Four Branches June – 2019

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Editor’s Welcome


For the last three years I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to serve as the General Editor for The Four Branches. It’s been an incredible encouragement to see the faithful work of our contributors, to be challenged by them, and to be aided in my own personal growth by their efforts. I pray and trust the same has been true for you!

This month, we welcome a new group of contributing authors for the next three newsletters: Aaron West, Nathan Nass, and Professor Emeritus James Korthals.  (I’ll be “pinch hitting” this round for new contributor Professor Steven Pagels, who is transitioning to his Call to serve at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary. He will write articles for the newsletter next summer.)

This fall, we welcome Jeremy Belter to serve as new General Editor to oversee the ongoing work of this newsletter.

Thank you for the privilege!

Rev. Joel Seifert serves Beautiful Savior Lutheran Church in Marietta, GA, and is the General Editor of the Four Branches Review.

Exegetical Theology: A Particle Brings Out Contrasts in Psalm 62

Psalm 62, appointed for Pentecost 6 this year, helps us pray the First Commandment in the midst of intense adversity. It points us to the reliable goodness of God and the unreliable evil of man as reasons to trust God completely and only. The use of the particle אַךְ at the beginning of six key lines intensifies this central contrast.

Hebrew verses 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, and 10 all begin with אַךְ. No other psalm has consecutive verses beginning with אַךְ, and only Ps. 73 has the particle at the beginning of three non-consecutive verses. Thus this is a unique feature, drawing attention to the lines in question. But what about them?

While אַךְ can be translated “surely,” “only,” or “but,” N.H. Snaith demonstrates that “a restrictive element is always present to some degree,” no matter how the word is best translated.  So beginning six lines with אַךְ would be somewhat akin to beginning them with the English word “only.”

Accordingly, these six verses contrast “only God” with “only man”. God is at one extreme of the spectrum, sinful mankind at the other. Verses 2, 3, 6, and 7 proclaim how only God is my soul’s rest, my only rock. This stability is grounded in his power, mercy, and judgement (vv. 12-13), a combination of attributes that means those who rely on him will never be shaken (v. 3 and 7). Meanwhile, David’s enemies are only seeking his evil (v. 5). Yet mankind is only a fleeting breath (v. 10). The contrast could not be clearer, and אַךְ makes sure we catch the contrast and its implications for where we place–and avoid placing–our trust. 

The clear contrast highlighted by אַךְ is somewhat faded in English translations, especially those that translate אַךְ as “truly” (e.g., NIV2011) rather than “alone” or “only,” thus losing the mutual exclusivity of God and man as objects of trust. English must change the word order and cannot use a consistent equivalent that retains the restrictive shading of אַךְ. The contrast between God’s reliability and humanity’s lack of reliability is still present in English translations, of course, but it’s clearer and more impactfully conveyed in Hebrew.

This psalm is great for preaching, teaching, or personal reflection. For notes on the Hebrew, which contains several other interesting terms and phrases, see Professor Brug’s Psalms commentary (NPH 2005). Luther’s commentary from 1526 (translated in Luther’s Works, Volume 14: Selected Psalms III, CPH 1999, pp. 231-242), helpfully relates the psalm to David’s experiences and the politics of Luther’s day. Today we are also tempted to trust in man, which this psalm can correct.

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

Systematic Theology: Sanctification is Organic, not Automatic

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit” (John 15:5).  It’s a simple and beautiful illustration of sanctification.  For those connected to Christ through faith, good deeds come as naturally as fruit on a branch.  But don’t misunderstand Jesus’ words.

To use Jesus’ picture, sanctification is an organic process.  It’s a natural result of a living faith, and its growth comes from Jesus. It’s not simply that the motive comes from the Gospel.  Its very power and life come from a believer’s connection to Jesus through faith. Sanctification is such a natural part of a living, gospel-wrought faith that the Spirit says through James, “In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (Ja 2:17).  Sanctification is an organic process that is motivated and empowered solely by God’s love revealed in the Gospel.

But sanctification is not automatic.  Scripture tells us that sanctification is shaped and guided by careful, ongoing input.  Jesus’ parable of the vine and the branches speaks to that: “Every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful” (Jn 15:2).  This “pruning” to bless us with ever-growing lives of sanctification certainly includes rebukes from God’s law, but it’s more than that.  Through St. Paul, God tells us that he also uses the struggles of life under the cross to “produce” our growth in sanctification: “Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” (Romans 5:3-5).  The hardships of life aren’t some new means of grace, and they don’t “produce” God’s intended results in and of themselves, but our faith – God’s love poured into our hearts – responds to those challenges by producing the growth God desires.

Sanctification is empowered and motivated entirely by the Gospel, but the heavenly gardener guides that sanctification and provides opportunities for it through the law and the hardships of this life.  Recognizing that helps us be clear and biblical in our thinking and preaching.  It rejects antinomianism in all its forms and teaches us that “simply preaching the Gospel” has never been the entire task of the preacher.  Rather, we increasingly appreciate God’s direction to rebuke, encourage and give careful instruction in Christian living.   And it preserves us from the thought that if we simply let the law thunder as loudly as it did from Sinai and codify it as clearly as Moses did in Deuteronomy, that we’ve given God’s people what they need.  And perhaps, it leads us to an ever-more thoughtful consideration of the challenges God allows into our lives and of what growth he may accomplish through them.  

A solid understanding and a clear confession of sanctification is a treasured part of our Lutheran heritage.  Consider reading the Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord, Articles V and VI.

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: Sermon on Two Kinds of Righteousness

The 500th Anniversary of the Reformation is a major celebration. Unfortunately, for many that celebration ended on October 31, 2017. Yet just as Martin Luther continued to work on reforming the Church for almost 30 more years, so our Reformation celebration needs to continue as well. For example, 2019 marks the 500th Anniversary of the Leipzig Debate where Luther finally had the opportunity to defend his teaching in a public forum.

Although the Leipzig Debate was important, Luther’s publications in 1519 were more influential. In this and the next two installments, we want to highlight his 1519 publications. We begin with the Sermon on Two Kinds of Righteousness[1] originally preached on Palm Sunday, March 28, 1518, but published in 1519.

After the distribution of his 95 Theses (1517), Luther was forced to justify and explain his views. Although relatively brief, this sermon is far more complex than one might think. It can be divided into two main parts. Each part represented one of the Reformation focal points—the theme of righteousness and the theme of the two kingdoms.

Luther introduces his sermon with Philippians 2:5-6, “Indeed, let this attitude be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus. Though he was by nature God, he did not consider equality with God as a prize to be displayed.” (EHV) It was Luther’s intent to apply the doctrine of justification by faith to everyday living.

Despite the title given to this sermon, Luther actually deals with the two kinds of Christian righteousness only in the first part. “The first [kind of righteousness] is alien righteousness, that is the righteousness of another, instilled from without. This is the righteousness of Christ by which he justifies through faith.”[2] “Through faith in Christ, therefore, Christ’s righteousness becomes our righteousness and all that he has becomes ours.”[3] “Therefore this alien righteousness, instilled in us without our works by grace alone . . . is set opposite original sin, likewise alien, which we acquire without works by birth alone.”[4]

Luther views the second kind of righteousness as “our proper righteousness, not because we alone work it, but because we work with that first and alien righteousness.”[5] “This righteousness is the product of the righteousness of the first type, actually its fruit and consequence.”[6]

The second part of the sermon[7] demonstrates for the first time Luther’s idea of two regimes, differentiating how justice works in the public and private spheres. Pointing to Romans 13:4, he states justice in the public sphere must be exercised through worldly government for the sake of order. Christian righteousness only applies to the private sphere and those who act according to the gospel.

[1] The Sermon on Two Kinds of Righteousness can be found in Luther’s Works, volume 31, pages 297-306. It can also be found in The Annotated Luther, volume 2, Word and Faith, pages 9-24.

[2] LW 31, 297.

[3] LW 31, 298.

[4] LW 31, 299.

[5] LW 31, 299.

[6] LW 31, 300.

[7] LW 31, 304-306.

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

Practical Theology: Always Be Prepared – Writing Devotions

How often are you put on the spot to share a message from God’s Word? At the start of a church council meeting, the church president says, “Pastor, I forgot to ask you, but can you begin with a devotion?” You’re deep in thought at your desk, when a Ladies’ Aid member knocks on your door, “Pastor, aren’t you going to give us a devotion?” How often are you put on the spot to share God’s Word?

That’s a good thing, right? We want people to ask us for God’s Word over and over again! But when you’re caught unprepared, it doesn’t feel so good. After those experiences, I’ve thought to myself, “Why is this so hard? Sharing God’s Word is what I want to be prepared to do more than anything else!”

Over the past few months, I’ve been practicing the ability to share God’s Word in simple ways at a moment’s notice. When I read the Word devotionally each morning, I note passages that jump out at me. “This verse really hits me!” “I know a lot of people who could benefit from this.” I don’t stop reading. I just note the verse.

Later, I take one of those verses and write a short devotion. I don’t let myself spend lots of time on it—maybe twenty minutes. I don’t let the devotion get long—usually less than 300 words. I try to quickly and simply share law and gospel in each devotion. God has so many gems in his Word!

I’ve been doing this three or four times each week. I post the devotions on Facebook with pictures. I started compiling my devotions and sermons on a free blog. You can check it out or even follow it— Writing simple devotions has helped me grow in my ability to share law and gospel and reach more people with God’s Word.

I’ve found two other benefits to writing frequent devotions. First, I’m prepared for every devotion opportunity that comes up during the week. Ladies Aid, staff meetings, committee meetings, ESL devotions, counseling sessions, etc.  Each week, I have devotions based on the Word already in my head to share at a moment’s notice. Sharing God’s Word on the spot? Isn’t this what we’re all about?

Second, our people want their pastors to react to current events. You can’t change your sermon for Sunday because of something that happens on Thursday, but when Notre Dame burns, when Christians are massacred on Easter, when it’s the National Day of Prayer or Mother’s Day, people look to their pastors for guidance from God’s Word. How can we take even more advantage of opportunities to connect God’s living Word and promises with the real world and real people around us? Try writing and sharing devotions with your people. May God make us always prepared to share his Word!

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