June 18, 1973
Esteemed Members and Friends of our Evangelical Lutheran Synod, Grace be unto you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
What is the Evangelical Lutheran Synod? During the past several years especially this question has been asked with increasing frequency by many concerned Lutherans who seek to know more about our church body. We are not a widely known or greatly publicized organization and therefore we can well understand why people would ask the question, “What is the Evangelical Lutheran Synod?”
We need to be able to answer this question not only for those outside our fellowship but also for ourselves. It is well that we ourselves take an objective look at our Synod and ask the question “What does it mean to belong to such a body?”
How, then, shall we answer the question? We believe that the best answer to the question is found in the name of our church body itself: The Evangelical Lutheran Synod. This is a tremendous name. It makes a stupendous claim — namely that of being truly evangelical, truly Lutheran, and truly cooperative. No doubt in the weakness of our sinful flesh we shall all have to confess that we have not lived up to perfection to what that name calls upon us to be. Yet this must be our constant aim and goal to be just the kind of church body that our name says we are.
The first word in that name is a beautiful word—the word “Evangelical.” If you will look at this word you will see the word “angel” in the middle of it. An angel is a messenger. The first two letters of the word mean “something good.” Therefore the word simply means “a message pertaining to something good.” And what in particular is that message of something good? What is that “evangel”? It is nothing else but the grand and glorious news announced by the angels on Bethlehem’s plain, “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.” Luke 2:10–11.
A church body, therefore, which is truly “evangelical” is one which is committed heart and soul to the proclamation of that most wonderful message the world has ever heard, namely that “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. Salvation by grace alone through faith in Jesus Christ must be the central message of a church body which dares to call itself evangelical.
The word “evangelical” stands in direct contrast to the word “legalistic.” At the time of the Reformation a vast system of outward ordinances and institutions had grown up, a stupendous body of ritualistic legalism-under which the old life of the Gospel went out, or became dim, in the heart of millions. The power that ruled the church was the law. But then came God’s Reformer and the light of the Gospel was restored. Charles Porterfield Krauth writes in his “Conservative Reformation” that “The grand distinctive characteristic of the Reformation over against this was that it was evangelical, a restoration of the glad tidings of free salvation in Jesus Christ—and thus it gave to the regenerated Church its exalted character as “Evangelical.” Krauth goes on the say that had the Lutheran Church chosen her own name she would have chosen only that term “Evangelical.” He writes, “She has been known by various titles, but her own earliest and strongest preference was for the name EVANGELICAL, and many of her most devoted sons have insisted on giving her this title without any addition. No title could more strongly express her character, for pre-eminently is her system one which announces the glad tidings of salvation, which excites a joyous trust in Christ as Saviour, which makes the word and sacraments bearers of saving grace.” Krauth, p. 118.
In the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Art. XXIV, a clear contrast is portrayed between the adversaries of the Lutherans who concerned themselves with outward things such as the proper ornaments, candles, and images and the like which adorned the churches. But then the Apology states what is the true function of the evangelical pastor. We read, “On the contrary, by the favor of God, the priests among us attend to the ministry of the Word, teach the Gospel concerning the blessings of Christ, and show that the remission of sins occurs freely for Christ’s sake. This doctrine brings sure consolation to the consciences.” And the Apology goes on to explain what is the true adornment of the church, “The true adornment of the churches is godly, useful, and clear doctrine, the devout use of the Sacraments, ardent prayer, and the like. Candles, golden vessels, and similar adornments are becoming, but they are not the adornment that properly belongs to the Church.”
The Formula of Concord, Thorough Declaration, Art. III, also summarizes what is the character of an evangelical church body. We quote “… our doctrine, faith, and confession are as follows: Concerning the righteousness of faith before God we believe, teach and confess unanimously. .. that poor sinful man is justified before God that is, absolved and declared free and exempt from all his sins, and from the sentence of well-deserved condemnation, and adopted into sonship and heirship of eternal life, without any merit or worth of our own, also without any preceding, present, or any subsequent works, out of pure grace, because of the sole merit, complete obedience, bitter suffering, death, and resurrection of our Lord Christ alone whose obedience is reckoned to us for righteousness.”
This, then, dear friends is the great meaning of that word “evangelical.” And the spirit of true “evangelicalism” demonstrates itself in a church body in many ways. It shows itself in pastors who have a real compassion for the souls under their care and want nothing more than to comfort them with the sweet Gospel. As Francis Schaeffer has put it, “Orthodoxy without compassion is most ugly.” It shows itself in sermons, which of course must set forth the Law in all of its severity to prepare the way for the Gospel, yet the predominant theme is that of pardon, grace and peace in Christ. It is found in the lay people who have a deep concern for the welfare of their beloved congregations, who love their pastors and fellow members, who put up with each others faults, and who are dedicated to sharing the Gospel message and not just sitting on it.
Yes, how beautiful is a truly evangelical church. Its message and spirit is characterized by the words of Grundtvig’s comforting hymn:
Peace, to soothe our bitter woes,
God in Christ on us bestows;
Jesus bought our peace with God
With His holy precious blood;
Peace in Him for sinners found,
Is the gospel’s joyful sound.
Peace to us the Church doth tell,
’Tis her welcome and farewell;
Peace was our baptismal dower,
Peace shall bless our dying hour;
Peace be with you, full and free,
Now and through eternity. (Lutheran Hymnary, No. 49)
The second word in the name of our church body is, of course, the word “Lutheran.” This word also calls to mind such a vast wealth of meaning that we hesitate to begin to describe it in a few paragraphs.
Caspar B. Nervig shows how the Lutheran Church is really the original apostolic church restored. He writes, “It is a mistake to think of the Lutheran Church as being four hundred years old. It is over nineteen hundred years old. Sure, its name and its confessions date from the Reformation period, but as a historical church it does not date from the time that Luther nailed the Theses on the door of the Castle Church, nor from the time he stood before the Diet at Worms, nor even from the Diet at Augsburg. It dates from the first Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came upon the New Testament Church. Martin Luther was not the founder of the Lutheran Church; he was the re-discoverer and the restorer of the original church.” Nervig, Christian Truth and Religious Delusion, p. 11.
Luther refused to take credit to himself for the pure doctrine that he had re-discovered. “It is not my doctrine, not the product of my hand, but God’s gift. Good Lord, I have not spun it out of my head; it did not grow in my garden; it did not flow from my spring; it was not born of me. It is God’s gift, not any invention of man. We are nothing; Christ alone is all. If he turns away His face, we must perish, and Satan will triumph, even though we were as holy as Peter and Paul. Let us therefore humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt us in due time; for God resisteth the proud but giveth grace to the humble.” Luther, VIII, p. 27; XIV, p. 455.
The name Lutheran was first used by Eck, when he published the Bull against Luther. It was used by the Romans as a term of reproach. Luther strongly disapproved of the use of his name, while he warned men at the same time against such a repudiation of it as might seem to imply a rejection of the doctrine of God’s Word preached by him. “Let us not call our Church Lutheran,” said Gustavus Erichson, King of Sweden, “let us call it Christian and Apostolic.” (Krauth, p. 118)
It is not indeed difficult, however, to see why the name of Luther should attach itself so firmly to the part of the Church in whose Reformation he was the noblest worker. Krauth writes, “Without Luther, we see no evidence that the Reformation of the sixteenth century would have taken place … No position is so commanding as that of Luther. He rises above the crowned heads, above the potentates in Church and in State, and above all the Reformers of his era. In this or that respect he has had equals … but in the full circle of those glorious gifts of nature and of grace which form a great man, he had no superiors and no equals. He sustained a responsibility such as never rested upon any other man, and he proved himself sufficient for it.” Krauth, p. 119.
We are therefore today justly proud to bear the name Evangelical Lutheran, not mainly because of the person and work of the great reformer, but because of the glorious doctrine of the Gospel which Luther restored and which is confessed today in the Lutheran Confessions.
The three great principles of the Lutheran Faith must ever be upheld: SOLA SCRIPTURA, SOLA GRATIA, AND SOLA FIDEL Scripture Alone, Grace Alone, and Faith Alone. These three “SOLAS” summarize the Lutheran position. It is tragic that in our day some would undermine the first of these, namely SOLA SCRIPTURA. By viewing the Holy Scriptures as a purely human book, subject to human fallibilities and misconceptions, the very foundation of our faith is attacked. By subjecting the Scriptures to a method of interpretation known as the “historical-critical method” the Holy Book becomes merely another piece of ancient literature rather than God’s verbally inspired and inerrant Word. The authority for our faith and life is thus gradually shifted from divine revelation to the sinking sands of man’s “religious experience” or his “existential encounter” with God.
The Lutheran Church is also very distinctive in this respect that it has the LUTHERAN CONFESSIONS, those wonderful writings contained in the Book of Concord which set forth the clear teachings of Scripture. In the introduction to the Concordia Triglotta which contains these confessions F. Bente writes: “The Lutheran Church differs from all other churches in being essentially the Church of the pure Word and unadulterated Sacraments. Not the great number of her adherents, not her organizations, not her charitable institutions, not her beautiful customs and liturgical forms, etc., but the precious truths confessed by her symbols in perfect agreement as well as the never-failing source of her vitality and power. Wherever, the Lutheran Church ignored her symbols or rejected all or some of them, there she always fell an easy prey to her enemies. But wherever she held fast to her God-given crown, esteemed and studied her confessions, and actually made them a norm and standard of her entire life and practice, there the Lutheran Church flourished and confounded all her enemies.”
Another special blessing of the Lutheran Church is that in its Confessions it shows that it clearly understands the proper distinction between the two great doctrines of the Bible, the LAW and the GOSPEL. The Formula of Concord calls this a “special brilliant light,” namely the understanding of this proper distinction. We quote, “As the distinction between the law and the Gospel is a special brilliant light, which serves to the end that God’s Word may be rightly divided, and the Scriptures o(.the holy prophets and apostles may be properly explained and understood, we must guard it with especial care, in order that these two doctrines may not be mingled with one another …” Formula of Concord, Art. V. and Dr. Walther writes, “Now of all doctrines the foremost and most important is the doctrine of justification. However, immediately following upon it, as second in importance, is this, how Law and Gospel are to be divided.”
We, then are proud to be called the “Evangelical LUTHERAN Synod,” surely not due to any merit or worthiness of our own, but simply that God in His rich grace has preserved His pure doctrine in our midst.
Finally, as our name denotes, we are a “synod,” that is a group of congregations which have decided under God to work together to carry out the great commission, “Go and make disciples of all nations.” We have been engaged in this joint work now for 56 years and we can only marvel at how the Lord has blessed us. From a mere handful of pastors and people, bereft of institutions, despised and alone, there has grown up an active church body that is bringing Christ to a goodly number of people not only in tins country but also in foreign lands. At this year’s convention six new congregations and six pastors are applying for membership. We have a real opportunity in these troubled times to let the light of true evangelical Lutheranism shine forth. We have the opportunity to become a haven of refuge for those who find that they can no longer walk together with those who would undermine the authority of the Word. What happens in the future, of course, we leave in the hands of our gracious God, but it is up to us to let our light shine, to continue to remain truly “evangelical” and truly “Lutheran.”
To carry out our witness is going to call for greater sacrifice in giving, more dedication to our joint endeavors, more fervent prayer, more and deeper theological study, and as our convention theme sets forth, more serving one another by love. We need to stand together as a solidly united church body. The Lord has need of our voice and our witness today as never before. May this convention therefore prove to be one which is marked by a strong determination to get on with the Lord’s business’ of saving blood bought souls, feeding precious flocks, training future workers, and continuing in faithfulness to His saving Word.
We love our Reformation Church
For she reveres her Lord,
She teaches naught, confesses naught,
But from the written Word;
Her voice is like our Saviour’s voice,
Compassionate and kind,
She teaches us the Gospel pure—
Thus we salvation find.
We love our Reformation Church
Because she leads us on,
To heaven and God — the Church above,
Where Christ our Lord hath gone:
We follow in the steps of Him,
The Life, the Truth, the Way,
The Morning Star that lights the path
From darkness unto day.
Then with our Luther, bold and true,
And loyal to each vow,
We’ll stand with Christ and for His Church,
As God doth call us now;
In protest strong, ‘gainst every wrong,
Proclaim His truth alone—
This faith shall still be dear to us,
Our fathers’ and our own.
In Jesus name. Amen.
Rev. G. Orvick