Dear friends in Christ, today is a very special day. On this day, people throughout the world are observing the 500th anniversary of the beginning of a great movement that changed the world. 500 years ago, a little-known Augustinian monk named Martin Luther, serving in a little-known town in Germany named Wittenberg, posted 95 theses as a call to debate what he felt were significant problems in the church. The posting of these theses began a mighty movement of faith commonly known as the Reformation.
We today who gather in the church which bears the name of that Augustinian monk are naturally filled with a bit of pride. Our guy changed the world! The Reformation ushered in an age of unprecedented and accelerated growth in learning, mission and involvement within the Christian Church that changed the landscape of society.
But as we celebrate all of that positive change, we should also be reminded that not all of the changes brought about by the Reformation movement were good. The Reformation was indeed a mighty movement of faith. Unfortunately, in too many cases, it became more of a mighty movement of freedom—a freedom which not only led to a highly fractured church but also helped usher in an age where core elements of the Christian faith were either changed or discarded.
As the Church’s traditional Reformation Day Gospel reading from John 8 reminds us, freedom plays a large role in the Reformation movement. But we need to be discerning about the role and meaning of that freedom.
To help us think about the relationship between faith and freedom in the Reformation context, I suggest the label: A mighty movement of freedom-fed faith. The great faith exhibited by the Reformers, and the great movement of faith that resulted in such positive change and growth, was a faith fed by freedom. It all started with one man’s quest to be free. And when that one man found his freedom, he was so filled with energy and joy that he was able to produce and accomplish amazing things. His personal faith, and his understanding of faith, led – and still leads – to the growing of faith in millions.
We need to be clear, however, that the freedom which this one man found was not primarily a freedom from the church, as some people conclude. The church of Luther’s day certainly had its problems, but Luther was not concerned with gaining freedom from any kind of institution. He had a much greater concern. He was concerned, above all, about his place before God.
In our Reformation Day Gospel reading, we hear Jesus having a dialogue with a crowd of people, many of whom are not sure whether to believe him. Part of the crowd engaging in that dialogue are the established religious leaders—a group whom Jesus has clashed with many times before. When we hear this text read on Reformation Day it’s very easy for us to start thinking about Luther’s struggle with the religious leaders of his day. Yes, Luther did speak forcefully against the leadership of his church. But we must be careful to remember that Luther was a reformer and not a freedom fighter.
Luther’s struggle was only against those particular leaders of his day, not the concept of church leadership itself. Luther was fine with the church being led by a pope, as long as that pope did not obscure the Gospel. Luther did not pine for a freedom to do his own thing. He pined for the Gospel. And yet, to hear the story of the Reformation told by many today, freedom from authority is what it was all about. They see this as the main Reformation breakthrough.
Recently I read an article about the Reformation published by a well-known major media outlet. The article kept referring to Martin Luther’s emphasis on “personal faith.” We all know that Luther’s great theological breakthrough was finding freedom through faith alone, apart from works of the Law, as described so clearly and wonderfully for us by St. Paul in today’s reading from Romans 3. But the news article made it sound like Luther’s breakthrough was the ability to believe for one’s self—a personal faith—free from any strictures by the church or other authority.
Along those lines, we know that for many people the defining moment of the Reformation was when Luther said before the Imperial Diet “Here I stand.” But this episode in the life of Luther should be seen as more a story of personal courage than a model or slogan of our faith. The more defining moments of the Reformation are the calls to debate, like our anniversary today, as well as the times when the people of the church, through their confessional documents, say together: “here we stand.”
The faith of Martin Luther and the Reformers was indeed freedom-fed. But it was not a freedom from the church. Rather, it was a freedom from sin. Luther struggled mightily with his sin until he finally realized that God, through His Son, Jesus Christ, had set him free.
The Church of Luther’s day had hidden the Scripture’s message of freedom by saying that an individual must make restitution for their sin through acts of penance and through time spent in purgatory. Luther was disillusioned by the fact that he couldn’t overcome his own sin. He was also troubled by a church which was collecting large sums of indulgence money as a way for people to make restitution.
As Luther turned to the Scriptures, he eventually experienced exactly what Jesus said in our text for today. Abiding in God’s Word, he learned the truth… and the truth set him free. He learned that though his sin made him a slave to sin and unworthy of God’s presence, the Son set him free, making him a child of God, who would abide in His house forever.
Ironically, the people of our world today, in no small part because of the Reformation, experience life much more like in the days of Jesus than that of Luther. Most people today, like those in our Gospel text, resist the idea that they are slaves to sin. They believe they are naturally free, on their own, and just fine as they are.
When Jesus preached to the people of his day about the truth setting them free, they immediately protested that they were not, nor never had been, slaves. They didn’t need to be set free. Their protest sounds silly, for they had of course been slaves in Egypt many generations earlier. Their annual Passover celebration was even a time of remembering how God had freed them from that slavery. But their protest only underscores the point Jesus is making. People don’t like to hear that they are slaves—but that’s exactly what they are when they sin. Sinfulness is an addiction that cannot be overcome on one’s own. Sinfulness is a continual falling short of the glory of God. The fact is, none of us can free ourselves from our sinful condition. We are enslaved. We cannot meet the Law’s demands, nor can we escape from its penalty, which is death.
But Jesus was there to tell the people of his generation something more than just the wretched state they were in. And His message to them is the same to us. Jesus overcomes sin. And Jesus overcomes death. Jesus, by his life, death and resurrection sets us free from our bondage. He made restitution. He paid the penalty. He has called us to faith and said: “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
Jesus has told us the truth of his salvation. It is not a salvation by works, but rather a salvation by God’s grace, as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. In that faith, and in that grace, we simply need to abide and remain.
This message of freedom feeds mighty movements of faith. It did so for Luther. It has done so for the entire Christian Church. It can do so for you.
We began the sermon by calling the Reformation a mighty movement of faith. It was. And we celebrate. But even more, we pray that freedom-fed faith in Jesus Christ might lead to mighty movements of faith in our day. Our world surely needs them.
Our text calls us to “abide” in Christ’s word and “remain” in Him. But we should not get the idea that now we are to simply sit around. That would be unnatural. Our freedom brings us energy and joy. And our message of freedom can be a blessing to so many. We want to share. We want to witness. We want to work.
Years ago, I remember my uncle quoting to me those great verses from Ephesians 2 which encapsulate the Scripture’s teaching on freedom from sin so well. You know them: “For it is by grace that you have been saved, through faith, and this is not of yourselves it is a gift of God, lest anyone should boast.” And then he told me not to go on to the next verse, verse ten, which says: “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works.” I remember at the time wondering how he could say that. Weren’t all the words of the Bible important? Certainly we need to think about good works, and not just stop with being saved. But now that I’ve lived a little longer I realize that the world is always pushing us to talk about good works, and that good works very easily becomes not only the focus of people’s energy, but also their expectations. Sometimes we need to stop at verse nine.
I suppose if there was any Sunday to skip the good works part of the sermon and just stay with being set free it would be today. But if you read on in John 8, just a few more verses after today’s text ends, you will see Jesus going in the good works direction too. “If you were Abraham’s children,” he says in verse 39, “you would be doing the works Abraham did.” Works are a natural part of who we are. They are not the way we save ourselves, but only the way we serve each other.
During the next three Sundays our sermons will include thoughts about Christian stewardship. This will give us some good, dedicated time to think about the works we can be doing individually and together as we live out our faith. Perhaps we will lift up the works of Abraham, or maybe some more about Luther. Then again, I think we would do well to remember the Reformation 500 slogan adopted by our Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod: “Reformation 500 – it’s still all about Jesus.” Jesus is the one who sets us free. Jesus is the one who causes mighty movements of faith. Jesus is the one who guides and empowers us in our works. No one did a greater word than Jesus, who saved us from our sin.
It’s still all about Jesus. 500 years is a good long time. Much has happened since the days of Luther. The world has changed in many ways. Then again, in most ways it hasn’t. The world still struggles with sin. Some refuse to see their part in it. Some refuse to believe they need a savior. Jesus is still here to set free those who trust in him. As we celebrate mighty movements of faith, and as we strive toward good works, let us always remember that our hope and salvation is still all about Jesus. He’s the one who sets us free.
In the name of Jesus, amen.