Four Branches – October 2023

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Exegetical Theology:  What’s ἀγάπη got to do with it? Part 2

The Septuagint demonstrates the Hellenistic tendency to use ἀγαπάω instead of the other words for love. It also shows that at that time there was nothing inherent in the ἀγαπάω word group to indicate a higher form of love. Thus, if the ἀγαπάω/ἀγάπη pair has such a connotation it must have been acquired in the New Testament. 

The New Testament’s chief words for love are ἀγαπάω and ἀγάπη. ἀγαπάω occurs 143 times and ἀγάπη occurs 116 times; φιλέω occurs twenty-five times and φιλία occurs once. Ἐράω/ἔρως and στοργέω/ στοργή are not used.

The noun ἀγάπη is especially frequent in the epistles, as it used only nine times in the gospels and not once in Acts. Of those gospel occurrences only two are in the synoptics (Matthew 24:12 and Luke 11:42). This is probably due to the evangelists’ preference for words like ἔλεος.

A survey of all the verses in which the noun ἀγάπη appears shows that it is never used in a negative way as it is in the Septuagint. It is primarily used to describe God’s love of people (Romans 5:8), people’s love of God (Hebrews 6:10), and people’s love for other people (1 Peter 4:8). That the noun is always “good” love has led some to think that the ἀγαπάω group as a whole indicates a superior love. This is not so. There are several passages where the verb ἀγαπάω does not indicate a loftier kind of love: 

  • 2 Timothy 4:10 – for Demas, because he loved (ἀγαπήσας) this world, has deserted me and has gone to Thessalonica. (see also Luke 6:32, 2 Peter 2:15)

It should also be noted that the New Testament uses φιλέω for “to love” in a higher proportion than the Septuagint did. This includes not only personal, human relationships, but also human love for God:

  • 1 Corinthians 16:22 – If anyone does not love (φιλεῖ) the Lord—a curse be on him. Come, O Lord!  (see also Matthew 10:37)

At one point the two verbs are used by different authors in parallel statements. In both instances they describe ignoble love: 

  • Matthew 23:6 – “They love (φιλοῦσιν) the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues …”
  • Luke 11:43 – “Woe to you Pharisees, because you love (ἀγαπᾶτε) the most important seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces …”

The use of the verbs in the New Testament supports the conclusion drawn from their use in the Septuagint. There is nothing inherent in the ἀγαπάω word group to indicate a loftier kind of love, nor does φιλέω necessarily indicate a more human love. The New Testament also shows that there is overlap in the meaning of the two verbs. This is especially evident in John’s writings, which we will examine next time.

Rev. Noah Headrick serves as professor-in-waiting at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary.

Systematic Theology:  Did Luther Teach the Third Use of the Law?

Curb, Mirror, Guide. We teach these three uses of the law so regularly, and they are so integral to our preaching, that we view them to be as fundamentally Lutheran as it gets. After all, the Confessions speak clearly about these three uses, namely in Articles V and VI of the Formula of Concord.

However, there are Lutherans that deny the existence of a third use of the law for Christians, and they claim that Luther is on their side. Luther is cited clearly in his Second Disputation against the Antinomians as listing three uses of the law (WA 39, 485); however, Werner Elert posited that this quote was a well-intentioned forgery (Law and Gospel, 38-39), and many have used Elert’s evidence to scrub the third use from Luther’s theology. Steven D. Paulson goes all-in on this. In an article for Word and World entitled “Law and the Danger of Freedom,” he quotes Luther speaking to Erasmus in Bondage of the Will: “The elect and the godly will be corrected by the Holy Spirit, while the rest perish uncorrected” “Law and the Danger of Freedom,” Word & World XXI:3, 273). Paulson sees this correction of the Spirit as being from the gospel, not the law. 

Perhaps it started as an effort to counter Calvin, who taught that the third use of the law is the “principal” use (Institutes of the Christian Religion II, vii.12). Seeing the danger of works-righteousness in that line of thinking, some Lutherans have thrown the baby out with the bathwater and done away with the third use altogether. Paulson also worries that a third use of the law places conditions on the gospel: “Out of fear that the new creature is not really present, faith in Christ alone is displaced by Christ and obedience to law” (273). He attempts to remove the law from the Christian’s spiritual life altogether, teaching that the gospel “makes us free to do the works of the law without the law” (277).

If the third use of the law were a part of our theology of justification, perhaps Paulson would have a point. Let’s take great care to make sure that is never the case, always keeping the law’s third use in the realm of sanctification where it belongs! The law always accuses. At the same time, we recognize that the law does not only accuse, which is the primary error that Elert and Paulson make. The law becomes a blessing to the Christian who wishes to know God’s will for their new life with him.

As for Luther’s position on a third use? At best, Paulson’s is an argument from silence. Let’s not drive that wedge between Luther and the Confessors. We can grant that Luther didn’t issue a definitive statement on the third use of the law. We can even grant that Elert’s proposal of forgery could be true. As with any appeal to Luther or the Confessions we subscribe because of their correct exposition of Scripture, the ruling rule. And, frankly, if someone doesn’t hear loving, third-use guidance in Luther’s explanation to the commandments…they’re missing it!

For further reading, Articles V and VI of the Formula of Concord speak very clearly on the law’s third use and are worth reviewing. Also consider Concordia Professor Dr. Joel Biermann’s 2014 book A Case for Character: Towards a Lutheran Virtue Ethics.

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:  Brand Luther

October is the month we remember with thankfulness the work of Martin Luther and other Reformers whom God used to restore the truth of salvation by faith alone to the Church.  To that end, we are reusing an article from 2017 by Dr. Wade Johnston to highlight an excellent biography of Martin Luther that hopefully you will read and use for personal growth and study.

For the next few articles, I’ve decided to introduce readers, or reintroduce them, briefly to Luther biographies that might prove worth their time as we celebrate the Luther Year and, Lord-willing, keep its momentum going in our personal study and public ministry. The first choice was admittedly easy for me, as I consider it to be hands-down the best new contribution to Luther scholarship in recent history. This biography, which isn’t necessarily pure biography as many are used to it, is Brand Luther by Andrew Pettegree. Now available in paperback for about $19 through Amazon, it’s hard to beat the price for the benefits this book brings. 

Why do I think this book is so worthwhile and fresh? First, I think that his treatment of Luther’s relationship with the printing press sheds light on an understudied aspect of the reformer’s labor and success and dispels some myths. Additionally, in a time when media opportunities have been multiplied so that we can share content in a variety of ways, there is crossover that pastors might find captivating. Second, Pettegree reminds us that Luther’s Reformation was far from only Luther’s. It was the work of a circle of friends and a wider circle of gifted, reform-minded individuals. This too has applications for pastors today as we appreciate and benefit from, as well as encourage, the works of brothers with different gifts. We can do more together than we can on our own. Third, Pettegree explains how Luther’s environment, the cities in which he lived, for instance, shaped him, and how he shaped them. Wherever pastors are assigned or called, they go as those shaped by their environment and they will certainly be shaped by and will shape wherever they serve. In short, Pettegree helps root Luther’s Reformation in his time, place, colleagues, and collaborators. In so doing, he makes Luther and his work both more accessible and relatable. 

The Luther Year and the lead-up to it have given birth to a number of wonderful articles and monographs—too many to read in one year, that’s for sure. If you ask me, though, which I would recommend most highly to you at this point, Brand Luther tops the list. I hope some of you will find the time to check it out and, Lord-willing, find it as helpful as I have through several readings now. In my next two articles I’ll be sharing two other works I think deserve attention as well.

Rev. Wade Johnston serves as an Assistant Professor of Theology at Wisconsin Lutheran College and received his Ph.D. from Central Michigan University and Erasmus Universiteit Rotterdam.

Practical Theology:  Faithful and Fruitful Sermon Length

Recently a pastor told me the story about the clock installed at the back of his new church. Apparently, during one of the pastorates of the congregation, the pastor’s sermons felt way too long. Perhaps this pastor never really asked the question that I hope to begin to address in the short space allotted to me here: how long should a sermon be? Or maybe I need to reframe the question to avoid the trap of legalism and instead set preachers free to preach with a glad heart. What factors might a preacher consider when determining the length of his sermon?

We might start by answering the question with the briefest look at where preachers are at regarding sermon length in the present moment. Anecdotally, WELS preaching seems to last at a bare minimum twelve minutes. I’ve seen the sermons uploaded to websites. At the other end of the spectrum, I’ve listened to WELS preachers regularly reaching forty minutes. When I was at Concordia St. Louis for my DMin., several of my professors gave me the assignment of writing a sermon. The prescribed length was only eight hundred words. I was shocked. A recent seminary senior thesis by Justin Wilkens claimed, without supporting evidence, that the average WELS sermon is twenty minutes.[1] (Perhaps, he’s right?) More helpfully, Rich Gurgel, in a survey of WELS pastors in 2010 found that the average WELS pastor sits solidly in either the 15–19-minute range or 20–24-minute range with the number of pastors evenly split between the two ranges. He also found that the average WELS pastor had almost no interest in reevaluating the length of their sermons.[2] This is all to say that most Lutherans preach short sermons. Reformed preachers assume a much longer sermon of thirty minutes.[3]

A review of the homiletical literature is little help in determining a faithful and fruitful sermon length. Most homileticians settle for pithy quotes on sermon length like this one from Tim Keller, “In general I think for most Sunday congregations the sermon should be under 30 minutes. That’s safest. If you are a solid preacher but not very eloquent or interesting, it should also be shorter.” [4]  Or, John Stott, “It doesn’t matter how long you preach. It should feel like twenty minutes.” [5]

In this brief series of articles here in the Four Branches, I hope we can do better than pithy quotes or simply falling into denominational norms without guided convictions as to why the length makes sense. Together, we’ll reflect on the WELS minimum, maximum, and average sermon length, looking to God’s Word to speak into the practice of preaching. More next month.

[1] Justin Wilkens, “Is Anybody Listening? A Study of the Psychology of Attention Span and Practical Steps Pastors Can Take to Capture and Keep their Listeners’ Attention During a Sermon” (Senior Thesis, Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, 2022, accessed October 13, 2023,, p. 46.

[2] Rich Gurgel, “The Unending Pursuit of Growth in Gospel Preaching: A Comprehensive Plan for Continuing Education in Preaching for Pastors of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod” (Doctor of Ministry Major Applied Project, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, 2010, accessed October 13, 2023,, p. 276.

[3] Chapell, Bryan. 2005. Christ-centered preaching: Redeeming the expository sermon. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, p. 350.  

[4] “How Long Should a Sermon Be?” Preaching and Theology, 9Marks, accessed October 13, 2023,,it%20should%20also%20be%20shorter.%E2%80%9D.

[5] “How Long Should a Sermon Be?” The Master’s Seminary Blog, The Master’s Seminary, accessed October 13, 2023,

Rev. Timothy Bourman serves Sure Foundation Lutheran Church, Woodside, Queens, NY.