“If You Abide in My Word…”
(John 8:31-36 – Reformation – October 27, 2019)
John 8:31-36 – Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” They answered Him, “We are Abraham’s descendants, and have never been in bondage to anyone. How can you say, ‘You will be made free’?” Jesus answered them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave of sin. And a slave does not abide in the house forever, but a son abides forever. Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed.”
Dear Redeemed in Christ Jesus:
On this Festival of the Reformation, we thank God for preserving to us His pure Gospel. By the time of Martin Luther, many false teachings of men had become entrenched in the visible church, in place of God’s Word. These false teachings enslaved sinners in a system of works-righteousness, trying to become good enough before God to earn salvation and eternal life.
But by the grace of God, Luther and other reformers restored the true teaching of the Gospel. They restored the three core principles that have guided Lutheran theology to this day – “Scripture Alone, Grace Alone, and Faith Alone.” Scripture alone reveals what we could never discover by our own human reason. Contrary to our natural way of thinking, God’s Law teaches that as miserable sinners we cannot earn His favor or a place in heaven. But His Gospel reveals that we are saved by His gift of grace alone, freely given to us through faith in Christ alone. We do not add our own good works; we trust only Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross that has taken away all our sins, and we trust only Jesus’ perfect life which God counts to us for righteousness.
Foundational to knowing and receiving God’s gifts of grace in Christ, we begin with the core principle of “Scripture alone.” As Jesus says: “If You Abide in My Word…” 1) You are My disciples indeed, 2) And you shall know the truth, 3) And the truth shall make you free.
1) You are My disciples indeed
Always, our relationship to Jesus as His disciples is in terms of abiding in His Word. By His Word alone He called us to faith, revealing His saving truth to our heart, setting us free. Ephesians 1:13 says: “In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise.” Christ brings His Word of truth – that Gospel of our salvation – to us in His Word and Sacraments. In Baptism, Christ came to us with His Word of promise connected to the water, washing away our sins, pouring out the Holy Spirit and saving faith in our heart. By that same Word of truth, the Gospel, the Spirit continues to keep us in the true faith so we abide in Christ. Jesus said in Matthew 28:19-20: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” It is in the faithful teaching of His Word and use of His Sacraments that Jesus promises to be with His Church. This is how He makes disciples and keeps us in the true faith.
Therefore, this remains a core principle in His Church – “Scripture Alone.” His Word is the only authority in His Church. It is the only way He speaks to us and reveals His saving truth. Therefore we will teach all things that He has commanded, neither adding to nor subtracting from His Word. The Good Shepherd says: “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me.” On the other hand, when false shepherds speak by a different voice than His Word alone, we will flee from them as from a stranger (John 10:4-5, 27-28). With Jesus’ disciples in every age we say: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).
2) And you shall know the truth
Thus as we abide in His Word, we are His disciples indeed. Jesus goes on to say: “And you shall know the truth.” A popular idea today is that there is no objective truth – no one truth that stands for all time and all people. Rather many say, “What was true back then is not true now. What is true for you may not be true for me.” But Jesus tells us we will know “the truth” – that is, we will know God’s truth, as opposed to the lies of Satan and the false teachings of man.
Here Jesus speaks to the Pharisees, who considered themselves the rightful heirs of Abraham and the only rightful interpreters God’s truth. Yet they were under the devil’s deception. For in place of Scripture alone, which teaches salvation by God’s gift of grace alone in Christ, the Pharisees taught that salvation must be earned by one’s own good life before God. Yet despite all their outward holiness, Jesus here warned that they were enslaved to sin, not having true sonship in God’s house. Though they enjoyed special privileges as leaders in Israel, they did not share the inheritance with Abraham, which is by faith in God’s Word of promise in Christ alone.
There will always be such false teachers. It was so in the time of the Lutheran Reformation. The Pope was considered the rightful heir of the apostle Peter and the only rightful interpreter of God’s truth. The Bible was kept out of the hands of people, for it was thought that they could not rightly understand it. After Baptism, the church did not faithfully continue to teach people all things that Jesus commanded, but rather the interpretation of the Pope and church fathers.
Like many, Martin Luther was raised in a pious Christian home, but without a Bible. So he did not know much of God’s Word, and it was mixed with falsehood and superstition. Church services were in Latin, not the language of the people. But what came through loud and clear was the false teaching that salvation was not a free gift of God, through Christ alone. Instead, you had to do your part, earning God’s favor by your good works and holy life. It was taught that Baptism only cleansed away original sin, so you had to make satisfaction for every sin that followed. You had to confess every sin to a priest, and then do acts of penance to work off the punishments of sin. You had to say so many prayers through the saints, or do so many good works, or deprive yourself of so many comforts, to try to earn God’s favor. Or you had to purchase Indulgences, slips of paper with the Pope’s seal on them, promising so many years of deliverance from the flames of Purgatory, for yourself or for loved ones who had died.
When it came to the words of Romans 1:17, “The righteous shall live by faith,” Luther was taught that he could earn eternal life only by becoming righteous before God. Like many a poor sinner, he constantly asked himself if he had done enough. He lived in terror of Christ, who was portrayed as an angry Judge and not a loving Savior. Finally Luther became a monk, for the monastic life was considered the most holy, and the best way to become saved. In the strict Augustinian Order, he tried to work out his salvation by his best efforts, endlessly confessing his sins and doing works of penance. In a desperate effort to drive every impulse of sin from his heart and become righteous before God, he beat himself and fasted nearly to the point of death. Yet no matter how earnestly he tried free himself, he still found himself imprisoned in sin and unrighteousness, despairing before the righteous God. Later he confessed: “I hated that word, righteousness.” Indeed, he could only hate the righteous God who must justly damn him to hell.
The truth of God’s Word teaches that salvation is a gift of His grace, freely given through faith in Christ. We do not have to beat ourselves up trying to become righteous enough for God. At the cross of Christ, God has forgiven us. In the perfect life of Christ, He counts us righteous. But Luther and many others were being deprived of these truths of God’s Word, led astray by false teachings. They were being taught to look to their own life of holiness to become acceptable to God. Where does this leave the sinner? Captive to sin, Satan’s lies, and despair.
Today as ever, the lies of Satan are enslaving. They turn us away from the objective truth of God’s Word and the salvation Christ has accomplished for us. They turn us to our own subjective experiences and feelings to try to find truth, to try to find peace with God.
Even many who say we are saved by God’s grace alone through faith in Christ can deceive. What they mean is that you are saved by God’s grace plus your works. Or to put it another way, “If you do your best, God will do the rest.” That is the works-righteous religion of the world, by which man wants to take credit for doing his part in helping God save him. But it is a damning doctrine, alienating sinners from trusting the work Christ alone has accomplished to save them.
Likewise many false teachers, after preaching that you are first saved by the grace of God, go on to point you to your holiness and spiritual progress for proof you are still in God’s grace. Instead of pointing to Jesus’ sacrifice for you, they emphasize the sacrifices you make for Him – your tithing, your service, your fasting, your prayers. They leave you asking: “Have I done enough? Have I denied myself completely enough? Have I given God my whole heart? Have I felt strongly enough that I’m saved? When I come before God in judgment, will I have lived the life of a true child of God?”
3) And the truth shall make you free
Such thoughts, focused inwardly on our own heart and life, cannot free us. Like Luther, we only find ourselves enslaved by sin and unrighteous before God. But Jesus says: “If you abide in My word…you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
It was only after Luther became a priest that he began to read the Scriptures for himself. A copy of the Bible was available at the monastery. In times of temptation and despair, he would turn to it seeking comfort. The more he studied the church fathers and teachings of the church, the less they satisfied him. But the more he studied the Bible, the more comfort he found. When he was assigned as a professor of religion, he continued to compare Scripture to Scripture, leaving behind the interpretations of men, and interpreting God’s Word by God’s Word alone.
Luther had already learned by experience the painful truth Jesus speaks in our text: “Whoever commits sin is a slave of sin.” Since all are conceived and born with a sinful nature, all are born in slavery to sin. Who can escape the lusts of the flesh and put off all sin, in order to escape the just judgment of God and hell? Who can live such a holy life as to become righteous before God and merit eternal life with Him in heaven? God’s Law gives the answer: no one. “A slave does not abide in the house forever, but a son abides forever.”
But then comes the Gospel, as Jesus says: “Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed.” As the Son of God in our flesh, Jesus made the once for all sacrifice on the cross that has taken away all our sins; therefore in Christ, God is no longer counting our sins against us. Not only that, as the Son of God in our flesh Jesus fulfilled all righteousness for us under the Law; so that as the Gospel declares, God is counting to us the perfect life His Son!
As Luther studied the Scriptures, he found that the righteousness of God is not something we earn by obedience to His Law. Rather, the righteousness of God is His gift, freely given to us through faith in His Son. As he read in Romans 3:19-28: “But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed… even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”
When Luther discovered the Gospel, he truly was set free by. Now he rejoiced in that word: “The righteous shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17). Trusting the Word of God that declared him righteous in Christ, and a son of God by faith, he knew the gates of heaven were opened to him; and that as a son, he would abide in the house of God forever!
With Luther today, we rejoice in the truth of Christ’s Gospel. The Son has made us free, and we are free indeed! No more do we look to our own lives or anything we do for God to earn His favor. Christ has done it all for us. By the grace of God alone, through faith in Christ alone, we stand justified, forgiven and righteous in His sight. Through faith in His Son, we are His children and heirs of His heavenly Kingdom. Therefore as His disciples indeed, we want to abide in His Word alone; for we know the truth, and the truth makes us free.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. Amen.