“Behold, I come quickly: hold that fast which you have, that no man take your crown,” Revelation 3:11
Fathers and brothers in the Lord! Grace be unto you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ!
There are several things which fill our hearts with a festive mood when we gather at the Synod meeting this year. First, this time we are reminded in a special way of God’s great mercy and his wonderful leading of our people and our church in the 75 years since the founding of the old Norwegian Synod in 1853. Next, our hearts are filled with joy and thankfulness when we consider God’s mercy toward us, and the blessing which he has allowed to fill us through the first ten years since the reestablished Norwegian Synod was fully organized. Finally, this time we have the great joy of being able to gather in our own place, this splendid school-property of which we have come into possession entirely unexpectedly. We have in truth every reason to celebrate during these days with joy and thanks to God.
Certainly we cannot escape the comparison between our festive mood and that which rested upon the remnant of Israel when they gathered to laud and praise the Lord on the occasion of the foundation of the new temple being laid [Ezra 3:11–13]. The old people who had seen the first temple in its glory wept aloud when they looked at the small and modest temple which was now erected. Yes, so great was the sorrow which they expressed, that “the people could not discern the noise of the shout of joy from the noise of the weeping of the people.”
Thus there is danger that also our joy can be mingled with sadness at this Jubilee of ours, when we see how few and frail we are, and think of how our beloved Synod could have looked if to this day it could have continued its work in its original form. Right after the Synod had celebrated its 25th Jubilee, a bitter internal controversy arose, which ended with fully one-third of the members leaving the old Synod. But things got worse when a trend arose among us not long after we had celebrated our 50th Jubilee, a trend whose goal was to gather all our people under one ecclesiastical banner without being scrupulous about preserving the heritage unimpaired, which our pious fathers who founded our church body 75 years ago, worked faithfully, and strove to leave behind them.
However, it would not be right of us to lose ourselves thus in sad reflections over the trials of the past, so that we thereby lose sight of the great loving kindness which the Lord has shown to us in the years which have passed. How our dear Synod could have looked today if this or that sorrowful thing had not happened, is not for us to reckon. Here too, it is up to us to plant and to water faithfully; it is God alone who must give the appropriate growth.
And when we especially look back upon the sad events of the last years, how must we not then be glad and rejoice over the fact that there is still a little remnant which wants to continue to stand immovably firm on the good foundation which was laid 75 years ago. That the understanding to which the Lord led our fathers during the untiring work and bitter struggles of many years is preserved for us as their true successors is not something which we have deserved; but it is something which the Lord has allowed to happen solely by grace. That it is granted to us still to stand on the same old foundation in spite of the many temptations to which we have been exposed, is certainly the greatest of all the blessings of God toward us as a Synod. Why should we not then be happy and rejoice, and during the Jubilee forget everything which will fill the heart with sorrow, while we acknowledge with thankfulness the good things which we enjoy in this hour, and so arm ourselves, that we can be capable warriors here in the time he still, in grace, will use us in the work of building up his kingdom.
It is a glorious heritage the Lord has preserved for us and which we rejoice over in these festive days. The same challenge which the apostle received, ordering him to direct it to the angel of the congregation in Philadelphia, speaks therefore also to us: “hold that fast which you have, that no man take your crown.” What was it then that that congregation had, to which it was challenged to hold fast? The Lord says about it: “Behold, I have set before you an open door, and no man can shut it; for you have a little strength, and have kept my word, and have not denied my name,” [Rev. 3:8].
Is it not exactly that which we also have received? Certainly, we also have sorely little strength according to human thoughts and calculations. Compared with the forces which otherwise are in action round about us, it is, as we can show, certainly as nothing to compute. With a combination of contempt and pity it is said of us: “But what can those poor people expect to accomplish!” However, we have preserved God’s name and not denied his name. We have continued, according to the example of the fathers, to proclaim a whole and unconditioned Gospel; and we have continued tirelessly and fearlessly to testify against all the errors in doctrine and life which so easily can come in to obscure the glorious truths which are committed to us. We have guarded against entering into such associations which could preclude us the opportunity of laying down a clear testimony to the truth, when and where it is required of us. This has preserved us from both denying God’s name ourselves and becoming partakers in the sins of others, which can lead to such a denial. This then has also given us an open door which no one can close, for a work rich in blessing in the future. As long as we hold immovably firm to this gift and continue earnestly and faithfully to testify according to the example of the fathers, we have a God-given task to discharge and a field of labor as large as the whole world.
In our time unequivocal testimony is sorely needed against all kinds of deviations from the saving truth. We are living in a time of apostasy. The wise of the world have never before so systematically and perseveringly as now, sought to undermine our Christian faith. With their falsely so-called science they are seeking to prove that the highest values of our lives are only superstition, ghosts from a time which perished long ago. Since they have the entire country’s public education machinery as well as its authority, the generation growing up will inevitably fall as an easy prey for their schemings. Yes, in many places one after another organization is being formed with the stated goal of spreading God-denying teaching, in order to erase the Christian faith from the earth.
In the various church bodies there are many who are ready to come to terms with the world, since they maintain that in that way they will try to save Christianity from complete destruction, which they think is inevitable otherwise. They let go of one doctrine after the other which they cannot get to tally with the wisdom of this world. They call themelves spokesmen for modern Christianity, which is adjusted according to the demand of the time, while in actuality, in that way they have let go of the truths on which a poor sinner can build a saving faith.
Against these great apostasies within the Christian church’s own midst, strong protests have certainly been made in recent times from many quarters. A violent battle is going on now within several Christian church bodies, between so-called fundamentalist and modernists or liberals. This battle has served to awaken earnest anxiety in many people over where it is leading. Unfortunately, there is in so many of the defenders of the old faith, a great lack in that they themselves are not sufficiently confirmed in the truth to be able to carry on the battle successfully. They themselves come to terms with human reason in so many ways. By not holding immovably fast to the teaching of the Word of God in all points, they blunt the weapons with which they should be fighting. Human organization, abilities and cleverness will never be able to accomplish anything in the Lord’s war, unless the Sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God, is used in the right way. On the other hand, the word of God’s truth, as truly as it is proclaimed in its fullness, will always conquer. A striking example of this we have in our dear church-father Luther during his unequal battle against the papacy and the world’s powers in league with each other. We have the secret of his success in the battle against all the attacks of the evil foe, expressed in this one line from his own hymn: “One little word can fell him.”
These coarse attacks on our Christian faith are in the mean time not the most dangerous for those who are still seeking earnestly to look to their calling as Christians. When the evil foe comes openly and in his undisguised form, it is really not so difficult to guard against his attack. It is more difficult to stand against him when in more subtle and seemingly innocent deviations he seeks to get us to yield in this or that which we had formerly emphasized, especially when it is put before us with the prospect that in that way we can win great victories for the truth. Here, we have apostasy in its beginning; and if we first begin to yield and in that way take the sting out of our testimony, it will perhaps not be long before we allow ourselves to be ensnared by his more coarse attacks.
The watchword of the time within the visible Christian church seems to be to gather all confessions into harmonious and persevering work for winning the whole world for the kingdom of God. This is undeniably an extremely beautiful thought. It is without a doubt the will of God that all members of the body of Christ are to unite their strengths in a great work for the furtherance of the kingdom of God. But when we try to familiarize ourselves with the practical carrying out of this thought, then the matter is something quite different. Truly effective and God- pleasing cooperation is possible only where there is unity in faith and doctrine. But people are not scrupulous about this in our time. Where there is unity in the main things, people really have to be able to work together, people say. In the meantime, the result becomes, that that about which there has been controversy, must be silenced, and in that way, most often, little or nothing becomes again of specific Christian doctrines. What have people achieved with their working together? They perhaps succeed in building up an imposing machinery for getting work done, but the means with which it is supposed to be done for the salvation of souls, is thus diluted, so that it is no longer good for anything.
The Protestant church bodies at present are so saturated with this unionism that it will be extremely difficult for us to keep ourselves entirely clear of it. Various kinds of Christian societies, to which the members of all Christian confessions have access, are established for furthering missions, charitable work and sociability; and these societies have been able to establish themselves well in various fields, so that it becomes extremely difficult for us to get access to our own work in many places without becoming involved in their organizations in various ways. Sometimes it is asserted, and it must be admitted, that they only have to do with external arrangements, but we know how difficult it is to be able to keep these “external arrangements” and the real work of the church away from each other.
An organization which has spread over the entire country in later years and has gotten great influence especially in the larger cities is the so-called “Federation of Churches.” They are very pushy and consider themselves entitled, briefly said, to be in charge of all church work in the entire country. Most Reformed church bodies participate in it, and many Lutheran congregations are beginning to follow along. The powerful unionistic propaganda which is being urged by this federation means that we will have to watch ourselves carefully and to testify against it with all the talents which the Lord has entrusted to us.
Unionistic tendencies have also taken hold among the Lutheran church bodies to a great extent in the latter years. Without being satisfied with the mergers which already have taken place, certain quarters are agitating persistently for gathering all Lutherans into one church body. They are really not aiming at closer organic union, but for this that the various synods can come to work side-by-side with the best of understanding. And how do people think that this is to be achieved? To be sure, the leading spokesmen for the merger-thinking maintain that there are not any differences worth mentioning between these church bodies. In all the essential things they are agreed. The differences in doctrine and practice which have made themselves felt, are not “church divisive,” they assure us. We therefore do not need to test the spirits according to the Word of God, but let ourselves be satisfied with the assurance which these leading men give us that there is nothing more which stands in the way of full unity. And this friendliness over toward Lutherans with whom they earlier have had controversy, has thus easily reached further, to the various Reformed church bodies. If a person first begins to be indifferent in little things, it quickly goes further, so that in the course of a generation a person can become ripe for the greatest apostasy.
We have a striking example of this in the church in our dear fatherland. The church department has recently refused ordination to the ministry of an applicant who denies some of the most important points of the Christian faith. The Norwegian Lutheran Church here has been censured for not having expressed praise over the church council’s handling of the matter. We certainly have no reason to rejoice over every sign that people want to oppose great errors and defend Christianity’s basic truths where and in whatever manner they occur. But to give the appearance that we want to make common cause with the church in Norway even in a case such as this, we have no desire for, since we are convinced that it is a direct fruit of the lax position toward questions of doctrine and the lack of doctrinal discipline which is so general in the church of the fatherland, that, after all, such candidates announce themselves for the ministry. It will not be long before the situation becomes the same also among us here, if people want to lay out the work along such broad lines that it can hold all who call themselves Lutherans under one roof.
Clear and straightforward testimony against all error and all unionistic movements, such as they were fearlessly displayed by the old Norwegian Synod down through the years, is still greatly needed among us. It is in order to be encouraged to follow the example of our pious fathers in the matter faithfully, that we are celebrating during these days.
When we celebrate the 75th Jubilee of the Norwegian Synod, then it is not as some seem to believe, in order to try to exalt ourselves and to bask in the glory which the achievements of the fathers cast around us; but it is in order that we thereby can be encouraged to hold fast to the glorious heritage which the fathers have left behind, and in order to witness as they did. And we sorely need this encouragement. The prospects for the future which we will have if we will set about seriously following faithfully in the fathers’ footsteps, are not bright as people generally think of these things. They are not fashioned to fill us with pride and thus strengthen the old Adam in us. No, we will draw hatred and contempt upon ourselves, not least from our dearest brethren from former years. But it can’t be helped. If we want to do the will of God faithfully, we must look away from all personal considerations and fearlessly take hold of the resolution of the tasks which God has assigned us.
But let us then not be despondent over the fact that we are so few and have so little of the gifts which are needed for the important work to which the Lord wants to use us. We have that which is mighty to overcome all obstacles, namely, the pure Word of God. He who stands immovably firm on that Word, is invincible. And he who rightly uses this Word zealously and earnestly, can be assured that he will always achieve something with his work, however weak he may be; because it is God himself who works through his Word. If we continue unwearied with witnessing to the truth, we can be assured that our influence will reach far beyond our own narrow circle. Our testimony thus far has without doubt served to spur other Norwegian Lutherans on to guard themselves against too great aberrations. In this regard I am convinced that we have been able to accomplish far more than the brethren who stood together with us during the merger-controversy, but who entered the merger because they thought that there they would get more opportunity to testify for true Lutheranism, than by standing on the outside.
Taken as a whole, we do not need to be apprehensive about the fruits of our work. If we work faithfully and use the opportunities which the Lord himself gives us, he will sufficiently reveal the fruits in his time. The Word of God never returns void. It will always accomplish that for which the Lord sends it.
But then we must really guard ourselves against everything which can hinder the Word from doing its work. That which hinders the proper progress of the Word most of all, is, when in pride we want to use our own wisdom in order to further the business of the kingdom of God, instead of in confidence in the Word’s own power with faithfulness and in all simplicity continuing with proclaiming it to old and young. That which we need more than anything else, is true humility, and the Lord who is mighty in the weak, will then be able to use us as capable instruments in his service. The experiences which we have had during the intense trials which the Lord has allowed us to go through, have been the best school in this regard. And the conditions under which we still have to carry on our work are also shaped to teaching us to be humble. Let us bear this cross patiently in the assurance that it is the Lord’s greatest blessing toward us. It is the best way in which the Lord can make us capable of meeting the tasks which he gives us to solve.
May the Lord then hold his protecting hand over us and strengthen us during our work in the coming year, so that we can hold fast to the glorious heritage which we have received in God’s pure Gospel, and bear testimony to his truth, so that it can also do many other people good. To that end, may the Lord also bless this our meeting for the sake of Jesus Christ. Amen.
Translated by J. Herbert Larson, 2004