John 8:31-36 On Reformation Sunday there is always the temptation to spend too much time talking about what was wrong with the church of Luther’s day—and there was much that was wrong.
But there was also much that was right in the church of that day. Christ promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against his church and that was true of the Christians of Luther’s day as much as it is in ours.
In fact, in some areas they were a lot closer to the truth than much of what passes for Christianity in our day.
The church of Luther’s day believed that God was holy and righteous and just. They believed that God hated sin--could not abide with it-- and would not endure it in his people. And that’s exactly what the Bible teaches about the holiness of God.
In contrast, many modern churches teach that God has changed his mind about what counts as sin. In many places in the church, God is not much more than a heavenly mentor encouraging us to do what makes us happy.
But the Christians of Luther’s day knew that God was holy-- and they knew that they were not. And that was the problem: how could a holy God let sinners come into his presence?
The medieval church had an answer but it’s here that they went terribly wrong.
They said that Jesus had made salvation a possibility–he had given everyone a start–but now it was up to you to do your part. Your salvation, they said, depends—at least in part-- on your good works. “Well, how much depends on me?” the medieval Christian might ask? “We’re not sure” the church would say.
“What happens to me when I die”? “Well, you can’t go to heaven that’s for sure–after all God is holy and you’re not. Instead, you’ll go to purgatory where you can suffer the temporal punishment that your sins deserve that you didn’t receive while here on earth.”
Purgatory wasn’t hell-- but it was a place of suffering-- so you would want to avoid spending any more time there than necessary.
There were a couple of options to try to cut your time there short. After you were dead, your family could purchase indulgences on your behalf to buy you out of purgatory and into heaven.
Or, if you were pious enough during your life, you could enter a monastery, and through a life of sacrifice and suffering, hope to enter heaven without too much of a detour. If you were particularly devout and holy (as the church defined it) the pope would declare that you had made it to heaven—that you were a saint and could help others along the way to heaven.
Of course the problem with monasticism was that, even if there weren’t a whole lot of opportunities there for scandalous sins (wine, women, and song being in short supply)–reflective Christians still knew what was in their hearts–they knew that even in the monastery they suffered from lust and greed and pride–things that Jesus said were sins that earned hell.
People in the medieval church had no illusions about their own sinfulness–they knew the truth of what Jesus speak to us today: the one who sins is a slave to sin. Even the most devout of men—men like Luther-- had no illusions about their terrible spiritual condition—despite their best efforts to please God and earn his favor.
Contrast this attitude with the picture of the Jews from our Gospel lesson for the day. “We are the offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone.” That’s laughable on a number of levels. First of all, what about the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, and Romans? The Jews’ political history was nothing but slavery! Surely these learned men didn’t have such short, selective memories, did they?
No. They knew that Jesus was talking about spiritual freedom. But even then they were wrong about having never been slaves.
They thought that being descendants of Abraham somehow gave them automatic, spiritual freedom–that simply by having Abraham’s DNA so to speak--they were good to go with God. But Jesus said: Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.
What about us today? Do we suffer under any illusions regarding our own spiritual freedom? After all, we are not deaf to a modern culture which says that freedom is the ability to do what I want- when I want -with whomever I want. And so freedom—even in parts of the church-- becomes just another word for immorality.
Others deny their spiritual enslavement by pointing to the sinners around them and saying “surely I’m not as bad as all that–surely you can’t include me with those kinds of folks–I’m not an addict or alcoholic--surely I’m not enslaved”.
Still others, like the Jews of Jesus’ day, point to their heritage as the source of their spiritual freedom. “I come from a long line of Lutherans—I’m the product of Lutheran schools-I can give the definition of Justification and name at least ten Lutheran acronyms”.
But they fail to take seriously the words of Jesus that from the stones of the ground he can raise up children of Abraham and children of Luther. Despite modern excuses, the judgment of Jesus stands: everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.
Martin Luther had no illusions regarding his enslavement to sin. He sat in church more hours in a week than some folks do in a year. He tried his best to live under the demands of the law. He did everything the church suggested to earn his way into heaven. He knew the holiness of God and the depth of his spiritual slavery to sin-- but he didn’t know how to get free.
Somehow the church of that day had forgotten that freedom for those enslaved to sin is why Jesus had come into the world in the first place. Jesus said, “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free”. He said: “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed”.
And so when Luther re-discovered the God News that God graciously declares sinners “not guilty” in his sight through faith in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus on Calvary’s cross–when Luther realized that the answer to the question, “What must I do to be saved?” is to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ--when Luther recognized that he was saved and set free by God’s grace alone- through faith alone- in Christ alone--he was a man re-born, he was a slave set free.
Luther said of that moment, “When I understood it, and the light of the Gospel came into my soul, the gates of paradise opened, and I walked through.” That is what Jesus wants for you and me and all people.
Jesus Christ came into this world to set us free—to set us free from the burden and guilt of our sins, to set us free from our fear of death, and to set us free from the power and dominion of the devil. It is for freedom that Christ has set us free!
Jesus has not just given us a start towards salvation, but he has earned salvation for us completely-- and freely gives it to us as a gift of his gracious love.
The Good News for us on this Reformation Sunday is that, believing in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, we do not have to worry about our salvation or our eternal future. The sins that have separated us from God, every one of them, great and small, have been washed clean by the shed blood of Jesus Christ on Calvary’s cross. Set free by Christ, we are free indeed!
This brings us to an important point, a point we sometimes forget. We have not only been saved from something–but we have been saved for something. We have been set free from slavery to sin for a new life as Jesus’ disciples and God’s children.
The idea that we have been set free to live however we see fit is a satanic distortion of the Gospel and nothing but a return to slavery, this time to our flesh. Instead, we have been saved so that we can have a permanent place in God’s family as his children--living lives that are guided by his Word. Jesus said: If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples.
There is enormous pressure in our world today—and even in the church-- to give up God’s Word as the sole authority for the faith and life of the church and her members-- and we see and feel this pressure to abandon the truth of God’s Word more and more every day.
Already during the last fifty years we have seen the outward edifice of visible Christendom begun to crumble as that which is unknown in the Bible and 2,000 years of the church’s tradition now takes place with: the ordination of women to the pastoral office, the denial of biblical miracles, the acceptance of evolution, and the election of a homosexuals as leaders in the church.
Though we in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod have not fallen victim to this kind of faithlessness, we must not gloat or take pride in our faithfulness–it is a gift of God’s grace and mercy alone.
And we are not without sympathy for these churches and the Christians found in those pews. We know that it is difficult to stand fast on the simple authority of God’s holy Word and we grow weary at times from that struggle to remain faithful to God’s Word.
But we also need to be reminded that the battle for the faithfulness of congregations and churches and denominations is won or lost in the lives of individual Christians who abide in Christ’s Word or abandon it. That battle in won or lost in you.
Five hundred years ago one solitary man—Martin Luther-- was utterly convinced from the pages of Holy Scriptures that his salvation rested safe and secure in the finished work of Jesus Christ and even though he was opposed in this by the entire world and the church of his day he laid his hand upon the Bible and said “Here I stand, I can do no other. So help me God!”
That is what our Lord is talking about when he says that we are to abide in his Word.
Faithfulness to God’s Word is not just saying the right things concerning the Bible’s inspiration and inerrancy. It’s about holding fast to God’s Word—letting our lives be guided by God’s Word—and insisting that our congregation and church body confess it and practice it.
On this Reformation Day we give thanks to Almighty God that he has sent his Son to set us free by his death and resurrection and we ask for the help of the Holy Spirit that we might always abide in his saving Word. Amen.