National Lutheran News

Original Walther papers found in St. Louis archive

The LCMS patriarch gave a series of significant evening lectures, which the documents chronicle

One of the key differences between Lutherans and other Christians is a passion for “the proper distinction between Law and Gospel.” (For a quick primer on this concept, see below.)

A great advocate for this theological point was the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) patriarch and first national president, Dr. C.F.W. Walther. He presented a series of evening lectures, “Hours with Luther,” in St. Louis, Missouri, between 1873 and 1886. Most of those who heard these presentations were young men enrolled at Concordia Seminary, but some lay folk and clergy also were in attendance.

Included in Walther’s lectures were a series on Law and Gospel and what’s at stake when the two are not properly divided. (Other topics included “the truth and divine origin of the Christian religion,” “the inspiration of the Holy Scriptures,” and “the primary Lutheran doctrine of justification.”)

A recent exploration of the “Unidentified Manuscript Collection” at Concordia Historical Institute (CHI) in St. Louis turned up some of the original handwritten copies of Walther’s lecture notes. According to Bill Wangelin, who works at CHI, “They were immediately recognized as bearing Walther’s distinct handwriting.” Wangelin said the script was fairly easy to identify because “[Walther’s] handwriting is, in a word, sloppy.”

On the other hand, Walther was meticulous about dating and numbering the manuscripts. In the batch of newly-discovered manuscripts are outlines for 132 sessions of evening lectures.

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Dividing Law and Gospel

Lutherans have long held fast to the belief that Law (commands and requirements God expects us to obey) and Gospel (the good news that rescues us from despair) must be properly divided. Why? Because if a Christian uses Law to seek God’s approval, he or she will end in failure (no sinful human can do it). Jesus’ rescue of fallen humanity is good news (Gospel). Once rescued, the Law helps us discover how to love God. Many modern Christians believe God will embrace us “if,” “when” or “after” we follow God’s Law.” This is confuses Law and Gospel, and leads believers to despair.