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God’s Power for Salvation

The Power of God’s Word in Law and Gospel for the Christian Congregation

The Rev. Erling T. Teigen

2008 Synod Convention Essay

For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “The just shall live by faith.” Romans 1:16, 17

We pledge ourselves to the prophetic and apostolic writings of the Old and New Testaments as the pure and clear fountain of Israel, which is the only true Norm according to which all teachers and teachings are to be judged and evaluated. Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, Rule and Norm

We should and must constantly maintain that God will not deal with us except through His external Word and Sacrament. Whatever is attributed to the Spirit apart from such Word and Sacrament is of the devil. Smalcald Articles III, VIII, 10

St. Paul calls the word of God “the sword of the Spirit” (Ephesians 6:17). The armor of God, which the Apostle exhorts the Christian to wear in the battle against the wiles of the devil, includes “The Sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” In the Letter to the Hebrews that image is used again: “the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit” (Hebrews 4:12). Still again St. John writes in a vision of the Son of Man that “out of his mouth went a sharp, two-edged sword” (Revelation 1:16). The metaphor (image or word picture) itself clearly speaks to the powerfulness of God’s word, and also suggests, at least to us, the distinction between law and gospel.

In the last century (the 20th!) when various churches discussed the doctrine of God’s word, our attention was necessarily focused on the authority and certainty of God’s word, which books are God’s word (canonicity), and especially the nature of inspiration, inerrancy, and infallibility of Scripture. We shared those concerns with some conservative protestants, and also with some Roman Catholics, and perhaps the doctrine of the power of God’s word sometimes took a back seat.1 Nevertheless, this doctrine has been important to those Lutherans who faithfully cling to the Lutheran confessions as the true understanding of God’s word.

In our church, the subject of the power of God’s word was the main doctrinal study at the 1924 convention in an essay by Pastor Christian Anderson, Guds ords kraft, “The power of God’s Word.” He began with this:

God has in his grace had mercy on us poor sinners. He has prepared salvation from sin and death, and he came himself to make us partakers of this salvation. But God has in his inscrutable wisdom not found it sufficient to distribute this salvation to us without ordaining certain means.

Anderson then proceeded to discuss the power of the word under six theses.2

The holy Christian, Apostolic Church, the congregation of all believers, has its existence only in God’s word. The gospel is God’s power, for in it, God not only informs the world that the sole source of salvation from sin and eternal death is the righteousness of his only-begotten Son, which alone is our salvation, but by that same gospel he draws his elect to turn to him in trust. The Reformation, the Reviving Gospel (SD VII, 87), invented nothing new, but it returned the congregation of believers to that “pure and clear fountain of Israel,” the only source for all faith, teaching and life. And we confess with our teacher Martin Luther that we know of no way by which God promises to come to us except through his word and sacraments. As the “pure and clear fountain of Israel,” the Holy Scripture is unerring, clear, sufficient, and the only authority for what we believe. And this is the boundary which governs our conversation.

God Deals with his People by the Word

The Greek word for “word” is λόγος (logos), rooted in λέγω, “to speak.” From that root, many words relating to speaking, thinking, and reasoning are derived. One reveals the working of his mind, will, and reason by speaking and by words.

God has from the beginning dealt with his people by his word. But what is this “word”? “God is Spirit,” says Jesus (John 4:24). That means that he is infinite; but his creatures are finite. As the infinite creator, unlimited in time, space, and all other attributes of material existence, he is yet a personal being, that is, a being who has a will which he can express. What he wills happens, when, where, and how it pleases him. And yet he chooses to make himself and his will known to his creatures, not according to his own nature, as spirit, but according to the nature of his creatures in their limited, finite form of existence. The nature of finiteness does not include sin or imperfection; God’s creation of the finite universe and all that was in it, including man, was perfect, and without sin. Therefore he communicates with them, already in the Garden of Eden, through external means which are in themselves finite, limited by time and space, etc.—but not imperfect. He expresses his will and reveals himself externally by using a word, λόγος (logos). He is a God of words. He created language, and he uses it as he sees fit.

Long before the written word of God came into being in the writing of Moses, God communicated by speaking to his people, on occasion directly, but always through words that communicated his will and his thoughts. And God’s word also took the form then of messages delivered through angels. The means through which God spoke could be his own voice made audible to human beings, that of an angel, or a prophet.

But what is more, the Son, who is the revelation of God, is also referred to as Λόγος (Logos):

In the beginning was the Word (λόγος), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made…. 14And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” (John 1:1–3 & 14)

And the Letter to the Hebrews says:

God, who at various times and in different ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, 2has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds, 3who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power… sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high. (Hebrews 1:1–3)

Here we see some different senses of the word “logos”; it represents the written, spoken word through which men communicate horizontally (with each other), and which God uses to speak to his people through the prophets (vertically); it represents God’s exercise of his powerful will, as he has created the world and upholds it by his powerful word; and it represents the Son of God, who becomes incarnate, and who can remind Philip and the other disciples, “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).

The Creating Power of God’s Word

The Bible speaks of the word that comes from God as a word of creative power. It is that because it is God’s own word. In the first chapter of Genesis God speaks a word, and the world comes into existence: “Let there be light; and there was light.” The Psalmist says that “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all the host of them by the breath of His mouth,” (Psalm 33:8) and the letter to the Hebrews: “By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God” (Hebrews 11:3). And yet, the New Testament moves very easily from logos as the creative command of God, to Logos as the Son: “In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God… All things were made through Him and without Him nothing was made that was made” (John 1:1 & 3) and St. Paul in his Letter to the Colossians “By Him [the Son] all things were created…. All things were created through Him and for Him” (Colossians 1:16).

In the light of the foregoing we can understand what we mean by the “powerful word of God.” One simply cannot think of God’s word apart from Christ, nor can one think of Christ apart from “God’s word.” Both the written, revealed, spoken word, on the one hand, and the incarnate Word, on the other, are connected as the exercise of God’s powerful will. When St. Paul says that the gospel is the power of God, he uses the word duvnami” [dynamis]. He uses that word another time, too, about all of Scripture, when he writes to Timothy, “You have known the Holy Scriptures which are able to make you wise to salvation” (2 Timothy 3:14). The word translated “able to make you” is also dynamis. We should not, by the way, give in to the temptation to liken this power of God to dynamite—an illustration that not only limps, but has no legs at all. In fact, it is wrong, a false understanding of the word St. Paul uses. Dynamis signifies a thing with inherent power, which has its power residing in itself. But it does not explode into nothingness; it is dynamic, ongoing, and efficacious. Jesus says that as “the Father has life in himself (i.e., inherently) so he has granted the Son to have life in himself” (John 5:26). Just as God has life in himself, inherently, owing his existence to no one or nothing else, so does his word have power in itself, inherently, owing its power to no one else, no other being or force, because it is the expression of God’s own will. And so God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, speaks his word, expresses his will, and it brings about what God himself wills. How does Mary come to have the God-made-flesh in her womb? The angel Gabriel comes to her and speaks the word to her, and God’s promise through the mouth of the angelic proclaimer is “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you” (Luke 1:35). That leads Luther to comment: “With these words Christ comes not only into her heart, but also into her womb, as she hears, grasps, and believes it. No one can say otherwise, than that the power comes through the Word.3

The Lord Jesus raises his friend Lazarus, not by making a curative mud with his spit, placing it in Lazarus’ nostrils; nor does he lean down and breathe into Lazarus’ nostrils. He stands outside of Lazarus’ tomb and says: “Lazarus, come forth” (John 11:43), and Lazarus whose body has already begun to decay, does come alive out of his grave. And that is not at all different from the promise Jesus makes concerning our resurrection: “The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God,” which speaks of the regeneration of those who are spiritually dead, and further “the hour is coming when those who are in the graves will hear his voice and come forth—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation” (John 5:25 ff.).4

God meets us and deals with us in his powerful word at every turn of our lives, from birth to death; it is also his powerful sustenance in life. In baptism, mere water becomes the powerful washing of regeneration, by his word. (Titus 3:5 f). He meets us as he did the paralytic let down to him through the roof; he first performs the most powerful miracle, “Son, be of good cheer, your sins are forgiven,” and only after that, a miracle that can speak to the eyes, “Arise, take up your bed and go to your house” (Matthew 9:2 ff.) In his holy Supper he feeds us not mere bread and wine, but bread which is his body, and wine which is his blood for the forgiveness of sins, and he brings it about that the bread is his body, simply by speaking his word, through the mouth of his servant.

This is the inherently powerful word of God. The promise of God is that his word accomplishes what he wills it to accomplish: “So shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth; It shall not return to Me void, But it shall accomplish what I please, And it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:11); and the Augsburg Confession: “For through the Word and Sacraments, the Holy Ghost is given, who works faith, where and when it pleases God, in them that hear the Gospel” (AC V, 1).

As we have already seen, the power of God’s word most often is spoken of in connection with regeneration. In 2 Corinthians St. Paul connects the power of the life-giving word with the powerful word by which God called the world into being: “For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6).

In their frequent references to the powerful word of God, the apostolic writers certainly have in mind Jesus’ promise in his high priestly prayer: “Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth. As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they also may be sanctified by the truth” (John 17:17, 20). The divine monergism implied here (i.e. that the work of regeneration or conversion, is the work of God alone without the aid of man), is made more explicit by Paul in the familiar text: “by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Ephesians 2:8,9).

This divine monergism is inseparably connected to the powerful word of God in his gospel. For James, it is by God’s will and word that he is efficacious: “Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth, that we might be a kind of first fruits of His creatures” (James 1:18). And that theme is echoed by Peter: “having been born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever” (1 Peter 1:23). Both use language which we also hear in the resurrection chapter, 1 Corinthians 15.

St. Paul presses the theme of the powerful word most energetically; that he is a speaker of that word is not shyly omitted, but he makes it abundantly clear whose word and power it really is: “For though you might have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet you do not have many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel” (1 Corinthians 4:15); yet “we also thank God without ceasing, because when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you welcomed it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which also effectively works in you who believe” (1 Thessalonians 2:13). But the efficacious power is to be found only in the gospel itself, because it is God’s own power, and the Holy Spirit is not omitted from mention: “But we are bound to give thanks to God always for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God from the beginning chose you for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth” (2 Thessalonians 2:13); and “In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise “ (Ephesians 1:13).

Thus it is clearly taught: “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God (Romans 10:17). William F. Arndt over fifty years ago suggested that the better translation for this text would be: “Faith comes from the proclamation; and the proclamation is by the command of God.”5 That understanding, of course, makes this passage also speak to the divine institution of the ministry of the word, the office of preaching. But even so, the center remains in the fact that the awakening of faith, the divine illumination from the spiritual darkness of unbelief is the same powerful word and will of the God who called light out of darkness, order out of chaos, and man out of what he had created already. Even Peter’s words, which often seem like a tag-along on the great text on the universal priesthood, carry it back to the full potency of the creating word: “But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). Certainly the Holy Spirit was not averse to repeating himself, as in the words we have already mentioned: “For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 4:6). This theme is hardly new in the apostolic writings, since it is very prominent in the prophetic writings, e.g., in Isaiah “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Isaiah 9:2, see also Isaiah 60).

We have seen that Jesus’ apostles teach unambiguously that the word by which God created the world, the word of his Son, who is himself the eternal Word, is the same powerful word that proclaims life and salvation. It is the life-giving, creating word by which God wants to deal with his people, throughout time. That also means that when we proclaim that gospel to others, we are speaking a powerful word. The promise spoken to the seventy stood not for them alone, but for all who proclaim his apostolic word: “He who hears you hears me (Luke 10:16).”

According to Robert Preus, in his study of seventeenth-century Lutheran orthodoxy, the strong emphasis on the power of God’s word is unique to Lutheranism.6 The theologies descended from both Calvinism and from the Anabaptist movement were not willing to place the Holy Spirit in the word as giving efficacious power to it. The Calvinist position, shared by Zwinglians and Anabaptists, is described by Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) in his sermon “A Divine and Supernatural Light”:

3. When it is said that this light is given immediately by God, and not obtained by natural means, hereby is intended, that it is given by God without making use of any means that operate by their own power, or a natural force. God makes use of means; but it is not as mediate causes to produce this effect. There are not truly any second causes of it; but it is produced by God immediately. The word of God is no proper cause of this effect: it does not operate by any natural force in it. The word of God is only made use of to convey to the mind the subject matter of this saving instruction: and this indeed it doth convey to us by natural force or influence. It conveys to our minds these and those doctrines; it is the cause of the notion of them in our heads, but not of the sense of the divine excellency [faith] of them in our hearts. Indeed a person cannot have spiritual light without the word. But that does not argue, that the word properly causes that light. The mind cannot see the excellency of any doctrine, unless that doctrine be first in the mind; but the seeing of the excellency of the doctrine may be immediately from the Spirit of God; though the conveying of the doctrine or proposition itself may be by the word. So that the notions that are the subject matter of this light, are conveyed to the mind by the word of God; but that due sense of the heart, wherein this light formally consists, is immediately by the Spirit of God. As for instance, that notion that there is a Christ, and that Christ is holy and gracious, is conveyed to the mind by the word of God: but the sense of the excellency of Christ by reason of that holiness and grace, is nevertheless immediately the work of the Holy Spirit.7

What Edwards means might be a little more clear from a description of Calvin’s understanding of the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the sacrament of the altar. We typically speak of the Reformed doctrine of the real presence by suggesting that they believe that the bread is merely a symbol of the body of Christ. That is true of Zwinglianism, but not of Calvinism. Calvin, as a serious exegete, wanted to take seriously the words of Jesus, “This is my body,” but he could not accept Luther’s understanding “The bread IS the body,” since the ascended Lord, with his body, is in heaven, spatially, at the right hand of God. Therefore, Calvin held that one ate bread with the mouth, while alongside of that eating, or parallel to it, with the eating of bread, one’s soul soars spiritually to heaven and there partakes of the body of Christ. So too in the relationship between the Holy Spirit and the Word. The point is that for Calvin, the Holy Spirit cannot be in the word (inherently or intrinsically), but only alongside of it or working parallel to it, working not mediately by the external means of words, but only immediately or directly. This is because of the principle that the finite cannot contain the infinite (finitum non capax infiniti).

Protestantism in general, excluding strict Calvinism, holds to the Arminian belief that man’s will cooperates with the Holy Spirit in conversion. Decision theology sees Scripture as communicating information, and the will acts to accept or not. In that case, there is no need for an intrinsically powerful means of grace. It may surprise some to be told that on this score Roman Catholicism (like Arminian Protestantism which by now includes a majority of Lutherans too!) also teaches that man has a spark of will left which participates in conversion. Oddly, the Roman Catholic doctrine of ex opere operato may have originally been an attempt to hold to the intrinsic power of the gospel and the sacraments.8

We must take note here, that just about all of modern Evangelicalism (which includes the conservative Calvinists in the Reformed and Presbyterian Church, the Methodist bodies, and Anabaptists –Baptists and Pentecostals) operate with one or both of these principles, which is their doctrine of God’s word. Sadly many Lutherans, even some who are “conservative,” operate with these principles of the Evangelicals. The principles of the church growth and the contemporary worship movements simply cannot escape the effect of these principles, even if they claim to try. The content and the method are formulated under these principles. Claims that one can adopt the style without the substance are reminiscent of the claims of some that they could adopt Higher criticism as a tool without adopting the destrudtive presuppositions. When the doctrine of the power of the word and the Means of grace are replaced or pushed to the background by manipulation of the emotions, apologetic persuasion, and a sociological view of the church becomes the means of persuading people to believe, conversion has become the work of man, not of God. We call it synergism.

Robert Preus also points out that when the Lutheran dogmaticians describe the power of the word of God, “they are not thinking of Scripture specifically but of the divine Word in general in whatever mode of expression it may assume.” They are not referring simply to the book “of letters and phrases (which are the vehicle of the divine content), but the message of Scripture…. The written Word, the preached Word, the Word treasured in the believer’s heart is one Word of God, which carries with it by virtue of its divine forma (nature) the power of very God.”9

As a precise definition of the power of the word of God, Preus quotes John Gerhard’s statement that the word

regenerates us not merely theoretically by enlightening the mind with a knowledge of the divine will and indicating to us what we must believe and do, but does so actually by really turning our will to accept the divine witness and by moving and transforming and awakening our heart to believe in it so that we cling to this grace that is offered in Christ and find happiness in it, and through this faith become children of God and heirs of eternal life. The Word quickens us not only in the sense that it invites us to enjoy God’s favor towards us and encourages us with a living comfort, but it also makes us partakers of that spiritual life.10

“The gospel is the power of God to Salvation”!

The Power of God’s Word in Law and Gospel

Most of what we have said in discussing the powerful word has taken it for granted that we speak of the word of the gospel by which God regenerates sinners, calling them “out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). Strictly speaking not all of Scripture, but only the gospel, is a means of grace. The law is not a means of grace, but yet it is powerful in working fear and terror in the heart of the sinner. It is a two-edged sword (Hebrews 4:12).11 In his words to the disciples on the night he was betrayed, Jesus spoke of the work of the Holy Spirit. He said “When He [the “Helper”] has come, He will convict the world of sin and of righteousness, and of judgment: of sin because they do not believe in Me; of righteousness, because I go to my Father and you see Me no more; of judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged” (John 16:8–11). The Holy Spirit works not only by the gospel; his powerful work is through the law as well. When the law is proclaimed, and the sinners see their sinfulness, that too is the work of the Holy Spirit, and the sharp condemnation of the law burns judgment on the heart.

The apostle Paul underlines that powerful function of the law of God, as a ministry of death and condemnation in 2 Corinthians:

6[O]ur sufficiency is from God, who also made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. 7But if the ministry of death, written and engraved on stones, was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of the glory of his countenance, which glory was passing away, 8how will the ministry of the Spirit not be more glorious? 9For if the ministry of condemnation had glory, the ministry of righteousness exceeds much more in glory. 10For even what was made glorious had no glory in this respect, because of the glory that excels. 11For if what is passing away was glorious, what remains is much more glorious. (2 Corinthians 3:5–11)

The next two sections will explore these two ideas: The ministry of death, the ministry of condemnation, and ministry of the Spirit, the ministry of righteousness, the ministry of the new covenant.

In 1521, Martin Luther got into a dispute with Jerome Emser, a theological professor at the University of Leipzig. The fierce pamphleteering debate took on a life of its own, and Emser and Luther traded many delightful, but uncomplimentary barbs—fun reading, though the issue was serious. The real subject at hand was biblical interpretation, an issue on which Luther excelled. Emser used the phrase in the text, “The letter kills, but the spirit gives life,” to ridicule Luther’s simple, literal (historical-grammatical) method of reading the Bible, while upholding his own use of the complicated scholastic allegorical method, as “the spirit which gives life.”12 So far as Luther was concerned, that made Emser a nincompoop, because any honest, straightforward reading of the Bible must clearly see that this text is speaking of the difference between the law and the gospel. Luther attacks Emser and his misunderstanding of the text:

it is certainly true that wherever the law alone is preached and only the letter is dealt with, as happened in the Old Testament, and where the Spirit is not preached afterward, there is death without life, sin without grace, misery without consolation. This creates miserable and imprisoned consciences who in the end despair and are forced to die in sin. They are thus condemned to eternity through such preaching. In our day the murderous sophists have done this kind of thing and are still doing it with their “systems” in which they drive and torture people with commands to do penance, to confess, to repent, and to make satisfaction. After this they teach good works and preach good doctrine, as they say. But never once do they hold the Spirit and Christ up to the sorrowful consciences, so that Christ is now unknown in the whole world and the gospel is pushed under the rug….

If God’s commandment, preached and explained as well as possible, is harmful and damning, as St. Paul says here, why then do the sophists and the goat [Emser] pretend to make people godly with human teachings, with their own laws and an increase in good works? Indeed, since the law kills and condemns everything which is not grace and Spirit, they do no more with their many laws and works than to give the law much to kill and to condemn. Thus all their labor and effort is in vain, and the more they do, the worse they become; for it is impossible to satisfy the law with works and teachings. Only the Spirit can satisfy it.13

The Ministry of Condemnation

As noted above, we are not to think that the law is a means of grace, nor is it grace which teaches the heart to fear, as “Amazing Grace” seems to think: “’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, And grace my fears reliev’d.” Only the gospel has the power of God’s grace. It is true that God’s word of the law teaches my heart to fear, but that is not grace, and that fear is not what saves the sinner

The law is powerful too, but its power is not life-giving. The Formula of Concord defines the law as “the unchanging will of God, according to which human beings are to conduct themselves in this life” (SD VI, 15). Whenever the law comes into contact with human flesh, it is like sulfuric acid—it can only burn. This is true of the Christian, not just the unbeliever. The Christian, as we know, is simul iustus et peccator, (at the same time saint and sinner). So long as the Christian lives in this world, even if, as a saint, he rejoices in the law of God, his old Adam, sinful flesh, still is damned and burned by its contact with the law. That is not to say that the law doesn’t at the same time function in other ways, in that it keeps sinful flesh in this world, both in the believer and the unbeliever, under some control; and also that it instructs and teaches Christians what God considers good works, so that they do not fall into a pharisaism or pietism of inventing their own version of good works.

Nonetheless, the potency of God’s law when it touches sinful human flesh, which remains in the believer all his life here, must not be underestimated. Precisely what the law is given for is laid out clearly by St. Paul, especially in his Letter to the Romans: “We know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped and all the world may become guilty before God…. By the law is the knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:19, 20).

In the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Melanchthon several times uses the expression lex semper accusat, “the law always accuses.” The law functions in other ways too, but the one thing it cannot fail to do is to condemn the sin in human flesh, whether it be the old Adam in the regenerate, or the unregenerate. We ought not forget that the law works its judgment and condemnation not only when it discovers sins, i.e., this or that violation of God’s law; it condemns also (especially!) the inherited guilt each individual has because he is descended from Adam, and the constant rebellion against God that continues in our old Adam. Preus summarizes several of the dogmaticians when he describes the power of the Law of God as “a consuming and inexorable power. But it has no power to produce faith in Christ or to justify; its power is only to threaten and to judge and to kill…. The Law does not lead the sinner to Christ—it knows nothing of Christ—but away from Him…. And yet paradoxically, by showing the sinner his lost condition…the Law compels the sinner to seek Christ.”14

How the law affects Christians is described by the Formula of Concord in its article on the third use of the law:

If the faithful and elect children of God were perfectly renewed through the indwelling Spirit in this life, so that in their nature and all their powers they were completely free from sin, they would need no law and therefore no prodding…. The Holy Angels perform their obedience completely of their own free will.

Since, however, believers in this life are not yet perfectly, wholly … renewed—even though their sin is completely covered by the perfect obedience of Christ so that this sin is not reckoned to them as damning, and even though the killing of the old creature and the renewal of their minds in the Spirit has begun—nonetheless, the old creature still continues to hang on in their nature and all of its inward and outward power….

Therefore in this life, because of these desires of the flesh, the faithful, elect reborn children of God need not only the law’s daily instruction and admonition, its warning and threatening. Often they need its punishments [strafen]. (SD VI, 6-9)

The law is God’s word and will; as such it is the work of the Holy Spirit to present that law, and to pronounce the condemnation of sin and sinfulness in the heart of the sinner. That the Holy Spirit convicts the world of sin (John 16) is the ministry of death and condemnation (2 Corinthians 3). And so, it is the power of God that does that work; the power is in the word of the Law. The Formula of Concord quotes from a Luther sermon: “Everything that proclaims something about our sin and God’s wrath is the proclamation of the law, however and whenever it takes place” (SD V, 12).

That tells us what power the law has, but before we conclude this section, we must observe what the law does not have the power to do. God commands and wills that we live in accord with the law, but “it does not give the power and ability to begin or to carry out this command” (SD VI, 11). In order to help us understand this, the Formula of Concord distinguishes between works of the law and the works of the Spirit. The works of the law are those done by the unbeliever and the old man still residing in the believer, when they do outwardly good things in hope of reward or fear of punishment. But the works of the Spirit are the works done by the believer which are done “because of the renewal of the Holy Spirit—without coercion, from a willing heart, insofar as they are reborn in their inner person” (SD VI, 23). According to his redeemed nature, the Christian “delights in the law,” but according to his old Adam, he is condemned and terrified.

And that leads us to the Ministry of Righteousness.

The Ministry of Righteousness

The other ministry, however, is the “ministry of the new covenant,” “ministry of the spirit,” “the ministry of righteousness,” “the ministry which is more glorious.” This, of course, is nothing other than the gospel. In the foremost sense of the word, the gospel itself is the minister to those who have been condemned by the law and look only to God for help and salvation. How this is the ministry of the Holy Spirit is clear enough. But we now need to discuss what it means to call this the ministry of righteousness.

I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “The just shall live by faith.” (Romans 1:16, 17)

Paul says that in the gospel, the righteousness of God is revealed. What is meant by “the righteousness of God”? Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33). This righteousness is not the righteousness God demands of his creation; it is not the law written on the heart or on stone, or the law preached by Jesus and his apostles. That preached law aims at righteousness, but, as we have seen, a righteousness lived because of God’s commands is not at all good news, but it is bad news, because it demonstrates the insurmountable distance between me and what God demands. That righteousness by command stings, drives me to despair, and makes me of all men most miserable.

The righteousness of God that we are to be concerned with is a righteousness which is not of demand, but of proclamation. It is not a righteousness which comes from within us (intrinsic), or which is a product of human will and action. It is objectively outside of us (extrinsic), a “foreign” or “alien” righteousness which belongs to someone else. It is the righteousness of God who has become human flesh, the man Christ Jesus. This righteousness is the righteous perfection, in life, death, and resurrection, of Jesus himself.

The Righteousness of God, the Righteousness of Christ, the Righteousness of Faith—all the same thing—is to be found in the Bible’s proclamation of our Lord’s incarnation and atoning work. Without the truth of the incarnation, it is not enough simply to point to Jesus on the cross and say that he died to save me. My salvation is bound up in what he was: God made flesh, the incarnation; and what he did in life and death: the atonement, or reconciliation. All of that is the basis for God’s declaration of justification.

In order to gain a clearer understanding of it we will look more closely at the two parts of this righteousness of Christ– his incarnation and the atonement.

The Incarnation

When Eve bore Cain, she showed that she believed he was the promised one, when she said, “I have begotten a man from the Lord” (Genesis 4:1). But Cain was not the one. Luther comments on this verse:

From this statement another reason may be gathered why Eve did not call Cain a son, namely, that because of her excessive joy and reverence she was unwilling to call him son but had something greater in mind about him, as though Cain would be the man who would crush the head of the serpent. For this reason she does not simply call him a man, but “the man of the Lord,” of whom the Lord God had promised (Gen. 3:15): “Your Seed will crush the head of the serpent.” Although this was a false hope, it nevertheless is clear that Eve was a saintly woman and that she believed the promise concerning the future salvation through the blessed Seed. And because she believes, she is so happy about her son and speaks of him in such grand terms: “I have gotten the man of God who will conduct himself more properly and with greater good fortune than my Adam and I conducted ourselves in Paradise. For this reason I do not call him my son, but he is the man of God who was promised and provided by God.” This also could have been the reason why she did not call Cain a son.15

The promise became more specific in the word to Abraham, “In your seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). Psalm 2 even more specifically, “You are my Son, Today I have begotten you” (Psalm 2:7). The prophet Jeremiah calls the promised one “The Lord our Righteousness” (Jeremiah 33:16). Proverbs 8 identifies him as Wisdom personified who was present at the foundation of the world. Isaiah, in the most vivid prophecies of all, says that “a virgin shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Immanuel,” i.e., “God with us” (Isaiah 7:14), and the child born, the son given, is called “the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).

Therefore, when the Apostle John speaks of him, and calls him the Logos, and says “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” he is faithfully identifying Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ as the Old Testament said he was. The core proclamation of Christ in the New Testament is that in the Christ, the Messiah, God has become man as promised (especially Isaiah 9:6). John goes on to say, “The Word, [i.e., the eternal Son] was made flesh and dwelt among us.” Paul writes in Colossians that “in Him [Christ] all of fullness of the Godhead dwells in bodily form” (2:9), and to Timothy “great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifested in the flesh” (1 Timothy 3:15).

The early Christian church understood the importance of teaching unambiguously that Jesus was fully and completely God and fought for that truth in the council of Nicea in 325. The council was called to refute the faith-destroying heresy of Arius. Arius’ doctrine that there was a time in eternity when the Logos was not, and thus was a created being, made Jesus a little less than God, or a lot less than God. The Nicene fathers set forth their biblical faith in the Nicene Creed, in which they confessed that the Son was “of the same substance (being, reality) as the Father.” The hero of the council was Athanasius who suffered not a little in the rest of his life because of his biblical faith. In 451, at the Council of Chalcedon, this confession was reiterated and the terms were defined. Against the teaching of Nestorius, they asserted on the basis of God’s word that Mary was theotokos, i.e., the God-bearer or mother of God. They also carefully explained the relationship between the divine and human attributes in Christ. Scripture demands that one believe that our Lord did not become God only when he was born, or was baptized, or anything else, but that in his conception, he was God who took to himself human flesh. The one born of Mary was fully and completely God.

We should not be uncomfortable calling Mary the mother of God (theotokos)—she was. We need to express boldly and unambiguously that the one born of Mary was almighty God himself, when he was conceived. Mary bore in her womb growing, human flesh, in whom dwelt “all the fullness of the Godhead bodily.” To call Mary “the Mother of God,” as one theologian has noted, says more about Jesus than it does about Mary. The one born of her was the almighty God, no less.

Why is this important? St. Paul writes in Galatians, “When the fullness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law” (Galatians 4:4,5). “God sent forth his Son”: that is the proclamation of the angel to Mary. The angel says: “behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name JESUS. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:31 f.). Mary is to be a mother—not just of a boy named Yeshua, but of a man who is God, and yet a man: the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed and promised one of God. To identify him as the one who sits on the throne of his father David is to identify him as the promised Messiah.

By the same token our Lutheran Church has also sung that same truth on Good Friday in the hymn “O darkest woe”: “O sorrow dread! Our God is dead, He paid our great redemption.” To sing that God is dead on the cross is not to say that the world was on autopilot for three days. It is to say that the one who died on the cross was indeed God himself, God in the flesh, who took my place, bore my sins, and paid my penalty with his death. One who is nothing less than the God of the most high died that day—for you, for me—for the sins of us all.

Had he not been the Incarnate Son of God, there would be no sufficiency in his atonement; had he not been the almighty God of the Most High himself, there would have been no resurrection—not for him, and not for us.

God chose this humble young woman, a sinful being like you and me. By the great miracle of the Incarnation, God planted in her womb the divine being fully endowed with growing human flesh, “the Son of the highest” who would “sit on the throne of his father David,” and of whose “kingdom there will be no end.” “That Holy one who is to be born will be called the Son of God” (Luke 1).— and thus this humble young woman is HIS mother; she is mother of the one who is nothing less than God, and yet a man.


What Christ has done for us, his work of reconciliation or atonement, depends on the truth that he is the God-man, the God who has taken to himself human flesh. God became man, for us. The atonement is “substitutionary (“vicarious atonement”).

The word “atonement” translates the Old Testament rpæK; (kaper), and points especially to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement established in Leviticus 16. The Greek translates the word with katalavssw (katalasso), which is translated by the Latin reconcilio. By some accounts, the word “atonement” was coined by William Tyndale, the Bible translator since he believed that the Latin word reconcilio was not always adequate to translate the Hebrew kaper, and therefore manufactured the word at+one, and at+one+ment. The Hebrew word means “to cover,” or “to hide,” and in that sense refers to the forgiveness of sins. In Romans 4:7, St. Paul quotes Psalm 32:1,2: “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; 8Blessed is the man to whom the Lord shall not impute sin.” And that is the essence of the word atonement. The Greek word teaches the same doctrine of the non-imputation of guilt, but instead of using the image of “covering over” concentrates on the fact that a change is made so that two parties come into agreement. “God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses” (1 Corinthians 5:19). Different images; same teaching.

In order to restore unity between God and man, God sent his Son, to become human flesh to stand in the place of fallen man: “The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6). God “made him who knew no sin to be sin for us” (2 Corinthians 5:21). “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13). When God’s word speaks that way, it has just you and just me in mind. We are the objects of his coming, of his atoning work on the cross, and his resurrection,—simply because we are weak and without strength (Romans 5:6).

One of the most important works of theology in the Middle Ages was Cur Deus Homo (Why God became Man) by St. Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury (1033–1109). Anselm, in an indirect explication of Scripture, laid out the reason for the incarnation and the sacrifice of Christ, holding that God’s wrath over sin demanded punishment in order for God to be satisfied, and that the one to bear the punishment had to be man, in order to be a true substitute, and God, in order to be sufficient for all. Some modern theologians have rejected the idea of the substitutionary atonement, especially because it asserts that God must punish sin in order to satisfy his wrath. However, that is clearly the teaching of the Old Testament (beginning with Yom Kippur in Leviticus 16, and reaching its most vivid heights in Isaiah 53), and the New Testament as well, in Romans 5 and many other places.

The Righteousness of Christ

Incarnation and atonement come together in “the Righteousness of Christ.” The Righteousness of Christ, which alone is our salvation, includes that he is the Son of the Highest, of the same being as the Father, who has taken to himself human flesh. As such, the Son is the perfect, almighty God. He has stood in my place in life, subject to all the temptations which I face (Hebrews 4:25), and yet without sin. And he has stood in my place in death, the silent, obedient lamb led to the slaughter, and he suffered the suffering and the alienation from God which belongs to me in my disobedience. All of this is apart from any of my actions or my intentions. It is God’s righteousness; it becomes man’s righteousness because Jesus was a man, fully and completely. And it satisfied God’s wrath over human sin.

Christ’s righteousness is called the righteousness of faith (i.e. righteousness by, through faith), not because faith is in itself a righteous act, but because it can be received only through faith—i.e., it is promised, and it is believed. The Atonement, both in Christ’s active obedience and passive obedience, is a universal atonement, for all people. It is not limited only to the elect, or to those God foresees will believe. In Christ’s completed act consummated on the cross, God’s wrath was satisfied, and the world is pronounced “not guilty.” God is propitiated, i.e., a price has been paid, and all the world is returned to his favor: “God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses” (2 Corinthians 5:19).

“Righteousness of God” and “Righteousness of Christ” refer specifically to the work that Christ did—his full and complete obedience to the law, not just its letter, but its spirit; all of the pain and agony that he suffered all through his life, but especially on the cross in his separation from God (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”). “The righteousness of faith” means that exactly this righteousness accomplished by Christ becomes mine through faith. God says: “This is for you; it is yours.” And faith believes it.

Article III of the Formula of Concord deals with a couple of controversies concerning the Righteousness of Christ, which occurred from 1548 to 1551. At the University of Königsberg in Eastern Prussia, Andrew Osiander taught that Christ dwells in the believer through faith, and this indwelling (Christ in me) constitutes the Righteousness of Christ by which the believer is justified.16 The first theologian to object to this doctrine was Martin Chemnitz, who at the time was librarian at Königsberg, Prussia. The other controversy being addressed was the position advanced by Francesco Stancaro who taught that Christ is our righteousness only according to his human nature. The Formula of Concord describes the Lutheran understanding of the righteousness of faith in the following summary:

9] Concerning the righteousness of faith before God we believe, teach, and confess unanimously, in accordance with the comprehensive summary of our faith and confession presented above, that poor sinful man is justified before God, that is, absolved and declared free and exempt from all his sins, and from the sentence of well-deserved condemnation, and adopted into sonship and heirship of eternal life, without any merit or worth of our own, also without any preceding, present, or any subsequent works, out of pure grace, because of the sole merit, complete obedience, bitter suffering, death, and resurrection of our Lord Christ alone, whose obedience is reckoned to us for righteousness.

10] These treasures are offered us by the Holy Ghost in the promise of the holy Gospel; and faith alone is the only means by which we lay hold upon, accept, and apply, and appropriate them to ourselves. 11] This faith is a gift of God, by which we truly learn to know Christ, our Redeemer, in the Word of the Gospel, and trust in Him, that for the sake of His obedience alone we have the forgiveness of sins by grace, are regarded as godly and righteous by God the Father, and are eternally saved.

12]Therefore it is considered and understood to be the same thing when Paul says that we are justified by faith, Rom. 3, 28, or that faith is counted to us for righteousness, Rom. 4, 5, and when he says that we are made righteous by the obedience of One, Rom. 5, 19, or that by the righteousness of One justification of faith came to all men, Rom. 5, 18. 13] For faith justifies, not for this cause and reason that it is so good a work and so fair a virtue, but because it lays hold of and accepts the merit of Christ in the promise of the holy Gospel; for this must be applied and appropriated to us by faith, if we are to be justified thereby. 14] Therefore the righteousness which is imputed to faith or to the believer out of pure grace is the obedience, suffering, and resurrection of Christ, since He has made satisfaction for us to the Law, and paid for [expiated] our sins. 15] For since Christ is not man alone, but God and man in one undivided person, He was as little subject to the Law, because He is the Lord of the Law, as He had to suffer and die as far as His person is concerned. For this reason, then, His obedience, not only in suffering and dying, but also in this, that He in our stead was voluntarily made under the Law, and fulfilled it by this obedience, is imputed to us for righteousness, so that, on account of this complete obedience, which He rendered His heavenly Father for us, by doing and suffering, in living and dying, God forgives our sins, regards us as godly and righteous, and eternally saves us. 16] This righteousness is offered us by the Holy Ghost through the Gospel and in the Sacraments, and is applied, appropriated, and received through faith, whence believers have reconciliation with God, forgiveness of sins, the grace of God, sonship, and heirship of eternal life. (SD III, 10-16

In the gospel “the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘The just shall live by faith’.” On the basis of the atoning work, the substitutionary atonement, of God himself, the sinner is justified; to the sinner is imputed the complete righteousness of Christ, in his life and death and resurrection. It is not the internal, intrinsic, or indwelling righteousness of Christ, but it is the external, extrinsic righteousness of the Son of God. It is a righteousness which is alien or foreign to the sinner. And yet, the sinner stands before God, (coram Deo), with the true righteousness of Christ, the righteousness of the very God himself, credited to his account, through faith.

Everything that God created man to be is found in Christ. Two statements from St. Paul summarize what this righteousness of God means:

You are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God—and righteousness and sanctification and redemption. (1 Corinthians 1:30)

(… If by the one man’s offense death reigned through the one, much more those who receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ.) Therefore as through one man’s offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation, even so through one Man’s righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so also by one Man’s obedience many will be made righteous. (Romans 5:17-19)

This righteousness of Christ is the righteousness of faith, or as Paul says in Romans 1; it is revealed “from faith to faith, as it is written ‘the just shall live by faith.’” It is by faith completely, from beginning to end, by faith in every respect. Faith does not justify because God likes us better when we believe in him; faith does not make us righteous because it is virtuous, but simply “because it lays hold of and accepts the merit of Christ in the promise of the holy gospel.” Faith believes the promise. If someone were to deposit a million dollars in a bank account with my name on it, and then tell me so, my believing or disbelieving it does not make it so that it is there or not. The promise is that it is there, and I have benefit of it only by believing that it is true.

The Formula of Concord defines justification in reference to the righteousness of Christ: “The word ‘justify’ here means to pronounce righteous and free from sins and to count as freed from the eternal punishment of sin because of Christ’s righteousness, which is ‘reckoned to faith by God’ (Phil. 3:[9])” (SD III, 17). Near the end of SD III, a further summary is offered:

58] Thus neither the divine nor the human nature of Christ by itself is imputed to us for righteousness, but only the obedience of the person who is at the same time God and man. And faith thus regards the person of Christ as it was made under the Law for us, bore our sins, and in His going to the Father offered to His heavenly Father for us poor sinners His entire, complete obedience, from His holy birth even unto death, and has thereby covered all our disobedience which inheres in our nature, and its thoughts, words, and works, so that it is not imputed.

This summary underlines why it is so important to consider the Incarnation of our Lord, as the eternal Son of God takes to himself human flesh in order to be our substitute and Savior. The work that must be done for our salvation can only be done by God himself, and yet must be done by a man if he is to be a substitute. In our preaching, we must not separate the incarnation from the atonement. The manger and the cross, as it were, come from the same tree.

This is the gospel which is the power of God for salvation, the revelation of the righteousness of God, which is by faith from beginning to end. This is the message which tells us what God has done for the salvation of those he created. It is about events that took place in the rocky hills of Judea nearly two thousand years ago. But I can’t go back to the cross, and I can’t even be sure that the place said to be the place of the cross really was. So the question that one must deal with is: how does this gospel come to me? How does it become mine? How do I receive the faith which believes Christ righteousness?

The Highest office of worship17

The righteousness of God, revealed in the gospel of Christ, by faith from first to last, applies to our lives from first to last—all of our days. There is simply nothing more practical than this gospel. It applies in every way to the life of each Christian, and to the life of the Christians in their congregations—the local congregation, and the larger congregation of the Holy Christian Church. We are the sheep who hear the voice of the Shepherd simply because we believe the righteousness of Christ to be our own righteousness before God, according to God’s promise.

In Apology IV, on Justification, Melanchthon writes:

Faith is that which grasps God’s free mercy on account of God’s Word. Whoever denies that this is faith completely misunderstands the essence of faith. And the story itself shows what he calls “love.” The woman comes with this conviction about Christ: that she should seek the forgiveness of sins from him. This is the highest way to worship Christ. [Hic cultus est summus cultus Christi.] Nothing greater could she ascribe to him as the Messiah. Now to think about Christ in this way, to worship and take hold of him in this way, is truly to believe. (Kolb-Wenger, Ap IV, 154, emphasis added; cp. Triglotta Ap. III, 32)

For of all acts of worship that is the greatest, most holy, most necessary, and highest, which God has required as the highest in the First and the Second Commandment, namely, to preach the Word of God. For the ministry is the highest office in the Church. Now, if this worship is omitted, how can there be knowledge of God, the doctrine of Christ, or the Gospel? But the chief service of God is to teach the Gospel. (Triglotta, Ap XV, 42)18

The modern ear interprets the word “worship” to refer to an activity of God’s people in which they honor God with adoration, praise, prayer and thanksgiving. That sounds good, but doesn’t quite hit the point. While the Reformation was conservative in its preservation of all that was good in the heritage of the catholic church, in those matters where abuses had crept in to obscure the gospel, the Reformation was radical—in the sense of going back to the roots. One of the places where the most radical reform was required came in the church’s worship. While the medieval church had emphasized the sacrificial acts of the faithful in worship or the divine service, the Reformers tipped that upside down. For the Reformation, worship, the divine service, or the service of God, was centered not in man’s response to God, but in God’s gifts to men. Gottesdienst — service of God—is not first and foremost man’s service to God in praise and thanksgiving, but God’s service to man in distributing the forgiveness of sins. Another way of describing this is to distinguish between the objective and subjective genitive—in divine service (Gottesdienst), “of God” is genitive which denotes possession or source. The sense is subjective if God is the subject who acts, so that God serves, and objective if God is the object of the verb, so that God is served. Melanchthon, in the quotation above, clearly treats the idea of “worship of God” as a matter of God himself, in the first place, being the one who serves.

Another helpful distinction made by Luther is the distinction between salvation won—everything Christ has accomplished in the atonement; and salvation distributed—how that salvation comes to me. When Luther, in the Smalcald Articles, defines the church as “the sheep who hear the voice of their shepherd” (SA III, XII, 2) he is aiming also to focus the attention on what the sheep receive in the speaking of their shepherd. God’s word declares to the whole world that everything necessary for salvation has been finished by Christ himself: “God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:19). Salvation distributed is the preaching of that apostolic word, the application of it to individuals in preaching and the sacraments. This salvation is received through faith.

What all of this means for Christian church life is that worship is the center of the life of the church, and the center of the Divine service is the service of (by) God himself, feeding his people with the bread of life, the forgiveness of sins. It is not the case that worship is one thing among many that the church does; rather, all activities focus on worship—in the sense outlined above. All worship is advent, in which God comes to his people to serve them with the forgiveness of sins. Jesus says, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20: 28). That service or ministry did not end at the cross. In his exaltation, our Lord continues to serve his people by continuing to declare the result of his atoning work.

The highest office of worship is the preaching of the word (Ap XV 42). The word is preached in the sermon; it is preached in the visible word, the sacraments; and it is preached in the entire liturgy. God serves his believers by his word. The confessions use the expression “word of God” in a sense wider than simply “Scripture.” To be sure, Scripture, the writing of the Holy Prophets and Apostles, is the sole authority for all teaching, faith, and life. It is God’s own word: “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God [God-breathed]” (2 Timothy 3:16), and “Holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (2 Peter 1:21). Since this is the word of God, it is infallible and inerrant, and is God’s word in respect to all of its words.

The doctrine of Scripture as God’s inspired and errorless word was not an issue at the time of the Reformation; generally in the confessional writings and in Luther’s writings, “word of God” refers not only to the sacred writings, the source, but to the spoken, preached, heard, remembered, meditated-upon word of God—chiefly to the word of the gospel. But the word of the gospel refers not only to the word of letters, syllables, and propositions, but also to what St. Augustine refers to as the “visible word.” Melanchthon refers to Augustine’s expression:

When we are baptized, when we eat the Lord’s body, when we are absolved, our hearts should firmly believe that God really forgives us for Christ’s sake. Through the word and the Rite [Sacraments] God simultaneously moves the heart to believe and take hold of faith.… As the Word enters through the ears to strike the heart, so the rite itself enters through the eyes to move the heart. The Word and the rite have the same effect, as Augustine said so well when he called the sacrament “the visible word,” for the rite is received by the eyes and is a sort of picture of the Word, signifying the same thing as the Word. Therefore both have the same effect. (Apology XIII 4f.)19

The sacraments are not appendages, or little “extras” which can come in handy for the believer—they belong to the very heart and soul of the proclamation of the gospel. They are as much the word of God as Scripture is, for they are established by Christ’s own command, and empowered by his speaking. It is the word of Christ which makes them powerful and efficacious. The nature of the sacraments is that when they are administered by men, it is not the administrator who speaks, but Christ himself speaks and acts—through a man.

We must be aware that in speaking of “sacraments,” the Reformers were not so rigid on this word—that is, they recognized that this word which does not appear in Scripture has been defined in some different ways. The definition in our explanations of the Catechisms, that it is an act or rite instituted by Christ himself, with certain visible means in which God offers, signs, and seals the forgiveness of sins, has enjoyed wide use in the church. The phrase referring to “visible elements” was offered by Augustine, perhaps because of his battle with Manichaeism which held that the material world was the world of darkness and evil. However, the sacraments could be defined as Melanchthon does in Apology XIII, 3,4

3] If we call Sacraments rites which have the command of God, and to which the promise of grace has been added, it is easy to decide what are properly Sacraments. For rites instituted by men will not in this way be Sacraments properly so called. For it does not belong to human authority to promise grace. Therefore signs instituted without God’s command are not sure signs of grace, even though they perhaps instruct the rude [children or the uncultivated], or admonish as to something [as a painted cross]. 4] Therefore Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and Absolution, which is the Sacrament of Repentance, are truly Sacraments. For these rites have God’s command and the promise of grace, which is peculiar to the New Testament. For when we are baptized, when we eat the Lord’s body, when we are absolved, our hearts must be firmly assured that God truly forgives us 5] for Christ’s sake.

Luther also works with this definition in his Babylonian Captivity of the Church, his indictment of the Roman Catholic sacramental system, and rejects the notion that confirmation, marriage, holy orders/ordination, and extreme unction are sacramental, since they do not have the promise of grace. But for Luther and Melanchthon, since the word “sacrament” is not found in Scripture, one need not quarrel about the definition; one must simply preserve faithfully those things which Christ institutes as the means by which God forgives sin. It must be noted that Luther and Melanchthon in their writings move fluently back and forth between the two definitions.

The life of the church centered in the preached word and the sacraments is most vividly portrayed in the altar painting (Flügelaltar) at the church in Wittenberg, which appears on the cover. The Reformation artist, Lucas Cranach, was commissioned to memorialize Luther in a painting for the city church in Wittenberg which had been the place where most of Luther’s preaching had taken place.

The bottom panel depicts Luther preaching, with his left hand pointing to a passage in the Bible, and his right hand pointing to the cross, so that the word of God and preaching is always centered in the once-and-for-all sacrifice of Christ on the cross. The Word of God (the Son) and the word of God, written and preached, is foundational. On the left, Melanchthon baptizes a baby (dipped or dunked!). (Note also the lady in the fine coat, with other women staring disapprovingly at her—the finely dressed woman is reported to be Mrs. Cranach!) In the center is the Supper. Judas, with the money bag on his knee, and his foot outside the circle, seems to be biting the finger of Jesus. Most of the disciples have the faces of Reformation figures. The disciple receiving the cup is Luther, as Junker Jörg, and the servant is probably Cranach himself. On the right, Bugenhagen gives absolution, with a key in each hand, loosing the sins of the repentant [the Elector?] and binding the sins of the unrepentant rich man.

No other piece of Reformation art summarizes so completely and succinctly the full force of the Reformation. The Reformation was not a movement revolving around Luther as Reformer; it was not a power struggle with the pope to see who should be the spiritual boss in Germany. Rather it was a movement to revive the gospel (SD VII, 87, Triglotta). Indeed, the text which is our convention theme could just as well be emblazoned over the painting: “[The gospel] is the power of God to salvation… for in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith.” It was a Reformation centered in the preached word which pointed only to the Righteousness of the God-man, Jesus Christ for salvation.

Luther’s reformation of the liturgy of the church was simultaneously conservative and radical. In his 1523 Formula Missae (the Divine service in Latin), and the 1526 Deutsche Messe (the Divine service in German) Luther’s reforming principles were quite clear. The historic Mass, the Divine service, in which preaching and the Sacrament of the Altar were both preserved, was of particular importance to Luther. Alongside his renewal of biblical preaching was his retention of the “Ordinary of the Mass,” that is the framework which remained the same every Sunday, and also the purification of the Propers, those things which are different each Sunday, changing as the seasons of the Christian year progress. The Ordinary, consisting of the Kyrie, the Gloria in Excelsis, the Creed (usually the Nicene Creed!), the Sanctus (Holy, Holy, Holy), and the Agnus Dei (O Christ, Thou Lamb of God). The latter two, of course, presuppose the Sacrament of the Altar, with the consecration and the distribution of the body and blood of Christ. Luther saw that historic framework of the Mass as the constant framework for the Means of Grace.20

While there is certainly an element of adoration and praise in those parts of the liturgy, they are especially centered in the gospel and proclaim Christ the eternal God himself and the Savior from sin. What was radical about Luther’s reform of the Mass is that it abolished the sacrifice of the Mass, and all notions of man’s contribution to reconciliation. That was the notion that Christ’s body and blood are re-presented to God as the unbloody sacrifice for the remission of sins, making man a cooperative partner in salvation. Also abolished was the inclusion of the words of institution in a prayer which implied that the prayer of the priest effected the real presence. The historic propers, (introit, gradual, the collects and Scripture readings, as well as selections from the Psalms), were purged of medieval and scholastic perversions but were otherwise preserved as the best way to present the central teachings of Scripture in a systematic, edifying way. In this way Christians were to be taught what they are to believe for their salvation.

The heart of the Lutheran reform of the liturgy, carried out in the church orders in places like Denmark/Norway which had adopted Lutheranism, marked a return to the understanding that the worship service was the place where God serves his people with the powerful word of the gospel, both written, preached and made visible in the sacraments. No thought was given to using the Divine service as the place to reach out to unbelievers, and to stroke the selfish desire to be entertained or titillated, to feel good about themselves, or to develop a sense of community.

The Divine service is for Christians, who are simul iustus et peccator (at the same time saints and sinners), who need to be stung by the harsh condemnation of the law, and reminded not to fall back on their own piety. More importantly, the Divine service offers them again the message from their Lord that their sins are forgiven, and that they stand before God not with their own righteousness, but the righteousness of Christ. Underlying everything in the Divine service is the proclamation of the righteousness of God, and that God’s people are just (righteous) through faith alone.

That is the message which must prevail in the Christian congregation—not merely the local congregation, but in the whole congregation or assembly of God’s people, wherever physical geography may place them. When all is said and done, nothing matters to God’s people other than the word of God, the word of the gospel—the preached word and the visible word. At the core of that word is the forgiveness of sins. The law is always before God’s people, with its chief work to lay bare their inherited sin and guilt, and the sin of their flesh in this life. But the gospel of Christ’s righteousness is always the main point. To tamper with the Divine service with flights of fancy, experimentation, trendiness, and the whims of passing fads is to tamper with the food that is given to feed the flock. Nearly always that tampering produces superficiality and subjectivism, and changes the subject from Christ’s righteousness to something else.

Law and Gospel in the Life of God’s People

We spoke earlier of the distinction between law and gospel. Article III of the Formula of Concord explains why properly distinguishing between the two is of the most practical importance for the Christian:

1] As the distinction between the Law and the Gospel is a special brilliant light, which serves to the end that God’s Word may be rightly divided, and the Scriptures of the holy prophets and apostles may be properly explained and understood, we must guard it with especial care, in order that these two doctrines may not be mingled with one another, or a law be made out of the Gospel, whereby the merit of Christ is obscured and troubled consciences are robbed of their comfort, which they otherwise have in the holy Gospel when it is preached genuinely and in its purity, and by which they can support themselves in their most grievous trials against the terrors of the Law. …

24] These two doctrines, we believe and confess, should ever and ever be diligently inculcated in the Church of God even to the end of the world, although with the proper distinction of which we have heard, in order that, through the preaching of the Law and its threats in the ministry of the New Testament the hearts of impenitent men may be terrified, and brought to a knowledge of their sins and to repentance; but not in such a way that they lose heart and despair in this process, but that (since the Law is a schoolmaster unto Christ that we might be justified by faith, Gal. 3, 24, and thus points and leads us not from Christ, but to Christ, who is the end of the Law, Rom. 10, 4) 25] they be comforted and strengthened again by the preaching of the holy Gospel concerning Christ, our Lord, namely, that to those who believe the Gospel, God forgives all their sins through Christ, adopts them as children for His sake, and out of pure grace, without any merit on their part, justifies and saves them, however, not in such a way that they may abuse the grace of God, 26] and sin hoping for grace, as Paul, 2 Cor. 3, 7ff., thoroughly and forcibly shows the distinction between the Law and the Gospel. (SD III, 1 & 24-26)

This description describes exactly what lies at the heart of the life of the Christian congregation. Instead of using sociological surveys and programs, these paragraphs may serve as the best measuring rod for the congregation to see whether or not it is carrying out what God has commanded it to do.

In a paper presented to an ELS pastoral Conference, Sigurd Ylvisaker gave some much more concrete advice to pastor and congregation:

The question of the right proportion between law and gospel will be decided by many considerations.

a) As for the pastor, if he is a gospel preacher—and that is the only true pastor—the preaching of the law will be as a foreign and a dread work even as it was to Christ. He knows it is necessary, but he will show in every sermon that his anxious concern is to reach his main goal, to preach Christ, to evangelize, to comfort.

b) As for the congregation, the preacher has a right to consider that the great need there, too, is the comfort and saving grace of the gospel. The law kills; the gospel alone saves. A Christian congregation, so long as it may be looked upon as Christian, i.e. made up of Christians, presents the picture of those who hunger and thirst after the gospel, who are weary and heavy laden with the burden of sin, whose cry goes up to high heaven: “How long?” And we dare not, for the sake of Christ who redeemed them, hold back from them the riches of God’s grace. Why invite them to church as to a banquet table, if we come to serve only sparingly? It is God who has provided for all the abundance of his blessing. Should we not give as freely and richly as God has provided?

c) It is disturbing to note that some preach the law as if they loved that law preaching, as if they found it easier to preach, as if they made it a greater concern. Before they know it, they have so filled their sermon with law that there is barely time and space for a perfunctory mention of the gospel—they must not forget to slip that in, so that it may be said that they preached law and gospel. This is but a first step toward modernism which has made of Christ a forgotten man.

d) No matter how important it may be to include in every sermon the threat of the law as the directive of the law—even to the extent that it may be necessary that the bulk of the sermon, counting words, lines, minutes, be an expounding of the law—a sermon is not truly biblical which fails to preach Christ. The hearer should in every case, without exception, be forced to admit and rejoice to exclaim: “Today I have seen Christ.” (See Appendix D)

The pastor and congregation should view their Sunday service and all other spiritual gatherings in the light of these criteria. This is their first concern, to see to it that they depend only on the power of God’s word, both in law and gospel. How important it is can be seen in C. F. W. Walther’s monumental book, The Proper Distinction Between the Law and the Gospel. It may be called the most important and significant theological book produced by Lutherans on American soil. That it should be regularly reviewed by every pastor, and should be read or presented as well to the laity of our churches, is not an overstatement. Two of Walther’s theses serve to remind us of the seriousness of this:

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.

25. 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. (See Appendix C)

Missions and Evangelism

In our circles, we speak much of missions and evangelism. Christians always need to be encouraged to speak the gospel to others in their office of the priesthood of all believers (1 Peter 2:9. In fact, we celebrate at this convention the fortieth anniversary of our mission work in Peru, and we ought not neglect the work that has been done by Thoughts of Faith in supporting the restoration or the introduction of confessional Lutheran churches in the countries which were so long captive nations of the Soviet Union. In striving for the best mission and evangelism methodologies and strategies we need to ask ourselves whether or not we have really devoted enough of our attention to what really belongs at the center: the gospel, the power of God for salvation, because in it the righteousness of God is revealed. Scripture’s teaching concerning missions and evangelism is found in the doctrines of the means of grace, the power of the word, the gospel of Christ’s righteousness, and law and gospel. There has been a trend in Lutheranism in general in the last decades to depend on the literature of the Evangelicals and others who, as we noted above, do not have an adequate biblical understanding of the power of the word, the nature of the means of grace and worship, and the necessity of distinguishing between law and gospel.

The task given the church by our Lord Jesus is “Preach the gospel.” So we preach that gospel and we trust the power of his Word to have effect where and when it pleases him.


We have explored the theme of this convention, “God’s Power for Salvation,” on the basis of the text, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘The just shall live by faith’” (Romans 1:16, 17). If you have never committed that text to memory before, it has been repeated so many times that we hope it is now firmly fixed in your memory, and that you will be able to recall it and use it. It has been called by many the theme of Paul’s Letter to the Romans. But of course its importance goes further than that.

The heart of the life of God’s people, passing through this world as foreigners and strangers, is in God’s word, not simply as “the pure and clear fountain of Israel”; not just as the sole, unerring source of doctrine and life; but as the one thing that gives me life and sustains that life with my God and Savior Jesus Christ.

The gospel is the power of God for salvation, because it reveals the righteousness of God which is through faith from beginning to end. That truth belongs at the forefront of our lives together as God’s people. It needs to be spoken of often in sermons and Bible classes. It needs to be held up before the congregation, our synod, an association of congregations. We need to testify to this in our contact with others. Why? Because, as Paul says, it is for salvation—ours, our children’s, and our children’s children, and all those who have yet to hear first, or be brought back to it.

1. Lord Jesus Christ, with us abide,

For round us falls the eventide;

Nor let Thy Word, that heav’nly light,

For us be ever veiled in night.


2. In these last days of sore distress

Grant us, dear Lord, true steadfastness

That pure we keep, till life is spent,

Thy holy Word and sacrament.


3. Lord Jesus, help, Thy Church uphold,

For we are sluggish, thoughtless, cold.

Oh, prosper well Thy Word of grace

And spread its truth in every place!


4. O, keep us in Thy Word, we pray;

The guile and rage of Satan stay!

Oh, may Thy mercy never cease!

Give concord, patience, courage, peace.


5. O God, how sin’s dread works abound!

Throughout the earth no rest is found,

And falsehood’s spirit wide has spread,

And error boldly rears its head.


6. And ever is there something new,

Devised to change Thy doctrines true.

Lord Jesus! As Thou still dost reign,

Those vain presumptuous minds restrain;


7. And as the cause and glory, Lord,

Are Thine, not ours, to us afford

Thy help and strength and constancy,

And keep us ever true to Thee.


8. Thy Word shall fortify us hence,

It is Thy Church’s sure defense,

Oh, let us in its power confide

That we may seek no other guide!


9. Oh, grant that in Thy holy Word

We here may live and die, dear Lord;

And when our journey endeth here,

Receive us into glory there.

Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary, 511

Soli Deo Gloria


These Bible studies have been produced by the essayist for lectures in Latvia and in classes at Bethany Lutheran College during the last 30 years. Anyone is welcome to use them and adapt them to their own needs.

Appendix A

The Gospel and the Means of Grace

The Church of God lives only by the means of grace.

A useful distinction from the Reformation is the distinction between Salvation Won and Salvation Distributed.

  1. Salvation Won

    The Gospel proclaims the person and work of Christ.

    Jesus, the God/Man has accomplished atonement and reconciliation between God and man by his perfect life and his sacrificial death.

    1. His work is vicarious–substitutionary.

      2 Corinthians 5:14, 19 & 21

      1 Corinthians 1:30

      Galatians 3:13

      Isaiah 53:4-6

      1 Peter 3:18

    2. Through Christ’s life and death, God is satisfied.

      Isaiah 53:11

      Romans 5:10 & 18

      Jesus says: “It is finished.” God’s answer: The Resurrection.

      Romans 4:25

    3. The content of this message is evangel—Gospel, good News.

      The Righteousness of Christ

      The accomplished atonement

      God’s satisfaction with Christ’s vicarious work

      The forgiveness of sins.

    Without this content, the Means of Grace are meaningless.

    If the Gospel is made to mean something else, then no means of grace can convey anything at all.

  2. Salvation Distributed
    1. A. The gospel of salvation won is more than news, information or message. It is also Means or Instrument

      Apology XIII, 4f.

      When we are baptized, when we eat the Lord’s body, when we are absolved, our hearts should firmly believe that God really forgives us for Christ’s sake. Through the word and the Rite [Sacraments] God simultaneously moves the heart to believe and take hold of faith.…As the Word enters through the ears to strike the heart, so the rite itself enters through the eyes to move the heart. The Word and the rite have the same effect, as Augustine said so well when he called the sacrament “the visible word,” for the rite is received by the eyes and is a sort of picture of the Word, signifying the same thing as the Word. Therefore both have the same effect.

      Smalcald Articles III, xii, 2

      Thank god, a seven-year-old child knows what the church is, namely, holy believers and sheep who hear the voice of their shepherd. [The Gospel is the voice of the shepherd.]

    2. The Gospel is a powerful impartation of God’s forgiveness of sins.

      Isaiah 55:11

      Rom 1:16,17

      2 Tim 3:15

      Rom 10:17

      1 Peter 1:23

      1 Cor 4:15

      2 Cor 4:6

      James 1:18

      John 17:17

    3. C. The Sacraments

      The promise and the power which God has attached to the word of the gospel he has also attached to Baptism, Absolution and the Supper.

      When we are baptized, when we eat the Lord’s body, when we are absolved, our hearts should firmly believe that God really forgives us for Christ’s sake. Through the word and the Rite [Sacraments] God simultaneously moves the heart to believe and take hold of faith.… As the Word enters through the ears to strike the heart, so the rite itself enters through the eyes to move the heart. The Word and the rite have the same effect, as Augustine said so well when he called the sacrament “the visible word,” for the rite is received by the eyes and is a sort of picture of the Word, signifying the same thing as the Word. Therefore both have the same effect. (Apology XIII, 4f)



      The Lord’s Supper

Appendix B


Formula of Concord, Articles V and VI

(selections from Epitome)

2 Cor 3:4, 4:6

Rom 1:16,17

Rom 3:20 & 7:7ff

John 16:8-11

2 Tim 2:15

V.1. We believe, teach and confess that the distinction between law and Gospel is an especially glorious light that is to be maintained with great diligence in the church so that, according to St. Paul’s admonition, the Word of God may be divided rightly.

V.2. We believe, teach and confess that, strictly speaking the law is a divine doctrine which teaches what is right and God-pleasing and which condemns everything that is sinful and contrary to God’s will.

V.3. …Everything which condemns sin is and belongs to the proclamation of the law.

V.4. …The Gospel, strictly speaking, is the kind of doctrine that teaches what a man who has not kept the law and is condemned by it should believe, namely, that Christ has satisfied and paid for all guilt and without man’s merit has obtained and won for him forgiveness of sins, the “righteousness which avails before God,” and eternal life.

V.7. …As long as men hear only the law and hear nothing about Christ, the veil of Moses covers their eyes; as a result they fail to learn the true nature of sin from the law, and thus they become either conceited hypocrites, like the Pharisees, or they despair, as Judas did, etc. Therefore Christ takes the law into his own hands and explains it spiritually (Matt. 5:21-48); Rom 7:14. Then “God’s wrath is revealed from heaven” over all sinners [Rom 1:18] and men learn how fierce it is. Thus they are directed back to the law, and now they learn from it for the first time the real nature of their sin, an acknowledgment which Moses could never have wrung from them.

VI.1. Although people who genuinely believe… are freed through Christ from the curse and the coercion of the law, they are not on that account without the law; on the contrary, they have been redeemed by the Son of God precisely that they should exercise themselves day and night in the law (Ps 119:1)

VI.3. For although they are indeed reborn and have been renewed in the spirit of their mind, such regeneration and renewal is incomplete in this world.…

VI.4. …Works done according to the law are, and are called, works of the law as long as they are extorted from people only under the coercion of punishments and the threat of God’s wrath.

VI.5. Fruits of the Spirit, however, are those works which the Spirit of God, who dwells in the believers, works through the regenerated, and which the regenerated perform in so far as they are reborn and do them as spontaneously as if they knew of no command, threat, or reward.…

VI.6. …Both for penitent and impenitent, for regenerated and unregenerated people the law is and remains on and the same law, namely, the unchangeable will of God.

Appendix C

C.F.W. Walther’s Theses on Law and Gospel

One of the most important books produced in American Lutheran churches was C.F.W. Walther’s The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel. It was a series of evening lectures delivered by Walther to the students at Concordia Theological Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri, in the 1880s.

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.

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

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.

4. 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.

5. The first manner of confounding Law and Gospel is the one most easily recognized—and grossest. It is adopted, for instance, by Papists, Socinians, and Rationalists and consists in this, that Christ is represented as a new Moses, or Lawgiver, and the gospel turned into a doctrine of meritorious works, while at the same time those who teach that the Gospel is the message of the free grace of God in Christ are condemned and anathematized, as is done by the papists.

6. The Word of God is not rightly divided when the Law is not preached in its full sternness and the Gospel not in its full sweetness, when, on the contrary, Gospel elements are mingled with the Law and Law elements with the Gospel.

7. The Word of God is not rightly divided when the Gospel is preached first and then the Law; sanctification first and then justification; faith first and then repentance; good works first and then grace.

8. 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.

9. 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.

10. The Word of God is not rightly divided when the preacher describes faith in a manner as if the mere inert acceptance of truths, even while a person is living in mortal sins, renders that person righteous in the sight of God and saves him; or as if faith makes a person righteous and saves him for the reason that it produces in him love and reformation of his mode of living.

11. The Word of God is not rightly divided when there is a disposition to offer the comfort of the Gospel only to those who have been made contrite by the law, not from fear of the wrath and punishment of God, but from love of God.

12. The Word of God is not rightly divided when the preacher represents contrition alongside of faith as a cause of the forgiveness of sin.

13. 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 towards that end, instead of preaching faith into a person’s heart by laying the Gospel promises before him.

14. 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. The Word of God is not rightly divided when the Gospel is turned into a preaching of repentance.

16. The Word of God is not rightly divided when the preacher tries to make people believe that they are truly converted as soon as they have become rid of certain vices and engage in certain works of piety and virtuous practices.

17. The Word of God is not rightly divided when a description is given of faith, both as regards its strength and the consciousness and productiveness of it, that does not fit all believers at all times.

18. The Word of God is not rightly divided when the universal corruption of mankind is described in such a matter as to create the impression that even true believes are still under the spell of ruling sins and are sinning purposely.

19. The Word of God is not rightly divided when the preacher speaks of certain sins as if they were not of a damnable, but of a venial nature.

20. The Word of God is not rightly divided when a person’s salvation is made to depend on his association with the visible orthodox Church and when salvation is denied to every person who errs in any article of faith.

21. The Word of God is not rightly divided when men are taught that the Sacraments produce salutary effects ex opere operato, that is, by the mere outward performance of a sacramental act.

22. The Word of God is not rightly divided when a false distinction is made between a person’s being awakened and his being converted; moreover, when a person’s inability to believe is mistaken for his not being permitted to believe.

23. The Word of God is not rightly divided when an attempt is made by means of the demands or the threats or the promises of the Law to induce the unregenerate to put away their sins and engage in good works and thus become godly; on the other hand, when an endeavor is made, by means of the commands of the Law rather than by the admonitions of the Gospel to urge the regenerate to do good.

24. The Word of God is not rightly divided when the unforgiven sin against the Holy Ghost is described in a manner as if it could not be forgiven because of its magnitude.

25. 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.

Appendix D

Our Preaching—With Special Reference to Law and Gospel21

Sigurd Christian Ylvisaker

1. It is our great commission, privilege, and opportunity to preach the gospel.

2. If our private visits were as they should be—frequent, searching, consoling and admonishing—they, too, would stand side by side with public preaching, as in the case of Christ.

3. Since they are not, we should 1) improve the private, 2) lay the more stress on the public.

4. What is public preaching? Why is it so important? It is instruction, convincing and convicting, comforting, saving, exhorting, explaining, elevating and edifying, confessing, praising.

5. There is no better preacher than the pastor himself, because he knows his sheep.

6. Each sermon is a holy responsibility.

7. Each time and occasion presents new opportunities and needs.

8. In private preaching it is possible to consider individual needs.

9. In public, the needs of the whole congregation are to be considered, but as these become apparent through the individual. In so far each public preaching must at the same time be addressed as to the individual, be governed by individual needs.

10. No preaching is effective that is addressed to a nation, a church, a congregation, a mass—for the mass cannot hear, consider, repent, believe, do the works of faith.

11. Considering the individual, then, what is his need? According to the commission of Christ it is the gospel—in every case, at all times, above all else.

12. The preacher must know and realize the need of the gospel from his own case and from that of his members. This can and dare not be superficial knowledge—but vital, deep, sincere knowledge.

13. This can be brought only through the Holy Spirit in the law. Therefore the study of and the preaching of the law is self-evident and necessary.

14. How much law is needed can be determined only by the study of individual case.

15. Law can predominate only where members are in real danger of hypocrisy and rejection of Christ.

16. But when Christ himself says, preach the gospel, we have a right to suppose that this is the supreme need and the supreme concern of our preaching.

17. What is gospel preaching? We need to study this continually, examine and re-examine ourselves and our preaching, and strive toward ever higher accomplishments in this divine art.

a) By contrast, the preaching of the law is a terrible thing, for the law terrifies, drives us away from God, destroys hope, kills without mercy, demands its cruel pound of flesh, leads us to the brink of hell and thrusts us down into eternal despair. The law puts before men an impossible perfection; it reveals the holiness and justice of God, and robs us of every merit and worthiness. It reveals God in his glorious majesty, but leaves us in that dark night out from which we see as from a deep pit of misery and defeat. The law does not bring God close, but intensifies the infinite distance and eternal abyss which separates man from God. Read again the account of the rich man in hell and know what the law effects. To man in his fallen estate the law breathes damnation and a curse. So far as fallen man is concerned the law is as the lightning and thunder which played on Mt. Sinai, wreaking vengeance, striking terror, causing fear. There is no pity there, no love as from God to men, no hope that man can reach, no gladness to cheer. The law is in itself a bright light, but it only reveals the darkness which is man’s and does not rescue him from it.

b) We do not forget when we say this that there is a law spoken by a loving God to his loving children—cf. even Mt. Sinai: “Thou wilt not kill.” And Luther was not wrong when he explained: we should fear, love, and trust in God, revealing the relationship of loving trust which should exist as the very basis or foundation for a proper keeping of the law. But the situation is still the same: the law demands this loving trust, does not produce it; it curses and condemns if it is not there; and can only show the bitter fruits of disobedience.

c) Then consider what the gospel is and does: the gospel makes glad, cheers, gives hope, saves forgives, shows mercy, extends pity. The gospel binds up what is broken, heals what is sick, washes what is unclean, raises up what is faith, brings new life where death reigns. The gospel is the voice of the Good Shepherd to bring back what was lost; it is the power of God to erect that temple in the heavens where the weary and heavy laden, the hungering and thirsting, the despised and despairing, may find rest and safe refuge. The gospel brings God very near, draws us to him, reveals him in ever new and startling beauty, loving compassion, tender grace, holding out to the most unworthy the rich mercy which only he knows to give. The gospel opens wide the glory of heaven, clothes the lowliest sinner with the righteousness which Christ has wrought as a heavenly garment—unsullied, seamless, pure, bright, fit for heaven. The gospel breathes hope as a life-giving breath, and causes the water of life to spring forth among men to refresh and renew to eternal life.

d) To preach the law and the gospel means more than to speak of them, describe them, point to them. Then any half-hearted mentioning of law and gospel would be preaching the same. It is not, and we say that to the great discomfiture of many, even ourselves. It means discipling-teaching-preaching-evangelizing. It means witnessing-entreating etc., words and expressions by which God describes, and so fills the office of gospel preaching with meaning and responsibility that the preacher is tempted to cry: “woe is me, for I cannot.” We do not blame a Moses and other prophets for hesitating when called to this serious work, and yet, when we consider the contrast between this and the preaching of the law, who would not greatly desire and long for it?

To preach the gospel, then, is more than talking about it. It is more than an objective statement of the doctrines involved, no matter how carefully exact, orthodox and biblical such statements may be. The gospel is that green pasture of which the Bible speaks; it is that banquet table of Christ, that living water with which Christ identifies himself. In other words, to preach the gospel is to preach Christ.

In this preaching we are to be the very mouthpiece of God—to convince, to invite, to confess, to urge. We are the servants to place the heavenly food of the gospel before our hearers, the ambassadors sent by Christ to bring the greatest news of all. We come as physicians to the dying, on an urgent errand of mercy; we come as undershepherds to save the lost. We cannot imagine Jesus saying listlessly those life-giving words to the malefactor, to Zacchaeus, to Peter. Nor can we imagine a Sermon on the Mount delivered as a dry doctrinal discourse. There is an earnest intensity about the sermon of Peter on Pentecost, of Paul in his discourse before Festus. We may say as much as we please that it is not a man’s voice, effort, demeanor, or style that lends effectiveness to the preaching—but it must be said that the preacher, by his person, speech, lack of serious effort, etc., can lay many a stumbling block in the way of preaching to reduce its effectiveness and even render it fruitless. Let us emphasize this only more and more that the preaching must be preaching indeed in the sense of the expressions used in Scripture itself.

18. The question of the right proportion between law and gospel will be decided by many considerations.

a) As for the pastor, if he is a gospel preacher—and that is the only true pastor—the preaching of the law will be as a foreign and a dread work even as it was to Christ. He knows it is necessary, but he will show in every sermon that his anxious concern is to reach his main goal, to preach Christ, to evangelize, to comfort.

b) As for the congregation, the preacher has a right to consider that the great need there, too, is the comfort and saving grace of the gospel. The law kills; the gospel alone saves. A Christian congregation, so long as it may be looked upon as Christian, i.e. made up of Christians, presents the picture of those who hunger and thirst after the gospel, who are weary and heavy laden with the burden of sin, whose cry goes up to high heaven: “How long?” And we dare not, for the sake of Christ who redeemed them, hold back from them the riches of God’s grace. Why invite them to church as to a banquet table, if we come to serve only sparingly? It is God who has provided for all the abundance of his blessing. Should we not give as freely and richly as God has provided?

c) It is disturbing to note that some preach the law as if they loved that law preaching, as if they found it easier to preach, as if they made it a greater concern. Before they know it, they have so filled their sermon with law that there is barely time and space for a perfunctory mention of the gospel—they must not forget to slip that in, so that it may be said that they preached law and gospel. This is but a first step toward modernism which has made of Christ a forgotten man.

d) No matter how important it may be to include in every sermon the threat of the law as the directive of the law—even to the extent that it may be necessary that the bulk of the sermon, counting words, lines, minutes, be an expounding of the law—a sermon is not truly biblical which fails to preach Christ. The hearer should in every case, without exception, be forced to admit and rejoice to exclaim: “Today I have seen Christ.”

Appendix E

The Great Exchange

from Martin Luther’s essay The Freedom of the Christian, 152022

Study text: Ephesians 5:21-32


The third incomparable benefit of faith is that it unites the soul with Christ as a bride is united with her bridegroom. By this mystery, as the Apostle teaches, Christ and the soul become one flesh [Eph 5:31–32]. And if they are one flesh and there is between them a true marriage‑indeed the most perfect of all marriages, since human marriages are but poor examples of this one true marriage‑it follows that everything they have they hold in common, the good as well as the evil. Accordingly the believing soul can boast of and glory in whatever Christ has as though it were its own, and whatever the soul has Christ claims as his own. Let us compare these and we shall see inestimable benefits. Christ is full of grace, life and salvation. The soul is full of sins, death and damnation. Now let faith come between them and sins, death, and damnation will be Christ’s, while grace, life, and salvation will be the souls, for if Christ is a bridegroom, he must take upon himself the things which are his bride’s and bestow upon her the things that are his. If he gives her his body and very self, how shall he not give her all that is his? And if he takes the body of the bride, how shall he not take all that is hers?

Here we have a most pleasing vision not only of communion but of a blessed struggle and victory and salvation and redemption. Christ is God and man in one person. He has neither sinned nor died, and is not condemned, and he cannot sin, die or be condemned; his righteousness, life, and salvation are unconquerable, eternal, omnipotent. By the wedding ring of faith he shares in the sins, death, and pains of hell which are his bride’s. As a matter of fact, he makes them his own and acts as if they were his own and as if he himself had sinned; he suffered, died, and descended into hell that he might overcome them all. Now since it was such a one who did all this, and death and hell could not swallow him up, these were necessarily swallowed up by him in a mighty duel; for his righteousness is greater than the sins of all men, his life stronger than death, his salvation more invincible than hell. Thus the believing soul by means of the pledge of his faith is free in Christ, its bridegroom, free from all sins, secure against death and hell, and is endowed with the eternal righteousness, life, and salvation of Christ, its bridegroom. So he takes to himself a glorious bride, “without spot or wrinkle, cleansing her by the washing of water with the word” [cf. Eph 5:26,27] of life, that is, by faith in the Word of life, righteousness, and salvation. In this way he marries her in faith, steadfast love, and in mercies, righteousness, and justice, as Hos. 2 [:19-20] says.

Who then can fully appreciate what this royal marriage means? Who can understand the riches of the glory of this grace? Here this rich and divine bridegroom Christ marries this poor, wicked harlot, redeems her from all her evil, and adorns her with all his goodness. Her sins cannot now destroy her, since they are laid upon Christ and swallowed up by him. And she has that righteousness in Christ, her husband, of which she may boast as of her own and which she can confidently display alongside her sins in the face of death and hell and say, “If I have sinned, yet my Christ in whom I believe, has not sinned, and all his is mine and all mine is his,” as the bride in the Son of Solomon [2:16] says, “My beloved is mine and I am his.” This is what Paul means when he says in 1 Cor 15 [:57], “Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ,” that is, the victory over sin and death, as he also says there, “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law” [1 Cor 15:56]

Appendix F

Faith and Justification

Bible Study

Psalm 51

Isaiah 53

Jeremiah 23:6

Habakkuk 2:4

Matt 6:33

Romans 1:16,17




5:1ff (esp.12-21)



1 Cor 1:30

1 Cor 6:11

2 Cor 5:18-21

Gal 3:(esp.6-9)


Eph 2:8,9

Titus 3:5-7

2 Pet 1:1

1 John 2:1,2

Formula of Concord, Article III—Solid Declaration

The Righteousness of Faith Before God [Justification]

8,9 We affirm our teaching, belief and confession as follows: Concerning the righteousness of faith before God we believe, teach and confess unanimously, … that a poor sinner is justified before God (that is, he is absolved and declared utterly free from all his sins, and from the verdict of well deserved damnation, and is adopted as a child of God and an heir of eternal life) without any merit or worthiness on our part, and without any preceding, present, or subsequent works, by sheer grace, solely through the merit of the total obedience, the bitter passion, the death and the resurrection of Christ our Lord, whose obedience is reckoned to us as righteousness.

10-13 The Holy Spirit offers these treasures to us in the promise of the Gospel, and faith is the only means whereby we can apprehend, accept, apply them to ourselves, and make them our own. Faith is a gift of God whereby we rightly learn to know Christ as our redeemer in the Word of the Gospel and to trust in him, that solely for the sake of his obedience we have forgiveness of sins by grace, are accounted righteous and holy by God the Father and are saved forever.…

Faith does not justify because it is so good a work and so God-pleasing a virtue, but because it lays hold on and accepts the merit of Christ in the promise of the holy Gospel. This merit has to be applied to us and be made our own through faith if we are to be justified thereby.

14-17 The righteousness which by grace is reckoned to faith or to the believers is the obedience, the passion, and the resurrection of Christ when he satisfied the law for us and paid for our sin. Since Christ is not only man, but God and man in one undivided person, he was as little under the law—since he is the Lord of the law—as he was obligated to suffer and die for his person. Therefore his obedience consists not only in his suffering and dying, but also in his spontaneous subjection to the law in our stead and his keeping of the law in so perfect a fashion that, reckoning it to us as righteousness, God forgives us our sins, accounts us holy and righteous and saves us forever on account of this entire obedience which, by doing and suffering, in life and in death, Christ rendered for us to his heavenly Father.

This righteousness is offered to us by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel and the sacraments, and is applied, appropriated and accepted by faith, so that thus believers have reconciliation with God, forgiveness of sins, the grace of God, adoption, and the inheritance of eternal life.

Accordingly the word “justify” here means to declare righteous and free from the eternal punishment of these sins on account of the righteousness of Christ which God reckons to faith.

22 When we teach that through the Holy Spirit’s work we are reborn and justified, we do not mean that after regeneration no unrighteousness in essence and life adheres to those who have been justified and regenerated, but we hold that Christ with his perfect obedience covers all our sins which throughout this life still inhere in our nature. Nevertheless, they are regarded as holy and righteous through faith and for the sake of Christ’s obedience, which Christ rendered to his Father from his birth until his ignominious death on the cross for us, even though, on account of their corrupted nature, they are still sinners and remain sinners until they die.…Because the inchoate renewal remains imperfect in this life and because sins still dwells in the flesh even in the case of the regenerated, the righteousness of faith before God consists solely in the gracious reckoning of Christ’s righteousness to us, without the addition of our works, so that our sins are forgiven and covered up and are not reckoned to our account.

55 Our righteousness rests neither upon his divine nature nor upon his human nature, but upon the entire person of Christ, who as God and man in his sole, total and perfect obedience is our righteousness.

Appendix G

The Doctrine Of Justification

Two Kinds of Righteousness

(From a sermon by Martin Luther on Matthew 9:1-8)

1. The theme of this Gospel is the great and important article of faith, called “the forgiveness of sins”.…But that we may rightly understand this, we must thoroughly know how to distinguish two powers or kinds of piety.

2. One here upon earth, which God has also ordained and has included under the second table of the ten commandments. This is called the righteousness of the world or of man, and serves to the end that we may live together on earth and enjoy the gifts God has given us.

3. For it is his wish that this present life be kept under proper restraint and passed in peace, quietude and harmony, each one attending to his own affairs and not interfering with the business, property or person of another.…

4. This is in short the sense and the whole substance of this piety on earth. But it is further necessary to urge it and to admonish people that every man diligently, zealously and voluntarily exercise himself in it, and that he be not driven to it by force and punishment. This admonition consists in setting forth God’s commandments and in applying them to every station of life on earth, as God has ordered and appointed them. They are to be respected and highly honored; we should find pleasure in them and heartily do what is required in the different spheres of life.

5. Above this external piety there is another, which does not belong to this temporal life on earth but which avails only before God and which leads us to the life beyond and keeps us in it. [It] moves and soars far above everything that is upon earth, and has nothing to do with works. …This piety is now called the grace of God, or the forgiveness of sins, of which Christ speaks in this and other gospels, and which is not an earthly but heavenly righteousness; it does not come of our work and ability but is the work and gift of God.

6. This is…the only part or article and doctrine, by believing which we become and are called Christians, and which separates and divorces us from all other saints on earth; for they all have a different foundation and nature of their saintliness, peculiar exercises, and rigorous life.…

7. There is no greater theme for a preacher than the grace of God and the forgiveness of sins, yet we are such wicked people, that, when we have once heard or read it, we think we know it, are immediately masters and doctors, keep looking for something greater, as though we had done everything.…

8. I have now been teaching and studying this subject with all diligence for many years…, yet I cannot boast of having mastered it and am glad that I still remain a pupil with those who are just beginning to learn.…

9. The reason for this is man’s understanding cannot get beyond this external piety of works, and cannot comprehend the righteousness of faith; but the greater and more skillful this understanding is, the more it confines itself to works and rests upon them. It is not possible for man in times of temptation and distress, when his conscience smites him, to cease from groping around for works on which to stand and rest.

10. …Therefore let grace or forgiveness be pitted not only against sin, but also against good works, and let all human righteousness and holiness be excluded.

11. Thus there are in man two conflicting powers: Externally in this life he is to be pious, do good works, and the like. But if he aims beyond this life and wishes to deal with God, he must know that here neither his sin nor his piety avails anything. And though he may feel his sins which disturb his conscience, and although the law demands good works, he will not listen nor give heed to them, but will boldly reply; If I have sin, Christ has forgiveness; yea, I am seated on a throne to which sin cannot attain.


1 The extended debate about Scripture has been called “The Battle for the Bible,” after Harold Lindsell’s1976 Book The Battle for the Bible. One of the earliest criticism’s of the new way of interpreting Scripture came in an encyclical by Pope Pius X again “Modernism.”

2 Beretning om Det syvende aarlige Synodemøde af Den norske Synode af den Amerikanske Evangelisk Lutherske Kirke, Jerico, Iowa, June 19—25, 1924, p. 18 (tr. ETT).

The theses are:

I. By God’s word we mean here the word which God himself has caused to be written down in the holy Scripture or the Bible.

II. This word of God is living and powerful; it saves poor sinners. It enlightens and converts men, regenerates, sustains them in faith and brings them into eternal salvation. By this word, God’s church on earth is built; by it the church is upheld until the end of days.

III. God’s word has power to effect all of this, because God himself has spoken it. Through this word, the Holy Spirit works on men and makes them partakers in the Savior’s blessings.

IV. God’s word always has this power, though it only is active in blessing those who use it rightly.

V. God’s word shows itself as living and powerful in all those who hear and read it. For those who oppose the word’s gracious working, it becomes a deadly savor of death; but for those who receive it becomes a breath of life. [2 Corinthians 2:16]

VI. It is therefore of the greatest importance to preserve God’s word pure and true, diligently proclaiming, hearing and learning it.

3 Luther’s Works (American edition, AE) Helmut Lehmann, Jaroslav Pelikan, general editors, Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, and St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House 1955-1986, 36, 341, emphasis added.

4 Lutherans understand such language about good works (e.g. Matthew 25, the conclusion of the Athanasian Creed and others) in the light of forensic justification.

5 William F. Arndt, “The Doctrine of the Call into the Holy Ministry,” Concordia Theological Monthly, Vol. XXV, No. 5 (May, 1954).

6 Robert D. Preus, The Theology of Post-Reformation Lutheranism: A Study of Theological Prolegomena, St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1970, 362.

7 Jonathan Edwards, A Divine and Supernatural Light. Online text available, among others, at Christian Classics Ethereal Library, (Calvin College), works2.iii.i.html (last accessed June 5, 2008).

8 John Stephenson “The Ex Opere Operato Principle In The Lutheran Confessions,” Confessional Lutheran Research Society Newsletter. Letter No. 8, Pentecost 1987.

9 Preus, 363.

10 Preus, 365, quoting from Gerhard, Commentarius super Priorem D. Petri Epistolam, p. 145. Gerhard, however, in Loci Theologici (Theological Commonplaces: On the Nature of Theology and Scripture) St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2006, does not devote a specific subheading to the power of Scripture.

11 It is tempting to understand the two-edged sword as a reference to law and gospel. Luther, in his commentary on Hebrews (1518), Luther rejects a medieval interpretation of this verse and accepts Chrysostom’s comment: “Indeed, it is crueler than any sword: for it will fall upon (that is, will cut) the souls of those inflicting cruel wounds and fatal cuts” in further comments, Luther identifies the two-edged sword with the punishing, inescapable law (AE 29, 164 f.).

12 There is no little irony in the fact that more than a few later Lutherans (as early as N. F. S. Grundtvig, and then the Lutheran disciples of Karl Barth) used a similar misunderstanding of this text to reject the scriptures as the inerrant, authoritative word of God.

13 Answer to the Hyper Christian, Hyperspiritul, and hyper learned book by goat Emser, AE 39, 186 f. The salutation reads: “Dear Goat, Do not butt me.” Luther calls Emser “goat” because Emser’s coat of arms, printed on the title page of one of his pamphlts against Luther, contained the picture of a goat.

14 Preus, 364.

15 AE 1, 241.

16 This position is very close to the position taken by the Lutheran theologians in Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ) and is also has some striking similarities to the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification, which enabled the Lutherans and Roman Catholics to come to agreement in the JDDJ.

17 The word “office” can be confusing because it is used in several different senses which can only be determined by the context. It is sometimes equivalent to “ministry,” in the sense of a service performed. It can refer to a specific work which is commanded by God; to a work done by God himself (Christ in his three-fold office), the office or ministry of the Holy Spirit; it can refer to the work done by the law, or the work done by the gospel (1 Corinthians 3). It can also refer to a particular position which is established by God, and to which certain individuals are to be called or placed. Perhaps the most concrete way that we use the term is in the Office or Ministry of Word and Sacrament, to which God commands us to call qualified men. In theology, of course, it never refers to a room or collection of rooms.

18 The italicized material is found in the German translation of the Latin text. The Latin text only has: Atqui praecipuus cultus Dei est docere evangelium. Cultus and Gottesdienst often translate each other.

Melanchthon refers to the office or ministry in different senses, what may be called abstract and concrete (Walther and Hoenecke). The abstract sense refers to the work which the word itself performs, while the concrete refers to the office or position to which the church is commanded to call those men to preach the gospel. It is clear the emphasis here is on the office of the word in the abstract sense.

19 See K-W 219 f.n. 379. The source cited for this quotation is Augstine, Tractates on John, 80,3.

20 See AE 53 Luther’s liturgical treatises and especially the Formula Missae and Deutsche Messe.

21 While doing research on S. C. Ylvisaker for our 1984 book on the 100th anniversary of his birth, I found a manuscript in his papers of a set of theses on that subject presented to a Norwegian Synod pastoral conference. Later I saw it in the Clergy Bulletin, predecessor to the Lutheran Synod Quarterly. I include it here so that more can study it. I believe it is of value for our laity, both for their own speaking of the gospel to others and to teach them what they should expect of their pastors. It is also of value for our pastors and other preachers to help them constantly evaluate their presentation of the gospel, the power of God unto salvation.

22 The essay can be found in The American edition of Luther’s Works, vol 31, and in Martin Luther, Three Treatises; [translated by Charles M. Jacobs, A. T. W. Steinhäuser, and W. A. Lambert]. 2d rev. ed., Philadelphia : Fortress Press, c1970, 1978 printing.

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