Four Branches July – 2019

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Exegetical Theology: Three Levels of Analysis in Genesis 18

In Preaching Christ from the Old Testament, Sidney Greidanus presents the helpful exegetical concept that OT narrative can be analyzed at three levels: the personal level, the Israelite level, and the Jesus level (p. 238). Applying this concept to Abraham’s prayer for Lot in Genesis 18:20-32 (Pentecost 10C) not only provides an example for our prayers, but also provides the gospel motivation for them. 

The personal level looks at the text considering Abraham’s immediate situation. We notice within the pericope how bold, humble, and persistent Abraham’s prayer is. And if we look a few verses before the pericope (vv. 16-19), we see why he can be so bold. After ratifying a covenant and promising a miracle child, God has just condescended to reveal his impending judgment on Sodom to Abraham. Since Abraham has been brought into God’s inner circle, so to speak, why would he hesitate to pray boldly? 

Following Greidanus’s advice, we compare this event to OT history and note how often God reveals his coming acts judgment and deliverance to his people. And moving on to consider Jesus, it is Jesus himself who most clearly revealed the coming day of judgment at which he will preside. He has called us to warn others and, astoundingly, has promised that we will participate in this judgement, having been justified by faith. We too can pray with such boldness, standing in God’s gracious presence, included in his inner circle, as was Abraham. 

But like Abraham, as we wait, we pray. Abraham’s prayer is not for the wicked to escape justice, but for the righteous to survive. “The righteous,” צַדִיקִים, is often how the OT describes what the NT often calls “believers,” those who have been made right with God through faith in Jesus. Abraham must have had Lot’s family in mind. Similarly, Israelites prayed for all Israel in the Shema, and we put believers first when we pray about God’s name and kingdom. How boldly and persistently we can pray when we pray for those who bear God’s name, whom he loves so deeply.

Abraham’s prayer got the details wrong. Sodom was not spared. Yet his prayer was answered well. As Jesus observes in the gospel for Pentecost 10, our Father knows how to answer even foolish prayers well. Ten righteous were not found, but Lot escaped with all the righteous people left. We need not fear that we will get it wrong when we pray. Our Father loves us and is the righteous judge of all the earth. So be as bold, as persistent, as specific as you can in prayer. Even if you’re wrong, you can trust God to get it right.

Rev. Aaron West serves as pastor at St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Spokane, WA.

Systematic Theology: Sanctification is being a Partner, not a Puppet

It can seem like God is contradicting himself when he speaks of our sanctified lives.  Paul gives all credit for his deeds to his Savior: “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).  But read the encouragements to sanctified living, and you’ll find no “Let go and let Jesus” sentiment in Scripture.  So is our sanctification a work of God or of man?

Scripture teaches that while coming to faith is a divine monergism, our life of faith is a synergism – God calls us to cooperate with him in our daily living.  He calls us to eagerly strive to make our calling and election sure (2 Peter 1:10); he commends eager willingness (2 Cor 8:11) and cheerful generosity (2 Cor 9:7); he directs us to excel in edifying gifts (1 Cor 14:12) and exhorts us to keep in step with the Spirit (Gal 5:25).

Those encouragements aren’t aimed at Christ, but at the Christian. While they are empowered and motivated by the Gospel, the Christian – specifically the “new man” that God creates in us – is called to be a deliberate, active partner in this work.  We aren’t puppets of the Holy Spirit, but partners.  In the same way that the Holy Spirit creates faith in us but doesn’t believe for us, so also the Spirit’s work through the Gospel is the source of our sanctification but doesn’t do the deeds of our sanctified life.

Sanctification is a real partnership, but not an equal one.  Our Lutheran Confessions recognize the error of comparing this partnership as a cooperation “with the Holy Spirit the way two horses draw a wagon together” (FC SD II.66).   Perhaps a more fitting illustration is a father teaching his toddler to walk.  The father takes her little hands in his own.  He holds up his child, sets the direction and supports her every step of the way.  If the father takes away his hands for a moment, the child falls to the ground. But it’s still the child taking real steps.  It still calls for her attention, effort and striving.

And it offers man something he finds nowhere else.  When the spirit of our age insists we’re all “good people” who simply need to embrace who we are, it sets us up for disillusionment and despair.  Is this really all we are to be?  No! The Lord sets a noble calling before us.  It is the call to live as the humanity we were originally created to be, an “image of God” humanity that he’s daily renewing in us, however incomplete in this life.  It’s a daily mission God exhorts us to undertake with calls to “make every effort” (2 Pe 1:5, 2 Pe 1:10, Eph 4:3, Ro 14:19, etc), “strive” (1 Th 5:15), “labor” (Re 14:13),  “put to death” our sinful natures (Co 3:5; Ro 8:13) and to “struggle” (He 12:4). And when we stumble, he invites us to lift our eyes up and see our Father holding our hands and giving his Spirit through his means of grace that we might will and act according to his good purpose (Php 2:13).

For further growth:

  • “Sanctification Is Not Hurrah” (J.P. Koehler) is not a discussion of synergism in sanctification, but is rich with doctrinal, practical, synodical and pastoral insights about avoiding common pitfalls when encouraging growth in sanctification. It’s published in The Wauwatosa Theology, Vol II.
  • The Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, Article II provides a clear and helpful overview of the Spirit’s role in the life of the regenerate man.
  • While this conversation between Bishop Barron and Dr. Jordan Peterson completely misses the true nature and power of the Gospel, it contains some challenging insights on the importance of preaching sanctification in a relativistic world of “all good people.”

Rev. Joel Seifert serves as pastor at Beautiful Savior Lutheran Church in Marietta, GA, and is the General Editor for the Four Branches Review.

Historical Theology: Sermon on the Sacrament of Penance

In early 1519 Martin Luther was preparing for a debate with Johann Eck, although it wasn’t certain the debate would happen. At the same time, he concerned himself with matters of pastoral and spiritual care. We see these concerns in a series of 1519 sermons and publications. How to make confession,[1] preparing to die,[2] marriage,[3] the suffering of Christ,[4] the procession of the cross,[5] and the Lord’s Prayer for laity[6]—all were teaching sermons which flowed from Luther’s pen.

In October 1519 he prepared his Sermon on the Sacrament of Penance.[7] For Luther, theology and practice were always linked. Already in the 95 Theses he had critiqued the practice of indulgences and their relation to contrition and confession in the sacrament of penance. Luther continued to develop his position in the 1518 Sermon on Indulgences and Grace, as well as his 1519 Sermon on Preparing to Die. By the time the Sermon on the Sacrament of Penance appeared in print, he was confidently expressing the inability of human works to make satisfaction, the third part of medieval penance.

Luther was also considering what makes a sacrament. He had begun his review in the Sermon on Preparing to Die when he moved the sacraments away from human works and toward being God’s gracious gift to people. There he insisted that the sacraments “contain nothing but God’s words, promises, and signs,” and “faith must be present.”[8]

Now in the Sermon on the Sacrament of Penance, Luther more carefully explained what makes a sacrament. He pointed out that there are three requirements in the sacrament of penance.

The first is absolution. These are the words of the priest which show, tell, and proclaim to you that you are free and that your sins are forgiven you by God . . . The second is grace, the forgiveness of sins, the peace and comfort of the conscience, as the words declare. . . The third is faith, which firmly believes that the absolution and words of the priest are true. . . Everything, then, depends on this faith, which alone makes the sacraments accomplish that which they signify . . .[9]

To settle some of the confusion surrounding penance, Luther distinguished between penance proper and the sacrament of penance. He re-emphasized the above points when he stated,

the sacrament consists of three things: in the word of God, that is, the absolution; in the faith [which trusts] in this absolution; and in the peace, that is, the forgiveness of sins which surely follows faith. But penance is also divided into three “parts”: contrition, confession, and satisfaction.[10]

Continued study finally led Luther in 1520 to reduce the number of sacraments to two. At that time, he omitted penance because it lacked a divinely instituted visible sign.

[1] WA 2:57-65.                                                     

[2] LW 42:95-116.

[3] LW 44:3-20.

[4] The Annotated Luther, volume 1, 169-179.

[5] LW 42:83-93.

[6] LW 42:15-81.

[7] LW 35:9-22 and the Annotated Luther, volume 1, 185-201.

[8] LW 42:109-110.

[9] LW 35:11.

[10] LW 35:19.

Rev. James F. Korthals is Professor Emeritus of Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary in Mequon, WI.

Practical Theology: Always Be Prepared – Growing in Cultural Knowledge

Our country is growing more diverse. God is bringing people from all over the world into our towns and cities. I hope your gospel-centered heart has a desire to grow in reaching people with the gospel who look and sound different than you do.

Understanding culture is so much more than learning another language. While every culture is different, it’s helpful to know general truths about how cultures differ. I once asked a WELS missionary what book to read to begin understanding other cultures. He suggested “Ministering Cross-Culturally” by Sherwood G. Lingenfelter and Marvin K. Mayers. The authors note several different tensions that result from cultural differences.

Tensions about Time: Are you time-oriented or event-oriented? Do you have a tightly-packed schedule or a “let come what may” outlook? There’s a big difference! I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter what time you show up at a Hispanic party, just as long as you’re there and part of the event.

Tensions Associated with Handling Crises: Do you have a crisis orientation and plan ahead to avoid future problems? Or a noncrisis orientation and don’t take action until a crisis actually hits?

Tensions Over Goals: Are you task-oriented (most focused on getting things done), or people-oriented (most focused on cultivating relationships)?

Tensions about Self-Worth: Is your self-worth dependent on what you’ve achieved (achievement focus) or on who you are (status focus)?

Tensions regarding Vulnerability: Do you conceal your weaknesses, or are you willing to expose your weaknesses?

As I serve Hispanics, I see how my expectations about time, planning, and goals are different from those of the people I meet. So whose way is better? That’s not the point, unless a teaching of Scripture is at stake. I want to understand and love the people God has placed in my life. I want to “become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22).

Along the way, I have a lot to learn. By nature, we assume that our way is the best way. Our knowledge of our sinful natures should remind us that’s not true! I love completing tasks and have “Achiever” as a Strengthsfinder strength. But do I spend time with people? Do I remember my status in Christ? Being around people from other cultures makes me aware of my own culture and shows me a different way to look at life.

To grow in your cultural knowledge, watch the movie “Crash” and reflect on the racial tensions it highlights. Watch the documentaries “La Bestia” or “Which Way Home” to learn about the journeys of Central American immigrants. Take your family to an ethnic restaurant or supermarket and experience what it feels like to be a minority. Search the words “alien,” “stranger,” and “foreigner” in your Bible and read the references that come up. Study what Jesus’ culture was like in the Gospels. May God give us hearts that love the people he’s bringing into our towns and lives!

Pastor Nathan Nass serves at St. Paul / San Pablo Lutheran Church in Green Bay, WI. You can check out his blog at