President Schroeder’s report to the WELS convention was, in a word, excellent. All Christians would benefit from studying the first three sections of his report which were subtitled, “Christ’s love,” “Our calling,” and “Called to proclaim.” All Lutherans would benefit from studying “Maintaining our confessional identity.” And members of the WELS (Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod), would benefit from reading the entire report.
This post, “Called to proclaim,” is the second in a series dealing with Pastor Schroeder’s report. “Called to proclaim” deals primarily with what we proclaim, and how we proclaim. First, we need to get the message right, then we need to get the message out. This is because what the message is will determine how the message is proclaimed.
Called to proclaim
by WELS President Mark Schroeder
Listen for a moment and tell me what I am describing:
- A world that is hostile to God and to all that he stands for;
- A world which seems to be sinking deeper into the control and sway of satanic influences;
- A world obsessed with all things sexual, and in which unspeakable perversions are not only tolerated but glorified;
- A society and a culture which is focused on materialism and the all-consuming desire for pleasure;
- A culture in which traditional moral values are eroding, where families are disintegrating, where human life is devalued and where violence is rampant;
- A society that embraces a belief system which denies absolute truth and which rejects any distinction between right and wrong, good and evil;
- A culture in which people increasingly reject traditional religion in favor of their own self-generated concept of spirituality;
- A culture in which the Christian church appears to be in retreat and decline, with congregations losing members and with younger generations abandoning the faith of their parents;
- A world in which Christian beliefs and teachings are attacked and ridiculed and even persecuted;
- A religious scene in which false teachers and false doctrines are enticing increasing numbers of people with their deceptions and lies.
What was I describing? If you thought that this sounds like the world and the culture we live in, you would certainly not be wrong. But, in fact, I was describing the world at the end of the first century—the very world in which God placed his first New Testament believers and into which he sent his church to carry out its God-given mission.
It’s tempting to look around us and conclude that the world we live in is far more wicked and sinful than ever before and that the challenges of reaching an unbelieving culture today are greater than ever before. But in reality things today are no different from the Roman world and pagan culture into which the Christians of the first century were sent with their world-changing message. Our world and culture are hostile now. It was hostile then. Our society’s values and philosophies and beliefs are godless now. They were godless then. The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing today just as it was when the apostles first proclaimed that message.
But consider what God did in that world of the first century.
It was only a handful of disciples that gathered around their risen Savior on a hill outside Jerusalem just before he ascended. Jesus was about to send that little group into a hostile world on what must have seemed like an impossible mission. But armed only with the power of God’s Word and with the unbreakable promises that Jesus had given them, those first believers did not retreat from that challenge. When Jesus told them to go, they went. They went with joy to their families and friends. They took the good news from town to town. They carried that message with them when they crossed mountains and seas. They proclaimed law and gospel to believers to strengthen their faith, and they shared that life-giving message with unbelievers to bring them to faith.
And God blessed their witness. The book of Acts tells us repeatedly that, as God’s people proclaimed the gospel, “the Word of the Lord grew.” As the Holy Spirit worked, the Word grew in the hearts of people. It grew to fill the empire. It grew to span the centuries. It grew and spread to the point where, through the faithful witness of generations of God’s people, it came to you and to me.
What we do conclude from that? First, we are reminded wherein the success of our mission lies. If we were left to our own strength, our own wisdom, our own resources, the task would be daunting. We would surely either be compelled to retreat from that task or be doomed to failure. But the strength of our mission and our witness does not depend on us, on our own cleverness, our own willpower, or on our abilities. Its effectiveness is not to be found in slick programs or in effective marketing strategies. The strength and success of our mission is found in one place: in the power and faithfulness and love of a God whose Spirit works through the preaching of his Word and the administration of his sacraments. The success of our mission lies completely in the hands of the One who has promised us that his Word will not return to him empty and that the gates of hell itself will not be able to overcome his church.
The story of the early church not only shows us that God alone gives success to our mission. It is also very instructive as to how we can best carry out that mission. The New Testament model that guides our mission today is a combination of public proclamation of God’s truth as well as individual private witness. When it came to public proclamation, we think of the apostles testifying boldly and publicly on the day of Pentecost. We hear of believers in Antioch gathering regularly around Word and sacrament. We recall Paul preaching to gatherings of believers and skeptics alike in towns and cities on his mission travels. We listen as the apostles exposed false teaching and condemn those who depart from God’s truth. Public proclamation of Law and gospel and corporate worship was a central activity of the early church.
And we also see individual believers sharing the good news individually as God gave them the opportunities. We think of the woman of Samaria going back to tell the people of her village that she had found the Messiah. We recall Philip leading the Ethiopian to see the fulfillment of God’s promises. We watch Aquila and Priscilla carefully instructing Apollos. We remember the apostle Paul, in chains and under house arrest, sharing Christ one on one with those assigned to guard him.
The early Christians certainly viewed the mission of the church as outwardly directed and mission-focused. But it was not only that. Once people were brought to faith in Jesus, the early Christians were clearly committed to serving the spiritual needs of every member and incorporating them fully into the life and work of the church. They recognized their spiritual leaders as shepherds protecting the flock and overseers guarding their souls. They instructed new members thoroughly. They identified and discussed false teachings that could lead believers astray. They taught their children faithfully. They encouraged one another personally in regular worship and fellowship gatherings. They shared the Lord’s Supper frequently. They prayed zealously. They showed love to one another generously and sacrificially.
For the early Christians, the mission of the church was always centered on the gospel in Word and sacrament in those two ways—eagerly sharing the Word with the lost and using the same means of grace to edify and strengthen those inside God’s family. This Word-and sacrament-centered mission was not just a way of life for the early Christians. It was their life.
As our synod carries out its mission of sharing the gospel with the lost and caring for the souls of the found, we dare never forget that our success will not be measured in terms of numbers or statistics. Ours is a theology not of glory—striving for mere outward achievement or measurable accomplishments for their own sake. Our success will be measured only by our faithfulness—to God, to his effective and powerful Word, and to the work he has called us to do.
Rather than a theology of glory, ours is a theology of the cross. Our theology centers on a message that came to us wholly and completely because of the love of Christ. It proclaims a message that calls sinners to repentance, directs them to the cross, and that assures them that in Christ and his love, all of their sins find full forgiveness.
Admittedly, the theology of the cross is not attractive in our postmodern, self-gratifying world. Unlike the theology of glory, the theology of the cross makes no promises of instant relief for the ills of life in a sinful world. It does not beckon people with the lure of financial or personal or professional success. It does not seek validation of its success in terms of numbers. It does not offer a practical “how-to” manual to achieve temporal happiness or to mine the depths of human potential. The message of the cross cannot be packaged to be palatable and cannot be soft-pedaled to be acceptable. It is a message that this world does not understand and does not desire.
In fact, our message—if we are faithful to it—will always be regarded as utter foolishness, just as Paul reminds us, “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing” (1 Corinthians 1:18). The unbelieving people in our world look for things that make sense to their own way of thinking; they crave a message that reinforces their own self-centered view of life. They will not find that in the harsh preaching of God’s law. And unless God changes their hearts, they will not appreciate the sweet message of grace in the gospel. If we somehow make the message of the cross attractive and reasonable to those who are perishing, we will have changed the message—and will have failed in the mission God gave us. God help us always to say with Paul, “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. But to those whom God has called, Christ [is] the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:23).
Man’s foolishness. God’s wisdom.