Gold Nugget No. 6: Synodical Sermon

by C.F.W. Walther
translated by Aaron Jensen

Walther preached this sermon at the opening service of the convention of the Central and Eastern Districts of the Missouri Synod in 1867. In it he reminds us what the spirit of the Church really is.

Grace, mercy, and peace be with you all from God the Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father, in truth and love. Amen.

Honorable and beloved fathers and brothers in the Lord!

“The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” The holy Apostle Paul writes this in his second letter to the Corinthians.

There is hardly a passage of God which has ever been misunderstood, perverted, and misused worse than this one. The context in which this Apostolic expression stands shows without contradiction that the Apostle by the letter which kills means the office of the law which threatens death and by the spirit which gives life means the Gospel which proclaims life. But the false interpretation of that statement is that by the letter which kills the Apostle wants the letter of God’s written Word to be understood and by the spirit which gives life wants a certain higher truth to be understood which the mere letter of Scripture does not express, which lies hidden under it as the spirit lies under the body, and which therefore can only be found if you do not bind yourself to the letter of Scripture.

You should hardly believe at all that such a misunderstanding is possible. For how can the letter and spirit of Scripture be set against each other, when indeed its spirit cannot possibly lie and be found anywhere else than in the letters which make up Scripture? And furthermore, doesn’t Christ say directly, “The words which I speak are spirit and they are life,” while he at the same time gives the testimony to his Apostles, “Whoever listens to you listens to me”? What then, according to Christ’s clear expression, is his Word and the word of the Apostles other than the very Word of the Spirit which gives life, a Word which is made to glow by the Spirit as iron is made to glow by fire? And finally, where is there a Christian who has come out of death to life and has really received the Spirit who does not have to confess that it was nothing but the written or spoken Word of God alone through which life and spirit came into his soul?

Nevertheless that perverting of the Apostolic expression, “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life,” is already very old. The history of the Church through every century from the beginning on informs us that as often as false teachers have found themselves refuted and bound by the text of the holy Scriptures they have resorted to that passage and explained that understanding the holy Scriptures according to the clear letter is a fleshly understanding, but their errors they explain to be the spirit of Scripture. The papists agreed with the enthusiast spirits of that time about this perversion in the days of the Reformation. Therefore Luther says in the Smalcald Articles about both, “They want to be harsh judges between the spirit and the letter and they do not know what they say or what they declare.”

But at our time it was the rationalists in particular who continually recited this expression of the Apostle, “The letter kills, but the spirit gives life,” so that they could depart from the clear letter of the Word of God and still be counted as Christian teachers. The whole of human reason called such an annoying and foolish teaching of the Gospel about the crucified Christ, as it is contained in the clear words of Scripture, the letter which kills, which is to be removed as a mere inedible shell. But their religion of human reason about god, freedom, virtue, and immortality, which they dragged into the Scriptures, they called its spirit, which is left over as the actual kernel of a purified Christianity after the hull of the letter has been removed, and which alone is to be held firmly.

Yet there is still another way to set spirit and letter against each other which is often used especially in our day. When we Lutherans also still today hold fast and without adulteration to the teaching which three and a half centuries ago Luther once revealed and Christianity again proclaimed, and when at the same time we explain unity in this teaching as the condition of church unity, then they shout at us from all sides now, “You very well are in agreement with the Church of the Reformation according to the letter, but you are far from its marvelous spirit.” By this they mean to say, “You have taken possession of its doctrinal formulas and carefully hold them fast, but that sense and spirit which once lived in Luther and his comrades and moved them is not in you.”

Now, my brothers, how should this dreadful accusation really be justified and founded? I call it a dreadful accusation, for, truly, something more shocking cannot be said about us. If a spirit other than the spirit of the Church of the Reformation drives us and if we have learned its teaching only as a school lesson, then we are only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. Well, let us not shrink from the test. Let us now, before we begin our synod convention for this year, first step before the mirror of the divine Word and of history and seek by it to be made conscious of what the spirit of the Church of the Reformation, the true Church of Jesus Christ, is.

Text: 1 Cor. 2:12

We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us.

What the Apostle says in these words we read, he clearly says not only about himself and about his fellow Apostles, but about all believing Christians, therefore about the entire Church. The spirit of the Church is what he describes. On the basis of this passage let me therefore speak to you now:

About the spirit of the true Church of Jesus Christ.

Namely, how it is

  1. The spirit of truth and certainty which relies on God’s clear Word without fear of error, and
  2. The spirit of simplicity and humility which leaves the governing of the church to God alone without reliance upon human counsel.

I.

The first thing which the Apostle says about the true Church in our text is that it has a spirit other than what the world has. “But we,” he says, “have not received the spirit of the world.”

Now in the first place, what is this spirit of the world in view of doctrine and faith? It is nothing other than the spirit of uncertainty, doubt, and opinions. Even the most arrogant world does not see itself as the possessor of the truth, but, on the contrary, it intends only to eternally search and struggle for the truth. The questions—“Where does man come from?” “And where does his way go?” “Is there a God?” “And who is this God?” “How does God feel towards men?” “And what will the fate of men be after death?”—all these questions are the world’s riddles, which, to be sure, it seeks to solve, but whose complete solution it hardly dares to hope for, let alone believes to have already found. Therefore when Christ once said before Pilate, “In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth,” then Pilate, the man of the world, mockingly exclaimed, “What is truth?” And this spirit of doubt dominates not only those reckless people who seek their life’s happiness only in the sensual cravings. It once dominated even the old so-called wise men of the world, who had made the search for truth their life’s task but did not call their science “wisdom,” but “philosophy,” that is, the love of wisdom.

On the other hand, an entirely different spirit is the spirit of the Church. “But we,” says the Apostle in our text, “Have not received the spirit of the world, but the Spirit from God, that we can know what is given to us by God.”

So what, in the first place, is the spirit of the Church in view of doctrine and faith? According to this it is none other than God’s spirit of truth and certainty.

If it is far removed that also the faith of the Church should consist in all kinds of uncertain opinions and conjectures and be caught up in an eternal searching for the unfound truth, then through this the Church greatly distinguishes itself not only from the schools of philosophy, but also from all the other human fellowships, in that it is the wonderful elect congregation on earth which possesses the revelation of the great God and with it the truth which the world still seeks. The Church possesses the answer to all the questions which concern the mystery of the origin and purpose of man, and it not only has the answer, but it is also joyfully aware of this possession. For this reason the Apostle not only says in our text that we have the spirit from God through which God gives us much, but, “We have received the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us.”

This spirit of truth and certainty also immediately meets us everywhere in the apostolic Church. Not only does Paul testify about himself, “I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day,” but when the same Apostle wants to give testimony to the Christians at Thessalonica that they too are part of the Church of Jesus Christ, he cries to them, “For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction.” Not the faintest trace is found in the entire New Testament about anything in the apostolic Church which concerns not free adiaphora but doctrine and faith being viewed as something still not determined, as a still open question, or as a matter of human opinion. Rather we encounter in it a certainty of faith which excludes every doubt and is prepared at every moment to suffer everything and to die for every point of doctrine as God’s eternal truth for salvation.

But if we go further into the history of the Church of the first three centuries, what spirit presents itself to us then? The same spirit of truth and certainty. For what are the hundreds of thousands of holy martyrs of this era other than just as many blood witnesses that the Church stands not on the quicksand of human opinions but on the unshakable rock of truth and certainty? It is for this reason they do not doubt even in the face of a most torturous death and they deny not one little point, but for each of them joyfully forfeit honor, goods, blood, and life, and happily die with the confession on their lips: “Everything which we Christians believe is God’s undeniable truth!”

For this same spirit we find also in the later Church, freed from persecutions. When it had just come out of that great battle with false spirits in their own midst concerning the mysterious foundational truths of the Gospel, it then wrote down its confession of these teachings in what was called the Athanasian Creed. And how does it go? It begins with the words, “Whoever wants to be saved must above all have the true Christian faith. Whoever does not keep it entirely and purely will without doubt be lost eternally. But this is the true Christian faith.” At which point the most wonderful articles of the Christian faith are enumerated. What a divine certainty expresses itself here!

Now later when the Antichrist set himself up in the middle of God’s Temple and wanted to give the appearance of being the visible head of the Church, he also mimicked the certainty of the faith of the Church. But to the remaining members of the Church, whom he endeavored to silence through cunning and dreadful persecutions, his show of certainty was brought to shame, for face to face with the Antichrist the members of the Church preferred to climb up the smoking stake and lay their heads on the chopping block dripping with blood than renounce just one teaching of their faith.

A similar spirit revealed itself also in the Church of the Reformation. But where should I begin, where should I end if I only wanted to recall the most well-known examples of this? I will just remind you of Luther’s behavior in 1521 when he was summoned to Worms before Emperor and Empire. In his answer before this high assembly, when asked to recant, he famously concluded his confession as if he were on a high cliff with those great words, “Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen!” I will remind you further of the behavior of our Lutheran forefathers in 1530 at the imperial diet at Augsburg. In the mind and spirit of them all, Margrave George of Brandenburg even before the delivery of the confession made this eternally thankworthy confession, “Before I would deny my God and his Gospel, I would kneel down here before your Emperor’s majesty and let my head be cut off.” But when the confession had been read and presented and the evangelical confessors should have been made to falter by bloody threats and forced to recant, their common solemn explanation of their decision was this: They “knew the confession they presented was grounded in and devoted to God’s Holy Scriptures and the holy Gospel in such a way that the gates of hell may neither stand against it or cling to it, the same as with God’s Word and the holy Gospel.”

An especially noteworthy proof for this certainty of the faith of the Church in all points of doctrine is Luther’s behavior towards Zwingli and his comrades. After they, in 1529 at the Colloquy at Marburg, had yielded to the Lutherans in all other points and only in the one article of the Lord’s Supper desired toleration of their opinion which departed from God’s clear Word, Luther repeatedly exclaimed to their great dismay, “You have a different spirit than we do.” And what was this different spirit which Luther meant here? It was none other than the spirit of doubt and uncertainty, the spirit of human opinion. Therefore Luther, after the conclusion of the colloquy, writes about them, “They lack one thing: they still do not know how difficult it is to stand before God without God’s Word. I truly did not want to reject them out of either hatred or arrogance, but have wanted to receive their teaching for a long time, as God my Lord knows, if they could show me a reason for it. But I cannot set my conscience on that on which they stand.” In another place Luther writes about them, “If they were not such careless despisers of Scripture then one clear passage from Scripture should move them as if the world were full of Scripture, for it is true. For as far as I’m concerned, the world isn’t big enough for a single passage.”

See, that is the spirit of the true Church in view of doctrine and faith according to God’s Word and according to the testimony of history. It is the spirit of truth and certainty, which relies on God’s clear Word without fear of error. What is it if now so many object to the fact that we Lutherans maintain our doctrine and our faith to be certain and therefore settled? What is it if now so many, even those bearing the name “Lutherans,” place the requirement on us to let go of and explain as open questions even such teachings which are either clearly contained in God’s Word or opposed by it? What is it if now many desire that we postpone our judgment concerning uncontradictable Bible truths until, as they express themselves, the Church will have spoken and decided about it? What is it if we should concede that even in the confessions of the orthodox Church the truth is not confessed unadulterated, but mixed with all kinds of errors? What is it if accordingly many desire us to speak no more of an already found truth but to first still seek the truth as a still hidden treasure with them? Finally, what is it if those who desire all this of us declare that this is demanded from us indeed not by the letter but by the spirit of the church and that therefore, if we were not willing to do this, but would persist unmoved in the model of the teaching of the Church of all times, we would well hold fast to the traditional letter of Church doctrine but would be devoid of the spirit of the Church, that then we would especially be without what is called the spirit of Protestantism, which is nothing but the spirit of free progress?!—What is this?—All this is deceit and delusion! They want to force on us the spirit of the world, that spirit of doubt, of uncertainty, of opinions, of open questions, and of the eternal searching for truth, but they want to rob us of the spirit of the Church, the spirit of truth and certainty. No, it is not the Church, but those who have fallen away from it in this last time about whom God’s Word has prophesied that there are people who “always learning but never able to acknowledge the truth.” But the true Church says triumphantly with Paul in our text, “We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us.”

II.

Of course, honorable and beloved fathers and brothers in the Lord, with these words the holy Apostle says to us that the Church does not have the spirit of the world but the spirit who is from God not only in view of doctrine and faith but also in view of life and practice, that is, secondly it also has the spirit of simplicity and humility which leaves the governing of the Church to God alone without reliance upon human counsel. And now let me speak to you about this.

It is true, my hearers, that to human reason nothing appears to harm the prosperity and spreading of the Church more than rigidly holding to the truth you have learned, the doctrinal disputes which necessarily follow, and rejecting from Church fellowship of those who are not united with you in all articles of doctrine. Even in the middle of the Church men have continually risen up who have advised the Church to be flexible also in view of doctrine, to only insist on fellowship of all Christian parties, to stop the doctrinal disputes, and to establish a church unity with all other remaining disunities in faith either through similar service practices, namely through altar fellowship, or through ambiguous confession formulas acceptable to everyone, for then the Church would fulfill its great mission, its high calling in the world, when it stands there opposite the unbelieving world as one great body, tightly closed, free from parties, united in love.

It is furthermore true that it also appears to be extremely foolish to human reason when the Church wants to use no other means for its preservation and spreading than God’s Word. Therefore men have also continually appeared in the middle of the Church who have advised the Church to also set into motion other means apart from God’s Word for its preservation and spreading. Some have recommended a greater power of the public ministry as the most important means and making the persons in the office as the church regents. Others have been of the opinion that the Church should combine itself with the state so that the state may lend its strong arm and come to its help as often as the power of the Word does not bring about its goal. Still others have fought that the entire Christianity must have a visible head for its unity, whether it is just an individual person or a church court which, equipped with both swords, the spiritual and the worldly, must have might, not only to prescribe the faith to the Church and definitively settle all Church controversies, but also to punish all heresy and all disobedience towards the Church with excommunication and interdict, with deprivation of all the rights and advantages of citizens, and, where necessary, even with death.

Of course, my hearers, all this reveals nothing other than the spirit of the world which wants to help the Church through human counsel. On the other hand the Church has continually displayed an entirely different spirit. What great temptation the Apostles were often in to yield something from the teaching which the Holy Spirit had inspired in them! If they had founded a church anywhere and after their departure men entered into it who spoke a perverted teaching to draw disciples to themselves, then according to human reason it would seem to be the best thing if they overlooked the pervasive errors in order that the church founded by them with such great toils and danger may be preserved in peace. But what do the holy Apostles do? When, for example, errors forced their way into the congregations in Galatia, the holy Apostle immediately wrote to them, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned!” As their rule the Apostle expressed, “For we cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth.” And acting at all times according to this rule, they also simply and humbly left the governing of the Church to God alone. For as they did not seek to help the Church by making concessions in doctrine and avoiding the doctrinal disputes, so also they did not seek to help it by applying a power other than the power of the Word. “Not lording it over those entrusted to you,” as we hear crying down to us from Peter’s true throne. “I am not commanding you,” “Not that we lord it over your faith,” as the greatest among the Apostles writes to the Christians at Corinth and adds, “The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power.”

This same spirit has also inspired and driven the true Church at all times. When once, to briefly mention just an example, Zwingli and his own associates begged Luther for brotherly and church fellowship with tears in their eyes by promising also to say with Luther, “The body of Christ is truly present in the Supper,” only that they wanted to be allowed to mean this in a spiritual sense, Luther exclaimed to them again, “You have a different spirit than we do.” And what did Luther mean by that? His thinking was this: You want to help the Church through unity on the basis of a similar formula of confession without a similar sense of faith. But that is not the spirit of our Church. The Church wants to be nothing but an obedient maid of the Word. She lets God control whether she is honored or shamed, whether she has peace or conflict, whether she grows or shrinks.

Well, my brothers, also now many people, even those who call themselves Lutherans, may be of the opinion that, in order to prevent a complete crumbling through always new schisms and so that the Church may become great and mighty again, unity in doctrine cannot be allowed to be taken so strictly, and for this purpose the old partitions must be torn down, the Church must be placed on a wider foundation, and man must be given more might in it. Let us not even consider this—this is nothing other than the spirit of the world which, offended at God’s governance of the Church, hopes to help the Church through human counsel. But the spirit of the Church shows itself as people, without asking about the consequences, simply and humbly do what God’s Word and honor requires, leave the governing of the Church to God alone, and seek as little visible support for it as for the visible vault of heaven.

Then let us hold fast to the principle: As much as God’s pure Word rules in the Church, the Church also thrives, even if it would appear as if it lay in ruins. But as much as the Church has broken away from God’s pure Word, the church lies in decay, even if it would have itself appear as if it shines with the splendor and glory of the angels. For God’s pure Word is the only seed from which the Church is born, the only foundation on which it stands and falls, the only bread by which it lives, the only well which gives it strength and life, the only morning star which illuminates it, the only sword with which it fights, the only anchor of hope by which it is held fast through all its temptations, trials, and tribulations, and finally in death. Oh, may God help that at all times until the end of days our dear synod reveal that spirit of truth and certainty and that spirit of humility and simplicity and therefore be able to testify about itself with the holy Apostle in our text, as opposed to the world and all false churches, “We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us.” Amen.