“If you abide in my Word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this Reformation Day comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the eighth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint John. Dear friends in Christ, Martin Luther was in trouble. This monk had sparked the Reformation just four years earlier by speaking out against the Roman Church’s selling of indulgences. Railing against abuses and false teaching seemed a lot easier when he was safe and sound in Wittenberg. But now he was in Worms, standing before the pope’s representatives and the Emperor himself. Things had suddenly become much more serious. But Luther could take comfort from what God’s Word said in passages such as our Introit for today: “I will speak of your testimonies before kings, O Lord, and shall not be put to shame.” Therefore with boldness, but yet also with humility and with the knowledge of what this confession meant before God, Luther declared: “Unless I am convinced by the teachings of Holy Scripture or by plain reason- not by popes or councils alone, since they have so often erred and contradicted themselves- my consciences is bound to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything. Here I stand- I can do no other. God help me. Amen.” Luther took his stand that day on the Word of God, he took his stand on the truth.
Jesus has some pretty amazing things to say about that Word and about that truth in our text for today. After hearing Jesus speak about His intimate connection with the Father throughout chapter eight of John’s Gospel, many people believe in Him. With joy our Lord proceeded to give them a message of encouragement, a message of strengthening, a message of Gospel. “So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in Him, ‘If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples. And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’” What is that Word? What would be so important that Jesus would encourage us to abide in it, that Luther would take his stand upon it? Sure, it is the Bible, it is the teachings of Jesus, but it is so much more than that. It is a performative Word, a Word that does what it says. It is a Word that declares to you, “Your sins are forgiven,” “You are God’s child,” or even “This is my Body, this is my Blood.” This Word conveys to us the promises of Jesus, for this Word is Jesus Himself. He is the Word of God Incarnate, come to sinful man to give them the Truth.
Luther took His stand on the Word of God because He believed that it proclaimed to Him the truth. This is nothing other than what Jesus promised in our text. “And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” This is not merely intellectual knowledge, but instead knowing the identity of Jesus and knowing what He has come to do. Knowing the truth means knowing that only Jesus can save us, that He has come as God’s Messiah to set us free. Knowing the truth means knowing that we have a God who loves us for the sake of His Son. Knowing the truth means trusting Jesus and Him alone, depending on no one else for our salvation. And when we know this Truth, Jesus promises that we will have what we so desperately need: freedom.
It is on that point that Jesus’ hearers object. “They answered Him, ‘We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, “You will become free.”’” You can imagine the shoulders of Jesus slumping at this statement. He has just given them a beautiful message of encouragement, the promise of freedom thorough Him, and they object to this!? The hearers cannot just receive with joy this wonderful proclamation of the Gospel, but instead complain, “Why do we need freedom? We’re not slaves!” Human beings, not just those who argued with Jesus that day, but you, me, and all people have a certain blind spot when it comes to seeing our own slavery. In America this is especially common, because we drink the sweet nectar of freedom and liberty each and every day, making it almost impossible to see ourselves as anywhere close to slaves. Why would I need freedom? I’m already free, free to do what I want- nothing has a hold on me!
Martin Luther knew that those objections were at best misguided, at worst, outright lies. He knew that we are all slaves to sin, because it was his own crushing awareness of sin that drove him to the Reformation in the first place. He knew that he was a poor, miserable sinner, and all he saw when he went to church was an angry God that wanted to punish him for that sin. The more he tried to amend his life by himself, the more sin wrapped its chains around him. That, my friends, is how sin works. Jesus says, “Truly, truly I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” Sin enslaves us, it binds us and refuses to let us go. We can see this especially with addictive sins like drugs, alcohol, or adultery, but the truth is, all sin works this way. All sin is addictive, from lying, to hurtful thoughts, to anger and gossip. We know from our own experience that this is true, we know that when we indulge in a sin we cannot just stop, but we are dragged deeper and deeper into it until we are truly slaves. This slavery does not end well, as Jesus tells us: “The slave does not remain in the house forever.” Because of our slavery, we have no permanent place in the Father’s house, we will be excluded forever. As Saint Paul teaches: “The wages of sin is death.”
That is what Luther realized- that we were all slaves to sin and that slavery excluded us from the Father’s house for eternity. His search for a merciful God seemed to hit one dead end after another, leaving him nearly in despair. But, as Luther thankfully discovered, this word of condemnation was not the final word on the subject. God had spoken another Word, in fact the Word incarnate, Jesus Christ. This same Jesus said in our text for today, “The son remains forever.” The slaves could not dwell in the Father’s house, but the Son could, and because He had the authority of sonship, He could set the slaves free. “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” And thanks be to God that the Son did exactly that! Jesus Christ came to proclaim freedom to the captives, but not just to speak of freedom, He came to actually break our bonds, to remove the death grip of sin from us and make us ‘free indeed.’ His cross broke our bonds wide open, defeating the power of sin to hold us captive. He suffered there for your release, He shed His blood for your redemption, He allowed Himself to be bound for your freedom. The Son came and put Himself in the place of the slaves, paying for their bondage. Paul declared that “the wages of sin is death,” and on Good Friday Jesus paid that price in full for each and every one of us. Having paid that price, Jesus defeated our last enemy and slavemaster, death, by triumphing over it on Easter Sunday. Death could not hold Him captive, and it will not hold you captive either, for His victory is your victory.
The Son stood in your place, wearing your bonds so that He could break them, and therefore He gives to you the status that He has had from all eternity. Jesus declared, “The slave does not remain in the house forever; the Son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” We are truly set free by the triumph of Christ, just as He is truly the Son of God, as the centurion cried on Good Friday, just as He is truly risen, as the disciples exclaimed on Easter evening. The Word incarnate came to us to proclaim the truth, that God has sent His Son to deliver the world from bondage. And the Son continues to set captives free through the truth of His Word each and every day, and especially when the body of Christ gathers here to receive His gifts. For when a pastor stands before you and says, “As a called and ordained servant of Christ, and by His authority, I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” you are being set free from sin by the powerful Truth of God’s Word. That is how Jesus fights slavery- with forgiveness. We have been released from the eternal bondage of sin and exclusion from God’s house, but as long as we remain in this body and life we still fall into the slavery of sin. That is why Christ continues to work to break bonds each and every day with His Words of forgiveness and release. We live in the forgiveness of Christ, because without it we would easily fall back into bondage. That forgiveness testifies to us our new identity: we are no longer slaves to sin, but instead we are truly freed children of God. And it is the children who dwell in their Father’s house for all eternity.
That is the message that saved Luther, and that is the message that Luther dedicated his life to proclaiming. The entire Reformation was all about proclaiming clearly again the beautiful Gospel of the freedom from sin that Christ won for us. Luther looked around him and saw a Church that refused to proclaim that freedom, instead placing people back under the yoke of slavery. People were pointed to their works for a right relationship with God, and as he found out during his time at the monastery, such a focus on ourselves only has the effect of enmeshing us deeper and deeper in the slavery of sin. We needed a merciful God, and this merciful God came to us in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Luther probably wouldn’t have much joy in seeing his name on church signs, for he would rather not have the focus on himself. Instead, he would find his joy in going inside of those churches and hearing the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ proclaimed clearly to sinners. That is what the Reformation was about, that is why he took his stand before the Emperor, so that sinners could hear the proclamation of the Gospel again. His goal wasn’t to make something new, but instead to proclaim once again to all people the good news: Jesus Christ died to break your chains, and for His sake you will dwell in the Father’s house for all eternity. Thanks be to Jesus for His work of setting us free! In His name, Amen.