ESTEEMED MEMBERS AND FRIENDS OF OUR EVANGELICAL LUTHERAN SYNOD: GRACE BE UNTO YOU AND PEACE FROM GOD OUR FATHER AND FROM THE LORD AND SAVIOR JESUS CHRIST. AMEN.
A word that has characterized the spirit of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod throughout its history is: OPTIMISM. If we look at the historical records we shall find this to be true. Going all the way back to the 50th convention of the old synod held in 1903 we find Dr. U.V. Koren speaking of the joy and exultation that is in his heart. How encouraging is his message to the Synod. Now Koren was a realist. In a thoroughly scriptural fashion he points out the weaknesses, the lack of faith, the troubles and sins which are so prevalent in the church. But he proceeds to show that the New Testament congregations also had their problems and yet the Apostle calls them “fellow citizens with the saints and of the household of God…” (Ephesians 2:19). Therefore the members of the Synod should also rejoice in spite of whatever trials may confront them.
In the book, Blessings in the Midst of the Land, the Rev. Ahlert Strand writes about the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Synod held in 1928. He writes, “Looking back to the seventy-fifth anniversary of our Synod, one can scarcely escape being impressed by the spirit of optimism which characterized that occasion. “It seems,” he writes, “that if one is to point to one specific thing, which more than any other, characterized our Synod in 1928, one would be inclined to say: there was a notable attitude of hopeful confidence in the Lord of hosts which impelled men and women, young and old, to roll up their sleeves in cheerful application to the tasks which lay before us … Yes, we were on the threshold of the great depression. But the optimism refused to be downed. Definitely, there was solid confidence in our Father in heaven who clothes the lilies of the field and watches over little sparrows.”
At the 100th anniversary celebrated on May 31, 1953 the Rev. Erling Ylvisaker, pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Madison, Wisconsin was the guest speaker. He chose as his text the beautiful prophecy of Isaiah, “Remember ye not the former things, neither consider the things of old. Behold, I will do a new thing; now it shall spring forth; shall ye not know it? I will even make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” (Isaiah 43:18-19) On the basis of these words he reminded the centennial gathering that while we honor the fathers who built so well, we do not worship or glorify them. He urged the Synod to go forward. “I shall do a new thing,” says the Lord. In the wilderness of men’s hearts God makes rivers to flow in the desert, rivers of salvation.
Therefore, in spite of the tribulations that our Synod has endured during the years of its history, from the original organization in 1853 right on through the reorganization in 1918, it did not lose its courage nor its confidence in the Word of God. It optimistically relied on the promise “So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth; it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it.” (Isaiah 55:11) This was especially evident even among the handful that met at Lime Creek in 1918, as we have often heard.
But what about us in 1986 as we gather here for the 69th annual convention of our church body? Have we reason to continue with the same optimism, the same courage as our forefathers? We must answer this question with a resounding “yes!”
Now, of course, it depends upon in which direction one is looking as to what his attitude will be. If we look inwardly and examine ourselves in the sight of the Law we shall soon be led to despair. The great apostle Paul understood the nature of sinful human beings. When he looked inside of himself he exclaims, “I see another Law in my members, warring against the Law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the Law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” (Romans 7:23-24) The hymnwriter Selnecker described life in this world very well when he wrote:
“O God! how sin’s dread works abound,
Throughout the earth no rest is found;
And wide has falsehood’s spirit spread,
And error boldly rears its head.” (L.H. 427)
As we look back to New Testament days we often glamorize the conditions that were obtained at that time, that is, until we begin to study our Bibles more diligently, Then we learn that the situations in the congregations of the early church were indeed far from ideal. Paul had to write to the Corinthians about factionalism, immorality, lawsuits, meat offered to idols, abuses of the Lord’s Supper, false apostles, problems about marriage, disorderly conduct of assemblies, and heresies about the resurrection. The Galatians were being misled by certain Jewish teachers who insisted that the Gentiles could not be Christians without keeping the Law of Moses. And so, on and on, Paul had to deal with such matters and try to teach them the way of God more perfectly. Thus we today must acknowledge our sins and pray with the hymnwriter:
“Dear Saviour, help, Thy Church uphold;
For we are sluggish, thoughtless, cold;
Indue Thy word with power and grace,
And spread its truth in every place.” (L.H. 427)
Now while it is necessary that we, as people who know well the holy Law of God, take a good hard look at ourselves and at the conditions in the church today it is also imperative that we turn to the Lord and to His Holy Gospel to find comfort and inspiration for our lives and work. The Law drives us to despair. The Gospel forgives, encourages, comforts and strengthens.
The Gospel tells us how precious the church is to the Lord. In the book of the prophet Isaiah the Lord is speaking of His Church, “Thou shalt also be a crown of glory in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of thy God.” (Isaiah 62:3) Zechariah writes, “And the Lord their God shall save them in that day as the flock of his people; for they shall be as the stones of a crown, lifted up as an ensign upon his land.” (Zechariah 9:16) His tender care is described in these words of the prophet Isaiah, “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young.” (Isaiah 40:11)
In the New Testament Paul tells the Ephesians “ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints, and of the household of God; and are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone.” (Ephesians 2:19–20) And the Apostle Peter writes, “But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” (I Peter 2:9)
But how can this be, that poor, sinful, lost and condemned creatures can be elevated to the lofty estate of saints of God, a royal priesthood, an holy nation? How can those who deserved hell becomes heirs of heaven? The answer must be found nowhere else than on the cross of Calvary. It was the shedding of the blood of the very Son of God that paid the penalty for our sins. Jesus Christ, true man and true God went to the accursed tree and bled and died for us. And now Scripture tells us that we have been “justified by His blood,” Romans 5:9, and, “redeemed by His blood,” I Peter 18:19, and “cleansed by his blood,” I John 1:7. The saints of God in heaven are those who have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the lamb.” (Revelations 7:14) Yes, we believe, teach and confess the “blood atonement” because, as God’s Word proclaims, “without the shedding of blood there is no remission.” (Hebrews 9:22) The words of the hymnwriter sum it up for us:
“Jesus, Thy blood and righteousness
My beauty are, my glorious dress;
Midst flaming worlds, in these arrayed,
With joy shall I lift up my head.” (L.H. 415)
Here, dear friends, is where we find cause for optimism. Having been cleansed from sin, reconciled to God, and made heirs of eternal life through the perfect life and innocent suffering and death of our Saviour, how can we not rejoice and look to the future with confidence. The same Saviour who redeemed us ascended up on high to rule over all things for the benefit of His Church. Through the sacred means of Grace, the Word of God, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the Holy Spirit distributes and imparts to us the forgiveness of sins, life and salvation which Christ won for us on the cross. What a high privilege it is to be along in making known to others the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
With such God-pleasing optimism based squarely upon the Words and promises of God our Synod should look to the future. We cannot live in the past or dwell too long, as it were, under the famous oak trees. There is a world out there that is perishing at a frightening pace. Souls are going to eternal perdition because they do not know Jesus Christ as their Saviour and Redeemer. The world’s population climbed to 4.9 billion in 1985, adding 85 million people, the equivalent of the population of Mexico. By the end of this century another billion will be added. Our Lord has given us the great commission saying, “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded.” (Matthew 28:19) With the resources God has given us; with all the manpower, talent, and energy that we have we need to reach out to save the lost. How can we possibly do anything else when the eternal welfare of souls is at stake. We need to do this by preaching and teaching; by making disciples and by instructing them, as the Lord has told us.
We have a golden opportunity before us as we begin our “Partner’s in the Gospel” program. Just think of what could be done to bring people to saving faith in Christ! If every family in our Synod would give a mere 1% of their income each year for this three year endeavor it would result in over a million dollars being available each year. From the earnings of this fund the salaries of many home missionaries could be paid. From the fund itself new churches could be built. So much could be done to bring souls into the Kingdom of our Lord and to eternal life in heaven if we will only seize this opportunity.
We shall begin at this convention as was mandated last year. Now is the time for each one to give serious thought to what his part will be. Has not the Lord richly blessed us with so many material things? Does not all that we have belong to Him? Are we not merely the managers of what He has given us? Let us then so manage the Master’s money that we may bring in a great harvest of souls. On Wednesday of this week we shall prayerfully come to the front of the auditorium and lay our gifts or commitments on the offering table. The flesh will look for excuses not to take part. But the new man within us will tell us, “This is the Lord’s work and not our own. It is His will that we win souls. I want to be a part of it.”
When our people look back at the convention of 1986 let them say “Once again optimism prevailed. The Synod took seriously the Lord’s great commission. It embarked upon an earnest effort to reach out to the lost.”
In a similar spirit let us uphold, with our prayers and with our support, every phase of our Synod’s work. Having recently visited our foreign mission in Peru I think often of the fact that six million people are living in the city of Lima and very few of them know the Saviour. But the Word of God is having its effect. The preaching of the Gospel is bringing one soul after another to faith in the Saviour. Our four missionaries are dedicating their lives to the work of building God’s church in that dark land. What else can we do but uphold them and support them?
As we gather on the beautiful campus of Bethany Lutheran College and Seminary are we not visibly reminded of how God has blessed that decision of the Synod back in 1927 to establish our college? Soon it will be 60 years that our college has been training young people in the “one thing needful” Just think of how many have gone out to labor, witness and serve in the church and society after having graduated from our school. What our society needs is not mere robots who know how to run sophisticated electronic equipment. It needs people who have strong Christian values who can influence the world around them by really being the salt and the light that the Saviour wants them to be. A strong Christian training in the home, in our Sunday Schools and Day Schools, in our churches and Bible classes, and at our Bethany College is the only way such values can be inculcated. We must not only win souls for Christ but edify, build up, strengthen and equip the saints for a life of service. The writer of the Book of Proverbs has put it in these words, “Take fast hold of instruction; let her not go: keep her; for she is thy life.” (Proverbs 4:13) How precious therefore is every agency of Christian instruction. We should come before the throne of grace with urgent prayers asking the Lord to continue to bless all of our schools.
This fall will mark the 40th anniversary of the founding of our seminary. The training of pastors is surely one of the most important tasks a church body can have. How shall the Gospel be preached if we have no pastors? How shall souls be fed with the precious means of grace if shepherds are not trained and sent out. How thankful we are that we have four candidates to place this year. We could use four more right now! We will need a constant supply of pastors in the years to come. With our new mission program and with new congregations looking to our Synod for help the need will be great. But are we urging qualified young men to enter our seminary? Are parents, teachers, and pastors on the lookout for those who would make good pastors? This is a need that deserves our serious attention. Along with our new mission outreach program there should be a corresponding effort to find qualified men to be trained for the ministry. “Therefore said he unto them, The harvest truly is great, but the laborers are few: pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he would send forth laborers into his harvest.” (Luke 10:2)
As we look to the future we as a Synod, as individual members and pastors, and in our congregations, need to ask ourselves: Are we serving our members to the best of our ability? Are we listening to their needs, the anguish that is in the hearts of some young people, the pain being suffered by those effected by declining sectors of the economy, the additional stress placed upon the homes where both parents work? Only as we listen can we properly apply the Law and the Gospel which can provide the spiritual help that is needed.
As a Synod we also have opportunity to witness in the theological world. Small though we may be, yet the truths of God’s Word can shine just as brightly as in a large body. There are pastors and congregations that are wondering what to do and where to go as they face the theological pluralism that is prevalent in so much of Lutheranism today. Surely we must continue to stand fast upon the pure Word of God and the Lutheran Confessions so that we may be a “city on a hill” in this dark world.
There are, therefore, great challenges before us on every hand. Let us go forth to meet them with the same reliance upon the God of all grace and with the same optimistic spirit that was in the hearts of our forefathers.
In Jesus Name. Amen.
George M. Orvick, president