Four Branches – February 2024

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Exegetical theology: The “Sacrifice” of Isaac, Part 1: A Test for Abraham 

Genesis 22 records a shocking encounter when God told Abraham to do the unthinkable: sacrifice his son. God gave Abraham this horrific command in order to test him.  

The term for Abraham’s “test” (נִסָּ֖ה) is also used when God tested the people of Israel in the wilderness (e.g., Exodus 16:4). Of course, the omniscient God didn’t need to learn something through these tests. They were circumstances or choices God presented for the benefit of those going through them.  

Just a chapter earlier in Genesis 21, we read about Abraham sending away his oldest son, Ishmael. All attention had turned to Isaac, the son of the promise—the only son born to Abraham and his wife, Sarah. They loved him dearly. They had prayed and patiently waited for his miraculous birth. The child who made them laugh could have also become the one they loved and praised most. Through this test, God juxtaposed himself to the miracle boy and essentially asked Abraham, “Who do you fear, love, and trust more?”  

Abraham was commanded to offer a whole burnt offering (עֹלָ֔ה). He told his servants that he and Isaac were going to worship (שָׁחָה) on the mountain. Not before his precious son, but before the Lord of the universe—the faithful God of gracious promises—would he bow down in worship. 

This was difficult, confusing, heart-breaking worship. How could God ask this of him? How could God still be good after commanding human sacrifice? How could Abraham become the father of a great nation when his only child with Sarah would be burned up as a whole burnt offering? This test stretched Abraham’s faith immensely. But the tension did not cause his faith to snap.  

Ultimately, Abraham believed that God was still good. He believed in the resurrection, verified by his statement that “We [he and Isaac] will worship and then we will come back [נָשׁ֥וּבָה] to you” (cf. Hebrews 11:19). When Isaac asked about the glaring omission of a lamb for the sacrifice, Abraham in faith declared that God himself would see to it (אֱלֹהִ֞ים יִרְאֶה־לֹּ֥ו הַשֶּׂ֛ה)—God would provide the lamb. And when the time came, he reached for the knife and raised it to slay his own son! He loved God more. He trusted God, even as he couldn’t possibly understand, and his heart was breaking. In the end, God concluded, “Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.” (Genesis 22:12) In response, God reiterated his gracious promises to Abraham.  

We’ll discuss more about the substitutionary sacrifice in part two. For now, notice how God personally cared about Abraham enough to test him. He is not as a mindless, distant deity, but as a personal God who loves his children. The Lord of the universe who cares about our hearts. 

God loves and cares about us enough to profoundly test us, to grow us, and to prove his power in us when our hearts are breaking and it feels impossible. 

Rev. Kurtis Wetzel is a pastor at Cross of Christ in Boise and Nampa, Idaho. 

Systematic Theology: Bearing Christian Crosses 

The message runs against the grain of so much of what is said in our culture. It is a message different from what is preached even in many Christian churches. It is a message which grates against our sinful nature. On the Second Sunday in Lent (Feb. 25), we hear our Savior say, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.   For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.”  (Mark 8:34-35) Jesus calls us to bear crosses in our lives. God’s people need help understanding what that means. More importantly, they need pointed gospel encouragement to demonstrate God’s goodness to us in giving us crosses to bear. 

What is the Christian’s cross? Lutheran theologians define it differently, espousing either a wide or a narrow view of the cross. The wide view of the cross defines all the trials and troubles which God allows Christians to face as crosses. Adolf Hoenecke says, “As those justified before God, we believers have no sin and we ought not have to carry suffering for the sake of the Word or otherwise, for it no longer belongs to us; but we are in the state of humiliation and thus have all kinds of suffering. But therefore, all suffering is to be called a cross, when it does not belong to us by law, but is imposed on us by paternal grace, so that we may conform to our Lord.”1 Other theologians define the Christian cross in more narrow terms.  Lyle Lange writes, “It refers to what Christians suffer for the sake of the gospel.”2 According to Lange’s narrower definition, the Christian cross refers more to the persecutions and the troubles we face which are unique to followers of Christ. 

Daniel Deutschlander’s definition of the cross leans more toward the wide view of the cross. Explaining the cross in these terms may help your people picture the cross they bear more concretely. If something tempts the Christian to doubt God’s love for him, then it is a cross. If it makes the Christian question whether he or she can trust in God and his goodness, it is a cross.   

Whether you define the cross in the wide or narrow sense, the Scriptures affirm this common denominator: the Lord is the one who imposes the cross on his people. Why would he do that? Because crosses are good. The pain and suffering of the cross benefits God’s people. This is a great paradox of Christianity. Pieper says, “(The cross) warns us to place our sole reliance in the grace of God (2 Cor. 12:8-9). It thus exercises and strengthens our faith (1 Pet. 1:6-7), moves us to prayer (Ps. 18:6; Is. 26:16)…and in general turns our gaze from the things that are seen and must perish to the things which are not seen and are eternal (2 Cor. 4:16-18).”3 

To highlight the paradox of the goodness of the cross to God’s people and to offer them encouragement and hope, I have often shared something like this with the people I have been privileged to serve. “I don’t know exactly why God has allowed this to happen to you, namely, why you are bearing this particular cross. I know how evil this looks and feels to you. I also know crosses are good.  That is our Lord’s promise.  We can trust that promise.  After all, nothing has ever looked more evil than the innocent Son of God being put to death on his cross. That was the greatest good. It is where our salvation was won and our eternal life was secured.  God knows how to use crosses for our good.  And he knows how to use this cross, which is so heavy upon you right now, for your good.”   

Rev. Shane Krause serves at St. Paul in Onalaska, WI.   

Historical Theology: Early Lutheran Martyrs, Part 1 

In this and the next two installments, we will look at four contemporaries of Martin Luther who adhered to his Reformation theology and were forced to give up their lives for it. This month we look at the first two Lutheran martyrs, Hendrik Vos (also spelled Voes) and Jan van den Esschen, who were burned at the stake together in 1523. 

We have sparse information about these men prior to their trial and execution. Jan may have been born around 1494 in Essen in modern-day Belgium, and Hendrik may have been born around 1499 in ’s-Hertogenbosch in the present-day Netherlands. Jan was a charter member of the Observant Augustinian monastery in Antwerp (1514), while Hendrik joined later. Some evidence suggests that the two men were already close traveling companions before their trial and execution. 

In the wake of Emperor Charles V’s Edict of Worms, Hendrik, Jan, and other fellow Augustinian monks were arrested in Antwerp for their Lutheran views and transported in wagons to the castle in Vilvoorde in July 1522. After being interrogated and pressured to recant, most did, but Hendrik, Jan, and another monk named Lambert (arrested in October) persisted. They were sent to Brussels for further questioning and judgment. The Inquisition consisted predominantly of men connected with the University of Louvain. 

On July 1, 1523, at 11 a.m., the three men underwent the rite of degradation in the Grand Plaza of Brussels. They were dressed up as priests and then denounced and defrocked in a public ceremony led by the auxiliary bishop of Cambrai. At this point, Lambert yielded. He asked for a few days’ reprieve to think the matter over. (He ended up enduring a long and harsh imprisonment and did not pass away until September 1528.) Hendrik and Jan did not yield and were led to their pyres. Eyewitness accounts agree that they demonstrated extraordinary perseverance and resolve, even a degree of eagerness and cheerfulness. One eyewitness said that, after being stripped down to their undergarments, they seemed to embrace the stakes more than they were tied to them. They repeatedly asked Jesus for mercy, recited the Apostles’ Creed, and spoke or sang the Te Deum responsively with each other. Finally, the heat and smoke inhalation drowned out their voices, and their souls passed away to glory. The entire ordeal, from degradation to death, is alleged to have taken nearly four hours. 

When Luther read the report about the two martyrs, he began to cry to himself and said, “I thought that I would certainly be the first one to be martyred for the sake of this holy gospel, but I was not worthy of it.”4 The news inspired him to pen his first hymn, “A New Song Now Shall Be Begun.” 

For Further Reading and Listening 

Seven primary sources connected with the first Lutheran martyrdom 

The Dynamics of the Early Reformation in Their Reformed Augustinian Context 

“Lutherans Burned in Brussels” on The Lutheran History Podcast 

Rev. Nathaniel Biebert serves at Trinity in Winner, South Dakota. 

Practical Theology: “Law/Gospel Obsession”[1] and Sermon Length 

In my opening article, I set out to describe our denominational norms for sermon length. Our shortest preachers run shorter than the local Catholic priest these days.[2] Our longest preachers do not even come close to touching historically black protestant preachers’ sermon length. In my second article, after setting aside weak concerns for sermon length, I articulated four considerations that might serve to guide preachers in their sermon length each week. In my final article, I will look at how embracing a robust and biblical theology of Lutheran homiletics impacts sermon length.[3] 

David Schmitt, in his programmatic essay Law and Gospel in Sermon and Service, developed at length two very different errors for the Lutheran preacher. One error is what he called “Law/Gospel negligence.”[4] Law/Gospel negligence occurs when the preacher, enthralled with sermon form and rhetoric, preaches Law and Gospel only to “save the sermon from being accused of not being Lutheran,”[5] rather than preaching Law and Gospel to save the hearer. On the other hand, the essay makes clear that Schmitt’s greater concern for our day lies in the opposite extreme, which he calls “Law/Gospel obsession.”[6] This obsession “occurs when the preacher focuses upon Law and Gospel polarities in preaching with such rigor and all-consuming attention that everything that occurs in the office of preaching is reduced to the overly simplistic bad-news-then-good-news paradigm.”[7] This Law/Gospel obsession can lead to lack of balance or even neglect in three other necessary homiletical discourses: textual exposition, theological confession, and hearer depiction.[8] 

While Schmitt does not address sermon length directly, he does gently share that Law/Gospel obsession results in Lutheran preaching where preachers “fail to teach the articles of the faith.”[9] Jacob Haag, while not using the same categories that Schmitt uses, has the same lament in his recent article Law-Gospel Model Revisited. “The stereotype that Lutheran preaching points out sin, announces forgiveness, and then quickly says “Amen!” is a stereotype, but all stereotypes come from somewhere.” [10] This all leads me to a personal conviction about sermon length. Since Lutheran preachers are called by God to offer textual exposition, theological confession, evangelical proclamation, and hearer depiction, count me among those who struggle to get anywhere close to doing so in less than 20 minutes. Some may find a way.[11] Still, if a preacher is to err in sermon length, err long rather than short. Err as one who comes bought by the blood of Jesus and filled with the Spirit, as one who intends to put the Word in its historical context, confess the faith of the Church, bring present tense gospel proclamation to God’s people on that particular occasion, and who means to name the work of God in the lives of God’s people Monday through Saturday. 

[1] Grime and Nadasdy, editors. 2001. Liturgical Preaching. St. Louis, MO, Concordia Publishing House, p. 36. 

[2] “The Digital Pulpit: A Nationwide Analysis of Online Sermons” Pew Research Center, accessed December 21, 2023,,minutes%20in%20evangelical%20Protestant%20congregations

[3] I credit Jacob Haag for making this contribution to this series. Via an October 13, 2023, email, he wrote, “The more that I study homiletics, the more I’m convinced you can’t do a sermon justice (from the perspective of the philosophical obligations of a sermon) in only 15 min.—unless it’s a special occasion like a devotion or wedding or funeral.” While Haag speaks of a “philosophical obligation”, I prefer the language “theology of preaching.” 

[4]Liturgical Preaching 33.   

[5]Liturgical Preaching 45.   

[6] Ironically, both Schmitt and Richard Lischer assert that Law/Gospel obsession is itself a confusion of Law and Gospel. Lischer lists it as the first of seven contemporary confusions of Law and Gospel. He calls it the “Mechanical Application of Law and Gospel.” Lischer, Richard, A Theology of Preaching: The Dynamics of the Gospel. Durham, NC, The Labyrinth Press, 1992, p. 43. 

[7]Liturgical Preaching 36.   

[8] In addition to reading Schmitt’s essay in Liturgical Preaching, consider reading his Tapestry of Preaching for a more in-depth discussion of these four Lutheran homiletical discourses. The Tapestry of Preaching. Concordia Journal. 37 (Spring 2011). 

[9]Liturgical Preaching 42.   

[10] Haag, Jacob. Law-Gospel Model Revisited. Preach the Word. Vol. 28, No. 1, p. 2. 

[11] According to Mark Birkholz’ email signatures, Mark Twain once quipped, “I apologize for such a long letter, I didn’t have time to write a short one.” 

Rev. Timothy Bourman serves as a home missionary at Sure Foundation, Queens, New York.