Reformation Sunday - b
Preached: November 4, 2012
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. The words from Jesus through which the Holy Spirit fills our hearts today is John 8.
Therefore, if the Son sets you free, you will certainly be free. (John 8:36).
This is the word of our Lord.
Dear friends in Christ, fellow saints washed clean in the blood of our risen Savior:
November 1520 -- What's special about that time? It's not as famous as October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses at Wittenberg, questioning the church's practice of selling forgiveness. It's not as memorable as Luther standing before the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, in the city of Worms on April 18, 1521. Having been excommunicated by the Pope, Luther was ordered to recant and take back what he had written or face death. Instead he said, “My conscience is held captive by the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant. Here I stand. God help me! Amen.”
As you may well guess, between the posting of the 95 Theses in 1517 and Luther's refusal to recant in 1521, much took place. Martin Luther went from an obscure monk serving as a pastor and university professor to the most recognized name in Germany and beyond. During those three and a half years, there were debates, political maneuverings, and much writing both for and against what Luther was teaching. Luther himself began to see more clearly how much the church had strayed from the Bible. He did not keep quiet about God's truth. Of all that Luther said and wrote during this short time, three tracts or booklets, all published in 1520, stand out as most influential. The third of them, entitled “On the Freedom of a Christian,” was published in November that year. That's why November 1520 is special.
“On the Freedom of a Christian” explains what the Christian life is all about. The title echos the words of Jesus in the text from John “Therefore, if the Son sets you free, you will certainly be free” (John 8:36). Now as you well know, the freedom Jesus brings is not political, economical, or social freedom. Luther in this tract explains the freedom of a Christian with two statements that at first appear to contradict each other. The two statements are: 1) A Christian is a free lord over all things, subject to no one. 2) A Christian is a dutiful servant in all things, subject to everyone. On the basis of Scripture let's ponder how these two statements interact in your freedom as a Christian.
Where does our Christian freedom come from? We can't gain it by working for it, can we? How can the outward works of our body set the inner self free? Dressing up the body with praiseworthy works or pious deeds or religious observances does not dress up the soul with true righteousness that stands before God. Outward works cannot free the soul. What, then, can? Luther writes: “One thing, and only one thing is necessary for the Christian life, righteousness, and freedom. That one thing is the most holy Word of God, the gospel of Christ.”
Last week you heard how when Jesus visited Mary and Martha, he pointed out to Martha that one thing that's needed. Or consider when Satan tempted Jesus to turn stones into bread, Jesus said, “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4 NIV84).
What exactly is this word of God that frees us? Pointing to Romans 1, Luther writes, “The Word is the gospel of God concerning his Son, who was made flesh, suffered, rose from the dead, and was glorified through the Spirit who sanctifies.” And God's word not only states these historical facts about Jesus, but, as Luther brings out, the preaching of God's Word means “preaching why Christ came, what he brought and bestowed, what benefit it is to us.” That's how God's Word calls forth faith, faith that trusts in Jesus Christ who came for us.
That, dear friends, is how God's Word brings us freedom, namely, through faith alone. Luther writes, “Faith alone is the saving and efficacious use of God's Word.” Our works and actions cannot receive or cherish God's Word. That's the role of faith, to hear and believe. So since only God's Word is necessary for our soul's true freedom, righteousness, and life, and since only faith can receive God's Word, we are justified, or set free, by faith alone and not be works. Luther points us to Romans 1:17. “The righteous will live by faith” (NIV84).
Faith holds on to God's promises for our freedom. The Bible teaches both God's commands and God's promises. Now the commandments are good, but we have disobeyed them. The better we know the commandments the more humbled and reduced in our own eyes we become. We realize all the more clearly that nothing we do can justify, save, or free us, for the commandments rightly convict us as law-breakers, condemn us as sinners, and damn us to death.
But the promises of God free us. How? Luther explains, “The promises of God give what the commandments of God demand and fulfill what the law prescirbes so that all things may be God's alone, both the commandments and the fulfilling of the commandments.” That, dear friends, is what's freely credited to your soul through faith in God's promise, namely, the completed fulfillment of all God's commandments. No work of ours can accomplish that.
That's the first power of faith, and Luther describes the second as this: “Faith honors him whom it trusts with the most reverent and highest regard since it considers him truthful and trustworthy.” No work can give God that kind of honor or glory no matter how marvelous it appears. But faith honors God by taking him at his word no matter what happens in our lives or how bad things become. Even if reason and reality contradict God's word and promise, faith still believes and trusts whatever God has said, knowing with full confidence that his good and gracious will are at work whether we can see it or not, no matter how we're outwardly treated. Luther writes, “Faith allows itself to be treated according to God's good pleasure for, clinging to God's promise, it does not doubt that he who is true, just and wise will do, dispose, and provide all things well.” Oh, that the Lord would give us such a faith to trust him not matter what we suffer!
For the third benefit of faith, Luther points us to Ephesians 5 by writing, “Faith unites the soul with Christ as a bride is united with her bridegroom.” A married couple shares all. So also united to Christ by faith we share all with him. Yes, all your sins are taken by him, your groom. Luther puts it this way, “By the wedding ring of faith Christ shares in the sins, death, and pains of hell which are his bride's. As a matter of fact, he makes them his own and acts as if they were his own and as if he himself had sinned; he suffered, died, and descended into hell that he might overcome them all.” He did that for you, his bride. And just as he took our sins so also we receive his righteousness. So he takes us as his glorious bride without spot or wrinkle, washed clean by the water and word.
And just as our bridegroom is King and Priest, so also we, his bride, are kings and priests, for through faith we share in all that is his. Recall what the Apostle Peter wrote: “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2:9 NIV84). As kings, we are lords of all. Nothing can harm us. Everything must work together for our good, as God has promised, Romans 8. But remember we are talking about a spiritual kingship here, not a physical, earthly one. In fact, the more Christian a person is the more evils, sufferings, and death he or she must often endure -- just look at what Christ endured, who is King of all. But while we experience the cross of suffering, we can say with Luther, “The cross and death itself are compelled to serve me and to work together with me for my salvation.” For through faith in Christ, we are free lords over all things, kings with him. Even the evils of this world are subject to serve our eternal good. How this frees us from the fears, worries, and burdens of this life!
Not only are we the freest kings, we are also priests. What does that mean? Luther explains, “As priests we are worthy to appear before God to pray for others and to teach one another divine things.” What freedom is our because the Son, Jesus Christ, has set us free! What freedom God's Word brings to your soul through faith alone. You, dear Christian, are a free lord over all things, subject to no one.
And because the Son has set you free, you, dear Christian, are a dutiful servant in all things, subject to everyone.
“If the Son sets your free, you will certainly be free” (John 8:36), Jesus said. Who is it that sets us free? The Son, Jesus Christ. Now look at him. He, the Son of God, is certainly Lord of all. Yet what did he do while he was here on this earth? Jesus tells us, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28 NIV84). Or consider how on the night he was betrayed he washed the disciples' feet in that upper room, the job of a lowly servant. And he tells them, “Love one another. As I have loved you, love one another” (John 13:34 NIV84).
As faith fixes our hearts and minds on Jesus, we see that it is no contradiction that as a Christian I am both a free lord and a dutiful servant, and so are you. We serve our neighbor. Now remember that our neighbor includes both our own family members and also those outside our family, both people we like and people we don't like. Anyone whom the Lord enables us to serve is our neighbor.
As we serve our neighbor even as Christ loved and served us, we do not do that in order to obtain righteousness, or gain freedom, or make ourselves holier or more Christian. For that would contradict faith. It would contradict the freedom we already. Through faith in Jesus we are already lords over all and have perfect righteousness and holiness before God. We are completely free from the law's condemnation. To serve others imagining that we're improving on what Christ has already freely and fully given us is the opposite of faith and labels Jesus a liar.
Don't help others so that you can become a good person. Doing good for others does not make you a good person. Rather because Jesus has already set us free and already declared us to be good and holy in God's sight -- that's why we do good, serving others in love. Luther writes, “Good works do not make a good man, but a good man does good works.” How well that echos Jesus words in Matthew 7! “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit” (Matthew 7:18 NIV84).
In fact, this is why we take care of our own health and bodies, so that we can serve our neighbor. Luther writes, “This is what makes caring for the body a Christian work, that through its health and comfort we may be able to work, to acquire, and lay by funds with which to aid those who are in need, that in this way the strong member may serve the weaker, and we may be sons of God, each caring for and working for the other, bearing one another's burdens and so fulfilling the law of Christ,” alluding to Galatians 6.
And so our service as Christians flows from an entirely different source than the philanthropy, kindness, and service that the people of this world offer. The outward acts may be the same. But we serve because Christ has served us and made us free lords over all things, so that we can serve one another in all things with our full faith and confidence in Christ alone who loved us first.
Luther elaborates, “Although I am an unworthy and condemned man, my God has given me in Christ all the riches of righteousness and salvation without any merit on my part, out of pure, free mercy, so that from now on I need nothing except faith which believes that this is true. Why should I not therefore freely, joyfully, with all my heart, and with an eager will do all things which I know are pleasing and acceptable to such a Father who has overwhelmed me with his inestimable riches? I will therefore give myself as a Christ to my neighbor, just as Christ offered himself to me; I will do nothing in this life except what I see is necessary, profitable, and salutary to my neighbor, since through faith I have an abundance of all good things in Christ ... Hence, as our heavenly Father has in Christ freely come to our aid, we also ought freely to help our neighbor through our body and its works.”
This is your freedom as a Christian, dear friends. The Son, Jesus Christ, has set you free. You are certainly free, free from sin's condemnation, free from the law's terrors, free through faith in Christ, whom God's Word alone proclaims to you. This freedom means you are both a lord and a servant. That's not a contradiction but divine reality. So we sum up with Luther's words from “On the Freedom of a Christian.” “We conclude, therefore, that a Christian lives not in himself, but in Christ and in his neighbor ... By faith he is caught up beyond himself into God. By love he descends beneath himself to his neighbor. Yet he always remains in God and in his love ... It is a spiritual and true freedom and makes our hearts free from all sins, laws and commands ... May Christ give us this liberty both to understand and to preserve. Amen.”
--Quotations from Martin Luther's “On the Freedom of a Christian” copied from /Three Treatises/ Fortress Press, Philadelphia (c) 1970
The peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.