Four Branches February 2017

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Exegetical Theology: Pondering the Penitentials (Part 3)

When I consider the truth that God forgives all my sins, it fills me with joy and gratitude.  So why did the psalmist say it fills him with fear?

Psalm 130 is the sixth of the seven psalms traditionally classified as “penitential.”[1] As the psalmist travels from the depths of despair to the heights of confidence, the vivid imagery and powerful truths have made this psalm a treasure to many.  Perhaps the best-known words of Psalm 130 are those beautifully crafted in vs. 3-4:

3אִם־עֲוֹנֹ֥ות תִּשְׁמָר־יָ֑הּ אֲ֝דֹנָ֗י מִ֣י יַעֲמֹֽד׃

4כִּֽי־עִמְּךָ֥ הַסְּלִיחָ֑ה לְ֝מַ֗עַן תִּוָּרֵֽא׃

Placed early for emphasis, it is evident that the penitent author is mindful of his crooked, guilt-inducing sinful deeds (עֲוֹנֹות). Also evident is the psalmist’s knowledge that God has every right to “keep an eye on, regard, give heed to” [תִּשְׁמָר)[2) such sins. As a result of such stark truths, the rhetorical question is asked: “Who will stand?” (מִי יַעֲמֹד). The image is clear: the sinner has no natural right to proudly stand in God’s presence. To the contrary, a position of cowering is in order.

That, however, is not the only “fear” that our God would have us know! Throughout Psalm 130, we see the gospel-laden covenant name of God on display.[3] In verse 3, it is found in יָהּ, a shortened form of יהוה found most often in poetry.[4] With the Lord, הַסְּלִיחָה is found! This is the “the forgiveness” that the penitent needs and has in the Lord. It should be noted that this particular word for forgiveness (as a substantive, adjective, and the more commonly used verb) is used only in the Old Testament to denote God’s forgiveness for the sinner.[5]

Such divine forgiveness, found in the saving work of Christ, creates a new reality and a changed perspective. Forgiveness leads to fear![6] Fear of the Lord is a loaded concept throughout Scripture. A truly penitential psalm recognizes the sinner/saint status of the Christian and communicates both the terror and respect aspects of fear. In this psalm we see an interesting progression that takes the penitent from the dreadful fear of standing before God on his own merit to the grateful and reverent fear of marveling in God’s forgiveness. Divine forgiveness gives the sinner solid footing in the presence of God.  And such forgiveness leads to the fear of God in the fullest sense!

Rev. David Bivens serves Christ the Lord Lutheran Church and Sienna Lutheran Academy in Sienna Plantation, TX, and as chairman of the BWM’s Administrative Committee for African Missions.

[1] The others are Psalm 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, and 143.

[2] Cf. Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, vol. 2, pp. 939-940 for further study.

[3] Cf. vs. 1, 3, 5, 7.

[4] John Brug’s A Commentary on Psalms, vol 1, pp. 297-299, gives a helpful summary of the meaning and form of יָהּ

[5] Cf. Theological Workbook of the Old Testament, vol. 2, p. 626.

[6] לְמַעַן is best understood as denoting result in this verse; תִּוָּרֵא – literally: “you are feared.”


Systematic Theology: The Apotelesmatic Genus

The church father, Jerome, said, “From inexact speech springs heresy.”  This doctrine of the communication of attributes is heavy.  We must constantly review it to make sure we are communicating truth with words that can’t be misunderstood.

The idiomatic genus and the majestic genus form the foundation for the third one: the genus apotelesmaticum.  With the understanding of how the natures are united, the apotelesmatic genus tells us why they must be united in just that way.  This genus states that the human nature and the divine nature in the one person of Christ each contributed what is unique to it to carry out our salvation.

We needed a substitute who could perfectly submit to God’s law and to suffer and die for sins.  For that to be accomplished Jesus must be true man.  For his perfect life and death to have infinite value for everyone, Jesus must be true God.  However, in each act, the other nature participated.

We sing in one our hymns, “Oh, sorrow dread!  God’s Son is dead!”  Sound shocking?  The original German read, “O grosse Not, Gott selbst ist tot” (“O great distress!  God himself is dead!”).  How can we say that?  God cannot suffer and die, but because of the hypostatic union, it is entirely accurate to say “God died” in reference to what happened on the cross.  The result is your forgiveness and salvation.  The apotelesmatic genus outlines that Jesus is exactly the Savior we need.

How this can be we leave to God and simply say with Paul: “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!  How unsearchable his judgments and his paths beyond tracing out!” (Romans 11:33)  Check out the remarkable clarity of the reformers on the person of Christ by reading the Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord, article 8.

Rev. David Scharf serves as a professor of theology at Martin Luther College and on the Commission on Congregational Counseling.

Historical Theology: This Is Most Certainly True (But Not Like We Think!)

Last month we considered how Martin Luther made use of excellently crafted, widely known church music (such as Gregorian chant) in his worship reforms.    But he didn’t limit himself to that.

Because Luther was a Reform-minded man of the people, he did not hesitate to utilize the religious folk songs that people sang. This long-established, religious folk song tradition accounts for roughly 20 percent of Luther’s hymns (Herl 21). (Perhaps Amazing Grace or God Bless America would be somewhat parallel in our American experience.)

Contrafacta technique (replacing the secular text of an existing song with a sacred text) also brought some non-religious folk songs into the Church’s use. The love song Wach auf, meins Herzens Schöne became the basis of “The Day Is Surely Drawing Near” – Luther’s first congregational hymn (Riedel 28). Other hymns came from the art song tradition of the noble courts. (Gerhardt’s precious “Now Rest Beneath Night’s Shadow” is a 17th century example of princely music being brought into the service of the Prince of Peace.) Again, Luther was using music that was well-crafted, widely known, and regularly sung throughout Europe. Again, it was popular music, but not music specifically designed for immediate, mass appeal.

Unencumbered with our modern-day categories of secular vs. sacred and untouched by tunes and themes that were purely “pop,” Luther wisely utilized the musical tools that were available to him – tools that were at one and the same time “secular” and “sacred”; music of the people (folk) and music of the princes (art song). Luther – working with consistent pastoral and artistic balance borne of the Gospel – produced something new and unequaled in the history of the Church’s song: the Lutheran Chorale.

So what might this mean for us today? Luther and the great Lutheran musicians that followed were dedicated synthesizers of the best of the old with the best of the new. Luther was not satisfied to simply imitate whatever was current. In so doing, he has provided us with a principled and creative path forward. I pray that Luther’s Gospel balance and creative energy inspires a new generation of Lutheran pastors, musicians, and artists. The Confessional Lutheran Church is ready for it!

Rev. Aaron Christie serves Trinity Lutheran Church in Waukesha, WI, and is chairman of the Hymnody Committee for the WELS hymnal project.

Those who are interested in an accessible and engaging read on the various genere of music – classical, folk, and pop – will enjoy T. David Gordon’s Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns: How Pop Culture Rewrote the Hymnal. Caveat: Gordon is thorough on diagnosis, but short on cure.

It is available at

Herl, Joseph. Worship Wars in Early Lutheranism. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Riedel, Johannes. The Lutheran Chorale: It’s Basic Traditions. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1967.

Practical Theology:No, You’re Not Really Different

However you become a former pastor (a new divine call, retirement or resignation) it’s tempting to think that your contacts, your visits, your counsel with former members will only be a blessing and never cause a problem because, well, because you’re you! That’s when we need to remember to say to ourselves: “The ministry is not about me. It’s about Jesus and the Shepherd/sheep relationship he has with his people.” It’s also about Jesus and the shepherd/sheep relationship he establishes with whomever he has serve as a shepherd under him. As much as it tugs at heartstrings, let your final sermon and good bye be your good bye. Go and be gone.

I remember our children asking why my wife and I always talked about “going home” when we’d travel from Michigan to Minnesota for our summer vacation.  Even before we got in the car, they would regularly say: “We are home!”

It’s important that we remember that same truth about your church home. Sometimes, the Lord chooses to move you to a new church home and has you serve a different group of his people. Sometimes it’s retirement which ends your service and results in a move to a new church home. That is your new home.  Treasure it as such.  Remember that the Lord will also bring another pastor to replace you.  Let those people of God you used to serve grow to love and respect whoever replaces you.  With travel and communication as easy as it is today, the temptation to ‘keep in touch’ and to ‘return for a visit’ can be easily seized and unwittingly interfere in another’s ministry. Out of respect for the person whom God has chosen to replace you, fight the temptation. Even as God’s people have cherished you as a servant of Christ, let them learn to love and cherish another as your memory fades.

Now, their new pastor gets to rejoice just as you once did by saying with Paul: Although I am less than the least of all God’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ. (Eph 3:8) Allow him to have that joy uninterrupted by you.

Rev. John Seifert serves Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Midland, MI, and as president of the Michigan District.