In the verse just before our text John states, “As he was saying these things, many believed in him.” In the verses that proceed this Jesus has said, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me. And he who sent me is with me. He has not left me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to him.”
It is these words that have caused his hearers to believe in Jesus. However, it quickly becomes clear that this “belief” is a very shallow one. We learn in our text that Jesus said to those who 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.”
Inherent in Jesus’ statement is the claim that apart from Jesus they are not free. And the Jews who were listening to Jesus – who had “believed” in Jesus - immediately took offense at this. They said, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?”
Clearly, Jesus had struck a nerve, because their response was absurd. The land of Israel and the Jews had been conquered and ruled by the Assyrians, the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Ptolemies, the Seleucids and the Romans. In fact between 587 BC and Jesus’ day, the Jews had only ruled themselves for about one hundred years.
Our Lord’s answer to them reveals that he is talking about a profound reality that goes beyond anything they are willing to admit, or can even perceive. He stated, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 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.”
Jesus expressed that sin is an enslaving force. It enslaves people, and apart from God’s saving action in Christ, this sin demonstrates the one who is really lord over a person’s life. Those interacting with Jesus had appealed to the fact they were the offspring of Abraham. So Jesus responded, “I know that you are offspring of Abraham; yet you seek to kill me because my word finds no place in you. I speak of what I have seen with my Father, and you do what you have heard from your father.”
The Jews were now rejecting Jesus, and so our Lord told them, “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father's desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me.”
Jesus’ language about freedom and slavery reveals the true nature of humanity. Earlier, he had told Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Our Lord declared that a person must be born again. He expressed why this was so when he went on to say, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Since the disobedience of Adam in the Garden of Eden, sinful, fallen people have given birth to sinful, fallen people. We are conceived and born as sinners for whom the devil is lord.
By ourselves, we are slaves to the devil and sin. Yet Jesus says in our text, “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” The Son has set us free from sin. He did it when he was lifted up on the cross. John says in his first epistle that “the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin.” He added later that the Son of God, “appeared in order to take away sins; and in him there is no sin.”
Jesus Christ died on the cross. But death could not hold him, because on the third day God raised Jesus from the dead. He is now the source of forgiveness and life. The Spirit who proceeds from the Father and the Son has given us this life. He did it in Holy Baptism as we were born again of water and the Spirit.
We have been born again. But at the same time, the old Adam still clings to us. As John says in his first epistle, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” In ourselves, there will always be a struggle against sin. This means that if we tie salvation in any way to our actions and our doing, we can never have peace.
That was the very situation that existed during the medieval period in the Church. Everyone knew that Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection from the dead was the reason for forgiveness. Everyone knew that God’s grace was what made it possible to be a Christian. Yet from that starting point, Christianity was defined as a matter of doing. It was a matter of gaining merit before God.
The central focus of the Christian life was penance. A Christian confessed sins to a priest, and received absolution. This absolution forgave the guilt of their sin. However, medieval theology had developed the idea this was not sufficient in order to have fellowship with God and eternal life. The sinner had offended God and so there was a penalty to be paid – a debt owed to God.
The merits earned in penance were the means by which this debt was paid. The problem was that each sin required penance. The individual was constantly adding to the penance that was owed. The person confessed sin and received penance they were to do. The individual had to do the penance, or else the absolution was negated and the process itself became a mortal sin. So priests assigned a small action, like saying a certain number of Our Fathers. Yet this didn’t come close to covering the full penance that was owed.
The penance – the penalty owed to God – was always growing. And the problem was that if a person died without paying off this penalty, they would find themselves facing thousands upon thousands of years in purgatory. Purgatory was described as a fiery place of suffering that the individual had to endure before finally entering heaven.
Christianity at the beginning of the sixteenth century was defined by doing. It was about acquiring as much merit as possible to avoid – or at least minimize the time in purgatory. And so Christians fasted. They went on pilgrimages. They paid for Masses to be said. They bought indulgences that promised to remove years from the time in purgatory.
But if you were really serious about being a Christian – if you truly wanted to be “religious” you became a monk or a nun. Martin Luther was certainly very serious about being a Christian. His eternal salvation was the central focus of his life. He entered a monastery of the Augustinian Order, and there he pursued the life of monk with all the rigor that was possible for a person. It is widely believed that the health problems Luther experienced later in life were caused by physical damage done during his life as a monk.
What Luther did not find in this life was peace. He was keenly aware of his sins, and knew that he was in a losing battle to do enough. Luther was spiritually troubled, but also had a brilliant mind. He was sent to pursue graduate studies in theology, and eventually to teach at the University of Wittenberg. There he encountered indulgences that were being sold in a nearby area. There were aspects of this that troubled him and so he posted his famous 95 Theses as the topic for an academic disputation. Without Luther knowing, the 95 Theses were published and distributed throughout Germany, and also translated into German.
God used that event, and Luther, in ways that Luther himself never expected. Luther was forced to turn to the Scriptures and as he studied God’s Word he discovered two things. First, he learned that forgiveness is a free gift from God. It is something given by God’s grace – his undeserved loving favor. It is something given on account of Christ’s death and resurrection. It is something that is received by faith. As Jesus says in our text this morning, “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
When God gives forgiveness, there is nothing more to be done! He gives it complete and whole because of Christ. And thank God that there is nothing more to be done, because our doing is always marred by sin. If our doing is involved in way in receiving salvation, then we can never know if we have done enough.
The second thing Luther discovered was that many things being taught by the Church at that time were not found in Scripture, or in fact contradicted it. Like the distinction between “guilt” and “penalty” it was the teaching of men repeated over and over until everyone believed it was true.
Luther discovered that the teaching of the Church must be based on Scripture alone. It must be based on actual statements in the prophetic and apostolic Word of the Old and New Testament. This is the source of revelation from God, not what people in the Church have said in the centuries that followed.
Yet on this Festival of the Reformation, we also need to avoid a common misunderstanding about Luther. Luther denied that doing has any part in why we are forgiven and saved. But he was also adamant that those who have been saved by faith in Christ now do works.
Luther wrote that first we must receive Christ as a gift by faith. But then he went on to say: “When you now have Christ in that way as the basis and 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 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.”
On this Festival of the Reformation, we give thanks to God that he used his servant Martin Luther to make the Gospel clear in the life of the Church once again. Forgiveness and salvation is a gift from God – it is by his grace. He gives it on account of the death and resurrection Jesus, and it is received through faith alone. There is nothing more to do. There is nothing more than can be done. As Jesus says in our text today, “So if the Son sets you free, you will be freed indeed.”