No doctrine of the Evangelical Lutheran Church is more offensive to the Reformed than the doctrine that the grace of God, the forgiveness of sins, righteousness in the sight of God, and eternal salvation, is obtained in no other way than by the believer's putting his confidence in the written Word, in Baptism, in the Lord's Supper, and in absolution. The Reformed, especially their theologians, declare that this way of getting into heaven is too mechanical, and on hearing the Lutheran teaching they denounce it as deadletter worship, citing the statement of the Apostle Paul: "The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life." 2 Cor. 3, 6. Again, they say; "What does baptizing with earthly water profit? The true baptism is baptizing with the Spirit and with fire." Again: "What is the benefit of eating and drinking the natural body and blood of Christ? The true food and drink by which the hunger and thirst of the soul is really stilled is the truth that came down from heaven." Finally, they say: "How can I be helped by a mortal, sinful man, who cannot look into my heart, saying to me: 'Thy sins are forgiven thee'? No; my sins are not forgiven except when God Himself speaks these words in my heart and makes me feel their force." That is the Reformed view.
Now, does this view agree with Scripture? By no means. In the Scriptural meaning of the term the "letter" is not something dead. The connection in 2 Cor. 3, 6 shows, in the first place, that the apostle refers, not to the Word of God as such, but to the Law. That is what kills. On the other hand, the "spirit" signifies the Gospel. That is what gives life. Consider, in addition, that when the apostle says: "The letter killeth," he cannot mean that the letter itself is dead; for something that is dead cannot kill.
According to the Holy Scriptures, Baptism is not a mere washing with earthly water, but the Spirit of God, yea, Jesus with His blood, connects with it for the purpose of cleansing me of my sins. Therefore Ananias says to Saul: "Be baptized and wash away thy sins," Acts 22, 16; and Jesus says to Nicodemus: "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God," John 3, 5. He names the water first and then the Spirit, for it is by this very baptizing with water that the Spirit is to be given me. In Gal. 3, 27 the apostle says clearly and distinctly: "As many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ"; and in Titus 3, 5–7: "Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us by the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost, which He shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ, our Savior, that, being justified by His grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life."
According to the Holy Scriptures the Lord's Supper is not an earthly feast, but a heavenly feast on earth, in which not only bread and wine, or only the body and blood of Christ are given us, but together with these forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation is given and sealed to us. For, distributing the bread which He had blessed, Christ said: "This is My body, which is given for you; … this do in remembrance of Me." By the words "for you" He invited the disciples to ponder the fact that they were now receiving and eating that body by the bitter death of which on the cross the entire world would be redeemed. He meant to remind them that they ought to break forth with joy and gladness because the ransom that was to be paid for the sins of the whole world was, so to speak, put in their mouths. Offering the disciples the cup which He had blessed, Christ said: "This is the cup, the new testament in My blood, which is shed for you." Why did He add the words "shed for you"? He meant to say: "When receiving the blood of redemption in this Holy Supper, you receive at the same time what has been acquired on the cross by means of this sacrifice."
Finally, according to the Holy Scriptures the absolution pronounced by a poor, sinful preacher is not his absolution, but the absolution of Jesus Christ Himself; for the preacher absolves a person by the command of Christ, in the place of Christ, in the name of Christ. Christ said to His disciples: "As My Father hath sent Me, even so send I you." John 20, 21. What is the import of these words? None other than this: "I am sent by My Father. When I speak to you, My words are the words of My Father. You must not consider the humble form in which you see Me. I come in the name of the Father, in the place of the Father, and the word of promise that proceeds from My mouth is the word of My Father. Now, in the same manner as My Father has sent Me I am sending you. You, too, are to speak in My name, in My place." Therefore He continues: "Receive ye the Holy Ghost; whosesoever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whosesoever sins ye retain, they are retained."
Observe, then, the depreciative, contemptuous, and scorning ring in the words of the Reformed when they speak of the sacred means of grace, the Word and the Sacraments, and the grand, majestic ring in the words of the Lord and the apostles when they speak of these matters. Now, who is right, Christ or the Reformed, the holy apostles or the ministers of the Reformed Church? I should feel ashamed to give the answer. You all know the answer.
The true reason for the Reformed view is this: They do not know how a person is to come into possession of the divine grace, the forgiveness of sin, righteousness in the sight of God, and eternal salvation. Spurning the way which God has appointed, they are pointing another way, in accordance with new devices which they have invented. We gained this conviction in our last evening lecture. May the Lord grant us His Holy Spirit to the end that tonight we may be strengthened and confirmed in our conviction and be blessed with a cheerful faith.
- excerpt from C.F.W. Walther, 'Law and Gospel, Sixteenth Evening Lecture' (January 20, 1885.)