“Let us hold fast our profession,” Hebrews 4:14
Esteemed fathers and brothers in the Lord!
When we gather this year for a synod meeting for the second time in our own place, we can again celebrate a glorious anniversary, namely the 400th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession, the chief confession of our Lutheran Church. Since 1917 we have been able to celebrate festivals in thankful remembrance again and again of the great events through which God again brought to light through the Reformation the saving truths which had been hidden from the church of God under the papacy for a long time. This is the last in the series of the great jubilees which we thus have been able to celebrate. The Augsburg Confession is, as it were, the crown of the work of the Reformation, because in this Confession we have a well-considered, mature presentation of the doctrines which God has revealed in his Word in order to make us wise unto salvation.
When Luther posted the Ninety-five Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg in 1517, he had certainly gotten his eyes opened to a portion of the errors in which the Roman Church was ensnared, and he had come to the knowledge of the truth, in contradistinction to those errors. But he was still very unclear with regard to the shocking conditions in which the church found itself under the papacy. He and his coworkers first got a full understanding of it gradually, during the trials which followed after the battle was begun. The attempt which was made with power and cunning on the pope’s part to get Luther to be silent, served even more to open his eyes to the spirit by which his opponents were ruled, and it drove him to greater zeal in his inquiry into the truth. The attacks for which the evangelicals were made the target, and the disputations which they had to carry on with their opponents both in print and orally, drove them to more earnest study of the Holy Scriptures and of history. In that way they were led to a steadily deeper insight into the innermost nature of the papacy and they learned to understand more thoroughly how far the church had departed under the papacy from the church of the apostles in doctrine and life. Luther himself says about it: “Whether I want to or not, I need to become more learned from day to day, since so many and such great teachers are competing with each other to force me into it.”
It was a serious battle which they had to wage. It was not for pleasure and a pasttime; but it was a life and death struggle. Luther himself was placed under the ban by the pope, and the following year, at the Diet in Worms in 1521, he, as well as all those who shared his faith and confession, were made outlaws by the emperor, so that whoever could, could take their lives without being punished for it. Thus they continued their work under constant danger to their lives. Only the deepest conviction that they were engaged in a battle for the preservation of the saving truth, could give them courage for continued work.
The emperor in the meantime was so occupied with putting other difficult matters in his far-flung empire into order, that he did not get a chance to carry out the provisions of the Edict of Worms. This was a providence of God through which the reformers were given opportunity for several years, during continued study of the Word of God to test the doctrines which they had set forth, and in general, to organize themselves under the new conditions.
But it was, however, only a temporary respite. When the emperor had concluded peace with the French king in 1529, with whom he had waged war for several years, it was his intention to force the evangelicals to cease their defiance of the papacy. At the Diet in Speyer that same year the Catholic majority demanded that the Edict of Worms should be carried out, that Luther and his followers should be burned, and that the Catholic Church should be reintroduced forcibly in the lands where the Reformation was introduced. The evangelical princes registered their solemn protest against this, from which they received the name “Protestants.”
Since the emperor did not risk an attempt at forcing the evangelical princes now, mostly because of the danger which was threatening the kingdom through the invasion of the Turks, he issued a writ for the convening of a diet at Augsburg in 1530, where his intention was to get the religion-matter finally decided in a bit more mild manner. The evangelical princes were in-formed that they had to be prepared to give an account of their faith. This then became the occasion for the drawing up of the Augsburg Confession.
The Augsburg Confession was written after the evangelicals came to the Diet. The author was Melanchthon. But the entire Confession was worked out on the basis of articles which were authored and considered earlier. It was thus no work of haste, but a well thought-out presentation of the Scriptures’ chief doctrines. It was the fruit of many years’ diligent searching into the Holy Scriptures during pitched battles against enemies of the truth. The Confession contained the doctrines of faith for which the confessors were ready to give their lives if it should be called for. It was a brief and straightforward declaration to all the world of the faith which motivated the Reformers, and on which they would have their future work.
The reading of the Augsburg Confession at the Diet on June 25, 1530 can therefore be considered as the birthday of the Lutheran Church. Certainly, they had an excellent presentation of the Christian doctrines in Luther’s Small and Large Catechisms, but these Catechisms were not published exactly with the intent that they were to serve as confessional writings in the way which was the case with the Augsburg Confession.
This was the first confession of faith set forth since the time of the Ancient Church and the first confession within Christendom which gave a thorough presentation of the Christian doctrines. Here we have a banner under which we can draw up in battle array confidently in the midst of the chaos of errors which surround us on all sides in the world. We truly have every reason to celebrate with thanks and praise to God for what he has given us in this excellent Confession.
As true Christians and as true Lutherans it is our primary task to hold steadfastly to this Confession which we have received as a heritage from our fathers. When the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews says: “Let us hold fast our profession” [4:14], then he means by that the confession of the saving truth which has obtained so excellent a hearing in the chief Confession of our church. And when we consider our position in the light of the events of the most recent years within our church, then it is truly a challenge to apply ourselves faithfully to the Confession. Constant attention to the correct form of the sound word is necessary now more than ever before if we are not going to be dragged along with the current errors. And nothing is more dangerous than to silence portions of the truth in order to win as many friends as possible, so that in that way our work can be looked upon as something great in the eyes of the world.
History teaches us how easily we can come to lose the truth which we have learned to acknowledge, if we are not constantly on guard. The decades right after the writing of the Augsburg Confession became a real period of trial for the Lutheran Church. It was only as if through a miracle of God that people did not come to lose altogether the treasures which they had in this Confess-ion. The greatest danger did not consist in this that the papacy still sought with might and cunning to destroy the Lutheran Church. Far more dangerous were the attempts which were made by false brethren to enter into a better relationship toward their opponents through concessions and compromise.
On several occasions before his death, Luther himself had warned his co-workers against the dangers to which his dear church would be exposed in the future. He had also predicted in explicit words, how things would go after his death. In his last sermon, preached shortly before his death, Luther says:
Hitherto you have heard the real, true Word, now beware of your own thoughts and your own wisdom. The devil will kindle the light of reason and rob you of your faith. This is what happened to the Anabaptists and the anti-sacrament Arians, and now we have nothing left but instigators of heresy … I foresee that, if God does not give us faithful ministers, the devil will tear our church apart through the sectarians and he will never cease until he has accomplished it. In a word, that is simply what he has in mind. If he cannot do it through the pope and the emperor, he will accomplish it through those who are still in accord with us in doctrine … Therefore earnestly pray God that he may leave the Word with you, for some surprising things are going to happen.
[Luther’s Works, American Edition, Volume 51, “Last Sermon in Witten-berg, 1546,” pages 377-378; emphasis added by President Anderson].
Luther noticed a lack of earnestness and zeal for the combating of error in his own brethren in the ministry in Wittenberg which made him suspicious. In his concern over it, he wrote in capital letters over the door to his study: “OUR PROFESSORS OUGHT TO BE EXAMINED CONCERNING THE LORD’S SUPPER.” When the Wittenberg professor, Major, read that and asked what it was supposed to mean, since he protested that he harbored no false doctrine, Luther answered among other things:
By your silence and by your attempt to gloss over yourself, you bring suspicion upon yourself. But if you really do believe in the way in which you have expressed yourself to me, then express that faith also in the church, in your sermons, in your public lectures and in your private conversations. Strengthen your brethren, help the erring onto the right way again and gainsay the recalcitrant spirits; otherwise your confession is only words. Whoever is convinced that his doctrine, faith and confession are right and true, cannot stand in the same stall with others, who harbor and teach false doctrine, or continue to speak well of the devil and his journeymen. A teacher who keeps silent to error and nevertheless wants to be considered a teacher of the truth, is worse than obvious enthusiast, and with his hypocrisy does greater harm than a heretic.*
We understand what Luther was driving at. What Luther had prophesied, be-came all too true. A very unfortunate time arose for the Lutheran Church after his death. Some months after Luther’s death, the pope and the emperor entered into an alliance with the goal of eradicating the hated Lutheran heresy. The war which now broke out brought severe tribulations upon the evangelicals. During these tribulations many of the evangelical teachers were willing to make concessions for the sake of peace. A series of internal controversies arose among the Lutherans, about justification and good works, about free will and original sin, about the Law and the Gospel, as well as about the Lord’s Supper. During these controversies it became apparent that many of them, who, it is true, had accepted the Augsburg Confession, nevertheless were not true to that Confession. The greatest harm, however, was caused during those controversies by those who were ready to make concessions for the sake of peace and to draw up compromises between the contending parties, whose ambiguous expressions could accommodate them who in reality were disagreed in both one and another point. In the lead among these men, unfortunately, must be mentioned Phillip Melanchthon, who had written the Lutheran Confession, together with its Apology, during the Diet in Augsburg. As the author of the Confession, he thought he had the authority to make changes in its wording, also after it was adopted as a general Confession. This is how the Altered Augsburg Confession came into being, which finally took on such a form that it was acceptable to the Reformed also. It is hardly conceivable that Melanchthon was himself conscious of having deviated from the faith and doctrine for which he had earlier been so capable a champion. But in his zeal for uniting all the evangelicals under one banner, he let himself be led to undertaking these alterations.
But there were enough of them who were ready to take advantage of this weakness of Melanchthon, and who through the help of the respect which they had won, worked for uniting the Lutherans with their opponents at the expense of the truth. They succeeded in leading the Electoral Prince, August of Saxony, back to the light, so that the true Lutherans who opposed their plans were persecuted and exiled for a while. As liberal and considerate as they are toward those who believe otherwise, so severe and fanatical are they over toward the true champions of the truth. It was only as through a miracle of God that these traitors’ schemes were revealed, so that they were dismissed from their service in the Lutheran Church, because they were followers of a strange religion.
This unmasking gave support to the appointment of a commission consisting of capable and confessionally-faithful theologians to write a treatise which was to set forth plainly the correct doctrine, in agreement with the Augsburg Confession, in the points about which there had been controversy. The result of this commission’s work is the Formula of Concord. This treatise, which put an end to the doctrinal controversies which had been carried on ever since Luther’s death, was completed and was adopted in most of the churches in Germany, already in 1577. But the Formula of Concord, together with the other Lutheran Confessions, was solemnly made public and first published on the occasion of the Augsburg Confession’s 25th anniversary, June 25, 1580.
Thus we can also celebrate the 350th Jubilee of the publication of the Formula of Concord and the Book of Concord this year. What an excellent treasure the Lord has given us in the Confessions of our church! No other church body possesses such a treasure. No one needs to be in doubt about what our Lutheran Church teaches and confesses. Through its excellent confessional writings the Lutheran Church bears a clear and distinct testimony before the whole world about its faith, and in these writings the church’s own children find instruction in their search after the truth. They are the banner under which we united and can fight for the preservation of the truth for ourselves and our children, and work for the building up of the true church of God. We truly have reason to thank God and to celebrate a Jubilee during these days.
But our Jubilee will be a blessing only when we let it encourage us to hold fast to our church’s good confession with unshakeable faithfulness. In order rightly to be able to hold fast to the confession, we must zealously seek to ground ourselves thoroughly in what it teaches, and likewise diligently search the Holy Scriptures in order to see their bearing upon these things. And then when we are convinced that this confession of ours is thoroughly grounded in the Word of God, we must let it become apparent with power and zeal that this is the confession of our heart, and we must bear a compelling testimony about everything which contradicts it and threatens to take these glorious truths from us.
It is not enough that we have formally adopted the Confessions, call ourselves Lutherans and speak in eloquent language about our church’s glorious past and its vigorous work in the present. It has become fashionable in more recent times to advertise our church’s great achievements in such a way that they are to appear impressive in the eyes of the world; but unfortunately, the greatness which people want to rejoice in so much, is so often thought to be achieved by making concessions and deducting something both here and there in order to be able to gather as many people as possible under one banner. The controversies which have been carried on internally between Lutherans are to be laid aside and forgotten, and criticism and charges of deviations from pure doctrine and true church practice are to cease, so that everyone who calls themselves Lutherans can work in harmony for making the Lutheran Church a great and powerful institution.
But the silence over toward many errors which arises in that way, is precarious. The lack of unequivocal testimony against the many phenomena within the Lutheran Church itself, which testify of departures from true Lutheran doctrine and practice, creates a spirit of indifference which will become a problem for work of this kind in the future. Thus we find that where the spirit of unionism has become prevalent, many who earlier were conscientious confessors, find themselves “standing in the same stall with others who harbor and teach false doctrine.” We also certainly need to take Luther’s warning word to heart.
Our old fathers in the Norwegian Synod have set us an example worth following in unyielding faithfulness to the Confessions. When the Synod was founded, those who had to take the lead in the ground-laying work, were in large measure young and inexperienced; but they recognized what a heavy responsibility it was which rested upon them who were to establish a free church in the new land. More than anything else their work was to preserve the truth unadulterated. They threw themselves diligently into the study of the Holy Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions, and while they themselves in that way were strengthened in the knowledge of the truth, they were never silent over departures from it. They were indeed for that reason made the object of much opposition and bitter attacks; but they endured that for the truth’s sake, and with their unequivocal testimony they carried on their work in unshakeable faithfulness to the Confessions for a period of over fifty years.
But as the old, faithful confessors laid down their work, there entered a period of slackness among us. There was really hardly anyone who wanted to let go of the truth and accept errors, fully conscious that that was what he was doing. But so many had become tired and weary of controversy in the church, so that they were willing to make the concessions which were necessary in order to be able to unite with their former opponents. They were not unimportant things around which controversy had turned in the course of the years: justification, absolution, the Gospel, man’s natural depravity, conversion, and election. To want to maintain that the disunity which came to light during these controversies was only apparent and that they were just based on mis-understandings, is simply foolish. And yet, one of the leading and influential men in the Merger can say ten years after the merger, without being contradicted, that none of the parties has changed their doctrine, but that they teach the same now as before the merger.
What such a silence leads to when it comes to bearing an unequivocal testimony to the Confessions and against all false doctrine, has become very obvious in the developments which have taken place since that merger was accomplished. Our brethren of old have thereby broken from the portion of the Lutheran Church in this country, which down through the years has shown the greatest faithfulness to the Confessions. On the other hand, immediately after the merger, they entered into ever so close an association with the most liberal of the Lutheran church bodies in this country. Yes, not only in this country, but people are also seeking to enter into closer association with the Lutheran state churches in Europe. To begin with, the attempts which were made in their direction were supposed to be regarded as being completely unofficial; but little by little, it has been no secret that the Norwegian Lutheran Church in America is looked upon as a force in this work. Delegates to the large Luther-an world conferences are nominated quite officially, and these meetings are receiving mention in the periodicals of the church body.
According to the reports which were made public from the recently concluded annual meeting, the Norwegian Lutheran Church decided to enter into a federation which is to be formed between various synods with which the old Norwegian Synod did not practice fellowship. During the formation of this federation, people have taken for granted that there is unity of faith between those synods, and attention is called to the fact that “Pulpit and Altar Fellowship” have been declared. How have people come to know that such a unity of faith exists? Well, a committee consisting of delegates from the various church bodies met for “an entire day” and accepted a list of brief theses. No further efforts have been made for making those theses generally known. They have been accepted by the various synods without there being reason to believe that the individual members of those church bodies have made them the object of any thorough consideration. And in that way then, it is to be decided that full unity of faith exists between these church bodies. In the statement of this federation’s purpose, nothing is mentioned about the fact that mutual discipline is to be practiced with regard to doctrine and practice; only that the federated church bodies are to be given opportunity to bear witness to their unity of faith and mutually give each other counsel with regard to faith, life and church work. So easily are people carried away with bringing together a group of church bodies which for several generations had adopted differing points of view in several important points. And that loose principle for church fellowship and cooperation is now adopted by most Lutherans of Norwegian descent in this country, yes, also most of them who formerly belonged to our dear Synod.
Here we stand now again, a little handful who by God’s grace have had the courage to refuse to bow our knees before the god of the times. We have chosen rather to expose ourselves to the world’s mockery and scorn rather than to follow with the stream. And it is just because we have not risked taking the preservation of the glorious heritage which was given to us in the Augsburg Confession and the other Lutheran Confessions so lightly. We are of the conviction that it is not enough merely to adopt these Confessions formally, and that it is not a sufficient guarantee for unity of faith, that someone has merely adopted them formally, but that it is our duty conscientiously to examine who really is faithful to these Confessions. And it is possible for us to learn that; because by their fruits we can know them who are faithful, as well as them who are unfaithful to the Confessions.
The Lord has thus given us a singular task, namely with all vigor to bear an unequivocal testimony to the importance of being faithful to the Confessions. We ought to use every opportunity for that with the abilities the Lord has given us, to complain about the unfaithfulness to the Confessions which is appearing among us, and all the “humbug” which has become so common when it comes to raising a pure flag in doctrine and matters of faith. In order to become capable of discharging this task, it is up to us to search the Word of God diligently so that we ourselves can come to an ever deeper understanding of the saving truths, so that we, zealously and in prayer to God, study the times and the situations in which we are to be bearing our witness. And we must watch ourselves well, so that in our zeal for testifying against error we do not overshoot the target by attacking phenomena, which even if they do not please our taste, nonetheless do not contradict the Confessions. Otherwise, we could come to harm our own cause and ourselves be the reason that our testimony does not gain a hearing with them who otherwise would accept it.
But what can we who have so little opportunity to get our testimony out to the people really expect to accomplish with our testimony? To our human thoughts it can appear quite hopeless. But let us remember the Savior’s words: “It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father has put in his own power” [Ac. 1:7]. If we are convinced that the Lord has given us a task, then let us cheerfully take hold of it and be assured that the results of our work are in God’s hands. The Lord can let us get to see far greater fruits of our work than we ever dared anticipate, if not for a long time. Or, it can be that the time has come when all work for the furtherance of the truth shall seem to be altogether fruitless. It is not for us to know. Our work is to work while it is day, before the night comes when no one can work. All that is required of stewards is that they be found faithful.
We are also reminded this year in a special way, with thanks to God, of how Christianity was introduced in the land of our fathers 900 years ago. Large celebrations are being held both here and in Norway on this occasion. Even if we cannot be officially represented during these festivities for various reasons, yet it is not a sign that we do not appreciate and thank God that in his unreachable love he brought the light of the Gospel to the far north and let our people get to enjoy good things from this light down through the years. The Synod itself must determine whether special consideration is to be taken of this during our festivities at this meeting, and in that case, in what manner it ought to occur.
Special preparations are made for a worthy celebration of the 400th Jubilee of the Augsburg Confession, both through the essays which shall be delivered, and during Sunday’s festivities.
May God in grace bless the meeting and its discussions, so that it may be to the edifying of the meeting’s participants, as well as for the entire Synod, and serve to the furtherance of his kingdom. God grant it for Jesus’ sake. Amen
Translated by J. Herbert Larson, 2004
* The emphases in this quote are President Anderson’s. His reference is to a Norwegian translation of a work by C.F.W. Walther, titled in Norwegian Konkordie formelens kjerne [The Heart of the Formula of Concord], p. 33. I have that book and I find the reference; but I find no place where Walther gives the source of his quotation from Luther. [Translator’s note.]