“So, Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in 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.” 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’?” Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
Freedom is something we all talk about. Men and women have fought for it. It is declared in the declaration of independence, the constitution, and the bill of rights. In our post-Christian culture, the idea of freedom has degenerated into mere licentiousness. Freedom is, so we think, to do we whatever we want, according to our appetites and personal whims.
But tell that to Jacob Marley, the business partner of Ebenezer Scrooge in the Christmas Carol. He thought he was ultimately free too. Free to live according to his passions. And he did. Charles Dickens writes that Marley, now dead, walks about like a ghost “captive, bound and double-ironed” with long chains bound about him like a tail. His old wrinkled body is dragging around iron cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel.” So writes Dickens. As he spent his life on this earth obsessing over money and mistreating the poor and wretched to fill his pocket, Marley is condemned to walk the earth for eternity never to find rest or peace, experiencing an “incessant torture of remorse.” Those very things which he loved the most now enslave him in shackles and chains.
The poet D. H. Lawrence once wrote that the more one boasts of his freedom in this life, the more you can hear his chains rattle. Jesus tells us very simply this morning that everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. Do you believe him? Do you believe that your will is bound, inclined toward evil. That you are in desperate need to be saved? Or do you believe that your will is free, just in need of a little motivation this morning?
When we read the Gospel text this morning did you savor every word of God or did you become distracted with lusty eyes. Can you make it through the Lord’s Prayer without thinking about food or football? How tightly do you hold on to your money? Have you let your possessions and money rule over you? Are you tight fisted like Jacob Marley. Are you a grouch like Ebenezer Scrooge. Are you unkind to those around you, insensitive, uncaring? Oh, we are slaves to sin.
But ultimately, we rely not upon our own self-diagnosis. Rather we understand our true condition based solely upon God’s own revelation found in Scripture – in the Bible. For that word of God diagnoses us and teaches us that we are truly by nature children of wrath, that we are born in slavery, under the condemnation of sin, death, and the devil. That we are addicted to sin and are completely incapable of freeing ourselves.
This is what the Jews in our Gospel could not tolerate. Jesus taught them that they were enslaved to sin, and its awful power. They railed against Jesus for this teaching. And maybe there’s a little bit of them in you. Maybe you think this slavery to sin stuff is a little too dramatic for your taste. Surely, I’m not that bad, and like them you cry out, “but we are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone.” Oh, but in those words, you can truly hear the chains rattle.
Today is Reformation Day. A day in which to remember another man, like you, also enslaved to sin. Hoping to free himself, Martin Luther entered an Augustinian monastery in Erfurt – and became a friar. He tried to free himself, to earn God’s favor, by his own discipline and sheer will. And boy did he try. He would later recall this experience, and jokingly write, “if anyone could gain heaven by his own good works surely I would have been the one.” But in fact, matters became much worse for him!
Praise be to God, God sent him a good pastor who directed him away from his obsessive tortuous spiritual slavery and instead toward God’s Word - a word which frees and liberates.
And so in his preparation to teach on the book of Romans, he came to the text read earlier in our epistle this morning.
“For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. But now, the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law … For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”
Of this breakthrough Luther would write “Then I began to understand the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.”
How can a man be saved? From himself, from sin, the devil, and grave? Well it’s not with gold or silver, not with indulgences, not by popes or through the intercession of the saints. Not even by putting your best foot forward, your decision, will, or resolve to go through spiritual bootcamp.
But only through the holy precious blood and innocent suffering and death of our Lord Jesus Christ. Christ alone who justifies, who declared us righteous, by his grace as a gift, received by faith.
That German friar saw Jesus. And he pointed the whole world back to him. Back to Christ, God’s Son - shackled, wrapped in the chains of our own sins. His life was squeezed out of him as he was pierced for our transgressions. Nailed to a cross – Died the death of a criminal in our place. To ransom us from the chains that bind us.
Jesus descends to hell to free Jacob Marley’s and Ebenezer Scrooge’s like us. He bursts the chains of death. He triumphs over the grave to set us free. By our baptisms into Christ, we are killed and made alive as new creatures. We boast and glory in the grace of God and say, in the words of St. Paul: I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
Today is Reformation Day. It’s not about German or Scandinavian heritage or anything like that. It’s not fundamentally even about Luther, though his life bore such clear witness to it. This day is a celebration of the unconditional love of Christ, and the freedom of the Christian. Freedom to bask in the undeserved love of God. Luther put it so perfectly in thesis 62 of the 95 theses, which is this: “The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.”
A grace of God which frees us, ransoms us. Not to go on sinning and wallowing around in it. That would be a return to slavery. No, we are freed that we might no longer be slaves but sons of God. Loving him with all we’ve got and loving our neighbors as ourselves.
Oh, there is such joy in this! To be free in Christ. Eventually Ebenezer Scrooge came around. The chains of his heart were broken. Love and charity overcame him. Bah-humbugs became alleluias. He escapes Marley’s fate, and become again, like a little child.
Sure, sin still plagues us in this life. Death dogs us. These chains still at time rattle. But these days are numbered. The victory has been one. You can be sure of this - that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.
As you abide in his word and teaching in this life, so you will abide in his word also in death. For the last iron chain to break will be death itself. Jesus preaches to us this morning, promising, “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” Truly free, to stand up in the resurrection of all flesh – and to enter his courts with gladness and thanksgiving - rejoicing in the blessed freedom that we are saved through the merit and meditation of Christ alone. In the name of Jesus. Amen.
Hymn of the Day: Salvation unto us has come
1. Salvation unto us has come
By God's free grace and favor;
Good works cannot avert our doom,
They help and save us never.
Faith looks to Jesus Christ alone,
Who did for all the world atone;
He is our one Redeemer.
2. What God did in His Law demand
And none to Him could render
Caused wrath and woe on every hand
For man, the vile offender.
Our flesh has not those pure desires
The spirit of the Law requires,
And lost is our condition.
3. It was a false, misleading dream
That God His Law had given
That sinners should themselves redeem
And by their works gain heaven.
The Law is but a mirror bright
To bring the inbred sin to light
That lurks within our nature.
4. From sin our flesh could not abstain,
Sin held its sway unceasing;
The task was useless and in vain,
Our gilt was e'er increasing.
None can remove sin's poisoned dart
Or purify our guileful heart,-
So deep is our corruption.
5. Yet as the Law must be fulfilled
Or we must die despairing,
Christ came and hath God's anger stilled,
Our human nature sharing.
He hath for us the Law obeyed
And thus the Father's vengeance stayed
Which over us impended.
6. Since Christ hath full atonement made
And brought to us salvation,
Each Christian therefore may be glad
And build on this foundation.
Thy grace alone, dear Lord, I plead,
Thy death is now my life indeed,
For Thou hast paid my ransom.
7. Let me not doubt, but trust in Thee,
Thy Word cannot be broken;
Thy call rings out, "Come unto Me!"
No falsehood hast Thou spoken.
Baptized into Thy precious name,
My faith cannot be put to shame,
And I shall never perish.
8. The Law reveals the guilt of sin
And makes men conscience-stricken;
The Gospel then doth enter in
The sinful soul to quicken.
Come to the cross, trust Christ, and live;
The Law no peace can ever give,
No comfort and no blessing.
9. Faith clings to Jesus' cross alone
And rests in Him unceasing;
And by its fruits true faith is known,
With love and hope increasing.
Yet faith alone doth justify,
Works serve thy neighbor and supply
The proof that faith is living.
10. All blessing, honor, thanks, and praise
To Father, Son, and Spirit,
The God that saved us by His grace,-
All glory to His merit!
O Triune God in heaven above,
Who hast revealed Thy saving love,
Thy blessed name be hallowed.
The Lutheran Hymnal
Text: Rom. 3: 5
Author: Paul Speratus, 1523, cento
Translated by: composite
Titled: "Es ist das Heil uns kommen her"
Tune: "Es ist das Heil"
German melody, c. 1400