John 8:31-36 (Reformation Day—Series B)
“Christ Has Set You Free”
Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield CT
October 31, 2021
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our text for the Festival of the Reformation is recorded in John 6:
31Therefore Jesus said to the Jews who were believing in Him, “If you remain in my word, you are truly my disciples, 32and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” 33They answered Him, “We are descendants of Abraham, and we have never been slaves to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will be free.’?” 34Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly I say to you, that everyone who sins is a slave of sin. 35Now the slave does not remain in the house forever. The Son remains forever. 36Therefore, if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
After the Battle of Antietam at Sharpsburg, Maryland in September 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation that would go into effect on January 1, 1863. The Proclamation read, “That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.” Although slavery and involuntary servitude was not abolished in the whole United States until the 13th Amendment was ratified on December 6, 1865. Nevertheless, Abraham Lincoln is often referred to as “The Great Emancipator.” In many ways, he likely was. But on this Reformation Day it is best for us to consider the Greatest Emancipator of all history—past, present, and future—the Lord Jesus Christ.
To emancipate means “to free (someone) from someone else’s control or power.” Jesus’ hearers in John 8 did not understand that they truly did have a need to be set free from another’s control and power. “They answered Him, ‘We are descendants of Abraham, and we have never been slaves to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will be free?’” Though presently subject to Rome and the Herodians, these proud leaders asserted their independence by appealing to the heritage of Abraham, a free man. But Jesus did not have in mind their subjection to Rome nor Abraham who, in and of himself, was not a free man. Jesus said, “Truly, truly I say to you, that everyone who sins is a slave of sin.”
Abraham was a sinner, wasn’t he? He couldn’t wait for God to fulfill His promise to him to give him and Sarah a son so, on multiple occasions, this couple took matters into their own hands contrary to God’s Word. Abraham and Sarah were no different from any other person born after the Fall into sin. Since all humanity sins all humanity is a slave of sin. Since the “wages of sin is death,” all humanity was also held in lifelong slavery through fear of death (Rom. 6:23; Heb. 2:15).
As with those to whom Jesus spoke in our text, all people are under the delusion that they are somehow really free. They aren’t. We aren’t. Our independence in spiritual matters is a ruse. Our self-sufficiency about “getting right with God” is a charade. “Truly, truly I say to you, that everyone who sins is a slave of sin.” Before God, you and I are bound in our sins and trespasses. We do not have the freedom to better ourselves before God. We have no capability to move God to favor us with His grace. What we deserve is His wrath and displeasure, physical and eternal death. We are held tight in the chains of our sins and sinfulness, bound in our slavery to our evil inclination, and under the curse of God’s Law which we cannot keep according to His will. No matter what we think, we can’t buy our way out of this slavery.
And that was the issue in the Holy Roman Empire in 1517. By the year 1400, people could buy indulgences for almost any reason. What’s an indulgence? The purchase of an indulgence granted freedom from the earthly punishment of sin and freedom from suffering in purgatory. Its purpose was to speed along the time it takes for the soul to get out of the place of purging away the sins you didn’t work off here on earth in order to get to heaven. In other words, people were paying money to the Roman Church in order to buy their way out of the slavery caused by their sins.
A Professor of Theology at the University of Wittenberg, Martin Luther, began having serious doubts about purgatory and indulgences. He began preaching sermons against indulgences because he believed that the people didn’t understand that they were not a ticket to heaven. Luther decided that this was an issue worth having an academic debate about. Luther prepared a statement in argument against the practice of indulgences. He nailed his statements for debate on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg on All Saints’ Eve, October 31, 1517. (This was the university town bulletin board. Everyone would be at church the next day for All Saints’ Day. And those interested in the topic for debate would read these statements.)
Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses concluded that a Christian who is sorry for their sins and repents with faith in Christ has God’s forgiveness and doesn’t need a letter of indulgence. Luther, you see, was coming to understand more clearly that salvation from sin and death is indeed a judicial act: God declares you right with Him because of the saving work of Jesus Christ, by grace alone through faith alone.
It was Jesus Christ who purchased the forgiveness of sins for the whole world with His suffering and death on the cross. “Truly, truly I say to you, that everyone who sins is a slave of sin. . . . Therefore, if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” Only God the Son could set humanity free from the bondage to sin and from the fear of death by conquering sin and death for us. This Gospel is at the very heart and center of the Reformation faith. The Word of God, Jesus Christ, took upon Himself our human flesh and dwelt among us as our Savior, full of grace and truth (John 1:14). He became incarnate in order to set people free. And if the Son of God sets you free, you are free in every sense of the word—free from sin and free from the punishment of death!
Jesus alone bought and won this freedom for you at great cost to Himself. All your sins and the sins of the whole world were placed on Christ as if they were His own. He suffered the God-forsakenness of hell on the cross. Nailed to a tree, the Son of God suffered for your sins and died your death. He shed His holy, precious blood so that your sins would be atoned for. God the Father justifies you—declares you righteous, not guilty of sin. You are released from the punishment of death because Jesus suffered, died, and shed His blood being punished in your place. It is as if the words spoken by the prophet Nathan to David are spoken personally to you, “The Lord has put away your sin. You shall not die” (2 Samuel 12:13).
It is this precious Word of God in the Gospel that personally delivers to you the forgiveness of sins that the Son Jesus Christ purchased and won for you. It is the forgiveness of Christ that gives you the freedom from sin and death. You receive this gift through faith in Jesus as your Savior when you believe that He has suffered and died for you. Luther put it this way when he preached on John 8, “[The gift of saving faith] is what liberates me from sin—not I myself, fasting, the life of a monk or nun, the Mass, pilgrimage, or the intercession of Mary or other saints; but it is solely Christ’s redemptive work. For no one else was born of Mary, died, was buried, rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven than this one Man, Christ. Outside of Him there is no one in heaven or on earth, not even any angel, who could help us. Therefore we must cling solely to this Man and acknowledge Him alone as our Savior.”
By grace through faith, you have come know the truth of the Gospel found in the Word of Christ. You cling to Him alone as your Savior. Through the Gospel, you receive the forgiveness of sins in the Words of Absolution, through the preaching of His Word, and in the eating and drinking of Christ’s Body and Blood with the bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper. Through these Means of Grace, you have been set free from sin by the Son. You have been rescued from bondage to death. This wondrous Gospel announces to you in the name of Jesus, “Your sins are forgiven. Eternal life is yours. Go in peace; you are free.” Amen.
 Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 23: Sermons on the Gospel of St. John: Chapters 6-8, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 23 (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999), 411.