Dear esteemed Pastors, Delegates and Friends of our Evangelical Lutheran Synod. As we begin the 94th Annual Convention of our beloved church body, we greet each of you in the name of the Loving One who asks invitingly, Who do you say I am?
Isn’t this the basic question of life? Who is Jesus? How one answers reflects not just the person’s view of the Bible, or one’s take on moral issues, or one’s outlook and attitude for life in the here and now. It’s a matter of where one spends eternity! We do not wish to be complicit in the damnation of the unbeliever by diluting the one and only antidote available for rescue and life. Martin Luther minced no words when addressing the seriousness of being connected to Christ Jesus by faith: “Without this God, who died and rose again, let every man fear and hesitate, nor presume to draw near to God or to come to him, no matter how pious and holy or full of good works he may be. For God the Father cannot tolerate anyone who wants to go to him or approach him unless he brings his beloved Son Christ with him.”1
Thank God, the access needed by all sinners to the heavenly throne is provided! Scripture states: “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand” (Romans 5:1, 2). This is why we have chosen a study of the Person of Christ for our convention essay this year. This is also why we as a synod are interested in strategically planning to engage those who still remain lost in sin and unbelief with the One we boldly confess with Peter and the apostles: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!” (Matthew 16:16). Jesus himself said: “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life” (John 5:24).
We like to assume we know our doctrine. If there is one thing confessional Lutherans take seriously it is adherence to the teachings of God’s Word. One of the three designated purposes for our synod is to “contend for the faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). This includes confessing what Scripture says on the two natures (divine and human) of Christ; his states of humiliation and exaltation; and also the work of salvation as accomplished by this God-Man in the place of each sinner and therefore distributed freely to all in Word and Sacrament.
Do we need some refreshing, however, on the subject of Christology? It is good for us to brush up on what is essential to believe, teach, and confess about Jesus, especially as we dwell in a world offering a panorama of views on what transpired at Bethlehem, at Calvary and at the new tomb owned by Joseph from Arimathea. What we say about Jesus directly affects our own situation. Comparing our case as sinners to a balance scale, Luther remarked: “We Christians must know that if God is not also in the balance, and gives the weight, we sink to the bottom with our scale. By this I mean: If it were not to be said [if these things were not true], God has died for us, but only a man, we would be lost. But if ‘God’s death’ and ‘God died’ lie in the scale of the balance, then he sinks down, and we rise up as a light, empty scale…”2
While we seek to educate one another this week on the Person of Christ, another question needs to be asked by way of self-examination. While we strive to uphold proper doctrine, how are we doing at sharing the whole message of Jesus with others—even with those of other cultures? Challenging an erroneous perception some might subconsciously entertain, namely how doctrinal preservation and mission-mindedness compete, one theologian correctly observed: “Luther’s reform of the Word of God does not establish false alternatives between preserving the pure doctrine and preaching the gospel. Any resolve to preserve the doctrine of the gospel without the intent to preach that gospel to the world would lead one to question the motives behind that preservation in the first place.”3 Standing on the Word alone for the sake of truth is one thing; sitting all alone on the Word and not sharing it, or caring to share it, is quite another.
Are we truly interested in connecting people who are lost in sin and unbelief with the Name that alone saves? Would an outside observer conclude of us individually or collectively, “Now there’s a person, a congregation, a synod that takes seriously telling others of Christ and his work of salvation”?
You’ve seen the 2009 ELS statistics,4 including number of baptisms (total of 368 children and 69 adults in 131 congregations) and adult instructions/confirmations (186 total). We rejoice, as do the angels in heaven over every single sinner who repents and believes. Yet, we ask rhetorically, do these statistics point to a vibrant church body deeply interested in passing on the life-giving water to the spiritually parched?
It’s the growth of the kingdom of Christ at large we are interested in, not the synod per se. Yet, we pray God uses our ELS to further the cause. In so many ways, we must confess our need to heed the message in Revelation when our Lord Jesus spoke of the church at Ephesus as drifting away from its first love—even while contending for correct doctrine. “Repent and do the things you did at first,” says Jesus.
One of our pastors wrote to me last fall and included a little story of a painter who was commissioned to put on a canvass a picture of a dying church. What scene did he paint? He showed a large ornate sanctuary filled with well-dressed worshipers, with a pastor proclaiming from a pulpit. In the back corner of the sanctuary could be seen a wooden box with words written on it: FOR MISSIONS. One noticed how a spider web covered the slot in the box. “That was a dying church,” wrote the pastor, “one keeping the gospel for itself, not interested in bringing it to others.” Then, the pastor put down these strong words: “As individuals, pastors, congregations, and a synod, we need to repent. We need to repent, in general, because we have not been zealous in bringing the gospel to others. And I believe that this has happened in part because we have certain emphases in our synod that tend to turn us away from what must be our central ‘vision.’”
Dr. C.F.W. Walther once said: “How many millions are there who still have no faith! We exist and have founded a synod in order, as much as possible, to bring men to salvation, and thereby to check the misery in Christendom and the number of the lost in the poor blind heathen world”5
May God move us to repent for not being as zealous as we ought in engaging others with Jesus. Repentance is good for the soul. It is also good for the whole (the synod). While the doctrinal controversies of the past sapped much of our energy and attention as a synod (and in some cases, necessarily so), attentiveness to doctrinal precision dare not be used as an excuse for laxity in proclaiming the name of Jesus to others.
Yet, brothers and sisters in Christ, may we never forget how we too have a Savior who forgives! Because of Christ and his atoning work at Calvary, you and I personally and collectively as a synod can be certain—as Micah says—our sins have been tread underfoot and all of our iniquities hurled into the depths of the sea (Micah 7:19). This is how we are refreshed and renewed!
Now, renewed by his word of pardon, we boost up each other and say: “The life I live in the body, I now live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2). This includes pondering and planning strategically as a synod how to ENGAGE OTHERS WITH JESUS!
Let us not get discouraged as we do so. As your duly elected servant, I will strive, with God’s help and also with your counsel, to do as our Handbook states of my office: “[The president shall] supervise the activities of the boards and committees of the synod so that the goals and objectives adopted by the synod in convention are achieved insofar as practicable.” With a supportive vice president and also with you delegates and pastors here as leaders set on our worthy vision, we prayerfully can do many things to advance the gospel of Christ.
Before we proceed in a moment to a more detailed presentation on the proposal coming from our Planning and Coordinating Committee, allow me an opportunity to touch briefly on a few other matters.
Worship style continues to be discussed in our midst. In my pre-distributed report to the convention, the appointment of a special Committee on ELS Worship (CEW) was mentioned. Six men have been asked to advise the General Pastoral Conference next October. Their task is to assist us as a synod in our understanding of worship and liturgy, helping us determine the meaning of Bylaw Chapter 1 of the ELS Constitution where specific orders of worship are recommended for the sake of unity in practice. We ask for prayers as these men go about their work. We also give a two-fold general encouragement: 1) remember what we do liturgically should reflect our beliefs as confessional Lutherans and not confuse; 2) remember also there are proper ways to contemporize while remaining firmly in the old paths. Along with this encouragement, may we be careful in judging motives of one another.
On May 5–6 this year a “free conference” took place at our synod’s Parkland congregation in Tacoma, Washington. This was an historic occasion. It represented the first time in many decades where three synod presidents of the former Synodical Conference (LCMS, WELS, ELS) met to address doctrinal topics in a framework outside the realm of church fellowship. President Mark Schroeder of WELS presented an essay on the subject that had severed the long-term ties between the Wisconsin Synod and the ELS on the one hand and the Missouri Synod on the other in the 1950’s and 1960’s. The title was: “Walking Together With Jesus: Church Fellowship and Its Implications for Confessional Lutherans.” LCMS President Harrison and myself served as reactors to the essay. No one is under the delusion that issues once separating the synods will quickly dissipate. Yet, it is noteworthy such a free conference could occur. Plans also are being made for a similar conference next year at the same location.
Fellow workers in God’s Kingdom: We live in trying times. A large segment of young people today is floundering spiritually and morally with little or no expectation of help from what passes as organized religion. One Canadian Lutheran theologian bemoaned: “Today’s North American unchristian or anti-Christian society with its own standards and demands for tolerance makes outreach difficult. Lutheran churches have difficulty retaining youth, for example, because there is little, if any, common or community support for the Christian faith and life. More likely, young Lutherans will have friends of different faiths, or of no faith, and the friendship takes on a higher value than fidelity to a Confirmation vow. Little relevance may be seen between worship rituals and world realities.”6
According to a recently published Barna Research project, those in the sixteen-to-twenty-nine year-old set, while in many cases having attended church during high school years, are “less likely to return to church later, even when they become parents.”7 This is a reality stemming from an inundation of worldviews8 at odds with the Christian faith. The perception of the younger generation is that religious truth for society and for them personally is too complex ever to be known.
How vital, then, for churches to proclaim the entire truth from God’s Word! How crucial it is to hold out the only solid hope—Christ Jesus, who is set forth in Scripture as the world’s one and only Redeemer from sin and as the single entrance to heaven! How important it is to uphold the way in which Scripture directs all for spiritual edification—Word and Sacrament! May God bless our efforts to do so in our Evangelical Lutheran Synod.
John A. Moldstad, president
1 Ewald Plass, What Luther Says (St Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1972), #546.
2 Triglotta, The Formula of Concord, Article VIII, “Of the Person of Christ,” par. 44.
3 We Confess, We Condemn, Congress on the Lutheran Confessions 2006 (St. Louis: Luther Academy, 2009), p. 16.
4 Synod Report, ELS, 2010, p. 212.
5 M. Harrison, At Home in the House of My Fathers (Lutheran Legacy, 2009), p. 698.
6 Lutheran Theological Review (St Catherine’s, Ontario), vol. 22, p. 70.
7 David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, UnChristian – What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2007), p. 23.
8 David Thompson in his book, What in the World is Going On? (Milwaukee, WI: Northwestern Publishing House, 2010), observes: “One does not have to sit at the feet of a teacher or professor to become a disciple of a particular worldview; worldviews are just as likely to be absorbed by osmosis” (p. 4).