Four Branches May 2017

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Exegetical Theology: Pentecost – The Spirit Testifies through the Church

On the day of Pentecost, the Church would see just how active the Spirit is. Do we ever forget about the Spirit’s activity simply because we cannot see it? “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).

On Maundy Thursday evening, Jesus assures his disciples that despite all the traumatic things they were about to see, he would not be abandoning them. “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you” (John 14:18). Even after Jesus appeared to the world to be dead and gone, he would live again, and the disciples would see him.

But the Spirit is no less active! The Spirit is a παράκλητος, just as Jesus is (John 14:16). The Spirit would teach the disciples all things, just as Jesus did. The Spirit reminds us of everything that Jesus has said to us (14:26). And finally, Jesus says, when the Counselor comes, “he will testify about me” (15:26). He would do this through Jesus’ disciples. They would be μάρτυρες. “You also must testify” (15:27).

Jesus did die and rise again. Jesus did ascend to heaven. Then the day of Pentecost came. The disciples heard the sound of the wind. They could not tell where it came from or where it was going, except in this: that the Spirit now witnessed through them, and people from all over the world heard and believed and were baptized and were saved.

What John speaks about in his gospel, he also speaks about in his first epistle. Previously absent from our lectionary except for verse 6, 1 John 5:6-12 now occurs in the supplemental lectionary for Holy Trinity, year C. “It is the Spirit who testifies,” John says. “And this is the testimony,” he says:

ζωὴν αἰώνιον ἔδωκεν ἡμῖν ὁ θεός, καὶ αὕτη ἡ ζωὴ ἐν τῷ υἱῷ αὐτοῦ ἐστιν.
ὁ ἔχων τὸν υἱὸν ἔχει τὴν ζωήν· ὁ μὴ ἔχων τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ θεοῦ τὴν ζωὴν οὐκ ἔχει. (5:11-12)

Life in God’s Son! The Father testifies to this truth by raising Jesus from the dead. Jesus testifies by sending his disciples. The Spirit testifies by his activity in the Church as people hear and believe and are baptized and are saved. “We accept man’s testimony, but God’s testimony is greater because it is the testimony of God, which he has given about his Son” (1 John 5:9). Believe and live!


Rev. Nathan Ericson serves Martin Luther Lutheran Church in Oshkosh, WI, as the Special Ministries coordinator for the WELS Northern Wisconsin District.


Systematic Theology: Cultivating a Theodotos Habitus Practicus

In Acts 1:8 an ascending Lord Jesus calls his disciples his “witnesses…to the ends of the earth.”  Today we have inherited this mantle and the work that comes with it.  Lutheran theologians have used the terms theodotos habitus practicus to describe the manner in which we serve as Jesus’ witnesses in our own generation.

A witness tells faithfully what he has seen.  We, believers in our risen, ascended, and ruling Savior are compelled by the Holy Spirit to confess and tell the truths that we have seen in the pages of Scripture.  We use words such as “doctrine” and “theology” to describe the believers’ fervent desire to continue to look deeply into God’s word and then to pass on the truths we have seen.

  • Theodotos tells us that every aspect of serving as Christ’s witness is “given by God.” From faith given to walking by that faith the believer’s new life is a gracious gift from God that comes through the Gospel in Word and Sacraments.
  • As a result of God’s gifts, the believer’s heart is oriented toward God, his grace, and his will as a habitus. Every aspect of the believer’s life is centered in and revolves around God’s truth.  Who he/she is, what our purpose is, how we perceive the world around us, the certain hope we cling to all spring from the pages of God’s word and infuse our life and perception.
  • And as practicus this life focus on God’s truth, this habitus, finds application. Clinging to God’s truth does not just change the believer’s thoughts and emotions, but knowledge and faith are put to work and find effective application in life and ministry.

Habitus practicus as theodotos is the Lutheran theologian’s way of trying to define a believer’s life of joy and passion in response to the gospel.  Those who rejoice to know what God has done for us in Jesus treasure God’s gift of grace and in turn desire that as many as possible hear that sweet message and are saved with us.  We are his witnesses starting in our homes and to the ends of the earth!

For more reading on this topic, please see Professor Irwin Habeck’s What is Scriptural Doctrine and Professor John Schaller’s On the Concept of Theology.


Rev. Robert Wendland serves as a missionary in Malawi, Africa.

Historical Theology: Letters from Luther – Correspondence on Confidence

As the calendar turned from February to March in 1522, a lot was going on and Luther was still a guest at the Wartburg castle.  Luther had already been excommunicated and placed under the imperial ban.  He would remain an outlaw for the rest of this life.  His work on the New Testament translation was wrapping up.  Indeed it would come off the presses in September.  Meanwhile events in Wittenberg were heating up with the agitation of men like Andreas Karlstadt, Gabriel Zwilling, and the Zwickau prophets.  A riot had even broken out in the city in early February as a result of these men and their ideas.

As February wound down, Luther wrote to Frederick the Wise.  He concluded that letter with a quick statement about how he would be in Wittenberg soon.  Immediately upon receiving the letter, Frederick arranged a reply to discourage Luther from returning at that moment because of the political situation.  Frederick was unsure if he could maintain Luther’s safety in such circumstances.  At the same time, the elector sought advice in how he should handle the difficult situation that had developed in Wittenberg and was spreading to the surrounding region.

The letter Luther wrote on March 5, 1522 was his reply.  It speaks of his confidence in the Lord Almighty as his protector, even if the elector could not.  It is a wonderful expression of his faith in his Savior in every area of life.  Luther also encouraged the elector to continue to place his confidence in God’s providence.  Who doesn’t need an encouragement from time to time to keep his confidence in God because it will never be disappointed?  In addition to confidence and faith, this letter also highlights Luther’s respect for and obedience to those whom the Lord has placed into secular authority.  One can gain insight from these words into Luther’s teaching on the two kingdoms.  During unsettled times, it is good to remember what the Bible says we owe to those in authority and what we do not.  As an added bonus, one also gets a taste of Luther’s wit even when speaking to a prince in the empire as important as Frederick.

Consider giving this letter from Luther a quick read.  You will find it in Luther’s Works Vol. 48, pp. 288-293.


Rev. Jason Oakland serves Martin Luther Lutheran Church in Neenah, WI.


Practical Theology: Three Keys to Recruiting Volunteers – Systems

Recruiting volunteers is connected to three things: permission, a clear vision and systems to carry out that vision.  Let me show you how to build them for your ministry.

In last month’s issue, we touched the importance of a clear vision that allows everyone to not only work towards the same goal, but also see how their volunteer work helps bring people closer to Christ.

So now that you have permission to ask (see last month’s “step-up sheet”) and have your volunteers excited about a shared vision, you only need one more thing – a system for consistent results.

We all have systems even if they are not written down. My guess is that you have a fairly established system for writing your sermons (pick text, study, mind map or outline, think of illustrations, double check content with something like this, practice delivery, etc.). Other things you probably do the exact same way (drying yourself off after a shower for example) even without (I pray) detailed illustrations.

The need for systems

When working with volunteers, it becomes even more important to have systems to carry out a shared vision. Getting these systems on paper is the hard part – it’s tedious and boring work.  However, for every super-tedious and boring minute you spend on documenting your system, you will save yourself hours of frustration and disappointment in the future. Is your coffee good one week and not the next? That is a system problem.  Is your keyboardist or organist frustrated because they have don’t music? That is a system problem. Did someone forget to clean the church? You get the picture.

Main benefits of documenting systems:

  • You don’t have to do everything yourself (frees you to think about what you should be thinking about!)
  • Consistent results
  • An amazing feeling of joy when you have something documented the first time.
  • An even more amazing feeling of joy when you find your system from last time as you get ready for a VBS, Youth Trip, etc.
  • Helps you identify where something is broken and allows you to fix it.
  • Dropping the ball less frequently
  • Increases volunteer retention (no one likes to be confused or fail)

What could use a system?

  • Making coffee (example)
  • Following up on guests
  • Recruiting for Bible Information Class
  • Any event you put on as a church (Easter Brunch, camp, etc.)
  • Updating the website
  • In short, anything that involves more than two steps

The good news is that you don’t have to do this all yourself.  Chances are, someone in your church loves and has already documented systems (add this request to the step-up sheet). Also, just get something down, it doesn’t have to be pretty (see our coffee making example). Keep in mind that getting your church systems written down often takes years, but think of the long game, the pastor who will follow you, and the benefit to your volunteers.

Geno Wickman’s book Traction is a great resource if you are interested.

Rev. Jared Oldenburg serves Eternal Rock Lutheran Church in Castle Rock, Colorado, and is the author of the e-book “Who Is Jesus?”