“Sanctify them through your truth: your word is truth” — John 17:17
Dear fathers and brothers in the Lord!
By the grace of God we have gathered again at the annual synod meeting in order to discuss with each other, under the guidance of the Word of God, how we can best carry out the work which God has entrusted to us as a Synod. Last year we had the privilege of celebrating the 75th Jubilee of the Norwegian Synod. The attempt which was made to curtail our right to celebrate it was only a sad parody of the position of the Norwegian Synod. We ourselves on the other hand could joyfully acknowledge fully the stand of our beloved Synod and celebrate the festival in the same spirit which stirred our fathers when they founded and built the Synod.
We have also been allowed to continue with our testimony to this very hour. The circumstances under which we have had to work have demanded that we should lay particular weight on the testimony concerning the true evangelical doctrine in contrast to the general laxness in confession which characterizes our time and which has gained access with our brethren of old. We have thereby been exposed to the same criticism which was constantly directed against the fathers in the Norwegian Synod, namely, that we put disproportionate weight on pure doctrine to the point that by doing that we neglect working toward furthering a true Christian life among our people.
It has repeatedly been held forth as a glorious fruit of the merger of the Norwegian-Lutheran church bodies in 1917 that the various tendencies among the Norwegian Lutherans in this country have thereby been brought together and this has made possible more all-round church work than before. It is asserted that the old Norwegian Synod’s careful hold-ing fast to the pure doctrine was thus united with the other synods’ zeal for the Christian life and greater spirituality, and that this gives promise of work which will be more rich in blessing in the future.
We, meanwhile, are not ready to admit that such a blessing has come from the merger. Instead of continued holding fast to the pure doctrine and the right principles for church work which the new church body is supposed to have inherited from the Norwegian Synod, there has entered laxness with respect to these things because of the heterogeneous elements which were brought together by the merger. The evil foe is untiring in his attempt at encouraging such laxness in doctrine because if he succeeds in this way in getting the means of salvation damaged, he has won a great victory. It is also so easy for us men to let ourselves be influenced to hold back from taking up the fight which brings unpleasantness for our flesh. It is to be sure so much easier for the flesh to have peace than incessantly to contend for the truth. Neither is anything won for true spirituality and the furthering of Christian life through the merger of the various tendencies. The truth alone is capable of furthering true Christian life. Where this truth is distorted in greater or lesser degree, there the power is diminished which alone can work true sanctification.
Neither will we admit that in the course of the years the Norwegian Synod has laid lopsided weight on the work of preserving pure doctrine at the expense of true spirituality and the furthering of Christian life. On the contrary our Synod has constantly maintained that the work of preserving pure doctrine and of furthering Christian life must go hand in hand. The proclaiming of pure doctrine is a failure unless it produces a true Christian life as fruit. On the other hand it is only a true proclaiming of the truth revealed in the Word of God which is able to further true holiness which can be pleasing to God. This was the position of the old Synod and we take the same position to this day. Instead of serving to further a more diversified church work the merger with them who have taken another position will only bring about disorder in our efforts for proclaiming the whole counsel of God for our salvation.
In the words of Christ’s high-priestly prayer which were chosen as the heading for this address, we learn to know the proper relationship between doctrine and life. Christ is praying for his disciples here: “Sanctify them through your truth!” Here the purpose of Christ’s entire saving-work is stated, namely, that poor sinners can be sanctified. And the purpose of all our church work is to help the poor sinners among whom we work to become partakers in this redemption and thereby to become holy. From the beginning God has placed this demand before men: “You shall be holy; because I, the Lord your God, am holy,” Le. 19:2. God created man in his image. He was holy then, just as God is holy. When man sinned he was driven out of God’s fellowship. And he cannot be readmitted into his fellowship until he is renewed in God’s image and becomes holy as he was before the Fall.
Fallen men who are dead in sin can never acquire such a holiness by themselves. But in his unspeakable love and tender mercy God has given his own Son so that the Son through his redemption can again raise up fallen sinners and make them holy as the first people were when they still had the image of God. This redemption is prepared for all sinners, without exception, because Christ “gave himself a ransom for all,” 1 Ti. 2:6. Yes, with the completion of Christ’s saving work not only an adequate ransom was provided in order to raise up the whole of fallen mankind, but all sinners were thereby also actually sanctified before God because Scripture says expressly: “God in Christ reconciled the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them,” 2 Co. 5:19. Therefore, in Christ the whole world has actually been reconciled with God. When then, all the same, a large portion of mankind is not re-united with God, it is because so many people do not accept the prepared salvation in true faith; because only through faith can we become able to enjoy the fruit of the redemption and obtain a part in the reconciliation. Therefore, the prizes of the promise of Christ’s redemption are especially applied to the believers, or the church which is the assembly of all believing children of God. Thus it says in Ephesians 5:25–27: “Christ loved the church and gave himself for it; that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word; that he might pre-sent it to himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish.” Here the purpose of Christ’s redemption is presented as making the church holy, unblemished, pure, without spot or wrinkle.
But Scripture distinguishes between the holiness into which we are brought through the perfect righteousness which is imputed to us through faith and the holiness which the believer is made capable of exhibiting in his own life. From this come the designations “righteousness of faith” and “righteousness of life.” God requires both of the Christian. Although only the righteousness of faith is a perfect righteousness with which we can stand before God when we appear before his throne, while the righteousness which we ourselves are able to exhibit in our life is highly imperfect, yet God does, however, also require this latter as a fruit of the new life which is bestowed upon us through faith.
When Christ in his high-priestly prayer asks his Father to sanctify the disciples, he is asking for them both the righteousness of faith and of life. They must have the righteousness of faith above all if there is going to be any talk about their becoming holy. “By the deeds of he law there shall no flesh be justified” before God, Ro. 3:20. But Scripture says that “what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us,” Ro. 8:3.4. The apostle Paul says of Christ: “through him is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins: and by him all who believe are justified from all things, from which you could not be justified by the law of Moses,” Ac. 13:38.39. Christ thus becomes “the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believes,” Ro. 10:4.
Thus Scripture teaches us that God has sent his Son to the world so that he should fulfill the demands of the Law for us both through himself fulfilling all God’s commands in our stead during his life here on earth, and through his suffering and death atoning for the sins which we already have committed. In that way he has earned for us a perfect righteousness. This perfect righteousness is imputed to the repentant and believing sinner. In this way the sinner is acquitted of the guilt and punishment of sin and is able to stand in God’s eyes as completely righteous, holy and without blame, just as the first people in the garden of Paradise.
But he who has thus been justified before God through faith cannot continue to serve sin and at the same time remain standing in grace with God. The purpose of Christ’s redemption is not only to earn an imputed righteousness for us but also to make us capable of living a new life. 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,” Ti. 2:14. It is thus a proof that we have begun to enjoy the fruits of Christ’s redemption, that we become zealous of good works. A new life is created in us through faith. This life is created after God in righteousness and true holiness [Ep. 4:24]. Through the death of Christ the old man in us is dead with him. Thus according to the old man we are “buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life,” Ro. 6:4. And the apostle says further: “Being then made free from sin, you became the servants of righteous-ness. But now being made free from sin, and become servants to God, you have your fruit unto holiness,” Ro. 6:18.22.
A host of passages in the Holy Scriptures show clearly how important it is for believers to apply themselves to living a holy life not in order to earn salvation in that way but so that it can appear that by faith we have entered into a living fellowship with our Savior, that his Spirit dwells in us and has restored us again to the image of God. The manner in which this new life expresses itself can certainly often be very imperfect. And an endless struggle will arise between the old and the new man if we are in earnest about living a life in true sanctification. But by the grace of God progress will occur because every true believer is motivated by the mind of the apostle mind which brings him to say: “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,” Ph. 3:12.
But how then can this purpose of Christ’s redemption be attained in us? Christ prays: “Sanctify them in your truth! Your word is truth.” The means through which we can be sanctified is the truth of God which is revealed in his Word. Therefore not everyone whom people can designate as holy are therefore really holy in God’s eyes. Nicodemus had certainly striven with all earnestness to live a holy life and was considered as especially pious by the people who associated with him, but Jesus closes the door to the kingdom of heaven for him until he has learned to know truly how he can be justified before God. Before he became a believer Paul was extremely zealous about keeping the Law and in the eyes of men he was blameless; but after he had his eyes opened for him by the grace of God to his actual condition, he acknowledged that his own holiness was good for nothing and he regarded it altogether loss for the sake of Christ. Thus also now a person can aspire to a kind of holiness through the force of the Law without it being a holiness which will win God’s favor. Only the holiness to which a proper understanding of the truth leads and carries us, will measure up when God’s standard is applied to it.
How important then does it not become to know and to preserve the truth, and to proclaim the truth unadulterated if the purpose of Christ’s redemption is to be attained in us so that we can truly be sanctified. Certainly the purpose is that we can be sanctified, while the understanding and the proclamation of the pure doctrine are only the means through which this purpose is to be attained. However, unless this means is preserved pure and unadulterated, and proclaimed correctly, the great purpose will not be attained.
The true faith with which alone we can appropriate to ourselves the perfect imputed righteousness, arises only through the proper proclaiming of God’s Word of sin and grace. “So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God,” Ro. 10:17. By the Law comes the knowledge of sin, and through the Gospel faith is awakened in the heart. The Gospel of Christ “is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believes,” Ro. 1:16. How important does it not become then, that this Word of God, both the Law and the Gospel, be preserved correctly and purely, and during their proclamation, be rightly divided, so that the sinner shall not escape from the Law’s true demands and rely upon an imagined righteousness, and that the penitent sinner can be brought to build upon the Gospel’s promises and seek salvation by grace alone.
But righteousness of life can also only be produced through a proper knowledge of the truth and through the right use of it. By ourselves we can certainly turn out a righteousness like the Pharisees. We can give sufficient necessary attention to the letter of the Law and guide ourselves by it in the thought of making ourselves righteous and winning praise among men. Or from fear of God’s wrath we can force ourselves to abstain from gross sins and do certain outward works which we know are required of them who want to be called children of God, and yet consider the whole thing a burden which we really would like to throw off ourselves. But Christ says: “Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven,” Mt. 5:20. Only the sanctification which the Holy Ghost works in believers through the Word, which is exhibited without compulsion and without thought of reward, is God-pleasing. Therefore it is of the greatest importance also for righteousness of life that we preserve and proclaim the pure doctrine of God’s Word.
The work of preserving the pure doctrine and of furthering a true Christian life is therefore something which must always go hand in hand. The one cannot be furthered if the other is neglected. We do not therefore expect any real help in the furthering of well-rounded Christian work from those who are indifferent to doctrine. On the contrary, we are convinced that it will only cause disturbance and confusion in the work of true sanctification if we make common cause with such as are not earnestly taking heed to the one effective means to true sanctification which God has given us in his Word of truth.
However, we ought not be indifferent to the benefit which we can have from the criticism which is directed against us that we are so taken up with laying down testimony for pure doctrine that we are neglecting the work of furthering Christian life. We need the reminder and encouragement which also this can give us to do our work faithfully. The temptation to let it rest with this that with the mouth we bear witness to pure doctrine without earnestly applying it to ourselves in such a way that it can be determinative for our whole life, is always present. That is why we can not be reminded often enough of our duty to serve him faithfully who has freed us from the hand of our enemies. When we look at ourselves and at our congregations we must confess shamefacedly that much is lacking, so that we lift up our light as high as we ought to do, so that it can shine before all the world, and people see our good works, and in that way be brought to glorify our Father which is in heaven. Worldly-mindedness and a lack of zeal for God unfortunately so often become apparent among both pastors and hearers. We ought therefore ceaselessly encourage and admonish each other not merely to faithfulness in the work of preserving the truth, but also to greater zeal for letting the fruits of this truth become apparent in our lives.
Among other things we therefore want to discuss “Sanctification” with each other at this meeting. May the Lord bless these discussions of ours so that they may serve to the glory of his name and to true edification for us all. May it be so for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Translated by J. Herbert Larson, 2004