This past year, an ELS presidential committee was appointed to create a one-page definition of the unique “ELS Flavor” to which President George Orvick would often refer. The committee has completed its work with this overall theme: “Lift Up Your Hearts—Your Sins Are Forgiven.”
This has not only been emphasized in our seminary, but is also what is primarily accentuated by our pastors, young and old alike. The Gospel is to be proclaimed in the divine services and every sermon preached. It is easy to reference the Gospel as a point of information but fail to connect it with the hearer; it needs to be proclaimed personally to each hearer. If we are preaching the Law of God pointedly, and we should, so that hearers are convicted of their own sins, then the Gospel also needs to be pointedly declared as well. Instead of preaching solely using “we,” “us,” and “our,” we need to declare the Gospel with the pronouns “you” and “your.” This may seem to be “a distinction without a difference,” but there is a difference.
It has been observed that often in what are referred to in our circles as “contemporary worship” services, the sermon will resemble a halftime coach speech based on a Gospel-sounding platitude. Here is a brief sampling: “God is for you, not against you.” “The Lord will never leave you nor forsake you.” “You can do all things through Him who gives you the strength.” And “The truth will set you free!” While each of those statements are connected with the Gospel of your forgiveness in Christ, the broader Scriptural context is not noted. The sermon can be uplifting and comforting, but it is often Christless. It serves the diabolical lie that at least in part your status with God is based on how you approach Him.
Lutherans can easily be fooled with this subtle shift in preaching by filling in the Gospel from the context of any given platitude. Yet they are not being fed properly and are ill-prepared for the temptation to feel abandoned by God when difficulties enter their lives.
Our pastors can be pressured by well-meaning members to pursue the “success” found in those American churches that are “growing” based on their style rather than Gospel substance. Encourage your pastors to continue preaching personal Law/Gospel sermons and teaching the same in Bible classes with the crucified Christ always at the center. Support your college and seminary in producing a well indoctrinated laity and humble, Gospel-proclaiming pastors.
If Christless services are conducted and Christless sermons are preached, no growth can take place. External growth in real numbers of believers will not happen. Only a congregation of pharisees will be gathered together with no internal growth of sanctification taking place.
It has been my pleasure as the ELS president this past year to have visited almost 70 ELS congregations (over half) at least once and participate in their divine services. Consistently, our pastors are preaching Christ crucified and Jesus our righteousness and conducting Christ-centered services. It is comforting to know that ELS members throughout our nation are leaving their weekly visit to God’s house knowing and trusting that on account of Jesus’ person and work, they stand right and holy before Him, ready to continue in their many vocations in Jesus’ name. After Paul encouraged his readers in Colossae “let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly”, he concluded: And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him (Colossians 3:17).
Rev. Glenn Obenberger, ELS President