Faith, Justification, and the Law/Gospel Distinction (Walther)

This morning on my reading list was the “twenty-first evening lecture” by C. F. W. Walther in his book, The Proper Distinction between Law and Gospel. In this chapter the 19th century Lutheran theologian discussed the following thesis:

“The Word of God, the law and the gospel, is not rightly divided, but commingled [mixed], when the preacher describes faith in a manner as if it makes a person righteous and saves him for the reason that it produces in him love and a reformation of his mode of living.”

Here are some of Walther’s helpful comments on this thesis:

The Holy Scriptures emphatically testify that there can be no genuine faith without love, without a renewal of heart, without sanctification, without an abundance of good works. But it testifies at the same time that the renewal of heart, love, and the good works which faith produces, are not the justifying and saving element in a person’s faith. Innumerable passages of Scripture could be cited in proof of this statement; we shall dwell only on the principal passages….

Romans 4:16 says: Therefore it is of faith that it might be by grace, to the end the promise might be sure to all the seed. Paul here declares that the very reason why we teach righteousness by faith is because we teach that a person is justified in the sight of God and saved by grace. Now, if faith were to make us righteous because of some good quality inherent in us, it would be a wrong conclusion to teach a person’s justification by faith, since he is justified and saved by grace. Justification is by grace, through faith; however, not because of good qualities inherent in faith. …We are doing nothing, absolutely nothing, towards our salvation, but Christ has already done everything for us, and we must merely cling to what He has done, draw consolation from His finished work of redemption, and trust in it for our salvation. This passage in Romans is a precious text, a text that deserves to be remembered. If something that we must do belonged to the justifying quality of faith, the apostle would in this text be drawing a false conclusion. In that case he should have said: “by faith, in so far as it aids us to accomplish something good.” But that is not the reason why faith justifies; it justifies because it accepts the merit of Christ. Faith is only the hand with which we grasp what God offers.

In Philippians 3:8–9 the same apostle states: I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus, my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things and do count them but dung that I may win Christ and be found in Him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the Law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith. Another precious passage, a veritable sun, shedding bright light on the real essence of faith. The apostle declares that he is indeed righteous; however, the righteousness which he has obtained by faith is not at all his own righteousness, but the righteousness of Christ. Accordingly, when we become righteous by faith, we are made righteous by an alien righteousness. God beholds in us absolutely nothing that He could count as righteousness to our credit. It is Another’s righteousness which we have by faith. We have not acquired it or contributed anything towards it. Had we contributed love towards it, and were God to Justify us on that account, our righteousness would not be an alien righteousness, or it would at least be only half alien, to supplement our own imperfect righteousness. The apostle declares: “I have no righteousness of my own, but only the righteousness which God credits to faith.”

C. F. W Walther, The Proper Distinction between Law and Gospel, Lecture 21, March 6, 1885.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015