In the first verse of our text for the Festival of the Reformation we hear: “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.’” The reason that there was a Reformation was because, sadly, as the centuries went by the Church didn’t abide in Christ’s word.
While the story of this deviation may be long and complex, the reasons for it are really very simple. We can illustrate it by two verses from the Gospel of John. First, Jesus says in John chapter 3, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Our Lord revealed that sinful fallen nature gives birth to sinful fallen nature. Only the Spirit of God can give spiritual life. People must be born again of water and the Spirit.
And the second verse is from chapter six where Jesus says, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” Jesus expresses the same truth in a different way. Because we are conceived and born as fallen sinful people – as flesh – we have no desire or ability to make a move toward God. Instead, only God can call us to faith through the work of his Spirit.
This means that as we are conceived and born into this world, our human spiritual abilities amount to nothing. Actually, they are worse than nothing because as flesh – as sinful, fallen nature – we are opposed to God. Now this is what Scripture reveals about man. But you can understand why people really don’t want to hear it. Who wants to be told that they have nothing to offer exact opposition to God?
We are, after all, people who are hardwired to understand the Law. That’s what St.Paul said when he told the Romans, “For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them
on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.”
The work of the law is written on our hearts. We are created with an understanding of how the law works. The law says you must do something to get something. There is no such thing as a free lunch. This is how life works, and so by nature, people want to believe that this is how their relationship with God works. They want to believe that they have a role to play, because then they also get some credit for being saved.
So over the centuries the idea arose that man has not lost all spiritual abilities. Instead we have been “wounded.” With God’s grace to heal us, we can get back in the game and have a role to play. Now as these ideas developed in the Western Church, no one was ever going to deny that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ was the reason we are forgiven. That is so biblically obvious that it is basically impossible to mess that part up.
However, the Church did not remain in Christ’s Word – in Scripture, the Word of God. And so she began making her own distinctions that were all aimed at putting us back into the game – at giving us a role to play. The theologians in the Church said that Christ’s death and resurrection forgave the guilt of sin. It forgave this. However, by sinning a person had offended God’s honor. Therefore the Christian still owed God something – there was a penalty to pay.
This penalty was called penance. A Christian had to do things in order to pay off the penalty. Over time a whole series of practices developed – saying the Lord’s prayer multiple times; going on pilgrimages; paying for Masses to be said for oneself or another. But the problem was that the penalty far outpaced the ability of the individual to pay it off by what he or she did during this life.
And so the teaching about purgatory came into play. If you were a baptized Christian receiving the Sacraments of the Church and doing penance, you were on your way to salvation. But at death, any penalty that was still owed to God had first to be dealt with by time in purgatory. This was described as a fiery ordeal of purification. This was not a pleasant experience. It was something you wanted to avoid – or at least shorten the time there – in any way possible. The problem was that the system was set up in a way such that people racked up thousands and thousands of years in purgatory.
Now if you were really serious about your salvation, you did what Martin Luther did. You entered into “religious life” – you became a monk or a nun. This was basically a life of penance. Another option available was to buy an indulgence. This was still connected to some action of penance but by buying an indulgence you could get a much larger amount of penalty – of time in purgatory – removed.
At the beginning of the sixteenth century, this is how Christianity in western Europe worked. The life of the Christian revolved around doing enough penance to escape purgatory and thereby have true salvation with God. Martin Luther was deeply serious about his eternal welfare. He through himself into doing this theological system that the Church had created. But he found that it provided no peace.
Because of what Scripture actually teaches, this was inevitable. Jesus says in our text this morning, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” The Lord Jesus pointed to himself as the source of truth and freedom.
But when those who had believed in him heard this they answered, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?” Now the statement itself was absurd. After all the Israel had been conquered and ruled by the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Seleucids and the Romans. In fact between 587 BC and Jesus’ day, the Jews had only ruled themselves for about one hundred years.
However, Jesus was speaking about a far deeper spiritual truth. Jesus answered them and said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” As people who are conceived and born as fallen and sinful, sinning comes naturally. Even after we have been born again of water and the Spirit in Holy Baptism, there is still the old Adam present that seeks to draw us back into sin and causes us to commit sin in thought, word and deed. If you are going to base things on doing – on the Law – then the end result will always be enslavement to sin.
This is what Martin Luther discovered. Our life is one ongoing struggle against sin in which we often fail. In fact we sin in ways that we don’t even recognize. As soon as you link your salvation to any aspect of doing, the question will always arise: “How do I know that I have done enough?”
Martin Luther was a spiritually troubled, but intellectually gifted Augustinian monk. He was sent to do advanced study in Scripture and theology, eventually receiving a Doctor of Theology. He was assigned to teach on Scripture at the University of Wittenberg. In the course of those studies he did abide in Jesus’ word. The more he studied Scripture, the more he realized that our doing has no part in salvation. Instead, he recognized that we are saved on account of Christ alone – Jesus’ death as the sacrifice for our sins and his resurrection by which he defeated death. We are saved by grace alone – God’s undeserved loving favor shown towards us in his Son Jesus. He learned that we are saved by faith alone – faith in Jesus Christ our crucified and risen Lord.
In our text Jesus says, “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.” Only the Son of God can free us from sin. John the Baptist saw Jesus approaching and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” God the Father sent the Son into world as the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Jesus Christ came to be the sacrifice that atoned for sin – that removed the sin that cut us off from God and put us under his judgment. In his first epistle the apostle John wrote, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”
It was God’s unmerited and undeserved love that prompted him to do this. And now this forgiveness and salvation is received by faith in Jesus Christ. Our Lord said, “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”
The Reformation break through was based on Scripture alone. It occurred as Luther abided in Christ’s word. It was the rejection of every attempt by fallen man to bring the law back in as a means by which people receive forgiveness. It was a rejection of all theology that uses human reason to give us a role to play in receiving salvation. Christ alone, grace alone and faith alone humbles man, even as it gives assurance of forgiveness and salvation because this is God’s work from beginning to end in Christ. And because it is God’s work it is certain and sure.
That’s about where our Reformation sermons often end. But that’s not where Jesus or the Scriptures stop. All is based on God’s love and forgiveness in Christ by which we receive salvation through faith. Freed from trying to do things to be saved, this faith now acts in love serving the neighbor. Jesus said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” John went on to say in his first epistle, “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”
Because this is what Scripture says, this is what Martin Luther also said. He wrote in a brief work entitled, “What Should Be Sought and Expected in the Gospels” that, “The main point and basis of the Gospel is that before you grasp Christ as an example, you must first receive and apprehend him as a gift and present given to you by God to be your own.” But then he went on to say, “When you now have Christ in that way as the basis and chief blessing of your salvation, then the second part follows, namely that you take him as an example and devote yourself to serving your neighbor, just as you see that he devoted himself to you. Then faith and love are both active, God’s commandment is fulfilled, and the person is cheerful and fearless to do and suffer anything.”
As we celebrate the Festival of the Reformation, we give thanks to God that he used his servant Martin Luther to bring the pure Gospel back into the Church. On the basis of Scripture alone, Luther directed believers to Christ alone, by grace alone and through faith alone. Freed from thinking that we need to do things in order to be forgiven and saved, he showed that our faith is now free to act in love toward our neighbor just as Jesus Christ loved us.