Gospel Sermons: Volume I, by C.F.W. Walther. Translated by Donald E. Heck. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2013. 306 pages.
C.F.W. Walther (1811-87) has long been regarded as the “American Luther” due to the important role he played in the establishment of confessional Lutheranism in America. Walther helped to found the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, Concordia Seminary (St. Louis), and the Evangelical Lutheran Synodical Conference of North America. He led the publication of Der Lutheraner and Lehre und Wehre besides countless other articles, booklets, and publications including Church and Ministry and The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel. Walther served as president of the Missouri Synod in its infancy and as head pastor (Oberpfarrer) of the Evangelical Lutheran Joint Congregation in St. Louis.
It’s likely that many of our Shepherd’s Study readers are familiar with C.F.W. Walther’s posthumous work, The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel, or Concordia Publishing House’s recent translation, Law & Gospel: How to Read and Apply the Bible. For those not familiar with Law and Gospel, it was a series of Friday evening lectures that Dr. Walther delivered to his seminary students between September 1884 and November 1885. Walther’s Law and Gospel is a standard addition to most confessional Lutheran pastors’ shelves as Walther beautifully demonstrates to his readers how to properly distinguish between Law and Gospel in various areas of pastoral ministry, particularly in preaching.
While most WELS, ELS, or other confessional Lutheran pastors have read or studied Walther’s Law and Gospel and what he has to say about preaching, only a few with an understanding of German have had an opportunity to see how Walther applied those principles in his own preaching. During Walther’s later years and after his death, Concordia Publishing House (CPH) produced several sermon collections by Dr. Walther himself. For 46 years, Walther served as the head pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Joint Congregation, which comprised of four Missouri Synod congregations in St. Louis. Those decades of parish ministry provided a wealth of sermons from which CPH could create these collections.
One of the more well-known collections was a volume published in 1870 entitled Amerikanisch-Lutherische Evangelien Postille (American-Lutheran Gospel Sermons)—a collection of Walther’s sermons on the appointed Gospel lessons of the historic church year. It had been Walther’s plan “to make such a selection (of sermons), that every article of Christian doctrine might be found in this book. To attain this purpose, a supplement on the Gospel and Epistle pericopes and so-called occasional sermons on free texts was to be added. However, since it appeared that the book would be too thick and too expensive, this plan had to be abandoned.” (xi) Twelve years later, however, that plan was fulfilled with the publication of a companion volume—Amerikanisch-Lutherische Epistel Postille (American-Lutheran Epistle Sermons), which was a collection of Walther’s sermons on the historic Epistle lessons and other free texts.
Unfortunately, as the Lutheran church in America transitioned from German to English, these valuable sermon collections ended up gathering dust in parsonages and churches. That is, until 1955, when Rev. Donald Heck of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod published a translation of Evangelien Postille, with an improved edition a few years later. With the Walther centennial in 2011, CPH began reissuing updated translations of Walther’s works, including new editions of Law and Gospel, The Church and the Office of the Ministry, and a new two-volume edition of Gospel Sermons. This reviewer had opportunity to preview Volume 1 before publication. This volume covers Walther’s sermons on the Gospel lessons appointed for the festival half of the church year—the First Sunday in Advent through Pentecost.
Heck’s translation is impressive in its readability. He makes Walther’s German phraseology sing in the English language—a skill rarely found in many modern translations of the German-speaking Lutheran church fathers. Both layperson and called worker will appreciate Heck’s easy-to-read format of Walther’s sermons as they find devotional value in spending their time considering what Walther actually has to say rather than wasting their time in a tedious struggle through a poor translation of the German.
When Walther allowed publication of his sermons in collected form, it was his intent that the editor “not…choose those sermons which best follow the rules, nor even those which conform best to the text, but those which show most clearly the manner in which the counsel of God for our salvation is proclaimed to our beloved hearers, how Law and gospel, grace and good works, repentance, faith, and sanctification is preached” (xi). For this reason, it should not surprise the reader that Walther’s sermon writing style is quite different from what is typically seen in Lutheran preaching today. For readers who are used to thorough textual exposition in their sermons, it can take some time getting used to Walther, who often used a particular text simply as a jumping-off point to preach about various subjects, such as prayer (6th Sunday of Easter – John 16:23b-30)) or marriage (2nd Sunday after Epiphany – John 2:1-11) or apologetics (2nd Sunday of Easter – John 20:19-31) or the sin against the Holy Spirit (5th Sunday in Lent – John 8:46-59).
The question remains, however—how did Walther apply the principles he taught in his Law and Gospel lectures? This reviewer found Walther’s application of Law and Gospel to be uneven. Walther has a tendency to preach extremely harsh Law, often calling out hypocrites and “unbelievers” in the congregation with specific admonitions that at times verge on the pietistic. He then follows that with Gospel preaching that is nowhere near as strong or even uses the Gospel as a club (e.g. 4th Sunday in Lent sermon on John 6:1-15; Sexagesima sermon on Matthew 20:1-16; 5th Sunday of Easter sermon on John 16:5-16). At times Walther’s exposition or even where goes with the text can be a little confusing to the reader (e.g. his attempt to explain why Herod murdered the little boys of Bethlehem in his New Year’s sermon on Matthew 2; his 4th Sunday in Easter sermon on joy that actually focused on godly sorrow). In a couple of these cases, this reviewer wondered if the original editor or Walther himself could have picked a better sermon.
Nevertheless, the vast majority of the sermons in Volume 1 of Walther’s Gospel Sermons are theologically rich treasures where Walther gives the reader solid examples of distinguishing Law and Gospel in preaching. Of particular excellence are Walther’s sermons on Christmas Day, the 1st Sunday in Lent, Easter Sunday, and the Ascension of Our Lord. In other cases, Walther’s exposition of the text is worthy of further study (e.g. 5th Sunday after Epiphany on Matthew 13:24-30; Holy Thursday on 1 Corinthians 11:23-32; 3rd Sunday of Easter on John 10:12-16). In many sermons, the reader will find that when Dr. Walther is on, he crushes with the Law and he soars with the Gospel. In many ways, the reader sees how Pastor Walther applied Law and Gospel to the congregations that he served so faithfully for 46 years and can learn many a lesson.
Concordia Publishing House should be commended for bringing out this old treasure from the early years of American confessional Lutheranism and making it accessible to a new generation. Although we would not typically emulate Walther’s style of preaching, the devotional value of these well-translated sermons for the modern reader will make it (and hopefully its companion volume) a priceless devotional tool worthy of a place on your shelf.