Click here to listen to this sermon.So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed 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” (John 8:31).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
At the dawn of the Reformation, the church in Germany was led by Joachim, an elector from Brandenburg, and his brother, Albert, who was bishop of Halberstadt and archbishop of both Magdeburg and Mainz. To get these jobs, these men contributed millions of dollars to the church in Rome. But because neither brother had this much money, they borrowed it from a family of bankers. Loans must be paid back, of course, and Pope Leo allowed Albert to raise money to pay this loan by selling indulgences. Half of the money they received from selling indulgences went to pay their debt to the bankers, and the rest went to Rome to help pay for the building of the Basilica of St. Peter.
With Pope Leo’s approval, Albert chose a monk named John Tetzel to sell the indulgences to the German people. This would give Albert the money he needed to repay his large debts. It would give the pope the money he needed to build his magnificent church in Rome. And in the mind of the people, it would give them the indulgences they thought they needed to buy forgiveness. It seemed like the perfect plan… except for one thing: it was not grounded in the truth!
Martin Luther preached against indulgences. Forgiveness cannot be bought or sold. The only way to avoid hell and go to heaven is through Christ, not through people’s own efforts, and certainly not through buying a piece of paper. Yet the selling of indulgences went on. Hoping to shine the light of truth on this unscriptural practice, Luther wrote a list of objections, called the Ninety-five Theses, and he posted it on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg.
Little did people realize that these hammer blows on the door of the Castle Church would change Western Christianity as well as the course of history.
And we may rightly ask this Reformation Day: How could one man do it? Short answer: he couldn’t, and he didn’t. Looking at all the subsequent events of what we have come to call the Reformation of the Church, it’s not about Martin Luther. It’s not about the Ninety-five Theses. Rather, the Reformation is all about the one truth in Christ instead of the many “truths” around us.
When Luther issued his Ninety-five Theses to the Church—he was challenging Christians—no, not just the high and the mighty, like the pope and the bishops and the abbotts and the prelates—He was challenging all Christians to come back to the source of faith and hope: the Word of God, the Bible.
Admittedly, at the time, the Church was “doing fine”—if your standard is possessions, activity, people involvement, and influence. If you were to have considered the Collegiate Church of All Saints in Wittenberg, better known as the Castle Church, everyone would have been, perhaps was, full of admiration. A college of seven priests, subject to no local bishop but only to the pope in Rome, drew thousands of visitors a year. They conducted no less than nine thousand masses a year—you heard me right: nine thousand. That provided a sizable income for the clergy. But even more so, people received assurance for the quicker release from purgatory both for themselves and for their family members. A good deal all around, and of great economic benefit to the city. And here came this monk and said… Well, what did he say?
Father Luther did not say: Don’t listen to the Church; they don’t really have anything to say anyway. That would be the general Protestant idea: anybody can believe anything he wants to. Dr. Luther would be horrified. No, Luther said, preached, and wrote, “Retro ad fontes” (“Let’s get back to the source”). And the source of faith and therefore of the Church is the Word of God.
Jesus said: “If you abide in My Word, you are truly My disciples” (v 31). And how did His listeners respond? “We are offspring of Abraham, they declared” (v 33). In other words, “We have no need to rely on the words of anyone else; we are proud of being descendants of this great prophet.” And at Luther’s time, the response of Church leaders was simply this: “You keep out of this, Luther; we know best.” And today? “I’ve been Lutheran all my life. I know how these things are supposed to work,” some would say.
That’s all good and fine. But dare I ask you about your faith in Christ or your faithfulness to God’s Word? Because that is what the Reformation events were all about. Not about a mythical German hero named Luther, but about God’s grace that helped us recover the hidden, the falsified, and glossed-over Word of God. And here (show the Bible) you have it. All of God’s mercy, packed in words, and the whole Christ, crucified and risen for you, speaking to you His full message of repentance and salvation in your own language.
But look around this day. There will be Reformation Day services elsewhere. There will be people who might claim the name “Lutheran,” with the same translated Bible for daily use and preaching in the Church, and yet their proclamation differs so much from ours that you might begin to wonder what “Lutheran” means these days. There seem to be—even in the Church—so many different views, opinions, philosophies, and convictions that others begin to ask: What does the Christian Church stand for? What does it mean to be Lutheran?
“If you abide in”—that is, listen to, stick to, remain with, hang on to—“My Word, you are truly My disciples,” says Jesus. The best medicine prescribed by the doctor will be of no use to you if you don’t take it! Abide in His Word.
And how do you “abide”? It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of Christian education, catechism instruction, and regular worship for the survival of each Lutheran in his Christian faith.
It is nothing but life threatening, a threat to your spiritual survival, to disregard the Word of God or to separate from it. And churches and preachers who do that put the faith of their listeners in jeopardy. In the end, they must give an account for every soul lost. With the content of the Bible firm and clear, preachers have no right—and certainly the Church has no authority whatsoever—to “reinterpret” the proclamation contrary to the Bible so that it might better “fit” modern views.
Obviously, such an insistence on the one scriptural truth will not be appreciated everywhere by everyone, even in the realm of Christendom. There will be debate, disagreement, and contention. But then, was it that different at Jesus’ time? In our text and the verses immediately after, Jesus says to those who had believed in Him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave of sin… I know that you are offspring of Abraham; yet you seek to kill Me because My Word finds no place in you… You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning” (vv 34, 37, 44).
No sweet little Jesus here. Jesus minced no words when he spoke with those who relied on themselves, prided themselves in their condition, and rejected Him and His Word. Strong words. And let me add: Sermons that cover up all sorts of spiritual mess, that don’t uncover sin, that do not show us our fundamental need for spiritual healing and restoration, such sermons ought to go directly from the computer to the trash can, never coming near a pulpit.
Perhaps what I’ve said so far was all a bit too much for you. Perhaps you had hoped today to hear more praises of Martin Luther, hear other great men and women of the Reformation. Well, this is not a course in history. This service is not about the past. Our worship service is always a message for the here and now—and its content—Christ’s Holy Word and the blessed Sacrament of the Altar—strengthens us for the road to the Christian’s final goal.
“You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (v 32). That truth we learned from men like Dr. Luther. And from those following him, including the teachers and preachers in our Church who expound the truth of Christ. And that truth says: You cannot free yourself from what you are. “The sinner,” says Jesus, “is a slave, bound, tied up, loaded down.” But Christ Jesus, God’s truth, is the truth that frees us.
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), Jesus said. What a claim! And what a promise! For Christians, truth is not a theory nor a philosophy nor ideology. The truth embraced by Christians and expounded by the Church is incarnational. It centers in a person as God’s final and saving promise to each of us. The promise is nothing less than true life, life in eternity, life constant and joyous in God’s presence.
What do you have to do to realize that promise in your own life? Absolutely nothing! It’s already been done for you. In our text we hear: “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (v. 36). And the Son has set you free! By Jesus’ death on the cross for all your sins, you are free! Indeed!
So this day, we are gathered not to celebrate a man or a movement—though it is certainly fitting to thank the Lord of the Church for His servant Martin Luther. We do not put out a list of who does what in order to reach the Christian’s goal—even though there are Christian communities that do just that. This day’s worship bids us to praise and thank Christ our Redeemer for giving us all for nothing, leading us from a world of “truths” to the one Truth, for taking us from captivity to self into the glorious spiritual freedom of the children and heirs of God.
Without any merit on our part, we again hear Christ declaring us free and loose from sin through the words of absolution spoken here. We listen to the Gospel of eternal liberty worked for each of us by the sacrificial death of Jesus; and—awesome as it is!—we witness the power of the Savior’s words, making of ordinary bread and wine the bearers of nothing less than the body and blood of our holy Lord. Out of these simple earthly elements, the creative Word of God makes “a medicine of immortality” for our lifelong walk to the gates of paradise.
Now why would anyone want to miss that?
The peace of God that passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.