Reformation Sunday (John 8:31-36)

Albrecht Durer - The Crucifixion (1498)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

Reformation Sunday + October 27, 2019

Text: John 8:31-36

We’re accustomed to evaluating things on the basis of what we can see.  If you go to the dentist, how good or bad your teeth are can be observed.  If you’re buying a house, the home inspector looks for red flags of what could be a serious issue.

But how can you tell if someone is a slave?  You’d look for a master, a contract establishing their right of control, some kind of power relationship of obedience that they’re locked into.  What if you can’t see these things with your eyes or feel them with your heart…or what if you can sense them, but you don’t know what to call it?  That’s the way it is with slavery to sin. There are no signs that are obvious to us, except the one that comes too late to do anything about, which is death.

Jesus speaks to those who believed in Him, but they are still very weak in that faith.  Jesus offers liberty, and they say they’re already free. On what basis do they say that?  Because they don’t have a master to face with threats and whips? Are they free in that they decide where to go and what to do?  What they don’t yet understand is that every person is born a slave with sin and the devil as their masters. How can you know this?  There may be signs here and there—a bad behavior you can’t kick, periods of doubt, various ways you’ve hurt others. But only a holy God can truly expose your slavery, and He does that by His Word.

The Reformation was a glorious event in Church history because, together with the Printing Press, it meant that more people than ever before would be able to read God’s Word for themselves.  Sometimes this is pictured as a great “liberation” from the hierarchy and control of the Roman church. But in fact, it meant greater liberation from sin and the devil’s absolute power over humanity.  Romans 5:14 says, “Death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam.” This reign of death was disrupted because God gave Moses the Law, the holy Word which exposes and identifies the marks of sin’s bondage.  Death reigns through the ignorance of God’s Word, and reigns unchallenged, so long as we believe the scientists today who tell us life is no more than chance chemical reactions.

When the whole Word of God was put into the hands of many, it had a liberating effect.  It exposed the ungodliness of paying indulgences for forgiveness, refusing people the Blood of Christ in Communion, praying to the saints, forbidding marriage to priests, requiring penitents to list every sin in confession, and compelling people to fast on certain days. The Reformers studied the Scriptures and found that in fact they preached against putting our trust in man’s works or teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.  “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed!”

It’s easier to put your finger on what bondage is once you’re freed from it.  Take, for instance, when the children of Israel were brought through the Red Sea.  They had languished under heavy burdens laid on them by cruel Pharaoh, and now they were freed—The Song of Moses declares, “I will sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.” (Exodus 15:1)

Yet, three days into their wilderness journey, those same people started complaining: “The people grumbled against Moses, saying, ‘What shall we drink?’” (Ex. 17:24)…[and about a month and a half later:] “The whole congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness, and the people of Israel said to them, ‘Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.’” (Ex. 17:2-3) Even though they had been loosed from Pharaoh’s yoke, they still found themselves slaves. Not slaves to a master they could point at and blame, but slaves to their own passions within them.  They truly were slaves to sin.

Likewise, Christians freed from the yoke of the papacy found that they were still slaves.  Certainly, they were free from the fear of purgatory and mandates about fast days and confession. Yet, having the Scriptures in our own hands exposes much sin in each of us.  We justify ourselves against the Law, and sometimes claim that’s just man’s opinion. Now that we’re not compelled by force and guilt-trips to go to Mass, our laziness and neglect of our spiritual wellbeing is evident.  “Everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.”  We were freed from heavy manmade burdens, and found that we were still yoked to Master Sin.  

“But if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” We’ve often heard this in our country: ‘Freedom is not free.’ How much truer this is of freeing slaves to sin.  The Son of God did not set you free by merely speaking a royal decree. He bought your freedom—“The Son of Man came to serve and give His life as a ransom for the many.” (Matt. 20:28)  He is both God’s Passover lamb who shed His blood to buy our release, and the firstborn son who died that sons of Israel might live (Ex. 12:29—13:1).  Yet all this, He did in love toward you, when you were still slaves, still His enemies (Rom. 5:10).

But that freedom is not as the world views and abuses freedom—using it as an excuse to do whatever you want.   The freedom which the Son gives you will cost you your life. Yes, your life: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34)  The Son hasn’t just freed you and let you loose; He has freed you from sin, death, and the power of the devil.

In Romans 6, St. Paul writes, “What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! 16 Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? 17 But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, 18 and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.” (Rom. 6:15-18)

“If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”  This is the freedom of a Christian.  You are not freed to serve yourself, but to serve God and your neighbor.  But if, in this life, we find ourselves still slaves of sin, we should not despair as though this Word of God were not true.  “You will be truly free,” the Lord says.  As with all the words of Christ about us, it’s a statement that is true, and effective through faith.

“The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever.”  The slave He is talking about here is your sinful flesh, the heart from which proceeds all manner of evil.  It does not remain forever, dear Christian. You are free from its power over you in death. “The son remains forever”“For if we have been united with him in a death like His, we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His.” (Rom. 6:5)

But even while you are harassed by our former masters, you have freedom from them.  Your Lord and Master says, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”  The Word of God definitely had the power to expose slavery, but even more it displays Christ’s glorious saving work.  In that, it has the power to set you free. “Abide in My Word,” your Lord says.  Immerse yourself in it, as David says in Psalm 1, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law [instruction] of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” (Ps. 1:1-2)  If you desire this freedom, hold this word sacred, and gladly hear it and learn it.  It is your very life, for everything else will not remain forever.

Thank God that we live in the wake of the Reformation because the Word of God is in our hands, in plain English.  Avail yourself of it, and by God’s power, pray that you may overcome the slothfulness of your flesh!

We are at the same time son and sinner, saint and sinner.  But we live as those who are free from sin, if not always in fact, certainly in faith.  May the Son, who through His almighty Word freed you from sin, death, and the power of the devil, keep you as His disciples today and to eternity. Amen!

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

Christians Abide in His Word (John 8:31-36)

Reformation Sunday + October 30, 2016
Text: John 8:31-36
Celebrating the Reformation is an exciting time in the Lutheran Church.  Next year for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we really get to go all out.  But it’s important to double check that our excitement is more about being “Church” than it is about being “Lutheran.”  Our Synod has a handy phrase to remind us: “Reformation 2017: It’s Still All About Jesus”  And because it’s all about Jesus, let’s hear from Him:
 
“If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples.”
Jesus makes this the defining characteristic of those who follow Him.  Those who bear the title Christian abide in His Word.  You can’t have Jesus without His Word.  If someone says they’re a Christian and they love Jesus but they don’t listen to His Word, that person is deceived.
 
What the Lord says is not anything new.  It was the same way for Israel—a true Israelite hears the Word of the Lord.  The statutes of God and the people of God are inseparable.  “If you walk in my statutes and observe my commandments and do them…I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people.”[1]  Whenever the people called by God’s Name tried to strike out on their own, God no longer called them His people.
 
The reformers made the same point as Jesus: God’s Word is the defining mark of Christians.  They said so, against powerful opponents who argued that the church was founded on Scripture and traditions, that it supposedly had divine authority to appoint and depose kings, and sentence men to death on the charge of false doctrine.  By God’s faithful deliverance, however, the truth and clarity of God’s Word prevailed over the enemies of Christ’s cross.  By God’s continued grace, the truth and clarity of His Word is proclaimed and believed today.
 
But in our day, 500 years after the Reformation, we see something tragic happening in all the descendants of this blessed awakening.  There is a pull away from abiding in the Word.  No corner of Christianity is immune to this—even our own Missouri Synod.
Excitement for what God’s Word has been replaced with pop psychology, parading as Christian teaching.  People flock to hear sermons on 10 things you can do to improve your marriage, your job, or live with more “joy.”  They want to be told what they should be doing to succeed, rather than what God works in you through His Word.
What we look to as blessing in the Church is no longer in being persecuted for proclaiming the truth (as Jesus says in Matthew 5:11).  Churches are chase after social trends so they can “bless” themselves with greater attendance and more programs.
Teachers of the Church are also under attack.  At many mainline seminaries, the Bible commentaries students use are written by unbelievers who dissect the motives of the authors.  The result is pastors and professors who consider the Bible no more than a religious manifesto by a bunch of backward, sexist, homophobic men.
Nevertheless, the Lord keeps a remnant for Himself—those who have not bowed before Baal and kissed him.[2]  That which is born of Spirit is spirit, and they still abide in His Word today.  These are truly His disciples.
 
 
Then Jesus says, “and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
The picture of Christianity today is sometimes an exercise in nostalgia for what Church has been in the past.  People gather together, sing some songs about God, listen to someone talk about God.  Yet, all of this is to “do church” without Jesus or His Word.  Without Jesus, the gathering is just social.  The songs could replace the name Jesus with your boyfriend and make just as much sense.  The sermon could be a motivational speech given at a convention.  All the while people think they are being Christians, experiencing freedom, they haven’t actually been free because they haven’t heard the Truth.
 
See, when Jesus says that the Truth makes you free, He’s saying something about us.  We’re not free.  The people He’s speaking to pick up on that, too.  They respond, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone.”  But Jesus isn’t talking about slavery you can see.  The bondage that Jesus speaks of is bondage to sin, and that’s something which—despite our best efforts to act free—we are powerless to free ourselves from.
 
The scary thing about Christians losing God’s Word is that people will never hear of their soul’s true condition.  Instead of seeing that they are “slaves to sin,” they’ll imagine there’s some glimmer of hope to help themselves (this delusion really helps book sales, by the way).  Maybe they’ll think of themselves as religious free agents, who can choose whichever way to God speaks to them the most.  They may imagine that God looks down from heaven and smiles because there are some people who are really trying hard to be good.[3]  They might go to church just because it’s the social or family thing to do, but never have a passing thought of repentance.
 
But the Truth sets us free because He sheds His light from heaven on our sinful squalor, the deadly mess that we are in.  He wakes us up from our complacency of downplaying sin and its effects.  So, He shows us that we are truly slaves to sin, but that He truly is our Redeemer.
 
When we know the Truth, we find that we can only look to Him for hope.  It comes down to simple math: 100% Jesus, 0% us.  If we claim any worthiness we for ourselves, we take it away from Christ.   However free we think we are from sin’s dominion, we take that much power away from Christ.  With our Savior Jesus Christ, it really is all or nothing—either He is the one who has all the power to save, all the power to free us, or we land somewhere else without a Savior.
 
In the freedom which Jesus gives, there is blessed assurance: “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”  Because it’s 100% God’s work, your life is secure, anchored to solid rock.   That’s something only the Lord can deliver, because it won’t be found in pop Christian trends which are only the work of human hands.
 
If you want certainty in life’s trials, abide in the Word of your Baptism.  God has freed you from the power of sin and even death.  In your weakness, God has given you a continuous fountain of life in which to wash you and present you without spot or blemish.[4]
In your mortal body, abide in the Word of Christ’s Body and Blood given in, with, and under bread and wine.  This is His Body, risen victorious from the grave.  This is His blood, shed for the full remission of all our sins.
Abide in the Word of God, in your ear, on your forehead, and on your tongue.  The Word He speaks is the Truth which sets you free today from your sins and on the last day from the bonds of death!  Amen.
 
[1] Leviticus 26:3, 12
[2] 1 Kings 19:18
[3] Psalm 53:2-3
[4] Ephesians 5:26-27