Dear esteemed Pastors, Delegates and Friends of our Evangelical Lutheran Synod. We greet each of you in the name of our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.
An amazing account of courage occurs in the fourth chapter of the book of Acts. Let me refresh the scene. At the temple gate Beautiful a tremendous miracle had occurred. By the power of Jesus of Nazareth, the apostles Peter and John had performed the healing of a lame man. Soon after, a crowd gathered. The apostles used the occasion to proclaim the message of sin and grace in the name of Jesus. The Sanhedrin was not amused. The unbelieving Jewish leaders had Peter and John arrested and kept in jail until the next morning when they were put on trial. Peter confronted the Jewish leaders with their guilt in rejecting Jesus of Nazareth. They could not deny the miracle of the lame man being healed. Nor could the leaders determine how to act for punishment toward Peter and John. They perceived at this point the people were on the apostles’ side. Yet, these rulers feared what would happen if the apostles continued preaching. They firmly commanded the apostles “not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus” (Acts 4:18). The famous reply of Peter and John was: “We cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20). All the Sanhedrin could do was threaten the apostles and let them go.
Now, here’s the astounding act of courage. When the apostles, upon their release, went to their fellow believers in Jerusalem and reported what had happened, what reaction would we normally expect to see on the part of the believers? The believers knew they were in trouble. The Jewish leadership indicated that any kind of Jesus-preaching was illegal. So, did the Christians panic? Did they plan to flee? Did they even so much as argue about what would be their plan? Not at all. They prayed. And note how they prayed: They prayed in unison (the Greek indicates they all moved in the same direction), and we are told they prayed for boldness. Did you catch that? Their prayer was not asking God for an escape plan, or for protection from bodily harm, or for punishment to fall on the Sanhedrin. So much did they want the Gospel of Christ to advance, they petitioned for courage! “Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness” (Acts 4:29). Did the Lord answer? Luke records the following: “After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly” (Acts 4:31).
We are reminded of what Luther said in his Small Catechism as he penned this explanation to the “Our Father”: “God hereby tenderly invites us to believe that He is our true Father, and that we are His true children, so that we may ask Him with all boldness and confidence, as children ask their dear father” [emphasis, mine]. Didn’t Jesus promise his followers, “I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them” (Matthew 18:19, 20)? God has not promised that the sheer numbers of people praying automatically will assure an answer, for even “the prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective” (James 5:16). Yet, to pray collectively for something such as boldness in the faith and for the Holy Spirit’s continual presence is—to say the least—highly commendable. The believers’ prayer for boldness in Acts 4, together with Dr. Luther’s words of encouragement, moves us to ask: Is there an application here for us in attendance at our synod’s ninety-third convention?
Our custom of convening each year enables us to cover a number of topics in depth on a regular basis. Twelve months ago we heard an excellent essay on financial stewardship. Yes, we need financial resources to carry on the Lord’s work. It takes money to get things done. This year’s essay will focus on a key doctrine of scripture: holy baptism. What the church needs most for accomplishing its mission is not money but attention to and use of the means of grace. There is no other power but that of word and sacrament, which the Holy Spirit uses for making new converts for Christ’s kingdom and also for strengthening the faithful.
I. For a moment, though, we turn to the subject of prayer in connection with the example of the early Christians in Jerusalem. While prayer is not a means of grace, it is a valuable gift God has granted his church. Prayer is to be used in connection with all aspects of believers’ lives, but especially in petitioning the Lord of the church for the advancement of his saving gospel. We are not primarily speaking here of prayer in general, but what we might call (to coin a term) “prattitude”—our prayer attitude. Look at these early Christians. They sought boldness from the Lord. Literally, in the original language, they asked God to make them bold in order to go on speaking (present active infinitive) the word of the Lord.1
The believers in the book of Acts had every reason—humanly speaking—to be afraid. The apostles were arrested and then reprimanded by the Jewish leaders. If this happened to the apostles, what would this mean for the rest of them? Should they go underground with their message? Should they soft-pedal some teaching in order to gain more numbers? Should they cater to the whims of a society largely opposed to Jesus Christ and interested more in pleasures and self-serving goals?
Does this sound similar to our present-day obstacles? We live in godless times. There is pressure around us to conform to the world. The world urges us to confine our spiritual beliefs merely to what is perceived as the lowest common denominator for all religions. Critics of Christianity contend we should cease trying to influence people in the ways of the word. Interestingly, some who stridently object to any Christian influence, claiming a First Amendment violation, see no problem at all when zealots of non-Christian religions and cultures unabashedly advance their philosophical causes and interests … Then, too, it’s tempting for any of us to get caught up in the false ecumenical mood that pervades our land … Are we as concerned as we should be in our thinking and in our prayer life when we witness across our country the building of more and more of worship centers devoid of the cross and often displaying the crescent moon? … Last year in the month of August confessional Lutherans were deeply saddened (yet not surprised) to observe the largest church body in the US bearing our respected Reformer’s name adopt a controversial resolution to ordain practicing homosexuals … Then, too, many across our nation persist in the view that has little or no regard for the protection of human life in the womb, regarding it as expendable waste, if necessary, to preserve an alleged freedom for the mother should she choose to abort.
We need to pray for boldness to contend for the faith once delivered to the saints (Jude 3). Four hundred and eighty years ago this coming Sunday, Dr. Luther wrote a letter encouraging his friend, Philip Melanchthon, to remain firm in sticking up for the clear teachings of Scripture. Melanchthon had just presented the Augsburg Confession before the emperor and princes, but he began showing weakness as he thought of how angry the papists had become. Luther, who was not at Augsburg, penned this note to Melanchthon: “If the cause is great, great is also its Author and Champion; for the cause is not ours. Why, then, are you always and everlastingly tormenting yourself? If the cause is false, then let us recant; if it is true, why should we charge him with lying in His great promises and disobey His command that we should have a heart quiet and undisturbed? ‘Cast Thy burden upon the Lord,’ says He (Psa. 55:22); ‘The Lord is nigh unto all them that call upon Him’ (Ps. 145:18). Does he say this in vain or to beasts? … I am surely praying for you constantly, and it hurts me that you keep on sucking up cares like a leech. … May Christ comfort, strengthen, and teach you by His Spirit.”2 Luther’s tenacious disposition in confessing the truth is also what we pray for, as we confront challenges to the faith and are tempted toward timidity. “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16, 17). Yes, pray for boldness to contend for the truth, for every word of it is God-breathed!
II. Pray also for boldness to approach unbelievers with the word of Christ. Who knows what can happen when boldness is exerted? Noah was a preacher of righteousness, and he and seven others were saved in the ark. Joseph, who warded off temptation in the house of Potiphar, went on to rule in Pharaoh’s palace, and Psalm 105 says he instructed princes and taught his elders wisdom (v. 22). Ruth demonstrated to those in Moab how much the true God of her mother-in-law, Naomi, meant to her by moving to Bethlehem and leaving behind the heathen land of her birth. Naaman listened to a Jewish servant girl who pointed him in the right spiritual direction. The woman at the well eagerly spread the word of Jesus, and John records that “many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony” (John 4:39). Paul said he was not eloquent of speech (1 Corinthians 2:4–5), yet he boldly proclaimed the word of God, and God blessed his preaching (Acts 18).
How bold are we in lovingly directing others to the One Thing Needful? Often we have failed and continue to fail. Through Christ, who was the perfect evangelist in our place and who died for all our transgressions—including our lack of mission zeal and courage, we are rejuvenated to do the work of his kingdom in whatever role God has given us. At times we may wonder, “Isn’t it better if I couch the Christian message or blend it with what is religiously popular?” The fact is, only the stark truth of Jesus Christ as the world’s one Redeemer saves (Acts 4:12), and it is he who also tells us to teach and observe all things just as he has commanded (Matthew 28:20). One church leader, now gone to his eternal rest, sized up the situation this way: “Sometimes we act as if the church grows best when it presents its most attractive face and blends, however it can, into its surroundings. During the church’s early days, though, the apostles and members, including Stephen, clearly demarcated the difference between Christianity and the surrounding religions. They were treated harshly as a result. But the church was in better shape than anyone could have guessed. In fact, it grew—both in numbers (Acts 2:47; 4:4; 5:14; 6:7) and in spiritual maturity.”3
So, pray for boldness to approach unbelievers with the word of Christ. Leave what we perceive as theological difficulties for prospective converts in the hands of God. The Holy Spirit, through his word, creates faith in human hearts where and when he pleases (Isaiah 55:11). Remember what Paul said to the Corinthian Christians: “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow” (1 Corinthians 3:6, 7).
III. Pray for boldness on behalf of our synod in meeting the challenges before us. In mentioning this, I wish to add quickly how grateful we are for the daily prayers of our people. Some of the most memorable remarks I recall while visiting our congregations are ones like these: “I want you to know that I pray daily for you and for the work of our church body.” “Pastor, I am praying that God keeps our synod faithful to his word and also opens doors for us to spread the life-giving gospel.”
In my printed report to our 2010 convention, I include five areas of concern for our church body. More could be listed, yet we put these before you. Each of these concerns presents an opportunity for us prayerfully to meet the challenge, seeking the Lord’s will and guidance. The first two, doctrinal vigilance and evangelism have been alluded to already. Permit me, for a moment, to raise the other three:
Mission outreach—Here we refer to establishing home missions in our synod. What might we be able to do collectively and with much boldness in prayer in order to have a new mission start annually? Are there established congregations who might consider preaching stations in their region? Often our Board for Home Missions becomes interested in a specific location for a new start as a result of initial legwork done by one of our churches and its pastor. We note that a memorial to this year’s convention seeks to highlight for us the crucial importance of home missions. Let’s also not overlook the valuable mission link provided through our Lutheran elementary schools. With the presence of a well-run Christian school, a congregation readily can make connections with non-members in its vicinity.
Use of manpower—The 2010 seminary graduating class consists of seven men, trained and eager to serve. While we are pleased some placements have been made, we still are in need of more pastoral opportunities for our young men. Can any of our larger churches be encouraged to bring on an extra pastor to assist with evangelism and youth work?
Synodical stewardship—To do the gospel work before us, we know much prayer and financial resources are needed. We encourage members of our synod to think seriously about making special gifts and bequests for the purpose of home missions and evangelism. Rev. Dan Basel, ELS Giving Counselor, is willing to come and speak with members on innovative ways to leave financial gifts both for the local congregation and the synod, while at the same time providing significant tax advantages for respective donors and their estates.
Please pray for boldness on behalf of our synod to meet the pressing challenges before us. We specifically request from our gracious God his blessing upon the dedicated work of our synod’s Planning and Coordinating Committee (P&C). This sizable, representative board continues to lead us in a candid evaluation of our church body. We appreciate the efforts of congregations and members who participated recently in the synod-wide survey. The P&C hopes to have a workable plan brought to the 2011 convention that focuses strategically on the best use of the resources granted by our Lord to our synod. You will note in the pre-convention materials an Identity Statement and a Vision Statement. The proposed Vision Statement is simple and direct: “In the next five years we will learn to engage others with Jesus.”
IV. Pray for boldness as we head toward the final day when our Lord will return in glory. We have only so much time before the night comes when no one can work. There’s an urgency to getting out the gospel! Are we convinced of this? People who do not know Jesus will perish eternally, unless by the power of the Spirit they come to faith through the gospel. Does it sink in to our psyche that even acquaintances we see often and who are nice individuals will not be entering the joys of heaven upon leaving this earth, if there is no repentance of sin and no embracing of Christ’s merits alone for salvation? “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16). Maybe we do not feel so gifted to explain details of the Bible. Yet, we know the simple but powerful message that saves, and we may be the only point of contact for a certain lost soul. As the mission hymn says, we can tell the love of Jesus, we can say he died for all (ELH 191:2). We have the Lord’s promise that the world will not come to an end before all who are appointed to eternal life are brought into the fold. “God is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
Looking to the final day, whether the day of Christ’s return or our own moment of passing–whichever is sooner, our prayer for boldness includes being personally assured by the Spirit of two realities as we gather regularly around word and sacrament: Christ is coming and, by faith in his righteousness, we are ready for that day!
In 2007 you may recall a massive earthquake struck just south of Lima, Peru. Something interesting happened. Our missionary, Rev. Terry Schultz, reported that when the quake occurred many of the Christian people living in the area of Pisco were spared. He said this happened because, as soon as the shaking began, the Christians in the villages thought the end of the world had arrived. So, they immediately rushed out into the streets. It wasn’t the second coming, of course! As they turned to look back, many of their neighbors were dead since they stayed in their houses. Had they too been inside their homes, many of those Christians in Pisco would have been squashed instantly.
That can illustrate an important point for all of us. We ought to be so certain of Jesus’ second coming and the end of this present world, that—like those Peruvian Christians—we see signs of decay and degeneration all around us and yet eagerly look forward to meeting our Redeemer face-to-face and to a much better home in glory! May all, especially the dear members in all of our synod’s churches, boldly say: “Our citizenship is in heaven, and we eagerly await a Savior from there…” (Philippians 3:20). For this too we pray.
V. Finally, and most importantly, pray for boldness to take hold of God’s forgiveness.
Central to our existence as Christians and certainly to our profession as Lutherans is the article by which the church stands or falls: the doctrine of justification. Justification, plain and simple, is all about our having God’s forgiveness—full and free. We sinners are unable to escape from an eternity of damnation except through faith in the atoning work of Jesus Christ, God’s only-begotten Son and the world’s only Savior. The holy life of Jesus and his sacrificial death were vicarious in nature, exchanging the righteousness of Christ for our sins as he carried them to the cross. This is the chief news from God’s word intended for all people, even though not all believe this news and obtain eternal life. Christ’s redemptive work is universal, translating objectively into a declaration of forgiveness for every inhabitant, regardless of whether it is believed or not (Rom. 4:5). The resurrection of our Lord sealed this fact (Rom. 4:25).
A picture often used by pastors is God’s reservoir of redeeming love for the world. God has ordained and put into action an aqueduct system: the means of grace, word and sacrament. The gospel—whether preached, taught, or read; whether connected with water baptismally or attached to the simple elements at the Lord’s Table where the Savior’s flesh and blood are tendered—is potent in conveying the water of life, Christ’s forgiveness of sins. For the gospel to energize a spiritually dead soul the law also needs to be proclaimed; without it, the sinner does not understand the desperate need for a gospel rescue.
God the Holy Spirit has bound himself to dealing with us sinners this way. He has revealed no other way for piping the water of life. “[O]ur gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit, and with deep conviction” (1 Thess. 1:5). Using a conduit for conveying forgiveness and the promise of eternal life in Christ, the Spirit takes from the reservoir and goes to work. Here, the reservoir yields its blessed objective results in a subjective, personal manner!
This immediately draws us to the theme for this year’s convention: Baptized Into Christ. God has chosen baptism as a way to channel his forgiveness of sins to our hearts. Our theme is taken from Paul’s letter to the Galatians, where he writes: “For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (literally, clothed yourselves with Christ) (Galatians 3:27). Being clothed with Christ is being covered with God’s forgiveness and simultaneously being wrapped in Christ’s holiness.
Sinners that we are, we are prone to doubt. Satan is hell-bent on having us question whether God’s forgiveness is real for each of us personally. Haven’t we sinned much since the time we were brought to the font for the holy washing of water with the word? Have we sinned against better judgment, knowing clearly what God has stated in his Law? Are we undergoing some severe trial? How easily we can become discouraged and wonder about God’s full love. But Dr. Luther reminds us that we have every reason to respond boldly to the old wily foe and to our own troubled conscience. In his Large Catechism he gives this retort: “But I am baptized! And if I am baptized, I have the promise that I shall be saved and have eternal life, both in soul and body!”4
Directing us to our baptism is directing us to Christ. This is the boldness we pray God grants us most of all! And, by the way, this is a prayer that he always answers in the affirmative, for “there is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).
Heavenly Father, as you did with the Christians long ago, fill our hearts with all boldness and confidence. We poor sinners are weak and helpless. But you, O Lord, are strong and you are loving. Have us treasure the atoning work of your Son, and also our personal cleansing at the font. Give us boldness to act on your word, to believe your gracious promises, and to live and act according to your will. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
John A. Moldstad, president
1 A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, Vol. III (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1930), comments on Acts 4:29, p.55.
2 E. Plass, What Luther Says (St. Louis: Concordia, 1959), Vol. 1, #1038.
3 A.L. Barry, To the Ends of the Earth (St. Louis: Concordia, 1997), 55–56.
4 Large Catechism, Part Four, paragraph 44, Tappert edition, p. 442