DEAR MEMBERS AND FRIENDS OF OUR EVANGELICAL LUTHERAN SYNOD: GRACE AND PEACE FROM GOD OUR FATHER AND FROM THE LORD AND SAVIOR JESUS CHRIST. AMEN.
For what reason is it that the pastors and delegates from our synod’s congregations have gathered here for our 79th annual convention? The most obvious answer would be: We have work to do. And that would be very true. The synod convention acts as a large review committee to see what its elected representatives have been doing during the course of the year. Have we been carrying out the Lord’s great commission to preach and teach His Word? Have we been pursuing our goals and purposes as outlined in our constitution and bylaws? You, as members of the synod and representatives of the congregations have a right to know. And so our convention is organized in such a way that a thorough examination of all the reports of each board and committee, including the work of the president, are reviewed. These floor committee reviews are then reported to the convention for action.
There is, however, more than just the business aspect of our annual get together. We enjoy the tremendous experience of Christian fellowship with one another. We come together to ENCOURAGE ONE ANOTHER IN OUR WORK AND IN OUR LIVES AS CHRISTIANS. In fact, this aspect of our convention is just as important for the good of our church as reviewing the various board reports and memorials. We in the Evangelical Lutheran Synod, because of our small size, can carry out this function on a more personal and knowledgeable basis than most synods. Most of you have been in attendance at previous conventions. You will see many old friends and perhaps former pastors. Members who are here for the first time will have no trouble getting acquainted for it is part of the flavor or nature of our synod that there exists a warm and humble attitude which reflects a true Christian concern for one another.
I have therefore chosen as the theme for this annual message these words of the Apostle Paul to the Thessalonians: Encourage one another and strengthen one another. (1 Thess. 5,11)
In the fifth chapter of Paul’s letter. to the Thessalonians he writes concerning the second coming of our Lord to this earth. He. tells us that His coming will be sudden and unexpected saying, The day of the Lord cometh as a thief in the night. (v. 2) People will be saying, “peace and safety” but then “sudden destruction will come upon them.” He therefore admonishes the Christians telling them that they are no longer the children of darkness, but rather the children of light. They should therefore watch and be sober and put on the breastplate of faith and love and for an helmet, the hope of salvation. For God hath not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, that, whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with him. (v. 6–10) And it is then that he comes with the words we have chosen, Wherefore comfort yourselves together, and edify one another, even as also Ye do. (v. 11) It is translated in the American translation with the words, Then encourage one another and strengthen one another just as you are doing.
We, then, as we gather here for our 79th convention have an excellent opportunity to do just what the apostle enjoins, namely to ENCOURAGE AND STRENGTHEN ONE ANOTHER.
First of all, we understand that our strength comes from the Lord through the blessed gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul wrote to the Romans that the Gospel of Christ is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth. (Rom. 1,16) That powerful Gospel has brought us to Christ in the first place. We poor sinners had no power of our own to believe in Him. The Formula of Concord, of our Lutheran Confessions, says that In spiritual and divine things which pertain to the salvation of the soul man is like a pillar of salt, like Lot’s wife, like a log or a stone. It is therefore solely by God’s grace through the working of the Holy Spirit that we were brought to faith. And that Gospel also brings us the righteousness which we need to stand before God. Our own righteousness is nothing but filthy rags. (Isaiah 64,6) But God gives us another righteousness which was earned for us by His Son’s perfect life and innocent suffering and death. This is bestowed upon us by the Gospel through the means of grace. We therefore have the forgiveness of all of our sins and the sure promise of eternal life. This Gospel strengthens and encourages us as we go about our lives and as we gather together for this convention. It is this Gospel that gives life to our synod. It is for the sake of this Gospel that our church body exists.
But how shall we go about encouraging and strengthening one another? Let me suggest some of the ways. Listen. Listen to your brothers as they tell of their own situations in life. To be able to listen is a great gift. Offer words of encouragement to those who are suffering or are troubled. Get acquainted with new pastors and delegates. Welcome them into our midst. Speak wholesome and instructive words in your floor committees helping to make good decisions. Go to the microphone and edify the whole convention. Not simply to debate or disagree, although that may also be helpful, but to encourage your brethren in the work of the Lord. Above all worship, sing and pray together and kneel at the altar for the Lord’s Supper and so build one another up as Paul writes to the Colossians, Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord. (Col. 3,16)
Permit me now to mention three areas where we need such encouragement and strengthening. First of all, we need to urge one another to CONTINUE STEADFASTLY IN THE APOSTLE’S DOCTRINE AND FAITH. Paul encourages young Timothy by writing, But continue thou in the things which thou has learned and hast been assured of, knowing of whom thou has learned them. (II Tim. 3,16) He instructs Titus that he should exhort the new pastors to hold fast the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and convince the gainsayers. (Titus 1,9) The Lord Jesus himself speaks to us saying, 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) And we have these words regarding the early Christians in the congregation at Jerusalem, And they continued steadfastly in the apostle’s doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers. (Acts 2,42)
But do we of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod need to be encouraged to hold fast to sound doctrine? Most definitely we do. Who are we to think that the old evil foe could not cause us to weaken in some areas of our theological position? Are we not poor sinners who are made of the same clay as others? (Are we not subject to the temptations of pride and the desire to make our doctrine more acceptable to the world around us?) The fact that we did not enter into the merger of 1917 is no guarantee that we have an ironclad defense against doctrinal compromise. Let us therefore encourage one another to stand fast. Paul again instructs us in his letter to the Corinthians, Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall. (I Cor. 10,12)
At the same time let us thank the Lord for preserving us in the true faith. He has enabled us to adopt unanimously a strong doctrinal statement entitled, We Believe, Teach and Confess. After many years of study our synod has defined very clearly our position on the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. We have held to the Word of Scripture and to the Lutheran Confessions. The statement proposed by the Doctrine Committee as contained in your Book of Reports and Memorials, is completely scriptural and confessional. It is taken directly from. the Lutheran Confessions to which we all subscribe. I would therefore urge the convention to adopt it. The Doctrine Committee is to be commended for its patient leadership in this discussion.
Our Evangelical Lutheran Synod has, by the grace of God, maintained a scriptural unity of doctrine throughout the years. We need to encourage one another to strive to preserve this unity. Paul exhorts the Ephesians that they should endeavor to keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace. (Eph. 4,3) The Psalmist writes, Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity. (Ps. 133,4) Lutherans who wish to remain faithful to God’s truth are becoming an endangered species. There aren’t many of us left in the world. Hardly a week goes by that I don’t receive a letter or phone call from a pastor or lay person lamenting the doctrinal chaos in their church body. They ask where the nearest ELS church is located, or what is the possibility of opening a new mission in their area. Let us thank God for preserving us in the truth of His Word. Let us cherish our fellowship with the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod and with all the church bodies of the Confessional Evangelical Lutheran Conference around the world. We need to stand together with those who hold to the same faith. In our own midst we must avoid factionalism and party spirit which destroys our unity. We are all different. We all have different talents and abilities. But we are all part of the body of Christ. Paul says, There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; One Lord, one faith; one baptism, One God and Father of all who is above all, and through all and in you all. (Eph 4,4–6) Let us then at this convention encourage one another to hold fast to sound doctrine and to strive for unity.
In, the second place, let us encourage one another to HAVE AN ATTITUDE OF THANKFULNESS TO THE LORD for the manifold blessings He continues to bestow upon our synod enabling us to be of greater service to Him. We cannot help but think first of all of the fact that for fifty years we have been permitted to have our own theological seminary. We thank our Lord for giving us a seminary that is committed to the truth. The professors of our seminary have not been led astray by modern theological liberalism. The seminary has produced many fine pastors who have served our synod faithfully. As we think back over those fifty years there naturally comes to mind various forefathers who shaped the doctrine and spirit of our seminary. First of all we think of the dynamic and inspirational leadership of the first dean, Dr. Norman A. Madson. His strong theological conviction and his emphasis on the preaching of the Gospel established a firm foundation for our school of the prophets. He was joined by Dr. S.C. Ylvisaker, a very scholarly and highly respected theologian who was known throughout Lutheranism for his knowledge of the Semitic languages and above all for his insistence on doctrinal purity. Others that come to mind are Prof. George Lillegard and Prof. B.W. Teigen, both very careful writers and teachers whose influence in our synod will not be forgotten. The second dean and leader was a devout and highly competent theologian and teacher, namely Prof. M. H. Otto. A great number of pastors in our synod sat at his feet and were shaped for the office of the ministry under his term of service. When the seminary became separate from the college as an institution, the Rev. Theo. A. Aaberg was chosen for the position of President. Once again the Lord provided competent and scholarly leadership. His early departure from this life shortened his time of service but his imprint is still felt on the theology of the synod. Our current servants are not to be forgotten. President Petersen continued the tradition of his predecessors with careful instruction in every branch of theology with special emphasis upon preaching Law and Gospel. His influence together with that of long-time professor of New Testament interpretation, J.B. Madson, has given us the kind of school that we can be proud of and has provided pastors who are not only well trained theologically but who also know what it is to be a faithful shepherd of souls. In addition to these, many faithful theologians from. the college have also assisted in the seminary. Prof. John Moldstad, Jr. and Prof. Adolph Harstad, both being young men, assure us of a future that is committed to sound doctrine. Therefore let us encourage one another to praise and thank the Lord for these fifty years of preparing messengers of peace.
It is especially significant that on this fiftieth anniversary year we could undertake the construction of a new seminary building. This will provide a wonderful facility that will serve our church body for generations to come. It also provides space for a synodical headquarters that will very adequately serve our needs. Since we are in the midst of a thankoffering to help pay for the building, it is fitting that we encourage one another to participate with generous gifts.
We would be ungrateful children of God if we did not express our joy and thankfulness to our Lord for the blessings received at our Bethany College. The dedication of Trinity Chapel as the centerpiece of our campus is a real occasion for rejoicing. This 79th convention of our synod will go down in history as the year in which we dedicated this new house of worship on our campus. How grateful we are to our Lord for moving the heart of one of His servants so that he would generously provide for our college.
The gifts which we have received and continue to receive also enable us to move forward in establishing new mission congregations here at home and in bringing the gospel to darkened lands across the oceans. Every one of our synod’s efforts has been blessed by such special gifts.
In this regard we express our deep gratitude for the generous gift from the Schwan Foundation which made it possible to erect the new Trinity Chapel and to dedicate it to the glory of God and in memory of Marvin Schwan. This faithful alumnus of our college did not forget the truths that he learned at our school. Bethany remained ever dear to his heart. While he was living he made it possible to carry out many projects that would otherwise have gone undone. After his early departure from this life his legacy is still perpetuated through the careful preparations he had made for the use of his gifts to the glory of God. We thank the Lord for moving the heart of this faithful servant to use his gifts for the Lord’s work.
Finally, let us ENCOURAGE ONE ANOTHER TO WORK. God did not choose to send angels to carry out His great commission of spreading the Gospel. He decided that it should be done by ordinary mortals like you and me. In that magnificent 15th chapter of First Corinthians Paul bursts into ecstasy as he speaks of the glories of Christ’s resurrection. He exclaims triumphantly, O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (I Cor. 15:55,57) But then he immediately proceeds to urge his brethren to go to work for the very next verse he writes Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labor is not in vain in the Lord. (v. 58) Yes, to those who find comfort in the resurrection of Christ there can be no other attitude towards life than to work for the Lord in every way possible to extend his Kingdom.
In Copenhagen, Denmark, there is a large cathedral which is the home of the remarkable works of the famous Christian sculptor Thorvaldsen. Arranged around the perimeter of the sanctuary are numerous statues of the apostles and others. But in the front and center, against a beautiful red curtain, is his famous statue of Christ. The Savior is depicted with arms invitingly outstretched and the words, “Kommer til meg,” or “Come unto me,” give us the title of this famous work. This statue of Christ has been copied and stood in hundreds of churches and also in our old Bethany chapel and now in the narthex of the new.
When a person leaves that church in Copenhagen his eyes fall upon a bronze plaque at the door. The plaque says, “Glemme ikke å gjøre vel,” which means “Don’t forget to do good.” (Heb. 13,16) What a beautiful connection between faith and works. How can we forget to serve our Lord after we have heeded His invitation, Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. (Matt. 11,28)
Can we of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod, who have experienced God’s grace in such rich measure do anything else but expend every effort to promote and expand His kingdom? We serve the Lord in all that we do in accordance with the Ten Commandments. But special attention needs to be paid to the work of His kingdom. In your local congregation there is much need for volunteer help. Sunday School and Bible Class and Vacation Bible School teachers are needed. Who will volunteer? Who will serve on Boards and Committees if we decline? Who will go to their pastor and say, “Pastor, what can I do to help?” Who will say, “Here am I, send me send me?”
You pastors and delegates who are assembled here are most familiar with the work of the synod. Do you believe that what we are doing is in .accordance with the will of God? Have you heard the cry of the masses in South America, Eastern Europe and in our own country for preachers of the Gospel? How shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach except they be sent? (Rom. 10,14–15) We must ask as we go home to our congregations, “Are we doing all we can to send out missionaries? Are we a mission minded congregation or do we care only for our own needs?” Are we not blessed with such special gifts that we don’t need to contribute so much ourselves? Yes, we are blessed, but let us not forget that the special gifts come only to match what we give. And what an opportunity we have that every dollar given for the Lord’s work becomes two dollars when matched. Every thousand dollars that our congregation sends in becomes two thousand. Can we not see what a magnificent opportunity for outreach is given us in these times. Let us maximize our efforts. Let us look about and see that the fields are white unto harvest. Our Board for Education and Youth is working to keep young people with their Savior in these terribly difficult times. Our college is reaching the hearts of many youth. Our mission boards are directing our outreach efforts. We must ask, “What can we do at home to show our concern and support?”
Yes, we are gathered here in convention to “ENCOURAGE AND STRENGTHEN ONE ANOTHER.” Let us therefore devoutly pray that the Lord will fill our hearts with renewed zeal and love for the work of His kingdom. Let the words of Philip Nicolai in his mighty Pentecost hymn be our closing prayer:
O gentle Dew, from heaven now fall
With power upon the hearts of all,
Thy tender love instilling:
That heart, to heart more closely bound,
Fruitful in kindly deeds be found,
The law of love fulfilling;
Then, Lord, discord shall not grieve Thee:
We receive Thee; where Thou livest,
Peace, and love, and joy Thou givest.
LH374, v. 7
Soli Deo Gloria
George M. Orvick