What Would Walther Do? Applying Law and Gospel to Victims and Perpetrators of Child Sexual Abuse







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Counselors and theologians failing to understand the dynamics of child sexual abuse cases often apply the concept of law and gospel incorrectly. When this happens, perpetrators are emboldened to offend again and many victims leave the church. To assist spiritual counselors in avoiding this pitfall, I provide an overview of the dynamics present in many cases of sexual abuse and the impact this has on children physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I also discuss the characteristics of many sex offenders and the efforts offenders make to manipulate both the victim and the church. In determining the proper application of law and gospel to victims and offenders, I discuss the law and gospel treatise of C.F.W. Walther. In doing so, I include examples of Walther’s application of law and gospel in cases of domestic violence and sexual exploitation. Finally, I include practical suggestions for psychotherapists and theologians in applying law and gospel to victims and to perpetrators of child sexual abuse.

“You are not rightly distinguishing Law and Gospel in the Word of God if you preach the Law to those who are already in terror on account of their sins or the Gospel to those who are living securely in their sins.”
—C.F.W. Walther

Members of the clergy,church elders,and lay Christians often struggle with the application of Biblical law 1 and gospel 2 to victims and perpetrators of child sexual abuse. Partly as a result of ignorance of the dynamics involved in these cases, Christians often apply a heavy dosage of law to victims and gospel to offenders is a misguided, sometimes cruel application of theological principles often drives victims away from the church and emboldens offenders to remain in their sin, if not to offend again.

To assist the church in better responding to instances of child sexual abuse, I present an overview of the typical dynamics present in cases of child sexual abuse from the standpoint of the victim. I also highlight the impact of abuse on children physically, emotionally, and spiritually. In addition, I review cognitive features of child molesters, and the extraordinary steps taken by many offenders to manipulate not only their victims, but also the church as a whole.

In applying law and gospel to victims and offenders, I also present a brief biography of the legendary theologian C.F.W. Walther, whose seminary lectures on law and gospel delivered in 1884–1885 have influenced protestant pastors and church leaders for over a century. More importantly, I analyze one of Walther’s central thesis—that the gospel should be pronounced to “crushed” sinners and the law pronounced to “secure sinners.” I examine Walther’s use of this thesis in a case of domestic violence and in another case of sexual exploitation by a clergy. Finally, I also provide practical suggestions for pastors, church leaders, and laity in applying law and gospel to victims of sexual abuse and to perpetrators of sexual abuse. Although I focus on instances of sexual abuse, much of the principles discussed are also pertinent to cases of interpersonal violence and other forms of child maltreatment.

Notes:

  1. The law is “God’s will, which shows people how they should live in order to please God (e.g. the Ten Commandments), condemns their failure to fulfill His will (sin), and threatens God’s wrath because of sin.be preaching of the Law is the cause of contrition.Although the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament have been abolished (Colossians 2:16–17), the moral law (the Ten Commandments) is in force until the end of time (Mathew 5:18).” (Walther 2010, p. 481).
  2. The Gospel “in its proper and narrow sense, is the glad tidings of forgiveness, peace, life, and joy; the eternal divine counsel of redemption, of which Christ Himself ever was, is, and will be the living center, the very heart and soul. The Gospel (a) imparts the forgiveness of sin; (b) produces true joy and the zeal to do good works; and (c) destroys sin both outwardly and inwardly.” (Walther 2010, p. 480).
  3. The law is “God’s will, which shows people how they should live in order to please God (e.g. the Ten Commandments), condemns their failure to fulfill His will (sin), and threatens God’s wrath because of sin.be preaching of the Law is the cause of contrition.Although the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament have been abolished (Colossians 2:16–17), the moral law (the Ten Commandments) is in force until the end of time (Mathew 5:18).” (Walther 2010, p. 481).
  4. The Gospel “in its proper and narrow sense, is the glad tidings of forgiveness, peace, life, and joy; the eternal divine counsel of redemption, of which Christ Himself ever was, is, and will be the living center, the very heart and soul. The Gospel (a) imparts the forgiveness of sin; (b) produces true joy and the zeal to do good works; and (c) destroys sin both outwardly and inwardly.” (Walther 2010, p. 480).
  5. The law is “God’s will, which shows people how they should live in order to please God (e.g. the Ten Commandments), condemns their failure to fulfill His will (sin), and threatens God’s wrath because of sin.be preaching of the Law is the cause of contrition.Although the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament have been abolished (Colossians 2:16–17), the moral law (the Ten Commandments) is in force until the end of time (Mathew 5:18).” (Walther 2010, p. 481).
  6. The Gospel “in its proper and narrow sense, is the glad tidings of forgiveness, peace, life, and joy; the eternal divine counsel of redemption, of which Christ Himself ever was, is, and will be the living center, the very heart and soul. The Gospel (a) imparts the forgiveness of sin; (b) produces true joy and the zeal to do good works; and (c) destroys sin both outwardly and inwardly.” (Walther 2010, p. 480).
  7. The law is “God’s will, which shows people how they should live in order to please God (e.g. the Ten Commandments), condemns their failure to fulfill His will (sin), and threatens God’s wrath because of sin.be preaching of the Law is the cause of contrition.Although the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament have been abolished (Colossians 2:16–17), the moral law (the Ten Commandments) is in force until the end of time (Mathew 5:18).” (Walther 2010, p. 481).
  8. The Gospel “in its proper and narrow sense, is the glad tidings of forgiveness, peace, life, and joy; the eternal divine counsel of redemption, of which Christ Himself ever was, is, and will be the living center, the very heart and soul. The Gospel (a) imparts the forgiveness of sin; (b) produces true joy and the zeal to do good works; and (c) destroys sin both outwardly and inwardly.” (Walther 2010, p. 480).
  9. The law is “God’s will, which shows people how they should live in order to please God (e.g. the Ten Commandments), condemns their failure to fulfill His will (sin), and threatens God’s wrath because of sin.be preaching of the Law is the cause of contrition.Although the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament have been abolished (Colossians 2:16–17), the moral law (the Ten Commandments) is in force until the end of time (Mathew 5:18).” (Walther 2010, p. 481).
  10. The Gospel “in its proper and narrow sense, is the glad tidings of forgiveness, peace, life, and joy; the eternal divine counsel of redemption, of which Christ Himself ever was, is, and will be the living center, the very heart and soul. The Gospel (a) imparts the forgiveness of sin; (b) produces true joy and the zeal to do good works; and (c) destroys sin both outwardly and inwardly.” (Walther 2010, p. 480).
  11. The law is “God’s will, which shows people how they should live in order to please God (e.g. the Ten Commandments), condemns their failure to fulfill His will (sin), and threatens God’s wrath because of sin.be preaching of the Law is the cause of contrition.Although the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament have been abolished (Colossians 2:16–17), the moral law (the Ten Commandments) is in force until the end of time (Mathew 5:18).” (Walther 2010, p. 481).
  12. The Gospel “in its proper and narrow sense, is the glad tidings of forgiveness, peace, life, and joy; the eternal divine counsel of redemption, of which Christ Himself ever was, is, and will be the living center, the very heart and soul. The Gospel (a) imparts the forgiveness of sin; (b) produces true joy and the zeal to do good works; and (c) destroys sin both outwardly and inwardly.” (Walther 2010, p. 480).