by Prof. John T. Pless
The Gospel and Baptism must traverse the world,” said Luther. This is what Lutheran missions care about: faithfully preaching repentance and faith in Jesus’ name, baptizing and teaching so that those who belong to Christ in every nation are built up in His Word and fed with His body and blood. Mission is, to use the words of Rev. Wilhelm Loehe, “the one church of God in motion,” calling, gathering and enlightening unbelievers through the pure teaching of the Gospel. This definition lies at the heart of what it means to be Lutheran in mission.
When Friedrich Wilhelm Hopf (1910–1982), the German mission leader and theologian of the last generation, asserted that “the Lutheran Church can only do Lutheran missions,” he was observing that the Lutheran confession is inseparable from mission. When they are pulled apart, both suffer.
Mission without confession is reduced to zealous fanaticism. There can be no confession without mission, for confession takes place before God and in the presence of a listening world. The mouth of confession is the voice of mission, always proclaiming that Jesus Christ is the God who justifies the ungodly, giving life to the dead in the forgiveness of sins.
This forgiveness of sins is found only in the Christian Church where the Holy Spirit “daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers” (Small Catechism). That is why Luke writes in the Book of Acts that those who received the preaching of the apostles were baptized and added to the church (Acts 2:41).
In the church created by mission and that has the preaching of the Gospel at its heart, those brought to faith “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). That is to say, church and mission go together; you do not have the one without the other.
The claim, no doubt disputed in our day, that Lutheran missions lead to Lutheran churches is far from a parochial appeal to brand-name loyalty or mere denominationalism. Instead, it is the recognition that the Holy Spirit is at work among a holy Christian people, sanctifyng them through the pure preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments.
Lutherans are glued to the scriptural truth that the Spirit works faith in the hearts of those who hear the Good News of Jesus crucified and risen when and where it pleases Him. Faith is not created by human enthusiasm, crusades for social justice or strategic planning. Faith comes through the Word of the cross. That’s what Lutheran mission is given to proclaim.
What Lutheran missions are not
In the early 19th century, there were tendencies to see the purpose of mission as transforming cultures through education and efforts at social renewal. In our day, some churches have redefined mission in the categories of liberation theology, asserting that the church’s task is to promote an agenda of peace and justice. In its early days, the ecumenical movement was tied to the great world mission endeavors, and the slogan that “doctrine divides, deeds unite” became a way of downplaying the need for faithfulness to the “all things” of Jesus’ teaching (Matt. 28:20).
Universalism, the unbiblical teaching that ultimately all people are brought to salvation without faith in Christ, made the mission of preaching and teaching God’s Word unnecessary. Inter-religious dialogue was thought to be a more tolerant way of relating to non-Christian populations in a global and pluralistic setting rather than the preaching of repentance and faith aimed at conversion. Some advocated a “contextualization” of the Gospel to the extent that a new religion is created, a blending of some elements of Christianity with local folk religions. The clear and strong proclamation that salvation is found in no other name other than Jesus is seen as too narrow and even restrictive of what is envisioned as God’s plan of cosmic, all-inclusive redemption.
But for Lutherans, mission is nothing if it is not the proclamation of the Gospel according to the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures. The mouth of mission is proclamation; the hands of mission are works of mercy done by the church, not as bait to lure unbelievers to Christ but as the natural expression of Christ’s compassion for those in need.
What Lutheran missions are
One of the places where I have witnessed this lively connection between the mouth and hands of mission is Madagascar. Lutherans have been in Madagascar for 145 years. Since 1866, when Norwegian missionaries landed on the shores of this African island nation, the name Lutheran has been synonymous with the clear preaching of Christ Jesus and compassionate care extended to people living in poverty and disease.
Those early Norwegian Lutherans planted churches, established schools and maintained clinics. Acts of mercy were kept in close proximity to the confession of Jesus as the only Savior from sin, death and hell. The proclamation of Jesus crucified and risen illumined multiple diaconal efforts in education, including hospitals for people whose bodies were ravaged by tropical diseases and whose minds were tormented by the forces of darkness, schools for the deaf and the blind, and orphanages for homeless children.
It was all done in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ who came into the world to redeem lost sinners in body and soul. By the end of the 19th century, strong revival movements within the Malagasy Lutheran Church would lead to the establishment of tobys (literally “encampments of mercy”) where the destitute, sick, poor and dying could be cared for in a community centered in God’s Word and dedicated to works of mercy.
Lutherans in Madagascar—now some 4 million strong—love the theology of the Reformation. They glory in the Good News of the God who justifies the ungodly by faith alone apart from works of the Law. It is this theology that fuels a vigorous corporate life of mercy in their midst, and it is a wonder to behold!
With support from LCMS World Relief and Human Care, I regularly take students to Madagascar to experience firsthand Lutheran mission in a global context. At the seminary in Fort Wayne, I lecture on theological ethics.
We spend a lot of time in Luther and the Confessions, looking at the connection between faith and good works. On a recent trip to Madagascar, my students were able to see that connection both articulated and embodied by these marvelous Lutheran folks. As we drove over dusty and unpaved roads into one of the oldest tobys in the country, isolated and out in the bush, we were greeted by an eager band of its inhabitants, all clothed in white robes. The rich sound of their voices blending together in hymns of praise and thanksgiving welcomed our party.
Touring the toby, our host explained to us that the residents wear white garments as a reminder of the imputed righteousness that we are given through faith in Christ. Clothed with His righteousness, cleansed with His blood, we are set free to live lives of righteousness in the presence of our neighbors.
We are little Christs, as Luther put it, one to another. Faith alone justifies. Justifying faith gives birth to works of love that serve the needs of the neighbor. We serve one another as God in Christ has served us. As Dr. Joseph Randrianasolo, a seminary professor in Fianarantso, said, “As Christ freely gives to us through His suffering, death, and resurrection, so we freely give to others.” Talk about the liberating power of justification by faith alone! There you have it! Christ gives. We receive, and as we have received from Him all that we have, so we give freely.
What we can learn
We have much to learn from our Lutheran brothers and sisters in Madagascar and other places throughout the world as we see their fidelity in the face of suffering and as we witness their eagerness to share what they have been given.
Even as we learn from our fellow Lutherans around the globe, they are also asking to learn from us in The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. They value the priceless gift that has been entrusted to us in the Lutheran Confessions. They want to learn the theology that is governed by the Holy Scriptures as the Word of the Triune God is centered in the doctrine of justification by faith alone and recognizes that Baptism and the Lord’s Supper actually bestow what God promises.
These past several years, I have been given the privilege to lecture and teach in places as diverse as Madagascar, India, Cambodia, South Africa, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Russia, Ukraine, Malaysia and Latvia. In some of these places, the Lutheran Church has been planted and is thriving even in the midst of difficult circumstances and challenges unknown to us in the United States. In other parts of the world, there is opportunity for our confessional witness that should not be passed by.
The future of Lutheran missions
The vigor and strength of our mission outreach will be determined to the extent that we are willing, as a church body, to commit ourselves to being who we are. We are Lutherans by confession and practice. We honor the Holy Scriptures as the written Word of God, and we hold to the Book of Concord because its teachings are the teachings of the Holy Scriptures. This truth is not up for negotiation or compromise to fit with cultural trends. It is both humbling and exciting to see churches around the world invite me and my colleagues to come to them and teach Lutheran doctrine for the sake of the Lord’s mission.
Doctrine is not determined by geography but by God’s Word. It is a delight to see that Word at work in so many different places throughout the world as it creates faith and draws young and old into the fellowship of Christ’s holy people gathered by Baptism around preaching and the Lord’s Supper. The Lord is opening doors for the witness that confessional Lutheranism brings, a confession made not with arrogance but humility confident of God’s Word. It is in this sense that Lutheran missions will lead to Lutheran churches both at home and abroad.
> “God’s creatures are merely the hands, channels, and means through which He bestows all good things” (Luther).
> On the Web: To help with Witness and Mercy projects, go to http://www.lcms.org/projects.
> The first Lutheran church in Madagascar was established by the Norwegian Mission Society in 1867.
> With more than 4 million members, the Madagascar Lutheran Church is larger than The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod.
About the Author: Prof. John T. Pless is an assistant professor of pastoral ministry and missions and director of field education at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne.