Dear esteemed Pastors, Delegates and Friends of our Evangelical Lutheran Synod:
Violent winds and huge waves batter the ocean shore. The billows intensify. Whatever dots the coastline either blows apart or gets sucked into the sea by the pounding of each blast. The beaches begin to erode. But there in the middle of the stormy waters is a sign of fortitude. An impregnable rock, a large one, juts up majestically from the seaboard and remains completely unscathed. Water pours through its crevices, yet nothing mars its surface. Nor does its foundational moorings yield even an inch. The immovable rock has stood the test of time and continues to prove itself as a great tower of strength.
This scene can serve as a metaphor of the spiritually turbulent and shaky times in which we live. Our Lord foretold how the end times would be full of challenges for believers. We throw up our hands every time we hear of another attack aimed at the Christian faith, threatening to torpedo the morality of the Bible, and we wonder, “Could things get much worse?” The worship liberty long taken for granted in our land appears at risk. If the great institutions of marriage and the family can suffer such a dramatic setback in less than one decade, what does the future hold? Now, even the transgender issue invades our bathrooms! Millennials—those born between 1980 and 2000—are self-described, if surveys are accurate, as likely the least religious generation in our country’s history, with about a third of the “thirty-somethings” preferring to identify themselves as secular or non-spiritual.
So, where are we headed? If the winds and waves surging against the church are not already gale-force, a powerful hurricane is emerging on the horizon. One pastor put it this way: “At the very eye of the satanic hurricane which is battering the church is the vicious attack being waged upon the Bible… Even many so-called evangelical churches today are advocating accommodation with our culture in order not to offend or in order to get along.”1
It is not just the evils of society that stoke the churning storm. Inside each of us lurks the old sinful nature. When trouble comes, when we are bother by some haunting sins we have committed in our moments of weakness, or when we feel overwhelmed with grief or loneliness, it may seem as if no solid ground is left for our spiritual footing. Where is hope?
There is hope—tremendous hope! Like an eternal “Rock of Gibraltar” rising above the sea of turmoil, we have the never-perishing Word of God. “For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4).
It is in the Word where we are directed to a hope that is eternally solid. This kind of hope is deeper than simply a sign of optimism amid the storms of life. As much as we urge in this election year the exercise of good citizenship in voting our Christian conscience, this hope is not to be found in the political arena of a country we dearly love. It is not to be found in a set of moral ethics, constitutionally established, around which we strive to rally common agreement. Nor is it in the philosophical writings of scholars. It is only that hope set forth in holy Scripture.
So, what exactly is this hope expounded in the writings of the prophets and apostles? In the opening words of his first epistle, the apostle Peter jubilantly summarizes the Christian hope: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade—kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1:3–5). Our living hope is Christ, our crucified but resurrected and living Lord who gave his life as a ransom payment for us sinners so that by faith in him we have a better land—the inheritance of heaven—guaranteed to be the eternal resting place for each one of us, both in body and soul!
If ever you have to depend on mercy in a courtroom, you cannot have an absolutely certain hope. Suppose you are guilty of a crime and you stand before a judge and all you have to go on is a hope that you will catch the judge on a day he happens to feel merciful. You do not have a leg to stand on. But if you are arraigned in a courtroom where you know ahead of time that the Judge is predisposed to have mercy toward you because of a ruling he can never retract, and because of his promise, and because of his actions in keeping his promise, you have a solid Rock to stand on! In the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, our Lutheran forefathers emphasized the way that true hope for the Christian exceeds and defies human logic. It depends on mercy—God’s mercy and that alone!
Precisely in order to make hope sure and to distinguish between those who are saved and those who are not, we must hold that we are saved through mercy. Unless it is qualified, this statement is absurd. In courts of human judgment a right or debt is certain, while mercy is uncertain. The judgment of God is another thing altogether. Here mercy has God’s clear certain promise and command. Properly speaking, the Gospel is the command to believe that we have a gracious God because of Christ. “God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. He who believes in him is not condemned,” etc. (John 3:17, 18)2
A famous painting by George Watts entitled “Hope” hangs in an art gallery in London. The 1886 piece depicts a young girl seated upon a globe. She is blindfolded. In her hand she holds a harp on which all of the strings are broken except for one. The blindfolded girl is touching the one string with her hand, and her head is bent forward as she intently waits to catch the pleasing sound of that one string. For believers in Christ, the painting illustrates how all of the strings on which we are inclined to play the music of life will eventually break—health, material security, earthly peace, and finally our temporal life itself. There remains only one string—Jesus Christ, the heart and center of our hope.
And what sweet music that string transmits to our souls! Is there any wonder we sing with fervor, “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus blood and righteousness?”3 Christ’s work in living the life of holiness in our place, his work in dying the death of the damned in our place, and his spectacular work of raising himself from the grave means that we sinners have redemption. By faith in the Son of God, our Living Hope and Savior, we now have the righteousness needed for heaven. The good news of God’s forgiveness of sins on account of Christ, as presented daily to us in our baptismal grace, as proclaimed each Lord’s day in the Law–Gospel preaching from the pulpits of our churches, and as sealed to us in the Holy Supper, brings us through all the trials on the tempestuous sea of life. “On Christ, the solid Rock I stand; all other ground is sinking sand.”4
We have gathered here at this 99th convention of our Evangelical Lutheran Synod to be refreshed in the living hope we enjoy in our Savior. Our theme this year, “Proclaim the Wonders God Has Done: Give Thanks to His Name,” reflects the joy we have and reminds us that thankful hearts are also hearts moved to express among ourselves and especially to others the wonders of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. The essay given this year by Pastor Timothy Hartwig will center on Christian stewardship and on the efforts we make to share the Gospel through the home mission program of our synod.
For the next two annual conventions, the general theme: “Proclaim the Wonders God Has Done!” will be before us. It comes from a phrase taken from Martin Luther’s familiar hymn, “Dear Christians, One and All, Rejoice!”5 In celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation in 2017, we are scheduling three separate essays on the three “solas” of the Lutheran faith—Scripture alone, Grace alone, Faith alone. Then, to celebrate our synod’s centennial in 2018 numerous activities and projects are planned, including a special banquet, an instructive video on the origin and purpose of our ELS, and a new publication on our synod’s history as authored by our synod’s secretary, the Rev. Craig Ferkenstad. We also will be promoting the use of a synod-wide Bible study on seven topics, as written by members of our ELS Doctrine Committee.
During this convention week on Tuesday, June 21st, we look forward to initiating the special thank-offering the synod resolved (2014) to conduct as an avenue for showing thanks to our Lord for his grace showered upon our synod over our one hundred-year history. The proceeds from this offering will be used by our Board for Home Outreach for the enhancement of our home mission efforts. The three-fold purpose of this offering, in cooperation with our Bethany Lutheran Theological Seminary, will be to start new missions, to provide vicar-in-mission training, and to take advantage of cross-cultural mission opportunities in the USA. Our seminary is key in providing candidates who will receive missionary training and then serve in our home missions. We are encouraging our pastors, delegates and any interested guests to bring their thank-offerings forward following the presentation by the Anniversary Offering Committee on Tuesday. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to begin the roll-out of the offering in each of our parishes this fall by announcing a substantial sum of advance gifts! We pray that God blesses this offering to serve for his glory and for the salvation of many blood-bought souls.
If you have read the Planning and Coordinating Committee’s report in our convention BORAM (Book of Reports and Memorials), you will notice some disconcerting statistics. The report states: “Over the last four years, the average number of baptized and communicant members [in the synod’s 130 congregations] has dropped; baptized from 147 to 136 and communicants from 115 to 108. Worship attendance on average has also decreased. While some congregations have many adult confirmations each year, many have none.”
The stats naturally concern us as a synod. Yet, of greater concern is the wider kingdom work of our Lord. Are we seeing ourselves—corporately and individually—as playing a vital role in making use of resources and opportunities to reach needy souls with the gospel “before the night comes when no one can work?” Sincere efforts are needed in doing what we can to touch the lives of those who are unchurched and who do not know they have a blessed Redeemer who offers solid hope for sinners. The results of the efforts, including any potential increase in numbers on local church rosters, is always and only in the realm of the Holy Spirit as he moves the hearts of those who hear to embrace the Christian message. Preaching on John 14:13–14 in the year of 1537, Dr. Luther remarked: “A Christian cannot be still or idle but constantly strives and struggles mightily, as one who has no other object in life than to disseminate God’s honor and glory among the people, that others may also receive such a spirit of grace.”6 And so we pray: Lord, have us see the need; help us put forth the efforts to share your Word, and by your Spirit bless those who hear with saving faith.
Far from being despondent, we have ample reason for cheerful confidence in our efforts! God has promised that, as his Word is spread, it will not return to him empty (Isaiah 55:11). His added time for the existence of our universe, however short that may be, is to have more people brought to repentance and salvation (2 Peter 3:9). We have the assurance as we go forward baptizing and teaching in the name of the Triune God that he will always be with us right to the end (Matthew 28:18–20). We are well-equipped with pastors, teachers and many lay people who have received good Lutheran training in how to properly distinguish the message of sin and the message of grace when speaking with others. Finally, we know there is great rejoicing in heaven over one single soul who confesses sin and comes to faith (Luke 15:10).
While our thank-offering is highlighting home mission efforts, we do not want to overlook the many blessings God is pouring out on our foreign missions under the auspices of our Board for Word Outreach. Think of how orphans in India are learning and reciting Luther’s Catechism. Think of how tribes along the Amazon are hearing of Jesus in the jungle schools. Think of how men are being trained to carry on the pastoral duties in Chile. Think of the souls reached through Bible literature distributed at the medical vans in Ukraine. Think of the pupils and their parents in the Czech Republic who have God’s Word brought to them at St. Paul’s Church and at the Martin Luther School in Plzen. Think of how, after ten years of God’s grace at Seoul Lutheran Church, we are now significantly accelerating the instruction of Korean STI (Seoul Theological Institute) students, with a goal toward Lutheran mission work in China. These are truly wonderful blessings! We are thankful for the prayers and offerings of our people in support of these worthy endeavors.
May this year’s convention be a spiritually uplifting one for all of us. It is good when we fellow believers in Christ dwell together in unity—unified in our commitment to the pure doctrine of God’s Word, united in our desire for God-pleasing worship, and bonded in our efforts to bring the salvation security of the Rock of Ages to all who are in need of hope.
Therefore, my hope is in the Lord
And not in mine own merit;
It rests upon His faithful Word
To them of contrite spirit
That He is merciful and just—
This is my comfort and my trust.
His help I wait with patience.7
The Rev. John A. Moldstad, president
1 D. Barnhardt, The Vine and the Branches, vol. 31, Issue 1, p. 4.
2 The Book of Concord, Tappert edition, p. 160.
3 From our 1996 Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary (ELH), #197.
4 ELH, #197.
5 ELH, #378.
6 LW 24:87-88.
7 From M. Luther’s hymn, “Out of the Depths I Cry to Thee” (ELH:452, v. 3).