Dear esteemed Pastors, Delegates and Friends of our Evangelical Lutheran Synod. Greetings to each of you in the name of our blessed Redeemer, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Next to the apostles of our Lord and the early martyrs of the Christian faith, the German theologian whose name we bear knew what it was like to endure persecution for confessing the doctrine of holy Scripture. Yesterday, June 15, marked the day in 1520 when Martin Luther was placed under the excommunication ban by the Roman Church. Pope Leo X’s action against Luther was called Exsurge Domine, the first words in the Latin of that papal bull. The ban stated Luther was a traitor of the church. It ordered his works burned. It demanded he take back what he had written or said, and that he submit to the church’s authority within 60 days from his time of receiving the notice of excommunication. Luther apparently did not receive the actual document until four months later, October 10, 1520. So, when the sixty days had expired, he—in defiance of the decree—boldly set a blaze of his own. On December 10, 1520, the students and residents of Wittenberg, Germany, cheered as books of Rome’s Canon Law and the papal bull itself were tossed into the fire for consumption.
You know the rest of the story. Luther eventually was summoned to appear before a diet in the town of Worms. This was an official congress set up by the new emperor (Charles V). At Worms Luther was under a mandate to recant his teachings and writings. Firmly he replied that he could not do so. He said his conscience was captive to the Word of God. God then spared his life through an arranged friendly kidnapping, hauling Luther off to a castle. At the Wartburg fortress Martin was used by God to expand more than ever the Reformation movement through his translating Holy Scripture into the common language of the people. Little did Luther understand at the time of receiving that papal bull in October of 1520 how much God would accomplish for the sake of advancing the Gospel in the years, decades and centuries which were to follow.
What moved Luther to be so unflinching? Nothing arising from inside his sinful human character. He was moved by a love for the Savior, a power worked in him through the Holy Spirit. It was the apostolic attitude, “We cannot help but speak the things which we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20). In fact, a letter from Luther penned to a pastor at the time of his receiving the Exsurge Domine shows what really drove him in the middle of his troubles and trials: “It is but a little thing that we should die with the Lord, who in our flesh laid down his life for us.”1
It is interesting to observe how Luther, in providing his “What does this mean?” for the Sixth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer (“…and lead us not into temptation”), did not include the thought of asking God to prohibit us from going through any kind of trial. Rather, he carefully worded his explanation in his Small Catechism (1529) like this: “God certainly tempts no one to sin, but we pray in this petition that God would guard and keep us so that the devil, the world and our own sinful flesh may not deceive us nor lead us into misbelief, despair and other shameful sin and vice; and though we be thus tempted, that we may still in the end overcome and retain the victory.”2 In other words, we believers in Christ, who know the Lord has all things under his providence, even pray “lead us not into sin, but lead us into trial—if need be.” God alone knows, just as in the relatively short life of Luther (1483–1546), when and if a time of testing is needed for each one of us or for the church as a whole in order “to step up to the plate”—so to speak.
The early Christians did not shrink from opportunities to proclaim Christ in spite of herculean challenges for the Gospel in the days following Pentecost. And the Lord blessed his people greatly (cf. Acts 8:1, 4). Nor did boil-riddled Job, in the middle of his lengthy ordeal, capitulate to the urging of his wife to curse God and die (Job 2:9). Instead, Job wisely responded: “You are talking like a foolish woman. Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” (Job 2:10). And who can forget one more vivid example of a Christian’s confessional tenacity in a demonically dark moment? The believing malefactor on the cross turned to his cohort in crime hurling insults at the Lord of Glory and then with a word of reproof reached out to that lost soul: “Don’t you fear God? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong” (Luke 23:41).
Whether in the life of the church at large or in the life of each one of us personally, challenges regularly spotlight the moment of truth. Often we are impressed with an individual who, because of a traumatic accident, overcomes serious odds and goes on to accomplish wonderful achievements—not in spite of a handicap but even because of the handicap. Think of artists or musicians who produced masterpieces because of a personal trial and would never have dreamed how their difficulties would serve for the world’s greater good. How much more doesn’t this occur in the church? What would happen if the entire church—every man, woman and child as baptized followers of Christ—were to view each obstacle in the course of life as a propitious moment to shine the light of God’s truth? This is the focus for this year’s convention: Engaging Others With Jesus in Times of Trial.
The theme intends to have us realize how, in our various vocations and life’s journeys, the hardships we experience personally and the sad state of religious affairs in our society can be turned to door-openers for the message of Christ’s saving grace. God continues to use Christian stamina, Christian confession, Christian conduct, and Christian witness to advance his kingdom, in ways we often are unaware. As we come across acquaintances, friends, or relatives experiencing the tedious side of life, we can direct them to what counts. We need not answer every question they have, but we know the perfect antidote for all of life’s troubles. A pair of authors addressing Luther’s approach to the theology of the cross put it this way: “Standing in the shadow of the cross, believers do not always have an explanation for the evil others encounter. They have something better. They bring the person of Christ and the restoration of life from his empty tomb to those whose lives are ragged and torn.” Again, the same writers remark: “The theology of the cross blocks the human glance into the depths of the mysteries of God and draws our gaze to the person of Christ. He is God’s definitive answer to these dilemmas and all others.”3
In 2011 our synod adopted a strategic plan. The plan’s vision has had this overall goal: “In the next five years we will learn more faithfully to engage others with Jesus.” An internal assessment of the plan is included in the Planning and Coordinating Committee’s report to this year’s convention. Retreats have been held. Mission work is going on—both at home and abroad. Preschools and Lutheran elementary schools are still emphasized. Our Bethany Lutheran College and our Bethany Lutheran Theological Seminary continue to function as beacons of light. But there is so much to be done. Can we move forward in a more determined way to touch those who do not yet know the Savior and his grace? How long is left before the Lord returns? How long is left before the life of each one of us is at an end as far as this present world is concerned? Is each of our synod’s churches, no matter the size and no matter how long it has been in existence, viewing itself “as a mission congregation”?
We thank God for the individual and collective gifts we have at our disposal! The more we think of the things for which we have reason to praise our great Benefactor, the less we will be inclined to become worried, frightened or dejected. The singing blind man on a street corner lifting his white cane as he enters a crosswalk serves as a vivid reminder how God has promised to be with us in our daily walk and this alone gives us reason always to rejoice. You and I cannot foresee the dangers on the roadway ahead, but we can know we have an all-seeing, all knowing, wise and loving Savior who gives us his commission and adds: “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).
Reflect on the blessings we have in our church body:
- God has blessed us with a good confession of faith. Our pastors and teachers are unified in presenting the doctrine of Holy Scripture. We are deeply committed to the Lutheran Confessions as the correct exposition of God’s Word. This is not a blessing to be taken lightly. Many churches today do not have such unity, even on the central doctrines of sin and grace and salvation by faith in Christ alone.
- There is an emphasis in our preaching and teaching on solid Law and Gospel application. Dr. U.V. Koren, a prominent leader in the old Norwegian Synod described the importance of this careful approach to preaching: “If we preach only concerning forgiveness of sin (righteousness) but not concerning repentance, then that doctrine would neither be understood, nor would it bear fruit. For without repentance there is no faith and consequently no justification by faith. … [T]o such souls ‘justification by faith’ will be only an empty phrase or a soft pillow—often both.”4
- We appreciate the dedication of our pastors, teachers and missionaries in our synod, and are grateful also to their families for what they often forego for the sake of benefiting the cause of Christ’s Gospel. “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Romans 10:15)
- We have resources for mission outreach. Yes, there have been some necessary cutbacks in recent years, but the Lord still provides us with generous financial gifts from our people—wonderful expressions of love for the Savior.
- Even more beneficial than the necessary donations are the sincere prayers offered by our people to have these resources put to good use as we ask his kingdom come. God promises to hear these petitions.
- He also gives us the right tools. Most of all, the dynamic Means of Grace—Word and Sacrament—is at our disposal as the Holy Spirit goes about his work in the hearts of sinners. Paul had informed the Thessalonian Christians what was behind the teaching and preaching: “… [O]ur gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction” (1 Thessalonians 1:5).
- Finally, we know how our regular gatherings throughout the synod—in the congregations each Sunday and in our homes daily at our family altars—are times of great blessing and foreshadow what is yet to come. We ponder the love of our Redeemer, rest in the surety of our forgiveness by God, and together look forward to the day of the grand reunion of all believers assembling around the throne of the Lamb (Revelation 7:9–17).
Fellow Christians, we dare not forget these blessings as we face the attacks on our faith. The battlefront in many ways is easy to see—attacks on traditional marriage, lack of respect for life that begins with conception, sexually promiscuous lifestyles, filthy language and blasphemous use of God’s name, disrespect for authority, and the almost militant agenda of the homosexual community. What may not be so easy to see, however, are the demonic assaults that come from unexpected quarters and from philosophical vagaries embedded in our nation’s educational system. Even inside today’s reputable church, many of those known as “evangelicals” who once fought hard for biblical inerrancy have now caved to evolutionary thought on the origin of our world. Look too how significant the number of churches is who have adopted the popular opinion on many matters of morality. What was said of the people at Jeremiah’s time finds ample application today: “The prophets prophesy lies … and my people love it this way” (Jeremiah 5:31). The secular humanism spouted in thousands of classrooms across our land despises the existence of God and the supernatural and therefore also regards moral values as subject to change for each generation and even for each individual’s circumstance. But such philosophy is often packaged in a way that would have Christian young people imagine it is more caring to maintain an open mind and not join in condemning viewpoints or life choices as erroneous or evil.
How important it is for all of us to use the effective weaponry God has put at our disposal—not looking to some sneaky political plan enforcing what the church upholds, but looking to the spiritual arsenal of the Word of Christ. “For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:4, 5). For this reason, we commend particularly the Christian education efforts made in our congregations. The Sunday school system, the catechetical instruction by our pastors, and the tireless efforts by a number of our parishes to establish and run Lutheran elementary schools—all are ways to reinforce the Word of Christ that Christian parents desire for the development of their children on the home front.
Of course, the power for all of our challenges is God’s holy gospel (Romans 1:16) where the heart of the sinner is touched. When the sinner hears that there is hope, that there is forgiveness, that there is certainty of heaven, and that there is confidence for daily living all because of God’s great love in crediting to us the righteousness of Jesus his Son, then tremendous miracles truly can and do occur. Christ has lived perfection in our place, has died the death of the damned in our place and has risen again victoriously! This is where and why we have reason for optimism for each of us now and for each generation following.
Faith cannot be bequeathed by one generation to another. It must be born anew in every generation, must be worked through a miracle of the Holy Spirit. As parents can never guarantee the faith of their children, so the church of the present cannot assure the faith of the next generation. She can lay down her teaching in books. She can establish schools in which this doctrine is transmitted to youth. … We transmit this Confession to our children in order that it may become their Confession. Whether it will be their Confession depends solely on the grace of God in the freedom of the Holy Spirit, who through the means of grace, as through instruments, ‘works faith when and where he pleases’ [AC V].5
May God grant us his grace and strength to do his holy will. And may he bless our Evangelical Lutheran Synod for the glory of his name and for the salvation of blood-bought souls.
John A. Moldstad, president
1 R. Bainton, Here I Stand—A Life of Martin Luther (Nashville: Abingdon – Cokesbury Press; copyright by Pierce & Smith, 1950) p. 150.
2 ELS Explanation of Luther’s Small Catechism (2001 edition), p. 19.
3 R. Kolb and C. Arand, The Genius of Luther’s Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), pp. 190 and 148.
4 G. Lillegard, Faith of Our Fathers (Mankato, MN: Lutheran Synod Book Company, 1953), pp. 70–71.
5 H. Sasse, Letters to Lutheran Pastors, Vol.II, edited by M. Harrison (St. Louis: Concordia, 2014), p. 14.