessarily meant an error in every other Christian doctrine. Thus Walther argued, “If anyone would not rightly know and believe this doctrine [justification], it would not do him any good if he knew correctly all other doctrines as, for instance, those of the Holy Trinity, of the person of Christ, and the like.”

The doctrine of justification was the foundation of pastoral ministry for Walther, and he urged preachers to focus on the Gospel, because “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.” He declared that he would rather the church be filled with uneducated pastors who knew the doctrine of justification well than with eloquent scholars who wavered on justification. For Walther, to assert that faith is anything other than trust in the grace offered by the Gospel would pervert justification.

Carrying Luther’s Legacy

Some worried that Walther merely wanted to return to the scholastic theology of the seventeenth-century Lutherans, but Walther wanted to return to Luther and to historic Lutheranism as set forth in the Book of Concord. For him, Luther was “the man whom God chose as the Moses of his church of the New Covenant, to lead his church, which had fallen into slavery to the Antichrist, out of that slavery. He is the column of smoke and fire of the Word of God, clear and pure as gold as it is.” However, Walther insisted that Luther was not to be idolized, for his accomplishments were to be viewed as God’s accomplishments.

As a pastor, Walther believed that theology was a practical rather than academic discipline at its core and that orthodox belief should always produce living faith.

Along with this conviction came the belief that the Scriptures were central to the revival of the church. Walther believed that a culture in which the Scriptures could flourish had to be created. As such, under his leadership, the church body founded schools, hospitals, churches, and other institutions.

Walther’s Scholarship

Through both preaching and writing Walther communicated his vision to his congregation. He wrote mostly periodical articles in the two journals he started. His scholarly journal was called Lehre und Wehre (1855), and his popular journal was Der Lutheraner (1844). Both journals were distinctly Lutheran and aimed to communicate Luther’s thought and heritage to both scholars and laypersons. His longer works were comprised almost solely of ecclesiological writings.

Because of his admiration for Luther, Walther wanted him also to be read by his church. He spent much time in translating Luther’s works into English, and eventually backed a project for the complete American edition. He also published a guide for reading Luther.

Walther’s most influential work remains The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel, which was originally a collection of lectures to seminary students. Kolb argues that Walther’s entire ministry can be summed up in this title. Other noteworthy works by Walther are listed at the end of this post.

Walther’s Legacy                 

C. F. W. Walther remains a figure to be admired. He wanted the church to rediscover the Gospel in the face of a prevailing culture that made it difficult to do so. While he did not produce a major systematic theology text to carry on his legacy, Walther’s emphasis on the distinction between Law and Gospel remains extremely relevant today. As one religious historian writes, “Walther’s influence was especially significant in that he stood almost alone in the nineteenth-century American theological scene as one fully aware of the crucial importance of the problems of Law and Gospel.”

Walther’s Major Writings