ESTEEMED MEMBERS AND FRIENDS OF OUR EVANGELICAL LUTHERAN SYNOD, GRACE BE UNTO YOU AND PEACE FROM GOD OUR FATHER AND FROM THE LORD AND SAVIOUR JESUS CHRIST, AMEN.
The year 1983 is certainly an historic and significant year as we observe the 500th anniversary of the birth of the great reformer, Dr. Martin Luther. It was at 11 o’clock at night on November 10th, 1483 that a son was born to Hans and Margaret Luther. The historian Carlyle says, “In the whole world, that day, there was not a more entirely unimportant looking pair of people, than this miner and his wife. And yet what were all Emperors, Popes, and Potentates in comparison? There was born here, once more, a Mighty Man; whose light was to flame as the beacon over long centuries and epochs of the world; the whole world and its history was waiting for this man.” Carlyle goes on in his description, “I will call this Luther a truly great man; great in intellect, in courage, affection, and integrity; one of the most lovable and precious men. Great, not as a hewn obelisk, but as an Alpine mountain. So simple, honest, spontaneous, not setting up to be great at all; there for quite another purpose than being great. Ah, yes, unsubduable granite, piercing far and wide into the heavens; yet in the clefts of its fountains green, beautiful valleys with flowers. A right spiritual hero and prophet; … for whom these centuries, and many that are to come yet, will be thankful to heaven.”
The impact that Luther had upon his times and upon the succeeding centuries down to our present day is beyond description. First of all, of course, is the fact that he restored the Gospel to its rightful place in the church. Throughout the ages the dust and rubbish of tradition and superstition had accumulated to such a degree that the precious message of salvation by grace alone through faith in our Lord Jesus Christ had been buried and obscured. It was for Luther to rediscover and uncover the soul saving, life giving doctrine that a man is justified by grace alone through faith. He swept away the man made rules and regulations which had burdened the consciences of poor souls and set again upon its proper pedestal in the church the sweet message of salvation through Jesus Christ, our Saviour.
Justification by faith alone! This doctrine is the heart and center of our faith and is the article upon which the church stands or falls. The Apology of the Augsburg Confession, in the fourth article, calls this doctrine “the chief topic of Christian doctrine—an article which is of special service for the clear, correct understanding of the entire Holy Scriptures and alone shows the way to the unspeakable treasure and right knowledge of Christ and alone opens the door to the entire Bible.” “Of this article” says Luther, in the Smalcald Articles, “nothing can be yielded or surrendered, even though heaven and earth and whatsoever will not abide should sink into ruin.” Luther goes on to say that without this doctrine the Church cannot exist for one hour.
The true Lutheran Church therefore continues to confess before all the world the fourth article of the Augsburg Confession: “Our churches also teach that men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits or works but are freely justified for Christ’s sake through faith when they believe that they are received into favor and that their sins are forgiven on account of Christ, who by his death made satisfaction for our sins. This faith God imputes for righteousness in his sight.”
One does not know where to stop in describing the great contribution of this man of God. Take, for example, the restoration of the authority of Holy Scripture as the only source and norm of doctrine and life. “The Word of God shall establish articles of faith and no one else, not even an angel” was his mighty confession in the Smalcald Articles and with that confession the power of the Roman Pope was broken. The Word of God is the authority and not the voice of the church, the councils, tradition or the Pope himself.
The three great principles: The Word Alone, Grace Alone, and Faith Alone, well summarize the return to the Bible and to the sweet message of salvation through the “vicarious atonement of the Son of God on the cross.
Charles Porterfield Krauth in his “Conservative Reformation” describes some of the great legacies of the sixteenth century, but then he writes, “its grandest achievement was the giving of the Bible to the nations, and the center and throne of this achievement is Luther’s translation of the Bible, the greatest single work ever accomplished by man in the department of theological literature … Had it been his sole labor, the race could never forget his name.”
The tributes that have been paid to Luther are too numerous to begin to put into print. His co-worker, Philip Melanchthon, states, “Luther is too great, too wonderful, for me to depict in words.” Preserved Smith writes, “Every man in Western Europe and in America is leading a different life today from what he would have been had Martin Luther not lived.” In addition to theology, he greatly influenced the fields of literature, government, education, and music. His influence upon the home, family and marriage are felt today.
And yet, great man that he was, he retained a strong sense of his own sinful nature and gave all glory to Christ. He writes, “I ask you to refrain from using my name and rather to be known as Christians, not as Lutherans. Who is Luther? The doctrine which I preach is not mine, nor have I been crucified for anyone. Paul the Apostle did not permit the Christians at Corinth to call themselves by his own name or that of Peter. What is there in me, poor, decaying bag of corruption that I am, that should induce the children of Christ to be called after my worthless name? Not so, my friends. Let us put away these partisan names and be called Christians. But if you believe that Luther’s teaching is Gospel-truth, while that of the Pope is not, you cannot altogether disown Luther; for in so doing you would also disown his doctrine, which you know to be the doctrine of Christ Himself. Rather say thus: Be Luther a knave or a saint, it does not matter; his Gospel, however, is not his, but Christ’s.”
This 66th annual convention of our Evangelical Lutheran Synod is therefore dedicated to the honor of the 500th anniversary of the birth of our great spiritual forefather, Dr. Martin Luther. The essay, entitled, “The Birth that gave Rebirth to the Doctrine of Justification” will deal with the central issue of the life and work of the Reformer. The devotions and hymns will also call to mind his teachings.
We would urge all the congregations of the Synod to set aside a Sunday for a special observance of this anniversary in connection with the Reformation Festival held in the fall. Three excellent bulletin inserts describing Luther’s life and death are available at this convention for use in all congregations. They are authored by Dr. N.S. Tjernagel. The film “Where Luther Walked” is also available through my office. Various other programs and services are available through Northwestern Publishing House and Concordia Publishing House. May we plan truly distinctive and festive occasions for this memorable event in the history of Lutheranism!
But now let us ask ourselves, “What shall we as children of the Reformation be motivated to do in the life of our church as we look to the future?” First of all, we can do no better than to see to it that we remain faithful to the teachings of the Holy Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions. This will be done only as long as there sounds forth from the pulpits of our churches the wonderful message of Jesus Christ and Him crucified. Troubled souls must be led to find comfort in the fact that they have been declared righteous by a gracious God on account of the merit of Christ. The Explanation of our Catechism states it so beautifully that “God can declare sinners righteous because, on the basis of the redemptive work of Christ, He has acquitted all men of the guilt and punishment of their sins, and has imputed to them the righteousness of Christ; He therefore regards them in Christ as though they had never sinned.” (Q. 207). We need to be faithful students of the Holy Scriptures, the Lutheran Confessions, and the writings of Luther so that we do not almost unconsciously slip into a Reformed theological emphasis, and fall away from the Lutheran theology of Word and Sacrament.
The age in which we live also calls upon us to be witnesses to historic confessional Lutheranism. We are seeing a major development amongst Lutherans in America, namely the merger of three large church bodies. This merger is characterized by indifference to the theology of Luther and the Confessions. The historical-critical method of Biblical interpretation is accepted without question in their seminaries and consequently the inerrancy and inspiration of Scripture is regarded as an outmoded relic of the past. The doctrine of church fellowship is negated to the point that inter-communion is practiced with the ultra liberal Episcopal Church and joint worship is common with the Church of Rome.
We have a real burden laid upon us to let the light of Reformation Theology shine brightly in such an age of general disregard for the doctrines held by Luther. We shall not pretend to be something that we are not, nor claim to be able to make a large impact upon the theological world. But the Lord only commands us to “let our light shine” and to be faithful. “If ye continue in my Word, then are ye my disciples indeed; and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.’ (John 8:31–32). If there are those in other church bodies who feel in their consciences that they can no longer be a part of such a different spirit we must stand ready to help them in their struggle for the truth. We can not read the mind of God and we hesitate even to make such a reference but the words of Mordecai to Esther come to mind, “Who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14).
In this connection we would ask the Synod to give earnest consideration to the proposal set before it for the formation of a “Lutheran Forum for Confessional Consultation.” We believe that it is one way in which we could begin an organized effort to coordinate the witness of those who wish to be confessional Lutherans without compromising any of our fellowship principles. The former effort of the Lutheran Free Conferences resulted in many excellent presentations. But that effort produced no lasting contribution because there was no way of securing synodical approval of the essays presented nor was there any effort made to share those documents in an organized fashion, even though they were printed in booklet form.
Our proposal for a “Lutheran Forum for Confessional Consultation” must not be construed as any kind of attempt to resolve doctrinal differences by some new scheme or compromise. We must also be careful not to hold out any grandiose hopes for some speedy settlement of issues which have separated conservatives for years. But it is nevertheless an attempt to witness to the truth, to communicate with others who may be like-minded, and to build up over the years a body of confessional statements that may have some use in bringing confessional Lutherans in closer accord. Only the Lord knows if such an endeavor will be of any service to His church, but at least it would be an honest effort. We have for years passed resolutions seeking to make such an attempt but have not found the vehicle with which to proceed. We thank Dr. Tjernagel for authoring this proposal which I now present to you in my report, for your consideration.
As we celebrate this anniversary we would do well to let it motivate us to intensify our home mission efforts. The charge has been made in the past that the reformers were not particularly mission minded. One writer says, “Notwithstanding the era of discovery in which the origin of the protestant church fell, there was no missionary action on her part in the age of the Reformation.” This is a serious charge and it shows a real lack of understanding of the work of the reformers. Luther often preached on the subject of missions. In one sermon he writes about the heathen, saying, “Shall they believe? They must first hear the Word and by it receive the Holy Ghost, Who cleanses and enlightens their hearts through faith. Are they to hear His Word? Then preachers must be sent who shall declare unto them the Word of God.” Luther and his co-workers had mission work to do right at home. In this sense we can truly say that the entire Lutheran Reformation was a missionary movement. It brought the Gospel to thousands who had little or nothing of the saving truth before. In fact, Luther and his disciples were fairly submerged in the mightiest mission undertaking since the days of the Apostles. They had to instruct the heathen who were at their very doorstep, to gather them into congregations, to preach, to establish evangelical schools, to translate the Scriptures, to write tracts and books in the effort to spread abroad the great but unknown Gospel truths. The Gospel spread from Wittenberg into all corners of Europe including the British Isles. So the Reformation was indeed a time of deep concern for the welfare of lost souls and for bringing them to a knowledge of the saving truth in Christ.
We therefore will certainly be following in the footsteps of Luther if we have a deep concern for mission expansion. Many opportunities are already presenting themselves to us. God has provided manpower for the work in that we have a good supply of candidates coming out of our seminary so that our vacancies are now pretty well covered. In order to undertake a program of mission expansion much planning needs to be done. The Synod should consider another campaign similar to the Anniversary Thank Offering and should devote such an effort entirely for home mission expansion. This, may necessarily be several years down the road before such a campaign could begin. However, we should begin the planning phase before too long so that thorough preparations are made. If a church body wishes to remain a vital force it must never lose its love for souls. Zeal for the salvation of souls is the mission and lifeblood of the church. Carrying out the Great Commission of our Saviour to “make disciples of all nations” and to “preach the Gospel to every creature” is surely one of the chief ways that we can serve our blessed Saviour and at the same time honor the memory of him whose birth and life work made such an impact on the church and world.
May the Lord bless us as we gather here for the 66th annual convention of our Evangelical Lutheran Synod. May He bind us together in the unity of His holy love and cause us to work together hand in hand in all that we undertake. Let each congregation recognize its responsibilities for the larger work which we have undertaken together as a Synod. Let each pastor take to heart the seriousness of our synodical task and thus lead the congregations to a fuller commitment to the work away from home as well as that on our own doorsteps.
We join with the Psalmist in this glad refrain: “Sing unto the Lord, bless his name; shew forth his salvation from day to day. Declare his glory among the heathen, his wonders among all people.” (Ps. 96:2-3).
In Jesus Name. Amen.
George M. Orvick, president