Throughout the years of our synod’s history an expression that has been familiar to the ears of the delegates to our conventions from the first meeting in 1853 until now is this: “We believe, teach, and confess that the true message of grace is the unconditioned Gospel.” This was not something new to those who assembled in years gone by nor is it new to us today. For the blessed truth of “the unconditioned Gospel” was. preached from the pulpits, taught in the Christian schools” and confessed in Christian gatherings, in circuit meetings, in pastoral conferences, and. wherever these men of like minds and hearts assembled to discuss. and ponder the fundamental truths of the Christian religion, And in the spirit and words of St. Paul the warning voice was heard: “There be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ. But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached. unto you, let him be accursed.” Gal. 1,7b.8. The complete and total depravity and corruption of the natural man was ever emphasized in order to ward off the false human constructions which put a condition on the Gospel by attributing a better disposition to those whom God called from eternity and whom He converted in time and finally carried safely on to the heavenly home. In connection with the doctrines of election and conversion Satan sought to rob us of “the unconditioned Gospel” by suggesting that there were certain necessary conditions which were fulfilled in man either by a better disposition toward the acceptance of grace or by his refraining from a willful resistance. Like Luther of old our fathers warded off such human and false constructions by saying that the Word stands there too powerful for us. Again and again were heard the Bible passages: “You hath he quickened who were dead in trespasses and sins.” “By grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast.” Eph. 2,1.8.9. “No man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost.” I Cor. 12,3. “Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight; for by the law is the knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness; that he might, be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus. Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay: but by the law of faith. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.” Romans 3,20–28.
The heritage of this unconditioned. Gospel has passed down to us from fathers who prayed over it, labored for it, fought for. it that this blessing of God’s unbounded grace in Christ might not be lost to their children or children’s children. It was with extreme sorrow that they witnessed a defection from the ranks in the 80’s and again in 1911. Friends and relatives and former associates were found among those who left their side. But the faithful contenders for the faith could not follow them, as they realized that their own salvation and the salvation of generations yet unborn was tied up with the “unconditioned Gospel” which was at stake.
But founding fathers of our synod experienced joy in finding that there were those of other national backgrounds who shared their convictions and were ready to stand shoulder to shoulder with them in the fight for the truth and who supported them in the bitter controversies which were to tear at the vitals of our church body. They formed a solid circle around us when we were small. They remained with us when we had grown in numbers, and again when we had become small they took us in. This was a fellowship that was strong because it was firm for the truth. This was the fellowship of the Synodical Conference. Indeed as we approach our anniversary of a hundred years of grace and are reminded of the early days of our synod’s history, we do well to hark back for a moment to those days when this Synodical Conference was in the process of being organized. This we do that we may profit from the testimony that was laid down by an H.A. Preus, an Ottesen, a Vilhelm Koren together with a Walther, a Sihler, a Hoenecke, all zealous and faithful contenders for the unconditioned Gospel to the end. In the year preceding the actual organization of the Synodical Conference, a meeting was held in Fort Wayne (Nov. 14–16, 1871) at which Dr. W. Sihler delivered a paper to an assemblage of Lutherans including representatives from our own Norwegian Synod. This paper was entitled: “The reasons why the Lutheran Synods forming the Synodical Conference cannot join the existing groups of synods in this country.” This paper was unanimously accepted by all the representatives present and was later circulated among the synods represented and was by them joyfully received and accepted. We beg leave on this precentennial year to present a small part of this paper to show where our fathers stood and where our brethren forming the Synodical Conference stood in 1871. We do this with the prayer and earnest wish that our Synodical Conference of 1952 may reaffirm this stand and be faithful to it in word and deed. We have translated the portion, from the Norwegian version, with close adherence to the text and with changes here and there only in sentence structure to make for a smoother flowing rendition. The portion of Dr. Sihler’s essay which we wish to reproduce and which we believe is especially applicable to our times and conditions is the following:
“As Lutheran synods true to the confessions, we are now, God be praised, above all things united in this that we will unchangeably and irrevocably hold fast to the precious treasure of the pure doctrine in its entirety and in all its individual parts, knowing that this is indeed our highest good and most costly gem, as it is also set forth in our Lutheran confessions, drawn as they are from God’s Word. And we are willing, with God’s help faithfully to testify and contend against every adulteration of this precious. treasure. Furthermore we have in particular reached agreement in this that we will go forward with clear and definite testimony against the common and principal evils generally threatening the church in our day (e.g. rationalism unionism, indifferentism, and enthusiasm), as also against the evils especially threatening and whereof Lutheranism in many places is suffering (e.g., Romanizing tendencies in the doctrine of the Church, the Ministry, and the Means of Grace.) We have reached agreement in this that we will testify against Chiliasm, against a false freedom in the theological interpretation of Scripture and against ecclesiastical development of doctrine and similar evils, and that we will with all our power, by God’s help, labor against the corruption which threatens to break in, yes, which already in many points has broken into our church. The really characteristic thing about our stand as a church, and accordingly about the God-given work we have to do, consists in this that we will in the unity of the spirit hold fast the Confession and carefully and strenuously hinder any departure from it.
“If we will carefully examine the special conditions which confront our dear Lutheran Church in America, then it must surely be clear even to those of the weakest vision that the true members and servants of our church already now must be entrenched for unceasing warfare against existing and dreadful powers of darkness. And in all likelihood the battle will in the future be even more intense. Our synods and congregations exist here in the midst of a mixed swarm of well-nigh countless sects and parties which commonly pride themselves on their ‘evangelical protestantism’ and for the most part also on their living piety.’ But these by their deceptive ‘inventions of reason’ and by their fanatical dreamings shamefully falsify God’s dear Word and in particular the only saving Gospel of God’s free grace in Christ. They mock at the church of the true faith for its true testimony and seek with false doctrine and human deception to coax its children into the net of their erring churches. We see also, that the Antichristian papacy even in our country arrogantly raises its proud head, mocking and scoffing at the truth of God which Luther’s Reformation had once more uncovered. We see that it uses all possible and imaginable means to establish for itself here a super-powerful kingdom, a desired home, and a prosperous abode. Finally, we are here encircled by a broad stream which roars along with a foaming fury that is hardly equaled in any other land where the Christian influence has exerted its power. This is the stream of mammon-worship, pleasure-madness, and worldly-mindedness, yes, open unbelief and arrogant godlessness, And these wild waters have already flooded a great part of baptized Christendom and with their terrific force threaten continually to sweep away all that bears the name of Christian and Christendom. This is taking place especially also because of the antichristian character of a great part of the public press, the widespread lodge religion, and the great negligence which Christian churches have shown by not establishing Christian Day Schools.
“The task, therefore, of the Lutheran Church, the church of the true Word and Sacrament, in this remarkable country which is a select field for all kinds of false and unclean spirits is not an easy one to carry out. In the present exceedingly difficult conditions, it is no slight task, no small engagement to which our church with its synods, congregations, and. individual members has been called. May the merciful God for Jesus’ sake help us that we may not in despair lose heart in the face of these threatening dangers and temptations! May we not despondently drop our hands, but much more may we in full confidence in God’s ever-new power and grace, continue on the course we have begun, patiently laboring and striving as a church!”
How well these words apply to our present circumstances and conditions every conscientious soul will realize full well. After having spoken these earnest words to the assembled delegates who were taking the preliminary steps for the organization of the Synodical Conference, which took place the following year, Dr. Sihler spoke with gratitude of the wonderful unity which had been revealed among those who were now about to form a church federation. Thereupon he proceeded to the main thesis of his paper, namely, to show the reasons why the synods contemplating the organization of the Synodical Conference could not join in with other Lutheran synods existing in this country. In treating their tolerant doctrinal stand and their loose practices he showed that they did not have the same spirit as did the synods now about to be joined into the Synodical Conference. In essence practically the same objections obtain today. True, we hear the argument used that church bodies which before were liberal have since shown a trend to conservatism by subscribing to the Lutheran Confessions and other statements which have been hailed as sound and good. But hear what Dr. Sihler said to the delegates assembled in Fort Wayne in 1871: “A right confession to the symbols, according to the sound of words, set up in pertinent paragraphs of a constitution, as exceedingly good and blessed as this is in its place, does not yet fulfill all the demands which we are entitled to make of a synod in order to recognize it as a truly confessional and orthodox Lutheran body. The (true) confession of a church must not be a bare and empty formula in the structure of a paragraph of a constitution, neither must it be a dead letter written on paper under the heading of ‘doctrinal basis,’ under which nevertheless false doctrine and all manner of abuses have free course in spite of the confession, yes, even entirely gain supremacy in the church, as happened in Germany in the time of rationalism. But the (true) confession will much more be a power in the church, guarding over all church life and practice, regulating it and permeating it as a leaven so that the doctrine and discipline which is proclaimed and exercised is the living expression of the confession.” Later he says: “When the formal confession is not taken seriously, then it is not only of no value but may even be misused for a protection and a cover when justified charges are made. In perfect conformity with this excellent expression which was subscribed to by all delegates and synods forming the Synodical Conference in 1872, is paragraph 29 of the Brief Statement of 1932 which reads: “The orthodox character of a church is established not by its mere name nor by its outward acceptance of, and subscription to, an orthodox creed, but by the doctrine which is actually taught in its pulpits, in its theological seminaries, and in its publications. On the other hand a church does not forfeit its orthodox character through the casual intrusion of errors, provided these are combated and eventually removed by means of doctrinal discipline, Acts 20,30; I Tim. 1,3.” This is a principle which surely must be adhered to if subscription to a confession is not to become a cold, formal, and empty gesture with no meaning or life or force in it. As long as a church body faithfully adheres to this principle and acts according to it, so long does that body maintain its orthodox character, and we can feel free to exercise fellowship with it along synodical lines. With other words we can freely exchange pulpits, transfer members, and have communion fellowship with members of such a body without investigating each individual case. For we can have the confidence that, if there are divergencies arising, these will be dealt with and corrected without any protracted delay. But if doctrinal discipline is no longer exercised in a church body, so that divergent doctrines are permitted in its pulpits, in its theological seminaries, and in its publications without decisive action being taken to remove them, then that church body has forfeited its orthodox character. Anyone in fellowship with such a body can only remain there as a protesting member and only so long as there is any evidence that his protest is being heard and heeded. When it becomes apparent that all attempts at enforcing doctrinal discipline are vain, then the word of God demands separation. Here it is not a matter of loyalty to synods but a matter of obedience to God’s Word which says to us: “Now I beseech you brethren, mark them winch cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them.” Rom. 16,17. In this connection we must remember the contents of the 28th paragraph of the Brief Statement to which we have subscribed and which reads: “Since God ordained that His Word only, without the admixture of human doctrine, be taught and believed in the Christian Church. I Pet. 4,11; John 8,31.32; I Tim. 6,3.4. all Christians are required by God to discriminate between orthodox and heterodox church bodies, Matt. 7,15, to have church-fellowship only with orthodox church-bodies, and, in case they have strayed into heterodox church-bodies, to leave them, Rom. 16,17. We repudiate unionism, that is, church-fellowship with the adherents of false doctrine, as disobedience to God’s command, as causing divisions in the Church, Rom. 16,17; 2 John 9,10, and as involving the constant danger of losing the Word of God entirely, 2 Tim. 2,17–21.” If we were to let down the bars on these principles, we would ourselves become a unionistic body which true Lutheran Christians would have to avoid.
If we would celebrate our Centennial in the spirit of our fathers we must stand fast as they stood fast on these principles and testify as they testified together with a Sihler, a Walther, a Hönecke, and a Pieper. If we are to preserve for future generations the heritage that has been handed down to us by faithful fathers, it behooves us to stand firm for the truth and not permit expediency to dictate our course. With the words of Paul to Timothy we close, “Be not thou therefore ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, nor of me his prisoner; but be thou partaker of the afflictions of the gospel according to the power of God; who hath saved us and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus, before the world began, but is now made manifest by the appearing of our Savior Jesus Christ, who hath abolished death, and hath brought life and immortality to light through the gospel; whereunto I am appointed a preacher, and an apostle, and a teacher of the Gentiles. For the which cause I also suffered these things; nevertheless I am not ashamed: for I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day. Hold fast the form of sound words, which thou hast heard of me, in faith and love which is in Christ Jesus. That good thing which was committed unto thee keep by the Holy Ghost which dwelleth in us.” II Tim, 1,8–14.