Four Branches August – 2019

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Exegetical Theology: Justification by Faith in Genesis 15:6

The first Sunday in September provides an opportunity to consider Genesis 15:6, which contains a nuanced presentation of the doctrine of justification by faith.

The verse begins וְהֶאֱמִן בַּיהוָה, “And [Abram] believed the LORD.” The Hifil of the verb ב + אמן often expresses a reaction of confidence to God’s words or deeds. For example, this construction describes the Israelites having confidence in God’s power after seeing him destroy the Egyptians (Ex 14:31), and it describes the Ninevites’ believing reaction to Jonah’s preaching (Jon 3:5). Here, God has promised the impossible, that Abram and Sarai’s aged bodies would bring forth innumerable descendants, and yet הֶאֱמִן tells us Abram considered the promise true and reliable.

If Abram’s belief were just one more step in the narrative, we would expect the vav-consecutive imperfect. Yet וְהֶאֱמִן is not that, and can be construed either as an ordinary perfect with a prefixed vav or as a vav-consecutive perfect. The result is similar in either case. If the former, this is a break in the narrative to make a general statement about Abram’s faith. If the latter, it is as Gesenius suggests: a less common use of the vav-consecutive perfect expressing “longer or constant continuance in a past state,” (sec. 112ss). Thus, in either case, the tense reflects how Abram’s belief was not a momentary reaction, but an ongoing state.

As a result וַיַּחְשְׁבֶהָ לּוֹ צְדָקָה, “and [the LORD] reckoned it to him as righteousness.” The Qal of חשׁב, when used in a context of debts and credits with ל marking the indirect object, has the idiomatic meaning, “reckon something (as something) to someone’s account” (TDOT 5:234). At the risk of oversimplifying, צְדָקָה “indicates right behavior or status in relation to some standard” (NIDOTT 3:751). And so וַיַּחְשְׁבֶהָ לּוֹ צְדָקָה indicates that the LORD reckoned a right status to Abram’s divine account, considering Abram as having perfectly conformed to his standards.

The entire phrase וְהֶאֱמִן בַּיהוָה is the antecedent of the feminine pronominal suffix at the end of וַיַּחְשְׁבֶהָ . Abram’s ongoing faith in God’s promises is that which God sees and considers as his righteousness, despite the fact that Abram’s actions are not always in accord with that faith.

While Abram’s faith is depicted as continual, the vav-consecutive imperfect tense is resumed with וַיַּחְשְׁבֶהָ , showing that the attribution of righteousness to Abram is viewed as a single subsequent action: וַיַּחְשְׁבֶהָ לּוֹ צְדָקָה. It is conferred instantly and fully to Abram, and we understand by extension, to all who believe. 

I recommend Luther’s commentary in Luther’s Works, Volume 3 (Concordia, 1999) pp. 18-26.


  • Gesenius: Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar
  • TDNT: Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament

NIDOTT: New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology

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

Systematic Theology: Sanctification Safeguards Justification

Salvation is God’s work.  Our salvation was decided by the Father, accomplished by Christ, and is given by the Spirit through the Gospel in Word and sacraments. So why does God point us back to our works as a safeguard of our faith?

In his second epistle, Peter urges believers to “add to their faith” seven virtues (2 Peter 1:5ff), assuring believers that those virtues “will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive” in their faith (v. 8).  He concludes with a striking promise: “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, make every effort to confirm your calling and election. For if you do these things, you will never stumble, and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pe 1:10-11).  His emphatic[1] conditional promise isn’t just about reading God’s Word or using the means of grace.  God promises us through Peter: continue to practice and grow in sanctified living and you will continue in saving faith until you’re home in heaven.

That promise neither makes salvation our work nor downplays the means of grace.  Our sanctified living itself doesn’t strengthen faith – but the lack of sanctification certainly harms faith!  When we “make every effort” in our sanctified living, God guards our faith and drives us to his Word in a number of ways:

  • Pursuing Christian virtues shields us from many of the devil’s attacks on our faith (cf. 1 Peter 2:11, 1 Cor 10:12, and Gal 5:13ff)
  • Sanctified living provides us with an outward (though imperfect) assurance that our faith is genuine (cf. 1 Jn 2:3-6)
  • Most importantly, the imperfection of our sanctified lives drives us continually back to the cross to find strength and forgiveness in our Savior (cf. 2 Pe 1:9; Romans 7:24,25)

If God doesn’t hesitate to make such a promise about sanctified living, we ought not either.  Consider the believer with a loveless way of interacting with others, but simply considers himself a “straight shooter.”  2 Peter 1 helps us see this as the spiritual issue it is. Don’t simply rebuke and forgive him; promise him that making every effort to grow in goodness, mutual affection and love will be a great blessing to his faith life.

Or consider how John points to our lives of obedience (1 Jn 2:3-6).  When a member breaks down in your office, feeling like a failure and questioning her own faith, you rightly point her to Jesus.  She replies: “Pastor, I know!  But I still struggle so much that I must not even be a believer.”  Might you carefully open her eyes to the acts of faith that you (and so many others) still see in her life as evidence that her Savior is doing wonderful things in her?  The apostle John would.

You aren’t pointing them back to themselves: “[God’s] divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness” (2 Pe 1:3).

[1] Notice Peter’s use of the strong future negation in the apodosis.

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: Sermons on Baptism and the Lord’s Supper

In October 1519 Martin Luther had composed his Sermon on the Sacrament of Penance, dedicated to Margaretha von Rietberg, duchess of Braunschweig-Lueneberg. Before the year was over, he dedicated two more treatises to her – the Sermon on the Holy and Blessed Sacrament of Baptism[1] and the Sermon on the Blessed Sacrament of the Holy and True Body of Christ, and the Brotherhoods.[2]

The Sermon on the Holy and Blessed Sacrament of Baptism was printed on November 9, 1519, two days before the anniversary of Luther’s own baptism.  He notes that penance, confession, and absolution all point back to baptism, for in baptism “we are forgiven.” Baptism is not limited to washing away original sin. Baptism establishes a new relationship with God. Baptism’s work of forgiveness and new life remains forever. Although Luther states in the first paragraph his preference for full immersion, he finds other methods acceptable. Immersion symbolizes the drowning and rising again that continues throughout the life of a Christian. All of life is a continual dying to sin and a daily rising again to live from God.

On November 29, 1519, Luther wrote to Georg Spalatin, “Of its kind, the sermon on the Eucharist is the wordiest.”[3] Like penance, the sacrament of the altar was subject to many abuses in the sixteenth century. In the Sermon on the Blessed Sacrament of the Holy and True Body of Christ, and the Brotherhoods, he believed it was necessary to clarify what this sacrament was. Many people believed the sacrament was magical. It had been turned into a sacrifice to God that the priest performed. The more “masses” someone bought, the less time they would spend in purgatory. People could also buy masses for their dead relatives to relieve their time in suffering.  In this sermon, Luther rejects both the idea of works and sacrifice.

From the outset Luther noted the need for both bread and wine. They are to be eaten and drunk, not adored or worshiped in a tabernacle on the altar. Already in the first paragraph, he emphasizes his three-part definition of a sacrament—as sign, significance, and faith. The sacrament becomes the way one exercises and lives faith. This life is the fellowship of the saints. Participants share all things with those who gather at the table.

In the second half, Luther demands that in order to be effective, the sacrament does not only need to be performed properly, but it also needs to be used in faith.  The sermon concludes with a critique of the brotherhoods, fraternities for devotional purposes. Members were obligated to recite certain prayers and attend certain masses. Since they were self-serving, he viewed them as the exact opposite of the fellowship nurtured at the Lord’s Table.

Luther’s position on the sacraments was still developing in 1519 and would not reach its full development until the Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520).

[1] The Annotated Luther, volume 1, 207-223.

[2] The Annotated Luther, volume 1, 230-255.

[3] LW 48: 134.

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

Practical Theology: Citizens of Heaven

Presidential campaign season is officially in full swing. For many of us in swing states, the next fourteen months will be filled with political ads. Politics are on our members’ minds. Just scroll through your Facebook news feed and note all the politically charged articles and comments shared by members of your church.

So what do we say? Our people need guidance and truth from sources other than CNN or Fox News or Facebook. Over the next year, we’ll have lots of opportunities to point people to the truth and comfort of God’s Word. We all need it! Here are some beautiful truths to emphasize throughout the year:

First, let’s remind our people that God is the authority over everything. That’s easy to forget. The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against his anointed…. The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them…. ‘I have installed my king on Zion, my holy mountain’” (Psalm 2:2,4,6). There is a real King. His name is Jesus. He already triumphed for his people. Don’t let the chaos fool you. Jesus isn’t worried! We know who is King.

Second, let’s teach our people that the only thing that can change hearts is the Gospel. What America needs isn’t a certain president or political party. It needs God’s Word. “‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty” (Zephaniah 4:5). If our country is going to return to Christ, it’s only going to be through the preaching of the Gospel. Let’s preach the Word!

Third, let’s encourage our people to have Paul’s attitude. To the Philippians who were uber-proud of their Roman citizenship, Paul wrote, “But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:20). We are citizens of heaven! It’s a blessing to live in the United States, but when cancer strikes or death comes, being an American is no comfort. Let’s remember who we really are: Citizens of heaven because of Jesus. 

Finally, if our citizenship is in heaven, our goal on earth isn’t ensuring the success of any country. It’s winning souls for heaven. The Bible’s heroes of faith understood this. They admitted “that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own…. They were longing for a better country—a heavenly one” (Hebrews 11:13-16).

Let’s use the opportunities this campaign season provides to remind ourselves and our people of our real King and our real home and our real citizenship. We’re citizens of heaven! That’s the only way to have true peace regardless of the outcome in November 2020.

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