Sermon for Reformation Day based on John 8:31-36
Dear heirs of the Reformation: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
“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.’ 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”?’”
Never enslaved to anyone? That simply isn’t true. The offspring of Abraham were enslaved in Egypt by Pharaoh. Pharaoh oppressed them and set taskmasters over them to afflict them with heavy burdens. The Egyptians ruthlessly made the offspring of Abraham to work as slaves and made their lives bitter with hard service. Pharaoh even commanded that every son born to the offspring of Abraham be murdered by throwing them into the Nile (see Ex. 1-5). The offspring of Abraham had been enslaved to the Egyptians.
The offspring of Abraham were also enslaved by the Assyrians. Tiglath-pileser, king of Assyria, overran Israelite cities and carried the people captive to Assyria (II Kings 15:29). Shalmaneser V and Sargon II continued the assault and the capital city of Samaria was captured and the offspring of Abraham were enslaved in Assyria (see II Kings 17:3-6).
The offspring of Abraham were later also enslaved to the Babylonians. King Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem and took it. All the treasures of the king’s house were taken and the vessels in the Lord’s house were smashed and the Lord’s house was burned to the ground along with the king’s house and every other great house. The offspring of Abraham were taken into exile in Babylon while the poorest were left to work the land for the King of Babylon. The offspring of Abraham had been enslaved to the Babylonians (see II Kings 25).
Finally, even at the time that the Jews said to Jesus that they had never been enslaved to anyone, they were not a free people. The Romans had invaded and taken over the land of the offspring of Abraham. Their land was converted into a Roman province and they were forced to pay taxes to Caesar, the Roman emperor, and to follow Roman laws as Roman soldiers marched their streets. The offspring of Abraham were not free. They were enslaved to the Romans even as they told Jesus that they have never been enslaved to anyone.
But is this the slavery to which Jesus was referring? Was Jesus promising freedom from the Roman occupation by abiding in His Word of truth? No, not at all.
Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” This is the slavery Jesus is talking about – slavery to sin. This is the condition of sinful man from conception whether it is realized or not. As surely as these Jews were blind to their slavery to other kingdoms past and present, so they were blind to their slavery to sin.
We also can be blind to our sin. We can argue that we do our best. We look around and see everyone else’s sin and we figure we’re doing better than them. But the Law doesn’t say “Do your best.” The Law says “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” (Mt. 22:37, 39) Have you or have you not? Have you always put God first in everything? You’ve never doubted God or His will? You’ve never desired something that you don’t have? You’ve never spoken about someone behind their back? You’ve never neglected to help someone in need? You’ve never neglecting hearing and reading God’s Word?
In our Epistle we heard, “Now we know that whatever the Law says it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world held accountable to God.” (Rom. 3:19) God’s Law shuts our mouths and our claims of doing our best. The Law shuts our mouths from our excuses, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Rom. 3:23) The Law shuts our mouths because we’re guilty. Whoever commits sin is a slave to sin so we’ve got nothing to say. Our excuses fall short. Pointing fingers doesn’t help. Our claims of having done our best are rubbish.
We cannot save ourselves from the slavery of sin any more than the offspring of Abraham could save themselves from their slavery. The Israelites never got themselves out of slavery; they were helpless at the hands of their oppressors. So also, we cannot get ourselves out of slavery to sin; we are helpless at the hands of sin, death, and the devil. They are more powerful than we are.
But Jesus 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.” What truth is that? The truth that “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” The truth that if the Son of God sets you free from the slavery of sin, you will be free indeed.
Jesus, the Son of God, has set you free by doing what you cannot do. He fulfilled the entire Law of God with all its legal demands. He left no Law undone. He did what you were supposed to do but could not. Then He died on the cross, taking the punishment of all your sins on Himself. He took your chains and shackles of sin onto Himself. He suffered the punishment of hell for you and in your place. He conquered your enemies of sin, death, and the devil and He set you free.
Your freedom is not your doing. It is a gift. In the words of our Epistle, “We are justified by His grace as a gift.” You are declared righteous and pleasing to God not on account of anything you have done or left undone, but on account of what Jesus has done for you. We are justified by faith apart from the works of the Law.
This truth is what the Reformation was all about. It was about returning to the truth of God’s Word that we are not saved by our own works or merits, but by the work and merit of Jesus.
The Reformation was about correcting the lie that we must do our part in salvation; the lie that we are justified through our works not by grace as a gift. The Reformation was about making the truth of God’s Word known once again. It was a return to Jesus’ words, “If you abide in my Word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
Jesus says, “You will know the truth.” You will have certainty concerning the truth. You can say it with conviction. It is not an opinion or a feeling. It’s not wishing or thinking. This flies in the face of what the world says about the truth, that there is no way to know what is really true and we can all hold to different so-called “truths” even when they contradict each other. But Jesus says, “You will know the truth.” You will have certainty concerning the truth. You know the truth with confidence because God says it in His own Word; you know the truth because God tells you and He cannot lie. That truth is: if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. You are justified by His grace as a gift. You are justified by faith apart from the works of the Law.
The offspring of Abraham were never able to free themselves from slavery. They were helpless at the hands of the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, and Romans. God rescued them from slavery in Egypt through the waters of the Red Sea and He has rescued us from the slavery to sin though the waters of Holy Baptism. God rescued the offspring of Abraham from slavery in Babylon by sending Cyrus, king of Persia, to defeat the Babylonians (Is. 44-45; Ez. 1) and God has rescued us from slavery to sin by sending Jesus, His only Son, to defeat our enemies of sin, death, and the devil.
That is the truth of God’s Word. Blindness to your sin does not set you free. Jesus’ death in your place sets you free. Claiming that you’ve never been enslaved to anyone does not set you free. Claiming the merits of Jesus sets you free. Jesus, the Son of God has set you free. Because the Son has set you free, you are free indeed. Amen.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.