1952 Synod Convention Essay
“Thus saith the Lord, stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls.” Jer. 6,16.
These words are found in the chapter of the book of the prophet Jeremiah, in which the prophet at God’s command pronounces the severe punishment which will be inflicted upon the people of Israel because of their unfaithfulness to the covenant which God had made with them. A mighty people will come from the North, to make war on them; they shall lay the land utterly waste and lead its people into captivity.
The Prophet describes their unfaithfulness in these words: “For from the least of them even unto the greatest of them every one is given to covetousness; and from the prophet even unto the priest every one dealeth falsely. They have healed also the hurt of my people slightly, saying, Peace, peace; when there is no peace.” (v. 13.14.)
Their first great sin is covetousness. Having turned away from the fear of God and His service, they let themselves be wholly dominated by their sinful desires for earthly gain and treasures. Each one takes advantage of the other, the strong oppress the weak, and thus they bring about great suffering among a large number of the inhabitants of the land.
Their second great sin is the shameful unfaithfulness of those who are to be the religious leaders of the people: “From the prophet even unto the priest every one dealeth falsely.” Their religious teachers lead the people astray. They no longer follow the statutes delivered unto them through the fathers of the nation and the long line of true prophets sent them by the Lord. They bring a message which is according to their own reason and liking. They no longer rebuke the people for their gross sins, nor do they proclaim the grace of God revealed in His glorious promises. They adjust their teaching that it may appear that they have peace with God, when there really is no peace.
The people of Israel high and low have fallen so deeply that they are ripe for the destruction which is now pronounced upon them. But before carrying out the judgment, the Lord through the prophet Jeremiah makes a last-appeal to them to amend their ways, so that the impending calamity may be averted. He says: “Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein; and ye shall find rest for your souls.” It is still possible for them to escape the punishment which they so justly deserve. If they will diligently seek to learn the statutes and judgments given them through the patriarchs, and through Moses and the prophets and live according to them, as did their pious fathers, they may still be saved from destruction and be once more received into favor with their God.
What a great similarity there is between the conditions in Israel at that time and the conditions existing in the World today. How the sin of covetousness stands out in all parts of the world today, our own country not excepted! This is what lies at the bottom of the strained relations and the clashes between the nations. Greed for power and gain is apparent everywhere. Those who had the power, strive to retain it for their own selfish ends. And those who have been oppressed, while they rise to assert their rights, show by their demands that they are dominated by covetousness just as much as their former oppressors. Likewise in each community the various groups and classes give expression to their own covetousness. Selfishness, greed and avarice are in evidence everywhere.
And what about the condition of the Church today, which is to serve as a salt in the evil world when great forces are at work openly to destroy God’s kingdom? Impressive cathedrals are erected, where worship is conducted with great pomp and show, high-sounding phrases are heard, describing how the kingdom of God is to be built up and how the world is to be conquered. But what about the inner faithfulness to God? It is to be feared that too many of the religious leaders resemble those of the days of Jeremiah. They “deal falsely” with divine truth and with immortal souls that are to be nourished. They too often “heal the hurt of the people slightly, saying, Peace, peace, when there is no peace.”
Such are the conditions in which we find ourselves, as we are making preparations to commemorate the work of our church during the past century. Such is the world in which we have been placed, to bear witness unto the truth. And let us not only pass harsh judgments on others, but let us recognize the great danger of being ourselves more or less contaminated by the spirit of the times, so that we with greater humility go about the performance of the tasks assigned to us.
The greater the corruption round about us, the more urgent is our need of taking to heart the admonition of the Lord: “Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein.” What then is meant by the “Old Paths” which we so diligently should seek to find and to walk upon? To Israel at the time of Jeremiah it was an admonition to seek to learn the truths revealed by God to Abraham, their father, and to Moses and the prophets. And since it is called the old paths, it had reference to the way the pious fathers in Israel had lived according to these truths. In many places in the Old Testament the covenant people are urged to follow the example of their pious fathers. In Isaiah 51,1, the Lord says: “Look unto the rock whence ye are hewn, and to the hole of the pit whence ye are digged. Look unto Abraham, your father, and unto Sarah that bare you.” Christ and His apostles referred time and again especially to Abraham as an example and a model. And the apostle Jude speaks of the whole body of Christian doctrine as the “Faith once delivered unto the saints.
To us the “Old Paths” mean first of all the saving truths which have come to us through the prophets and apostles and have been recorded in the volume of Holy Writ. However, we owe a great deal to the pious fathers of the Reformation and of the period immediately following it, who through the most intensive spiritual struggles have arrived at a correct understanding and have given a clear exposition of these saving truths; this they have passed on to us as an inheritance. Although several centuries have passed, nevertheless, since “Christ is the same, yesterday, today and forever,” since God’s truth is eternal, their exposition of these saving truths means just as much today as it did to them.
But as we are about to observe the centennial of our Synod, there is a special challenge for us to look back upon the work of its founders and of those who have continued their work unto this day. Were their work and their activities of such a nature that we are obedient to the words of our text by following in the steps of these fathers? We certainly do not want to accept their teachings just because they have said so, or to walk in their paths just because they are old. But if our fathers were thoroughly faithful to the teachings of the divine Word, both as to doctrine and life, it becomes our duty to follow their example, and it would be a sin if we were to despise the heritage which has come to us from them.
At the turn of the century, before our forefathers began to emigrate to this country, the churches in Northern Europe had passed through a period of Rationalism, and the conditions in these churches were therefore very deplorable. But at that time a reaction set in in many places. In Denmark a leader among the confessional theologians was N.F.S. Grundtvig, and in Norway the work commenced by Hans Nilsen Hauge had a great influence especially among the lay people. Although both of these movements later on deteriorated, they served at the time as a mighty force to lead the people back to true Christianity.
When the University of Christiania was established in 1811, they were so fortunate as to get two conservative Lutherans, Svend Borchmann Hersleb and Stener Johannes Stenersen, to head the theological faculty. From then on new generation of theologians was trained to care for the spiritual needs of the people. And when the first pastors who came to work among our people in this country were trained, another pair of staunch Lutherans headed the theological faculty, Gisle Jonson and Carl Paul Caspari.
The first theologically trained pastors who came to work among the Norwegian immigrants were men whose training had led them to seek “the Old Paths” of the Apostolic Church and of the Reformation, and they were thoroughly consecrated to the cause of building a true Lutheran Zion among their emigrated countrymen; most of them had, humanly speaking, left a brilliant future in the homeland in order to cast their lot with the pioneers who were struggling to build homes in the wilderness of the Northwest. The Norwegian lay people who had never been so completely imbued with the spirit of Rationalism as the theologians had been were equally desirous of founding a true Lutheran Church in the new land.
There were indeed a number of Lutheran synods already in existence in the United States at the time when our pioneer fathers began organized church work It did not take our fathers long, however, to discover that most of these older groups were Lutherans scarcely more than in name. They could not therefore with a good conscience make common cause with these synods, nor fraternize with them in any way. But shortly before our Synod was organized, several groups had for conscience’ sake left the State Churches of the land of the Reformation to find a haven in this land of religious freedom. To them our pioneer fathers were attracted as true spiritual brethren. Very soon after its organization our Synod entered into very close relations with the most conservative of these groups, the Missouri Synod, which for so long a time enjoyed the leadership of that richly gifted and devoted man of God, Dr. C.F.W. Walther. The fact that this choice was so easily made is an evidence of the character and the spiritual stamina of these early pastors and leaders of our Synod.
What then was the foundation on which these pioneer fathers wanted to build the church which they organized among the early settlers? We shall listen to what one of them officially has to say on this matter while the Synod was still in its formative stage. In the Foreword to “Maanedstidende,” January, 1864, we find a short characterization of the task which the young synodical body had set itself to perform. There one of the editors (presumably Pastor J.A. Ottesen) writes: “When we consider the history of our church body the last 6–7 years, then every one who has attentatively followed the course of events will see that our chief object these years has been to draw forth and expound the pure doctrine of the forgiveness of sin in Christ as an unmerited gift, which is unconditionally offered and given through the Word alone, and is accepted by faith alone. According to the grace which God gave us, we have endeavored, both over against the waverers and ignorant in our own midst, and over against our opponents without, to secure the Gospel truth, which alone can give the heart peace and joy, when it is thus directed to the Word alone as the only means through which God really comes to us, really communicates with us with all His grace and gifts, and to faith alone as the only means by which men can accept and appropriate unto themselves the grace of God in the Word, yes, that this faith is wrought by the Holy Spirit in and through the Word in the hearts of those who do not resist the message which He brings.”
After speaking the bitter strifes which the carrying out of this program had brought about with those who did not agree with this stand he adds: “It goes without saying that such strife has often caused sorrow and trouble, and that here and there it has brought about disturbances and schisms, at least for a time. But this strife was necessary, for our holiest and most glorious possessions were at stake. It was a question whether truth or falsehood was to be the foundation on which our church was built, whether the one and only true sense of God’s Word, or all sorts of human opinions about what the Word teaches, were to bind us together; it was a question whether we, like the sects, should become a party, which arbitrarily has chosen to champion certain special pet views, or if we were to be an orthodox church body which would obey only ‘that which is written.’ It was a question if we wanted to be Christ’s disciples, who continue in His Word, or if we in the future wanted to be carried about by every wind of doctrine, as was more or less the case with our opponents, who were not willing to be disciplined by the truth.”
This quotation, which is chosen pretty much at random among many similar statements from those early days, is very interesting and enlightening, because it gives such a clear expression of the stand which the fathers of our Synod took from the very beginning. They were fully conscious of what a true Christian church is like, if they were to walk in the Old Paths. And this stand was not any more popular among people in general in those days than it is today. Our people were surrounded by all sorts of sects. Although our people in the beginning, because of their ignorance of the language of the land, were to some extent immune from the influences emanating from them, these sects nevertheless exerted some influence upon them. However, the most violent strifes were carried on between the immigrants themselves. Two distinct parties had arisen among them before they left the mother country. The Pietistic element, which originally had arisen in protest against Rationalism and was served chiefly by itinerant lay preachers, had developed a bitter hatred against the State Church, and they vigorously opposed the regularly trained pastors when they began their work here. As a general rule this party laid the greatest stress upon their own subjective faith rather than on the authority of the revealed Word of God. In their one-sided emphasis upon the importance of Sanctification, they were inclined to minimize the importance of Justification. They did not have a clear understanding of how to distinguish rightly between the Law and the Gospel. It was with this element that most of the early controversies were carried on. And it is from this opposition that the many bodies have developed which have opposed the Norwegian Synod throughout its history.
We have seen that from the very beginning the Norwegian Synod stood firmly on Holy Scriptures as the only sure and perfect rule of faith and life. Nothing else than this could give them a sure foundation for their faith and hope. If they were to abandon this ground and rely upon what the ingenuity of man could furnish, it would mean, “so many men, so many minds.” But in the Holy Scriptures God Himself has spoken, and the truths which God has revealed there are just as eternal and unchangeable, as God Himself is eternal and always the same. The word of Scripture is God’s own Word, which He has revealed for our salvation.
Scripture not only contains God’s Word among other things, leaving it to us to determine just what is God’s Word and what has been supplied by others. If that were the case, we should have no sure and thoroughly reliable rule and norm of faith and life, for we should then never be able to come to a full agreement on just what is God’s Word. But all Scripture is God’s Word. “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God.” (2 Tim. 3,16.) The whole Bible is given by inspiration, i.e. the Holy Spirit in a miraculous manner gave to the men who wrote down the words of the Bible “what they should speak and write and the very words which they should use.” Scripture says: “The holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.” (2 Pet. 1,21.) Our pious fathers were not afraid to confess that they believed in “Verbal Inspiration” for fear that they might be branded as holding a “mechanical theory,” nor did they try to find some vague terms to express their belief, which would not jar the feelings of those who were not willing to accept their doctrine of verbal inspiration. They did not presume to explain how this miracle was done any more than we are able to explain the other mysterious operations of the Spirit, which are taught in Holy Scripture. They accepted without question what Scripture testifies of itself. And they found in that their greatest comfort. They accepted gladly and without question the statement of the Apostle: “We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light which shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts.” (2 Pet. 1,19.)
This “sure word of prophesy” our fathers studied diligently. On this they based all their teachings. When they had arrived at the true sense of the teachings of Scripture, they could not be turned to the right or to the left by any wind of doctrine which happened to blow their way. Our fathers were often scoffed at and ridiculed by the opponents as Pharisees who were filled with pride and arrogance, when they insisted that they had the true doctrine of Scripture. They ought to listen also to the opinions of others, it was said. They had no monopoly on the true doctrine. But our fathers believed and taught that the words of Scripture had only one true sense, that there was no room for differences of opinion, and that the Scriptures were clear enough, so that it was possible for the diligent student to learn to know this true sense. They held that Scripture must be interpreted by Scripture itself, and we should not permit any extraneous element, such as human reason, to make itself felt. Difficult passages must be interpreted in the light of others that are more easily understood. If this is done, we shall have no difficulty in arriving at their true sense. There are, indeed, many things of which the Scriptures speak, especially when they speak of the eternal counsels and wonderful works of God, which we cannot explain, because they lie far above the realm of our understanding. But it is not necessary for us to explain them. What Scriptures want to teach us is always clear, so that we can believe it, and that is all which is required of us.
In order to arrive at the true sense of what the Scriptures teach, it is necessary to abide strictly by what the words of the Bible express, without coloring it in any way by what we think it ought to be, even if we are ever so pious and mean it ever so well. Modern theologians quite generally rely on their own so called “Christian Consciousness” in interpreting Scripture. This makes their interpretation more or less dependent upon the subjective judgment of the Bible student himself instead of basing it solely on the objective consideration of what God Himself has spoken, as expressed by the very words of Scripture. Now it is true that God’s Word is dark and obscure to the unregenerate mind, for the Apostle says, Gal. 2,14: “The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” A person must, therefore, be born again by the Spirit unto a new spiritual life, before he can comprehend, and interpret correctly to others, the things of the Spirit of God. But that does not give him the authority to pass judgment on what God has clearly spoken in Holy Writ. Even the regenerated mind is not perfect in this life, and therefore it may make many mistakes. I cannot trust fully in the teaching dictated by any man’s “Christian Consciousness” and base my hope on its findings, although it may often be useful for me to listen to it as a guide. True hope and real comfort can only be found in that which God has spoken in Holy Scriptures. This was the position always taken by the fathers of our Synod.
Turning again to the testimony from 1864, the editor of “Maanedstidende” says: “Our chief object has been to draw forth and expound the pure doctrine of the forgiveness of sin in Christ as an unmerited gift, which is unconditionally offered and given through the Word alone and is accepted by faith alone.” This is the chief doctrine drawn from God’s Word, viz, how a poor sinner is saved from his sins and thus reconciled to God. After all, this is the “One thing needful.” Of what real lasting value would it be to us, what we can learn from Scripture about jurisprudence, ethics, poetry, etc., if we did not learn to know how we can be justified before God, saved from our sins, and obtain eternal life? This all-important doctrine is stressed continually throughout the whole Bible. The doctrine of a poor sinner’s justification before God is taught so clearly that no one needs to be in doubt about it.
The sinner is wholly unable to do anything to bring about his own justification. Yet, God who is perfectly holy and just cannot for a moment tolerate any one, unless he is perfectly righteous and holy. In His holy Law God makes certain demands upon us, and He would no longer continue to be perfect, if He were to curtail or abridge these demands. Since the sinner is utterly unable to fulfill these demands either wholly or in part, he can do nothing to justify himself. Scripture says: “Therefore by the deeds of the law shall no flesh be justified in his sight.” (Rom. 3,20.)
But Scripture assures us that God has found a way to justify the sinner, who is helpless, yes, dead in trespasses and sins. In His boundless mercy and love to fallen mankind, God spared not His own Son, but gave Him as a sacrifice to atone for their sins and make them just in His sight. “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3,16.) God’s Son came into the world and became a man, in order that He might take our place and fulfill the demands of God’s Law in our stead, so that God’s justice and holiness might be satisfied. By His perfectly holy life here on earth, He earned for us righteousness before God. The Apostle says: “When the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law” (Gal. 4,4.5.) God’s Law was given to man who was thereby obligated to keep it. In His boundless love God’s Son became a true man and placed Himself under the Law, thus assuming the obligation to keep it, not for His own sake, but for the benefit of the human race which was not able to fulfill the demands of the Law. And His perfect obedience is imputed to men, so that in the sight of God we are regarded as if the Law has been fully kept by us.
But God’s Son also redeemed us from the sins which we have already committed. “God made him to be sin for us” (2 Cor. 5,21,) in order that our sins should no longer be counted against us. “The Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Is. 53,6). And having taken on Him the guilt of the whole world’s sin, Jesus Christ, true God and true man, atoned for it by suffering the punishment which the world has deserved. “Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we being dead to sins should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed” (1 Pet. 2,24). “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures” (I Cor. 15,3). Thus Christ gave Himself as a sacrifice to pay the penalty of the whole world’s sin. “He is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world” (I John 2,2).
God has in this way provided perfect righteousness for all sinners. “For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor. 5,21). Yes, thus He has reconciled all sinners to Himself. “When we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (Rom. 5,10). “God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them” (2 Cor. 5,19). Only through the active and passive obedience of Christ, then, can we sinners become righteous before God and be saved. Not by our own works or worthiness can we be justified, but wholly by the grace of God prepared for us in Jesus Christ. If any one wants to put his trust in anything else than God’s grace for his salvation, he will be sorely disappointed, for Holy Scripture testifies clearly: “For by grace ye are saved, through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph. 2,8.9.).
Through the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, God has absolved the whole world from sin and declared it righteous. In Christ He “reconciled the world unto Himself.” Our debt is fully paid, and God acknowledged this payment when He raised Jesus Christ from the dead. “We thus judge, that if one died for all, then were all dead: And that he died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him which died for them, and rose again” (2 Cor. 5,14.15). “Jesus was delivered for our offenses, and was raised again for our justification” (Rom. 4,25). Just as all our sins were laid on Christ and imputed to Him, so the complete satisfaction for our sins, wrought by Jesus Christ through His suffering and death and acknowledged by God through His resurrection, is imputed to us, that is, counted as ours. We are assured of this by Coos Word when He says by the Apostle: “Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation, even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life” (Rom. 5,18). The justification of sinners before God is therefore not in any way owing to their own efforts and worthiness, but it is a free gift altogether unmerited, for we have deserved the very opposite, eternal damnation. Justification and eternal salvation is, therefore, by God’s grace alone. Holy Scriptures teach us this very clearly and in so many ways. We might quote a multitude of passages in proof of this, but let this one passage suffice: “Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3,24). Here the Apostle summarizes the whole doctrine of Justification in a few words.
But the justification of all men through Christ’s redemption will not be of any benefit to us as individuals, unless we accept this free gift. The Scriptures therefore in so many places, besides saying that our justification is by grace alone, declare just as clearly that we are justified by faith. This, however, is no contradiction. For the justification of all sinners in Christ, which is by grace alone, is accepted by the individual sinner by faith. Hence when many are lost in spite of the fact that they are declared just in Christ, it is not because this justification does not apply to them, but because they reject it through unbelief. Christ says: “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved, but he that believeth not shall be damned” (Mark 16,16). And again: “He that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (John 3,18). In the Gospel, God brings the fruits of Christ’s redemption to every one who hears it. Those who believe the Gospel message, and put their trust in its assurances, partake of what the Gospel brings. But those who do not believe in the promises of the Gospel thereby reject the free gift which it brings to them. Scripture says of the fate of the unbelievers: “The word preached did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that heard it” (Heb. 4,2). God’s Word describes very clearly the true relation between God’s grace, by which we are saved and our faith, by which we accept this salvation when, in speaking of our salvation, it says: “Therefore it is of faith, that it might be by grace; to the end the promise might be sure to all the seed” (Rom. 4,16). Our faith is the hand, by which we receive and hold the grace of God. “The saving power, therefore, lies not in the hand of faith, but in the merits of Christ which I hold by faith.” It is not the act of believing, but what we believe that saves us. Though we may believe ever so firmly in a false doctrine, this faith cannot save us. Yet faith in the promises of God in the Gospel is so important that without it we cannot partake of the grace which the Gospel brings. The Apostle says: “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law” (Rom. 3,28).
This is the second great principle of the Reformation: “Justification by faith alone.” This is the “Old Path,” the “good way,” on which we must walk, in order to obtain rest for our souls here and hereafter. Any other way that we may choose for ourselves, relying wholly or in part on our own good intentions, efforts or works will only lead to disappointment, eternal destruction. To follow this good way was the program which the fathers of our Synod set up from the beginning. On this way the following generations continued to walk, and, God be praised, we have been kept in these paths unto this day. This is the way which God has so clearly revealed to us in Holy Scriptures. We find it revealed throughout the whole volume of Holy Writ. With this, the chief doctrine of Scripture, all the other doctrines concerning the order of salvation are so closely connected that it cannot be kept pure, unless we accept the clear teaching of Scripture also on the other points.
In order to preserve the doctrine of Justification pure, our fathers had to carry on many bitter controversies. Although the opponents never, in so many words, denied or rejected the doctrine of justification by faith alone, they erred in many points where their errors caused a misconception of this central doctrine and sometimes even nullified it. In his masterly dissertation on “What the Norwegian Synod has wanted and still wants,” the sainted Dr. V. Koren calls attention to how this central doctrine is abridged or perverted by errors in other related doctrines. We hope that his complete essay will be made available in translation for our Centennial. I shall only try to call attention briefly to how errors on other points affect a correct understanding of this vital doctrine.
We cannot understand rightly what it means to be justified by grace alone through faith without having a true conception of the teaching of God’s Word concerning sin. Sin is not simply a weakness, a defect, a disease, but Scripture teaches that it is an absolute corruption, a complete falling away from God. “Sin is the transgression of the law” (1 John 3,4). Every failure to observe perfectly the demands of the Law, whether it be by doing that which God has forbidden, or by neglecting to do what He has commanded, is a transgression of the Law. Whether the transgression is great or small in the estimation of men, whether these transgressions be many or few, whether intentional or not, it is nevertheless sin which deserves God’s wrath and punishment. One single sin is sufficient to alienate us from God and bring upon us His curse. God’s Word says: “Cursed is every one that continueth not in all the things which are written in the book of the law to do them” (Gal. 3,10). And: “Whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all” (Jas. 2,10). Not only sins which we ourselves have committed in thoughts, words and deeds, but the guilt and natural corruption which we have inherited from our fathers, from Adam down, is counted against us.
The Law is given us, “that every mouth may be stopped and all the world may become guilty before God,” says Paul, Rom 3,19. Our condition according to nature is described as being “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2,1). And this applies to all men, “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3,23). If we therefore would ascribe to man any worthiness or power to work out, or co-operate in, his own salvation, we should no longer preserve the doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone pure.
But it is equally important that we understand what God’s Word means by the term grace. Since we by nature are totally lost, “dead in trespasses and sins,” God, moved solely by His love and compassion, has resolved to save us without any of our merit or worthiness. He thus offers and confers on us His blessings freely, “without money and without price.” The Scriptures place grace and meritorious works very sharply in opposition to each other: “And if by grace, then it is no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then it is no more grace: otherwise work is no more work” (Rom. 11,6). “For by grace are ye saved through faith, and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph. 2,8.9). Many other passages bring out this same thing. Grace means that God deals with us, not according to our merits, but entirely contrary to what we have deserved.
Grace is not a power or virtue infused in us, by which we then of ourselves can work toward our own salvation. This is what the Church of Rome and others mean by salvation by grace. Nor is it a favor which we obtain from God in view of the works which we later on shall be able to do. But it is an outright gift, bestowed on us without any consideration, solely by God’s marvelous love and mercy.
God can do this, and still continue to be a perfectly just and holy God, because our guilt, which deserves God’s wrath and punishment, has already been atoned for by our Savior Jesus Christ, God’s Son. Our whole debt of sin is fully paid. “God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5,8). “Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3,24). Only through the redemption wrought by Jesus Christ through His perfect obedience and His suffering and death can God bestow on us His grace unto salvation.
We must also have the right conception of faith, by which we are made partakers of the righteousness of Christ. Saving faith is not simply giving assent with the intellect to what the Scriptures teach, acknowledging it as true, but it is also a living desire for, and implicit trust in, what the Scriptures promise. When Scripture says that we are justified by faith, it does not mean that faith is a meritorious work by which we are made righteous; it is only the hand, as it were, by which we accept and partake of the righteousness of Christ brought to us in the Gospel. The Apostle Paul says: “Even the righteousness of God which is by faith in Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe” (Rom. 3,22). And: “But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness” (Rom. 4,5). Saving faith “clings to the promise of God in the Gospel and appropriates to itself what the promise offers, namely, the grace of God and the merits of Christ.” Those who would ascribe to faith any meritorious virtue which inclines God toward us and do not look upon it only as the hand or instrument by which the sinner receives God’s grace in Christ do not preserve the doctrine of Justification by Grace Alone pure.
In order to understand rightly the doctrine of justification by faith alone, we must understand what the Gospel is. The Gospel is the “Glad Tidings” which announces to us, brings to us, and makes us partake of, the grace of God which is prepared for us in Jesus Christ. The Gospel proclaims that salvation is prepared for all sinners, and it brings and gives the forgiveness of sin, life and salvation to all who hear it, whether they will accept it or not; for salvation is prepared, not only for those who in faith accept it, but also for those who by their unbelief reject it and are lost. God “will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2,4). The Gospel does not impose any condition which man must fulfill before it applies to him, but it tells the sinner that God in Christ has already declared him righteous, for He has in Christ reconciled the world unto Himself. The Gospel is the “Word of reconciliation” which God has committed to those who are sent to preach the Gospel. (2 Cor. 5,19.)
In the Gospel the Spirit of God is present, and with it He works faith in the hearts of those who hear its message. Therefore the Gospel is called “The power of God unto salvation” (Rom. 1,16). And the Apostle James says: “Of his own will beg at he us by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures” (1,18).
It is very important, therefore, that we also have the right conception of the Scriptural doctrine of conversion, if the doctrine of justification by faith is to be kept pure. In the first chapter of the Gospel according to St. Mark, we are told that after John was put in prison, “Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the Gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye and believe the Gospel.” If the Gospel message is to be of any benefit to us, we must repent and believe. This is what Scriptures call conversion, turning or changing of mind. A person must turn from his way of sin and begin to trust fully in the salvation which the Gospel brings and not only accept Gospel message as true with his intellect. There must be a complete change of heart. Man must become a new creature.
In order to come to a true, living faith in the promises of the Gospel, a person must have come to a knowledge of his sins. Christ says: “They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick” (Matt. 9,12). No one will want forgiveness of sin if he does not know that he is a sinner, or does not feel sorry for the wrong he has done, or if he still believes that he can help himself. In order to convince man that he is sick unto death because of his sins, God uses the Law. From the Law men learn to realize their lost condition, become terrified and genuinely worried about their condition.
When the Gospel call with its assurance of boundless grace comes to such a broken heart, it begins to mean something. And so the Gospel is given an opportunity to heal the broken heart by awakening faith in its glorious assurances and promises. Thus a sinner is converted, thoroughly changed into a new being.
But this change of heart cannot be brought about, either wholly or in part, by man himself, who by nature is “dead in trespasses and sins” and an enemy of God. It is God who by His grace through the Word works knowledge and contrition of sin. And it is God who by the Gospel creates a true living faith in the heart. Scripture calls this a new birth, without which it is impossible to enter into the kingdom of God. Warningly, does Jesus say to the Pharisee, Nicodemus: “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3,3). In the first chapter of the Gospel according to St. John we are told that those who believed “were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (V. 13). In 1 John 5,1 we read: “Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God.” So in a large number of places Scripture speaks of man’s conversion from the state of sin to the state of grace as a regeneration or a new birth, clearly indicating that it is wholly a work of God.
The grace of God, which converts and regenerates the sinner, however, is not irresistible. God does not force His salvation upon us. His Word teaches that if one does not partake of salvation, it is altogether his own fault. prophet Isaiah says (63,21): “I have spread out my hands all the day unto a rebellious people.” Jesus says to the unbelieving Jews: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, … how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not” (Matt. 23,37). And Stephen before the council of the Jews says: “Ye do always resist the Holy Ghost” (Acts 7,51). It is God who by His grace takes away this resistance. But exactly why and how this is done in some and not in others, God has not chosen to reveal to us in such a way that it can be fully comprehended by our reason. But he makes it plain, however, that if we are saved, it is by His grace alone; if we are lost, it is altogether our own fault. “O Israel, thou hast destroyed thyself; but in me is thine help” (Hos. 13,9). If we were to ascribe our conversion in greater or lesser degree to our own co-operation with God, we would no longer believe that we are justified by grace alone.
Finally, we do not have the right conception of justification by faith, unless we accept the Scriptural doctrine of sanctification or the daily renewal. The purpose of Christ’s redemption was not only to save us from the guilt and punishment, but also from the dominion, of sin. The Apostle says: Christ “gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works” (Tit. 2,14). When the Holy Spirit by grace creates a living faith in our hearts, by which we partake of the fruits of Christ’s redemption, it is called regeneration or a new birth. A new life is then created in us, we are awakened from death in trespasses and sins unto a life in holiness. The Apostle says of the believers: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God has before ordained that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2,10).
It is the nature of true faith that it brings forth good works, for “Faith worketh by love” (Gal. 5,6), and a good tree brings forth good fruit (Matt. 7,17). Those who have learned to know the boundless love of God who spared not His only Son but gave Him as a sacrifice to save us from our sins, and who trust implicitly in this salvation, certainly cannot help but love Him, who first loved us. And if we love Him, we will keep his commandments. We cannot help but feel a strong desire to show our gratitude by serving Him faithfully, who has done so much for us. It is not that we are compelled by His commandments, or because we expect thereby to merit anything, but willingly, and solely to show that we are thankful, do we lead a life in thought, word and deed in obedience to God’s will.
This new obedience, however, will continue to be imperfect as long as we are in this life. We must confess with the Apostle: “Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect; but I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3,12). And since we still have the Old Adam in our flesh, we must continually be engaged in a battle against the evil still in us, and we have all reason to complain with the Apostle: “The good that I would, I do not; but the evil which I would not, that I do. … O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” (Rom. 7,19.24.) Some make greater progress in sanctification than others, because in some, faith is stronger than in others. But all true believers will strive in greater or lesser degree to lead a new life. But since it is so hard for even the most advanced believer to bear abundant fruit of his faith, the apostles have found it necessary to devote so much space in their Epistles to exhort, instruct and encourage the believers to sanctification and good works.
Good works are necessary, but not because they have any meritorious value, or because they help to incline God to justify us. We must, therefore, carefully guard against confusing or mixing sanctification with justification, as is so often done. Yet, sanctification is necessary to show that we have a true faith. “Show me thy faith by thy works,” says the Apostle James (2,18). If we do not lead a new life, it is a sign that our faith is dead, no matter how intelligently we may be able to speak about God’s grace and a Christian faith. Those who stress the doctrine of justification by faith alone are often accused of neglecting the need of good works. This is a false charge; for those who have learned to understand what a true, living faith is, realize how closely justification by faith is connected with a holy life.
Throughout its history the Norwegian Synod had to carry on a number of controversies, on Absolution, The Gospel, Justification, Conversion and Election; and in all these controversies the true doctrine of justification was at stake. It certainly was no pleasure to be engaged in these bitter strifes, but it was unavoidable, if we wanted to preserve pure the Biblical doctrine of salvation. It was the “Old Paths” for which our fathers contended, the “good way” on which we must walk in order to obtain eternal rest. From this way our fathers could not be persuaded to turn to the right or to the left for the sake of outward peace; and the example which they thereby have set is the glorious heritage which they have left for future generations. When so many of our brethren let themselves be led to abandon the clear-cut stand which our fathers had taken, in order, as they thought, to gain strength for building the kingdom of God, a few of us exposed ourselves to the fiery ordeal which was brought upon us when we wanted to continue to follow faithfully in the Old Paths. Humanly speaking, our position seemed hopeless. But the Lord has prospered our work beyond what we could have hoped for, so that by His grace we have remained faithful to this day. And as we are about to observe the one hundredth anniversary of the founding of our Synod, our chief concern should be to continue firmly to walk in the “Old Paths.”
There is no doubt that it will become increasingly difficult to remain steadfast in our position in the years that lie ahead. For us who have passed through the fire the danger of faltering will perhaps not be so great. What we once have contended and suffered for has thereby become dearer to us. To the believers in Philippi the Apostle Paul says: “For unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for his sake” (1,29) . He speaks of their suffering as a blessing, which gives them an advantage over others who have not had the same experience. This applies also to us. But now there are not many left of those who lived through those turbulent days. A new generation has grown up to take our places. They, too, have learned to love the Old Paths, but the contention that is necessary in order to stand firm has not been brought so close home to them, as to us who are soon ready to pass on. Times have changed, the dangers have taken on new forms, and even from quarters which formerly gave us the greatest encouragement, there come voices which charge us with leaning backwards in order to remain on the Old Paths.
However, let us not be discouraged. “Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me” (John 14,1). Thus our Savior encouraged His first disciples in the face of the greatest difficulties which confronted them. We surely have a right to find comfort in these same words. As we approach the beginning of a new century of work, let us dedicate ourselves anew to the glorious cause for which our pious fathers fought and suffered, trusting fully that God will be with us as He was with them. Let us be sure that we are right and then courageously go ahead with our work.
Let us not permit ourselves to be led by any force whatever, which the Evil Enemy may release against us, to turn to the right or to the left from the good way. But at the same time let us beware of allowing the Evil One to awaken in our hearts sinful pride, because we are convinced that we have found the only saving truth. This is not owing to any ingenuity of our own, but it is by the grace of God alone that we have been preserved in the truth. Let us appreciate and be thankful for this grace, but let it not instill in us a boastful spirit. We should in deep humility testify to the truth whenever and wherever occasion arises, which requires it. But we should avoid assuming a bellicose attitude which may give people the impression that we find pleasure in strife. Let us always make it plain that it fills us with deep sorrow when we have to oppose attempts to depart from the clear words of Scripture, that it is because we are filled with genuine love to the opponents with whom we have to strive, and that it is a fervent desire to promote their true welfare, which prompts us to testify against their errors. This is not always so easy to carry out in practice, but it is the ideal which we should set before us, and we should pray God to help us always to have this in mind.
We should avoid all uncalled for strife about things which, perhaps, may be of importance in themselves but tend more or less to lead us away from that which is most essential. And let us earnestly seek to avoid personal jealousies which the Evil Enemy so easily may stir up, especially among the teachers in the Church. All disagreements about things that are not essential in order to walk in the Old Paths are sure to interfere more or less with our testimony to that which is “the one thing needful.”
May God grant us grace to ask earnestly for the Old Paths and faithfully to walk in them! May the Holy Spirit enlighten us, so that we may grow in knowledge of the saving truth, bear fearless witness to this truth, live according to it, and finally be led by it into the heavenly mansions!