Dear esteemed Pastors, Delegates and Friends of our Evangelical Lutheran Synod. We greet each of you in the name of our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Have you ever served jury duty? In my fifty-plus years I was summoned for jury pool twice in two different states but never actually had to serve. Jury duty can be a burden. It is, however, an honor and privilege. We are grateful for our country’s fairly unique judicial system. We have an appreciation and admiration for those who fill the role of exacting justice while guarding the precious American judicial principle of presuming innocence until proven guilty.
In 2011 our synod adopted a strategic plan to “engage others with Jesus.” We might say attention was given to a role each of us plays in a courtroom. No, not jury duty but serving as a witness. There’s a noted difference, however. The testimony here is not in regard to something that occurred outside the courtroom. You and I and all Christians are called to be witnesses of something wonderful that occurred inside the courtroom—the courtroom of God’s justice. “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus,” states Romans 8. And again, “Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies.”
We have a message to proclaim! We have a testimony that benefits all—ourselves included. Reflect for a moment on what it means to serve as a witness. As honorable as it is to be selected for jury duty in service to your community or your county or your country, the privilege of being on the witness stand for the Savior far outweighs any other. “For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20). We know that “salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
1. A witness is one who possesses.
You can’t give away something you do not already have. Think of what you and I do have—all by God’s grace, all by His power, all by the working of the Holy Spirit, all by our connection with his sufficient and efficient means of Word and Sacrament. Some years ago I recall a devotion at a women’s mission rally that had an unusual theme: “Don’t just get up and do something. Sit there.” It was a strange comment, of course, at a rally where you would expect, “Don’t just sit there. Get up and do something!” But the devotion had one main, valid point. Absorbing information from God’s Word for our own lives, taking in nourishment for our own souls through Word and Sacrament, is a must. Just as a flight attendant says, “Adjust your own air mask first before assisting others around you,” so we too need to inhale deeply the fresh air of God’s gospel daily so we are better able to assist any around us who may not even be aware of the impending danger.
2. A witness is one who is privy to necessary and valuable information.
This is not because of any innate special quality residing in us. We too must sing with the second verse of Hymn #1 in our ELH, “All our knowledge, sense and sight/ Lie in deepest darkness shrouded/ Till Thy Spirit breaks our night/ With the beams of truth unclouded./ Thou alone to God canst win us;/ Thou must work all good within us.”1 But thank God, we do indeed have the information that alone saves! The Holy Spirit, through baptism, through hearing and reading the Word of God, and through the Lord’s Table, equips us with the message of Christ’s free salvation for sinners. This is for us. This is for others. And it is highly treasured, no matter how the world assesses it. It is the pearl of great price to be handed down to every generation.
3. A witness is bound to the truth and wants to convey only the truth.
Any jury and judge is concerned with substantiated facts. Perjury, either by swearing to what is untrue or by omitting to do what has been promised under oath, is serious. Isn’t truthfulness demanded all the more when the stakes are eternal?
Our world around us has little time for exclusive truth—aka, serious Christianity. One Christian writer who claims many compartmentalize religious truth for their lives describes fairly accurately how religion commonly is portrayed. Nancy Pearcey writes: “Religion is assumed to be a product of human subjectivity, so that the test of a ‘good’ religious belief is not whether it is objectively true but only whether it has beneficial effects in the lives of those who believe it.”2 Before we think this affects only those who are outside our synodical comfort zone, we have to wonder if we are preparing our own for the onslaught of attacks on scriptural truth. A culture that elevates uncritical tolerance of competing spiritual beliefs as the zenith for life on this earth can subtly erode the biblical foundation laid for our children in their formative years. Watchfulness is needed, but so is preparation for what lies ahead. Pearcey goes on to say, “It makes sense to protect children until they are developmentally ready to handle complex ideas. But in many cases students are never exposed to competing ideas within their families, churches, or Christian schools, and as a result they go out into the world unprepared for the intellectual battles they are about to encounter, especially on secular college campuses.”3
There is a place for the use of what we call “apologetics.” Our Doctrine Committee has produced a fine statement on this subject, where it simply defines “apologetics” as the defense of the Christian faith. The report states, “Defending the Christian faith may include an explanation of the basic beliefs of Christianity. It may also include giving grounds or reasons for accepting the Christian Gospel message as true or a refutation of criticisms of the faith, as well as exposing inadequacies in alternative religions and worldviews.” We need to train ourselves, and especially our young people, in being apologists for the biblical teachings. What good would any witness be if the time on the witness stand for truth-telling were to pass and falsehood ruled in the room? A witness for the Lord Jesus wants all to know where alone truth for sinners’ salvation is found. This is why our synod’s college has engraved near the outside entrance of its academic hall: “Your Word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105).
4. A witness can serve for condemnation or for exoneration.
Law and Gospel need to be heard. As hard as it is for ourselves and for anyone else to hear the hard, cold facts of how our sins against God’s commands condemn us, this is absolutely necessary. Without the harsh reality of the Law, how will any testimony of the Gospel be received for the great comfort it brings? Our witness to others will want to contain these two elementary truths, but with careful distinction. Remember Luther’s remark on this: “Therefore let everyone learn to distinguish the Law from the Gospel, not only in words but in feeling and experience; that is, let him distinguish well between these two in his heart and his conscience. For so far as the words are concerned, the distinction is easy. But when it comes to experience, you will find the Gospel a rare guest but the Law a constant guest in your conscience… Nevertheless, I have the forgiveness of sins through Christ, on whose account all my sins are forgiven.”4 So, may our witness for Christ before others serve to delineate the condemnatory statements of our God from his prominent and prevailing statements of grace. For good reason—for an eternally good reason—our banner is not “Engage others with Moses,” but “Engage others with Jesus.”
5. A witness on the stand is under examination.
The scrutiny is not so much from the world. What does the world matter? The apostle Paul exclaimed to his Corinthian readers, “I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me” (1 Corinthians 4:3, 4). So, the scrutiny that counts is that of the Almighty Judge.
But what does he see? What does he hear? What does he observe? There is an advocate (1 John 2:1) in the courtroom standing between us sinners and the Judge himself. It is none other than a well-known and beloved intermediary in the courtroom of God’s justice. This is the only-begotten Son of the Judge! When the Judge looks at our poor witnessing, he peers at us through the merits of the one who intervenes on our behalf and in our place. This one is holy. This one has perfect love—love for the truth and love for all. This one is bloody. He died that we might live. He is also glorified, for He now lives never to have death enter his body again!
Let one of our Lutheran Confessions remind us of the courtroom picture. From the Apology of the Augsburg Confession we have this: “Paul says in Col. 2:14 that Christ cancels the bond… The cancellation of the bond is the removal of the sentence which declares that we are condemned and the substitution of the sentence by which we know we have been delivered from this condemnation. This new sentence is faith, abolishing the earlier sentence and restoring peace and life to the heart” (Tappert, p. 188).
Here’s what is amazing! The courtroom of God’s justice against sin—against your sin and mine and that of the world—has a sentence pronounced in it so contrary to what is handed down in human courts. And it’s all because of the merits of a Lawyer—an impeccable Lawyer!—who even advocates for us who are poor witnesses for his cause.
Doesn’t that give us courage as we step up into the witness stand? “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31).
6. A witness, is eager to share the testimony.
—Eager, because this testimony saves lives. – Eager, because this testimony is backed by the Judge and serves the Judge to further his cause.—Eager, because so many are now able to hear the most beneficial news for their lives.—Eager, because the loving and powerful Lawyer at our side is the one who resides for eternity at the right hand of Father. We are moved to serve. “For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again” (2 Corinthians 5:14, 15).
Peter described himself and his fellow apostles as eyewitnesses who desired to have others know the glory of Christ they had observed with their own eyes on the mountain. “We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the coming and power of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Peter 1:16). You and I have not had that mountain experience, but we have another mountain of strength making us eager to share the testimony about our Savior. Peter directed us to this “mountain” when he added: “And we have the word of the prophets made more certain, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place…” (2 Peter 1:19). Through the verbally inspired and inerrant Word of God, written by the prophets and apostles as moved by the Holy Spirit, we have by faith become “eyewitnesses” for the impregnable Rock of our salvation!
So, how to do this—how do we witness? In order for people to believe, we know the Gospel needs to be presented. “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17). As a body—here, the church at large—the various parts serve important functions. Not all will be the mouth; some the toe, some the arm, some the parts we rarely think about. Fellow Christians know God causes all these things to work together for the advancement of his Gospel. In fact, while we may be tempted to put on a pedestal some parts of the body—especially as we think of witnessing/sharing, scripture states: “But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other” (1 Corinthians 12:25).
Prof. Daniel Deutschlander in his new book, The Lutheran Narrow Middle, addresses how ordinary activities by caring Christians serve this witnessing purpose. “Our good works bring praise to our Father in heaven in much the same way that a child’s useful, good, and decent life brings credit to his family on earth. The world is drowning in the chaos that comes from lives which reflect only lust and greed and obsession with self and pleasure. What a witness to the gospel is the life that is the opposite! How many have come to hear the gospel because of the peace and the order, the decency and the usefulness to others that they saw in the life of a humble and pious Christain? Such a life certainly brought praise to the Father on those rare occasions—however rare they may be—when someone was first drawn to hear the gospel by the light of Christ radiating from the life of a Christian!”5
The story is told of a seminary student—not from Bethany—who was coming back to his apartment from a food store. He was on a bicycle, holding a bag of groceries with one hand and steering with the other. Suddenly, while rounding a corner at a busy intersection, the bag split and the contents spilled out on the road. As he quickly tried to gather the cans and packages, he noticed a man nearby on a street corner watching him. “Why doesn’t he come over and help me?” the student wondered. When the groceries were almost retrieved, the man from the corner walked over and offered the student a pamphlet. It was a tract on the way of salvation. From the student’s perspective, his gospel witness at that moment was woefully lacking.6
Our convention essay this year helps us see how witnessing, or engaging others with Jesus, presupposes relating to people in a caring and concerned context. Our theme, Created in Christ Jesus for Good Works, is drawn from Ephesians 2:10. In our life’s vocations and avocations (hobbies, outside interests), as individuals and also collectively as members of congregations in communities, we can encourage each other in fostering charity.
There are so many roles to fill, and so many avenues for charity available. Think of the servant girl who directed the Syrian named Naaman to the prophet of Israel. What of Esther, whom God used to spare many lives? Could each of us be a Barnabas (“Son of Encouragement”)? Might there be young men who will consider seriously studying for the seminary? Might there be young women or men who will consider seriously teaching little ones and older children the Word of God in our Christian schools? We are here to boost one another in our eagerness to share the testimony. “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).
7. A witness is under constant protection.
Here we need to remind one another of the security we enjoy as redeemed and believing children of God. Bailiffs in a courtroom used for ensuring order are aware of the need to protect those who are called to witness. In our spiritual witnessing, we can say we have double protection: the judge himself is our Protector and his spiritual bailiffs—his holy angels—are watching over us. The atmosphere can be hostile. Shouts of bigotry and intolerance can be heard when Christ’s cross is lifted high. Many will try to squelch the message of redemption intended for all. The scene can be intimidating.
Is the era now here in our country—as long-seen globally (Indonesia, India, China, etc.)—where Bible-believing Christians pay a hefty price for conscientious convictions? This year in our pre-convention report we note at least two examples of government intrusion or encroachment on the exercise of religious freedom. The HHS (Health and Human Services) mandate to cover abortifacients affects also religious institutions. This is not just a Roman Catholic issue. This has an impact on any church bound by the morality of the Bible. The marriage penalty in the new health care law is another item of deep concern to the church. When the government gives substantial economic breaks to couples living together in fornication as opposed to being married, this obviously poses more challenges for Christian pastors urging men and women to do the right thing–consider the God-ordained institution of marriage. Maybe these initiatives enacted by the kingdom of the left (state) will be eliminated or pacified due to the cry of a citizenry respectful of the rights of the kingdom of the right (church). But we can’t count on it. We need to pray for wisdom. We need to pray for strength. We need to pray for the protection God promises his people who remain with his Word and act accordingly. “The Lord will keep you from all harm—he will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore” (Psalm 121:7, 8).
The Greek word translated “witness” is actually our English word for “martyr.” Who can forget how history records the way the blood of Christian martyrs became the harvest seed for the church? Is this what is in store for the church today in land USA? “It is easy to be a Christian if it does not cost you anything, but what if your very life were on the line? Would you still be a Christian? If attending church might cost you your life, would you attend? The Lord Jesus was willing to suffer and die for us, and in the early church thousands of believers confessed Christ and faced unjust punishment.”7
May God grant us strength to ascend his witness stand when called upon to do so, and to know beyond any doubt that his protective shield surrounds us. “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad,” says Jesus, “because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:11, 12).
Finally, let’s thank God for the blessings we enjoy! We have our places of worship, where our souls are fed for time and eternity. We have our wonderful and dedicated pastors and teachers and missionaries. We have our beloved college and seminary and their faithful faculties. We especially praise God for his gospel being proclaimed in its truth and purity and for the sacraments administered without hindrance.
Christ is our righteousness and our life! Pray this testimony of his grace always gets a hearing. May God grant us a fruitful 95th convention!
John A. Moldstad, president
1 “Blessed Jesus, at Thy Word,” Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary, #1
2 N. Pearcey, Total Truth (Wheaten, IL: Crossway, 2004), pp. 116, 117.
3 Pearcey, p. 126.
4 Luther’s Works, American edition (St. Louis: CPH, , 1963), vol. 26, p. 117.
5 D. Deutschlander, The Lutheran Narrow Middle (Milwaukee: NPH, 2011), p. 144.
6 As related in A Witness Primer, by Erwin Kolb; p. 54. d
7 “Persecution Then and Now,” by Prof. James Korthals, WELS Forward in Christ, June 2012, p. 29.