C.F.W. Walther as a Theologian

by Franz Pieper
translated by Caleb Bassett

Although this translation is from a series dedicated to recounting the life and theology of C.F.W. Walther, its main topic is the doctrine of justification. It is a testament to the grace of God In Walther’s life that those who write about him after his death have such an abundance of material about his faithful proclamation of the Gospel. The author of this biography, Franz Pieper, outlines for us Walther’s proclamation of the utter importance of the doctrine of justification. It goes without saying that such a topic is of great interest to us today. As Lutherans have said for centuries, the doctrine of justification is truly the doctrine with which the church either stands or falls.

As you read this article, please note the tremendous, objective comfort that is found in this doctrine. Note the role it plays in the life of the church and congregation. Note its importance to our salvation.

For our readers preparing for ministry, note especially the encouraging words found in this selection. During training it is very easy to think that one’s own skill is what will cause the church to grow or shrink during one’s ministry. But all can take comfort that it is justification as proclaimed in the Gospel that grows the church. One need not worry that if he does not have the greatest people skills the church will not be able to grow. World-class skills in Greek are not required for a preacher’s proclamation of the Gospel to reap a fruitful harvest. Thankfully the power for salvation lies outside of us and rests solely in the hands of our powerful and gracious God. This does not mean that we no longer strive to hone our skills to the best of our ability as we faithfully prepare for ministry. Rather we do so in the comforting knowledge that the salvation of the lost does not rest on our own skill. Instead, God works through the gifts he gifts he has given us to spread his Word throughout the world.

Please allow a couple notes about the translation. The article was originally published in Lehre und Wehre (Volume 36, Number 1, January 1890), the German-language theology periodical of the Missouri Synod. Also note that the footnotes are representations of the footnotes found in the original text. I have not added any of my own explanatory footnotes.

May the God of gracious justification give you true comfort as you grow in his Word daily.

So far, we have pointed to what Walther taught about the church, and to the matters directly associated with this doctrine. This is the doctrine for which the Saxon immigrants initially had to fight. But when we attempt to depict Walther as a theologian, we must above all discuss his position on the doctrine of justification. Walther’s position on this doctrine first gives us the key to his entire conduct during his tumultuous life.

For Walther, the center of all Christian doctrine is the doctrine of justification, which is the doctrine that a person is justified before God and saved by grace through faith in Christ. All other doctrines serve this doctrine as requisites or flow from it as consequences. And since Walther always saw this doctrine endangered by individual errors too, he therefore fought all falsity with determination, conceding no compromises. To him, this doctrine was also the central point in the fight for the correct doctrine of the Church.1 Walther demonstrated how, for example, the teaching which claims that only members of a specific visible church are the only ones to receive salvation, as well as the pretense that the validity of absolution is dependent on the ordination of the officiant, overturns the doctrine of justification. He used the same proof in relation to the other false teachings which he battled, for example, Chiliasm, the physical effect of the sacraments, synergism, and so on. “The struggle against false doctrine,” he said, “first attains practical significance for the individual Christian when he sees how through the corruption of other articles of doctrine this doctrine [i.e. justification] cannot remain pure either.”2 Walther lived in this doctrine as a Christian as well as a theologian. Even his opponents admitted that he understood how to speak powerfully about this doctrine. Walther delivered the most lectures about this doctrine during the so-called Lutherstunden. Through both pinpointing the correct way, as well as the vivid portrayal of the usual errors, Walther instructed above all things at the theological seminary how this doctrine is properly preached. We do not believe we are suggesting too much when we say that after Luther and Chemnitz there is arguably no teacher of our church who attested to the doctrine of justification more vividly than Walther. Walther had Luther as his teacher in this doctrine too. He took the individual, brightly glimmering points of light which are found concerning this doctrine among the subsequent teachers and combined them into one bright beam.

As we set out to present Walther’s position on the doctrine of justification we first make reference to how Walther characterized the doctrine of justification with respect to its importance, etc. in general. Secondly we will make mention of and highlight the points which Walther especially accentuated in order to keep this doctrine intact against the errors of his time.

According to Walther, the doctrine of justification is what differentiates the Christian religion from all other so-called religions; it is the hallmark of the Christian religion. If we speak of justification, he says,3 then we are speaking of the Christian religion, for the doctrine of the Christian religion is really nothing other than the revelation of God about how one is justified and saved by the redemption which came about through Christ Jesus. All other religions show other ways which are said to lead to heaven (namely the way of works), only the Christian religion shows a different way to heaven through her doctrine of justification. With this doctrine she shows the world something unheard of and unimaginable: thoughts that were hidden in the heart of God before the foundation of the world. And in a different place4 he says that this doctrine is the heavenly sun of the Christian religion through which she differentiates herself from all other religions, just as the light does from the darkness. Therefore, whoever assaults the doctrine of justification encroaches on all doctrine, the entire Bible, and the entire Christian religion. Another way to salvation, and thus an entirely different religion is taught wherever this doctrine is falsified. Fighting for the doctrine of justification, the Bible, and the Christian religion are all one and the same. Without the doctrine of justification the entire Christian religion is like a clockwork without a spring. All other doctrines lose their meaning when the doctrine of justification is incorrect. When the cornerstone falls, the entire building collapses. In the same way, all of Christendom collapses where the doctrine of justification falls. The church then becomes a mere reformatory. As far as the understanding of the Scriptures is concerned: When theologians who do not properly understand the doctrine of justification handle and cite the Scriptures, they do not dwell in the Scriptures, instead they sit in front of a door that is closed to them. For without the doctrine of justification the Bible becomes for the people a book of ethics with all sorts of curious ancillary teachings.

Therefore the doctrine of justification is the “grandest chief article of the Christian faith.” “As long as someone has not come any further than thinking the doctrine of justification is also an important article, then he is still in the dark.” Without the doctrine of justification all praise of Christ, grace, and the Means of Grace are nothing. All teaching in the church must serve this article. That is not to say that one should or could teach only this doctrine. All revealed doctrines must be taught with utmost diligence. But even when one deals with hell, the goal must be to show the rescue from hell to those who are listening.

The awareness of the doctrine of justification is absolutely necessary for the salvation of the individual. Christians are people who live in the awareness of the doctrine of justification, that is, people who believe that God by grace forgives their sins for Christ’s sake. This awareness, this faith makes a person a Christian. “Upon this article,” Walther says, “rests all salvation, and therefore it is absolutely important for every Christian. It wouldn’t help a thing if one correctly knew all other doctrines, for example the holy Trinity, the person of Christ, etc., but would not know or believe this article.”5 This article is indeed the article with which the church stands or falls. “For what is the church? She is the sum of the believing Christians. Thus the church is present where Christ rules and governs in grace; but he rules inwardly in people by offering and administering them grace. Where he has conquered a heart his kingdom is present. Where therefore there are reborn, living Christians, there is his church. But now no person becomes a true, reborn Christian without this doctrine of justification. Every other doctrine can indeed make great Pharisees, but not Christians. One becomes a Christian only when the Holy Spirit reveals in the heart that one is truly redeemed by Christ, and has the forgiveness of sins, a reconciled heavenly father, righteousness valid before God, and can lie confidently even on one’s deathbed.”6 And in a different place Walther says, “Luther wasn’t exaggerating when he said that the church cannot stand for one hour without the article of justification. For the church is not some outward institution, rather it is the gathering of the believers. Where there are not believers there is also no church.”

If therefore the church is to be built up and preserved, then above all things the doctrine of justification must be preached. The Reformation of the church was once brought about through the preaching of this doctrine while every other previously attempted means to aid the church had failed. Even in other nations and at different times this doctrine has been the one that has again renewed the church.7 And if we want to build the church during our time we must do so through the preaching of the doctrine of justification. It is not the “eloquent” and “popular” preacher, nor is it the “dignified pastor” who builds the congregation, but rather they who preach the doctrine of justification build the congregation. The recognition and preachment of this doctrine make up for many a flaw in the outward instruction and ability of a pastor. If the church had a choice only between pastors who are outwardly inadequate but live and preach the article of justification, and pastors who are most skillful in their outward form, yet do not understand the doctrine of justification and as a result don’t preach it, then the church must choose the former without compunction. “This doctrine is so exceedingly important,” says Walther, “that those who are not particularly gifted can preach it in its fullness, in all its strength, in its brightness, and in its rich comfort. Even the weakest, if only he has grasped the teaching that the grace of God in Christ Jesus has appeared for all people and is grasped by faith, even the weakest can preach to the people so that they become sure of their salvation. And that outweighs all the wisdom, gifts, and treasures of the world. Such preachers will also never be lacking in material. They will always know to speak of that which God has done for us by grace, and that will always give them new joyfulness. For what is all learnedness, as necessary as it is for their position, over and against the wisdom of God, which is proclaimed even when they just explain the words, ‘For God thus loved the world, etc.’? That is what poor sinners rejoice over. And all the holy angels marvel about it. It is before this that the entire world ought to sink to a knee and shout a Gloria and Hallelujah. If concerned servants of the church preach that, then they are the people who could begin a Reformation even in this land, just as there have currently been some inroads toward this. For preaching the doctrine of justification is what truly makes living congregations; not the kind of congregations which make a lot of noise about their life and their deeds, but rather a living congregation which, living in this doctrine, willingly makes offerings in holy adornment. In summary, let us learn in Luther that we cannot cause a reformation if we don’t firmly believe this doctrine, proclaim it with godly confidence, hold fast to it, and preserve it.”

Therefore, a living understanding of the doctrine of justification belongs to the preparation for the pastoral ministry. Walther says, “The most important thing that students of theology should take with them from the theological seminary is a clear and thorough insight, based on experience, of the great doctrine of the justification of a poor sinner before God. Without this all else is worthless. The proper conduct of the ministry involves above all the public and remarkable proclamation of the doctrine of justification. A pastor should gladly desire to be a preacher because he gets to proclaim this doctrine. Just as all joy in carrying out the ministry comes from this doctrine, so also all hope of affecting something should come from this doctrine. That will keep the pastor from legalistic conduct.8 In the doctrine of justification one has the means to remain in true doctrine. “As long as this doctrine is completely pure,” says Walther, “no error in other points can remain with us. It is just as Luther says, ‘This doctrine does not tolerate error.’ It is the sun in the sky of the church, and where it rises all shadows must vanish.” In the doctrine of justification we have, “a norm which, when we act in accordance with it, makes it impossible for us to accept an error.” “Whoever has known the doctrine of justification laughs at all learned, un- and half-believing professors with all their eloquence and learnedness when they teach falsehood. If what they assume and teach does not agree the little children’s saying, ‘The blood of Jesus Christ, the son of God makes us innocent of all sins, ’ then even the simplest person one can trample it underfoot, no matter how great an appearance of wisdom and holiness it may have.”9 On the other hand, he who does not properly understand the doctrine of justification cannot recognize or demonstrate how dangerous an error is. He who does not know the main point of Christianity is like a child who does not know the purpose of a clock and thus before long regards this little wheel and that pin as useless. Without the knowledge of the doctrine of justification the individual doctrines of the word of God are an incoherent pile of stones from which one can take stones away without substantially harming the entire mass. Without the proper knowledge of this doctrine one doubts again and again where the true church is, especially when one looks at the true church’s lowly esteem and small size, as well as its current troubles. But if one holds fast to the doctrine of justification, then the number, age, gaudiness, strict order, and the great works of the false church do not impress him. Nor does the scholarship of the apologetic merits of the modern-faithful impress him. For all of this is empty and useless in the church without the doctrine of justification.

  • 1. Die luth. Lehre von der Rechtfertigung. Ein Referat etc., S. 93.
  • 2. Bericht der ersten Vers. der Synodal-Conferenz etc., S. 23.
  • 3. Synodalconferenzbericht, S. 21.
  • 4. Evangelienpostille, S. 278.
  • 5. Synodalconferenzber., S. 21.
  • 6. A. a. O. G. 24. 25.
  • 7. Synodolconferenzbericht, S. 25-27.
  • 8. Referat etc., S. 95 f.
  • 9. Synodalconferenzbericht, S. 27.