June 21, 1976
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.
In this Bicentennial year of our country it certainly is fitting that we of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod should take proper note of this historic occasion. We would indeed be ungrateful children of God if we did not pause to reflect upon the many blessings which He has so freely bestowed upon us and to consider also our serious responsibilities as Christian citizens. We have therefore chosen as the theme for this convention the words of Holy Scripture, “Righteousness Exalteth a Nation.” We would also not forget the second part of that passage which reads, “But sin is a reproach to any people.” Prov. 14,34. We leave it to our essayist to expound this matter at length but we would like to introduce the subject with a few thoughts and observations.
In what spirit shall we of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod observe the 200th anniversary of our beloved country? We would state first of all that we ought to do so in a spirit of real thanksgiving and praise to our gracious God for all the temporal blessings which he permits us to enjoy. We surely live in a land that is “flowing with milk and honey” for most of its citizens. For the majority of the members of our synod there has been a rich abundance of material prosperity. While such affluence certainly carries with it grave spiritual dangers, as Paul writes to Timothy, “They that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition,” I Tim. 6,9, yet we nevertheless recognize all temporal blessings as gifts of God which we may use as good stewards for our earthly enjoyment and welfare and especially for the good of our neighbor. “Every good and perfect gift is from above and cometh down from the Father of lights.” James 1,17. We confess with Luther in the explanation of the First Article, “that He has given me clothing and shoes, meat and drink, house and home, wife and children, fields, cattle and all my goods; and that He richly and daily provides me with all that I need for this body and life.” It is to this same Lord that we owe the fact that “the pastures are clothed with flocks; the valleys also are covered over with corn; they shout for joy, they also sing.” Ps. 65,13.
The early forefathers of our Evangelical Lutheran Synod found religious freedom in this land. They were free to preach and teach the Word of God, to establish congregations, to do mission work, to organize our Synod and to go about the Lord’s work without fear of government intervention or persecution. When the great doctrinal controversy of the past came upon the church the members were free to debate, speak their minds, to join whichever congregation or synod they desired, to re-organize a church body and to take their stand according to their consciences. They were not coerced into any unscriptural compromise of their faith such as took place so often in Europe.
We owe a real debt of gratitude to the founders of our country who wrote the Declaration of Independence, adopted 200 years ago on the Fourth of July, and also the Constitution. They were not men who shared our faith but were of a Deistic persuasion. Nevertheless the guarantees of freedom and liberty which they wrote into those historic documents have served us well for these two centuries.
Today at this 1976 Convention of our beloved Synod we also enjoy these blessings. We assemble here with the freedom to espouse the doctrines of our faith, to debate the business at hand, and to make our plans for the future without the threat of fine or imprisonment for what we do. How many saints and noble martyrs there have been who have laid down their lives for their faith! How many have suffered unspeakable tortures because of their convictions. We surely must offer up our heartfelt thanks that we have been spared such adversity and are permitted to practice our beliefs in comparative peace and tranquility.
We ought also to observe this anniversary with an attitude of realistic awareness of our country’s problems, failures, and shortcomings. The old saying that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” ever remains true. Our Bicentennial spirit should not therefore be characterized by a blind patriotism that is not cognizant of the pitfalls and dangers that lurk all around us. In 1941 the president of our land eloquently enunciated the aim of establishing the so-called “Four Freedoms” — Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want and Freedom from Fear. These are certainly admirable goals but if we survey the scene with a discerning eye we can readily note that such objectives are very elusive and that we are a long ways from attaining all of them. While we do enjoy these four freedoms a good deal more than most other countries of the world, yet for many in our land there is still a good deal of want, fear and frustration. The dream of a country in which “alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears” has not been realized, and given the corrupt nature of man’s heart its fulfillment is not to be expected. The decaying, crime ridden, smog and smut filled inner cities can hardly be described as “gleaming,” and that city which is “undimmed by human tears” will not be found until we reach that which bears the name “the New Jerusalem” where “God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes.” Rev. 21,4.
Without falling into an attitude of despair we also need to be aware of the moral ills which plague our land. While we take great pride in being the “land of the free” we also face the fact that many are pursuing the idea of personal freedom to such an extent that liberty is changed into license. Such freedom without responsibility carries within it the seeds of its own destruction. The increase in crime, abortion, pornography and corruption in the highest levels of government down to the back alleys of the inner city, must cause our merciful God to see the makings of another Sodom and Gomorrah. The philosophy of atheistic evolution pervades our institutions of learning from kindergarten through graduate school. Schools in which God’s Word may be taught are systematically placed in extreme jeopardy by a tax structure which makes it very difficult for them to expand and develop and, in many cases, even to exist. The alarming divorce rate which threatens the institution of marriage as well as the disregard for the sanctity of the home and family signal an additional storm-cloud on the horizon of the future.
In view of these and many other factors which could be cited it is well that we of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod observe this anniversary with sober reflection, with penitence and with earnest prayer. A poet has well summarized the situation in these familiar words:
“Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.”
We cannot help but be effected in our thinking by the society in which we live. The materialistic and amoral spirit of the times finds root in our hearts also. To those who regard themselves as safe and secure from the temptations and ills which influence mankind the Bible has only this to say, “Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall.”
It is of special importance that we be reminded of our specific calling as Christians in the words of our Saviour, “Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savor, wherewith shall it be salted? It is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men. Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” Matt. 5,13–16.
Christians everywhere, including those in the congregations of our Evangelical Lutheran Synod, should remember our nation’s great need for salt and light in order that our land may be preserved from the corruption and darkness which always threatens to engulf it. Christian example, Christian testimony, earnest prayer and Christian teaching can still have a profound effect upon the welfare of a country. Let us realize how much our beloved land needs such an influence if it is to survive for another 200 years.
It is well, however, that in this year when the words “liberty” and “freedom” are so often heard, that we be reminded of a freedom that is far greater than any earthly condition. We are not now speaking of a civil liberty which we enjoy in abundant measure in our country. Rather we are speaking of that great spiritual liberty which Christ has procured for us. The Apostle Paul speaks of this when he writes to the Galatians, “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.” Gal. 5,1. What kind of freedom is this? It is not a freedom from the persecution of earthly tyrants and masters. It is a freedom and liberty from the eternal wrath of God. This liberty is found in our consciences. Luther writes, “Our conscience is free and quiet because it no longer has to fear the wrath of God. This is a real liberty, compared with which every other kind of liberty is not worth mentioning. Who can adequately express the boon that comes to a person when he has the heart-assurance that God will nevermore be angry with him, but will forever be merciful to him for Christ’s sake? This is indeed a marvelous liberty, to have the sovereign God for our Friend and Father who will defend, maintain and save us in this life and in the life to come.”
Just as there are tyrants in this world who would rob men of their freedom and place them behind walls and barbed wire and in the Gulag Archipelago’s of the Siberian wilderness, so there are spiritual tyrants who would imprison us also. There is that slave owner and master that is called the LAW. When we are considering the Law as that which makes demands of us, which threatens us with condemnation, which insists that we keep every word of it absolutely perfectly, we can indeed picture it as a cruel taskmaster. All those who do not fulfill every demand of the Law are under its curse, as Scripture says, “As many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is everyone that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them.” Gal. 3,10. The other enemies which would overpower us and bring us into subjection and final eternal destruction walk hand in hand with the Law for they derive their strength from the Law. These are Sin, Death, and the Devil. The forces in this world which would blot out the light of freedom are indeed serious threats. But far more serious are these three which would snuff out the light of our spiritual freedom, and plunge us into everlasting darkness. The hymn writer summarized it for us very well when he wrote:
I walk in danger all the way
The thought shall never leave me
That Satan who has marked his prey
Is plotting to deceive me.
The foe with hidden snares
May seize me unawares
If ere I fail to watch and pray
I walk in danger all the way.
Thanks and praise be to our God for delivering us from the bondage of the Law, Sin, and Death by sending His own dear Son to be our Saviour. “When the fullness 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, that we might receive the adoption of sons.” Gal. 4,4–5. Christ has now perfectly fulfilled every demand of the Law and satisfied the wrath of God against sin. Not only did He keep the law perfectly but He also suffered the penalty demanded by it when He suffered and died on the cross. “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us; for it is written, Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.” Gal. 3,13. He has also vanquished the enemies of death and the devil by His death and resurrection. He has “abolished death, and hath brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” II Tim. 1,10, and in the book of Hebrews we read that “through death he destroyed him who had the power of death, that is, the devil.” Heb. 2,14.
While very few would part with the liberty they have as citizens of this great land, it is utterly amazing how many foolishly part with the liberty they have in Christ. Just as the Galatians of old were bewitched into returning again to the state of bondage, so today all too many, even those who claim the name “Lutheran,” openly or secretly trust in their own works rather than in the mercy of Christ for salvation. They therefore cast away their blood-bought liberty and walk blindly again into slavery. Some hold to a synergism or half and half way of salvation, half by works and half by faith. But even as Abraham Lincoln warned that this country could not endure half slave and half free, so no individual can stand before God half with his own righteousness and half with that of Christ. It is a matter of either-or. Either we place all our trust for salvation in the righteousness of Christ and thus inherit eternal life, or else we depend partly upon our own merits and thus lose all that Christ has won for us. “Christ has become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace.” Gal. 5,4. How utterly foolish we would consider anyone who advocated that we give up our form of government and invite the Communist rulers to take over our land! How much more foolish are they who would give up their liberty which Christ has won for them and exchange it again for the slavery of the law, the yoke of bondage. Let us ever, therefore, stand fast in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, knowing that “If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed.” John 8,36. As we think of our forefathers in this anniversary year we ought also to remember those who passed down this great legacy of spiritual freedom when they wrote in our Lutheran Confessions that “a poor sinner is justified before God (that is, he is absolved and declared utterly free from all his sins, and from the verdict of well deserved damnation, and is adopted as a child of God and an heir of eternal life) without any merit or worthiness on our part, and without any preceding, present, or subsequent works, by sheer grace, solely through the merit of the total obedience is reckoned to us as righteousness.” Formula of Concord, S.D., Art. III.
In this Bicentennial year we of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod ought, as faithful and loyal citizens, truly appreciate the many blessings we have in this land, thanking and blessing our gracious God for the way in which He has so abundantly provided for us. But especially ought we to be grateful for the spiritual freed and liberty which we have in our blessed Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
To Jesus we for refuge flee,
Who from the curse has set us free,
And humbly worship at His throne,
Saved by His grace through faith alone.
Soli Deo Gloria!
George M. Orvick