“By Scripture Alone” | John 8:31-32 | Reformation Day

Do you think that people prefer freedom or slavery? If you answer the question quick without thinking, I’ll bet that you’ll say, “Freedom.” Of course, we prefer freedom to slavery. We want to be the masters of our own destinies. I’ll bet some of you are itching to throw some Abraham Lincoln quotes at me. And we’re celebrating the reformation, isn’t this a day when we celebrate spiritual freedom? We’re Lutheran, we have the truth. We’re not, as Martin Luther might say, “under the tyranny of the Pope.” We’re free, aren’t we? It’s all well and good that should look at the difference between freedom and slavery, because it’s what Jesus wants us to consider in the Gospel for today. If we look hard at what Jesus says, I think we might see that we’re not as free as we might hope. I think we might even realize that we’re not as Lutheran as we might hope. So, we’re going to talk about that. We’re going to see how when we hold to the principle of by Scripture alone, (1) we know the truth, and (2) we are set free.

Jesus’s words come from the middle of a longer sermon. He’s been going back and forth with his opponents and others. It seems like he’s really coming to a main point in this section, though. Jesus has explained how he has come from the Father to be lifted up to die for the sins of all people. While he’s preaching this, it says that many believed in him. And maybe there was a small kernel of faith planted in their hearts. Maybe that’s why Jesus tells them what he does. Because their response to what Jesus says doesn’t sound at all like a response of faith. Listen to some of the things they say while Jesus is preaching: “Aren’t we right in saying that you are a Samaritan and demon-possessed?” (8:49), “Here you are, appearing as your own witness; your testimony is not valid” (8:13), or “Are you greater than our father Abraham? He died, and so did the prophets. Who do you think you are?” (8:53). And you can’t miss how the sermon ends: “They picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds” (8:59).

If there was kernel of faith in their heart, Jesus is trying to protect it. He does that with a warning and a promise. He gives them law and gospel. (It’s almost like Jesus is a good Lutheran.) He said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (8:31-32). They were questioning his teaching, and so he points it out. There’s the warning for them. Are they really holding to his Word? Are they really believing in his teaching? Because that is the only way that they can know the truth. It’s only through his teaching that they can know the truth about themselves and the truth about God. Were they really holding to that? Jesus wanted them to examine themselves and see if they were truly his disciples, to see if they really know the truth, to see if they were truly free.

If they examined their hearts, they would see that they weren’t free. They were in a slavery that was crueler and nastier than we can imagine. Isn’t it obvious from their objections to what Jesus says? It’s like they skip over his point altogether because they’re trying to win the argument. They aren’t concerned with being right, so much as looking right. So, they said, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?” (8:33). They can’t see what is false behind their words. They are asserting that what truly matters is their descendancy. Abraham is their forefather, and that gives them a leg up spiritually. It’s was like their get into heaven free card.

They couldn’t see the truth, that they were really enslaved. So, Jesus points it out to them, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin” (8:34). Here was what they had missed. Here was the truth that they needed. They hadn’t held to Jesus’ teachings, because Jesus wanted them to see their sin. He wanted them to know what kind of lives they were really leading. Or rather, what kind of life they were being led to. Because he was talking to slaves. Their wills, their desires, their thoughts, emotions—even their souls—their entire being was controlled by sin. There was only one way to be free from that, and Jesus would give them that truth, too.

But that truth would only come through him. That’s why he talked about slaves and sons. A slave can’t free another slave. Only someone with true authority could do that. Could they see that truth? “Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever.  So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (8:35-36). Abraham was a sinful man. You can go to the book of Genesis and read about how he committed one sin after another. How could Abraham set them free from their own sin? Abraham didn’t have that authority. That was authority that only came through the truth, and the truth came through Jesus Christ. So, here he was, the Son, God’s only begotten, with the truth and authority to set them free from their sin.

It is that very truth that we celebrate at the Reformation. By God’s grace, he has given us faith to hold to the teachings of Christ. By this faith, we are Jesus’s disciples. But, we should not think that we can’t end up like these opponents of Jesus. Our hearts are sinful like theirs, drawn to our own understanding of things, and even fighting against Christ’s teachings. We live among sinful people who have no regard for God’s Word and would gladly convince us that God’s Word is untrue. Our greatest enemy still prowls around, longing to take away the truth from us. Christ wants you to know the truth. He wants to be his disciple. And so he takes you and he establishes you in his Word. He roots you in the truth, in himself, so that you will be unshakeable as you trust in him.

He makes you his disciple, and teaches you to treasure the truth. His Word is the one sure place that you can find words that are always right, always true, always powerful. These are the words that carry along with them the promise of the Holy Spirit. These are the words that will show you how great a sinner you are, but how much greater a Savior Jesus is. That’s the truth. It’s why we hold to the Scriptures with all that we are. There is nothing more important than the teachings about Christ. This is a gift he has given us and no matter what another church body or religion or the world says, we will not give it up. Let them try to take it from us. We would rather be Christ’s disciples.

I get the sense that I should quote Luther, since it is Reformation day. Here’s what Luther says about this topic: “From the beginning of my Reformation I have asked God to send me neither dreams, nor visions, nor angels, but to give me the right understanding of His Word, the Holy Scriptures; for as long as I have God’s Word, I know that I am walking in His way and that I shall not fall into any error or delusion” (LW II:268). That’s a confidence that we can have, too. As long as you hold to Christ’s teaching, you are his disciples. You know the truth. Not a truth, not a falsehood, not something that will change like the wind, but rather the unshakeable, steadfast facts about your Savior.

By Scripture alone, when you hold to that truth, you become Christ’s disciple, and he makes you free. He takes you from the realm of slavery to sin and into his realm, the Kingdom of his Word. Friends, this is the only true freedom there is. Picture freedom the way Christ does. It is not being able to do whatever you want, it is not accepting every idea that wind blows in. True freedom from Christ is remaining in one the one place of Christ’s Word and never departing from there.

Abraham could never bring true freedom to those Jews, but the Son could. It was the Son of God who had the authority to set them free from their sins. That’s the whole reason he was talking to them about how he would be lifted up. He would set them free from their sin by being lifted up on a cross and hanging there until he died. Was Abraham lifted up for them? He wasn’t, but Christ would be. That was the one truth they needed to be set free from their slavery. His teaching was the only way it would come to them.

Imagine that freedom in your life. The freedom to call the false things false, and true things true. That is part of the freedom of trusting God’s Word. So that when you hear the devil telling you lies, like “Your God is not pleased with you,” or, “You can get away with doing that, no one will know,” you, O disciple of Jesus Christ, holder of the truth, can show him he is wrong. In the world, when you hear lies all around you, lies like, “You’ll be happy if you can just buy this thing,” or, “Christians are unloving if they point out sins,” you can recognize the lie behind those words. When suffering and heartbreak enters your life and your heart whispers, “God must not love me anymore,” or, “I must try harder to please God,” even then you can see all of that is false. Because Christ’s teachings show you the cross, they show you his unearned grace given to you, they show you that you are free people.

You might be surprised to learn that the Bible has instructions for people who are slaves. The instructions, though, are not to try and run away because slavery is evil, or to begrudgingly serve and make life difficult and unhappy. In fact, it’s the opposite, in the book of Colossians it says, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving” (Colossians 3:22-24). But, maybe that doesn’t surprise you. Those people, even though they were slaves on the outside, on the inside they were free. They knew the truth, that they had an eternal inheritance from the Lord. So, they could serve and work as slaves, confident in the Lord.

One last Luther quote: “You must bear this in mind. ‘Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.’ Both hell and death are his masters. He cannot escape them. How, then, can I become free? Men answer: ‘I will erect a chapel, endow an eternal Mass, go on pilgrimages, fast, become a monk, etc.’ But Christ says, ‘That is [not] the right way! No, let Him who is called the Son of God deliver you from sin; then you are free. If you give yourself to Him and let Him set you free, all is well’” (LW 23:411). Friends, it is by Scripture alone that you learn the truth and are set free. Rejoice in that truth and freedom. Happy Reformation day. Amen.

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