Rev. Cameron A. MacKenzie, PhD, professor, Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Indiana
Walther’s Faith Is Worth Imitating—
I. As a young man in need of the Gospel.
II. As an old man in defense of the Gospel.
Fifty years ago, “Walther” was a household name in The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. After all, the synodical youth group was called the Walther League. Today, however, the league is long gone, and for many so is the man for whom it was named, Carl Ferdinand Wilhelm Walther. In fact, there are probably some here today who are wondering why in the world we’re devoting a service to commemorating a man nobody knows!
Well, our text for this morning tells us why. “Remember,” it says, “remember . . . those who spoke to you the word of God.” And nobody has spoken the Word of God more faithfully in the Missouri Synod than C. F. W. Walther. So today we are remembering him.
At one point in the history of our church body, everybody knew who Walther was; still today, our pastors, theologians, and seminary students study him. In his own times, Walther was the individual most identified with our Synod—its first president, professor and president of Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, founding editor of Der Lutheraner (the predecessor to today’s Lutheran Witness), and head pastor of four—that’s right!—four Lutheran congregations in St. Louis. He wrote and he spoke and, in so doing, provided theological leadership that still marks the Missouri Synod. Yes, C. F. W. Walther is well worth remembering in our church.
It would be easy, therefore, to spend the next several minutes—or hours—talking about Walther’s accomplishments, but our text suggests something different. “Imitate their faith,” it says. That’s not quite the same as just listing their achievements.
But if we want to imitate Walther’s faith, we need to see that faith in action. Faith in the heart is invisible; the words and deeds that reveal a man’s deepest convictions are not. So let’s look at Walther’s faith by considering two episodes from his life, one from the beginning of his career and the other from its end. Together they show us the man and reveal that
Walther’s Faith Is Worth Imitating.
Like many Americans in the nineteenth century, Walther was an immigrant to this country. Unlike most of the others, Walther came looking for religious liberty, not just the chance to make a good living. In fact, back in the old country, still a young man in his twenties, Walther was already making a good living as a pastor in a little town in Germany. But in 1838, he resigned his call, left his people, and set sail for America. Why? What was his motivation?
Just this. Walther had become convinced that the Lutheran Church in his homeland was totally corrupt and beyond saving. The time to leave Sodom and Gomorrah had come. As his brother-in-law and fellow pastor put it, “Whoever does not emigrate is no Christian.”1
So is this what we should imitate? A faith bold enough to forsake the comforts of home for the wilds of America? Not quite. Walther’s boldness quickly dissipated and turned into despair just months after his arrival in the United States, for the man whom Walther, and about seven hundred others, had followed from Germany to Missouri was caught up in a scandal of the sort that one finds in Hollywood and Washington today. Unfortunately, their leader wasn’t an actor or a politician. He was a Lutheran pastor who had convinced Walther and the others to leave their homeland. It was his evaluation of the Lutheran Church that they had accepted; it was his career as a pastor that the authorities had been threatening, not Walther’s.
As the scandal unfolded, the immigrants acted promptly to expel their leader, but now the second-guessing and recriminations began. Here they were in America all right, but should they have left Germany in the first place? After all, nobody was threatening Walther’s call; he was still preaching the Gospel every Sunday in the old country. But then he had quit the congregation to which God had sent him for a place to which a charlatan and hypocrite had led him. To make matters worse, Walther had encouraged others to come too.
And how were the immigrants doing? Not very well. They were hungry and sick and dying! In fact, one of the ships on which they had traveled had gone down in the ocean with no survivors. Men, women, and children now dead.
All this led to some severe soul-searching in young Pastor Walther, and he didn’t like what he found. In a letter to his brother, he confessed his shame and guilt: “My conscience blames me for all the adulteries which occurred among us. It calls me a kidnapper, a robber of the well-to-do among us, a murderer of those buried at sea and of the numerous victims here, a member of a sect, a hireling, an idolater.”2 Walther’s conscience was working overtime, and he was blaming himself for what had happened. Instead of a bold faith in his heart, Walther was confronting his sin—ugly, shameful, damnable sin! So that when we set about imitating this man, let’s remember what we see here: a sinner, not a hero; a son of Adam, not a saint. In fact, someone just like you, just like me, someone who needed a Savior, desperately.
And that’s what Walther found—thanks to the grace of God. In that same letter to his brother, he talked about obtaining rest and peace only in Christ Jesus. For God’s forgiveness in Christ was the only thing that enabled Walther to get past this confrontation with sin. Of course, Walther knew the Gospel already, but he also needed to hear it. So who would tell him?
Walther was convinced that he had sinned against the people of his congregation in Missouri by following a false prophet. So he went to them and confessed his sin. He even offered his resignation. But how did they respond? With righteous indignation and self-justifying wrath? Not at all. Instead, Walther wrote, “They assured me to a man that they forgave me everything from the bottom of their heart and with joy of conscience.”3 Usually, pastors are the ones pronouncing forgiveness, but in this case, God moved the people to forgive their pastor and so point their shepherd back to the Good Shepherd himself.
It was not easy for Walther to get over the scandal and his feelings of guilt, but God was at work through his Word, and, at length, Walther recovered and went on to become the churchman and theologian we remember today. Still, he never forgot the lesson of those early years, that Christians live by Gospel—the message of God’s unconditional love in Jesus.
In a sense, it was this conviction that led to the second episode that we often hear as an example from Walther’s life that reveals his faith—this time from his last decade when he was in his late ’60s and ’70s. By that point, many of Walther’s great achievements were behind him. Among these was his success in bringing together the vast majority of Confessional Lutherans in America into a single church body known as the Synodical Conference. Within just a few years of its formation, though, the Synodical Conference experienced an enormous fight and broke apart. The fight was doctrinal, and at its center was C. F. W. Walther. Instead of enjoying his golden years and basking in the praise of his contemporaries, Walther had to write, debate, and preach, while former friends and students vilified him as a false prophet and a betrayer of Lutheranism.
So what was going on here? Why did Walther fight instead of compromise? What was at stake? Nothing less than the Gospel—that same message on which Walther had relied in his darkest hours. That same good news you and I need to hear over and over again was at risk in this controversy. Walther taught that God’s love in Christ was unconditional and that it extended back into the heart of God from all eternity, so that there was nothing in or about us that moved God to call, convert, and preserve us in the faith except his love for us in Jesus. Period. Others objected: “No, that’s not true. God chooses me when he sees something in me, like faith.” Or again, “God converts me and not others when I do something they don’t do, like softening my resistance to his call.”
So Walther thundered back: False! He insisted that the Gospel is comforting precisely because it is unconditional, and it’s sure because it’s based only on God’s love—and not at all and not any on me, a sinner.
Now, church fights are never pretty, and this one was exceptionally ugly. It had negative consequences that survived for generations. Nonetheless, Walther taught us something in this controversy worth remembering even today. We need to hang on to the Word of God at whatever cost. Jesus promised, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (Jn 8:31–32). So when we give up that Word even a little bit, we are actually giving up Jesus a little bit—and maybe a lot—and that means throwing doubt on our salvation! C. F. W. Walther knew this from personal experience, and he was not going to let it happen. The Gospel meant more to him than peace in the visible Church. God’s Word was more important than anything else.
So we can learn a great deal from the life of C. F. W. Walther. In spite of all the differences between his time and ours, there are things that never change. Satan still attacks God’s Word, and God’s people must be on their guard—they need to know this Word and be faithful to it. They need to speak up for it even when others may not want to hear it, and the cost of faithfulness may be great.
But even greater things are at stake in the Word of God, and Walther knew that too—personally. Not only when he was in such despair during his first year in America, but throughout all his life, Walther confessed himself “a poor miserable sinner.” That was true even during his last days and illness, when life was ebbing away. Something else was also true: God’s eternal promises in Jesus—and Walther relied on them. He prayed, “God be merciful to me!” and repeated the hymn “Jesus, Thy Blood and Righteousness.”4
Ultimately, that’s what it all came down to for Walther as well as for us—not our lives, perhaps marked by triumphs but certainly marred by sins, but Jesus, our Savior. With Walther and all the saints, we rely on him—living, dying, and rising again! And that, my friends, is a faith worth imitating.
1. As quoted in Walter A. Baepler, A Century of Grace: A History of the Missouri Synod 1847–1947 (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1947), 24.
2. C. F. W. Walther to Otto Herman Walther, May 4, 1840, in Carl S. Meyer, ed., Letters of C. F. W. Walther: A Selection (Philadelphia.: Fortress Press, 1969), 35.
3. Ibid., 44.
4. August R. Suelflow, Servant of the Word: The Life and Ministry of C. F. W. Walther (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2000), 279.
Rev. Thomas Manteufel, PhD, professor emeritus, Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri
Walther Is Honored as a Faithful Servant of God’s Word.
I. Against false teachings on conversion and election, Walther was faithful to give all glory to God as loving and blessing.
II. Against various confusions of Law and Gospel, Walther was faithful to teach a proper distinction between them.
III. Against errors on church and ministry, Walther was faithful to lead a new Synod to a clear and beneficial understanding.
This year we are celebrating the bicentennial of the birthday of Dr. Carl Ferdinand Wilhelm Walther, born October 25, 1811. He has been honored as the chief founder of the Missouri Synod and its first president, the president of Concordia Seminary in St. Louis and its most influential professor, a writer and editor of the church papers, a dedicated pastor, and an outstanding preacher. In this sermon, in the light of the text,
Walther Is Honored
as a Faithful Servant of God’s Word.
Walther continually sought to be guided by Scripture in all his teaching and preaching. He confidently declared with many proofs that the Bible itself claimed to be the infallible Word of God in all that it said, and he deplored his miserable era in which so many people hated the “pure doctrine” of the Word. (That’s still going on today!) He wanted all who were divinely illuminated to take Scripture at its word, as the reliable touchstone and the highest norm for teaching. Otherwise, certainty and comfort are lost in the church, in the school, on the deathbed, if the thought must everywhere be brought in: “The Bible is a good book, but one must separate what is false from what is correct.”
Walther often felt the sorrows of controversy and conflict that resulted from this commitment, but he also had the glad knowledge of the benefits the Lord intended to come about from such faithfulness and which he often did perceive. True, he was ever humble when praise was directed his way—for example, when he said that his honorary doctorate from Göttingen (1855) made him a “gekröntes Esel” (a crowned jackass), or when he did not want to be called a “Luther” (though many have done so) but merely Luther’s archivist. But he was always ready to join his voice with those who praised God for the benefits that result from being faithful to his Word. This sermon will mention some of the countless examples of Walther’s faithfulness in opposing serious errors and the benefits from this that he himself noted.
Walther sought God’s own answer in his Word to the question “How does the sinner come to have saving faith and obtain certainty of forgiveness and acceptance?” He was familiar with the answer of synergists and pietists (by prayers, wrestlings, and struggles till one feels accepted) and declared that it was almost incomprehensible how a Christian could think that one must cooperate with God to come to faith in the Savior. Faithful teaching on passages such as Phil 2:13 shows that God gives faith, that it is not a mere phantom or self-creation.
Accordingly, we cannot agree with those who use Rom 8:29 to argue that the election of grace means only that God has elected some to be in the community of professing Christians. Rather, 2 Thess 2:13 shows that the elect are predestined actually to have faith in Christ, which God (not man) will bring about. It is not merely predestination to be part of a field of wheat and weeds, where the elect might still be weeds and go to hell. As Walther says, this is designed as comfort to dear children of God who have awareness of their election.
Faithful teaching will give all glory to God by rejecting both the denial of universal grace (that God wants all to be saved, 1 Tim 2:4) and the denial that only some are elected to belief in the truth. The people of God are benefited by confidence in his love and his work to create faith in the elect, even though the mystery in Scripture of how they mesh is like looking into an abyss that makes us dizzy. Similarly, when faithful teachers oppose synergistic conditional predestination, based on human decisions of free will, they are careful to avoid falling off the horse of predestination on the other side: teaching Calvinistic predestination to damnation. The beneficial result in the church is a clarified vision of, as Luther put it, our dear God as a sun of blessings, giving goodness, light, salvation, and joy.
Walther’s best-known contribution to theology was his treatment of the distinction between Law and Gospel, according to the meaning of each when contrasted in biblical teaching. He saw this as vital for the maintenance of pure Christian doctrine. Among his innumerable expositions and applications of this point (that the Law is to be preached to sinners unconcerned about their sin, and the Gospel is to be preached to alarmed sinners) is his use of it to show the unevangelical error of Roman Catholicism, which confuses Law and Gospel by making eternal life depend on meritorious works required by the Law, thus canceling the Gospel message of the gift of free grace through Christ’s atonement. Faithful Gospel preaching shows Christ as he wants to be known—not as a new Lawgiver, but as the one who opens the gates of heaven and says, “Come, everything is ready.”
To take one more example of confusing the Law’s demands and the Gospel’s gracious offer of a free gift, there is the method of appealing for justifying faith in such a way that people think they are able to make themselves believe, or to become worthy. But the faithful preacher invites the hungry soul to come and eat (Lk 14:17), preaching faith into that heart by laying Gospel promises before it. That Gospel works faith. It opens heaven to us when we feel hell in our hearts. So the anxious jailer of Philippi was told: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31).
It is the gracious intention of God to bestow all these rich blessings of grace in the Means of Grace, which he has instituted according to his Word. His action in these Means of Grace underscores the very nature of saving grace. The sinner does not redeem himself or reconcile himself to God. The world is already reconciled to God by the work of Christ. God is already gracious to the sinner; he already has forgiveness of sins and eternal life. Christ gained the reconciliation, and it is in the Word, in Baptism, in absolution, in the Lord’s Supper. When one receives these in penitent faith, one receives the gift of grace. Many teachers in Christendom deny this teaching. But faithful pastors and teachers teach the believer to take the benefits from the Means of Grace. Here also they are guided by the Word—for example, Jn 3:16 and 2 Cor 5:18–20. This is letting God be God, giving his gifts as he intends. Walther declares that there is no more comforting doctrine than this, even in time of temptation, even in the face of death. It is God coming to the rescue of poor sinners.
Walther also warned against neglect of sanctification and good works, admonishing his students not to say in their sermons that “good works are not necessary.” One should not fall off either side of the good works horse, by teaching salvation by works or by ignoring or denying the work of the Holy Spirit in cleansing and sanctifying the child of God throughout life. The church needs both good Easter preachers (to emphasize grace) and good Pentecost preachers (to point to the work of the Spirit).
Walther also taught much about church and ministry.
Early in his ministry in America, in the aftermath of scandal and the exile of the bishop of the Saxon immigrants, Walther undertook to deal with some soul-searching questions agitating the pastors and lay members, among them, mainly: Are we still a church, and do our congregations have the right to call pastors and have valid sacraments? On the basis of the study of Scripture, he answered yes. In the Altenburg Debate theses and subsequent writings, Scripture calls the congregation by the name of Church. It, therefore, as the Body of Christ, is authorized to administer validly the possessions of the Church and establish the ministry. These and related truths brought peace and a sense of identity in Christ, as well as the assurance that God confers the ministry of the Word through the congregation as the possessor of all church power.
Over against the claim of some that salvation depends on fellowship with any visible church organization, Walther maintained that this was another confusion of Law and Gospel, making justification and its benefits rest on something more than faith alone in the Gospel. Instead, any believer in Christ is able to be certain that he, or even someone who does not belong to a fully orthodox church body, may die blessedly. Walther wants this faithful witness to result in fuller appreciation of spiritual union with Christ and in comfort for those tempted in times of fierce conflict to think or say, “We are outside the Church.”
Walther, following Lutheran teaching, taught that it was necessary to distinguish between scriptural requirements and adiaphora (things not commanded, such as ceremonial customs and forms of church polity). The beneficial result will be peace and a good conscience in connection with Christian liberty.
Walther was aware that in Scripture there can be seen both a freedom of Christians and congregations from adiaphora and also reference to the interdependence of Christians and congregations. Thus for the sake of cooperation in the work of the Kingdom, congregations were free, if they wished, to form a union, which they did when the Missouri Synod was organized. Walther, as a major organizer of the Synod, of course defended the great usefulness of such an organization.
There was no biblical requirement for any particular form of polity in such a union, but if it were to be, there was an unmistakable need for supervision of congregations and pastors in their confessional life together. Walther points out that there have always been supervisors in the life and work of the people of God, in both the Old and the New Testament—Samuel, Elijah, Elisha, Paul, Barnabas, Peter, John, and others. Various versions of supervisory agents have emerged in church history, such as visitors, bishops, district presidents, circuit counselors, and the like, as the church deemed good and useful. Walther’s essay on the duties of an evangelical Lutheran Synod discusses the ways in which they can be helpful in supervision, giving advice in perplexing problems, help in dealing with strife, and other needs.
If someday a comprehensive volume of Walther’s theology should appear, a suitable title would certainly be Faithful to the Word. In all his teaching and preaching, he called on his readers and hearers to believe and live according to the wholesome truths he was setting forth. Along with Rev 2:10, Walther encouraged his seminary students to be faithful to death, and by God’s grace he was so himself, leaving an edifying and stimulating legacy to the church.
Walther’s 200th Birthday
C. F. W. Walther: Our Father in Christ
1 Corinthians 4:15–16
Rev. Martin R. Noland, PhD, pastor, Trinity Lutheran Church, Evansville, Indiana
C. F. W. Walther Became Our Father in Christ.
I. As a father cares for his children, a father in Christ faithfully passes on and teaches the doctrine of Jesus and the apostles, not merely out of duty, but out of love for Jesus and his flock.
II. C. F. W. Walther became a pastor who faithfully passed on and taught his people the doctrine of Jesus and the apostles.
III. By ensuring that The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod faithfully passed on to future generations the doctrine of Jesus and the apostles, Walther became our father in Christ.
For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. I urge you, then, be imitators of me. (1 Cor 4:15–16)
Two hundred years ago, on October 25, 1811, in a small village in western Saxony, a baby boy was born to Pastor Gottlob Walther and his wife, Johanna. They named him Carl Ferdinand Wilhelm Walther and baptized him on October 30, 1811.
This baby, in his middle age, was to become the chief organizer of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. In his mature years, he was president of that Synod for a total of sixteen years. He was its leading theologian and most prominent professor until his death on May 7, 1887. Through this work,
C. F. W. Walther Became Our Father in Christ.
What does it mean to be a “father”? A father works for and cares for his children, not merely out of duty, but out of love for each one of them. A father goes out of the home, into the world, to earn salary and benefits, so that his wife and children can be fed, clothed, housed, and otherwise provided for. A father is involved outside the home, attending to the affairs of school, church, and community, so that his children are educated, raised in the Christian faith, and able to live in a healthy and safe neighborhood.
A father also cares for his children inside the home, by seeking the welfare and happiness of their mother. A father disciplines his children when that is necessary, but he always shows affection for each one and concern for all their cares. A father gives counsel, especially as the children grow older and leave the home. A father is always there for a hug and support when times are bad.
What does it mean to be a father in Christ? In our sermon text, Paul observed that the Corinthians had “countless guides in Christ” but not “many fathers.” Paul said that he had become the Corinthians’ “father in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” That means that by faithfully passing on and teaching the doctrine of Jesus, he became their “father in Christ.” Paul then urged the Corinthians to imitate his example, by faithfully passing on and teaching the doctrine of Jesus and the apostles to their neighbors, to their children, and to future generations. Those who do this are, indeed, true “fathers in Christ.”
A father in Christ is analogous, in many ways, to an earthly father. Like an earthly father, a father in Christ serves out of love, not merely out of duty. Where an earthly father and a father in Christ differ is that the former deals with earthly goods, while the latter deals with heavenly goods. The heavenly goods include the Word of God, the Sacraments, worship, prayer, forgiveness of sins, and the ministry of the Gospel.
A father in Christ is someone who delivers these heavenly goods, not merely out of duty, but out of love for Jesus and his flock. A father in Christ shows his flock that Jesus is the one Messiah foretold by Moses and the prophets. A father in Christ shows his flock that Jesus redeemed them from their sins by his death on the cross and resurrection, and that this redemption is received solely by faith. A father in Christ preaches faith in Jesus’ Word, love for God and neighbor, and hope for Jesus’ return and the life to come.
Pastor Gottlob Walther was a father in Christ who faithfully passed on the doctrine of Jesus and his apostles to his son Carl Ferdinand Wilhelm Walther. But when Carl went to the University of Leipzig, he found that the Gospel was either neglected or challenged. In those days, the German universities were dominated by rationalists, who viewed the Bible as a source of moral philosophy but questioned, criticized, and belittled the historical accounts of the Scriptures, especially the miracles. This approach to the Bible was later known as the higher-critical method of biblical interpretation.
As a university student preparing to be a Lutheran pastor, Carl wondered whether he would ever get a call to be a pastor. The supervising pastors in Saxony, known as superintendents, were mostly rationalists. They took a dim view of candidates such as Carl who disagreed with the rationalist approach to the Bible. Carl joined a group of like-minded theology students at Leipzig, including his older brother Otto Walther, Johann Friedrich Buenger, and Theodore Brohm.
The two Walther brothers, Buenger, and Brohm were not reactionaries and were not inclined toward political interests. They simply wanted faithfully to pass on and teach the doctrine of Jesus and his apostles to their future parishioners. This intent also led them to correspond with the famous pastor of Dresden, Martin Stephan, who was known for his leadership among those opposed to theological rationalism. The connection to Stephan was soon to change their destinies.
Carl Ferdinand Wilhelm Walther received his first parish call as a pastor to the people of Brauensdorf in Saxony. He began his service there on January 15, 1837. Pastor Walther faithfully passed on and taught the doctrine of Jesus and the apostles and so proved to be a father in Christ to his people. But this displeased his supervising pastor, Superintendent Heinrich Otto Siebenhaar.
In a disagreement about the doctrine of original sin, Pastor Walther reminded Siebenhaar that he had pledged at ordination to uphold the doctrine of the Lutheran Confessions. In his preparation to become a pastor, Walther had studied the Lutheran Confessions carefully, especially the Augsburg Confession. He was impressed that the Lutheran confessors had faithfully passed on the doctrine of Jesus and the apostles to the Lutheran Church via the Book of Concord. Siebenhaar replied that Saxon pastors were not bound to the “letter” of the Lutheran Confessions, but only to their “spirit” or “intent.”
Walther respectfully disagreed. In later years, Walther wrote a brilliant article about “unconditional subscription” to the Lutheran Confessions that, undoubtedly, was informed by his debates with Siebenhaar. In any event, at this early stage in his career, Walther realized that without compromising with the rationalist church leadership, being a pastor in Saxony would be very difficult. Whose leadership would he follow? Jesus’ or Heinrich Otto Siebenhaar’s?
While still considering this dilemma, Walther heard the news that Pastor Stephan was planning an emigration to America. In 1838, meetings of Stephan’s followers were held in Dresden, Leipzig, and Niederfrohna in the Mulde River Valley. By September of that year, 707 people had signed on to the emigration plan. This included the Walther brothers, with many from their congregations, as well as their university friends Buenger and Brohm.
The first group of Saxon Lutheran emigrants arrived at the muddy riverbanks of St. Louis on January 18, 1839. In the spring of 1839, a large contingent went back downriver to Perry County, Missouri, where they settled on property purchased by Stephan out of the common treasury. While still trying to get settled, the emigrants found Stephan guilty of adultery and improper use of treasury funds. He was defrocked in May 1839 and exiled to Illinois. Subsequently, Carl Walther was made pastor of a small parish at Dresden and Johannesburg in Perry County, which included a group of Prussian and Hessian peasants.
At this point in his life, Walther’s diligent study of the Lutheran Confessions, Luther, and the Bible bore much fruit. In the spring of 1840, the emigrants wanted to go back to Germany. They were concerned that their pastors were improperly called by Stephan and that, therefore, they were no longer a legitimate church. Walther’s command of the Scriptures and the Confessions led him to debate lawyer Adolf Marbach on April 15 and 20, 1841, in Altenburg, Missouri. At that debate, Walther, from the Scriptures and Confessions, convinced the pastors and people that they were a true church and had true Lutheran pastors. From that point forward, Carl Walther was recognized as the theological leader of the Saxon emigrants.
In the fall of 1844, newly emigrated Lutheran pastors in Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan became aware of the Saxon emigrants and Walther. When they asked him what would be required for them to unite as a Lutheran church, he replied—in a letter to Pastor Ernst dated August 21, 1845—that such a church should (1) be founded on the canonical Scriptures and on all the Lutheran Confessions; (2) exclude all syncretistic activities of members; (3) work primarily toward the preservation, nourishing, and supervision of “the unity and purity of Lutheran doctrine”; (4) serve not as an all-powerful court but as an advisory body to congregations and pastors; (5) permit lay delegates equal voice and vote with the pastors at Synod meetings; and (6) permit appeal of Synod decisions to all member congregations (C. S. Meyer, Moving Frontiers [St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1964], 143).
Walther’s letter to Ernst became the basis for the constitution of the “German Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Missouri, Ohio, and Other States,” which held its first convention on April 26, 1847. The delegates elected Walther to be their first president. In January 1850, the Synod asked Walther to serve as professor at its Concordia Seminary. Walther served as professor and president at the seminary until his death in 1887. He also served as pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church, located in what is now the Soulard area of St. Louis.
Walther’s concern in all of his activities was that the doctrine of Jesus and his apostles be passed on faithfully to future generations. It was his great desire that the Synod he helped found would continue to proclaim to you and me all these two hundred years later—or however long God would use our church—the one saving message: that Jesus, by his death and resurrection, has saved you from your sin, that by believing that message you have eternal life in heaven, that you and all believers will live in perfect joy with our Savior himself. From his early debate with Superintendent Siebenhaar through his last debates over the doctrine of election in 1881, in which he again insisted on the binding character of the Lutheran Confessions, C. F. W. Walther became our father in Christ.
May our Lord Jesus Christ grant us many more fathers like Walther, in our congregation and our Synod, until Jesus returns in glory. Amen.
Walther’s 200th Birthday
The Blessed Memory
of Faithful Leadership
Rev. Mark A. Loest, STM, pastor, Immanuel Ev. Lutheran Church of Frankentrost, Saginaw, Michigan
Dr. Walther Was a Man Who Spoke the Word of God, Lived His Life according to It, and Was Saved by Grace through Faith in Christ.
I. He spoke the Word of God.
II. He lived his life according to the Word of God.
III. He was saved by grace through faith in Christ.
There are few heroes today who don’t eventually disappoint us. Whether in sports, the arts, politics, and, sadly, the church, it seems that even the most squeaky-clean role model has some character flaw that’s eventually revealed. It’s a disappointing reality, and yet it’s also the reason why the few exceptional leaders do stand out and are worth remembering.
Ever since Dr. Martin Luther’s great Reformation hammer blows against the abuses of indulgences, we Lutherans have been hesitant about remembering our sainted leaders. Yes, we have our exceptions. Luther is certainly one; after his death, those who knew him considered him almost a prophet and an apostle sent by God to the German people. But Luther is, well, Luther. We’ve had our leaders, but generally we are somewhat cautious about making too much of them.
Today, then, is an exception. Today we give thanks to God for a leader who, two hundred years after his birth, remains in the memory of the church: a man who served as the first president of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, was beloved as a pastor and professor, was a doctor of the church and leader of American Lutheranism in the nineteenth century. He is the man all lovers of faithful preaching, teaching, and confessing of God’s Word and Luther’s doctrine regard as the greatest theologian of his time.
On this day, we give thanks to God for Carl Ferdinand Wilhelm Walther, who was born on October 25, 1811, in the small Saxon village of Langenchursdorf, Germany.
At the time of his death in 1887, those who had known him considered him the kind of leader that the writer to the Hebrews speaks of in our Scripture:
Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the Word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. (Heb 13:7)
Dr. Walther Was a Man Who Spoke the Word
of God, Lived His Life according to It,
and Was Saved by Grace through Faith in Christ.
Walther is especially remembered as a pastor and theologian who always spoke the Word of God.
In Hebrews 13, the holy writer admonishes his readers concerning remaining in Christ as opposed to returning to Judaism. The difference between the two is love, and when Christ is lost, then love is lost. The writer recalls recent leaders who spoke the Word of God and by that same Word remained in the faith and lived lives of love. Speaking the Word of God communicates Christ’s love for the salvation of humankind. Centuries later, Christian charity guided Walther in his many activities as pastor, teacher, and leader. This love for men’s souls brought about the formation of our Synod.
Early in his ministry in St. Louis, Walther began publishing a theological periodical called The Lutheran (in German, Der Lutheraner). Its purpose was to spread biblical truth and Luther’s teaching among interested pastors and congregations that at the time were in need of being brought together in their common faith. The publication also helped to bring a correct understanding of God’s Word and Luther’s doctrine where it was lacking.
The reader soon realizes that above all, in Walther's many writings, and especially in his sermons, Walther spoke the Word of God. Each point is based solidly on Scripture. His concern for the salvation of souls was such that he always preached that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). And unhesitatingly added, “and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom 3:24).
But Dr. Walther didn’t just speak the Word of God. He also lived a life in accord with it.
As you read the Bible, you realize that it’s full of as many “failures” as “successes.” Sometimes, both are found in the same person. Cain was a “failure,” as were Esau and Saul. Abel, on the other hand, was a “success,” as were also Noah and Moses. King David is a good example of both. Of course, failure and success are measured by God’s standards and not ours.
The Letter to the Hebrews beautifully shows Christ’s fulfillment of the Old Testament, especially of its sacrifices, with his own sacrifice on the cross for the sin of the world. Jesus was not considered successful in terms of the age he lived in—neither by the Romans who crucified him or the Jews who handed him over. Even today, success to many Christians is not found in the cross, but in the glory of the world.
In our Scripture, the writer of Hebrews has in mind leaders who were exemplary for their word, lives, and faith, and who were well-known to the readers. This made them biblical successes. Most likely the writer had Peter and Paul in mind, who by this time had been martyred. They were worthy examples to encourage the Church not to give up the faith, even though they had not met success by the world’s reckoning.
Each of us may take heart in knowing that Christ succeeded where we fail because of our sin; he has obtained mercy for us before the throne of God.
Walther’s life is an example of the Christian life lived faithfully to the Word and faith of Christ. One of Walther’s earliest and fondest memories was how his father rewarded him for reciting a stanza of Count von Zinzendorf’s delightful hymn “Jesus, Thy Blood and Righteousness”:
Jesus, Thy blood and righteousness
My beauty are, my glorious dress;
Midst flaming worlds, in these arrayed,
With joy shall I lift up my head. (LSB 563:1)
Later, as a student, Walther found that he had never fully grasped God’s grace and forgiveness offered in the Gospel. He continually sought comfort, which eventually did come to him through the guidance of Martin Stephan, a pastor in Dresden, Germany. Also during this time, while at home for a year recovering from an extended illness, Walther, then a young theology student, read his father’s collected works of Luther. These made such an impression on him that he became convinced Luther’s teaching was the Bible’s teaching. He would remain committed to this belief for the rest of his life. He was on his way to becoming a faithful Lutheran pastor.
Yet Stephan also was to hold such powerful sway over the impressionable Walther that it nearly resulted in disaster. Stephan convinced the young pastor to resign his call, leave his parish, and join hundreds of others in an immigration society to go to America.
The best of our earthly heroes and leaders fail us, though we may not like to admit it. They all will. The psalmist says, “It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man. It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes” (Ps 118:8–9), and “All mankind are liars” (Ps 116:11).
The disastrous result of Stephan’s failed attempt to make himself a Lutheran bishop over his followers, and of accusations that Stephan was living a scandalous life, left Walther and the other emigrants now in the American wilderness wondering if they were still members of God’s Church or even Christians. They felt stranded and cut off.
Walther was especially troubled. He realized he had failed—especially as a pastor. He had consented and willingly participated in a human endeavor that, while in many ways having all the appearances of being godly and right, had instead turned out to be based on misplaced trust, was totally misdirected, and eventually became rife with discord. Souls were in danger of losing their faith. Even Walther was unsure.
Yet despite his own failures, shortcomings, and sins, Walther learned to depend on the comforting word that we are saved by grace through faith in Christ.
Once again, Walther went to the Bible. There he found the truth, especially in passages such as 1 Pet 2:9, which would be an important verse in connection with Walther’s future teaching on church and ministry: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for [God’s] own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”
His study of the Bible and Luther helped Walther convince this frightened flock that they remained members of the true Church because they had the Word of God by the power of the Holy Spirit. This brought him and those scattered lambs to repentance and a fuller joy in the forgiveness of Christ and the sure knowledge that the true Shepherd had not abandoned them.
Whenever I return to visit the seminary, I’m always moved by the portraits of past professors hanging on the walls. What impresses me most is the memory of professors I had as a student, some twenty-five years ago. I always wonder where the time’s gone. Mainly, I’m thankful that I know where they have gone—to be with the Lord.
I often think of my teachers and other leaders of the church I’ve known who are now with the Lord. And I’m also thankful for those who were not church leaders, but whom God used as faithful examples to me and who are now in heaven. What they said, how they lived, and their faith in Jesus have been important to me. For me, these include my mother, grandparents, godparents, relatives, and family friends. We all have had such people in our lives whom we’ll someday thank as we stand together before the throne of the Lamb and sing his praise in eternity. We can begin now by thanking God for those whom he has placed in our lives as examples of faith and to help us.
Long ago, Walther went to be with the Lord. The Word that he had believed and spoken and lived had directed his life’s outcome. On his deathbed, Walther was asked whether he was ready to die upon the grace of Christ that he had always preached. He said, “Yes.”
At the base of the life-size statue of Walther originally located in his mausoleum in Concordia Cemetery, St. Louis, are the words of St. Paul to the Romans: “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Rom 3:28). This particular verse has great meaning because it reflects the faith Walther learned from his study of the Bible and of Luther.
And while the age in which Walther lived may seem so different from ours, it is the same single way to salvation that remains: Christ alone. This salvation is ours in Scripture alone, by God’s grace alone, through faith in Jesus Christ alone. Amen.
Walther’s 200th Birthday
God’s Plans Prevail
Rev. William R. Wangelin, associate pastor, Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Jenison, Michigan
3. When our plans fail, we, like Walther and the Saxon immigrants, may experience a crisis of faith.
2. But in those times of faith crisis, God is at work—for us as for Walther and the immigrants—through the Gospel.
1. With our identity as God’s people affirmed by the Gospel, we go about the business of God’s plan.
When Our Plans Fail, the Gospel Affirms Our Identity as God’s People and That He Is with Us to Do the Work of the Church.
Proverbs 16:9 says, “The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.” Planning is an important part of life. We make all sorts of plans so that we can be prepared for the challenges of life. But many times, planning can seem counterproductive. There are two things that can easily change our plans against our will. Human sin is one. There is brokenness in this world that unexpectedly interrupts, or even corrupts, our plans. The gracious hand of God is the other. God has a way of changing our plans and even working through the unexpected hardships of life to bring about his ultimate plan of salvation.
Today we celebrate how God was at work in the life and ministry of a great leader of our church body, C. F. W. Walther. When we recognize such important people in history, it is not because they are some sort of super-Christians. All saints are at the same time sinners. Rather, we celebrate how God works in the lives of his people, sinful though they be, to bring about the Lord’s blessing and unfold his great plan.
For many heroes of the Christian faith, their lives did not turn out as they planned. Such is the case of C. F. W. Walther. He had planned out his way in his heart, but it was the Lord who established his steps. Both human sin and the gracious hand of God were at work to elevate Walther to the place of honor he holds in our service today. Allow me to share some details from Walther’s remarkable life to show how God works in such amazing ways.
Carl Ferdinand Wilhelm Walther was born in a parsonage in a small village in Germany in 1811. When Walther followed his father’s and brother’s footsteps and became a Lutheran pastor, he could never have imagined just how his life as a pastor would turn out.
As a student, Walther was troubled by the rationalist and enlightenment theology that was watering down the church’s teachings, and he soon found a gathering of Bible-believing, Gospel-centered, traditional Lutherans, led by a charismatic pastor named Martin Stephan. This gathering of pastors and laypeople understood that the Confessions of the Lutheran Church were the most faithful explanation of the Christian faith, centered on the pure Gospel of Jesus Christ. They should have had a happy Lutheran existence in a land so traditionally Lutheran, but things are not always what they seem.
Pastor Stephan and his group were getting into trouble with secular and church authorities, and they took this as persecution for being faithful Lutherans. Soon the whole group was convinced that the only way to keep the Lutheran Church pure and alive was to emigrate to America. Around 800 Lutherans from Saxony, along with several pastors, including the young C. F. W. Walther, left Germany in winter of 1838 and arrived in St. Louis a few months later in 1839. They set sail in five ships; one of them, the Amalia, was lost at sea. Soon they established a little Lutheran settlement in Perry County, Missouri.
Even though the Saxons tried to be faithful to God’s Word, they found themselves part of a human endeavor. Martin Stephan had absolute authority over this company, and declared himself a bishop. There’s a saying, “Power corrupts, but absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Soon Pastor Stephan was found to be guilty of inappropriate relations with some women of the community. The immigrants were shocked, dismayed, and heartbroken. Their great undertaking of bringing the Lutheran Church and the Gospel of Jesus Christ to America seemed to be a dismal failure, as their hopes were bound up with a flawed and fallible human being.
The immigrants then went through a crisis of faith. Having devised their own plans and having watched them fail, they wondered whether God was still with them. If they had indeed been led astray, were they still a Christian community? If their leader had been banished from their midst and sent in a boat across the Mississippi River (which he was), had they rejected God’s leadership as well? Could they even be considered a church? Soon doubts and arguments began to tear away at the community of immigrants, and their faith was shaken to the core for two long and painful years. Many of the immigrants thought their only God-pleasing course of action would be to return to the mother church and the fatherland in Germany.
There are times when we are led to follow the schemes of man and our grand plans for success. We may be led by faith, duty, vanity, or pride. We hope for something big and grand. Regardless of the motivation, when our plans fail, we, like those Saxon immigrants, may experience a crisis of faith. We plan for a great and glorious future, but then find that sin wreaks havoc in our present. Human plans fail. We mess up. Leaders fall. Doubts and fears take control. A crisis of faith sets in. Perhaps you’ve experienced that crisis of faith when things took a turn for the worst. We are shaken. Maybe someone whom you counted on was found to be flawed and fallible. Your pastor lets you down—and you and God both know he has. A teacher you’ve deeply respected is dismissed when something in his or her life becomes known. Your husband or wife leaves you. Sin can plant those seeds of doubt that wonder whether God is still with us, whether anything we’ve ever heard or believed is true, maybe even whether or not we ourselves are truly Christians or if we’re forever lost and hopeless.
And yet it is in those times, in that crisis of faith, when God is at work. Yes, many times God is doing his very best work when our plans come to nothing. Is 42:3 says, “A bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench.” It is when we feel like a bruised reed, just about to break, or a faintly burning wick that is just about to go out, that God shows us how much we depend on his grace and mercy. We are not the people of God because we are smart. We are not the people of God because we are perfect. We are not the people of God because we belong to an institution. In fact, being a child of God isn’t about anything we do at all. It’s about what Christ did for us and how he continues to be at work in our lives through his Word and Sacrament.
It was human sin that sent the settlers into their crisis of faith. But it was the gracious hand of God that brought them out of it as he worked in the life of Walther and others. As an ill and distraught Walther read the writings of Martin Luther, his thoughts were directed to the power of the Gospel. Luther had demonstrated clearly from the Word of God that the Christian faith is not about human achievement, but it is a gift of God that comes through the Gospel. Jesus himself said in Mt 18:20, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” When Christians gather in the name of Jesus around the Gospel, in written, spoken, or sacramental form, Jesus himself is there, creating and strengthening his Church. This Word of God was all that the Church needed to survive and flourish.
Walther made this personal revelation public in an open debate with those who insisted that the settlers were no longer a Christian church. Walther showed that even though sin and corruption were in their midst, the Gospel was also in their midst. Therefore, Christ was there, creating and strengthening his Church. Their existence did not depend on the authority of a bishop, but on the authority of the Word of God alone. Walther reminded them of their identity in 1 Pet 2:9–10, where the apostle writes, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”
On this very matter, Martin Luther had written,
The church is recognized, not by external peace but by the Word and the Sacraments. For wherever you see a small group that has the true Word and the Sacraments, there the church is if only the pulpit and the baptismal font are pure. The church does not stand on the holiness of any one person but solely on the holiness and righteousness of the Lord Christ, for He has sanctified her by Word and Sacrament. (Ewald M. Plass, What Luther Says [St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1959], 263)
The Lutheran settlers had the Word of God and were indeed Christians, and because of the mercy and forgiveness offered through the Gospel, they were still the people of God. And if they were the people of God, then they were still a church, and they should be about the business that God calls his Church to do.
In our crisis of faith, when sin of our own or another’s ruins our plans, and we feel as though we are forsaken by God, the Gospel breaks into our woe-is-me with a great blessed-are-you! It proclaims again that Jesus died for us and has given us his Holy Spirit. It reminds us that in our Baptism, God claimed us to be his very own. We are indeed the people of God, we are still Christians, and we are still part of Christ’s Church.
And if we are still part of Christ’s Church, then we should be about the business God calls us to do.
It was the Word of God and the power of that Word that Walther shared with this community of discouraged Lutherans. They were filled with a renewed sense of God’s gracious presence and their calling as Christians in a new land. They were about the work of the Church, that is, proclaiming the Gospel, administering the Sacraments, and making disciples. They started a seminary for training pastors and church workers. Walther published a Lutheran magazine that was a bold voice for the Gospel and the Lutheran Church. He soon became pastor of a large Lutheran congregation in St. Louis. The congregation grew in faith and numbers. God had been at work in the turbulent years to sow seeds of a rich harvest.
The Saxon immigrants also began to focus their efforts on uniting with other faithful Lutherans in America, many of whom were sent by a pastor in Germany named Wilhelm Loehe. As they gathered to form a church body united in the proclamation of the Gospel, they elected as their first president the young C. F. W. Walther. He was the one who reminded them of the power of the Gospel and how God’s Word is the true foundation of the Christian Church. In his first address as president, Walther told the new church body,
Even though we possess no power but that of the Word, we nevertheless can and should carry on our work joyfully. . . . Even though it should seem to be in vain, it cannot then be in vain, for the Word does not return void but prospers in the things whereto the Lord sent it. By the Word alone, without any other power, the church was founded; by the Word alone all the great deeds recorded in church history were accomplished; by the Word alone the church will most assuredly stand also in these days of sore distress, to the end of days. (Carl S. Meyer, ed., Moving Frontiers [St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1964], 176)
The name of the church body founded by Walther and colleagues so long ago is today The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. The small church body experienced tremendous growth, and when Walther died in 1887 it was the largest Lutheran church body in America. Walther shaped generations of pastors as a professor and pastor in ways he could never have imagined. To this day, Walther’s legacy is the way he led a church body to be founded on the authority of the Word, faithful to the Lutheran Confessions, and boldly proclaiming the pure Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, when our plans fail and our world seems to fall apart, the only thing we can turn to is the Word of God and the power of the Gospel, that Good News that announces that our sins are forgiven for Jesus’ sake.
When Our Plans Fail,
the Gospel Affirms Our Identity as God’s People
and That He Is with Us
to Do the Work of the Church.
When we gather around God’s Word and his Holy Sacraments, Christ himself is with us. We are his people, and he establishes our steps. And he sends us out by the power of the Holy Spirit to be about the business of the Church—making disciples of all nations. In Jer 29:11, the Lord says, “For I know the plans I have for you . . . plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” Life may not turn out as we planned, but God promises to be with us and to establish our steps according to his gracious plan.
Today we praise God for the gift of his Word, for the life of C. F. W. Walther, for the work of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, and for the power of the Gospel in our midst. May the Lord strengthen you in your calling, as he establishes your steps according to his good and gracious plan. In Jesus’ name. Amen.