Grace, mercy and peace are yours from God our Heavenly Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. May God the Holy Spirit bless our time together as we gather around his holy Word and devote ourselves to the joyous task of advancing Christ’s saving Gospel.
One of the collects for missions listed in our Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary serves well to open this year’s convention as we emphasize the work of evangelism. We pray:
Almighty God, since You have called Your Church to witness that in Christ You reconciled us to Yourself, grant that by Your Holy Spirit we may proclaim the good news of Your salvation, that all who hear it may receive the gift of salvation; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit; one true God, now and forever. Amen.1
“That all who hear it may receive the gift of salvation…” Think of what we are praying with that phrase. In doing evangelism, we ask the Holy Spirit to have every set of ears, no matter how pretty or deaf, and each soul, no matter how scarred with sin and shame, to receive the gift of redemption as it is really set before them. Do we believe that when the Gospel of Jesus Christ is proclaimed there is actual power—divine power—at work? Do we trust that in baptism God’s real forgiveness of sins is conveyed to the heart of the sinner, even if that individual is a tiny bundle at the font and cannot yet utter a word but only a faint cry? Are we convinced that when the gracious words of absolution are announced the words are truly imparting to the sinner what they claim to offer, even if the sinner who hears them is not yet converted? The answers to these questions impact our approach to evangelism and missions. If the gift of salvation—forgiveness of sins in Christ—is not truly offered when the Gospel is spoken to a needy soul, then the focus for certainty and comfort will be on human activity, human emotion, human cooperation, or at least human appropriation. Christ did not die at the cross in order to have his hard-won forgiveness for the world held back or to be delivered only in piecemeal. Nor is his gift of forgiveness symbolical while his means of grace are spread through the world. No part of a sinner’s forgiveness is left undone; nor does it in any way hinge on human effort. We heartily concur with the apostle Paul who exclaimed: “I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” (Galatians 2:21).
Ninety years ago a small cadre of men gathered at the Aberdeen Hotel in downtown St. Paul. Major plans for the future were at stake. What would lie ahead for this small group of pastors and their congregations? Any casual observer would not have expected much to come from the little, inconspicuous assembly. A far more prominent meeting—an assembly for church union—was the talk of the day in the Minnesota capital city, as Norwegian Lutherans from different stripes came together to sew the fabric for a new merger, the NLCA. But those dedicated ELS forefathers met for conscience sake and began charting a course that, under God’s blessing, has borne fruit for us who assemble here today. On the tenth anniversary of that meeting at the Aberdeen, the synod took special notice of the doctrinal heritage preserved by the faithful efforts of those who felt conscience-bound to initiate a new church body. The 1927 convention at the Lime Creek Church enumerated and expounded on the various doctrinal issues hotly debated in the old synod, while expressing gratitude to the Aberdeen men and others as God used them instrumentally in safeguarding the truth. For our purposes today as we ponder evangelism, we draw attention to what was said regarding the absolution controversy. That convention in session eighty years ago copiously referred to an important citation in the writings of the Norwegian church father, U.V. Koren, back in the 1860’s. Koren’s words remind us what the debate was all about:
The question is whether the Gospel is one thing now and another thing then, whether it is one thing when it comes to a believer, another thing when it comes to an unbeliever, or whether the Gospel is always the same message from God wherever it is thus sent among all people and generations and tongues… It therefore is a powerful communicating of the forgiveness of sins to all who hear it, whether they are believers or unbelievers…
Christ is the same, yesterday, today and forever, the same for Adam as for the people who are alive when the trumpet of judgment sounds; there is only one Gospel [Galatians 1:6–8], the same for the most simple-minded child as for the reflections of the sharpest mind, the same for the most defiant denier, for the most bitter mocker, as for the most pious cross-bearer, the same eternal, powerful heavenly message over which the heavenly hosts rejoice, in which God the Holy Ghost reveals the unapproachable depths of God’s love and testifies to every man who hears the message: ‘God loves you, you poor, fallen soul! God’s Son has paid your whole weighty debt for you! Fear not, arise, shake the dust and chains from you, leave the prison, you are free! Rejoice greatly, it is the will of God that you shall be saved! Be of good cheer, your sins are forgiven you! (Et venlig ord i en vigtig strid [A Friendly Word in an Important Controversy])2
Excellent words also for us to consider in 2007 while we focus on declaring “the praises of him who called us out of darkness into his wonderful light,” 1 Peter 2:9. The apostle Peter lets us know that by God’s grace through faith in Christ we have been made special people. Within an established universal priesthood of all believers, Gods wants us all—pastors, teachers, missionaries, lay members, fathers and mothers in the home, every Christian—to play a part in shining the brilliant light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ on those who yet live under the pall of spiritual doom and gloom. What a challenge we have before us! So many do not care to engage in conversations about God and religion. Of course, what should we expect from those who unknowingly are captives of Satan? And if they do care to talk, are we prepared to be castigated as ultra-right wing fanatics? But what a blessing it is when another soul is brought out of darkness into the light! And from there, who knows how God will then use the witness of that new Christian to touch the life of another. We love to see the ripple effect. In his Galatians commentary, Dr. Luther expresses the evangelistic attitude of every person who possesses the certitude of salvation as found only in the merits of Christ. The believer, he says, exclaims: “There is nothing I want more than to make His Gospel known to the world and to convert many people” (LW 26:379). Luther further says: “It is the best work of all when the heathen are led out of idolatry to the knowledge of God” (“Sermons on Matthew 23, 1537–1540,” WA, XLVII:466).
When we speak with people who do not yet know the Savior, we know how the Law must first do its work. What good will it do to present the Gospel to someone who has not yet seen the desperate nature of sin and his own dire predicament? From what is it that we humans need saving? I am reminded of hearing about an unbelieving teenager in a large city during WWII days who saw a big blue lettered neon sign “Jesus Saves,” on a building and then wondered what kinds of items Jesus was saving or collecting. It was at a time when people were saving everything, gasoline, tin foil, and string.3 Are we sure that people really understand when we speak of how Jesus saves? Is there a realization of sin and its consequences? So often the subjects of sin and salvation from sin are trivialized. To be saved from “sins against the environment” is one thing, but to be saved from sins against the Creator of the universe is quite another. To be saved from a marriage that has fallen into disrepair is one thing, but to be saved from sins of separation—spiritual and eternal separation—against the heavenly Bridegroom, Jesus Christ is quite another. To be saved from a war that lingers in Iraq is one thing, but to be saved from the war against the soul by a different and far more deadly kind of Babylon and one that lingers with no end ever is quite another matter. Taking people where they are and having them see their real need for salvation from sin and damnation is a major component to understanding the work of evangelism.
An even more critical component, however, is this: once the law has done its work, is the Gospel proclaimed in its fullness? Here is where the reminder from Ulrik Koren many years ago comes into play. The announcement of the forgiveness of sins in Christ carries with it exactly what it proposes to transport. That energizing power is used by the Holy Spirit to do his will when and where he pleases. So, it is of great comfort and encouragement to be assured that the message we share of the crucified and risen Savior brings to the soul of each listener the unconditional forgiveness of sins from God, and we then await the Spirit to do his work. How can we be so sure of this? Paul tells the Thessalonians: “[W]hen you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the work of men, but as it actually is, the word of God , which is at work in you who believe.” The Gospel announcement conveys to the heart that already has been convicted of sin this comforting truth: “[W]hat the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by the sending of his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us…” (Romans 8:3,4). Jesus, God’s Son, lived perfection in our place; he died at the cross to pay sin’s penalty in our place; he rose triumphantly from the grave in our place. No wonder there is therefore now “no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus!” (Romans 8:1)
The format for our convention essay this year will include discussion sectionals. We express our thanks in advance to our Board for Evangelism for providing guidance and input to the Wednesday and Thursday workshop periods. Central to this year’s essay “Declare His Praises!” and central to the sectionals is the way in which God may use each of us in his/her vocation in life to have a lasting effect—an eternally lasting effect—on someone or some family within our reach. Christian educator and author, Gene Veith, contends that it is “in vocation that evangelism can most effectively happen.” He says, “Occasions for witnessing and inviting a colleague to church come up in natural ways—over the water cooler or during a coffee break, discussing a disaster like the World Trade Center attack or a failing marriage, or in times of joy such as the birth of a child. Christians penetrating their world in vocations have access to more nonbelievers than a pastor does.”4
Years ago in the Buddhist country of Taiwan a fire broke out in a village and quickly burned two houses. One of the houses was saved. It happened to be owned by a long-standing Buddhist villager. The owner of the other house was a Chinese Christian. He happened to be away from home at the time of the blaze. Since nobody in the village tried very hard to save his house, it burned to the ground. Many of the towns people laughed at the Christian’s misfortunes. “That’s what your religion is worth!” they retorted. Yet the man did not respond in kind to the villagers, nor did he curse them. A couple of days later a group of men could be seen coming across the fields. When they came closer, the people of the village could see they were carrying wood, tools and furniture. The villagers were bewildered. Who were these men? Well, they were the members of the church where their neighbor belonged. They had come from their homes several miles away to rebuild their fellow Christian’s house. This is what they did, while the Buddhist villagers watched in amazement. Such a religion could not be laughed at.
One wonders: How many of the villagers might have been attracted to Christianity—to hear about Jesus Christ—all because of a non-retaliatory attitude of a lone man in the village and as a result of friends who used their various trade skills to lend a helping hand. “Live such good lives among the pagans,” says Peter, “that, though they may accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Peter 2:12).
The evangelism theme this year also reminds us to cast our support firmly behind Lutheran School of America. The use of church schools in our communities provides great opportunities for Gospel outreach. I am heartened to hear of more congregations in our synod pondering the possibility of starting an elementary school or preschool. We need such schools, not only as tools for evangelism, but also because they are tremendously beneficial in thoroughly educating our synod’s children in the truths of holy Scripture and in providing the proper Christian world view for the whole gamut of curricular subjects.
Do we realize what we are up against? Veith explains: “One of the consequences of ‘modernity,’ that secularizing frame of mind that has been dominant in the culture from the Enlightenment to the last century, has been to drain any trace of God—even any trace of meaning—from the objective world. Science, it has been thought, fully accounts for everything in nature and society. Rational but impersonal natural laws explain everything that exists. Religion is fine, if someone needs it, but it is a wholly private matter, an inner experiential mystical set of feelings that might make a person feel better, but that can have no bearing on the ‘real world.’”5 Our own children and grandchildren find themselves today in a society of secular education that questions truth’s existence in regard to natural/moral law and has no time at all for a religion that, while inclusive (it is a message for all), holds to Christ alone for the hope of everlasting life.
Luther remarked in his day: “I am afraid that the schools will prove the very gates of hell, unless they diligently labor in explaining the Holy Scriptures and engraving them in the hearts of the youth.” What would he say if alive today?
We have a plan that can help our synod meet today’s educational challenges and reap spiritual rewards for our congregations and our church body. Through Lutheran Schools of America we aim, God willing, to make a dent in providing assistance to congregations in having their own schools where God’s Word reigns supreme. You can be a partner in this venture through your prayers and through your gifts of support to our synod-wide “For You and Your Children” offering.
On the subject of Christian education, we should also take note of the 80th anniversary of our Bethany Lutheran College. Where would our Evangelical Lutheran Synod be today were it not for the blessings God has showered upon us through this excellent institution of higher learning? (Permit me a moment to demonstrate this: I would like to ask at this time that all pastors, lay delegates and guests who have ever attended Bethany College to please stand…) What an amazing tribute to the dedication of the small group of leaders in the BLC Association who came to the 1927 convention at Lime Creek Lutheran Church in northern Iowa and made the famous statement: “Once we are convinced that the school is a necessity, we will also discover that we can afford it. We can do a lot of things that we think are absolutely necessary once they have become a matter of life or death to us.”6 The memorable motion, “I move we take over the school,” offered by Pastor G. A. Gullixson, was not easily passed (33 votes for and 21 against). Financial concerns loomed large for the synod in the take-over. The assets of the college at that time totaled $314,600; yet there was a debt of $51,800 and annual operations were sure to consume a large portion of the synod’s budgetary allocations. (For example, thirty years later, in 1957, the entire synod budget amounted to less than $76,000, while the line item of support for Bethany College was listed at $27,600.) In spite of the challenges back in 1927, a dedicated resolve pervaded the synod concerning the college. Rev. T. Aaberg summarized it this way: “While the synod was divided over the question of purchasing Bethany College at that particular time, once the decision had been made, the synod got behind the project and gave it its wholehearted support.”7 Our prayer is that this beacon of light shining the Gospel of our Lord from the top of McMahon Hill will remain on the hearts and minds of our people and that many more of our synod’s high school grads take advantage of the first-rate instruction offered by our dedicated faculty and staff at Bethany. Not only does its mission statement remind all—even an advocacy group from the outside organizing a demonstration—that the college is “committed to the teachings of the Bible as set forth in the Lutheran Confessions”; this is the doctrinal position that guides and directs all aspects of spiritual life on the campus.
A little more than a few weeks ago the Christian church celebrated the festival of Pentecost. From that day of the Spirit’s special outpouring, the umbrella of Christianity has extended over the entire globe. The zeal for worship and the drive for mission work has been, and continues to be, a distinguishing mark of believers. They realize the precious pearl of great price, the holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus, and what it means for every soul for whom the holy blood of our Savior was shed. St. Luke records the activity of the early church: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer… And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” What method did the Lord use to add to their numbers? It was not simply by sitting in their house churches waiting for converts to trickle in. The verse before the one that speaks of God adding to their number informs us that the people were “praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people.” This sounds very much like what Peter stresses in our theme verse where fellow Christians of varied backgrounds, skills and vocations “declare the praises of him who called us out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9).
There have been some bumps in the road for our church body in recent years. The struggles have not been easy. But with trust in God’s gracious providence we look for blessings even among the hardships. As we continue to study his Word and make use of the Sacrament for our own personal edification, may we never lose sight of our common goal to evangelize and to promote the establishment of missions. Pray for our pastors, teachers and missionaries. Ask the Lord to use the resources of our synod to reap a bountiful harvest for Christ’s kingdom, while we strive to disseminate the precious means of grace to our own communities and to people of other countries.
I leave you with familiar words from Dr. Luther. They are found in his commentary on 1 Peter and will be given here as a paraphrase. Luther sets the focus for us: “We live on earth for no other purpose than to be helpful to others. Otherwise God could take away our breath and have us die as soon as we are baptized and have begun to believe. But he leaves us here so that we may do for others what he has done for us.”
May God grant us a fruitful convention to his glory and honor!
John A. Moldstad, president
1 ELH, p. 166.
2 Samlede Skrifter, , III, pages 47–51. We are grateful to Rev. Herb Larson who has translated from the Norwegian language the Presidential Addresses of our ELS church fathers.
3 E. Kolb’s A Witness Primer, p. 84.
4 Gene Edward Veith, God at Work, pp. 67, 68.
5 Veith, pp. 26, 27.
6 This quotation from the 1927 Report can be found in T. Aaberg’s A City Set on a Hill, p. 100.
7 Aaberg, p. 101.