Really, Truly Free
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The text for today is John 8:31-32: “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.’”
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Our text, like many other passages of Scripture, is often misused and taken out of context. The words “the truth will set you free” are isolated, so that any learning that might help us to find “truth” (whatever that may be) is praised. We see the words on libraries and as secular college mottoes. We hear them on the lips of our post-modern intellectual and political leaders. But we don’t hear Whose Word reveals the truth that sets us free. We don’t hear Who is the Truth that sets us free. And we don’t hear what it means to be really, truly free.
And unfortunately this redefining of truth and freedom is not limited to the outside world. This goes on in many a church body that calls itself Christian—even among some that claim to be spiritual descendants of Martin Luther. In the name of tolerance, sin is recast as “choice” or “alternative lifestyle.” Or morality is taught, but at the expense of the Gospel, as pastors preach principles of Christian living rather than Christ crucified for sinners. Truth, it seems, is as difficult to nail to the wall as the Jell-O salad that Garrison Keillor claims so typifies us Lutherans.
Jesus originally spoke the words of our text to those whose belief in Him was superficial. They were “hangers on,” but not really disciples. And just as there’s no such thing as “almost pregnant,” there is no such thing as “almost a disciple.” You either are or you are not. There are no half measures. Discipleship means accepting all of Jesus’ teaching and remaining faithful to it. That’s what Jesus means when He says to “abide in My Word”—to hold to His teaching, to trust His promises.
We still have Jesus’ Word today. His Word leads us to Him and keeps us with Him. Here we learn the truth that sets us free. We learn that Jesus is the Son of God sent from God to save us from sin, taking on our mortal flesh and our sin and suffering God’s righteous wrath and condemnation for our sin on the cross. We learn that Jesus leads us to our heavenly Father. We learn that the Holy Spirit calls us to faith through the Word. This truth set us free—free from the curse of sin, free from death, free for eternal life.
But we see from our Gospel, it’s not just a recent phenomenon that people misunderstand and misapply Jesus’ words. The unbelievers in the crowd challenged Jesus’ offer of freedom. They claimed a freedom already that not even the occupational forces of Rome could harness. They were children of Abraham. They supposed that gave them special status with God. They were not and never would be slaves to anyone. Who was Jesus to tell them they needed to be freed?
Jesus explained where they were wrong. Not only were they ignoring a bit of inconvenient truth concerning their history (Egyptian bondage and Babylonian captivity) and their present circumstances (Roman rule), they also misunderstood freedom. True freedom is not a matter of being direct descendants of Abraham or defying earthly captors. It is the universal truth that everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Only those set free from sin are really, truly free.
Slaves become part of a household and even experience some of the benefits of the household. But they can never be sure of their future status; they can be sent away at any time because they have no lasting claims. By contrast, a son belongs in the household forever. He is family. The Jews’ connections with Abraham brought them into the household, but their sinfulness made them slaves. To be free, they needed the Son of the heavenly Father to set them free from their sins. Then they could claim family privileges in the household. Then they could be really, truly free.
From 1st century Jerusalem, fast forward 1500 years to Wittenberg, Germany. A young monk named Martin Luther was sure that God was angry with him. He knew he didn’t measure up. He was convinced he was going to hell. In the Scriptures, there was the righteousness God required. Luther knew he didn’t have it. But it certainly wasn’t from lack of trying. Luther was serious about his faith. He fasted and prayed for days on end. He went on pilgrimages and did penance. He’d go to Confession so often his father confessor told him to come back when he had real sins to confess. But, there was no comfort. No peace.
Slavery. That’s what that is. Slavery to sin. Slavery to not being able to live up to God’s Law. Martin Luther was a slave, and he knew it because he took God’s Word and his own sin seriously, much more seriously than most of us from the baby boom, x or y generations. Like Jesus’ Jewish opponents we refuse to acknowledge that we are slaves to anything, much less our own sin and shortcomings. Even worse, heavily influenced by the moral relativism of our post-modern age we have a difficult time accepting anything as absolute truth that might point out sin in our lives. We are really, truly slaves.
We are all slaves to sin. Don’t believe me? Check yourself in the mirror of God’s Law. Do you fear, love, and trust in God above all things? Do you honor God’s name, calling upon Him in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks? Do you hold God’s Word sacred and gladly hear and learn it? Do you honor your parents and other authorities? Do you help and support your neighbor in every physical need? Do you lead a sexually pure and decent life in what you think, say, and do? Do you help your neighbor improve and protect his possessions? Do you defend your neighbor’s reputation, speak well of him, and explain his actions and words in the kindest way? Are you satisfied with those people and things God has placed in your life? Do you do all of these things perfectly? All the time? Freely, without ulterior motives?
An honest examination will show you your sin. And the closer you look, the more you will see just how pervasive this sin is. Sin is not like a pair of dirty socks—something on the outside that you can just cast off. No, sin infects you to the core of your soul. It touches everything you do, influences every thought you think, every word you say, every emotion you feel. By nature, you are sinful—full of sin. In that utter sinfulness, you are so blinded that you cannot see the danger you are in. You are so dead that there is no way you can make yourself free.
You were born a slave to sin. And deny it as you might, that is the reality of life apart from faith in Christ. With slavery comes fear—for the slave isn’t part of the family. Not a child of God. And if you aren’t sons of God… if you aren’t part of God’s family… then you are lost. Really, truly lost.
The more Dr. Luther tried to get right with God, the worse he felt. The more he read the Scriptures, the more they seemed closed to him. The more God was unapproachable. The more God seemed only to be a wrathful judge. Then, he came to this verse: “The righteous shall live by faith.”
Live by faith. Is that true? Could it be that easy? Could it be that free? Are you really made righteous not by what you do or don’t do, but by what Christ did for you? Does His perfect life, death, and resurrection count for you? Yes, it does! For when the Son sets you free, you are free indeed. Free from the slavery to your sins. Free from a bad conscience. Free from the slavish fear of God. Free from hell. Free from suffering. Free from eternal death. Really, truly free!
St. Paul says, “We maintain that a man is justified by grace apart from works of Law.” We maintain that we are saved by Jesus, not by what we do, don’t do, have done, or try to do. We maintain that what Christ did on the cross counts for you and me. His righteousness is credited to us by faith. That realization—that the righteous shall live by faith—opened the Scriptures for Dr. Luther! He ran through the entire Bible and found the Gospel everywhere.
Are we slaves to sin? Yes, all who sin are slaves to sin.
Are we free? Also yes. When the Son sets you free, you are free indeed.
That’s the proper distinction of Law and Gospel. That’s justification by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Once Dr. Luther understood this truth, everywhere he looked in the Scriptures, he found Jesus Christ crucified for him, for you, for me, for the world. He found comfort for troubled consciences. He found forgiveness of sins. Heaven for free! Free and for all! Free on account of Christ.
Free for you and me, that is. But, that doesn’t mean it was easy. It doesn’t mean that it was free. This freedom came at great cost: the cost of the life of the Son of God. He was treated as a slave. He was stripped down. He was beaten as if he had been unfaithful. He was bruised for our iniquities, crushed for our transgressions, lifted up for our sins. He died our death. He suffered our hell.
Christ has set you free. His death set you free. It bought you back, redeemed you from slavery to sin, death, and the power of the devil. You are not saved by anything that you do or don’t do, but by Christ’s holy and precious blood. It’s not about you… it’s about Christ for you. Only Jesus who lived a perfect life in your place. Only Jesus crucified for your sins. Only Jesus risen from the dead for you. Only Jesus ascended into heaven interceding for you at the right hand of the Father. Only Jesus present for you now in His means of grace—His Word and Sacrament. That’s the Gospel. Thank God!
If you think you are free because of whom you are or what you have done, you are sadly mistaken. If you think you are holy and have no need of forgiveness, then I have nothing for you today. In fact, I can do you no good. As Luther said many times, “God save me from a church of holy people.” But, if you have a bad conscience… if you know that there is something that you have done that makes God angry… if you know that you have no hope, no life, no salvation of yourself… then I have something for you—the truth that sets you free.
When the Son sets you free, you are free indeed. You are really, truly free. Free to repent of the evil things that you have done. Free to care for those around you. Free to love those who are unloving, unlovable! Free to forgive those who don’t deserve forgiveness. Free to care for the weak. Free to pass the faith on to the next generation. And most importantly—free from sin, free from death, and free from hell. Free to live in the Gospel, knowing you are forgiven for all your sins. In the name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.