Chapter 3 - Then Sinners Shall Be Converted To You
Series: Our Fathers Saw His Mighty Works
If you had been a Lutheran pastor, evangelist, or lay leader in the upper Midwest in 1936, you might well have received several weeks before Christmas the following letter which read in part:1
Dear Co-workers for Christ:
You are cordially invited to attend a general conference on Lutheran Evangelism to be held January 5, 6, 7, 1937 at Trinity Lutheran Church, 40th Ave. So. and 52nd St., Minneapolis, Minnesota, Rev. Evald J. Conrad, Pastor.
The purpose of this conference is to provide an opportunity for those who are engaged and interested in evangelistic work . . . to come together . . . in order that the Holy Spirit may use the several gifts for teaching, for correction, and for mutual edification.
The planning of the conference has grown out of a felt need among Lutheran pastors and laymen that, if we are effectively to heed the Scriptural command to “do the work of an evangelist,” it is needful to take counsel together both as to methods and as to deeper sources of spiritual strength.
The following program is being planned:
I. Spiritual Gifts
II. Rightfully Dividing the Word of Truth
III. Personal Work
IV. Spiritual Awakenings
V. Fields of Evangelism
Time will be set aside for open forum . . . .
We trust that you will be able to attend and to take part in this conference.
Register directly with Rev. Evald J. Conrad . . . .
Sincerely in His Service,
E.L. Scotvold )
Joseph L. Stump ) Volunteer
J.M. Halvorson ) Committee
John Carlsen )
Perhaps this letter might have caught your attention as it did that of many regional Lutheran leaders who had long felt the need of a more united evangelistic effort not bounded by synodical lines. Had you been such a pastor or evangelist you might well have replied like the evangelist who wrote, “Thank you for the invitation . . . The Lord willing I shall try to be there. May God give us a blessed season of refreshing.”2 Or had you been a deeply interested lay leader, you might have prayed as one did “that the Lord would give me those three days, that it might be possible for me to be away from my work.”3
Eagerly expecting blessings from God, those who came were provided free lodging in homes of local Christians, many of whom were undoubtedly from Trinity Lutheran. The hosts provided breakfast for the attendees, while dinner and supper were served in the church basement and funded by a free will offering.4
As is typical for the middle of a Minnesota winter, Tuesday January 5 dawned a cold and blustery day5 with temperatures well below 0 degrees (F) and never rising above the single digits all day.6 It was, perhaps, a day to be forgotten by many. But inside Trinity Lutheran Church what was about to transpire would, in years to come, be vividly remembered as a gathering visited by God’s Spirit and the inaugural meeting of a divinely ordained and wide-reaching Movement.
Having planned the topics and sessions for the conference, the volunteer committee of evangelists had assigned the preaching and teaching to other devoted men of God. They themselves only moderated the meetings. (Rev. Jens M. Halvorson was unable to be present and sent his greetings.) But the focus of the program they had planned was clear: the need for personal revival in Christian leaders and the need for and methods of bringing awakening to the Lutheran church itself. It was a theme that paralleled King David’s divinely inspired prayer in Psalm 51: “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Then I will teach transgressors Your ways, and sinners shall be converted to You.” (Psalm 51:2,10,13 NKJV) The first and crucial step toward the salvation of souls through evangelism was that the leaders themselves be clean before God.
And so it was that the very first meeting of what was to become the Lutheran Evangelistic Movement opened at 9:00 AM that wintry day with a devotional on the topic of “Bible Prayers That Brought Awakenings.”7 The text was Ezra 9:5-15 which reads in part, “And after all that is come upon us for our evil deeds, and for our great trespass, seeing that thou our God hast punished us less than our iniquities deserve, and hast given us such deliverance as this; should we again break thy commandments . . . ? Behold, we are before thee in our trespasses . . . .” (Ezra 9:13-14a,15b KJV) The application was clear.
At the next session that morning, Rev. C.K. Solborg exhorted the entire audience, “It is the privilege and the mission of every believer to give an account of the faith that is in him.
“Peter urges, ‘As every man hath received the gift, even so minister the same one to another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God.’ Scripturally there is no difference between the Christian laity and the clergy as far as the functions of witnessing. The doctrine of priesthood of believers is today practiced feebly and sporadically among us. There are many congregations where only the voice of the pastor is heard. To every believer comes the Divine command, ‘Go tell,’ ‘Go ye,’ ‘Go work,’ ‘Occupy till I come.’ The pastor must encourage his believing church members to use their God-given gift.”
After an hour of group discussion followed by a two-hour lunch break and a time of prayer, Dr. M.O. Wee spoke on “Rightly Dividing the Word for Awakening.” Wee explained that awakening preachers such as Moses, Elijah, Amos, and John the Baptist preached “to awaken the conscience and hit the will itself.” The law must be preached to condemn the unregenerate and to drive the seeker to Christ. When the unregenerate becomes awakened and anxious, then and only then is it time to preach the gospel.
Wee’s message provoked much participation in a group discussion the following hour on “How Can We Bring About an Awakening to Ourselves and Our People?” Said one person, “In a church where all the people claim to be Christians, draw a picture to them of what a true Christian should be. In this way, preaching the law to them will often bring about an awakening.” Another told of a successful Lutheran pastor in China who was suddenly awakened to his own sin against God and man when a Christian lady simply asked him, “What about your relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ?” This latter account was likely a reference to an event in the recent wide-scale spiritual awakening in China.8 Throughout the three days of that 1937 conference, frequent examples were drawn from the Chinese awakening as well as from the mighty revival in Norway still ongoing at that time. They were examples of what the conference attendees wanted God to do in their own country, and these group discussions fueled the fire in their hearts. One pastor commented afterward on “the remarkable floor discussions which served as a clearing-house of thought and suggestion.” Over the course of the conference, “Seven full hours - most of them extended as to time - were crowded full with reports of individual, congregational, or community awakenings and discussions as to methods and opportunities for evangelistic endeavor.”
That evening, Dr. C. Woswig spoke on the “History of Spiritual Awakenings,” tracing various movements of God from the early church through the present time. With his closing remarks, he seemed to draw together the previous sessions of that day and set the stage for the next two days.
“The necessity of Evangelism is taught in the Old Testament and in the New Testament. A feature of the people under the Covenant was that they fell away regularly and had to be brought back. We have had the whole setting for a spiritual revival for ten years but we haven’t got the revival. We have had depression, political unrest, and people out of work. The setting has worked five times before in previous history. One thing is sure. We can’t wait for the thousands and hundreds of thousands, but my responsibility begins with myself. We must cry to God, ‘Send a revival and let it begin in me.’”
Undoubtedly with some measure of conviction in their own hearts, the conference attendees sang “Just As I Am” and soon headed off to their lodgings for the night.
In addition to the preaching, the teaching, and the open forums at the conference, there was also a good deal of congregational singing and corporate prayer. Nearly every session was begun or concluded with some hymn such as “What A Friend We Have In Jesus,” “A Charge To Keep I Have,” “Now Thank We All Our God,” or “Tell Me The Old, Old Story.” And shortly after the conference concluded, one pastor commented that “the outstanding feature of the gathering was the prayer sessions, bringing upon the conference in a marked degree the down-pouring of the mighty ‘showers of blessing.’” What was it for which this group of Christians was praying that brought such a blessed sense of God’s presence? Presumably the tone for each day, and especially for the prayer sessions, was set by the devotional which began each morning on the theme “Bible Prayers That Brought Awakenings.”
According to that theme, Wednesday January 6 was begun with a meditation on Daniel 9:3-10 in which Daniel prayed, “O Lord, the great and dreadful God, keeping the covenant and mercy to them that love him, and to them that keep his commandments; we have sinned, and have committed iniquity, and have done wickedly, and have rebelled, even by departing from thy precepts and from thy judgments: neither have we hearkened unto thy servants the prophets.” (Daniel 9:4b-6a KJV) The devotional time concluded with a hymn and a season of prayer. Undoubtedly, many of the prayers that morning echoed the one Daniel had prayed thousands of years earlier.
“If we are to preach the whole counsel of God there is no escape from the definiteness of repentance,” began Rev. O. Gornitzka in the 10:00 AM session on “Rightly Dividing the Word for Repentance and Conversion.” In true repentance, “We come to the end of the hope of ever becoming in our own selves what God wants us to be. There should be deep sorrow over sin, humiliation before God, and self abhorrence.“ Then the message became a bit more personal as he continued, “As long as there are differences, jealousies, and hatred within the group confessing and professing the name of God, until there is a willingness to confess that sin, the Spirit of God cannot work.”
During the discussion time the next hour, the participants continued on the theme of personal and congregational repentance. One told of a series of special meetings in which the evangelist had sensed a hardness from the audience toward the preaching until finally a deacon had publicly confessed with tears that he was not on speaking terms with a Christian brother and had asked his forgiveness. When the brother had then publicly forgiven him, confessing his own sin, an awakening had ensued in the meetings.
Following the usual lunch break and a time for prayer, the afternoon session on “Personal Work” was perhaps one of the strongest challenges for the parish pastors present. A.W. Knock, himself a pastor for many years before becoming a teacher at the Lutheran Bible Institute, spoke from experience and with boldness. “It isn’t so hard to preach but it takes the starch out of you to spend an hour and a half with some individual doing personal work. It is hard work because it is going to cost you a clean up in your own life. If there are jealousies or someone you won’t forgive, you cannot do personal work until these things are cleared up.” Becoming more specific as to methodology, Knock continued. “What do you do when you make a sick call? That’s fine to read the Word of God and pray but when you get through, talk to them about their soul. There are opportunities after the service when people remark to you about the sermon. When you see someone who was interested, make a call on him on Tuesday.” The discussion time that ensued revealed that the pastors were definitely in agreement with Knock as to their responsibility to deal with their parishioners individually regarding their souls’ salvation.
Having listened and responded to the numerous calls to personal repentance and congregational evangelism, the assembly of Christian leaders was ready and eager to hear that evening’s stirring message on the “Need of Spiritual Awakening.” Speaking confidently and as if to rally God’s men to action, Rev. O.T. Erickson declared,
“First, we observe the world which is turning openly to that which is shameful. Secondly, we find that the great mass of the Protestant church in the northern part of the United States has turned from the preaching of a personal salvation. Jesus is no longer a Savior; He is only an example and teacher. The Lutheran church does still hold forth a Savior who died as a ransom for mankind. It seems as though God has kept the Lutheran Church for such a time as this. If we will permit the fires of the Holy Spirit to fill her boilers, God will use her as His ship to carry the good tidings of salvation to a nation which is perishing.”
Considering what was to grow out of that conference in the years ahead, Erickson’s words were prophetic. But that evening as the session came to a close, the question forefront in many minds was, “How can we take action on what we have heard?” The divinely ordained events of the next day were to be critical in answering that question and in determining the spiritual course of at least a part of the nation.
Thursday January 7 would be, it seemed, either an end or a beginning. As the last day of the conference opened, surely many minds were thinking ahead to the lengthy block of time that had been set aside for that afternoon’s open forum. The “Bible Prayer That Brought Awakening” shared for devotions that morning was Acts 4:23-35 in which the apostles and early Christians prayed, “And now, Lord, behold their threatenings: and grant unto thy servants, that with all boldness they may speak thy word, by stretching forth thine hand to heal; and that signs and wonders may be done by the name of thy holy child Jesus.” (Acts 4:29-30 KJV) The answer to that prayer 1,900 years earlier had been that “ . . . the place was shaken where they were assembled together; and they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and they spake the word of God with boldness.” (Acts 4:31 KJV) A pastor gave voice to what many hearts that morning were seeking as he wrapped up the devotional by confidently affirming, “We pray for God to fill us with power and the power is there and God is waiting for us to use it. These men went out and spoke and God worked.”
At the 10:00 AM session, Rev. J.R. Gronseth spoke on “Rightly Dividing the Word for Continuance and Growth.” This was followed by a time of discussion on the message just heard and a two-hour lunch break. At 2:00 PM the conference attendees gathered for prayer, and fifteen minutes later began the eagerly anticipated “Open Forum on the Cause of Evangelism.”
That afternoon’s open forum was certainly no exception to one pastor’s memory that all of the discussion times at the conference were “marked by a spirit of harmony and sincerity. The testimonies and presentations of the present-day conditions and needs did not give evidence of fault-finding, but of frank and constructive criticism, and a sound presentation of the remedy . . . A fine spirit of Christian fellowship and brotherliness on the part of pastors and laymen prevailed throughout . . . .”
The forum opened with several seasons of prayer interspersed with a couple hymns. The topic for discussion was to be, “Ways by Which We Can Increase Effectual Evangelism in Our Church.“ Although portions of time were spent on secondary topics, it was clear from the beginning what was on most minds. “I suggest that we have another conference like this next year,” said one to open the meeting. Shortly, an ambitious individual proposed that a five-member committee be selected immediately and within the next hour prepare a definite plan for furthering evangelistic work. When this motion was tabled, someone next put more definite words to what many were thinking: “What about an Association for the Furtherance of Lutheran Evangelism?” It would be a bold move. In lieu of making a rash decision, those present officially voted only to hold a similar evangelistic conference in 1938 and to make the same volunteer committee of evangelists in charge of planning that conference.
Next followed a business meeting and some conversation regarding the place of the laity in the church. But soon the discussion was deliberately steered back onto the main course with the simple question, “How are we going to bring about evangelism?” It was the question forefront in every mind and it needed to be answered.
The leaders themselves began to speak. Said John Carlsen, “We must necessarily have an Association of Evangelism. I believe we are going to have an inter-synodical association that is independent of the church body that will take care of evangelism.” Enoch Scotvold added his definite approval: “Perhaps as a convention we will be able to mobilize spiritual forces in our church. There is a crying need and the doors are open for evangelism.” Scotvold stated that such an association would be able to organize evangelists so that an awakening preacher brought into a church could be followed by a Bible teacher for the benefit of the new converts. He also felt strongly that pastors whom God had called into evangelism should be helped into the work. “We are looking forward to the day when an association will be formed for the cause of evangelism in the Lutheran church,” said Rev. Evald Conrad. And with obvious implication he added, “How fine it would be if such an association could start out.”
The boldest of ideas was fully in the open. But there were concerns that an association for the furtherance of evangelism would end up being nothing more than another dead organization. To this John Carlsen replied, “When men who are Spirit-filled form an organization, we do not have to be afraid.” Next Dr. Samuel Miller, founder of the Lutheran Bible Institute, spoke for some time regarding not only sending those called by God into evangelism but also training them. He concluded, “There are opportunities for witnessing everywhere if men and women will take them. It may be that the time has come now for some kind of an organization to actually put people in the field.”
The afternoon’s discussion had gone on for several hours, and it was time to wrap up for supper. But no final decision had been reached; no association had been definitely formed. And the thought still loomed large in many minds.
It loomed so large, in fact, that the beginning of the closing service at 8:00 PM was turned into an impromptu continuation of the earlier meeting. There was no more time to be lost, and an answer was quickly reached. With hearty approval, a motion was made, seconded, and carried that the volunteer committee (to which was added Rev. Conrad and an LBI faculty member to be named) was to develop a plan for forming an Association of Evangelism and present that plan at the next conference. The move had been made. The zenith had been reached.
In the providence of God, the theme that had been selected weeks earlier for what was now to be a moving conference finale was, “What Spiritual Awakening Will Mean to the Lutheran Church.” To an audience with almost no standing room,9 the speaker described how over the last year God had laid a burden on his heart for a task that needed to be done. “This conference has helped to lift that burden,” said Rev. J.O. Gisselquist.
Gisselquist’s text was the story of blind Bartimaeus who, in spite of being told to keep quiet, kept crying out to Jesus for mercy until He healed him. “That is what is going to happen in the Lutheran church when we have an awakening,” declared Gisselquist.
“There is one thing that saves and only one and that is the blood of Jesus. When people get awakened by God they know just exactly what they want. The blind man wanted to get his eyes open. The one thing I want is to get rid of the burden of my sins and get saved. People don’t know what they want. You let God talk to them and they will know what they want. And this is what will happen in the Lutheran church if we get a revival.”
It would not be many years before Gisselquist would see that revival with his own eyes.
But as the conference drew to a close, the focus shifted back once more to personal repentance. Gisselquist concluded, “There is a danger of the Spirit leaving us by refusing the Spirit. If there is jealousy, hatred - if God’s Spirit is convicting you of sin - get rid of it. It is possible as a pastor and as a Christian to have a good conscience because the blood cleanses. I wouldn’t exchange that with the world. It is glorious to be a Christian!”
In the closing moments of that historic conference, Rev. Joseph Stump led a time for testimonies and confession of sin. One pastor told the assembly that he had not even been a Christian until five years ago when he had first been cleansed by the blood of Christ. Another testified of having been a missionary in China for some years before he had been saved by Christ’s blood. Others stood and also gave witness to the saving power of Christ’s blood in their lives both past and present. As the congregation sang “Tell Me The Old, Old Story,” Stump invited those who were still not right with God to stay behind and make things right.
The conference had come to a close. There were definite plans for the future, and there was an expectancy that God was going to do something great. The Association for Evangelism that was to be formed would be called the Lutheran Inter-Synodical Evangelistic Committee and then renamed eight years later the Lutheran Evangelistic Movement. Of course, on that evening of January 7, 1937, those present did not know exactly what wonderful works God had planned for the future. But they knew what their very first order of business must be. They must continually repent of their own sins and cry out for God to wash them in the cleansing blood of Jesus. Only having done that could they confidently proclaim with David, “Then I will teach transgressors Your ways, and sinners shall be converted to You.” (Psalm 51:13 NKJV) And on that winter night so many decades ago, God alone knew the great number of sinners that were to be converted in the years ahead.
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