Greetings to all in this centennial year!
This is not the kind of celebration where we focus on our own accomplishments, glory in our pedigree, or become self-absorbed in elevating the characteristics and personalities of the dedicated men and women who have gone before us and did the heavy lifting to organize what today is known as our Evangelical Lutheran Synod. No, if this were so we should all pack up and go home. We join the psalmist in saying, “Not to us, O Lord, not to us but to your name be the glory, because of your love and faithfulness” (Psalm 115:1). Furthermore, we want to recall and honor precisely what it was that drove the efforts of our forefathers to reorganize. It was singularly to be faithful to God and to his Word.
One wonders how many of us here would have been so determined to uphold the straight path as we think of the stark challenges faced by our forefathers. Those “threats” for the synodical founders included: missing out on a merger where close friends, relatives, and institutions were going in the opposite direction; where they also would immediately face considerable financial obligations in making a new start. We can imagine the pressures were great. Do we assume our own personal stamina would have carried us through in contending that “elected in view of faith” could not stand on the same level as “elected only by God’s grace”? I ask this because we know our weaknesses. I ask this because we do not always take time and opportunity to answer those who ask us for the hope we have within us (1 Peter 5). I ask this because we know how the forces of society can easily have us question the validity of the scriptures, especially passages in the Word which are under adverse scrutiny by the world and even by a number of prominent church leaders. I ask this, also, because our old sinful nature frequently colludes with the wily foe who masquerades as an angel of light, getting us to think that a slight compromise of the truth may be okay for preserving some “higher good” of unity and peace.
Our synod’s ancestors knew the challenges. The obstacles were real and personal. The Rev. Bjug Harstad, preparing for the 1918 meeting at Lime Creek, reflected on a serious provocation that could not have been anticipated only a few years earlier. A sizable minority to the 1917 merger had at one time been united in opposition to a compromise document (Opgjør settlement of 1912). But surprisingly the leaders of that hundred-some pastor minority caved in and at the last minute went along with the ecumenical push for the formation of the Norwegian Lutheran Church in America (NLCA), a forerunner of today’s ELCA. Harstad writes:
Another bitter disappointment and distress came upon us when the greater part of the minority gave in. They fell into the inviting bosom of Delilah, had their mighty locks clipped off and glasses and muzzles put on. And thus we learned also the meaning of this word of God: “Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man in whom there is no help” (Psalm 146) … We have to stand by and see the first generation of the descendants of the pioneer fishers of men do all diligence to sink the pure fishing boat [the faithful of the Norwegian Synod] and leave it without a trace. Efforts were made to pirate the ship from the time it was put into the water until it began to sink its pure flag under a new command… We will carry on missions first and foremost in our own midst by diligent use of God’s Word and with brotherly admonition of the Lord… The Lord bless our meeting and all its participants for the sake of Jesus Christ, our Savior.1
Thanks be to God—and to Him alone—for granting the vision, the courage, and the faithfulness to move our synod’s founding fathers to action in preserving the truth for their generation, for our generation, and for generations yet to come! At the heart of it all was this: That our salvation from sin is in every respect—here in time and from eternity—attributed only to God’s pure grace alone. He elects us, brings us to faith in the Savior Jesus through his means of grace, and preserves us in that faith until we enter life eternal in our heavenly home. This is what God the Holy Spirit enables us to confess and uphold. All praise goes to Him, as Luther clearly penned in his beloved hymn, “Dear Christians, One and All, Rejoice” (ELH 378). Not only because of the chief blessing we have in Christ—salvation by faith alone—but also because of the whole range of goodness we have inherited, we rejoice and say: Proclaim the wonders God has done! We join then with the Apostle Paul in urging: “So then just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness” (Colossians 2:6–7).
Where are we headed with our thanks? In observing 100 years of God’s grace, we pray for lasting effects of our celebrating upon all we here discuss, plan and do as a synod to carry out our specific role and niche in advancing Christ’s kingdom. Too many celebrations are like flickering candles and fancy balloons. Soon they are extinguished and end with a loud pop. A significant church anniversary, as we have before us, demands appropriate reflection on the past. Yet, it serves as a poignant reminder to review our purpose in moving forward. May I suggest, then, that we respond by pondering, preserving, and proclaiming?
Ponder what our ELS centennial signifies. Consider what it means to be connected with a church body and its worldwide fellowship (the CELC) that both confesses adherence to the Word of God in all articles of the Christian faith and practices this unity in Word and Sacrament. It means, first of all, that the gospel message of salvation by grace alone is always at the forefront of our expression of gratitude. This gospel is the driving force for our being tenacious about honoring and respecting the heritage of God’s Word—all of it—in our midst.
Think for a moment how tragic it must be for anyone who labors in life under the false delusion of a synergistic doctrine of work-righteousness! The people who bought into the theology of F.A. Schmidt and others, who asserted that in a certain sense one’s election to salvation was not entirely due to God’s grace alone2, were duped and deserved to be pitied. Any poor sinner who today believes that he or she is at least in part contributing through one’s efforts toward having forgiveness and heaven cannot have certainty of salvation. In fact, salvation will be denied all who look to their own works for the holiness needed for heaven. Clearly the Bible teaches that we are “justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified” (Galatians 2:16). When a person becomes aware of the sinful condition of the human heart and realizes how one’s works fall woefully short of perfection, where will such a soul find comfort and not despair? Where will one turn, if there remains the nagging but deceptive notion that he must count on some self-participation for the assurance of gaining access to eternal life? Such assurance can only be found in the mercy of God as provided in the holy life and atoning sacrifice of God’s Son on behalf of, and in the place of, all sinners. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).
U.V. Koren, the leading theologian of the old Norwegian Synod, wrote his famous essay, “Can and Ought a Christian Be Certain of His Salvation?” The essay is one of Koren’s finest writings and has been treasured by Christians down through the decades.
Permit for a moment a personal aside. While serving in 1981 as a pastor in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, I had the honor of conducting the funeral for 94-year-old Annette Hansen, who was the wife of one of the thirteen founding pastors of our ELS (Emil Hansen, 1880–1956). On a routine visit to her resident nursing home, I was informed by an aide who had just ducked into the room that Annette had passed earlier that day. Her body now had been transferred to the funeral home. Turning to exit the room, my attention was drawn to a book lying open on the bed stand. I noticed Annette had been reading Koren’s essay. What better words to ponder in her last hour of going to be with Jesus than what I realized was underlined by Annette on the page she had marked! Here is what Koren had written:
How can a Christian have certainty regarding his salvation, or, in other words, that he shall be kept in the true and living faith unto the end? He is to believe it. “The entire life which a truly believing Christian leads after Baptism is nothing else than an expectation of the revelation of the bliss which he already has. He certainly has it entire, but nevertheless hid in faith” (Luther). He is to believe, that is, humbly and in a child-like manner rely upon the promises which God has given him precisely concerning this. These promises are firmer than heaven and earth and are given just for this purpose, that we are to believe them, have a firm conviction that He will fulfill them in spite of the devil, the world and our flesh.3
As we at this convention contemplate the magnitude of a centennial of blessings showered upon our church body, we must draw special attention to the importance of espousing the verbal inerrancy of God’s Word, including what that Word states pertaining to the creation of the world. Recently a Lutheran journal carried a significant article that raised the possibility of good Bible-believing Christians accepting the concept of an “old age creation” or being open to accepting an eon-extension of the “day” term. Countering such error, it is interesting that at the jubilee celebration for our synod Professor M.H. Otto had this to say in a 1968 convention essay:
Perhaps the best-known example of not letting the Scriptures be the final determinant in a doctrinal matter is the whole question of evolution. Its proponents would claim that the word “day” does not mean a normal solar day when the holy writer records the Creation story… the theory of evolution, if permitted to stand, undermines and destroys the whole Bible, not just the opening chapters of Genesis. For, if the first chapters of the Bible are untrue, then by implication whatever follows upon the account there recorded gets to be untrue also, and this includes the Bible’s account of the coming into the world of Jesus Christ as the promised Savior from sin.4
One of the purposes of our synod is “to contend for the faith” (Jude 3). Each time we observe a church anniversary, whether as a congregation or as a synod, we must ask ourselves: Doesn’t this mean we are recommitting ourselves to the personal use of the Means of Grace, and also that we are reinforcing the urgent need to teach all generations “the full counsel of God”? We desire to transmit ”what we have heard and known, what our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from their children; we will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord” (Psalm 78: 3, 4).
Our 2017 convention adopted a resolution calling for the appointment of a committee to promote the use of biblical apologetics in our circles. We are pleased that the ad hoc committee so appointed already has been hard at work and has planned for this coming Thursday a special presentation on our Bethany Lutheran College campus. We look forward to exploring also other ways in which we as a synod and college and seminary can assist our members and especially our youth in being able to give biblical answers for the hope that we have within us (1 Peter 3:15).
It is a fundamental truth that sinners do not naturally gravitate toward God’s Word. Only the Holy Spirit working through Word and sacrament makes people receptive to the Word and changes stony hearts to have saving faith in Christ. But there is this palpable societal difference in the approach to the Bible demonstrated in our current decade compared to that of our synod fathers in 1918. Not only is society dismissive—even belligerently so—to entertaining a discussion on the tenets of God’s Word; young people in our congregations feel extra pressure to cower and conform to the views of their secular peers. “So in this era,” writes Ken Ham, “we increasingly need to deal with objections to the Bible. By using apologetics to give solid answers, we can help people listen and learn about the most important historical document of all—the whole Bible.”5 Sadly, much of our population does not have even a rudimentary head-knowledge of the true Christian faith. Many years back, one might have been able to assume that non-Christians in our surroundings knew at least some things about the Bible and may even have voiced respect for it. “The world today is far different from what it was one or two generations ago, and so our testimony to this world needs to be different too. In many ways, we are back to the first century where the evangelists had to start virtually from square one. On Mars Hill, Paul began with the common ground of recognition of an unknown God (Acts 17:22–31). Today, we may need to become even more basic than that.”6 Ultimately, biblical apologetics has as its goal to see Jesus for who he is—the one true God and Savior of the world, as is evidenced so convincingly in his rising from the dead. “In the resurrection, Christian doctrine and apologetics come together. The resurrection is central to both.”7
The assertion of proofs for the historical facticity of the scriptural accounts is necessary in order to safeguard the proper use of God’s Word as the great heritage for all generations. But let’s not overlook how preserving what God has blessed us with begins with what occurs personally within our own homes. “Our churches may resound with the glorious Gospel of Jesus Christ, our ministers may preach Jesus so purely and plainly, … the baptismal font may stand invitingly and attractively in our sanctuaries, the holy Supper of our Lord may be set upon our altars; but what good will all this do, if we do not use the sacred means of grace?”8 It’s one thing to talk about how much we love our church, or how much we love our pastor, or how much we love the Bible; it is another to put those compliments into action.
Can we all become even more conscientious about Sunday worship? Is our yearning for the body and blood of Christ in the Sacrament of the Altar strong and steadfast? Are daily Bible devotions and prayers found in our homes? Are we making full use of our Lutheran educational agencies (Lutheran elementary schools, Bethany Lutheran College and Seminary, our Sunday schools, youth programs, etc.) for the training of our young people? Might we do more encouraging on the local level to enroll people in Bible classes? When we prepare for the trips we take, do we plan also for Sunday worship at congregations of our fellowship? Is our prayerful and financial support for Word and sacrament ministry a priority?
Telling others about the Savior involves taking time to make connections with people. The opportunities the Lord puts before us are many. Often those moments prove to be rewarding beyond what we could imagine. After all, what more valuable and precious gift can we ever give to a lost soul than to introduce the person to the Savior? There truly is “much rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:10).
Key to any church anniversary celebration is the desire and commitment to share the good news of salvation so that others may know of God’s love and the certainty of heaven. We should not pass over the significance of the second celebration at this year’s convention. For fifty years God has enabled our church body to have a hand in bringing the life-saving gospel of Christ to the people of the great land of Peru. “When the synod met in 1968 for its 50th jubilee convention it was excited about the work which it was about to begin in the South American nation of Peru. Since it closed its Cornwall Mission in Great Britain, the synod had been anxious to have its own mission again somewhere on foreign soil. After preliminary trips and studies were made, it was decided that Peru would be that country.”9 Look how God has blessed the work there! National pastors have been trained, congregations have been established in and around Lima, in the Andes mountains and also in the Amazona region. By God’s grace, this member church (Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Peru) of the CELC carries on its own mission work through the duly elected ruling council (Junta) of its church body. “After almost fifty years the Peruvian Evangelical Lutheran Confessional Church is served by twenty-eight pastors, vicars, and pre-seminary evangelists with approximately fifty congregations in the national church. Sunday worship attendance in Peru totals about 1,200 individuals.”10
Our Board for Home Outreach (BHO) has a two-fold task. It assists us in developing and maintaining home mission congregations. It also leads us in helping all of the congregations in our synod to move forward with Gospel outreach efforts in their respective communities. You will notice in the board’s printed report a detailed explanation of how the board, especially through the services of our Evangelism–Missions Counselor (EMC), can assist our churches with strategic planning in doing the work of evangelism. The EMC is eager to visit in person, to assess, and to make recommendations upon his being invited by the congregation. We urge all 131 of our congregations to make use of this avenue. Our Board of Trustees recently granted some extra funds to facilitate the beneficial work of the EMC and the BHO.
May the efforts of our forefathers serve as a commendable example to press ahead with the message of God’s peace for sinners that transcends all human understanding. Where we see good efforts have occurred, we give all glory and thanks to God. Mindful of our own unworthiness and shortcomings, and where we see efforts lacking, we say, “O merciful Savior, forgive us!” To spur us on as fellow celebrants of 100 years of grace upon our ELS to do more “pondering, preserving and proclaiming,” we turn only to Christ and his holy gospel. He has come, lived for us, died for us, and has risen from the dead! We are forgiven! We have the assurance of heaven awaiting us through faith in his shed blood. And because he is also our ascended Lord who rules all things for the good of his church, we press ahead with confidence and trust in his blessings.
So, onward with our mission let us go!
John A. Moldstad, president
1 Oak Leaves, ELS Historical Society Newsletter. Fall 2017.
2 In November of 1884 Schmidt stated: “I believe and teach now as before, that it is not synergistic error, but a clear teaching of God’s Word and our Lutheran Confession, that ‘salvation in a certain sense does not depend on God alone.” The citation is referenced in T. Aaberg’s A City Set on a Hill (ELS, 1968), p. 36.
3 U.V. Koren as translated by J. Herbert Larson in Truth Unchanged, Unchanging (ELS, 1978), p. 175.
4 M.H. Otto. “The Trumpet with a Certain Sound,” Synod Report 1968.
5 Answers in Genesis, volume 25, issue 5.
6 Allen Quist. The Reason I Believe (CPH, 2017), p. 25.
7 Ibid., p. 89.
8 A.H. Strand, “Our Mission as a Synod,” Synod Report 1944.
9 J.H. Larson and J.B. Madson. Built on the Rock (ELS, 1992), p. 173.
10 C. Ferkenstad. Proclaim His Wonders (ELS, 2017), p. 130.