Esteemed Members and Friends of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod: Grace be unto you and peace from God the Father and from our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
This year 1977 not only marks the 60th annual convention of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod, but it also marks the beginning of the third century of our national history and the 400th anniversary of the Formula of Concord. Last year as we celebrated our Bicentennial, we were reminded of, and thanked God for, the heritage of freedom which has been bequeathed to us. This year we Lutherans are mindful of our doctrinal heritage which has been handed down to us in the Formula of Concord.
We are indeed a fortunate people, blessed by God like no other people . We are privileged to live in a land where we can worship according to the dictates of our conscience and where we can go about the Lord’s work without fear or intimidation. And we have been left a Confession by our Lutheran forefathers which so clearly expounds Biblical truth that we can boldly declare before all the world: THIS WE BELIEVE, TEACH, AND CONFESS.
As we ponder our heritage, let us, in spirit, go back to a Mount called Olivet where our risen Lord is about to withdraw His visible presence from His disciples. He had finished the work which the Father had sent Him to do, namely, the work of our redemption. After His resurrection he appeared to His disciples and thus assured them that He was truly alive and also prepared them for the work which they were to carry on after His ascension. Shortly before His departure He gave them the Great Commission: “All authority has been given unto me in heaven and on earth. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit; teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I commanded you.” (Matthew 28:18–20 A.S.V.)
What was the reaction of the disciples to this Commission? After the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost ten days later, they went out and boldly proclaimed the message of a crucified and risen Christ, and through that message the Holy Spirit won many disciples for the Lord. The Book of Acts describes the missionary activity of the disciples and the New Testament church in these words: “Many of them which heard the word believed.” (Acts 4:4) “And the word of God increased and the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly.” (Acts 6:7) “And the hand of the Lord was with them: and a great number believed, and turned to the Lord.” (Acts 11:21) Despite opposition from the religious establishment they boldly declared: “We cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:20) “And daily in the temple and in every house, they ceased not to teach and preach Jesus Christ.” (Acts 5:42)
These early believers were on fire with their faith, and because of their zeal and determination the Gospel spread and many souls were won for the kingdom of God. Yes, because of their zealous obedience to the commission. of their Lord we too have been the recipients of the Gospel, and by the grace and power of the Holy Spirit we too are His disciples.
Along with this blessed privilege goes responsibility. The command to make disciples of all nations is in effect until the end of time. In His name and by His authority we are to carry on this work individually in our personal witnessing and collectively through our local congregations and synod. We sing in one of our mission hymns:
Can we whose souls are lighted With wisdom from on high,
Can we to men benighted The lamp of life deny?
Salvation! Oh, Salvation! The joyful sound proclaim
Till each remotest nation Has heard Messiah’s name. (L.H. 495, v. 3)
As we go into the third century of our own national history and as we meet for our 60th annual Synodical Convention, this is a good time to rededicate ourselves to the task of carrying out the Great Commission in a way that will truly glorify God and bring blessings to others. First of all, it bids us to be a mission-minded church. “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations.” Or, as Mark’s account puts it: “Go ye into all the world, and preach the Gospel to every creature.” (Mark 16:13)
Jesus tells us that this world stands for the sake of the Gospel. In describing the events that would lead up to the end of the world, He said, “And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come.” (Matt. 24:14) From God’s perspective the work of the Gospel is where the real action is in this world. Does not the Bible also say that “there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth.” (Luke 15:10)?
Luther reminds us that the reason God permits us to live in this world is that we might be instruments in bringing the Gospel to others. He says:
“We live on earth for no other purpose that to be helpful to others. Otherwise it would be best for God to take away our breath and let us die as soon as we are baptized and have begun to believe. But He lets us live here in order that we may lead other people to believe, doing for them what He has done for us.”
The greatest thing that has happened to us is that we have become disciples of the Lord, and the greatest thing we can do for our fellow man is to share with him the Gospel of Jesus Christ, for that is the only solution to his problem of sin and death. Yes, this is the most important and blessed work in the world, for it has to do with man’s temporal and eternal welfare; only the Gospel can bring true happiness on earth and blessedness in heaven.
As we go into the third century of our nation where we have had the blessings of the Gospel for 200 years, some of the dangers we face are indifference, ingratitude, and taking the Gospel for granted. The proverb “Familiarity breeds contempt” also pertains to the Gospel. In an affluent society where we have all sorts of material things dangling before our eyes, it is so easy to permit these things to becloud our vision and overshadow our appreciation of the good news of our salvation. Luther saw this danger in his day; in 1521 he wrote to the German people:
“God is my witness, that I have great anxiety in my heart that, unless the last day does not terminate events, God will withdraw His Word and send the German nation such a blindness and hardness of heart that it is frightful to contemplate.”
Three years later in his treatise of Christian schools, he wrote:
“Dear Germans, buy while the market is at your door; gather in the harvest while there is sunshine and fair weather; use grace and the Word of God while they are here. For this you should know: God’s Word and grace are a passing shower which does not return where it has once been. It came to the Jews, but it is gone; now they have nothing. Paul brought it to the Greeks, but it is gone; now they have the pope. And you Germans dare not think that you will have it forever, for ingratitude and contempt will not let it remain.”
We have witnessed the fulfillment of Luther’s prophecies. How important, then, that we heed these warnings and pray that the Lord will fill our hearts with love and appreciation for the Gospel and zeal in sharing it with others. We have passed some some synodical resolutions on personal evangelism; we are opening more home missions; and we are expanding our foreign mission program. If we are to be faithful to the Great Commission, we need to continue and expand this work as we go into our third century. The hymn expresses it simply in these words:
To spread its light from age to age
Shall be our chief endeavor.
Secondly, the Great Commission bids us to be a doctrinally-minded church: “Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I commanded you.” Here too we can learn from the early New Testament church. We read of them, “They continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine.” (Acts 2:42a). Throughout the New Testament we see a healthy concern for purity of doctrine. The believers took seriously their Master’s warning: “Beware of false prophets.”
Paul warned the Christians at Rome to mark and avoid those who taught contrary to the doctrine which they had learned; he rebuked the Galatians for turning from the true Gospel of grace, and he wrote to his co-worker, Timothy, “Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt save thyself and them that hear thee.” (1 Tim. 4:16) It is especially incumbent upon pastors to be concerned about pure doctrine.
The Great Commission does not give us the liberty to teach as we please. We are to teach only what the Lord has commanded: no more, no less. Deviation or departure from one doctrine of Scripture dishonors God and can eventually lead to the loss of the truth. “A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump”.
Church history records many battles over certain doctrines of the Bible. However, in our day the battle is over the very source of doctrine itself—the Holy Bible. The historical-critical method of interpretation does violence to the Scriptures. Modern theology separates Christ from His Word, but Jesus identifies himself with that word. He says: “If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (John 8:31–32) In our day when many in the church consider doctrine to be unimportant and irrelevant, how important that we heed these words of our Lord, and pray with the hymnist:
In these last days of sore distress
Grant us, dear Lord, true steadfastness
That pure we keep, till life is spent,
Thy holy Word and Sacrament. (L. H. 292, v. 2)
As mentioned, this year marks the 400th anniversary of the adoption of the Formula of Concord, one of the great confessions of the Lutheran Church. This Confession was adopted 30 years after Luther’s death. During that time several doctrinal controversies arose among the followers of Luther which resulted in much confusion and a time of great trial for those who wanted to be true to Luther’s doctrine. By the grace of God these controversies were settled on the basis of God’s Word and the true Lutherans were united in this Confession. We subscribe to the Formula of Concord because it is such a clear exposition of Biblical doctrine. As we carry out the Great Commission of our Lord, how important that we be and remain a truly confessional Lutheran church, faithful to the Scriptures and to our confessions!
In a sermon to the synodical convention in 1877 Dr. C. F. W. Walther pointed out the importance of loyalty to the confessions. He referred to the early church which drew up the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds so that people might recognize the Christ of the Bible. In the sixteenth century the Lutherans composed their Augsburg Confessions and other confessional writings, solely in order that one could recognize those who held to the pure Word of God over against all Christian perversions. Then he said:
“The true Lutheran Church set forth its symbolical writings … to differentiate and distinguish themselves from those who deceitfully confess the Word of God. They did this not in order to set up a second norm and standard of faith and life in addition to the Word of God, but on the contrary, to remain faithful to the one norm and standard of the Word of God. Their confessional writings are not human codes of faith in addition to the Word of God, but confessions of the faith concerning God’s Word. Thus it is stated at the very beginning of our Formula of Concord: ‘We believe, teach, and confess that the sole rule and standard according to which all dogmas together with all teachers should be estimated and judged are the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures of the Old and New Testament alone, as it is written.’ Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path,” and: “Though an angel from heaven preach any other gospel to you, let him be accursed.”
Then Walther goes on to say: “The confessional writings of the church are not tools of intolerance or oppression of the conscience in the church, but on the contrary, they are the most precious guarantee of her freedom. We thereby safeguard our freedom from human bondage in matters of faith and conscience.”
Mission-mindedness and a concern for pure doctrine go hand in hand. There is the danger of being so concerned about winning souls for Christ that we overlook the part of the Great Commission which calls for purity of doctrine, thus ending up with a social gospel. On the other hand, there is the danger of being so concerned about pure doctrine that we hide our light under a bushel and are not as zealous as we should be in making disciples for Christ. As we seek to carry out the Great Commission we need to beware of the twin dangers of liberalism and legalism; each hinders and harms the cause of the Gospel. On the other hand, a true love for souls based on pure doctrine glorifies God and makes disciples for His kingdom. The words of the familiar hymn could well serve as a striking commentary on the Great Commission; and also provide our motivation for carrying it out …
God’s Word is our great heritage And shall be ours forever;
To spread its light from age to age Shall be our chief endeavor.
Through life it guides our way. In death it is our stay
Lord, grant, while worlds endure, We keep its teachings pure
Throughout all generations.”
SOLI DEO GLORIA!
W. Petersen, president