Reformation Day · John 8:31-36 · October 25, 2009

By William W. Schumacher

The assignment of this text for the festival of the Reformation suggests the question: Was the Lutheran Reformation about freedom? Luther’s famous early work, “The Freedom of a Christian,” developed the idea of the paradoxical identity of one who has faith in Christ: both utterly free and completely devoted to service to others. Another writing, “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” describes how Christ’s church is held in bondage when the doctrine of the gospel is obscured or forgotten. Luther saw human freedom in a paradoxical light, and this challenges our individualistic assumptions. There have certainly been attempts to reinterpret the reform of the church sparked by Luther’s discovery of the gospel in terms of the liberation of human beings from all kinds of authority, thus removing the paradox of Christian freedom. Friedrich Schleiermacher, for instance, championed complete human freedom from any religious authority whatsoever, citing 2 Corinthians 3:6 and claiming that any authoritative text “kills” and is opposed to the autonomous freedom of the human spirit.

Such a view of freedom, of course, is congenial to the narcissistic hedonism so prevalent in America today, but it has little to do with the words and work of Jesus Christ. In the Gospel of John, the word-group “free/freedom” is used only in this passage. Jesus says that his disciples—those who remain in his word—will know the truth which will set them free (v. 32). Lest we misunderstand this “truth” in simply propositional terms, he repeats that real freedom comes from Him. It is the Son who sets us free (v. 36). Knowing the truth is a synonym for believing in Jesus the Son of God. And believing in Jesus means staying rooted and immersed in his word; being a disciple means living from what Jesus teaches and promises.

But the opposite of a free person is a slave, as Jesus’ audience understood well enough. They insisted on their free status as descendants of Abraham, and denied that they stood in any need of being set free (v. 33). They objected to any suggestion that they lacked something which only Jesus could give. They wanted to define their freedom as autonomy or sovereignty, which did not depend on Jesus. As always, Jesus will turn their minds (and ours) away from the trivial and the superficial, and will drive to the heart of the matter. Simply and starkly, sin is slavery. This is the state of fallen human existence expressed in the words of the confession of sins: “We confess that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.” When Jesus says that everyone who sins is a slave to sin, he does not remove personal responsibility. He emphasizes that, whether we recognize it or not, what we call liberty is often the worst kind of imprisonment from which we cannot engineer our own escape.

It is perhaps remarkable that Jesus spoke these rather sharp words about freedom and slavery, not to his critics or opponents but “to the Jews who had believed in him” (v. 31). Jesus’ words become even harsher in the verses immediately following our text. He tells these same people that they are trying to kill him because his word finds no place in them (v. 37) and even calls them children of the devil (v. 44). This certainly sounds provocative when directed at people who are described as “believers” in verse 31, and Christian pastors will ordinarily not address their congregations in these terms! But there should be no mistake. Jesus intends to force a clear choice between our self-constructed, self-centered ideas of freedom and identity on the one hand, and being his disciple on the other.

Every preacher whose Reformation sermon is based on this text will need to take into account what his specific hearers understand and think about freedom and slavery, because Jesus’ words will work on different people in different ways. We live in a society in which there is a broad agreement about civil rights and human rights, and such concepts and efforts to promote them are certainly not to be condemned. They are approximations of justice in the realm of active righteousness, expressions of what we call the “first use” of God’s law at work in the world to protect and preserve life. But they are not ultimate goods. Middle-class Americans, blessed with relative prosperity and political democracy, can easily be tempted to think of “freedom” as something which is their natural birthright and possession, something America does not lack but exports to others. That mistake (and sin) is closely akin to the attitude of the Jews who had believed in Jesus and claimed Abraham as their father.

And yet even in our society, there are people whose life experiences lead them to hear these words of Jesus in a rather different way. Their personal and family histories are scarred by bondage, addiction, oppression, victimization, and yes, even slavery. For them the words of Jesus their Liberator are precious gospel promises, because they know what he says about the slavery of sin is true. They are not far from the kingdom, for Jesus, by his words and his saving works, makes them free from every enemy—from sin, death, and the power of the devil.

This is a message of freedom which can sound the great theme of the Reformation powerfully and effectively, even though it does not use the familiar forensic vocabulary of justification through faith. Our observance of the Feast of the Reformation must not be allowed to degenerate into a caricature of Luther as the hero who liberated the church. The Son of God is the one who sets us free, and as disciples who remain in his word we will be free indeed.

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