Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
John 8:31-36 31 So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” 33 They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?” 34 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. 35 The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. 36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.
Truth and freedom—both are precious to each one of us. We want others to tell us the truth, not lies. We talk about truth in advertising. We are concerned that politicians and officials speak truthfully. And as Americans, we know about freedom. We treasure our liberties—the freedom to worship without persecution from the government, the freedom to vote for the candidate of our choice, the freedom to travel when we want, and so forth. Yes, truth and freedom are both precious. People have fought and died for the sake of truth and freedom.
Our text for this Reformation deals with truth and freedom. The word “truth” does not signify simply the ordinary meaning of the word or a philosophical concept. Jesus talks about the truth—the ultimate truth, the highest truth, the truth that is of greatest importance for every human being. The Reformation led by Martin Luther was concerned with this truth. In our text, Jesus says that
The Truth Sets Free.
Tied in with “the truth” are the matters of spiritual freedom and slavery, of everlasting life and everlasting death. From the text we see that the truth that sets free is needed by all, and that this truth is the Word of Christ.
Every single human being needs the truth that sets free. This truth shows us that there is a God, who this God is, that there is a heaven and a hell; and that everyone one of us by nature are heading for everlasting torment in hell. It follows that all who do not have and believe “the truth” have and believe what is not “the truth,” namely, what is untrue, deceptive, false. But the truth sets us free and shows us that there is everlasting life, freedom from hell, deliverance from eternal punishment, and salvation in Jesus Christ, our Lord. That is the truth that sets us free.
Today in this country, we encounter not a few but several religious and philosophical systems. In polls of Americans, the majority of respondents said all religions are valid. We are asked to be broad-minded, to be good sports and confess that “it really doesn’t matter what a person believes as long as he or she is sincere in that belief,” or, “there are many different roads to heaven.” But we are being asked to accept what is untrue, to recognize gods that do not exist. The people holding to these religious or philosophical systems are believing falsehood.
Martin Luther, in the early part of his life, was living under a false concept of reality; he did not have the truth that sets free. He was taught, and he believed, that a person could earn God’s favor and salvation by performing good works. Thus Luther felt that his salvation depended on what he did, that he had to win his salvation, that everything depended on his efforts. But this is not the way a person is saved. Luther was operating under a false concept of God and salvation.
These examples show that the truth that sets free is needed by all, for those who do not have this truth are slaves of falsehood, of unreality.
But at the bottom of this belief in falsehood is the fact that all people are sinful. The Bible says, “Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins” (Eccl 7:20). No one is without sin. This included Martin Luther; this includes you and me.
Jesus says, moreover, that everyone who does sin is the slave of sin. Not only are people sinful, but left to themselves, they are ruled by sin; they are helpless before sin; they cannot break away from sin. Jesus’ phrase “doing sin” includes all forms of sin: wrong acts, leaving undone what should be done, bad thoughts, ungodly words. No one left to himself or herself is righteous before God; no one can earn salvation. The Bible says that the wages of sin is death (Rom 6:23); this includes everlasting death, damnation in hell forever. Therefore, all need the truth that sets free because all, left to themselves, are the slaves of sin. Luther was tormented by the realization that no matter how good he tried to be, he still sinned, and that he could never do enough to earn God’s favor. He knew he was a slave of sin, and thus he feared that he could never be saved.
The truth that is so desperately needed, this truth that sets free, is the Word of Christ. It includes both Law and Gospel. The Law shows people their sin and their need for the Savior. But the Gospel is the liberating truth. This truth the Son of God revealed to the prophets of the Old Testament. This truth he spoke during his earthly ministry. This truth he continued to speak through his apostles and still speaks to us today through the writings of his prophets and apostles—the Holy Scriptures.
This spiritual reality is that God the Father sent his Son to be the Substitute for every human being. The Son of God became a man. This God-man, Jesus Christ, lived a perfect life for each of us. He also took all our sins upon himself and made total payment for these sins by his suffering and death on a cross. But God raised him from the dead, thereby indicating that he fully accepted Christ’s sacrifice for us. Jesus Christ has redeemed the whole world; he has made full atonement for all people’s sins.
Through faith in Jesus, which God works in us through the Gospel, we have forgiveness of sins and everlasting life. We are set free from the bonds of sin; free from eternal punishment in hell. We do absolutely nothing for our salvation; it is totally a gift of God. The Bible says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph 2:8–9).
Through his Gospel Word, then, through “the truth,” the Son of God sets people free. This is why the truth sets free. When a person believes in Christ, he is freed from being a slave to spiritual falsehood, freed from believing in unreality. As believers, we do not live life under a delusion, but we have a true understanding of God and salvation.
Through faith in Christ, we are freed, as well, from being slaves to sin. We are freed from the guilt of sin. Again, we have forgiveness for all our sins. Through faith in Christ, we have received the righteousness Christ has acquired for everyone with his perfect life and innocent suffering and death, and so we are declared righteous, or are justified, by God. The apostle Paul writes in Romans, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (3:28).
In addition, through faith in Christ, we are freed from the power of sin. Paul also writes in Romans, “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you” (Rom 6:11–14). In spiritual union with Christ, each one of us can lead a God-glorifying life, a life that ever increases in fruit for the Lord.
Finally, Jesus tells you and me today, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (vv 31–32). We are to abide in Christ’s Word, the truth; we are to keep on reading the Word, hearing it, studying it, and partaking of the Word in the Lord’s Supper. This is a mark of truly being a disciple of Jesus. Some believe in Jesus for a while, but then they lose contact with his Word and as a result fall from faith and back into slavery. Jesus wants us who are free to remain in his Word so that we will continue to know and believe the truth, so that the truth will continue to keep us free.
Ben, in a few minutes you will be confirmed as a member of Emmanuel Lutheran Church. You have been through catechism classes and studied and learned the truth that sets you free. For a number of centuries that truth was to a large extent lost and then was recovered by Luther in the Scripture as he wrestled with his guilty conscience. Not long ago you even had the privilege of visiting the very places where Luther lived, studied and worked. You visited the very place where he discovered that truth in Scripture, what is today called the Luther House. But you must continue to abide in the truth. You do this with your own devotions, your being in a Bible class, your attending congregational worship services and receiving the Sacrament of the Altar. Through regular, meaningful contact with the truth, you will be spiritually strengthened, as a result of which you will exercise more and more power over sin, so that you will bear fruit for the Lord. Remaining in Christ’s Word, you will not take the truth for granted. Remaining in Christ’s Word, you will be ever ready to share, in humility and love, the truth with others, believers and unbelievers alike. Remaining in Christ’s Word, his truth, you will at last be ushered into the splendor of heaven, that great liberation, and will, on the Last Day, receive your glorified resurrection body.
Today, in this Reformation service, we rejoice that, by God’s grace, Martin Luther recovered “the truth”—Christ’s Word, the Gospel. All who do not know and believe the truth are slaves of falsehood and their own sin. Tragically, they are headed for everlasting damnation. But we and all others who have faith in Christ are free indeed! For this, we thank our gracious, loving God! May we abide in the truth, Christ’s Word, and may we share his Word, the truth, with others—for the truth sets free! Amen.