John 8:31-36 (Reformation Sunday)
Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield, CT
October 30, 2011
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our text this morning is the Gospel lesson from John 8:
So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?” Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.
We are here on this Reformation Sunday to celebrate our German heritage as Lutheran Christians. No, not really. We are here to celebrate Martin Luther, the German monk who rescued the Church by tearing it out of the corrupt grasp of the Roman Papacy. Again, no, that’s not what we are doing this morning. What is it that we are doing as we celebrate the Festival of the Reformation? We are celebrating that we have the Word of Truth in Jesus Christ that really sets us free!
Martin Luther lived in the 16th century in what today is the country of Germany. Contrary to what some of us pastors hear occasionally, he is not the African-American civil rights leader of the 1960s. No, Martin Luther was a German monk in the Roman Catholic Church who was seeking freedom. He wanted to be free from the huge, massive burden of his own sin and guilt. He believed in a just and holy God who rightfully punished sinners who did not placate Him by their good works and their satisfactions. In many ways, Luther also wanted to be free from this wrathful God who was completely righteous because he couldn’t be righteous enough. Luther wrote, “I had been taught . . . God is righteous and punishes the unrighteous sinner. Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that He was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners. . . . Thus I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience.”
But it was not freedom from the righteous God that Luther needed. It was freedom from his sin which burdened his conscience with guilt that Luther needed. It was freedom from the punishment of death which his sins merited that Luther needed. It was freedom from the tyranny of the devil that Luther needed. And what could really set Luther free from all this?
Perhaps it was his good works. If he just made enough satisfactions to pay off his debt of sin, this load would be off his back. But it wasn’t working. By his own admission he was an excellent monk. He was “above reproach,” beyond criticism. He followed the rule of the Augustinian Order to the letter. But that never removed the guilt, the sin, the troubled conscience. The harder Luther worked the guiltier and more inadequate he felt. Living the life of a monk wasn’t giving Luther the freedom he needed. All of the praying, reading, and meditating didn’t remove the sin, the guilt, and the fear of death. The fasting, the vigils, labors, and the mortification of his flesh didn’t take care of the problem. Neither did the good works of love and mercy toward other people. In fact, these all became a burden—how much is enough to be done? How many prayers, how much fasting, how many times to climb the stone stairs on your knees? What will make God happy with me and not condemn me to hell?
Luther found nothing in the works and satisfactions prescribed by the Roman Church that would free him from sin and death. His sin and guilt were as worrisome and as troubling as ever. Here was a man who lost countless hours of sleep over his sinful and condemned condition. So what finally freed Luther from his fear, his sin, and his guilt? The Word of Truth in Jesus Christ. Luther wrote, “At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, ‘In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’’ There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely faith. . . . Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates. . . . Thereupon I ran through the Scriptures from memory. I also found in other terms an analogy, as, the work of God, that is, what God does in us, the power of God, with which He makes us strong, the wisdom of God, with which He makes us wise, the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God.”
But how could Luther be sure he was right? Because he had the Word of Christ. Luther ran through the Scriptures, God’s Word, the Bible, and re-discovered the Gospel of grace alone, faith alone, through Christ alone. Through the Gospel of the death and resurrection of God’s Son, Luther was freed from sin, guilt, and death, not by his works, but by the work of Jesus Christ. If the Son sets you free you are really free! And Luther knew this to be right, true, and correct because, as the song says, “the Bible tells me so.” So Luther, standing before the officials and emperor of the Holy Roman Empire could say with all boldness and confidence, “Since your Serene Majesty and Your Lordships seek a simple answer, I will give it in this manner, neither horned nor toothed: Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise, here I stand, may God help me. Amen.”
It was the Word of Truth in Jesus Christ that set Luther free from sin and death through the forgiveness of sins and eternal life which comes by grace alone through faith alone in Christ. It was the Word of Truth in Jesus Christ on which Luther remained as Jesus’ disciple. That same Word of Truth is God’s gift to us through the Gospel Word of Jesus! We know the truth because Jesus gives us His Word of truth in the Gospel. It is the truth that we are not saved by how so-called good we are or are not. We are not set free from sin and guilt by saying this prayer or giving that amount of time or gifts to the church. Donating shampoo to the Food Shelf Ministry, while an excellent thing, doesn’t rescue us from sin and death. It doesn’t make God love us more because we did it. God can’t possibly love us anymore than He already does because it was His love for you and me that sent Jesus Christ to win our freedom from sin, guilt, and death. We read the Word of Truth in 1 John 4:10, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.”
God so loved the world that He gave us His only Son to be our only Savior from sin, guilt, and death. That is the Word that sets us free, the Word of Truth that offers, seals, and delivers what it promises—complete forgiveness of our sins and everlasting life because Jesus died on the cross and rose again from the dead winning our freedom from our enemies.
This is the Gospel Word in which we are to remain as Jesus’ disciples. It is the Word that sets us free from sin, guilt, and death. And it is a strong Word that declares us “righteous” before God, without sin, holy, because of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and the blood that He shed to win our freedom. Luther, after his faith-filled re-discovery of the Gospel, would write, “He is not righteous who does much, but he who, without work, believes much in Christ.”
By faith, we accept all of Jesus’ teaching and remain faithful to it by the power of the Holy Spirit. It is only in Jesus that we are set free from sin, guilt, and death. And it is in that forgiveness and freedom that we serve God with our actions as a response to His love for us in Christ. Part of remaining in the Word is not only hearing the Word and believing the Word through faith, but also being doers of the Word in thought, desire, speech, and actions. We have been set free from sin and death not to live for ourselves, but to live for Christ. “As Christ says, [baptized people] have been made free again. . . Therefore, they are able not only to hear the Word, but also to agree with it and accept it.” (FC SD II, 67) And agreeing with it and accepting it means using it!
Luther wrote on the joy of having and using the Word, “Oh! How great and glorious a thing it is to have before one the Word of God! With that we may at all times feel joyous and secure; we need never be in want of consolation, for we see before us, in all its brightness, the pure and right way.” Nothing can compare with the blessing of taking into our own hands the Word of Truth in Christ and reading it, meditating on it, studying it, and letting the Holy Spirit working through that Word fill us with peace and blessing. The Word speaks about itself when Paul writes in 2 Timothy 3, “. . . how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:15-17)
We are blessed with so many opportunities to engage the Word of Truth in the Scriptures. The devotional books Portals of Prayer, which the church buys each quarter as a gift to our members, leads the reader into the Word. There are numerous Bible reading plans available that will guide you through all or part of the Word in a year or two. We have the opportunity to come weekly to a common place of worship to hear the Scriptures read, preached, and sung in the hymns of the Church. Our congregation’s website has daily Scripture readings for you to use.
Truly, we are blessed with such great opportunity to remain in the Word as Jesus’ disciples. It is that Word which is the truth—the truth of sins forgiven, guilt removed, and death defeated through the saving work of Jesus Christ for us. The Son has set us free! Live in that freedom, using the Word of Truth for your growth in the Christian faith and for your blessing and joy in life. Amen.