June 19, 1978
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.
God’s people are a joyful and a grateful people. Even though they must at times suffer afflictions in this world and experience sorrows that are common to mankind — sorrows that weigh heavily upon their hearts and minds — yet they have a joy which no man taketh from them, the joy of knowing that in Christ their sins are forgiven and that because “He hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” they can look forward to the time when there will be no more sorrow. God’s word assures them “that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be. revealed in us” (Rom. 8:18).
Christians will want to give expression to their joy. They realize that their blessings far outweigh any hardships. Luther reminds us, “We must constantly keep the catalog of God’s blessings before our eyes, the natural and physical as well as the spiritual; for then shall we see that, where there is a drop of misfortune, there is a whole ocean of God’s blessings to outweigh it all.”
Some of the greatest expressions of joy and gratitude have arisen from the hearts of people who have suffered real trials. Job, for example, who suffered about as much as a mortal can suffer, confidently exclaimed, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust him” and then declared his joy in God’s salvation, “He also shall be my salvation” (Job 13:15,16). The apostle Paul, who besought the Lord three times to deliver him from “a thorn in the flesh,” was content to be reassured that he had God’s grace and joyfully declared, “Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong” (II Cor. 12:9,10). David, who suffered many sorrows and disappointments, yet believed God to be his comfort and strength and said, “What shall I render unto the Lord for all his benefits toward me? I will take the cup of salvation and call upon the name of the Lord. I will pay my vows unto the Lord now in the presence of all his people” (Ps. 116:12–15). And some of our most treasured hymns were written by people who had suffered much sorrow and affliction; these hymns breathe a spirit of humble gratitude to the Lord for his mercy and strength.
As we gather for our 61st annual convention, we are again reminded of the many blessings which our gracious Lord has showered upon us as individuals, as congregations, and as a synod. We who have deserved nothing have been given much. With Jacob we must confess, “I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies, and of all the truth, which thou has shown unto thy servant” (Gen. 32:10). And in the explanation of the First Article where we confess out faith that God has given us our life and that He continues to provide for us, we declare, “and all this purely out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me; for all which I am in duty bound to thank and praise, to serve and obey him.”
Time does not permit us to enumerate all of the blessings which God has bestowed upon us. We agree, though, with Dr. Koren who in his synodical address in 1908 said, “God has given us His Word: Is there any greater gift?” Yes, the Word is the Fountain from which all blessings flow. It is here where the Lord has revealed Himself to us as the God of our salvation, a God who so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. This Word is reliable and sufficient, as Peter reminds us, “We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto alight that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts: Knowing this first, that no prophecy is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (II Peter 1:19–21). Our Lutheran Confessions echo the same truth in these words, “The Word of God shall establish articles of faith, and no one else, not even an angel.”
Furthermore, it is through the Word that the Ho]y Ghost creates, nourishes, and strengthens saving faith in our hearts. Our Confessions are also very explicit on this score: “We must hold firmly to the conviction that God gives no one his Spirit or grace except through or with the external Word.” And we have our Savior’s promise that if we continue in that Word, then are we his disciples indeed and we shall know the truth and the truth shall make us free (John 8:31, 32). Without that Word we would be and remain in spiritual darkness; we would be like little children lost in the dark woods not knowing which way to go, but with that Word we have a sure and perfect guide that will not deceive or mislead, but will lead to Christ and finally to our eternal destination in heaven. Yes, that Word is a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path; the entrance of his Word giveth light. George P. Morris expressed it strikingly in his poem entitled “My Mother’s Bible,” which reads:
“Thou truest friend man ever knew,
Thy constancy I’ve tried;
Where all were false I found Thee true,
My counselor and guide, .
The mines of earth no treasure give
That could this volume buy;
In teaching me the way to live
It taught me how to die.”
But along with this blessing goes a responsibility. “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more” (Luke 12:48b). In these words our Lord lays down a stewardship truth. And in our Catechism we have this question under the Second Petition of the Lord’s Prayer: “WHAT MUST WE BEAR IN MIND WHEN WE PRAY THE SECOND PETITION?” Answer: “When we pray the Second Petition we must bear in mind that God has graciously made us members of this Kingdom of Grace, and that He has also given us the responsibility of carrying on the work of Christ our King until His return.” The same God who has called us into his Kingdom has also called us to work in that Kingdom, yea, he has entrusted that work to us and is counting on us to do it. St. Paul says that we are to be “always abounding in the work of the Lord.” The same apostle says that we are workers together with Him and Jesus stresses the urgency of doing this work while it is day for the night cometh when no man can work. As grateful recipients of God’s Word which has brought us into His Kingdom, we will not look upon this responsibility as a burdensome duty, but as a joyful privilege. With the newly-converted Saul of Tarsus we will ask, “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?”
Our first and foremost responsibility is to be faithful to the Word. It is required of stewards that they be found faithful. We do not have the liberty to add to, or subtract from, that Word. How we need to stand in awe of what the Bible says in this regard: “For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book: And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book!” (Rev. 22:18,19).
There is a danger for confessional Lutherans to give lip service to the Bible and to join in condemnation of those who depart from it in some things, but then do not treasure it themselves or use it in a manner that truly glorifies God and brings personal blessing to them. One of our synodical fathers in an essay to the convention in 1943 put it correctly when he said, “Our greatest danger is not this that the Word shall be falsified among us—though that danger is indeed great and ever-present, but rather that we shall grow negligent in our use of the Word. In either case Satan is well pleased. For he cares little that we have the pure Word, if he can keep us from using it.” We would also do well to heed what Dr. Koren said to the synod back in 1897: “Should I in the meantime mention the sin which above all sins has alarmed me as I have meditated on the condition of the Norwegian Synod, then it is the great and general indifference to, and neglect of, God’s Word.”
Has the situation improved much 81 years later? Statistics reveal that less than half of the members of our congregations attend church regularly. Attendance at Lenten services is fast declining. It is to be feared that the pleasures of this world are interfering with church attendance and our stewardship of giving. It is also to be feared that family devotion is becoming a thing of the past. Are we availing ourselves of the blessings of a Christian education for our children! Even Sunday School attendance is on the decline in many of our congregations and not only because there are fewer children. The Board of Regents’ report to the convention states that only 30 of the 1977 freshman class of Bethany College were from our ELS.
We are placing ourselves in grave danger when we fail to use God’s Word as we should. If we are to retain that Word, then we must use it, as our Lord tells us to do. Luther was concerned about indifference to the Word in his day. We would do well again to heed what he wrote in 1521: “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.” History has sadly revealed that those fears were realized. May God forgive us our neglect and lack of appreciation for the undeserved gift of His Word! May He in his mercy, for the sake of His Son whose blood cleanseth from all sin—even our sins of indifference and neglect—spare us the judgment which we deserve! And may our repentant prayer be,
“O Holy Spirit, enter in,
And in our hearts Thy work begin,
Thy temple deign to make us;
Sun of the soul, Thou Light divine,
Around and in us brightly shine,
To joy and gladness. wake us.
That we to Thee truly living,
To Thee giving prayer unceasing,
Still may be in love increasing.
“Give to Thy Word impressive power,
That in our hearts, from this good hour,
As fire it may be glowing;
That we confess the Father, Son,
And Thee, the Spirit, Three in One
Thy glory ever showing;
O stay and sway our souls ever,
That they never may forsake Thee,
But by faith their refuge make Thee.”
Our second resolve should be to be faithful with the Word. We who have this treasure in earthen vessels are to be faithful in sharing it with others. And to that end God blesses us with time, talent, intelligence, money, and possessions. He expects us to use these blessings in His service. “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more.”
Again, in our Catechism we have this question and answer under the Fourth Petition: “For what purpose does God give us our daily bread?” “God gives us our daily bread not only to preserve our lives, but also to give us the means and the strength to serve him.” As Christians we are to regard our earthly blessings as a means to an end, a means to serve our Lord in His Kingdom. The purpose of our redemption is that “we serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.”
We are indeed thankful to God that He has again opened the hearts of our people to support the work which we as a synod have set out to do. Again this past year we exceeded our synodical budget by some $7,000. In addition to that, our Anniversary Thank Offering is off to a tremendous success. The total pledge as of May 31 stands at $771,229.24 with over $237,996.47 already received in cash. At our convention last year we were thinking in terms of $600,000. How our hearts should rejoice that we have exceeded this goal! God’s people do respond when they are challenged, and we trust that these gifts have come from hearts that truly appreciate God’s blessings.
While we rejoice that our people have responded with generosity in supporting the Lord’s work, we dare not rest on past performance. As inflation continues to be our number one national enemy, as some have put it, and operating costs are dramatically increasing, we are going to be called upon to make greater sacrifices for the Lord’s work. But as we continue to enjoy the highest standard of living of any people on earth, how can we fail to respond to appeals for the Lord’s work in our local congregations and synodical work. “Unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required.”
While we rejoice at the increasing number of Christian Day Schools in our synod—and certainly this must be pleasing to our Lord—yet we must not neglect the work of the church-at-large, which would be displeasing to Him. His Great Commission stands until the end of time, namely, to preach the Gospel to every creature. Human nature being what it is, we need to guard against the danger of looking out only for local needs and then neglecting synodical work. It is easy to adopt the attitude that “somehow the work of the synod will go.” That is a dangerous assumption to have and it certainly has no promise of blessing from the Lord. All of the Lord’s work is important and He calls upon all of us to give freely.
The Lord permits us to live in exciting and challenging times. Included in our many blessings is that of living in a country where we can go about the Lord’s work without fear or intimidation. Furthermore, He permits the world to stand for the sake of the Gospel, and you and I who have been called into the fellowship of the Gospel have also been called to work toward the spreading of that Word of Life. He reminds us: “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him will they ask the more.” May our grateful response be:
“Grant Thou me strength to do
With ready heart and willing
Whate’er Thou shalt command,
My calling here fulfilling;
To do it when I ought.
With all my might and bless
The work I thus have wrought,
For Thou must give success.”
W. Petersen, President