What would happen if we really would make the saving of souls the ultimate purpose, the end and aim of our joint work? . . . Even though all kinds of strife-causing questions might arise yet, the question: ‘Which course is best for the salvation of souls?’ will quickly give the right solution … Whatever will win the most souls for Christ, that would decide between us …” – CFW Walther, Address to the 1st Session of the Synodical Conference, 1872.
As I unwound from Holy Week, I was perusing some of the books I received this past Christmas and ran across a full translation of CFW Walther’s address to the first session of the Synodical Conference in a translation of “From our Master’s Table” by CFW Walter, published in 1876, and republished in translation by Mark V publications in 2008. I’m grateful for the work of Rev. Joel R. Baseley to translate so many of the treasures of the past. They are such a joy to read!
The words quoted above have been featured prominently in some circles since 2009 when they were included in the restructuring report of the Blue Ribbon Taskforce of our beloved Synod. I’ve numerous times heard them repeated since then, most recently at a meeting welcoming new pastors into my district.
The quote is most often used to quell theological concerns and as a hedge against “incessant internal purification at the expense of the eternal destiny of the souls of men and women for whom Christ died.”
As presented apart from its original context, the above quotation seems to support this kind of view, calling us to use the very pragmatic question, “Which course is best for the salvation of souls?” to decide in when “strife-causing questions” arise. But, as with any sort of sound-bite proof texting, it is always wise to find the original and read it in context.
Now that I have read the entire address, it is clear to me that this text has been misunderstood and misapplied if it is taken to mean that Walther placed “mission” in any sort of opposition to the maintenance of pure doctrine.
First, it is to be noted that Walther based this address on 1 Timothy 4:16, which reads, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers (ESV).” That, in itself, should be reason enough to stop anyone from trying to assert that Walther had in view a need to back-burner theological purity for the sake of mission.
But even if this is not conclusive enough, we have the following, from the very same address, that makes the point that doctrinal purity and mission go together and must not be separated:
Oh, how important it is, therefore, my brothers, that, above all, we make the salvation of souls the ultimate goal of our common labor in the kingdom of Christ! Then it is impossible for us not to ‘give heed to the doctrine’ and thus not to remain vigilant, not to flag in faithfulness to God’s Word in any way. Then, whatever doctrine it might be, we will neither allow it to be silenced nor contradicted, nor retreat from it, so we will always explain: ‘Should we take away even one means that God has given for a person dead in sins, that can awaken him from the dead? Should we take away even one comfort extended by God for a person troubled by his sins, that might restore him? Should we take away even one medicine given by God for a person lying ill in his sins, which could make him well? Should we take away even one weapon, bestowed by God for men battling for their salvation against sins, the world and Satan, by which he might protect himself and conquer? Should we extinguish even a single star, lit by God for men, wandering in error in the darkness of this world, which might be his guiding star to the blessed goal? In short, should we take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs? No, no, so we will cry out, as dear as is our salvation and that of our fellow redeemed, so faithfully will we desire to preserve, to the least letter, this Word, this gracious aid, as God’s true aid for us.’
And this is a blessed war, this war for pure doctrine, when it has the salvation of souls at its root! It is truly precious that we allow ourselves to be scorned as loveless and quarrelsome because of it. It may here be buried in shame, but there it can be expected to be crowned in eternal glory.
With a “changing of the guard” here at Steadfast Lutherans, I believe our readers have every reason to be confident that in this respect, nothing has changed. It is clear that the regular contributors and new editor of Steadfast Lutherans share with Walther and the former editor the strong conviction that the salvation of souls is and always ought to be the ultimate goal of our common labor in the Kingdom of Christ and, for that reason, it is absolutely impossible not to, “give heed to the doctrine.”
With all Christians who have as their goal the salvation of souls, it is recognized that we must remain vigilant, steadfast, and immovable and not in any way flag in faithfulness to God’s Word nor allow it to be silenced nor contradicted nor retreat from it.
Because our salvation and the salvation of our fellow redeemed is so dear, we share the desire of every true Christian to faithfully preserve this Word, this gracious aid, as God’s true aid for us in this life which leads us as a guiding star to our blessed goal even if we must allow ourselves to be scorned as loveless and quarrelsome because of it. For, “It may here be buried in shame, but there it can be expected to be crowned in eternal glory.”