Festival of the Reformation (John 8:31-36)

Zion Lutheran Church, Corvallis, OR
Festival of the Reformation + October 29, 2017
Text: John 8:31-36

“The Son Sets Us Free with His Word”
The Reformation was truly a blessed turn in Church History.  It meant that the Gospel of Jesus Christ spread into a world that was darkened with the teaching that sinful men must make it up to God by striving to do good works.   The Gospel freed people from the burden of believing they earned their way to heaven.  That’s why this text from John 8 has been chosen for the celebration of the Reformation.
One of the great outcomes of the Reformation was putting the Word of God in the people’s language.  For centuries in Western Christianity, it had been enshrined in Latin, which only the educated knew.  On top of that, only those who could afford it could be educated.  It was a situation which ensured the ignorance of the people in the pew because they couldn’t hear from God first-hand.  They relied on their clergy to tell them who God was, what He was like, and how He regardedthem.  If they said He was a stern judge who had to be appeased by good works, the people believed it.  If they were told that their dead father was in purgatory, and that paying for a Mass to be said in his honor would shorten his stay, people paid up.  How could they know any different?
In 1521, Martin Luther sought to change that by translating the New Testament (and later the Old Testament, 1534) into the German which people on the street were speaking.  Yet when he set out to do this, he didn’t start with the Latin which was the official version of the Church.  You see, Luther lived at a time when there was great interest in going back to the original sources and learning in the original languages.  The Latin Bible in use at that time had been handed down, revised here and there, but still it was a translation.  It would be like if someone sought to make a new translation and went to the King James Bible.  Luther went back to the original languages of Greek for the New Testament and Hebrew for the Old Testament.  Those were his sources, so that his translation was freed of the baggage that human tradition created.
Luther wasn’t the first to make this attempt. Others before him had tried—and been executed for their efforts, like Wycliffe, Tyndale, and Hus.  But Luther’s efforts came at the right point in history and God blessed his labors to spread the Bible in the language of the people.  With the help of the printing press the German New Testament made its way into the homes of common people.   It was the first time in Christian history that God’s Word was so widely available and that it was in the language of the masses.
This brought a tremendous freedom to its readers and hearers.  Instead of being slaves ordered around by the whims of their learned teachers, the whole congregation was now able to receive God’s Word first hand.  “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”  The Son of God sets us free with His Word.
Through Luther’s German Bible, He set people free to read for themselves what God says, and to see that it didn’t match what their teachers had been telling them.  They read in 1 Timothy 2, “There is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus”—not the practice of praying to saints or Mary.  In Romans 3, they read, “We conclude that a man is justified by faith alone apart from works of the law”—that there is no good work or amount of works we can do to win God’s favor.  The people read for themselves the warning words of the Lord Jesus in Mark 7, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”—
and they could see that no person, not even the pope, has the authority to add or subtract teachings from the Word of God.
By having the Word of God purely preached and taught, the people were free to be Christians.  They could humbly confess their sins, confident that the forgiveness which their pastor spoke was in fact Christ’s forgiveness.  They could wake up in the morning and mark themselves with the sign of the cross, not out of empty ritual, but in thanksgiving for the act by which God made them His own child.  They could go to the Lord’s Supper, receiving it according to the way Christ intended—His Body and His Blood with the comfort of the forgiveness of their sins and the new life that is theirs in their risen Savior.  They could serve their neighbor, knowing that their daily callings of family and work are pleasing in God’s sight and blessed by Him.
The legacy of the Reformation continues today, because God’s Word is so freely available in so many languages.  Wycliffe Bible Translators reports that the complete Bible is available in 636 languages, and the New Testament is available in 1442 more.  That means that people of over 2,000 different tongues can hear God’s Word and of Christ the Savior, that they might repent of their sins and believe in Jesus.  That works out to 5.82 billion people who have the Bible available to them.[1]  It’s simply astounding what’s happened over the course of 500 years!
“If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”  Through His Word, the Son truly sets us free!  He has freed us from sin—“whoever believes in Him is not condemned.” He has freed us from death—“I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.”  He has freed us from the power of the devil—“The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.”[2]
But it’s all too easy for us to return to Egypt, to the house of slavery.  How could this happen?  By not abiding in His liberating Word  Before the Reformation, when the Scriptures were in Latin, the people had to rely on their teachers to tell them what the Bible said.  Today, in 21st century America, we have the Bible readily available for everyone to read, and yet we defer all kinds of teachers who claim to be biblical.
Take, for instance the widespread believe that a person must accept Jesus into their heart in order to be saved.  This goes hand in hand with the belief that children ought not to be baptized until they reach a maturity when they become “accountable” to God for their spiritual life.[3]  Even though these beliefs are widespread, would it surprise you to hear they are not found in the Bible?  The Bible does not talk about conversion in terms of a our conscious “acceptance,” but rather “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’”[4]  Everywhere (including here in the Gospel today) God speaks about our spiritual condition as enslaved, or elsewhere as dead, or needing to turn and become like a newborn child.[5]  If we want to speak about how an enemy becomes a child of God, we should actually use the language God does.  After all, He’s the only One who is able to bring us to Himself, and only He actually knows how it happens.  “Faith comes by hearing the Word of Christ.” and “Whoever has ears, let him hear.”[6]
Another teaching that’s widespread in Christianity today is that of the rapture and the millennium.  This teaching was popularized by John Darby in the 1830’s.  Think about that: It was not taught for the first 1800 years of the New Testament Church, and now people accept it as true?  As for the rapture, there are only two “proof texts.”  One of them, in Matthew 24, says, 40 Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left. 41 Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left.”  Uh oh! Better not be “left behind.”  But just read the context: 36 “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. 37 For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, 39 and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.”  Jesus is telling of His return, and He is comparing it to the Flood.  The wicked were the ones who were swept away and taken!  So if you actually read the text for yourself, you find that you do want to be “left behind” because it means by faith you are saved from destruction.
The 7 year tribulation and the millennium can be debunked too if you read the Word of God as a whole, and don’t let cherry-picked verses from Revelation or Daniel be the primary teaching.  Ready all of Matthew 4 and 25.  There, you will find that Jesus describes a single Last Day, which will come like a thief in the night, that “they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. 31 And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.”  Chapter 25 details how to be ready for that last Great Day, because the Day of Christ’s return is the Day of Resurrection and is the Day of Judgment.  There’s no need for more testing or second chances because salvation happened in the death and resurrection of Jesus, and the Last Day judgment is whether or not men believe that!
The point is that Christians today can still be greatly deceived if they entrust their faith to Johnny-come-lately preachers who pull Bible verses out of context.  At best they have a marred understanding of God, and at worst they become members of a cult.  It doesn’t matter who said it if it can’t stand against the scrutiny of God’s own Word.  Jesus tells us in more than one place how to interpret the Bible: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, 40 yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.”  And regarding the task of preaching the Word, He says, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, 47 and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”[7]  Anything apart from this is false teaching and of the devil—even if it has chapters and verses all over it.
The Reformation was a momentous occasion in Church history because it was a wake-up call to hear and believe the Word of God.   It didn’t have anything to do with Martin Luther, and it’s a sad state of affairs that Christians are associated with a mere man’s name.  But this day I am proud to be a Lutheran because of what that name stands for.
“Lutheran” stands for a Christianity that is firmly rooted in the almighty Word of God, and refuses to be diluted by human wisdom.  Lutheran stands for preaching the Word of God, trusting that this Word which goes forth from His mouth is always effective.[8]  The same Lord who created the heavens and the earth in six 24-hour days is also able by that Word to bring sinners to repentance, enlighten minds darkened by sin, to forgive sins by a word put on the lips of a man, to consecrate water to be a washing of regeneration and for bread and wine to be the very Body and Blood of Christ.
Why Lutheran instead of others?  It all comes down to the pure teaching of God’s Word, unabridged and without human annotation.  Whoever would teach you something contrary to that Word is a false prophet and can only bring you back into slavery of sin, death, and the devil.   It doesn’t matter if they’re likable or charismatic, and that’s the reason their church is packed.  It doesn’t even matter if their intentions seem to be good, as when the condemnation of sexual sins is minimized in an effort to “minister” to them (the ministry they truly need is the call to repentance and faith).  Wherever the pure teaching of God’s Word is, there is the Church of God.  This is what Luther taught and this is what it means to follow in that tradition.
The Reformation isn’t just something that began 500 years ago, and it didn’t happen just under one man.  As Martin Luther penned in his Small Catechism, it is the Holy Spirit (He’s the real Reformer) who “calls, gathers, and enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.”  It is God’s will that we should be freed from sin, death, and the devil by His Word.  As we pray the first three petitions of the Lord’s Prayer—for God’s Name to be hallowed, for His Kingdom to come, and for His will to be done—we are praying that the Reformation continue in every age until Christ’s glorious return. Amen.
[1] https://www.wycliffe.org.uk/about/our-impact
[2] John 3:18; John 11:25-26; 1 John 3:8
[3] John MacArthur, a popular teacher defends this doctrine: https://www.gty.org/library/Articles/A264
[4] John 3:6-7
[5] Ephesians 2:1, Matthew 18:3, 1 Peter 2:2
[6] Romans 10:17 and Matthew 13:9
[7] John 5:39-40; Luke 24:46-47
[8] Isaiah 55:10-11

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