Dear esteemed Pastors, Delegates and Friends of our Evangelical Lutheran Synod. I greet each of you in the name of our risen and ascended Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.
An interesting story out of World War II tells how some American soldiers made it through a minefield to safety. The soldiers had been sent out to check the enemy lines of the Germans. On one particular mission they had to cross one of their own American mine fields before they could get into the German territory. The mines were marked, but snow had started to fall. To make matters worse, the Germans started firing on the American soldiers. There was only one thing to do. The lieutenant thinking very quickly drew all of his men together and gave the order, “I will go first across the field. You are to follow thirty yards apart. You are to walk in my footprints. That way if I hit a mine, I alone will be killed.” To make a long story short, the soldiers all made it across the minefield safely. As one surveyed the line of footprints, it looked as if only one person had made the journey. They followed exactly in the steps of their lieutenant. Later on, some engineers came to re-mark the placement of the mines. They discovered something amazing while gazing at the footprints in the snow. On one occasion the soldiers had stepped right across a mine. They had just missed setting it off by a few inches. But they all got back safely because they followed very precisely in the footsteps of their leader.
Our Leader has walked through the devastating minefield and taken the hits in our place and emerged victorious and full of life—even resurrection-life—not only for himself but for all. He was “tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin” (Hebrew 4:15), as he headed along the path to the cross as our substitutionary and atoning sacrifice for sin. This means he also, as our substitute, was perfect in the use of God’s Word. As a young boy at the temple, didn’t he display his penchant for searching the Scriptures? Didn’t he reply in the wilderness, “It is written…?” Didn’t he receive invitations to speak in the synagogues for the very reason that he was respected as a man of the Word? Luke writes: “He taught in their synagogues, and everyone praised him” (Luke 4:15). Didn’t he direct the Emmaus inquirers to everything that was written about him “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets”? Now, he bids us follow him, “ever in his footsteps treading, body here, yet soul above.”1
Why? If it is true—as it most certainly is—that our Lord Jesus already secured salvation for us from our enemies of sin, death, Satan and hell, then he bids us take his hand daily and walk well-armed with the Book that keeps us in his care as he navigates us through the perils of this present, wicked world to our heavenly home. And if we suffer along the way for doing good, this is commendable before God. For, Peter writes: “To this you were called because Christ suffered for you, leaving you and example2, that you should follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21). Stepping in sync with our Lieutenant is the way, for he, and he alone, has gained our conquest!
Martin Luther advised: “Every Christian should certainly be so well armed that for himself he is sure of his faith and doctrine, and he should be so firmly grounded on passages from God’s Word that he is able to hold his own against the devil and to defend himself when people want to convert him to some other view.”3 Luther also had this to say on such vigilance: “Surely the devil will neither sleep nor snore but will from every quarter assault you wherever you are. Therefore you must be on the alert against such attacks and must be fortified on all sides with the Word of God wherever you go or are, in private or in public, in church or at home, at table and in all your associations … To this end it is necessary for us constantly to be occupied with the Word of God, earnestly and avidly to reach out for it, gladly to hear, sing, tell, and read it, in order to guard against the shameful satiety and sluggishness about which I have spoken and in order to keep our castle and fortress well secured and all the holes boarded up against the devil.”4
This 2015 convention continues to spotlight our synod’s overall strategic emphasis to Engage Others With Jesus. Our focus this year is on the necessary indoctrination—further study in God’s Word and in our Lutheran Confessions—that we wish to encourage among our membership in order to be better prepared to give an answer to the people around us who may often ask questions concerning the hope we have within us (1 Peter 3:15). So we have chosen as a general theme: “Engaging One Another With Jesus’ Teachings.” Our essayist, the Rev. Jonathan Madson, will lead us in a review of basic teachings from Scripture that we uphold and confess as orthodox Lutherans—teachings that, in many cases, are “under fire” not only from secularists but from religious leaders determined to give society what itching ears desire (2 Timothy 4:3). The goal of the review is to whet our interest to do as the Berean Christians, to keep checking our Bibles and catechisms, but also to be even more fully aware of what we uphold as confessional Lutherans and why we teach and maintain what we do. Now, such a commendable study ought not be viewed as some self-serving adventure. It is always and only for the glory of God as his Holy Spirit through the study of the Word strengthens our faith so that we may also share the same with those near and far who do not yet know the Savior, or who do not understand the full extent of our Savior’s love for us sinners.
Discouragement can set in as we look around us. We see so much that violates what we know is good and right, pure and uplifting. The unrelenting rise of militant Islam, witnessed most prominently in the Middle East and Africa through the grotesquely cruel and inhumane activities of ISIS and Al Shabaab, shocks the civilized world. Of course, the diabolical ideology attributed to their “Allah” god has its roots in the anti-Christian tenets of the Koran. The inundation of the homosexual agenda foisted on our country has so permeated the culture in the last decade that even many of our Christian young people now imagine an acceptable marriage arrangement can include same-sex partners. The feminization of life in the church marches ahead; its advocates speak of one final hurdle—the ordination of women to the pastoral ministry in all denominations, including the Roman priesthood. Naturally, this too puts great pressure on confessional and/or traditional churches. But, as one prominent observer has noted, “Perhaps the most vicious aspect of radical feminism is that it necessarily criticizes and demeans women who choose to work primarily as mothers and homemakers. They are made to feel guilty and told that their lives are essentially worthless.”5 With all these any and many more challenges to the Christian faith, not least of which is disregard for full protection of life in the womb, we may find ourselves crying out as the psalmist, “O God, do not keep silent; be not quiet, O God, be not still. See how your enemies are astir, how your foes rear their heads. With cunning they conspire against your people; they plot against those you cherish” (Psalm 83:1–3).
Add to this, our task of reaching out to the lost with the precious Gospel of Christ seems easily thwarted by a lack of interest in organized religion. During the past decade we are told 38% of Americans describe their search for spirituality as more important to them individually than holding to the traditions of their church, apparently even with little concern as to where this all leads.6 The Pew Research Center shows a large shift in the thinking of Millennials (birthed after 1980) compared to previous generations. For example, those in the ages of 18–33 today “have become more detached from major institutions like political parties, religion, the military and marriage.”7 No great surprise here, when we consider the ubiquitous and frequently “open-minded” influence of media and technology that escalates even more the already-perpetual force of peer pressure tearing youth away from any traditional theological moorings. It’s strange how such alleged open-mindedness seems to stop short of tolerating Christianity that is seriously put into practice. As one writer commented, “In current American culture … your faith can be privately engaging, but must remain socially irrelevant. There is a real concern that the growing insistence that faith be privatized has now been turned into a demand for faith to be compromised.”8
Inside our own synod, pastors express concern over a lack of church attendance. A number of our congregations struggle with financial viability. When this is the case, a feeling of apathy among the membership can set in, revealing itself in an unintended disinterest for mission outreach in our communities.
In the wake of all of this, how can we respond? First off, we can and should pray—pray for God to let the light of his own Word penetrate through the gloomy storm clouds surrounding us. Then, too, may we remember that we sheep, who are prone to straying and helpless under own power to deal with the dangerous surroundings, nevertheless have a Good Shepherd who has laid down his life for us and taken it up again, and who cares for us with his mighty protection. In a sermon preached on Good Shepherd Sunday, Dr. U.V. Koren, who died in 1910, began his message to his flock with words easily descriptive of our state of affairs today:
We are gathered here in order to find help and good advice for our souls. We find things to be difficult in the world. There is so much that disturbs and distracts, that confuses us and draws us away from caring about our salvation. That makes our need even greater. The condition of our souls varies. But the Word that God sends us fits all. It points us not to ourselves, but to Him where everything we need is to be found, whatever our situation is. He enters among us and speaks about what He wants to do for us. So let us hear His Word with the devotion of our heart and with prayer, and from His own words let us know Him as our good Shepherd.9
We also want to re-energize ourselves individually, as families, as congregations, and as a church body, to get busy doing the work our Lord has called us to do. When the writer of Jude confronted the onslaught of false teachers and demonic forces, he closed out his brief epistle with this encouragement: “But you, dear friends, build yourselves up in your most holy faith and pray in the Holy Spirit. Keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life. Be merciful to those who doubt; snatch others from the fire and save them…” (Jude 20–23).
This rescue work of snatching souls from the fire requires thoughtful planning on how best to use the resources God has given us. God lets us live and have the gifts he provides in order to enable the spread of his Word to more souls who, like us, desperately need the saving love of Christ for their lives. Since the time of our last convention, we are pleased to report that our Board for Home Outreach announced the acceptance of the call to the Evangelism-Missions Counselor (EMC) position in the person of Rev. Larry Wentzlaff. Much of Pastor Wentzlaff’s efforts currently are directed toward assisting our established churches in doing strategic planning for the ministry work in their respective locales. We also should note that our Board of Trustees recently, at the urging of the Planning and Coordinating Committee, provided a funding grant to facilitate the work of our EMC. Please pray for Brother Larry as he carries out the responsibilities of this new office for our synod. We urge our churches to get in touch with him and with our Board for Home Outreach for help with ideas on how to reach the unchurched with the gospel of Christ.
There are no easy answers or fast fixes for touching the lives of people who, in spite of being fully redeemed by the Savior, do not believe the message for one reason or another. Ultimately, every soul we meet and who therefore has a sinful nature like the rest of us must be shown his/her need for the forgiveness and salvation secured by the blood of God’s own Son. So, we readily concur with this assessment: “Perhaps we can discover better methods of reaching out to the people of our generation, but finally it will come back to the careful, faithful, and persistent proclamation of the law and the gospel.”10
Of great interest to all of us in our Evangelical Lutheran Synod are the higher education institutions we support collectively: Bethany Lutheran College and Bethany Lutheran Theological Seminary. God has blessed us with many resources to educate young minds in the various disciplines of life and in appreciation for the work of his creation, but especially in having our young people grow in the grace and the knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Enrollment challenges face both our college and seminary. We are grateful to God for the 12½ years of leadership at BLC from Dr. Dan Bruss, and we pray God’s blessings upon him and his wife in Dan’s retirement from the college presidency. The incoming college president, Dr. Gene Pfeifer, is excited to take up the tasks before him, and we want to assure him, together with his wife Carrie, that he has our full prayerful support in his new charge. May we look for opportunities to serve as voluntary recruiters for our college as we speak with the youth of our congregations. The seminary needs our prayers also. Seminary President Gaylin Schmeling recently included this in his report to the Board of Regents: “Our synod is facing a potential shortage of pastors to fill the various vacancies, and the number of young men entering the seminary is lower than usual. If there is a shortage of pastors, congregations will remain without a shepherd. The seminary is employing various new procedures for recruiting but the support of our congregations and pastors is needed.”11 The words of Jesus to his disciples are on our hearts and minds today: “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field” (Matthew 9:37, 38).
I would be remiss if I did not also mention the sacrificial efforts made by many of our congregations and teachers in establishing and maintaining Lutheran elementary schools. I had the privilege in the month of April to read through a very favorable evaluation of our synod’s longest-running one-room school in Scarville, Iowa.12 Pastor Thomas Rank has served the congregation since 1993. Through 87 years Scarville Lutheran has been dedicated to using resources to keep its school running so that the entire learning process is firmly rooted on the foundation of God’s Word. Percentage-wise the school has also been one of the top feeders for our Bethany Lutheran College. We pray that God will grant many more years of existence to schools such as Scarville, and also be with all of our faithful teachers, such as Thalia Pollyard in her Iowa classroom. This past year we take note of some highlights from our synod’s schools: dedication of a new 100-student school building in Kissimmee, Florida; the start of Columbia Lutheran School in The Dalles, Oregon; the ground-breaking for an early childhood learning center by Holy Cross Lutheran in Madison, Wisconsin; and the erection of a new school building at Christ Lutheran in Port St. Lucie, Florida. Again, we ask the Lord to bless these efforts in bringing the love of our Savior to precious young souls.
In selecting the theme for our convention, I was mindful of how a common malady can creep into our personal lives, and how, as an antidote, the mutual study of the doctrines of Scripture can render aid and great healing. The malady each of us faces is the temptation to doubt. Since we constantly battle with our personal sins daily, what we have know from childhood as objective truths from God’s Word can easily come under questioning when each of us struggles with pressure. How important it is to join with fellow Christians who confess the very same doctrine and then review those common teachings for strength and motivation! When the fog of doubt sets in, no appeal to nebulous emotional experiences will do. Only the clear statements set forth in God’s Word will dispel the fiery darts of the wily foe. The tactics of Satan, the world and our sinful flesh is not only to have us question some rather nuanced item presented in the Bible; his ultimate goal is to rip you and me from the certainty of possessing a Savior who has done it all for us sinners and offers full forgiveness of sins and the gift of eternal life through faith in his life, death and resurrection.
When assailed by unbelief and doubt, Luther stresses it is vital to find a godly brother or sister who directs you to the right place. The only relief for conscience is the place of consolation, the Word of God. Such a friend, says Luther, will come to you and say:
“God is truthful; He promises to be gracious to you for His Son’s sake. Moreover, the Son of God has absolved you from all your sins by His Word, has baptized you, and has promised you eternal life if you believe, that is, if you conclude that His death is your redemption. Hence either God is truthful in His Word, or you are a liar when you have doubts about the forgiveness of your sins after these promises have been given to you through the Son of God.” By means of this axiom doubt is dispelled.13
So, may God bless our time here together. We have our business matters to consider. There are budgets to prepare and pass. There are statistics to absorb and reviews of board reports. But, above all, may we be mutually encouraged through the work of the Holy Spirit as we engage one another with Jesus’ teachings.
To God be the glory!
The Rev. John A. Moldstad, president
1 ELH 236:1
2 Literally the Greek word in this verse (ὑπογραµµόν) refers to a writing copy for one to imitate by tracing over it. In other words, this is footstep-precision.
3 E. Plass, What Luther Says I, #1237.
4 The original citation can be found in an exposition of 1 Corinthians 15:34, LW 28:166, 167. The translation here is taken from E. Plass’ What Luther Says, I, #1510.
5 R. H. Bork, Slouching Toward Gomorrah (New York: Harper Collins, 1996), 223.
6 From the poll, “Mixing Religious Teachings,” done by CBS on June 29, 2005.
8 Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly, Spring 2015; article by Prof. James Korthals, p. 131.
9 M. DeGarmeaux, transl. U. V. Koren’s Works, Volume I (Mankato: Lutheran Synod Book Company, 2013), 197. The sermon here cited was based on the text of John 10:11–16.
10 Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly, Spring 2015; article by Dr. John Brenner, p. 147.
11 Printed report from the seminary president at the Regents meeting, May 11, 2015.
12 Observations/thoughts shared from a visit by Prof. Browne, Bethany Lutheran College, April 24, 2015.
13 LW 3:214.