Reformation Day (Transferred)
October 30, 2016
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO
In the name of + Jesus.
One of the foundational writings of Reformation thought is Martin Luther’s On the Freedom of a Christian. The thesis of that writing is actually a contradiction: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” At the same time free and duty-bound. Like all good Reformation teachings, the teaching on Christian freedom requires a distinction. In one respect a Christian is entirely free; in another he is entirely bound.
The freedom of a Christian is the freedom of which Christ speaks in today’s Gospel. The teaching on freedom isn’t a general proclamation for all people, but rather a specific warning and comfort for believers. Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in Him, “If you remain in My Word, you are truly My disciple, and you will know the truth, and the truth will free you” (vv 31-32).
Jesus presents two things about a true disciple. First, being a disciple is more about location than behavior. The true disciple remains in Jesus’s Word. It’s about being with Jesus, about seeing things the way He sees them, hearing like He hears, experiencing what He experiences. It’s about a change of perception. He does the work by His Word; you simply remain. But there is a possibility that you will not remain. This happens by your own work, when you assert your vision in place of Jesus’s, when you speak instead of listening, when you reject His experience, which is rejecting the cross. To remain in His Word means that right now you are truly His disciple.
Second, remaining in Jesus’s Word presents a more vivid future to you—you will know the truth and the truth will free you. Now, it’s important to remember that truth—especially in John’s Gospel—isn’t a set of propositions that are set over against false claims. Truth is a person. Jesus says, “I AM the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” (Jn 14:6a). If you remain in Jesus’s Word, you will know the Truth-with-a-capital-T, which is to say that you will know Jesus. And this Truth is what frees you.
The Jews’ response is ironic. They answered Him, “We are seed of Abraham, and we have never been enslaved to anybody. How are you saying, ‘You will become free?’” (v 33). To claim your identity as the seed of Abraham is necessarily to claim your identity a slave who has been freed. Not once, but twice. Every religious ceremony they were required to perform by law was designed to remind them that God had delivered them from slavery and had made them His people. And even then when Jesus spoke these words, the Jews weren’t entirely free. They were under Roman rule, required to pay Roman tribute, and even when they resolved to put Jesus to death, they had to get permission from the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. They had an illusion of freedom, but they were not free indeed.
Whether it was arrogance or ignorance, the Jews who believed in Jesus considered themselves free. But what would happen if we took out “seed of Abraham” and replaced it with “Americans”? “We are Americans, and we have never been enslaved to anybody. How do you say, ‘You will become free’?” Freedom is in our DNA as Americans. Our hymns to the state repeat the refrain, “Let freedom ring!” But whether from arrogance or ignorance, we forget that as a nation, we are defined by slavery. It’s the black eye on the stars and stripes. We forget that at one time one of the freedoms in our country was the freedom to enslave. But, you may say, that is in the past and atoned for by the blood of our own citizens. Fair enough. But don’t let that give you the illusion of freedom.
Here is a more practical example. If you average out all the taxes that you pay—federal, state, and local; income and sales—and front load that amount at the beginning of the year, the first day that the money you make at your job becomes yours is called Tax Freedom Day. It’s the day that you’re free from taxes. In 2016, that day was April 24. That means that for the first almost third of the year, you worked for the government and not for yourself.
You will know the truth and the truth will set you free. Does that mean that Jesus has come to teach you how to break the shackles of bondage that enslave you? There are several flavors of such “liberation” theology that imagine that the Christian faith is all about tossing off whatever oppressors you may find oppressing you. But even the freest nation that ever was does not provide true freedom. Every one of the previous examples has been some sort of civic freedom. But that’s not the bondage that Jesus is concerned about. He’s thinking and speaking on an entirely different level.
The bondage that Jesus would free you from by the truth of His Word is bondage to sin. Jesus answered them, “Amen, amen, I am saying to you: Anyone who commits sin is a slave to sin” (v 34). Jesus’s solemn introduction of the double Amen in John’s Gospel means, “Hey, listen up. What I’m about to say is the foundation for everything I’ve been saying. If you don’t get this, you’re not going to get anything else I say.”
Anyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. That means that sins aren’t occasional misdeeds or slip-ups. They’re not incidental disobediences. If you commit sin—even one sin—it’s because you’re a slave to sin. This is a truth that you cannot arrive at by logic or reason or observation. Only by this revelation of Jesus’s Word can we fully grasp the depth of our condition.
No amount of civic freedom or liberation theology will free you from this bondage, because none of them aim at your sin. None of them aim at fundamentally changing your condition or who you are. They find the problem to be entirely external to you, that you’re simply a victim of circumstance. But Jesus reveals that your slavery is entirely self-made. You commit sin and are thus a slave to sin. It’s nobody’s fault but your own.
But the solution is found in the particular Truth that is revealed in Jesus’s Word. The truth reveals who this Truth is. “The slave does not remain in the household forever;” says Jesus, “the son remains forever. If, therefore, the Son frees you, you will be actually free” (vv 35-36). It’s a proverbial statement that preaches some common sense. Slaves have access to the house, but they are never part of the household. They may receive room and board and even some compensation for their work, and if God blesses a slave with a kind master perhaps even a loving and caring relationship (though more often, given the heart of sinful man, masters are cruel and wicked). But a slave does not receive the inheritance of the household.
But Jesus contrasts the slave with the son. The son is entitled to the household because He is a son. The entire claim of Jesus in John’s Gospel is that He is the Son of God, and that His glory is His crucifixion. These things were written so that you would believe that Jesus is the Christ, God’s Son” (Jn 20:31). Because He is the Son, He is the one who frees. He has the authority to release from slavery—not in a civic sense, but in an onotological sense. That is to say, Jesus really, truly, completely, and fundamentally changes your condition, who you are. He frees you from your slavery to sin by making you a son. This is the new birth from above, which He proclaimed to Nicodemus. By water and the Spirit, Jesus incorporates you first into His death and resurrection where your sins are borne by the Lamb of God, and welcomes you into the family of God with full rights and privileges of a son, and access to the treasures of His household. You share in the divine life of the Holy Trinity, and that is truly freedom.
If the Son sets you free, you are actually free. No imitation. This parallels Jesus first word about discipleship. True disciples know the Truth, and the Truth sets them free. That is only to say that true disciples know Jesus, and Jesus sets them free.
This freedom before God exists in truth, even though you remain bound before the world. In fact, this freedom from sin binds you in an entirely different way. You are bound in love, not only by the love of God in Christ, but in love for your neighbor. This is the second part of Christian freedom. Being free before God, you are duty-bound to sacrifice and reign in your freedom for the sake of your neighbors. Even though there is no condemnation for murderers before God, murder still does harm to your neighbor. To be free before God also means that your neighbor is free before God for the sake of Christ, and not to take that freedom away.
Anyone who commits sin is a slave to sin, but if the Son sets you free, you are actually free. You are no longer a slave to your sin because,
The Son Sets You Free
In the name of + Jesus.
Jacob W Ehrhard