Blessed are the Persecuted Saints
All Saints Day 2003| Rev. Rolf D. Preus| 150th Anniversary of the Founding of the Norwegian Synod
“Blessed 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.” 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. That’s 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 “Little Norwegian Synod.” 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 Norwegian Synod.
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 1880’s the Norwegian Synod was embroiled in what was known as the election controversy. No, it wasn’t about hanging chads and it didn’t 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 God’s gracious gift. While clever theologians tend to complicate the simple truth of God’s 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, “For 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.” (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 grace alone.
The Norwegian Synod taught that we are saved by grace alone. Of course, they taught nothing new. This is the teaching of God’s word from cover to cover. God gets all the credit for a sinner’s 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 God’s 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 God’s 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 God’s pure gospel.
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 didn’t 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 God’s 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 couldn’t 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 Christ’s stead even if he doesn’t know if that sinner believes. Of course, only faith can receive forgiveness, but the pastor can surely give forgiveness on Christ’s 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 Christ’s 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 Synod’s 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 great-grandfather. These 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 God’s 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 God’s grace. It is always in the name of “true spirituality” 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 life’s 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 won’t sugarcoat sin for the benefit of sinners’ 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 don’t like it when people don’t 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 Christ’s church is not a business. She is “the pillar and ground of the truth.” (1 Timothy 3:15) She is “the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.” (Hebrews 12:22) She is Christ’s 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 Christ’s 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 don’t stand on God’s 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 God’s 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 God’s 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 Christ’s 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 everyone’s 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 God’s 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 Christ’s church on earth will remain until the end of the world and Christ’s 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 God’s grace, and His grace alone, we will never lose the truth that gives us eternal life.