Are You Prepared to Minister to Those Suffering Domestic Violence?

Are You Prepared to Minister to Those Suffering Domestic Violence?

Domestic violence is extremely prevalent and damaging, but frequently hidden.

Intimate partner violence is pervasive in U.S. society. One in every four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime. Nearly three out of four of Americans personally know someone who is or has been a victim of domestic violence.


These statistics don’t begin to reveal the darkness and grief experienced by the women themselves. Those suffering domestic violence are in the midst of a whirlwind of emotions and have serious and important questions. Here are some of the most frequent questions we’ve been asked:

  • Does the grace of God apply to me?
  • What does the Bible say about women?
  • What does the Bible say about violence against women?
  • What does the Bible say about God delivering victims?
  • Does the Bible say I should suffer abuse and violence?

My wife, Lindsey, and I wrote Is It My Fault? for those suffering domestic violence to answer these questions and to offer accessible, gospel-based help, hope, and healing.

Those suffering abuse need to know that God sees their suffering and that God cares about them and hears their cries and prayers. He cares for them so much that He wants them safe and delivered from threat and violence. But even beyond physical safety, God wants them to heal from the many ways they’ve been hurt and wounded.

Healing In Community

Because the healing process is best aided in the context of community, Is It My Fault? is also for the family, friends, clergy, and ministry staff who want to love and support victims of abuse.

Many people want to help those in their family or circle of friends who are being hurt by domestic violence, but they don’t always know how. They are often overwhelmed by the seriousness of the situation and feel helpless to lend adequate support. But here, they couldn’t be more wrong. Friends, family, and ministry members can offer immense help and support to victims of abuse.

The alternate effect of this, of course, is that some “help”—if misapplied—can actually hurt. Unfortunately, many ministry leaders are woefully under-equipped to deal with domestic violence. Platitudes, prying questions, and shallow “biblical” answers, for example, do more harm than good for a victim who feels stuck in a desperate situation. In fact, many victims believe clergy have the most potential to help them, when in reality they are too often the least helpful and sometimes even harmful.

If you are a leader in ministry, statistics tell us there are people under your care 
that have suffered—or are currently suffering—from domestic violence. This is particularly tragic because part of God’s mission for the church is to proclaim God’s healing and to seek justice for everyone it encounters. And this book is to help equip you in doing just that for women in abusive situations. It is also a resource to give to women being abused as well as their support network of friends and family.

We believe that the deepest message of the ministry of Jesus and the Bible is the grace of God to all of us because we are all broken people in a broken world. Grace is most needed and best understood in the midst of sin, suffering, and brokenness.

“Your Story Does Not End With Abuse”

Those suffering domestic violence need the good news of the grace of God applied to the effects of the abuse. Our hope is that ministry leaders clearly communicate and care for them with this message:

“Jesus responds to your pain. Your story does not end with abuse and violence. Your life was intended for more than shame, guilt, fear, anger, and confusion. The abuse does not define you or have the last word on your identity. Yes, it is part of your story, but not the end of your story.”

In Jesus, the God who delivers us from evil also offers us a path to healing. And it’s time to let this truth transform the shape of our own stories and how we minister to others.

10 Practical Ways to Care

If you are a loved one, friend, or minister serving a woman suffering domestic abuse, here are some suggestions on how to best care for her.

1. Let her know the abuse was not her fault. Communicate clearly: “You do not deserve abuse. And the it is never your fault.”

2. Listen. Don’t judge or blame them for the abuse. Research has proven that victims tend to have an easier adjustment when they are believed and listened to by others.

3. Don’t minimize or deny what happened. The fact that the abuse was not physical doesn’t make it any less painful, and it doesn’t make it any less wrong. The scars of emotional abuse are very real, they can run very deep, and they are not to be minimized. In fact, emotional abuse can be just as damaging as physical abuse—sometimes even more so.

4. Reassure her that she is cared for and loved.

5. Encourage her to talk about the abuse with an advocate, pastor, mental health professional, law enforcement officer, another victim, or a trusted friend.

6. Encourage her to seek medical attention if needed.

7. Fight on her behalf against the lies that the abuse was her fault, that she is to blame, that she is a failure, or that she deserved abuse because she is a bad wife, mother, girlfriend, woman, or Christian.

8. Take care of yourself. As a support person, you need to be healthy in your caregiving role.

9. Avoid placating statements as an attempt to make her feel better.

10. Take time to notice where she is in the healing process and do not rush her through it. Help her keep moving through it at a pace comfortable to her rather than trying to force progression to a different stage immediately.

Know the Heretics

Know the Heretics

There is a lot of talk about heresy these days. The frequency and volume of accusations suggest that some Christians have lost a sense of the gravity of the word. On the other hand, many believers have little to no familiarity with orthodox doctrine or the historic distortions of it. What’s needed is a strong dose of humility and restraint, and also a clear and informed definition of orthodoxy and heresy. Know the Heretics is an accessible “travel guide” to the key heresies of Christian history.

This book started as a series of blog posts, which are listed here:

Know the Creeds and Councils is the companion book to Know the Heretics.

Know the Creeds and Councils

Know the Creeds and Councils

Know the Creeds and Councils is an accessible and relevant overview of Christianity’s most significant statements of faith. In every generation, the Christian church must interpret and restate its bedrock beliefs, answering the challenges and concerns of the day. This accessible overview walks readers through centuries of creeds, councils, catechisms, and confessions–not with a dry focus on dates and places, but with an emphasis on the living tradition of Christian belief and why it matters for our lives today.

This book started as a series of blog posts, which are listed here:

Know the Heretics is the companion book to Know the Creeds and Councils.

Victim Blaming and Negative Stereotypes

Victim Blaming and Negative Stereotypes

Social psychology research on attitudes toward sexual assault has demonstrated that individuals in our society hold many prejudices about and negative views of sexual assault victims. Thus, victims often suffer not only from the trauma of the assault itself but also from the effects of these negative stereotypes. The result is that victims feel socially derogated and blamed following their sexual assault, which can prolong, continue, and intensify the substantial psychological and emotional distress the victim experiences. It is clear that negative reactions from family, friends, loved ones, and society have a harmful effect on victims.

Because sexual assault is a form of victimization that is particularly stigmatized in American society, many victims suffer in silence, which only intensifies their distress and disgrace. There appears to be a societal impulse to blame traumatized individuals for their suffering. One rationale is that this provides nonvictims with a false sense of security if they can place blame on victims rather than on perpetrators. Research findings suggest that blaming victims for post-traumatic symptoms is not only erroneous but also contributes to the vicious cycle of traumatization. Victims experiencing negative social reactions have poorer adjustment.

Negative reactions to sexual assault victims, such as attributing blame or responsibility to the victim, generally have been found to be greater for assaults by acquaintances and especially dates, sexually active victims, less “respectable” victims, nonresisting victims; assaults in which victims used alcohol prior to the assault; and assaults in which victims engaged in nonstereotypical gender-role behavior prior to attack.

Research has proven that “the only social reactions related to better adjustment by victims were being believed and
being listened to by others” (Sarah E. Ullman, “Social Reactions, Coping Strategies, and Self-Blame Attributions in Adjustment to Sexual Assault,” Psychology of Women Quarterly 20, 1996: 505–26).

This post is an excerpt from Rid of My Disgrace: Hope and Healing for Victims of Sexual Assault.

How Is God Working in the World? Understanding Miracles and Providence

How Is God Working in the World? Understanding Miracles and Providence

The pages of the Bible are filled with miraculous acts of God, and those who believe in the trustworthiness of Scripture surely believe in miracles. Yet today, when someone claims to have witnessed a miracle, even evangelical Christians tend to chuckle inside, perhaps attributing the “miracle” to an overactive imagination or the advancements of modern science. We are faced with a difficult paradox: on the one hand, we long for miraculous signs and wonders like those in Scripture, but often when we see or hear of events worthy of being called “miraculous” we struggle to overcome our modern skepticism. Has God ceased to work in the world the way he did in biblical times?

In order to answer this question, we need to develop a theology of miracles that will help us rightly understand the way God works in the world today so that we avoid the extremes of making everything a miracle, on the one hand, or allowing nothing to be a miracle, on the other. We need to determine what a miracle is and is not.

Wrong Views of Miracles

Many false views of miracles persist today. For example, some people believe God created the world like a watch that just needed to be wound up, only to be left alone, operating according to a set of natural laws. In this view, God isn’t usually involved in the world, and miracles are those times when he chooses to interrupt the laws of nature. But this view squeezes God out of any ordinary, providential sustainment of the created order. That is, it assumes God doesn’t normally act in creation, which, as we’ll see, is not biblical.

A second wrong view of miracles also tries to squeeze any divine action out of the world, but in a different way. This view suggests that there are really no such things as miracles because, by definition, miracles violate the laws of nature. However, because we don’t have an exhaustive understanding of the laws of nature, how can we be sure any given miracle did in fact violate some such law? Ironically, this position happily admits some things that happen in the world surpass our comprehension—it just attributes those mysteries to science rather than to God.

The opposite of the second perspective is the “God of the gaps” view, which basically attributes anything we don’t presently understand to the miraculous power of God. Rather than explaining an extraordinary event by “mere science,” the “God of the gaps” view explains any gap in scientific knowledge by divine existence or action. But as scientific knowledge grows, and the gaps in our knowledge shrink, so does the God who supposedly filled them.

Yet another wrong view of miracles turns every mundane action of God in the world into an extraordinary miracle. Michael Horton describes this view well in The Christian Faith: “In reaction against naturalism, it is often asserted by Christians that God is in fact involved regularly in the course of their lives in the form ofmiracles. Starved for some practical sense of God’s concern for their daily lives, many Christians flock to groups and individuals promising them a daily encounter with miracles. What is lost in the bargain is a sense of God’s ordinary providence in and through creaturely means and natural processes that he has created and sustains” (page 368).

That is, some Christians are so worried that modern secularism has no place for God that they overcompensate, calling everything extraordinary that happens a miracle. But when everything is a miracle, nothing is a miracle.

Miracles vs. Providence

One of the most basic Christian beliefs is that God—as the creator, sustainer, and redeemer of all life in the universe—acts in, on, and through that which he has created. In one sense, the entire Bible is an account of miracle after miracle—of God’s continual special working in creation to redeem and restore a covenant people for himself. The Westminster Confession states this point succinctly: “God the great Creator of all things does uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least, by his most wise and holy providence, according to his infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of his own will, to the praise of the glory of his wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy.”

So what is a miracle, and how is a miracle distinguishable from regular divine action? How can we maintain both a robust understanding of general divine providence and special divine intervention in miracles? In order to understand miracles rightly, Christians must account for God’s everyday sustaining providence.

According to Wayne Grudem in his Systematic Theology, “A miracle is a less common kind of God’s activity in which he arouses people’s awe and wonder and bears witness to himself” (355). Or, as Horton puts it, “Unlike God’s ordinary providence, his miraculous intervention involves a suspension or alteration of natural laws and processes in particular circumstances” (368). Notice both of these definitions of miracles presuppose that God is already involved in creation continually. 

God is involved in the world through more than just miracles; even natural processes can be attributed to divine agency. As Horton observes, “When a burn heals, it is God who heals it through the natural processes with which he has richly endowed and so carefully attends it” (369).

When we understand that God providentially guides and sustains our everyday lives, the distinction between “natural” and “supernatural” fades. Horton explains: “We frequently distinguish natural and supernatural causes, but this too may reflect the false choice of attributing circumstances either to God or to nature. The Scriptures know nothing of a creation or a history that is at a single moment independent of God’s agency. The question is not whetherGod is involved in every aspect of our lives but how God is involved.Therefore, with respect to providence, the question is never whether causes are exclusively natural or supernatural, but whether God’s involvement in every moment is providential or miraculous” (369, italics original).

“Interventionist” views of divine action see any activity of God as miraculous, diminish God’s providential guidance, and create too strong a dichotomy between God’s agency and creaturely agency. In contrast, a view that sees miracles as a special instance of God’s activity acknowledges that “even in his miraculous activity God usually works through creaturely means, but he sanctifies them for extraordinary service” (368).

To be disappointed at not seeing “Bible-like” miracles in our own lives is to misunderstand the significance of God’s providential care over creation. “Not only when God intervenes extraordinarily, suspending his natural order, but in his design and faithfulness to that order, we have reason to give thanks,” Horton writes. “Not only when one’s cancer mysteriously disappears, but when it is conquered through the countless layers of creaturely mediation, ultimately God is the healer” (369).

Whether we experience God’s power in an obviously miraculous way, such as a healing, or simply through his providential guiding of a surgeon’s hands, God is equally near to us, for “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:27-28).

Desiring the Kingdom (Book Highlights)

Desiring the Kingdom (Book Highlights)

“What if education wasn’t first and foremost about what we know, but about what we love?  That is actually the wager of this book:  It is an invitation to re-vision Christian education as formative rather than just an informative project.” 

Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation

by James K. A. Smith


In Desiring the Kingdom, James K. A. Smith sets forth a vision of Christian formation that seeks to challenge preconceived notions of what education should be and the assumptions that undergird those conceptions.  He envisions his work being used by pastors, campus ministers, worship leaders, and others who are in charge of forming worship in local congregations.

Two assumptions shape the book and guide the discussion.  First, in part one, Smith contests one common understanding of human beings (anthropology) which sees them primarily as “knowing” individuals.  Instead Smith asks, “What if education wasn’t first and foremost about what we know, but about what we love?  That is actually the wager of this book:  It is an invitation to re-vision Christian education as formative rather than just an informative project.” (17-18).  Second, in part two, Smith challenges the idea that education or any other practice can be religiously “neutral,” and argues for an expansive understanding of “liturgy” as love shaping habits:  “The core claim of this book is that liturgies – whether “sacred” or “secular” – shape and constitute our identities by forming our most fundamental desires and our most basic attunement to the world.  In short, liturgies make us certain kinds of people, and what defines us is what we love” (25).

Part One

Chapter One outlines Smith’s theological anthropology.  In contrast to both “person-as-thinker” and “person-as believer” models of the human person, he articulates what he refers to as a “more robustly Augustinian anthropology” which “sees humans as most fundamentally oriented by love” (46).  Because humans are most properly defined by these loves and their pursuit, Christian education is best conceived as a set of practices that form and shape what a person desires.  Smith identifies several elements in the “person-as-lover” model:  “Human persons are intentional creatures whose fundamental way of ‘intending’ the world is love or desire. This love or desire—which is unconscious or noncognitive—is always aimed as some vision of the good life, some particular articulation of the kingdom. What primes us to be so oriented—and act accordingly—is a set of habits or dispositions that are formed in us through affective, bodily means, especially bodily practices, routines, or rituals that grab hold of our hearts through our imagination, which is closely lined to our bodily senses” (62-63).  This “person-as lover” model suggests an alternative set of assumptions that should shape Christian education and offers what Smith calls a “social imaginary view.”  Rather than focusing merely on the content of education and ignoring the practices by which this content is communicated (and the everyday activities with which it competes), Smith states that on the social imaginary view, the imagination takes place over the intellect. By implication this means first that humans are typically religious well before they develop a theology, and second that formative practices cannot be reduced into mere ideas, belief, or doctrines.  Practices, habits, and routines of worship and life shape who we are, what we love, and how we believe.  Finally, he emphasizes that this process is not merely one that people experience as individuals, but through relationships and institutions.

Therefore, and with this understanding of the human person in mind, in Chapter Two Smith argues that the church should address desires in order to channel them into a desire for God.  In order to describe how the church should do this he makes a distinction between “thick” (meaningful) and “thin” (mundane) practices.  Although this distinction may at times be somewhat blurry its purpose is to emphasize that “no habit or practice is neutral” (83).  Furthermore, it is important to remember that some practices that may superficially seem “thin” are in reality “thick.”  Research has shown that the way our “dispositions toward goals” become “habituated” in us is often automatic and unintentional, and therefore proper Christian education must appreciate that many of our loves are acquired unintentionally through everyday practices which we take for granted (85).  Therefore, Smith invokes the concept of “liturgy” in an innovative way.  He writes, “I want to ramp this up just one more notch and suggest that our thickest practices constitute and function as liturgies” (85). While we typically think of liturgies in terms of religious practice, Smith says that “some so-called secular rituals actually constitute liturgies” (86).  Smith defines liturgies as “species of practice” or “rituals of ultimate concern” which are “formative for identity,” “inculcate particular visions of the good life,” and “do so in a way that means to trump other ritual formations” (86).  The reason Smith thinks using the term liturgy is important is because it raises the stakes of what is taking place in our cultural practices and rituals.

In Chapter Three, Smith models what he refers to as a “cultural exegesis” of our secular rituals and practices.  This cultural exegesis involves asking “What vision of human flourishing is implicit in this or that practice? What does the good life look like as embedded in cultural rituals? What sort of person will I become after being immersed in this or that cultural liturgy?” (89).  Therefore, cultural exegesis, much like biblical apocalyptic literature, is a mode of “unmasking” or “unveiling the realities around us for what they really are” (92).  Smith’s hope is that “the shift of focus from ideas to practices, from beliefs to liturgy, will function as a methodological jolt that gets us into a position to see cultural practices and institutions in ways we’ve never seen them before” (92-93).  By way of example, he offers three liturgical analyses of cultural institutions by examining the mall, the stadium, and the modern university demonstrating that “implicit in their liturgies are visions of the kingdom—visions of human flourishing—that are antithetical to the biblical vision of shalom” (121). However, even these secular liturgies point to the fact that we are liturgical animals.  “Secular liturgies don’t create our desire; they point it, aim it, direct it to certain ends” (122).  Here Smith appeals to Calvin’s sensus divinitatis, which he suggests—differing from the popular interpretation—speaks of our proclivity towards worship (as opposed to theistic belief/knowledge).

Part Two

Whereas Part One formed the theoretical groundwork for Smith’s argument, Part Two consists of his constructive task.  Chapter Four introduces this constructive account of Christian worship and formation by arguing for the primacy of sacramental worship over and against the communication of a particular worldview.  Smith claims that the anthropology of Part One demands not a “top-down, ideas first picture that prioritizes beliefs and doctrines (‘worldview’) but rather a bottom-up, practices-first model that prioritizes worship as a practice of desire” (136).  Eschewing what he asserts to be “dualistic” or “Gnostic” worship, he argues for a sacramental understanding of the world that resists the temptation to separate nature from grace (141).  Smith writes that “Aspects of the material world like bread and water are not “made” to be sacramental by some kind of magical divine fiat that transforms their created nature; rather, when they are taken up as sacraments in the context of worship, their ‘natural sacramentality’ is simply intensified and completed. So, too, worship is not some odd, extravagant, extra-human thing we do as an add-on to our earthly, physical, material nature; rather worship is the epiphany of the world” (143).  This sacramental leveling entails the twin temptations to marginalize the church or to minimize the significance of the liturgy of Christian worship, and both temptations ought to be resisted (148-9).  Finally, he points out that all Christian worship is “liturgical in the sense that it is governed by norms, draws on a tradition, includes bodily rituals or routines, and involves formative practices” (152).  The question is not whether we have a liturgy, but what the liturgy which we necessarily have says about who we are being shaped to be.

Chapter Five in Smith’s own words consists of the “heart of the book,” (131) and presents the best and most easily accessible summary of his constructive project. In this chapter, Smith exegetes what he understands to be the standard practices of the Christian liturgy:  The Christian Calendar, The Call to Worship, God’s Greeting and Mutual Greeting, Singing, The Reading of the Law, The Confession of Sin and Assurance of Pardon, Baptism, The Creed, Prayer, The Scripture and Sermon, Eucharist, Offering, and Sending as Witnesses.  In each case his purpose is to articulate how the presence or absence of the given aspect of the liturgy and the manner in which it is carried out will affect those who participate.  Finally, Smith concludes the chapter by considering that Christian worship entails a relatively brief portion of the week.  However, this reality can be moderated by the power of carefully attended Christian worship practices coupled with sensitivity to (and frequently avoidance of) the power of secular liturgies.  Additionally the power of corporate worship practices should be supplemented with habits of daily devotion that also take place in the context of families and other relationships along the lines of Bonhoeffer’s Life Together.

Finally, in Chapter 6 Smith outlines the implications of his project for the Christian University.  Returning to the his opening question, “What is education for?”, Smith now asks “What is a Christian college for?”  Whereas Christian universities are most commonly thought to provide a Christian perspective on the world to their students, according to Smith merely thinking “from a Christian perspective” often does little to transform practice.  So then what is the goal of Christian education? “Its goal, I’m suggesting, is the same goal of Christian worship: to form radical disciples of Jesus and citizens of the baptismal city who, communally, take up the creational task of being God’s image bearers, unfolding the cultural possibilities latent in creation—but doing so as empowered by the Spirit, following the example of Jesus’s cruciform cultural labor…In short, the task of Christian education needs to be reconnected to the thick practices of the church” (220).  Instead of speaking of “Christian colleges” Smith wishes that we would speak of “ecclesial colleges” and “ecclesial universities.”  In this way he wishes to express the notion that the university should be nourished by the heart of the church.  He sees this happening in at least three practical “monastic” ways.  First, he desires to reconnect the church with the chapel (as a mediating institution) and the classroom, thus making worship more directly connected with education.  Second, he wishes to reconnect the classroom with the dorm room and the neighborhood (as well as relationships between students and faculty outside of the classroom), hence avoiding the disconnect from “real life” relationships often experienced by college students.  Third he desires to reconnect the body and the mind, which would involve a pedagogy that is “liturgically informed,” thus enabling Christian education to be primarily concerned with formation and not just information.


By way of Summary, Smith makes three primary claims in this book:  first, we are liturgical animals formed by what we desire; second, some practices are thicker than others, carrying more formative weight; and third, Christianity is not fundamentally a worldview but rather what we believe and think grows out of what we do.

Desiring the Kingdom is not so much about what Christians think—that is, a book about “worldview”—but rather on what Christians love and then do, which articulates, “the shape of a Christian ‘social imaginary’ as it is embedded in the practices of Christian worship” 911). Smith’s goal is “to push down through worldview to worship as the matrix from which a Christian worldview is born—and to consider what that means for the task of Christian education and the shape of Christian worship” (11).

Learning must not be limited to practices that view humans as merely thinking things. Christian education needs to be primarily concerned with formation, not just information, which Smith summarizes clearly, “Any Christian scholarship worth the name must emerge from the matrix of worship. In short, Christian scholarship must be ecclesial scholarship” (230).

Baptismal Blessing

Baptismal Blessing

The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby teaches about the meaning and significance of baptism in the video below. He concludes with a beautiful baptismal blessing that originated from the Church of Scotland:

“For you Jesus Christ came into the world. For you he lived and showed God’s love. For you he suffered the darkness of Calvary and cried at the last, ‘It is accomplished.’ For you he triumphed over death and rose to new life. For you he reigns at God’s right hand. All this he did for you, though you do not know it yet.”

Anglican baptism services follow traditional liturgy from the Book of Common Prayer. Usually that means the parents of the child being baptized offer confessions of their Christian faith—they verbally reject the devil, deceit, and sin, they submit to Jesus Christ, and they commit to lead their child to do so as well.

See the video here.


Violence Against Women Is A Men’s Issue

Violence Against Women Is A Men’s Issue

Jackson Katz gave a TED talk on the issue of violence against women. Domestic violence and sexual abuse are often called “women’s issues.” But in his talk, Jackson points out that these are intrinsically men’s issues — and shows how these violent behaviors are tied to definitions of manhood. It’s a call for everybody — women and men — to call out unacceptable behavior and be leaders of change.

Jackson is one of my favorite authors and speakers. I assigned his book, Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women and How All Men Can Help, in a few of my courses when I taught at the University of Virginia. Students loved reading it. He also created the poster–“10 Things Men Can Do To Prevent Gender Violence“–which is also available in Spanish.


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

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