Dear Pastors, Convention Delegates and Friends of our Evangelical Lutheran Synod: Greetings in the name of our risen and ascended Lord!
Have you ever experienced a severe power outage—not just the kind that lasts for an hour or two, but for many hours, even days? Some of our delegates here lived through the Northeast Blackout of August 14, 2003. We are told that 508 generating units at 265 power plants shut down, 22 of which were nuclear power plants. It was so widespread and severe that 40 million people in the US and 10 million people in Ontario were affected, and financial losses were estimated to be about $6 billion.
A vast power outage of a different nature has affected more than finances. When sin entered the world by the fall in Eden, it was as if a huge fuse was blown on God’s wonderful creation. It plunged the world into a spiritual darkness so thick that it made for tragic consequences affecting the entire population of the world for every era of history. Even today an eternal death sentence for body and soul looms over any who have not come into contact with the saving power put into effect by God himself to restore spiritual light and life to sinful humanity. That restoration of power was provided in the form of a promise back at the outage scene in the garden. Then, in the course of time, that word of promise was realized as flesh—holy flesh—in order to obtain redemption for us sinners. “When the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4, 5).
This sin-shattering event of history—the holy life of Christ lived in the place of all people and his sacrifice at the cross making atonement for every sin—is very real; it has occurred; the verdict in God’s courtroom of justice was uttered, “It is finished!” In fact, the resurrection of Christ seals this merciful act of divine justice for sinners as a done deal. But in order for this verdict to benefit needy souls such as yours and mine, it has been necessary that this be communicated through means. What means has the Holy Spirit chosen to use?—The gospel in word and sacrament. Here is the light and life power for the restoration of our darkened souls. The whole book of Romans attests to this. The apostle Paul begins his well-known letter on justification with these key verses: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘The just shall live by faith’” (Romans 1:16, 17).
We have the gospel! We have the good news that tells how God’s own Son has conquered the power of sin, death and Satan. We tout this message by singing with the hymn writer Matthew Loy: “The Gospel shows the Father’s grace / Who sent His Son to save our race. / Proclaims how Jesus lived and died / That we might thus be justified” (ELH 233:1). More importantly, Scripture itself states: “Christ Jesus … has destroyed death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Timothy 1:10). But do we realize every day of our lives what a power this message is for souls that have been in a total blackout, a blackout—we are quick to add—of our own making because of our very own transgressions against God’s perfect Law?
An interesting phenomenon occurred in the 2003 Northeast Blackout. In large metropolitan areas where power remained off after nightfall, some people noted that for the first time they were able to see the Milky Way with the naked eye. They could not ordinarily view the starry sky because of light pollution. In a similar way, it is only when the Law of God does its work in revealing to us exactly how dark and desperately steeped in sin we are, that we will then be able to see the brilliance of Christ’s holy Gospel for our lives. The two teachings, Law and Gospel, go hand in hand. Our familiar Norwegian church father, Dr. Koren, once said: “If we preached only concerning forgiveness but no repentance, then that doctrine would neither be understood nor would it bear fruit. For without repentance there is no faith and consequently no justification by faith and to such souls ‘justification by faith’ will be only an empty phrase or a soft pillow–often both.” At the same time, the delineation between each of these doctrines, Law and Gospel, must be carefully noted. Martin Luther remarked, “In offering us help and salvation as a gift and donation of God, the gospel bids us hold the sack open and have something to give us. The Law, however, gives nothing, but only takes and demands things from us.” We also recall this astute observation of Dr. Walther on the very first page of the widely used book, The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel: “The true knowledge of the distinction between Law and Gospel is not only a glorious light, affording the correct understanding of the entire Holy Scriptures, but without this knowledge Scripture is and remains a sealed book.”
Our convention theme this year, “God’s Power for Salvation,” is intended to refresh us in our understanding of Law and Gospel. This study will help us devotionally for our own personal spiritual lives. It will assist us as a confessional Lutheran synod to stay focused on the way in which the life-saving gospel is to be proclaimed in the pulpit and in the classroom. But it also will remind us how to apply Law and Gospel in our conversations with those around us. Last year’s evangelism emphasis (“Declare His Praises!”) is not to be forgotten. Yet, as we think evangelism, we ultimately are thinking: clear application of Law and Gospel.
Recently in an article entitled, “Reaching Out: Luther on Missions,” Dr. Robert Kolb explains how the Law/Gospel emphasis of the great reformer lays out before us a healthy and vital backdrop in our approach to evangelism and missions. I quote the article at some length:
Luther’s distinction of Law and Gospel provides an effective framework for recognizing that our witness does not simply spout Bible truths into the air. We listen carefully to diagnose where individuals whom the Spirit places in our path are feeling the absence of God’s presence and love in their lives. Because Luther knew that the root problem of our endangering or harming the lives of our neighbors, or failing to help and support them in all of life’s needs, lies in our failure to fear and love God, his proclamation of the Law caught both perpetrators and victims of evil with its crushing power. For victims as well as perpetrators stand in need of the Lord whose absence they experience when they fail to trust God above all His creatures.
This enabled Luther to deliver God’s message of salvation and life in Christ by telling what He has done for sinners in the wide spectrum of biblical ways to say, “Your sins are forgiven, and your faith has saved you.” He could speak of Christ purchasing the guilty from their sins, not with a ransom of gold or silver but instead by sacrificing His life. He could also talk about Christ’s routing the tyrants and jailers of sin, death, the devil, and all evils, and snatching “us poor lost creatures from the jaws of hell, winning us, liberating us, and restoring us to the Father’s favor and grace” (Large Catechism, Creed, Second Article).
Luther also reminded those who witness to Christ that the Gospel is the power of God for salvation (Romans 1:16) and that the proclamation of the forgiveness of sins is not merely a pointing in the direction of a distant heavenly reality. Gospel proclamation does more than talk about God’s merciful, loving disposition toward sinners and His intention to call them to life in Christ. Believers wield God’s instrument for conveying new life, His weapon against our sins and the evil in our lives, when they speak of Christ and assure others of his self-sacrificing love for them. God accomplishes His saving purposes through our witness when we bring the pronouncement of God’s favor to those who live outside faith in Christ.1
We as a synod are ninety years from the time of the nostalgic meeting at Lime Creek. We face some challenges. We can pose them as questions. Are we striving faithfully to advance the Gospel of Christ in each of the communities where we presently have congregations? Should we be devoting more attention and resources toward opening new Lutheran schools, praying that God uses them also as outreach tools for our congregations? Might anyone here, or throughout our synod, be moved to consider a gift for LSA (Lutheran Schools of America) which has the very worthy goal of assisting congregations in developing Lutheran elementary schools with a classical education curriculum? Do our young people realize the value of a Christ-centered education they can receive here at our own Bethany Lutheran College? In view of the healthy enrollment at our Bethany Lutheran Theological Seminary, is this a time for us to be opening more home missions? Do we have the financial capabilities to do so? Could some of our churches consider daughtering another congregation? When we hear and see news reports of mega-disasters where thousands are killed, such as in Myanmar (Burma) and in China, when we realize so many die every day around our world without faith in the Savior, should we not be doing all that we can to reach more souls with the Gospel before the harvest season draws to a close? Might we do more to encourage gifts, including legacies, from our membership to carry on the crucial work of missions and education? Do we have the kind of harmony imperative for our church body as it strives to carry out its three-fold purpose; namely, that of the Great Commission, that of contending for the faith once delivered to the saints, and that of promoting the development of Christian life within our membership? In the area of worship and liturgy, are we careful not to quickly discard time-tested forms that have proven to be conducive to Lutheran worship in highlighting Law and Gospel, the importance of the Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and also the vast treasury of solid Lutheran hymns that assist in transmitting the heritage of God’s Word from one generation to the next? Having said this, are we also careful not to quickly rush into judgment in matters where God’s Word has not spoken? Are we as diligent today in our zeal for upholding the truths of God’s Word as our early forefathers were who willingly endured some earthly losses in order to establish our synod on a solid foundation and also secure a college on this hill? Are we praying daily for the work of our beloved synod?
God has enabled us as a church body to undertake many endeavors for the work of his kingdom. In 1968 our synod convention delegates, after hearing a report mentioning that at that time “between 800,000 to a million people live in the approximately 120 different barriadas of Lima,” resolved to endorse the proposal to do mission work in the country of Peru. At our convention this year we are privileged to celebrate and give thanks to God for forty years of presenting Christ’s Gospel to the people of this South American republic where today over 28 million people reside. Twelve national pastors now do most of the preaching, and twelve more men currently are taking seminary classes.
In our synod’s historical account, Built on the Rock, the late co-author Rev. J.B. Madson sums up our elation as we consider how God has used our church body to advance the cause of missions:
Who cannot thrill outwardly and give oral expression, too, to the wonderful things which the Lord permits us to do as a synod! God is permitting us to join a procession reaching back to the age of the apostles and continuing through all the generations up to the present, a procession of Christ’s disciples who are witnesses to Him in their own country and in faraway countries (p. 259).
We are grateful for past blessings, even as we ask the Lord to continue to use our synod as an agency for more mission work in whatever amount of time still lies ahead.
There is a special proposal in the area of missions before us this year. It comes from our Board for Foreign Missions, the Board of Directors of Thoughts of Faith, Inc., the specially appointed ad hoc committee known as the TOF Exploratory Committee, and also our synod’s Planning and Coordinating Committee. The recommendation is that the mission organization Thoughts of Faith, a church-related organization of the ELS, be brought into the organizational structure, direction and control of our synod. We ask for the Lord’s guidance as we act on this important proposal, praying that Christ’s gospel may continue to spread in Eastern Europe to souls formerly under the rule of atheistic communism.
As we look at the state of the outward visible church around us, there naturally are many concerns. There are certain challenges even within our own synod that need to be prayerfully addressed. But let us not forget: so many things unite us as we convene for our annual convention. Not least of which is the prayer, “Lord, keep us in Thy Word.” Our ELS is committed to teach only what Christ has instructed when he said, “…teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28). It is, after all, God’s doctrine, not ours. Our congregations are known in their geographical vicinities for taking stands on issues settled by God’s Word but where the world’s philosophy hastens to interfere. While our pastors and teachers say, “Thus says the Lord,” the teachers of the world say, “Thus says the horde.” Opinions by the collective masses are purported to outweigh the unchanging tenets of him who exercises all dominion over heaven and earth. In some cases, the threat is bold and easily discovered, even when it comes under the guise of Lutheranism. An example of this is seen in an April 19 open letter written by a retired Lutheran minister and addressed to the ELCA Human Sexuality Task Force. In his letter the former pastor of that same church expresses extreme dismay over the fact that the ELCA’s openness to gay marriage and ordination could end that church body’s effectiveness on the mission field in most countries. He bemoans, “I heard there were even some in Africa turning to Islam rather than taking such a liberal view of Scripture!!!” The writer who once served in Nepal went on to say that he would not encourage any of the Nepali pastors to come and study at the U.S. seminaries since it could destroy their faith.2 We who gather here, together with those in our congregations back home, certainly contend for the divine institution of marriage as a union only between a man and a woman; and also clearly condemn the sin of homosexuality while at the same time praying for the repentance of any caught up in such a lifestyle.
What is not so easily detected, however, are well-intentioned but misguided suggestions arising from voices within our own congregations. We hear occasionally of visitors to our church services who may not return because of our close Communion practice. Do some secretly hope—maybe also encourage—that this scripturally inferred practice be removed? Do we encounter those who chafe under the order God has set for his church and for the family in connection with role relationships? Do we find people questioning our refusal to participate in ecumenical prayer services or in the local high school baccalaureate worship service? Yes, no doubt questions are raised. But we are united in our resolve to let God’s Word, and that alone, address these matters. The apostle Peter urged that we should “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks [us] to give the reason for the hope that [we] have,” but then he also adds, “[D]o this with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).
As we said, we can point to many common challenges and concerns. What draws us together especially is the specific power we spoke of earlier: that power of God unto salvation for everyone who believes. We are convinced that all teachings in God’s Word play a supportive role in showcasing the chief doctrine that Christ, the God-man, has perfectly re-established the relationship of man to God by procuring a gracious judgment of God for all sinners, so that through faith in this righteousness we will enjoy life everlasting. Our Lutheran confessors described this saving power, the Gospel, in words like this: “The Gospel is, strictly speaking the promise of forgiveness of sins and justification because of Christ. Since we can receive this promise only by faith, the Gospel proclaims the righteousness of faith in Christ, which the law does not teach… This faith brings to God a trust not in our own merits, but only in the promise of mercy in Christ. Therefore, when a man believes that his sin are forgiven because of Christ and that God is reconciled and favorably disposed to him because of Christ, this personal faith obtains the forgiveness of sins and justifies us” (Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Art. IV, par. 44, 45).
We need to guard against the unholy three (the devil, the world and our sinful flesh) as they collaborate in looking for the Achilles’ heel to bring us down in our confession and belief of this key doctrine. Satan, “the father of lies,” goes for our most vulnerable spot as we attempt by God’s grace to hold on to this power, Christ’s Gospel. He will, of course, try the front door assault. He will appeal to our sinful pride and seek to have us think that some merit on our part earns heaven. But, if that does not succeed, he will put into effect the back door plan. He will attempt to have us focus on our sins, to have us see them as too great to be forgiven, and thus bring us into despair. The “world” enemy tries another tactic: “Doesn’t the collective wisdom of the world’s great thinkers and the general feeling of the populace indicate there cannot be only one way to eternal life? – Do you really have to be that strong in your evangelism efforts? – After all, there are a lot of good people in this world who are not Christian. – Do you really think they have no chance?” says the world. Our sinful flesh is one of the most sly and subtle antagonists. The sinful flesh does not need to come with any kind of bold assault. It knows it is with us day in and day out. It can sit back, weigh the situation and strike when convenient. It can whisper: “Are you really sure that if you let yourself go just this once that you are so endangering your faith? Isn’t Christ’s forgiveness always there to run back to, so what’s the big deal?”
Do you see the kind of battle we have before us? Only one weapon can suffice. Ephesians 6 lets us know that is God’s Word. “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God… Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:12, 13, 17). The potent tip of the Christian arsenal’s sword of the Spirit—the Word—is specifically the Gospel in its narrow definition. The message of Christ crucified for sinners not only wards off danger but also comforts and empowers for future living.
Satellite photos taken before, during and after the 2003 Northeast Blackout are quite revealing. Such a large segment of the globe was virtually without lights. That made a difference on the satellite screen for that night of August 14. Just as a large region of the world was at one moment dark but then under light again with power generated to the cities and homes, do we not also rejoice when the powerful Word of God is beamed to villages—whether in America or India or along the Amazon or wherever. There is rejoicing among the angels in the presence of God even over one sinner who repents (Luke 15:10).
As we seek to shine the light of the Gospel in places where spiritual outages rule the day in abject darkness, we may wonder: Can the church really make a dent? In the dense universal fog of spiritual mishmash that borrows from virtually every religion imaginable and insists that no one religion has a lock on the truth and that all roads lead to some sort of nirvana, how can the exclusive-yet-inclusive beacon of Christ crucified for sinners be seen? Will the little city set on a hill be able even to enjoy its own light, let alone shine it out to others? Yes. This is why we are here to remind each other of the real power at work in the life of the church. It isn’t our own. It is completely divine. God’s Power for Salvation—the holy Gospel—gives us life personally through Christ’s declared righteousness, but it also sustains the church until the end of time. In Word and Sacrament we have sustenance for the church’s survival and the promise that through this Gospel our Lord will gather more souls into his kingdom. Even here this rather insignificant assembly by the world’s standards, our Evangelical Lutheran Synod has a role to play in the grand scheme of the Church Universal and our gracious Lord’s gathering mission. We close with this thought from Dr. Walther: “As the earth is suspended in the air without a visible foundation yet does not sink into the bottomless pit because God’s power is in its invisible foundation, and as the starry sky arches over us without its visible pillars yet stands firm because God’s power invisibly supports the heavens, so also does the Church stand in this world. It has no visible foundation or pillars to support it, yet it does not sink because its invisible foundation is God’s eternal love, revealed in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.”3
May God grant us a truly fruitful 2008 convention to the glory of his name.
John A. Moldstad, president
1 The Lutheran Witness, October 2007.
2 Letter by Rev. Robert S. Ove; http://www.wordalone.org/docs/wa-where-end.shtml
3 God Grant It, “Daily Devotions from C. F. W. Walther,” translated by Gerhard Grabenhofer, CPH: 2006, p. 856.