What Truth Really Frees Us?
Two things have always bothered me about this text. 1) the University of Texas inscribing part of it on the entrance to the tower and 2) Lutherans using it as an occasion for chest thumping on Reformation. Both UT and us are saying it's our grasping of the truth that sets us free, but is that what Jesus says here?
Let's examine the UT claim first. They have inscribed on the tower, "You Shall Know the Truth and the Truth Shall Make you Free." The implication is that the academic truths taught by UT will set people free. And to an extent they do, don't they? Education has set people free from prejudices, from false perceptions, from a flawed view of history, but is this the freedom Jesus has in mind? No, because if it were Jesus would have sent professors not pastors, and founded a university not a Church. The truth that UT teaches doesn't bring the freedom Jesus promises. There's something more.
Okay, it must be religious truth. Jesus says, "If you hold to My teaching, you are really My disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." So we Lutherans are right. It is religious truth that sets a person free, but here is where we go wrong. It can't be our grasping, our faithfulness to the truth that sets us free. Do you know why? Because that is always flawed, always fallen, always sinful.
You Lutherans hear me out before you start gathering wood to burn me. I am not saying that the teaching of Jesus or the Word of God is flawed, or fallen, and it's certainly not sinful. But we are, and it's sinners just like us that Jesus is addressing in this text. We're specifically told that Jesus is NOT speaking to the Jews who don't believe Him, but to the Jews who do. And the first words out of Jesus' mouth are Law words. "IF you hold to My teaching, you are really My disciples. THEN you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." If-then statements, are always Law statements. IF you do this commandment, THEN you shall live. IF you attend church faithfully, THEN you will be blessed. Anytime someone tells you and if-then promise, they are really preaching the Law to you.
The Law is to expose your sins. The Law is to make you despair of yourself. You're not really hearing the Law in all it's forcefulness, in all it's judgment, when you respond with a vow to redouble your efforts to hold to the teaching of Jesus. Neither are you really hearing the Law when you make excuses for not holding to Jesus' teachings, "Their not clear; no one else does; I don't stray that far."
In our text, the Jews who believed in Jesus blunt the full force of the Law by making excuses. They reply to Jesus preaching the Law by saying, "We are Abraham's descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?" Follow their excuse all the way back to what they're really saying so you too might see your sin for what it really is. The Jews who believed in Jesus say they are free already; therefore, that means they do know the truth; they really are Jesus' disciples, and they most certainly do hold to Jesus' teachings. This my friends is a tough nut to crack because it seems so pious, so faithful, but it is pure works righteousness.
Do you claim that you're Jesus' disciple because you hold to His teaching? Do you claim you know the truth because you're able to hold His teachings perfectly? Do you claim that you're free because of how faithfully you hold to the teachings of Jesus? Then you are saved by your righteousness, by your holiness, by your efforts, not Jesus. And then your salvation really isn't sure. Ask any of the former Protestants who've joined our Church what's it like to have the certainty of your salvation tied to your ability to hold to Jesus' teachings rather than to Jesus' ability to hold on to you.
To prove to yourself that Jesus is leading these Jews who believed in Him away from their ability to hold on to His teachings to His ability to hold on to them and away from their faithfulness to His faithfulness, simply follow the text. Jesus preaches Law to them: IF you hold to My teaching, THEN you are really My disciples." The Jews who believed in Him responded with excuses, denying they needed to be freed of anything, and therefore claiming they already knew the truth and did hold to the teachings of Jesus. Jesus responds to their dodging of the Law by pouring on more Law, "I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin."
Ouch! Who can dodge that bullet? Who can make an excuse to get out from under that heavy Law? Who in the face of this all encompassing judgment can say, "I'll do better next time?" Jesus doesn't say what many of you think He does. He doesn't say, "Everyone who is a slave to sin, sins." He says, "Everyone who sins is a slave to sin." Do you sin? You're a slave. Do you who thump your chest at how faithful you are to the truth ever sin in thought, word, or deed? You're a slave to sin. Has your orthodoxy, your soundness and rightness of doctrine stopped you from sinning? Then you're still a slave. And slaves have no permanent place in the family says Jesus. Boom! Jesus just kicked these Jews who believed in Him right out of the family. He just kicked all of us out of heaven who think we have a place there based on how holy, how right, how orthodox we are.
We can't be set free from our sins by trying harder or by making excuses. Neither can we free ourselves by setting our pureness of doctrine against our sins. We can only be set free by God the Son. Our bulletin translation doesn't help you understand this. Right after Jesus preaches the darkest Law to the Jews who believed on Him telling them that even sinning once makes them a slave, and that slaves don't stay in the family, Jesus opens the bright door of the Gospel. He says, "But the (not a) Son belongs to it forever." The King James translates correctly, "the Son" and capitalizes the word "Son."
Jesus' goal all along was to lead these Jews who believed in Him away from what they do to Him. It didn't work in our text. The Jews who started out believing in Jesus ended up turning away from Him, even picking up rocks to kill Him. They refused to be led away from what they did: their following, their faithfulness, their holiness to the Son. How about you? The statement, "IF you hold to My teaching, THEN you are really My disciples," is Law. But the statement, "If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed," is Gospel. The IF part of the sentence is not based on what you do but on what Jesus the Son does.
Has the Son set you free? Let's see. Do you claim you have ever been able to hold perfectly to the teaching of Jesus without sin? Do you confess to being a poor, miserable sinner even in your holding to His teaching? Well, Jesus never strayed from the teaching of God. He never doubted, never denied, never drifted a millimeter from God's truth. Since the Son belongs in the family forever, He could never get kicked out. But in order to redeem us who were kicked out for our sins under the Law, He was born of a woman under the Law. Every jot and title, every dot of an i, every cross of a t in the teaching of God, the Son kept perfectly in your place.
You know how you get confused sometime? You read what this one says about a Bible passage and what that one says and you get afraid that after all you might not be following the teachings of Jesus close enough. Your salvation isn't based on your ability to hold to Jesus' teaching, but on the fact that Jesus held to God's teachings all of the time in your place. You can be at rest in the family of God based on Jesus' perfect faithfulness.
But how can slaves rest? Everyone who sins is a slave, and you have sinned by failing to hold to the teachings of Jesus. In order to free us, our sins had to be gotten out of the picture. Work and try and suffer and still your sins stay there like an ugly rock that no matter how much you chip away at won't budge or get smaller. Trying to cover your sins with excuses is like to trying to keep warm at night with a blanket that is just too small. Slaves have never been able to set themselves free, but a Son of the family; well, that's another story. The Son declares you free of your sins because He can't find them. He carried each and everyone of your sins on His back to the cross, and there suffered, there was damned, and there died for them all. Now the promise of the OT lesson is reality, "I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more."
Though you can remember many of your sins, particularly the ones that still embarrass and shame you, God the Son does not, cannot. He cannot remember what He has carried away. The Old Testament uses images of God throwing your sins behind His back never to turn around and look at them again or throwing them into a sea where they sink to the bottom never again to see the light of day. That's how forgiven you are; that's how free you are; that's how much a part of the family of God you are. And that my dear friends is the truth that sets you free. God the Son kept all the demands of the Law for you, and suffered and died in your place because you don't and can't. God the Son is the teaching, the freedom, and The Truth Jesus was trying to lead the Jews who believed in Him to. Jesus wanted to lead them away from what was going on in their heart to what He did.
Friend, once you're set free by the truth that you're completely saved by Jesus' keeping of God's teachings, not yours, and by Jesus forgiving your sins not by your not sinning, then you're really free to study, to hold, and to rejoice in His teachings. Once the Son sets you free from your sins and plants you firmly in God's family, His teaching looks different just as words heard by a son or daughter are different and better than words heard by a slave. Martin Luther wasn't driven to study the Bible and hold to its teachings by the thought he was freed by doing so. He was driven by the sweet sounds of the Word, the truth, the teaching that the Son had set him free. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Reformation Day (10-26-03), John 8:31-36