In spite of our criticisms, most Americans are thankful for the freedoms, which we enjoy in our country. If we are not, we ought to take a trip to some part of the world where the people live in captivity. I received a new appreciation for my freedom Ð which we can easily take for granted Ð one time while visiting East Germany when the wall still stood.
But after thanking God for our American freedom, we wonder if we are really free. Our Lord takes us a bit further when he talks about another freedom that is even greater than our political freedom. Jesus 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.”
He received a strong reaction from the Jews when he confronted them with the thought that they were not free. “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?”
Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if a Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
Our Lord’s audience was a group of Jewish people who were interested in what Jesus was talking about until he spoke about spiritual freedom. They were tremendously proud to be the children of Abraham. But Jesus wanted them to know that we can be politically free and yet spiritually enslaved. Spiritual freedom is our greater freedom. And as long as you are not in him, you do not have that freedom.
As he told these Jewish people that story, I am sure many left him. And so it is that Jesus says, “If you will hold to this teaching,” not just hear it but hold to this teaching, “you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free. The real truth is in verses 34 and 35: “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if a Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” The real slavery is when our lives are caught by the sinfulness that controls us in so many ways.
This has been true of generations ever since. When Jesus just talks about some of these things on the surface, we can probably go along with it. But when he talks about sin having a hold of us, capturing and controlling us, it is too much and too personal. So once again he says to the people that unless sin is conquered, they are slaves no matter where they live.
Martin Luther understood better than anyone that when your soul is captured, you have no freedom. He went into the monastery because he thought Satan could not get behind those thick walls; he could perhaps overcome his sinfulness and obtain a righteousness he had made himself. I can appear before God righteous and then he will accept me. But Luther soon found out that such things did not work in the monastery either. As a result, he lived a tortuous life.
However, Luther remained a monk, received his doctor’s degree in theology, and became professor of Bible at the University of Wittenberg. While preparing his lectures on the book of Romans, God spoke to him with these mighty words: “For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last just as it is written: ÔThe righteous will live by faith'” (Romans 1:17).
Suddenly his whole life was changed as these words revealed that we have become God’s children by grace through faith in Christ. Now the chains were broken and he was a free man.
In Romans 3 Luther read, “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscience of sin. But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”
This freedom gave Luther the strength to remain faithful to God’s revelation, and consequently he defied both the Emperor and the Pope. Luther stood at the Diet of Worms and said, “Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason Ð I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other Ð my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.”
And that is the message for us today, as well. When are we free? Only when Jesus Christ has set us free are we truly free, for unless our sins are forgiven, we are the slaves to sin. Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching (abide in my word), . . . then you will be free.”
Bishop J. C. Ryle has written a wonderful paragraph on this matter of abiding in the word. “To make a beginning in religious life is comparatively easy. But when the newness has passed and is gone, when the world and the devil begin to pull at us, then we discover the deep wisdom of our Lord’s teachings. It is not just beginning, but continuing a religious profession that is the test of true grace.”
This is the message of the Reformation. Knowing the heart and sinfulness of human beings, I present a question to you today: Do we need an ongoing reformation in the church?
Is the church today perhaps something like it was in the sixteenth century with all the corruptions that have come in, all the adjustments that have been made to fit into the lifestyle of the day? If it is, we need a reformation so everything contrary to the Word of God can be swept up, and we can start again. If there is any other teaching than the only way to heaven is through faith in Jesus Christ, then it has to go. Anything that cheapens grace has to go.
Is it time for an ongoing reformation? We thank God for the reformation and the heritage it has given us. We also thank God for the blessings that have been given to us as a American people. But more than that on this Reformation Sunday, we thank him that in Christ Jesus we may experience what real freedom is all about.