Apparent Contradiction
C.F.W. Walther, Pastor and Theologian
7 May 2018
On Friday evenings in 1884 and 1885 the aged man lectured to fresh faced seminary students at the Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, where he had been president for nearly a half century. C. F. W. Walther was teaching future preachers about the distinction between the law and the gospel in Scripture. The students took shorthand notes that became a book published after Walther had departed this life to see his Savior face to face. The book, titled The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel (or Law and Gospel for short), which has gone through several different editions and countless printings in the last one hundred years, can still be found on bookstore shelves and at internet booksellers. Why did a book with such obscure beginnings have such staying power?
 
Walther's lectures on the distinction between law and gospel are so attractive because in a practical way, he explained why the Bible often appears to have contradictory statements about faith and good works. On the one hand, the Bible can say about the divine law, "Do this and you will live" (Lk 10:28), and yet on the other hand, the Bible can apparently contradict this statement, "We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ" (Gal 2:16). In one place the Bible tells us that if we do what the law requires we will be right in God's sight, and in another the Bible tells us that no one can ever be right in God's sight by doing what is right, but only through trusting the divine promise in Christ. For many people, not knowing what to do with that apparent and very basic contradiction destroys their ability to read, understand, and finally believe the biblical gospel. This apparent contradiction is ultimately more troubling than all the conflicts with science that could ever arise out of the Bible's teaching, because it is an internal contradiction. What are we Christians to make of this apparent contradiction over which students of the Word of God have puzzled since fallen Adam and Eve tried to understand God's threats and promises in Genesis 3?
 
One of the keys to the Bible's distinction between law and gospel has to do with the purpose of each. The law has the purpose of disclosing our sin and causing us to despair of our own righteousness. "So, you're going to get right with God by your own efforts? You're going to 'do it.' How did that work out for you then?" The law and obedience can never fully justify in God's sight, because we humans will never keep the law perfectly, nor obey God in heart, soul, and mind. Our recognition of our sin and depravity in repentance is truly what the law is for. It has done its job. Ultimately, it can never save.
 
When I was a child, my father built a family room in the basement of our home. He chose to panel the walls with natural half inch pine paneling, making it a warm and homey room for the family to gather. While he worked on the paneling he cracked a piece, and being a man who did not throw anything away, my father kept that piece about three inches wide and about a foot and a half long. When met with my boyhood defiance, all my father had to say was, "Do I need my stick?" referring to that piece of pine paneling. And while the paneling made a warm room for our family, that one cracked piece occasionally warmed only my backside. The use of the paneling was different in either case. Likewise, sometimes God's Word threatens our wickedness and sin and sometimes God's Word rescues us from our wickedness by conferring the divine promise of forgiveness on repentant sinners. The difference between law and gospel is partly the purposes for which God speaks each Word of God. One is to condemn sin. The other is to save sinners. Both are necessary.

Rev. Dr. Scott R. Murray
Memorial Lutheran Church

   Martin Luther
"Here David (Ps 23:3) himself explains what kind of pasture and fresh water he has been discussing, namely, that kind by which the soul is strengthened and restored. That, however, can be nothing else than God's Word. But because our Lord God has a twofold Word, the law and the gospel, the prophet makes it sufficiently clear that he is speaking here not of the law but of the gospel when he says, 'He restores my soul.' The law cannot restore the soul, for it is a Word that makes demands on us and commands us that we shall love God with all our hearts, etc., and our neighbors as ourselves (Mt 22:37, 39). It damns him that does otherwise and pronounces this sentence upon him (Gal 3:10; Deut 27:26): 'Cursed be everyone who does not do all the things written in the Book of the Law.' Now, it is certain that nobody on earth does that. Therefore, the law comes in due time with its sentence and only grieves and frightens the souls. Where no help is provided, it presses them so that they must despair and be lost forever. St. Paul therefore says: 'By the Law comes only knowledge of sin' (Rm 3:20), and 'The Law brings only wrath' (Rm 4:15).
 
"The gospel, however, is a blessed Word. It demands nothing of us, but announces everything that is good, namely, that God has given us poor sinners His only Son and that He is to be our Shepherd; He will seek us famished and scattered sheep and give His life for us, to redeem us from sin, from eternal death, and from the power of the devil. That is the green grass and the fresh water with which the Lord restores our souls. Thus, we are rid of our bad consciences and sad thoughts."

 Martin Luther, Psalm 23, 23.3
Galatians 2:14-21

When I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, "If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?"
 
We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.
 
But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor. For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if justification were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose. (ESV)
Prayer
Lord Christ, You have announced only good things to us in the gospel, through which we poor sinners are saved through Your death. In Your Word you still seek us famished and scattered sheep, for you have given Your life to redeem us from sin, death, and the power of the devil. Keep giving us the green grass and clear waters that restores our souls. Free our consciences from the guilt that plagues us with Your gospel Word. Amen.
 
For Michael Koutsodontis, that the Lord Christ would grant him peace of mind and bodily healing
 
For President Lawrence Rast and the faculty and staff of Concordia Theological Seminary, that the Lord their God would help them to rightly distinguish between law and gospel
 
For those who face single parenthood, that the Lord their God would strengthen them for the difficult tasks of parenting alone
Art: GRÜNEWALD, Matthias,  Resurrection (c. 1515)
Memorial Lutheran Church
smurray@mlchouston.org
http://www.mlchouston.org
© Scott Murray 2018
Memorial Lutheran Church, 5800 Westheimer Rd., Houston, TX 77057
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