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, 1980, is an important year in the Lutheran Church. It marks the 450th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession and the 400th anniversary of the Book of Concord, which contains the confessional writings of the Lutheran Church. It is fair to say that if it were not for our Confessions the Lutheran Reformation would not have gotten off the ground and there would be no Lutheran Church today.
But since by the grace of God, we are the beneficiaries of a confessional legacy, we can say with the psalmist, “The lines are fallen upon me in pleasant places; yea I have a goodly heritage (Ps. 16:6). God’s Word, of course, is our great heritage, but “we can also say that we have a “goodly heritage” in our Lutheran Confessions. As confessional Lutherans we hold a high view of our Confessions because we believe that they are a correct exposition, or interpretation of the Bible and it is in our Confessions that we as a Lutheran Church publicly confess our faith before the world and confidently declare: “This we believe, teach, and confess.”
As confessional Lutherans we subscribe unreservedly to our Confessions in the Book of Concord. It is important that we insist on such a subscription to the Confessions because a conditional subscription admits to the possibility that the Confessions may contain doctrines which are not in accord with Scripture. And in this regard we would do well to heed what Dr. Walther, a man valiant for the truth, said in an essay delivered at the Western District Convention of the Missouri Synod in 1858 entitled: “Why Should Our Pastors, Teachers, and Professors Subscribe Unconditionally To The Symbolical Writings Of Our Church?” He submitted a twofold reason: a) that the Church may convince itself that its teachers really possess the orthodox understanding of the Scripture and the same pure, unadulterated faith as the Church; b) that the Church may bind them with a solemn promise to teach this faith pure and unadulterated or renounce the office of teaching instead of disturbing the Church with their false doctrine. He then goes on to say that this twofold purpose is nullified if the servants of the Church are permitted to accept the Symbols of the Church on a conditional basis. “A subscription to the confession is the Church’s assurance that its teachers have recognized the interpretation and understanding of Scripture which is embodied in the Symbols as correct and will therefore interpret Scripture as the Church interprets it. If the Church therefore would permit its teachers to interpret the Symbols according to the Scriptures, and not the Scriptures according to its Symbols, the subscription would be no guarantee that the respective teacher understands and interprets Scripture as the Church does. In fact, the Church would make the personal conviction of each teacher its symbol.” In other words, everyone would be on his own doctrinally and any kind of meaningful consensus would be impossible.
Again, in a sermon to the synodical convention in 1877 the venerable theologian stressed the importance of loyalty to the Confessions, pointing out that in the sixteenth century the Lutherans composed the Augsburg Confession and other confessional writings in order that one could recognize those who held to the pure Word of God over against all Christian perversions. “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 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.’”
To those who regard the symbols as human regulations which inhibit freedom of expression, Dr. Walther says, “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.” And to those who want to do away with the symbols, saying that they are not necessary, he says, “Let no one therefore be deceived by the talk of the enemies of the symbols: ‘Away with the symbols, these man-made dogmas. Let us take our stand only with the Word of God!’ The true meaning in this statement is nothing else than ‘Away with the pure Word of God.’”
By holding a high view of the Confessions, we are not thereby saying, or implying, that one must belong to the Lutheran Church in order to be saved. That would, as Walther says, be “an awful mistake” and an “abominable fanatical notion.” In his Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel he says, “Though we esteem our Church highly, may this abominable fanatical notion be far from us, that our Lutheran Church is the alone-saving Church! The true Church extends throughout the world and is found in all sects; for it is not an external organism with peculiar arrangements to which a person must adapt himself in order to become a member of the Church. Any one who believes in Jesus Christ and is a member of His spiritual body is a member of the Church.” But we are justified in saying that the Lutheran Church, according to its Confession, is the true visible church on earth because it teaches the Word of God in its truth and purity, and we can also say with the framers of the Confessions, “Our disposition and intention has always been directed toward the goal that no other doctrine be treated and taught in our lands, territories, schools and churches than that alone which is based on the Holy Scriptures of God and is embodied in the Augsburg Confession and its Apology, correctly understood, arid that no doctrine be permitted entrance which is contrary to these” (Preface to the Book of Concord, Tappert, p. 12). Therefore, we need not be ashamed of, nor apologize for, Lutheran doctrine, but rather our attitude should be that of a stalwart Lutheran layman who said, “If I be asked whether with heart and lips I confess that faith which God has restored to us by Luther as his instrument, I have no scruple, nor have I disposition to shrink from the name Lutheran. Thus understood, I am, and shall to my dying hour remain, a Lutheran.”
As we thank God and rejoice over our “goodly heritage,” we must also direct our attention to the future and its challenges. Our foremost challenge as we go into the eighties is to remain confessionally Lutheran. In the February issue of Affirm there is an article that cautions, “We must not continue to relish the naive notion that anyone who happens to call himself ‘Lutheran’ is in fact committed to the strong confessional stance which was born of the Reformation and its immediate consequences” and “we must not repeat in the eighties the error of the seventies that just bearing the name ‘Lutheran’ meant that men called into this challenging ministry were confessionally committed.” The author of those statements knows whereof he speaks because his church body went through some trying times those years and it is presently engaged in a struggle to sever a fellowship with a church body which is quite un-Lutheran in doctrine and practice.
The seventies were indeed stormy years in the Lutheran Church. The big battle was over the source of theology, the Bible itself: Is it the inspired, infallible Word of God, or is it not? We can expect the battle over Scripture to increase in intensity. Satan has his troops out in full force seeking to undermine the foundation of our faith. The historical-critical method of interpreting the Bible is firmly entrenched in many Lutheran seminaries. This is a method of interpretation which does violence to the Scriptures because it approaches this sacred Book with the presupposition that it is a human book, subject to error, and that it is the task of the learned theologian to winnow and sift, to determine what is truth and what is error.
This method of interpretation is at variance with the authors of our Confessions who without question accepted the Bible as the inspired and infallible Word of God. They asked that their doctrine be judged by the Scriptures. Listen to their confession regarding the Bible: “We pledge ourselves to the prophetic and apostolic writings of the Old and New Testaments as the pure and clear fountain of Israel, which is the only true norm according to which all teachers and teachings are to be Judged and evaluated (F. C. Tappert, p. 503).
In these chaotic times we who have this goodly heritage have the responsibility to contend for confessional Lutheranism by remaining faithful to the Bible and the Confessions. Dr. N. S. Tjernagel reminded us in his synodical essay m 1977 that “Our synod has grave responsibilities as a confessor of God’s precious Word We may not hide the candle of light and truth under a bushel: we do not have the option of permitting an unimpressive numerical strength serve as an excuse for silence before the sinister voices of those who subvert the Scriptures and the Confessions.”
As we go into the eighties, may our prayer be:
“Lord, keep us steadfast in Thy Word:
Curb those who fain by craft or sword
Would wrest the kingdom from Thy Son
And set at naught all he hath done.
“Lord Jesus Christ, Thy power make known;
For Thou art Lord of lords alone:
Defend Thy Christendom that we
May evermore sing praise to Thee.
“O Comforter, of priceless worth
Send peace and unity on earth;
Support us in our final strife,
And lead us out of death to life!”
Another challenge in the eighties is expansion. Along with a zeal for confessional Lutheranism must be a desire to spread and share our “goodly heritage” with others. Not only is the Great Commission in effect until the end of time, but God permits this world to stand for the sake of the Gospel, and therefore it is our business to be about his work. We cannot and must not relax our efforts.
At our convention this year we are pleased to receive into membership two new mission congregations. The mission in Lake Havasu City, Arizona, was started by. a couple of members from one of our “northern” congregations who moved to the Southwest. Who knows but that this could be a launching pad to starting other congregations in the sun-belt where there are unlimited opportunities for mission work! The other mission congregation was formed by several families from our churches in Madison, Wisconsin, who are now living in Oregon, Wisconsin, a bedroom community of Madison.
We need to be alert to possibilities of starting new missions. There may be a field in a neighboring community where the pastor could look for a place to hold services. Our Oregon, Wisconsin, mission is a case in point. Scottsville, New York, also comes to mind; our church in Rochester was instrumental in starting this preaching station. There is also a large mission field among the Hispanics in our country. We recently visited our church in San Antonio, Texas, where several of the members spoke of the great need for doing mission work among the Hispanics in their backyard. They reported that the field is wide open and that the Pentecostals are reaping a large harvest. Bell Gardens, California, where we have a church, is 75% Hispanic. A Lutheran pastor, speaking to a group of pastors in the Los Angeles area, said: “I wonder how many of us when we received a call to Southern California realized that we were being invited to enter a foreign mission field. We have more unchurched in Southern California than many heathen nations do.” Yes, “The harvest truly is plenteous.”
Still another challenge facing us in the eighties is the need to raise sufficient funds to do the Lord’s work. We will be called upon to make greater sacrifices. Cash-flow will be a real problem. Many business establishments are experiencing real difficulties due to cash-flow problems. In addition to increased giving, we also need to give serious consideration to the resolution of the Board of Trustees to establish and appoint a committee whose function shall be to promote the Synod’s Church Extension and Loan Fund. The purpose is to use our synod’s peoples’ money to do our own work, and do it in a business-like manner offering the going rate of interest to the lender. If our people were willing to pledge over $875,000 to the Thankoffering, it is not unreasonable to assume that they would also be willing to make loans to their synod.
An immediate concern that needs attention is our current budget deficit. At the end of May we were $54,000 behind our budget needs. A year ago at this time we were only $18,000 behind. With the summer months ahead of us we could be faced with a $100,000 deficit by fall. The Board for Stewardship will recommend to this convention that we take a special offering now before the deficit gets out of control. A few dollars from each member would narrow the gap and thus make it possible to carry out our work. The alternative is a drastic cut-back in our synodical program.
As we are reminded of our “goodly heritage,” may our hearts be opened to bring an extra gift right now for the Lord’s work. If each pastor and lay delegate would take the message back to their home congregation, set the example with their own gift, and then ask their fellow members to do the same, we could raise the needed funds. May the Lord bless our efforts in this regard!
May our Heavenly Father also give us the grace and the strength to meet these challenges so that his name may be hallowed and his kingdom extended! “Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his blood, and hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father; to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.”
Wilhelm W. Petersen, president