This past week we, and people across the nation, once again celebrated the freedoms that are ours as Americans; and many of us did it in the traditional ways: family gatherings, picnics, firecrackers – and yard work. And while there’s nothing inherently wrong with celebrating our liberty in these ways, there is a danger. A danger that we forget that our freedom and liberties are not our inherent right, that they weren’t – and are not – free; that our forefathers and modern day military members had to shed their blood to secure the freedoms we enjoy. And while it’s a tragedy to forget that our American freedoms were not free, it’s spiritually dangerous for us to forget that the peace, the joy, the hope and the freedom that we enjoy as Christians is not free either. It too came at an immense cost. It’s fitting then, as we wind down from our celebration of the 4th to consider the central doctrine of the Apostles’ Creed, the central theme of Scripture, the foundation on which the Church stands or falls: our redemption. Today, the Apostle Peter leads us to consider what we have been redeemed from and what we have been redeemed with.
The Creed itself, in line with its objective of being the briefest possible summary of Christian faith, simply states that Jesus Christ suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and buried. It does not explain why. But Peter does: you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers. Two things stand out in Peter’s explanation. 1) The way of life we once had was empty – meaning it was vain and useless; and 2) it was a way of life we inherited from our forefathers – meaning that it is ours whether we like it or not.
So what did this useless, hereditary way of life consist of? With Luther we confess: [Jesus Christ] has redeemed me, a lost and condemned creature, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil. Both Peter and Luther describe our useless, hereditary way of life in terms of slavery. While most Americans would like to pretend that slavery never existed in our country, the fact is that it has existed since the beginning of time. But, even in places where slavery was a socially acceptable and legal institution, it would occasionally happen that a compassionate person would come along who would pay the price to free the slave from his master’s control. This was known as the ransom or redemption price. When that happened, an extraordinary change took place: the slave was no longer a slave, he was no longer bound by his master’s will or whip – he was free to do what he wanted to do. The nature of the useless life we inherited from our parents is that we were born into slavery. And Jesus came – like a compassionate benefactor – to redeem us, to free us from slavery to three dread masters.
The first of those masters is sin. Now, let’s be honest, we like to pretend that sin is not our master, that we could stop sinning at any time. Nowhere is the pretending more evident than right here. When put on our Sunday best, plaster a smile on our face and when someone asks us how we are we cheerfully respond “fine,” or “great.” But that’s not the truth, is it? We come here after another week of slavery, another week where we have said and done and thought things that have offended God and hurt others, another week where we had many opportunities to do good – but failed. There’s nothing we can do to change it. The opportunities for good – they’re gone forever. The sins – they are a stain we can’t remove. Failure weighs on us like immovable chains. No Sunday outfit, no Sunday smile, no cheerful Sunday greeting can change the fact that for another week we have been shameful, disgusting sinners.
But that’s why we’re here, isn’t it? In fact, the burden of sin is ultimately the only reason to come here week after week. We come because Jesus promises redemption from sin. I won’t speak for you, but the older I get the more I treasure the beginning of the service – the confession and absolution. Finally, after a week of pretending, I get to be honest, I get to admit that I have not been what God created me to be – and I get to drop that weight, that burden at Jesus’ feet, where he takes it away and buries it in the depths of the sea. I never tire of hearing and speaking those words: as a called servant of Christ…I forgive you all your sins – because I know that I need that forgiveness more than anyone – and Jesus is happy to give it. The result is an extraordinary change: sin is no longer our master, we no longer have to obey it, we are truly free to say no. (Titus 2:12) The burden of guilt – of the evil we have done and the good we have failed to do – is gone forever. Redeemed by Christ, sin is no longer our master.
But sin, even forgiven sin, has consequences. And one of those consequences is the second slave-master of all people: death. Again, it’s something we pretend is not true, something we like to avoid, something we do all we can to prevent. In fact, death prevention is the single biggest business in our world: from armies and airbags, to health insurance and check-ups, to medicines, surgeries, and diet and exercise – all are explicitly designed to prevent death. But it doesn’t matter, does it? When death comes calling – we all have to answer. Death is our master whether we like it or not. But, Jesus came to redeem us from death – by turning death into his servant.
The thing we need to realize is that, as horrible as the physical death is, it’s not the worst thing that can happen to us. The worst thing that can happen is not the separation of our bodies from our souls. The worst thing that can happen to a person is permanent separation from God in hell. This is what the Bible calls the second death. (Revelation 21:8) That is what Jesus suffered and died to redeem us from. Make no mistake, unless Jesus returns, these bodies will return to the dust from which they came. (Ecclesiastes 12:7) It is the final proof that we are all, from conception, sinful. It is indisputable evidence that God meant it when he said the wages of sin is death. (Romans 6:23) But it is also, for the believer, God’s final act of purifying that he started in our baptism. In this way, death is not our master – death is instead God’s servant to bring us out of this world to himself in heaven. By robbing death of its eternal sting, Jesus has made the slave-master his slave to accomplish his goal of freeing us – permanently – from this world, this life, this body of sin.
But if we are to be truly free, truly liberated from the tyranny of sin and death, then we must be freed from the one who holds the power of sin and death: the devil. (Hebrews 2:14) And this is precisely what Jesus came to do. From the moment Adam fell into sin, God promised to send a Savior who would crush the devil’s head (Genesis 3:15) and destroy the devil’s work. (1 John 3:8) And that’s exactly what Jesus did. By paying the redemption, the ransom price for every man, woman and child, he has destroyed the devil’s claim on us. We no longer belong to him.
Now, we might be tempted look around at this world and think: how can that be true? It seems like the devil’s influence is only growing in our world, that Christianity is being mocked and persecuted on every side, that immorality and wickedness are prospering. And yes, it is true that the devil’s grip on this world remains strong. But it only remains strong in people who want to remain enslaved to him. The devil can only master those who reject the freedom Christ offers and choose to remain bound to him. But what about us? Doesn’t he still haunt and harass and assault and accuse believers like us? Yes, but because of Jesus even the devil is not free, he is chained up, all the evil he can do must serve God’s good will for us and our salvation. Think of Job. The devil was convinced that the only thing holding him to God were the blessings God poured out on him. God took the devil’s wager and allowed him to strip Job of every earthly blessing except life itself. But nothing he could do could destroy Job’s faith, his conviction that the Lord gives and the Lord takes away, the name of the LORD be praised. (Job 1:21) He realized the profound truth that Paul stated so well: when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:10) For only when we realize that we are truly helpless on our own, that we are powerless to free ourselves are we ready to turn in penitent faith to Christ for redemption. Only when we give up all our doing, all our giving, all our effort to save ourselves is the good news truly sweet: Jesus has redeemed us! So let the devil do his worst, under God’s powerful hand all he can do is drive us closer to Christ and his cross. For he, along with his allies sin and death have been destroyed forever. [We have] been redeemed from the empty way of life handed down by our forefathers once and for all.
And this redemption is yours, no strings attached, free of charge. It’s yours, believe it. But, while it is free, it certainly was not cheap: You know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed…but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. From the day Adam plunged this world into the darkness of sin and death, mankind has searched for ways to buy its own freedom from sin, death, and the devil. Cain and Abel presented offerings from their gardens and flocks. (Genesis 4) Israel offered countless lambs and goats and bulls and her pagan neighbors sacrificed their children. In the middle ages, people set off on pilgrimages and crusades and took vows of celibacy and poverty to free themselves from sin’s curse. Today, even in our secular culture, people attempt to purge the guilt from their consciences by demanding that the government legalize what God has forbidden, by supporting all the “right” causes, by purchasing energy efficient homes and cars in an attempt to offset the evil they have done. Saddest of all, many Christians – even Lutherans – believe that their prayers, their offerings, their attendance, their effort somehow contribute to their redemption. But all of it: all the blood, sweat, and tears; all of the money spent and energy expended cannot pay for a single sin. It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins (Hebrews 10:4); the ransom for a life is costly, no payment is ever enough (Psalm 49:8). All the blood of all the animals in all the world; all the gold and all the silver and almighty US dollars in the world could never make a dent in the debt we owe to God.
Because two things were necessary to free us from our bondage, two things we couldn’t provide: a perfect life and a sacrificial death. First, it was the blood of a lamb without blemish or defect. In the OT, God required that the animals which were offered be perfect; no deformities, no spots or blemishes, no missing eyes or broken legs. This was a picture of what God demands of us: nothing less than spotless perfection. (Matthew 5:48) But only Jesus could be – and was – what God demanded. From cradle to grave, Jesus never doubted God’s love, never misused his name, never despised his Word. He never disrespected those in authority (even when they beating him and spitting on him), never let hatred take root in his heart, never lusted, never defrauded or slandered or coveted. And what was the reward for his spotless life?
God made him who had no sin to be sin for us. (2 Corinthians 5:21) Jesus did not stand before God merely as a sinner, or even as one who bears the guilt for every sin ever committed. Jesus stood before God’s judgement seat as sin itself. And for sin there is neither grace nor mercy – only punishment. And so, as reward for living the only perfect, spotless life the world has ever seen, God poured out every last ounce of his wrath on Jesus for every evil thing we have done and every good we have failed to do. There are people today who would like to scrub this bloody, sacrificial message out of Christianity. They say that it scares children and scares off potential members. But the truth is that without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness. (Hebrews 9:22) We are free, free from sin, death, and the devil forever. But it cost God dearly, it cost him the blood of his perfect Son. That was the incredible price Jesus paid to set us free.
This Lamb, his cross, his sacrifice, his death, and his blood are the center of the Christian faith. The Father’s work of creation and preservation, Jesus’ person and his offices – all lead up to this point. And everything we will consider in the coming weeks has significance only because it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. By now we’re probably done celebrating the freedoms that are ours as Americans; but let us never stop giving thanks to God for the freedom that is his gift to us; freedom from sin, death, and the devil; freedom purchased with the priceless blood of Christ. Amen.