“If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31-32)
The Word of God, the truth of Christ, the freedom of the Gospel are the cause of our rejoicing on this Reformation Sunday. Reformation Day is actually on Friday, October 31st, the Eve of All Hallows, the day an Augustinian friar and professor posted his 95 theses for debate on the door of St. Mary’s church in Wittenberg 491 years ago. Who would have guessed that an academic piece of paper, in Latin no less, would have sparked one of the most significant movements in the history of Christianity? But that is the way of the Gospel – from tiny, insignificant beginnings to something that embraces the world.
What do you think of when you think about the Reformation? Pretty red paraments. Maybe a little Lutheran pride – old Luther sure showed them didn’t he? Or did he? The Roman Church is still around today, reformed to an extent, but still at its heart, the Roman Church. The papacy is still around, though the current pope is German, which might have surprised Luther. The doctrine of justification, the hub around which the Christian doctrinal wheel spins, is still under dispute, that a man is justified by grace through faith in Christ apart from works of the Law. The old “solas” you see on the banner and bulletin cover are still under attack – Scripture alone and not tradition; grace alone and not something in us; faith in Christ alone and not our works. In a sense, the church is ever in need of reformation, always in need of being recalled to the Scriptures, to the undeserved kindness of God, to faith in Christ.
“If you abide in my Word, you are truly my disciples.” You want to be one of Jesus’ disciples, don’t you? Of course, you do. That’s why you’re here. Well, you are truly a disciple of Jesus as you abide in His Word. Now what does that mean? To understand the word “Word” you need to start with Jesus. He is the Word Incarnate, the Word in human flesh. He is the Word through whom everything in the world was made in whom everything in the world holds together. He is the living and active Word of God who called light out of darkness, who separated sea and dry land, who brought forth life. His words are Spirit and they are life; His words are the “words of eternal life.”
To abide in Jesus’ Word is first to hear it. “Blessed are those who hear the Word of God and keep it.” The Word is preached and intended to be heard. And when the Word is heard, watch out, things happen. Mary heard the Word and she conceived the Word in her virginity. The Word heals the leper, opens the ears of the deaf man, unlooses the tongue of the mute, casts out demons, gives sight to the blind, raises the dead. This is no idle Word you hear. Expect it to do things – cut to the heart, convict, reprove, comfort, forgive, restore. This is the Word that said to the paralytic, “Your sins are forgiven,” and “take up your mat and go home.” This is the Word that raises four days dead Lazarus from the grave. This is the Word that goes to death to save the world.
To abide in the Word is to hear it and cling to it in faith. Jesus intends for you to take His Word personally. He’s speaking to you. He was nailed to a cross to save you; He atoned for your sins with His blood; He rescued you from your death by His death and resurrection. He wants you to hear it and trust it.
To abide in the Word is to be baptized, to be washed with water and the Word in the Spirit’s bath of rebirth and renewal, to be sacramentally joined to Jesus in His death and life, to be clothed with Christ, wearing His righteousness like a robe, to be incorporated into His Body, the Church where sins are daily and richly forgiven. We’re prone to forgetting that. Baptism happens once, often at an age when we don’t remember it. Yet, as the Catechism reminds us, Baptism is a daily thing, daily dying to sin, daily rising to new life in Jesus. The power of Baptism is the Word that kills and makes alive. To abide in the Word is to live in Baptism.
To abide in the Word is to eat and drink the Body and Blood of Christ. I fear for the Sacrament in our day. The unbelieving world mocks it, as the unbelieving world always has. Even Christians try to rationalize it, tame it, turn it into an impotent symbol, a sentimental ceremony, anything but the Body and Blood of the Savior. Jesus feeds us. He gives us the sustenance we need to carry us through death to resurrection and life. His Body which has gone the way of death before us. His Blood, His very life, poured out for us and for all in atonement of sin. To abide in the Word is to have the death and life of Jesus as our food, our “daily bread.”
To abide in the Word is to hear the absolving, forgiving Word spoken to the sinner in view of his or her sins. Luther and the Reformers understood our need to hear forgiveness over and over again. That’s why they didn’t abolish the confessional but reformed it. They made it a Gospel place, a place where forgiveness could be heard, a place where a thirsty sinner can still find a good, stiff drink of 200-proof undiluted good news
“You will know the truth.” God’s Word is truth, though people would prefer to turn it into an opinion and a point of view. It is an awesome and awful truth. There is the truth of the Law, delivering the harsh reality of our sin and death, that we are “by nature” sinful and unclean. That apart from Christ we are dead – dead to God, dead to the neighbor, dead even to ourselves. The truth is, we are enslaved to sin and death and cannot begin to free ourselves.
There is the greater truth of Jesus. Jesus is the Truth and He speaks the truth. Grace and truth come through Jesus. He sends the Spirit of truth to lead and guide us into all truth. He prays that His disciples would be sanctified in the truth, “Thy Word is truth.”
To know the truth is to know how great a sinner you actually are, and how great a Savior Christ actually is for you. To know the truth is to know your death and the life that Jesus works through it. To know the truth is to know the wrath of God and the forgiveness that comes in Jesus’ name. In a word, to know the truth is to know Jesus.
“The truth will set you free.” This isn’t an election year political slogan. Jesus doesn’t want or need your vote. This isn’t about political freedom or economic freedom or even religious freedom. Those are temporal freedoms. Jesus is speaking of eternal freedom. First of all, freedom from sin. “Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” That’s our natural born lot in life. We are born under the lordship of Sin, a condition that leads to all sorts of sins. The end of it all is death, the ultimate wages for sin. What Jesus sets us free from is slavery to sin. “Lord Sin no longer has dominion over you.” Now you are under Lord Jesus, which means freedom. “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
Strangely though, we don’t recognize our slavery and so we don’t really know what freedom looks like. The Jews who disputed with Jesus boasted, “We’re descendants of Abraham, we’ve never been in bondage to anyone.” Oh no? What about 400 years in Egypt making bricks for Pharoah’s public works projects? We become so accustomed to slavery to sin we can’t imagine for moment what freedom from sin looks and feels like. “Sin no longer has dominion over you,” the apostle Paul says. You no longer live under the law; now, thanks to Jesus, you live under grace, under mercy, under God’s undeserved, unconditional kindness that justifies the ungodly and calls the sinner “friend” and “disciple.” That’s freedom.
The truth will set you free. It is a freedom from condemnation. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” The debt has been paid once and for all. The slate has been washed clean. The verdict has been read. The jury dismissed. No condemnation. God refuses to deal with you as your sins deserve. The entire burden of your sin was nailed to the cross in Jesus. He bore the verdict “guilty” so that you might hear the verdict “not guilty.” You are free.
An Augustinian friar named Martin Luther heard that verdict of “not guilty for Jesus’ sake” and dared to believe it. He believed it over and against the official teachings of his church, the opinions of his teachers, the popular religious notions of his day. He dared to believe that the apostle Paul was right when he wrote: We hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law. Luther dared to believe that Jesus his Savior had done it all for him, and nothing he did could add to that one perfect life and the one all-sufficient death.
We dare to believe the same. We dare to believe that we stand before God right now, this very instant, justified for Jesus’ sake. It’s the most audacious statement in all the religious world, that a sinner is justified by faith in Jesus apart from anything he or she does. Justified in Jesus, for Jesus’ sake.
“If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Hear that Word and believe it. It is the truth that will set you free.
In the name of Jesus,