We live in a nation that prides itself on freedom. In 9 days, we will exercise our freedom to vote. We can vote for a Republican, a Democrat, an Independent, a member of the Green Party – or no one at all. We enjoy freedom of speech – the Constitution gives you the right to say almost anything at any time; although as Christians we will always use that right to edify others and glorify God. When we turn on the TV or flip open our tablets, we enjoy freedom of the press – MSNBC or FOX, the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal. We are free to watch and read all of them or none of them. Most important, we enjoy freedom of religion in our nation. Unlike thousands of Christians around the world, we don’t have to worry that the government or our employer will persecute us because we worship Jesus Christ as Savior. As Americans, we are free in any number of ways – and let us never take our freedoms for granted. But today, let us cherish the most important freedom we have – the freedom only Jesus can give: freedom from slavery and freedom for sonship.
To truly appreciate freedom, we must understand the opposite: slavery. John 8 provides a prime example of what slavery looks like. The woman the Pharisees brought to Jesus as he was teaching in the temple courts one morning was a slave – a slave to sin. She had been caught – red handed – in the sin of adultery. The Pharisees brought this woman to Jesus to see if he would support the Law of Moses which said that she should be stoned for her crime. (Leviticus 20:10) This woman knew what it meant to be enslaved to sin. Lust had controlled her. Evil, vengeful men surrounded her, and on the other side of her only apparent escape – death – stood Satan, delighting in the fact that he had wrecked another home, ruined another life, and trapped another soul for eternity.
The Galatians in our second lesson also knew what it meant to be slaves. Some of them were literal slaves – a grim reality for many in the Roman Empire. All of them had, at one time, been slaves to idols – false gods with eyes that couldn’t see, ears that couldn’t hear, and hands that couldn’t help. Behind every one of these false gods stood Satan – who had succeeded yet again in convincing humans created in God’s image to worship blocks of wood and statues of silver. With half the tree they heated their house. With the other half they made a god. It was pure insanity. Pure satanic slavery!
Before you pity that woman and the Galatians too much, listen to what Jesus has to say: I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Sometimes this slavery is easy to spot. The heroin addict who lies and steals to maintain his habit, his slavery is obvious. The husband who spends his time, money, and creativity deceiving his family and friends to maintain a secret affair – his slavery is evident. When pastors walk to the door of a member who hasn’t worshiped in months or years, they often hear the rattle of sin’s chains in the reasons, rationales and excuses put forward: busy schedule, gotta work, it’s the kids and their sports or academics, it’s my only morning to sleep in, I’m young, I’ll have time for Jesus later, etc. Wrecked bodies, destroyed homes and lives, greedy hearts and starving souls – all of it is slavery, slavery to sin and slavery to Satan.
Other times it’s harder to spot – especially in myself. There’s one important thing to remember: slavery to sin isn’t only what we do, it’s who we are. We just admitted that, didn’t we? Holy and merciful Father, I confess that I am by nature sinful… Pick a commandment, any commandment. When we hold God’s Law up to our hearts like a mirror, our own slavery becomes undeniable. The 4th – sure we respect those in elected office, those called by the church, our employers and supervisors – to their faces; how many of us would have to blush with shame if our private thoughts and conversations about them were made public. The 5th – it’s easy to refrain from shooting someone. It’s not so easy to refrain from murdering with hatred in our heart. The 6th – it’s fairly easy to stay out of our neighbor’s bedroom. It’s not so easy to keep our eyes to ourselves. The 7th – I doubt that any of us have held up a Kwik Trip, but to “forget” to claim some income when tax time comes, to make the decision that all God deserves this week is my spare change – that commandment makes thieves of us all. Jesus doesn’t say “Every time you sin you are a slave,” he doesn’t say, “If you sin you are a slave,” He says, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. If you are breathing, you are a slave to sin.
We know this. We don’t like it. So we try to escape. Usually, in one of two ways: 1) We try to work our way out of it, or 2) we deny it. Try to work your way out of it – that’s the route the Galatians had taken. They had confused Law and Gospel. A group of false Christians had wormed their way into the Galatian congregation. They were essentially Pharisees in Christian clothing. They said that it was fine to believe that the Gospel made you a Christian, but that if you wanted to stay a Christian and be certain of heaven, then you still had to obey the Old Testament laws: circumcision, rest on Saturday, and no bacon for breakfast or pork-chops for supper. Paul could hardly believe it: I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – which is really no gospel at all. (Galatians 1:6-7) In other words, Paul is saying that if you return to trying to do something to earn salvation, you wind up forfeiting the completed work of Christ on your behalf.
Martin Luther tried a similar route 1500 years later. He gave up a promising career in law to become a monk. He gave away all his earthly possessions. He slept on a stone floor in an unheated cell, became a priest, attended confession seven days a week and worshipped seven times a day. He did all this in an attempt to free his conscience from guilt and his soul from slavery to sin. His path of freedom through works quickly became another form of slavery. Luther wrote this when he looked back on his life as a slave…er, monk: I saw many who tried with great effort and the best of intentions to do everything possible to appease their conscience. They wore hair shirts; they fasted; they prayed; they tormented and wore out their bodies so severely that if they had been made of iron they would have been crushed. And yet the more they labored, the greater their terrors became. Especially when the hour of death was imminent, they became so fearful that I have seen many murderers facing execution die more confidently than these men who had lived such saintly lives. (LW 27:13) Attempting to work your way out of slavery – whether that means fasting, giving, working, cleaning, preaching, or just trying harder tomorrow – is simply trading slavery to sin for slavery to law. Slavery never leads to freedom.
Option 2: deny, deny, deny. The Jews’ history was one of slavery beginning, middle and end. Egypt. Babylon. Rome. It was undeniable. And yet they claim: We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free? They were in denial. “We can’t be slaves. We’re children of Abraham. We’ve got the right blood flowing in our veins – so God has to give us a pass.” Sadly these Jews forgot that the fact that their forefathers wandered and died in the desert shows how serious God is about all sin – no matter who your ancestor is.
That’s why we will never let our celebration of the Reformation turn into Lutheran pep rally. “We’re sons of Luther – and WELS (that’s the good kind of Lutheran) on top of it! God must be happy with us.” The truth is that being Lutheran doesn’t earn us a thing in God’s eyes. If we imagine that we are free because of our Lutheran pedigree – because we were born, raised, and confirmed Lutheran – we are in denial, and we end up losing the one person with the pedigree that really matters: Jesus. And so we don’t celebrate the Reformation to worship Martin Luther, or to place our trust in our Lutheran heritage as if that somehow earns our spot in heaven; no, we use the Reformation to thank God for using Martin Luther to bring back to the forefront the one true solution to our problem of slavery: Jesus Christ – in Christ alone!
Doing good works cannot set us free from sin. Being Lutheran does not set us free from sin. Only one thing sets us free from sin: If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.
Who is this who claims to be the Son, to be the only one with the power to set slaves free? There is no more important question and no answer that Satan tries harder to confuse and cover up. The world at large is too distracted to consider this question. Some in the visible church say that Jesus can be whoever you want him to be. But salvation doesn’t depend on who you want Jesus to be, it depends on who Jesus proved himself to be by word and action. John testified at the beginning of his Gospel that Jesus is the Word [who] became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14) Either Jesus is God’s Son and he can free us from our slavery to sin or he is an imposter who will spend eternity in hell with us – there is no middle ground.
Jesus has proved beyond all doubt, first to eyewitnesses and second to us through his Word, that he is God’s Son and our Savior. He is the only person who can set us free. But our freedom wasn’t free. Our freedom cost him everything: He left his throne in heaven to become a slave on earth. He came bearing truth, but no truth has been more frequently and completely rejected than His saving gospel. Jesus came to bring light to people living in darkness, but most preferred to stay in the darkness of sin and unbelief. Jesus had all power, but in weakness he allowed himself to be arrested, mocked and beaten. Jesus, the King of Justice, suffered the ultimate perversion of justice – the guilty Barabbas walked free while he was nailed to a cross. The Author of Life died. The one who fills the universe was wrapped in grave cloths. But that’s not the end of the story: the One who died rose and now lives forever!
Because God’s Son broke the bars on death’s prison, not only is he free – he has set us free. Slaves can only make other slaves. If we trust our own obedience to set us free – we will be slaves forever. If we look to Luther to set us free – we will find that heaven isn’t the only corner of eternity with a section for Lutherans. But when the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. Through the conquering work of the Son, you are free from slavery to sin. Through the Lord of Life, you are free from the terror of death. Freed from slavery to Satan, you are free to be sons and daughters of our Father in heaven.
That’s freedom you can enjoy right now. How? Lutherans love the answer to that question. If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. We hold to the Reformation creed of Scripture alone because Jesus tells us that it is only through his Word that we are truly set free. Jesus ties the gift of freedom, not to our genetic heritage, not to our church membership, not to a feeling in our hearts, not to our good works – but to His Word. Jesus connects true freedom, not to an army representing the red, white, and blue but to the blood-stained Gospel. If you want to be free – hold onto Jesus’ teaching, treasure doctrine, take every opportunity to hear and dig into God’s Word – because through that Word Jesus sets you free to be children of God.
As Americans, may we never take our freedom for granted. Don’t forget that our freedom of press, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion were bought and paid for by American lives. Vote next Tuesday. Be interested and involved in the administration of our city, state, and country. Thank God for our liberties. But more importantly on this Reformation Day, rejoice in the freedom you have as a child of God. It was purchased and won for you, not by American soldiers, but by the blood of God’s one and only Son. That freedom comes to you through the Word. That freedom can’t be taken from you. That freedom will ring loud and clear forever. Amen.