ESTEEMED MEMBERS AND FRIENDS OF OUR EVANGELICAL LUTHERAN SYNOD: GRACE AND PEACE FROM GOD OUR FATHER AND FROM THE LORD AND SAVIOUR JESUS CHRIST. AMEN.
“What kind of a church body is the Evangelical Lutheran Synod?” This is a question which is frequently asked of me by people with whom I come in contact in various parts of the country and world. Frequent letters from interested parties also ask for information about our synod. They seek answers to questions such as: What is our doctrinal position? What is our background? What kind of program do we have for home and foreign mission work? Do we have our own seminary and college? And the list goes on. In spite of our small size there seems to be much interest in our synod especially in smaller groups similar to us. Many are recognizing the doctrinal deterioration that has afflicted some larger church bodies and they are looking for a place where the truth is still confessed. When we establish new missions here at home people ask similar questions. They want to know something about our background and character before joining.
For our own sake also it is well to ask the question, “What kind of synod are we?” We have pastors from many different backgrounds. They have received their training in as many as five or six different seminaries. Our own seminary graduates often come from diverse backgrounds. Thus many are not thoroughly familiar with our history. As we open new missions much of our growth consists of people who know very little about the ELS. Because of our size we are not well known even amongst fellow Lutherans. It is therefore important that we keep on defining who we are and what we stand for so that the right kind of “synod consciousness” and “synod loyalty” continues to grow. Every church body, if it is to be united in its mission and in its zeal to carry out the Lord’s work, needs to have a cohesiveness, a spirit of team work, so that each and every one feels a strong “partnership” in the synod.
Let me first of all, then, set forth what is the heart and center of our Evangelical Lutheran Synod.
WE ARE A CHURCH BODY WHICH IS FOUNDED UPON A ROCK. We then immediately ask, “What is that rock?” The Lord Jesus in one of his brief parables speaks thus: “Whosoever cometh to Me, and heareth My sayings, and doeth them, I will show you to whom he is like. He is like a man which built a house, and digged deep, and laid the foundation upon a rock. And when the flood arose, the stream beat vehemently upon that house and could not shake it, for it was founded upon a rock. But he that heareth, and doeth not, is like a man that without a foundation built a house upon the earth, against which the stream did beat vehemently, and immediately it fell, and the ruin of that house was great.” (Luke 6,47–49)
The rock on which we build is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, namely, the blessed doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith. This is the central doctrine of the Holy Scriptures and has been called the “article upon which the church stands or falls.” It is the Lord Jesus Christ himself who has set forth this doctrine. He declares that “the Son of Man came to give His life a ransom for many” (Matt. 20,28) and that he shed his blood for the remission of sins. (Matt. 26,28) The Apostle Paul, after making it exceedingly plain that all the world is guilty before God (Rom. 3,19) and stands by nature under the condemnation of God’s law, goes on to teach the doctrine of justification by grace alone as the central message of the Christian faith. The centrality which he accords to this blessed teaching is summed up in these words, “I determined not to know any thing among you save Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.” (I Cor. 2,2) In many passages he sets forth this truth. He writes to the Romans, “Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” (Rom. 3,24) And again, “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.” (Rom. 3,28)
This we confess also in our Lutheran Confessions. “It is also taught among us that we cannot obtain forgiveness of sin and righteousness before God by our own merits, works, or satisfactions, but that we receive forgiveness of sin and become righteous before God by grace, for Christ’s sake, through faith, when we believe that Christ suffered for us and that for his sake our sin is forgiven and righteousness and eternal life are given to us. For God will regard and reckon this faith as righteousness, as Paul says in Rom. 3,21–26 and 4,5.” (AC IV)
The Smalcald Articles of our Lutheran Confessions state, “Of this article nothing can be yielded or surrendered (nor can anything be granted or permitted contrary to the same) even though heaven and earth, and whatever will not abide, should sink to ruin. For there is none other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved, says Peter, Acts 4,12.” (Trigl. 119,5)
Martin Luther writes concerning the doctrine of justification, “This article is the head and cornerstone of the church, which alone begets, nourishes, builds, preserves, and protects the Church; without it the Church of God cannot subsist one hour.” (St. L. XIV:168)
This justification is first of all an “objective justification.” God has on the basis of the redemptive work of Christ declared the whole world to be righteous. “To him who works not, but believes on Him Who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.” (Rom. 4,5) “God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; … For He has made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” (II Cor. 5,19 & 21) Objective justification is a forensic act of God apart from faith by which he has pronounced the “not guilty” verdict over the whole world.
When we speak of “subjective justification” we mean that when the sinner is brought to faith through the Gospel he then lays hold of that righteousness which God has provided for him. Faith is simply the empty hand which reaches out to grasp the forgiveness which God has already declared through the Gospel. “By grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast.” (Eph. 2,8.9)
The Evangelical Lutheran Synod has had to contend throughout its existence for this precious teaching of objective justification. Way back in the 1860’s arid 70’s the opponents of the synod, namely the Augustana Synod, the Eilsen Synod, and the Norwegian–Danish Conference, attacked the synod for many years. They held to a conditional Gospel, namely, that without faith there was in reality no Gospel either—as if without the seeing eye there would be no sun. The opponents spoke of justification wrought by the merit and sacrifice of Christ as if it existed only for those who accepted it in faith, while the synod insisted on the objective validity of Christ’s redeeming and justifying work, whether it was accepted in faith or not.
Yes, we are justified and saved by faith alone, “But this faith justifies, not because it in itself is such a great and glorious thing, but because that to which it clings and on which it builds, viz., the redeeming work of Christ, is a great and glorious thing.” As the Formula of Concord says: “Faith justifies, not because it is so good a work and so fair a virtue, but because, in the promise of the Gospel, it lays hold of and accepts the merit of Christ.” (FC SD 13) See Grace for Grace p. 64.
This blessed teaching of justification by grace alone came under indirect attack in both the election controversy of the 1880’s and in the controversy over conversion leading up to the Madison Settlement (Opgjør) in 1917. In both of those controversies “the opponents of the synod’s doctrine wanted to attribute something to man as a cause of his salvation, rather than giving all credit and glory to the grace of God alone.
In 1938 the synod had to take strong exception to the “Doctrinal Declaration” of the ALC because of its statement on justification, namely, that “God purposes to justify those who have come to faith.”
One can thus readily see from our history that the Evangelical Lutheran Synod has fought bravely to uphold the doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith at great cost and sacrifice. This doctrine is the rock on which we are built, and even though the storms have come and the winds have beat upon this little synod, it has not given up this teaching. Such is not the case with those who departed from this path in 1870–80 and in 1917. They now find themselves in the new church body, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which allows its teachers to call into question and deny the very fundamentals of the Apostle’s Creed. Such a house is built upon sand insofar as it allows its leading teachers to deny the very heart and center of the Gospel.
It is not enough, however, that we synodically confess the blessed Gospel of free salvation through faith in the Saviour. No, this will have to be preached from every pulpit Sunday after Sunday. The Saviour says in the parable, “Whosoever cometh to me and heareth my sayings, and doeth them. . .” After specific law-preaching has convicted the hearts of the hearers, then there should be proclaimed in all of its beauty and comfort the specific Gospel which conveys the forgiveness of sins to every soul. Sometimes even pastors might think, “Oh, they’ve heard all that before,” or “everyone knows that.” But such is not the case. As one who now sits more often in the pew, I can testify that when the Law has been properly preached, the soul hungers and thirsts for righteousness. It longs for the forgiveness of sins and eagerly awaits words of comfort from the Gospel. It continually wants assurance that when that final day arrives and the last trumpet sounds, the poor sinful soul will be found built on the solid rock which is Christ and not on sinking sand.
When He shall come with trumpet sound
Oh, may I then in Him be found,
Clothed in His righteousness alone,
Faultless to stand before the throne.
On Christ, the solid rock, I stand,
All other ground is sinking sand.
Likewise, it is not enough that we as a synod officially confess this truth and that it is proclaimed regularly from pulpits in our congregations. No, it will not do any good unless the individual members, and all who hear it, believe it and embrace it in true and living faith. The Lord Jesus in the parable speaks of the “man” that built his house upon the rock. It is the Word of Jesus, mentioned in the text, that gives the power to believe and conveys the forgiveness. But it is the individual who must do the believing. Therefore, dear members of the synod, and all who hear the Word, let us accept the blessed message of free salvation, won for us on the cross, and distributed to us through the Means of Grace, and find peace and comfort for our souls.
Peace, to soothe our bitter woes,
God in Christ on us bestows;
Jesus bought our peace with God
With His holy, precious blood;
Peace in Him for sinners found,
Is the Gospel’s joyful sound.
It is this Gospel orientation that gives our synod its particular character, its flavor, if you will. This is what determines its spirit, its practice in the congregations, and its life as a church.
It goes without saying that the doctrine of the inerrancy and verbal inspiration of the Holy Scripture undergirds our certainty that the message of the Gospel is God’s own divine revelation to us. It is his Gospel which has been revealed to the world through the divinely inspired pages of Holy Scripture.
It is this Gospel that should be the motivating force for all the activity of our church body. Why do we want to open new missions? Not simply that the organization can grow. No, we want to reach out to precious blood-bought souls and bring them to saving faith in the Lord Jesus, and feed all who come with the bread of life. Should we not therefore intensify our efforts in this regard. We are not being true to the Gospel nor to the very spirit of our synod if we have no desire to spread the message. Poor souls are being fed with so much chaff and husk these days that they suffer from spiritual malnutrition. We, who have the true bread of life, cannot selfishly hoard it for ourselves while others are starving. Why do we want to send missionaries to Peru? Because of the spiritual starvation that people there live with day after day. They call upon us to come over and help them and feed them with food for the soul.
What motivates our desire to support our seminary and provide pastors? Why, of course, it is the same motivation. “How shall they hear without a preacher?” asks the Apostle Paul. (Romans 10,14) When we are dead and gone who will take our place if it is not for our schools, says Martin Luther. Training pastors for our growing church is essential for the spreading of the good tidings of great joy.
When our Lord talked about the “one thing needful” he was referring to this very matter that we have spoken of today, the saving Gospel. Our Bethany Lutheran College gives us an excellent opportunity to teach and reach several hundred young people every year. Many of them are not very familiar with the message of salvation. The Bethany experience represents a mission opportunity that will not come again in the lives of many youth. Our faculty, therefore, should also be mission minded, having a deep concern for their spiritual welfare.
And what shall motivate us to good Christian stewardship so that we willingly set aside a percentage of our income for the Lord’s work? Nothing else but the great love the Lord Jesus has shown for us and the forgiveness of sins which we daily receive. It is said of the early Vikings that when they went down into the water to be baptized into the Christian faith they held their battle axes high over their heads. That was one part of their daily lives that was not to be consecrated to the Lord. Do we sometimes act in similar fashion so that our wallets remain as something apart from the influence of the Gospel? Let us re-examine ourselves also in this regard.
And so with our whole manner of living as Christians: the Gospel motivates us to hear God’s word regularly, to be students of the Word, to live righteous and godly lives, and so to show our faith in the way we talk and think, and act.
What kind of church body is the Evangelical Lutheran Synod? We hope and pray that it will ever remain one that has as its very life blood the blessed teaching of justification by grace alone through faith in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Only then will it be built on a rock. Only then will it be truly “evangelical” Only then will it be truly “Lutheran.” With such a character it will not compromise one of the doctrines of scripture because they are all directly related to the one central doctrine. With such a motivation it will not fall into lethargy and laziness in its efforts to save souls. It will continue to be God’s instrument in proclaiming the “glad tidings of great joy” to as many as it can reach. God grant it for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria
George M. Orvick