Four Branches – May 2023

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Exegetical Theology:  What’s ἀγάπη got to do with it? Part 1

Forgive me for the lamest article title in the history of the Four Branches. It’s a play on the iconic song “What’s Love Got to Do with It” by the late, great Tina Turner. I’m betting that an unexpected pop music reference will prompt you to read the entire article and not just the preview in your inbox (feel free to let me know whether or not this tactic worked).

What you’re reading has nothing to do with 80s ballads and everything to do with the broad and often erroneous generalizations that are made about the Greek words for love used in the New Testament. Specifically, the notion that ἀγαπάω denotes an intrinsically loftier kind of love than φιλέω, the so-called love of friendship. In other words, when it comes to love in the New Testament, what’s ἀγάπη got to do with it?

To answer the question, we need to start with Classical Greek, which had four main words for love.  στέργω denoted feelings of affection, especially the love between parents and children. ἐράω was passionate love that could convey falling in love, desiring, and lusting. φιλέω covered fondness and was used for many different kinds of love: from friendship to the outward signs of love like kissing. ἀγαπάω was an uncommon, bland word that appeared sometimes as an alternative to or a synonym with ἐράω and φιλέω.

Although ἀγαπάω was scarce in Classical Greek, it became the preferred word for love in Hellenistic times. It is also the Septuagint’s main word for love and renders אָהֵב, the primary word for love in Hebrew. 

Like the English word love, אָהֵב expresses many kinds of love. While ἀγαπάω is used in the LXX when speaking of divine love, it is also used when speaking of human love, which often is not very lofty. For example, in 2 Samuel 13, before Amnon raped Tamar, ἠγάπησεν αὐτὴν (13:1). After he violated her, he hated her with a hatred ὑπὲρ τὴν ἀγάπην, ἣν ἠγάπησεν αὐτήν (13:15). 

Moreover, the noun ἀγάπη, which is barely found in pre-Septuagint Greek, is usually used in the LXX to indicate sexual or erotic love (eleven of its fifteen occurrences in the canonical books are in the Song of Songs).

In the LXX, then, ἀγαπάω and ἀγάπη are often used in contexts where one would expect to find ἐράω or φιλέω. Instead of indicating a lofty love, ἀγαπάω shows the full spectrum of love – both good and bad. So if ἀγάπη is a higher lover, it would need to acquire that meaning in the New Testament, which we will examine next month. [1]

[1]   If you would like a list of the resources that I consulted to write these articles, please email me.  Also, if you would like to study the Septuagint’s words for love first hand, consider purchasing Septuaginta: A Reader’s Edition published by Hendrickson in 2018. 

Rev. Noah Headrick serves Saint John’s Lutheran Church in Burlington, WI, and he is not really a Tina Turner fan.

Systematic Theology:  Distinguishing Law and Gospel: The Lutheran Decoder Ring?

Whether your edition is blue or burgundy, you probably know exactly where your copy of Walther’s Law and Gospel rests at this very moment. Distinguishing law and gospel is such a core tenet of Lutheran theology that it is almost impossible to imagine a doctrinal system without it. The Formula calls the distinction “a particularly glorious light” [1]that makes “understandable the writings of the holy prophets and apostles.” Objections to the practice seem almost unthinkable.

Objections do exist, though, and we do well to familiarize ourselves with them. The same basic accusation comes at us from both Reformed and Roman Catholic camps. To boil Scripture’s interpretation down to properly distinguishing law from gospel is, in their mind, to limit or even ignore aspects of what God reveals about himself, especially via the law. The Reformed Karl Barth and the Catholic Friedrich Heiler say that Scripture’s primary purpose is to tell us about “God Himself, His personality, His name, His lordship, His covenant with men” (Sasse, Here We Stand, 112). By overemphasizing the gospel, they say, we reduce the law to a secondary position and lose the fullness of God’s glory in his revelation.

While our well-informed defenses to these Catholic and Reformed objections are probably already springing to mind, their accusation of over-simplifying Scripture is worth our attention. Episcopalian systematics professor Katherine Sonderegger writes of the Lutheran distinction, “I cannot shake the visual impression here of a template that rests over the whole, something like the decoders beloved by so many of us in childhood, through which the proper and true meaning of the text emerges” (God’s Two Words, 186). Sonderegger’s essay is more generous toward our position than Barth or Heiler are, but her caution is essentially the same: are Lutherans like children with decoder rings, thinking that we’ve simply cracked the code on an otherwise unintelligible message? Perhaps, through inexact preaching and teaching, we’ve opened ourselves up to such an accusation at times.

Such concerns will cause us to focus us even more on the “glorious light” that is distinguishing law and gospel. God’s glory is indeed the focus of Scripture—because God’s glory is most clearly displayed in the atoning work and saving message of Jesus Christ. Maintaining such a posture of awe and wonder toward the glorious gospel is key. Distinguishing law and gospel isn’t a gimmick—it is, in fact, “the most difficult and highest art of Christians,” as Walther states, in the same vein as Luther. We don’t want to seem like children with decoders; as you seek to apply law and gospel properly, remember that we haven’t simplistically “cracked the code.” We are rather engaging with a beautiful, wondrous gift of God’s grace. For further reading, Herman Sasse writes a good primer on Lutheran vs. Reformed viewpoints in the third chapter of Here We Stand. Katherine Sonderegger’s essay mentioned above is found in the Eerdmans publication God’s Two Words: Law and Gospel in the Lutheran and Reformed Traditions. Reading Walther’s third and fourth theses in Law and Gospel would be helpful, too.

[1] The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. (Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, Eds.). Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000., Pg. 581.1

Rev. Jared Natsis serves at Rock of Ages in Nashville, TN. This series of articles was submitted as a final project for Grow in Grace’s online Summer Quarter class “The Proper Distinction of Law and Gospel” with WLS President Earle Treptow.

Historical Theology:  Martin Luther, Preacher of Grace

Luther once wrote in a letter to Philip Melanchthon, “If you are a preacher of grace, then preach a true and not a fictitious grace.” That is the kind of preacher Luther you will find as you investigate his works and sermons. We who are “children” of the Lutheran Reformation ought to follow in those footsteps laid down for us not just in Luther’s letter to Melanchthon, but especially in the pages of Scripture itself.

The letter referenced above was written in response to several theses produced by Andreas Karlstadt that were subsequently disputed. The main topics Luther focused on were celibacy for priests and then the Lord’s Supper.

However, the real reason to give these few pages a read comes at the end. It begins with the words cited above and contains his often talked about advice to “sin boldly.” Anyone who has read Luther knows he was not advocating people to go sin frequently or that he was some sort of closet antinomian. On the contrary, Luther’s law preaching is something a 21st century Lutheran preacher ought to model his own preaching after. What then was Luther getting at? 

Luther wrote “If the grace is true, you must bear a true, not a fictitious sin. God does not save people who are only fictitious sinners.” Luther had an overly sensitive conscience and knew from experience how humanity could see sin everywhere and in everything. His advice is to make sure you are dealing with real sin and not just a devilish invention of your imagination.  

Many of us can speak from personal experience, whether our own past or the revelation of a parishioner, we are confronted with “monstrous” sins. What will you do with those, preacher of cascading and overwhelming grace, demonstrated and offered by Christ’s death and resurrection? “Do you think that the purchase price that was paid for the redemption of our sins by so great a Lamb is too small?” Do not offer grace in dribbles and trickles. Do not preach Gospel with limits or conditions. “Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly!” 

Consider giving this letter from Luther a quick read.  You will find it in Luther’s Works Vol. 48, pp. 277-282. 

1579 Frankfurt an Main Edition

Rev. Jeremy Belter serves at Shepherd of the Valley, a mission church in Arvada, CO.

Practical Theology:  The Pastor’s Impact on his Congregation’s Evangelism Efforts

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you had a magic wand you could wave to instantly transform your congregation into an evangelistic juggernaut? First-time visitors at every worship service. Dozens of new faces attending your bible information class. Emergency meetings to determine how you are going to assimilate all these new souls. Wouldn’t it be wonderful?

There is, of course, no such magic wand. There is the Word and the Spirit. And, while miraculously powerful, we are not promised when and where they will cause the seeds of the gospel to take root and bear fruit.

But this does not mean we cannot use our gift of reason to seek to discover what we as pastors can do to further the spread of the gospel in our communities. Author Rick Richardson[1] writes about a study he and his colleagues carried out in which they interviewed the senior pastors of fifteen hundred churches. Using regression analysis[2], they were able to identify ten predictive factors of conversion growth.[3] You can read more about their findings in Richardson’s book You Found Me (available on and elsewhere).

Interestingly (and not surprisingly), of the ten factors, a full five have to do with the role of the pastor.[4] This is not surprising because the pastor’s influence on his flock is so powerful and important. The five pastoral predictive factors are:

  1. Regularly teaches a next-steps class
  2. Regularly attends evangelism training
  3. Regularly personally evangelizes
  4. Translates the sermon to unchurched people and their lives
  5. Blocks out time to personally evangelize

It is my contention that the reason these five factors are so important is because they strongly impact #6 on the list of 10. What is #6? “People (not just pastor) are reaching out.” Let’s face it, a single person, even a pastor person, can only reach so many souls. But when the collective time and evangelistic talents of our members are unleashed on a community, God only knows how many souls will be impacted. In our next two articles we will look a bit more closely at some of these five factors and how we might make them an intentional part of our pastoral portfolio.

[1] Rick Richardson is director of the Church Evangelism Initiative.

[2] Regression analysis is a method of identifying which variables have an impact on a topic of interest. The process of performing a regression allows you to confidently determine which factors matter most, which factors can be ignored, and how these factors influence each other.

[3] The study was not interested in churches that grew as a result of transferring Christians from one church to another, but rather, those that grew by reaching lost souls with the gospel.

[4] The book uses the term “leader.” In our context, this will almost always be the pastor.

Rev. Eric Roecker serves as the Director for the WELS Commission on Evangelism