All Saints Day
Anniversary of the Founding of the Norwegian Synod
ďBlessed are you when they
revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely
for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward
in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.Ē
St Matthew 5:11-12
Today as we celebrate All Saints
Day we also observe the 150th anniversary of the founding of
the Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The Norwegian Synod, as it was known, was formally organized
in southern Wisconsin in October of 1853.
At first glance it might seem odd to celebrate the anniversary of
an institution that no longer exists.
After all, the Norwegian Synod ceased to exist in 1917.
There was a real ecumenical fervor in those days somewhat similar
to that of our own day. All
of the Norwegian immigrants who called themselves Lutheran were urged to
set aside their differences in doctrine and to join together in one
Norwegian American Lutheran church body. Thatís
what they did. In so doing,
they compromised the pure gospel that the Norwegian Synod had confessed
for over sixty years. However,
a small group of congregations and pastors from the Norwegian Synod
refused to go along with the merger.
Their consciences would not permit them to compromise the pure
gospel for the sake of an outward appearance of unity.
They continued in the teaching of the Norwegian Synod.
For a while they assumed the name and were known as the ďLittle
Norwegian Synod.Ē Then
they changed that name for the Evangelical Lutheran Synod.
River Heights Lutheran Church belongs to the Evangelical Lutheran
Synod. This is reason
enough for us to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the
But it is not just a matter of
loyalty to our roots. The
Norwegian Synod of the 19th century, from which our synod was
born in 1918, stood for the pure gospel of Christ.
During the 1880ís the Norwegian Synod was embroiled in what was
known as the election controversy.
No, it wasnít about hanging chads and it didnít take place in
Florida. It was about the
biblical teaching on election. To
elect means to choose. How
does God choose His saints? How
does God save us from our sins and keep us in the true faith and bring
us to heaven? Some people
taught that God saved us in part because He saw that we would respond
favorably to the gospel. They
taught that God decided to save us in view of the faith that He foresaw
in our hearts. Others taught that God did not save us because of what He
foresaw in us, but that He saved us entirely by His grace alone and that
even our faith is completely Godís gracious gift.
While clever theologians tend to complicate the simple truth of
Godís word, the election controversy was a very simple one. Does God save us without any help from us?
Or, do we need to help Him do it?
The Bible teaches salvation by grace alone without any help or
cooperation from sinners in their own salvation.
St. Paul writes, ďFor by grace are we saved through faith, and
that not of ourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works lest any man
should boast.Ē (Ephesians 2:8-9)
We are by nature spiritually blind, dead, and at enmity against
God until God, by His grace alone, brings us to faith and creates new
life in us. We are saved by
The Norwegian Synod taught that
we are saved by grace alone. Of
course, they taught nothing new. This
is the teaching of Godís word from cover to cover. God gets all the credit for a sinnerís salvation.
The sinner gets all the blame for his damnation.
If we embrace Christ as our Savior and are saved forever, all the
glory goes to God alone. If
we reject Christ as our Savior and are lost forever, we alone are
responsible. The election
controversy that divided the Norwegian Lutherans in America over a
hundred years ago was a debate about Godís grace.
Does God save us by His grace alone?
Our fathers said yes.
The doctrine of grace alone was
the overriding emphasis of the Norwegian Synod. They came to this country from Norway during the 19th
century. It was a time when
folks were rather preoccupied with faith.
Is it sincere? Is it
real? It is genuine? There had been quite a few very worldly preachers in Norway
who conformed their preaching to the demands of sinful human reason.
They were called rationalists.
They denied the mysteries of the faith.
They questioned the authority of the Bible.
They lived lives that were marked more by a desire for wealth and
prestige than a desire to serve Godís people.
They were often lazy. Into
this moral laxity a movement known as Pietism arose.
It emphasized sincere Christian living and having a true, as
opposed to a false, faith. In
many ways Pietism was reacting against real abuses in the church, but
Pietism promoted abuses of its own.
By emphasizing the sincerity of faith as being more important
than the purity of doctrine, the Pietists taught people to look inside
of themselves for their assurance of salvation.
Consider your faith. Is
it genuine? Have you really and truly embraced Christ?
Or are you holding on to something or someone other than Jesus?
The Pietists taught people to avoid all worldly entertainment
that might indicate an impure or insincere faith.
They came up with rules against drinking, smoking, playing cards,
and many other things. They
tended to focus their attention more on human conduct than on Godís
The Pietists brought their
teaching to America. They
looked down on the traditional Lutherans who founded the Norwegian
Synod. These Lutherans held
on to the old traditions of the church and still followed the Lutheran
Confessions and the historic liturgy of the church.
They honored their pastors as servants of Christ.
They confessed the entire body of Christian teaching as it had
been preserved for them in the Lutheran Confessions. They didnít follow the Confessions as the words of men, but
as the teaching of the Holy Scriptures.
Since the Confessions agreed with the Bible the Norwegian Synod
insisted on holding fast to them. Because
of their loyalty to Godís truth they took a stand against the abuses
promoted by the pietistic Norwegian Lutheran immigrants.
These abuses included lay
preaching. The Bible and
the Lutheran Confessions teach that nobody should publicly preach in the
church unless he is rightly called.
But the Pietists had laymen preaching and they often preached
false doctrine. Another
abuse was denying the power of the absolution.
The Pietists denied that the pastor could actually speak words
that would impart the forgiveness of sins because the pastor couldnít
know for a fact if the one hearing his words had a sincere faith.
The Norwegian Synod replied by saying that since Jesus has taken
away the sin of the whole world the pastor most certainly can absolve a
sinner in Christís stead even if he doesnít know if that sinner
believes. Of course, only
faith can receive forgiveness, but the pastor can surely give
forgiveness on Christís own authority because Christ gave this
authority to His church on earth.
On account of the faithfulness
of the Norwegian Synod to the biblical teaching on election, the
pastoral office, absolution, and other topics, they made enemies.
Their doctrine was centered in Christ and Christís
righteousness. It was not
centered in themselves and their own holiness of living.
The Pietists accused them of being without the Spirit and having
only the form of religion. When the confessional Lutherans of the Norwegian Synod taught
the doctrine of grace alone by refusing to agree that God elected us in
view of our faith, they were accused of being Calvinists.
When they taught that the pastor really did give forgiveness in
the words of the absolution, they were accused of being Romanists.
When they said that only called and ordained servants of the word
were to preach publicly in the church, they were accused of setting up
pastors as tyrants over people.
The persecution that the
Norwegian Synod received bore fruit.
Almost a third of the synod left and formed a group called the
Anti-Missourian Brotherhood. They
called themselves that because they were so strongly opposed to the
doctrine of the Missouri Synod of that day, which was the same
confessional and scriptural doctrine as the Norwegian Synod.
This group fomented discord in congregations throughout the
Norwegian Synod, attacking the synod for her staunch and uncompromising
stand on the pure doctrine of the Scriptures and the Confessions. In particular they attacked the doctrine of salvation by
grace alone. They were
offended by the Norwegian Synodís insistence that we sinners can
contribute nothing at all to our salvation, not even a willingness to be
saved. Their Pietistic preoccupation with the sincerity of their
faith made them think they the purity of faith was more important than
the purity of doctrine. They
despised the leadership of the Norwegian Synod for standing firm on the
Lutheran, that is, the biblical doctrine.
At one time the pietistic agitators against the Norwegian Synod
were able to persuade a majority of the men of Norway Grove Lutheran
Church in Dane County, Wisconsin to fire their pastors, Herman Preus and
his son Christian Preus, my great-great-grandfather and my
pastors refused to sign a statement that would have them deny the
doctrine of grace alone. On
Good Friday of 1883 both pastors were fired and bodily removed from the
congregation. By Godís grace, the congregation later repented of its
action and reinstated their pastors.
In our own day we are called
upon to defend the same faith with the same conviction.
The same forces against the pure doctrine wage the same war.
It is always against Godís grace.
It is always in the name of ďtrue spiritualityĒ that the pure
doctrine is denigrated and maligned.
The reason the pure doctrine is despised is because it is all
about Jesus and people would rather focus on themselves than on Jesus.
Pure doctrine is despised by people who would rather look within
themselves for the answers to lifeís problems than to listen to the
answer that comes only from without.
The true prophets are always reviled, persecuted, and slandered
because they call sin sin and they wonít sugarcoat sin for the benefit
of sinnersí self-esteem but insist that our only sense of truth worth
is to be found in Christ. The
true prophets must be persecuted for the simple reason that Jesus was
persecuted. How can the
servant rise above his master? Jesus
said he could not. But
servants of Christ donít like it when people donít like them.
So they become man-pleasers.
They compromise the gospel and replace the pure doctrine with a
message more flattering to the flesh.
This is the source of false teaching in the church.
But it is not only preachers who
are responsible for the church straying away from the saving truth.
It is the people who are to blame as well.
When people with itching ears decide they would rather have
preachers who scratch where it itches instead of preaching the pure
doctrine of Christ, they generally get what they want.
The church that runs away from persecution becomes just as market
driven as any other business. In fact the church becomes just another business.
But Christís church is not a
business. She is ďthe
pillar and ground of the truth.Ē (1 Timothy 3:15)
She is ďthe city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.Ē
(Hebrews 12:22) She is
Christís body and His holy bride. (Ephesians 5:23)
The church on earth is in fellowship with the church in heaven.
We worship together.
The saints did not become saints
by their suffering but by the suffering of Jesus.
The free grace of God that we cherish is freely given but it was
purchased only at a great price. The
price was Christís holy life and innocent suffering and death.
Grace does not exist except in Christ who has taken away our sin
and set us free from judgment. He
and He alone has won for us every spiritual treasure we have.
We donít stand on Godís word to confess it because we will
merit anything by our faithfulness.
Rather, we stand on the pure gospel and confess it because by it
we have been rescued from our own sin and guilt.
Why should we even think to trade away the truth for the approval
of sinners like ourselves when by the truth we have the approval of the
only true God? And that is what we have!
We have more than Godís approval.
We have eternal life. We
are blessed beyond what we can even understand this side of eternity.
No amount of slander or insult or shame that we suffer on this
earth can take this away. In
fact, when we suffer because we refuse to compromise Godís truth we
are doubly blessed. We are
being treated as prophets and what could be a greater honor than that? We are being conformed to Christís image by being slandered
because of Him. There
simply is no greater honor that anyone could receive in this life. Only the Christian can understand this, and only God can open
our minds to see this. It
is illustrated so vividly by Christ in heaven being depicted as a Lamb
that was slain. There in
the glory that cannot end at the very center of everyoneís attention
will forever be that moment in time when God the Son chose to bear in
His own body and soul the sin of humanity.
There in that sign of Godís suffering for His fallen world is
the purest love revealed. That
is the perfect love to which we will be conformed and in which we will
be confirmed forever in heaven.
The Norwegian Synod is no more.
Some day our Evangelical Lutheran Synod will also pass away.
But Christís church on earth will remain until the end of the
world and Christís church in heaven will remain forever.
All that will be ours forever will be ours forever on account of
the truth that is ours right here and right now.
This is why we cherish the truth more than life itself.
By Godís grace, and His grace alone, we will never lose the
truth that gives us eternal life.
Rev. Rolf D. Preus