Sermon for the Festival of the Reformation, AD 2021

John 8:31-36

As those regularly in adult Bible class should already know, it is important to identify the “who” “where” and “when” in any Bible passage. In our gospel lesson it is no different.

Who is involved? Jesus is speaking to the Jews who had believed in him. When John speaks about the Jews, he is typically referring to the Jewish leadership of his day.

Where does this take place? At the temple complex in Jerusalem.

When does this take place? They have all just finished celebrating the feast of tabernacles, or booths.

This is significant because Jesus tells the Jews, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Then they immediately respond, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone!” This is striking when you know what the feast of tabernacles remembered. It was a feast declared by God where all the Israelites remembered their wandering in the wilderness during the exodus from slavery in Egypt. The exodus from their slavery in Egypt. Maybe the Jews responded to Jesus rashly without really thinking about it. Still, it is hard to claim that they had not been enslaved to anyone when the defining moment for their people was their deliverance from slavery by God.

It’s like saying, “hey it’s Christmas, we’re about eggnog and candy and Santa, what’s with all this religious stuff?”

Or “it’s Reformation Day, why are you talking about Jesus arguing with Jewish leaders about freedom and slavery? I thought this was about the 95 theses and German culture and Luther’s heroic work.”

What does the freedom and slavery have to do with Reformation? Well, everything. What Luther did was to bring the truth that sets you free back to the center of the church’s life. That truth being to abide in the word of Christ, and that word is not just about anything, not just about a set of morals or rules, but about Christ himself. For as Jesus says, I am the way, the truth, and the life. Christ’s word is the truth which is about Christ, the truth. Outside of Christ, there is no true freedom, only slavery.

The Jews in Jesus day knew even when they were enslaved in Egypt that they were special to God, they had promises from God that He would free them and take care of them. Even in that circumstance of actual slavery there was hope in God, and therefore they were never fully enslaved in their minds and hearts. They were offspring of Abraham. That led to the false view the Jews are claiming here – we are not enslaved because of our descent! Their trust isn’t in Jesus, but in who they are as a people.

The freedom was always in Christ. It wasn’t because they were special or better than any other people on earth. Abraham wasn’t any better than anyone else on earth when God chose him. Yet Abraham believed God. Abraham believed that when God promised an offspring that would bless the whole world, that word was true, even when Abraham and his wife were too old to have any children. That offspring would be Jesus, who would die for the sins of the whole world and rise again. Jesus, the truth that sets all free from slavery to sin and death. Abraham trusted in the coming of Jesus, even though he didn’t fully understand it. What makes a true son of Abraham is to believe what Abraham believed, not just a descent by blood.

Fast forward back to Luther and his realization that it was always this faith that was essential. It was this faith that brought freedom. As St. Paul says in Romans, “the just shall live by faith.” Being just, that is righteous, or acceptable to God comes by faith. We are acceptable to God through trust in Christ alone. We can only have this faith by a free gift that we don’t deserve, but which Christ earned for us through his death and resurrection.

The problem in Luther’s day was that the institutional church widely taught that freedom was found in places besides or in addition to Christ. Freedom came from our own works and prayers, from living life as a monk, from favor from men like the popes and bishops. The gospel – the good news that our salvation is only in Christ – was obscured. Luther broke this down by emphasizing that no, there is nothing anyone can add to what Christ has done. Abide in Christ’s word. Only Christ is the truth who sets you free.

Christ says “Everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.” Sin is slavery. Slavery is our natural condition from birth. We can do nothing else but sin and follow sin, unless someone rescues us from it. This is why we need Christ for this freedom. We need a Savior and redeemer to rescue us and pull us from our slavery. For no matter how hard we work to free ourselves from slavery to sin, we are only working to enslave ourselves even further. Unless you see how deeply you are enslaved you will not see how much you need a savior. The Roman Church in Luther’s day taught that we were not completely sinful, that the slavery was not complete. Therefore Christ’s full glory in rescuing sinful people was diminished.

The Roman Catholic church is different in many ways today than it was in Luther’s time. They now preach and have services in English and other native languages so the people can understand. They do not charge money for indulgences – those notes promising the end of punishments in the next life. The pope and bishops do not have any direct political power. Yet there still are great errors in the Roman Catholic church. Indulgences are earned or given, in addition to the merit of Christ. Mary and the saints are prayed to in addition to the merit of Christ. The Holy Scriptures are not the final authority, but take a secondary seat to tradition and the pope. The fundamental error is the teaching that human beings are not in complete slavery to sin and therefore are their own saviors, along with Christ.

This puts you back into your own slavery. If it is up to you to help save yourself, how can you be sure you did enough? You need to rely on your own strength. Can you say you’re strong enough, good enough? Or that false pride coming in? When salvation in on your own, sin will send you into a spiral of despair or false confidence. That’s what happened in Luther’s day. Some like Luther never felt they would ever be good enough to please God. Others, like many of the monks, thought their self-made works made them truly holy, along with or even without Christ.

When you go back to the scriptures, as Luther did, you find this – Jesus Christ has paid for the sins of the whole world. There is nothing left to pay, nothing you can add. His cross is the sign that your sins are forgiven. You can add nothing to Jesus’ work on the cross. No works, no prayers, no strength of your own will save you any more than Jesus has. Your salvation comes by faith – trusting that He has completely saved you. That’s it. You are right with God completely because of Jesus’ sacrifice for you. Your sins are forgiven because of Jesus’ sacrifice for you. Don’t look at yourself at all for your salvation. You are not even part of the equation. Thank God for that! You are free!

So we thank God for the work Martin Luther and the reformers did, to show the true freedom we have by faith in Christ alone. Yet the freedom we have received must be taken rightly.

In Luther’s time, some took the freedom from the rules of the popes and bishops to rebel against any earthly ruler, which led to wars, death, destruction and rulers worse than before. Today we still have those who are saying the freedom Jesus brings is liberation from oppressors and has nothing to do with sin. Some say that a freedom of salvation, a freedom from sin, is a false “Savior theology” and just continues oppression of people. These popular speakers say true freedom is the ending of human oppression.

Why does God free us? If Jesus frees us from oppressors – if men in positions of power are our enemies, what will we do when we are free? If you follow those who preach about liberation, you are free to find your next oppressor. And then when you are truly free of anyone who can form you or tell you what to do, what do you have? Yourself. Your sin. Your rapidly approaching end of life.  

It is not only trendy theologians who seek this false freedom, but even many Lutherans. St. Paul says, shall we sin so that grace may abound? There are some who call themselves Lutheran teachers who say, yes! Yet to sin is to submit yourself again to that slavery. Do not submit to the slavery of sin, but see the freedom in Christ – the freedom to love and serve God and do what he commands. That is true freedom. Jesus has freed us from the prison of sin and keeps us in that freedom, guiding us by the Holy Spirit to walk in the way God commands. This is to abide in the Word of Christ. When we abide in his word we walk away from that prison cell. There is no freedom in just doing whatever you want. To reject God’s way and say, “ NO! I will be in the prison cell! I am free!” is pure foolishness. It is delusion to see freedom in slavery to sin.

Cling therefore to the Word of Christ, which frees us from all delusions. It isn’t easy out there. Even with the gospel freedom of the Reformation, the devil is working to fool us into seeking freedom in enslaving sin. Yet Christ is always there with forgiveness. Christ will always meet you where you are and bring you back out of that slavery. He did not free you because you were so good. He freed you because He is so good. To trust that He is good, that He is forgiving, as the scripture says, is to abide in his Word. That forgiveness is true freedom.

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