There is ultimately one characteristic that comes to the forefront when defining the Wauwatosa Gospel, namely, its insistence on properly, that is, evangelically applying law and gospel. Koehler so insisted that the evangelical pastor be “fair” when it comes to applying law and gospel (not wanting to fall into legalism) that some might confuse his logic with antinomianism, relativism or other doctrinal circumvention. Koehler’s hermeneutic principles for dealing with doctrinal controversy give us some insight into his unique and complex application of law and gospel: “Fairness demands that we seek to understand our opponent, not as his words can or even must be understood, but as he wants them to be understood” (“The Analogy of Faith,” The Wauwatosa Theology, Vol. I [Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1997], 263). He argues that “one may reproach the opponent in doctrinal controversy for his incorrect words, instead of proceeding from the assumption that the other person probably means the right thing, but either expresses himself incorrectly, or even merely expresses himself differently than I, so that with my limited understanding I just haven’t understood him” (“Legalism Among Us,” 243-244).
And how does a Christian, pastor or otherwise, apply law and gospel? “The proper method is the following,” Koehler writes:
“At the apex stands the proposition of the forgiveness of sins. … For me, faith in the forgiveness of sins is the main point. … This faith is produced by the Holy Spirit through the Word about the forgiveness of sins. Faith is created by wooing, not by logical stringency. … Unbelief cannot at all escape from the legalistic, intellectual mental sphere. To such a person I would preach sin and judgment. When that has unnerved him, then, or even already with a hint ahead of time, he would get to hear the word of forgiveness. And now, from this common vantage point of faith one may proceed to all areas of Scripture, and every point would be illuminated and made acceptable by the light of this evangelical truth and really in the whole context of the gospel. The gospel, because it is the gospel, is a reliable word and therefore worthy of all acceptation (1 Ti 1:15), a word one loves instinctively and which therefore offers him confidence. This is the proper approach” (“Legalism Among Us,” 244).
Such an approach also has implications for the believer’s life of sanctification, which is not motivated by the law (or the “hurrah spirit” as Koehler called it) in any way, but instead by the inconspicuous gospel. “Sanctification is the direct opposite of the hurrah spirit. It is an operation accomplished in the quiet, gradual progress of repentance and faith” (“Sanctification Is Not Hurrah,” The Wauwatosa Theology, II [Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1997], 399).
Ultimately then, when defining the Wauwatosa Gospel, one is drawn to conclude that what the Wauwatosa Gospel really is and what it really espouses is the evangelical application of historical-grammatical methodology not only to Scripture but to all situations, especially as they relate to the tender care of the soul. To avoid legalism and to promote an evangelical, ecumenical spirit one must, on the one hand, exercise a certain amount of self-criticism with a daily life of repentance and faith. On the other hand, one must cast off preconceived notions and get at the “why” behind something that is said or done before making any conclusions or taking any action. Only after this original work is done can one then proceed in properly applying law and gospel. As my brother Paul once wrote me, this evangelical approach to souls is “exhausting and rewarding. Because it’s applying law and gospel properly, it’s also difficult.” But if it isn’t done, Koehler said, we simply and easily fall into lazy dogmatism and intellectualism, which lead to death.