Four Branches – October 2020

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Exegetical Theology: Tell Me Up Front – Topic

Last month we saw that one reason a word or phrase will be moved up front ahead of the verb is to make it the focus, marking it as the clause’s most important new information. This month we see a very different reason why something can be moved forward: to make it a topic.

Topic here does not refer necessarily to the sentence’s theme or subject matter. Topic refers to information given you up front so you’re in better position to process the sentence’s assertion when you get to it. If a speaker wants to switch the conversation’s people, places, times, locations, etc., they can use a topic to make those updates for the hearer, ensuring what they’re about to say will be properly understood. The topic isn’t what the sentence asserts.  It is there to help you understand what the sentence asserts. The topical information could, alternatively, have come later in its default post-verbal position, but the speaker moved it up to help ready you for what they’re about to assert. A really good (underlined) example of a topic is seen in Galatians 5:1-6 (CW Epistle for Reformation).

Verse 6: For in Christ Jesus it is neither circumcision nor uncircumcision that mean anything, but it is faith at work through love.

“This verse’s main assertion is not the topical phrase in Christ Jesus. The main assertion is the irrelevance of circumcision and the significance of faith at work through love. But the topical phrase in Christ Jesus has the important role of putting you in position to understand that main assertion. Outside of Christ Jesus, there may be very different opinions about what matters, but once you have defined the context for determining what matters to be Christ Jesus himself, then the only things that matter are the faith that is in him and the love that flows from that.

Another reason why a speaker would move information ahead of the verb as a topic is to leave the verb as the only word in the assertion itself, which gives it more attention than it would have had if more words were following it.[1] Our Reformation Epistle gives an important example of this as well.

Verse 1: With this freedom us Christ set free.

By moving every other word in this sentence forward as a topic, the sentence’s full attention is allowed to rest on the verb set free. Instead of speaking here to why Christ freed us,[2] Paul first reminds the Galatians and us that Christ freed us. He set us free. Before going on to give the encouragement not to allow that freedom to be taken away, Paul gives the emphatic assurance that free is what Jesus truly has made us. And at Reformation, that’s our message as well.

Blessings, brothers, as you not only warn the heirs of the Lutheran Reformation not to give up their freedom, but also as you first and foremost lead them to treasure the fact that we have been set free.

Rev. Aaron Jensen serves as associate pastor at St. Stephen Lutheran Church in Adrian, MI.

Systematic Theology: Preaching God’s Eternal Election:  Remember the Purpose

Have you ever walked down the screw, bolt and nail aisle at your local Home Depot?  The variety of types of these different fasteners is staggering.  Each one has its own intended purpose.  In fact, when you fail to use the right fastener for a job, frustration and failure is what you can expect.  For example, if you use nails for the decking planks on your patio, you will be disappointed.  Within a couple years the nails will start to rise up.  Or if you use a sheet metal screws to hold down a piece of plywood, you will find that its fine threads do not dig into the wood enough to hold fast.  It is important to use the right fastener for the right job.  The same principle is true when it comes to the doctrines of Scripture.  Each doctrine has a place and purpose in the care of souls—including the doctrine of election.

  • “Last month we noted how human reason has a tendency to pose all sorts of questions regarding election.  These questions often share the same failure to recognize the purpose of election.  The unspoken assumption behind many questions about election is that this doctrine is meant to pry open the secret counsels of God and help us understand why God operates the way he does.But this couldn’t be further from the truth.  The purpose of election has nothing to do with climbing into God’s mind.  Instead the purpose of election is simple.  What is this simple purpose?  Comfort.  Consider how Peter lifts the eyes of Christians from the sufferings of this life to their true home in heaven by opening his first epistle with a brief mention of this doctrine: “Peter, and apostle of Jesus Christ.  To those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion”.[3]  Or consider how Jesus will soothe the fears of believers on Judgment Day by saying: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”[4]  As you read Scripture on your own, pay attention for how often the Holy Spirit weaves election into the pages of Scripture for the comfort of the saints.Of course, you don’t have to take my word for it.  Take the word of some older brothers in the faith more versed in Scripture than us: “On this article there has been no public conflict among the theologians of the Augsburg Confession.  However, because it is an article of comfort when properly treated, it is also explained in this document so that no offensive dispute may arise in the future.”[5]  In fact, why don’t you just go ahead and read the entire article on election from the Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord.When you let Scripture set the bounds for election and remember that the purpose of election is to offer comfort, then it’s time to preach.  More on that next time.Rev. Joshua Becker serves Christ Lutheran in Saginaw, MI.

    Historical Theology: A “Little Song”: Luther’s 1520 Babylonian Captivity of the Church

    Near the end of his 1520 Address to the Christian Nobility, Martin Luther had promised Rome another “little song,” pitched “in the highest key!”[6] And Luther didn’t disappoint. This “song” became one of his most well-known and bombastic treatises: A Prelude on the Babylonian Captivity of the Church. At the time it was Luther’s most powerful attack on Roman church, and he hit them where it hurt—the sacramental system.

    Luther exposed “captivities” specific to Holy Communion, such as, withholding the cup from the laity, transubstantiation, and the Mass as a sacrifice or good work. But he also demolished the scholastic definitions and wicked practices surrounding all seven of the church’s sacraments. Luther even rams home who was to blame: “I now know for certain that the papacy is the kingdom of Babylon and the power of Nimrod, the mighty hunter.”[7]

    Luther attacked the system because it condemned faith and robbed people of the free forgiveness Christ had won for them. Luther was a pastor, concerned for his people and all the souls trapped under this tyranny. With this treatise, Luther hoped to win over other pastors and church leaders. This makes it especially applicable to pastors 500 years later.

    A brief look at his discussion of Holy Communion and Holy Baptism bear this out. They are still refreshing and thought-provoking:

    • “Nothing else is needed for a worthy holding of Mass than a faith that relies confidently on this promise… Who would not shed tears of gladness, indeed, almost faint for joy in Christ, if he believed with unshaken faith that this inestimable promise of Christ belonged to him?”[8]
    • “The sooner we depart this life, the more speedily we fulfill our baptism; and the more cruelly we suffer, the more successfully do we conform to our baptism… For our whole life should be baptism.”[9]

    The Roman system had arisen because doctrine and practice were not drawn from and shaped by Holy Scripture. Systems of thought and traditions often permeate a church. Whether beneficial or detrimental, they are difficult to change or uproot. Luther’s Babylonian Captivity gives us a good baseline for examining our own doctrine and practice when it comes to the sacraments. God is a multi-media communicator, but do we reflect that in our congregations? Are the sacraments an afterthought or part of the crown jewels? The undeserved promises of Christ strengthen our faith, not our actions and not simply going through the motions. Luther wrote, “Not the sacrament, but the faith of the sacrament, justifies.”[10] That’s a “little song” worth singing today.

    Read the PAPER Pastor Schaefer delivered at this year’s Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary symposium on the 1520 treatises of Martin Luther.

    Rev.Benjamin P. Schaefer serves at Mount Calvary Lutheran Church in Redding, CA.  

    Practical Theology: Pastoral Self-Care

    You’re running towards a cliff.  You’re getting closer and closer to the edge.  You think someone will notice and yell, “Stop!  There’s a cliff!  You’re going to fall!”  But no one yells to stop you.  At this point there is only one solution.  You need to stop yourself from running over the edge.

    In an article published by Thom Rainer this August he said that many pastors are looking to quit.  “The vast majority of pastors with whom our team communicates are saying they are considering quitting their churches. It’s a trend I have not seen in my lifetime. Some are just weeks away from making an announcement.”  He went on to share how many pastors are sick of the pandemic and discouraged by in-fighting and losing attendance.  During the pandemic busy pastors have been made even busier.

    How do we slow down and keep from running over the edge?  First, this dynamic reminds me of how Paul felt, “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9). Paul knew pressures of ministry, didn’t he?  He also knew the grace of God to sustain him.  What follows are practical thoughts on pastoral self-care.

    • Cultivate a rich devotional life.  One of the great privileges of the pastorate is our ability to be in the Word.  However, preparing for a staff devotion, a Bible Study, or a sermon is different than a personal devotional life.  How much time are you dedicating to hearing God’s voice in His Word?  Is 5 minutes going to give you a deep sense of strength and peace for the day?  What have you found to be your favorite approach – do you journal, do you listen to Scripture being read to you, do you follow a schedule or go where you want to in the Bible?  Find what works and use it!

    It’s hard not to think of Jesus leaving his disciples often to go and be with His Father.  “But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed” (Luke 5:16).  Even though the crowds who followed would have given plenty of work for him to do, he spent one-on-one time with His Father.

    • Honor the body he gave you.  You can’t serve anybody without a body.  Are you asking God to do miracles to sustain you by the way you treat your body?    Can you really be shining brightly for Jesus on 5 hours of sleep?  Is what you regularly eat or drink contributing to feeling good or contributing to feeling sluggish?  When is the last time you analyzed your eating habits, sleeping habits, and exercise routine?

    The way we handle our bodies is a spiritual issue because our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit.  While it is good to avoid vanity, it is not a misuse of time to eat healthy, to get good sleep, and to make time for working out.

    Do remember Elijah’s burnout moment?  “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” (1 Kings 19:4).  Now the Lord did many things for Elijah in this section of Scripture.  He gave him Elisha, appointed a new king, and did it all with a gentle whisper.  But he also sent an angel to feed him bread made over hot coals!  Then Elijah rested and God fed him again!

    • Realign your emotions with Scripture.   Pastoral ministry is emotionally rigorous. We get disappointed when the guest we invited didn’t show up to church.  We get frustrated that members didn’t do what they said they would.  We get dropped, betrayed, and mistreated as we deal with other sinners in the congregation.  We can either ignore and stuff those emotions (not recommended), or we can realign them with Scripture.

    Here’s a tool I used called Identify, Validate, and Align.  If I am down emotionally, I need to pause and identify the core issue.  Is it loneliness, disappointment, or feeling overwhelmed?  Once I’ve identified the issue, I call it out to validate it.  If I’m overwhelmed it might sound like this, “I am feeling overwhelmed because there is too much to do today, and I just heard of this __________ to do as well.”  Finally, we need to align the thought to Scripture.  Does God have anything to say about being overwhelmed – a truth we can hold on to?  How about, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).  Use the treasure trove of Scripture to stabilize your emotions and life on the foundation of God’s never-changing promises.

    Consider what Paul said, “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5).  In my mind I picture a wrestling match between human emotions and the Word of God.  I love the idea of making our emotions say mercy to the revealed knowledge of Christ and His Word!

    There is someone else who can keep us from running off the cliff.  Someone who knows how close we are to it.  Our Savior God.  May these practical tools keep you running back to him for renewed strength for each day.

     Rev. Dustin Blumer serves at Amazing Love Lutheran in Frankfort, IL.


    [1] This phenomenon has sometimes been explained as emphasizing a verb by moving it to the end of the sentence, but it is really a result of topicalizing everything else so the verb can stand alone like this.

    [2] Translations often interpret freedom as the sentence’s focus, i.e., it is for freedom that… However, such a reading is unlikely, as it is rather rare for bare datives to express purpose, and as the article clearly ties this reference to freedom to the immediately preceding words of the free woman. The phrase with this freedom should probably be thought of as being analogous to a relative pronoun, showing where this verse connects to the previous one, but with the change from the concrete antecedent (free woman) to the abstract anaphor (this freedom) requiring the use of a noun instead of merely a relative pronoun.

    [3] 1 Peter 1:1.

    [4] Matthew 25:34.

    [5] Formula of Concord, Epitome. Article XI, par. 1.

    [6]  The Annotated Luther (TAL) 1:465; cf. also LW 44:217.

    [7]  TAL 3:15. Cf. LW 36:12.

    [8]  TAL 3:43. Cf. also LW 36:40.

    [9]  TAL 3:72. Cf. also LW 36:69-70.

    [10]  TAL 3:68. Cf. also LW 36:66. The Apology of the Augsburg Confession makes the same point using this quote from Augustine: “Faith that uses the sacrament, and not the Sacrament, justifies.” See Article XIII, para.23. The Book of Concord, edited by Robert Kolb and Timothy Wengert. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 222.

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