22nd Sunday after Trinity October 27, 2002
266, 377(1-6), 262, 283
Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” They answered Him, “We are Abraham’s descendants, and have never been in bondage to anyone. How can you say, ‘You will be made free’?” Jesus answered them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave of sin. And a slave does not abide in the house forever, but a son abides forever. Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed.”
In Jesus’ name, dear fellow Christians:
On a small island across the bay from San Francisco stands the old federal prison known as Alcatraz. A visit to Alcatraz is not soon forgotten. When you step off the boat and walk through the prison doors, you enter an entirely different world. You are handed a small cassette player with headphones and an informational tape. You are then allowed to roam through the huge complex on your own.
It doesn’t take long before the atmosphere begins to sink in. You feel a twinge of uneasiness and a shiver may run down the back of your neck as you realize what prison life in Alcatraz must have been like. You walk between rows of 5x8 cells stacked two or three stories high. On the heavy steel bars of the cells you see places where the paint was worn off by prisoners’ hands. You try to imagine what it would be like to spend years, or even decades, with no phone, no TV, and almost no contact whatsoever with the outside world—just 18, 20, 22 hours in that one cell. You picture the torture of walking to the dining hall, looking through a narrow barred window, and catching a glimpse of San Francisco gleaming in the sunshine across the water; and yet knowing there was no possible way you could get there. The desperation and yearning in the heart to be FREE must have been unbearable!
500 years ago Martin Luther knew nothing of Alcatraz, but he did know the agony of being a prisoner. Luther, however, was afraid that his prison sentence would extend not just through this life but all the way through eternity. He had tried everything he could imagine to win his freedom, but with no success. He was on the verge of giving up in despair when the Lord reached into his heart through the Word and led, not only Luther, but thousands of others into the spiritual freedom which He wants all to have and enjoy. On this anniversary of the Reformation we celebrate one incredible truth: Jesus sets sinners free!
As Jesus spoke about freedom, the Jews who were listening bristled at the implication that they were slaves or prisoners. “Look at who we are. Aren’t we Abraham’s descendants and therefore God’s special people? Aren’t we already free? Others may be in spiritual slavery, but we certainly are not!” Similarly, we pride ourselves in being Americans who live in the “land of the free” and can go where we want and say what we please. Our own pride suggests that in spiritual matters, too, we are free people: “Don’t I lead a good life? Haven’t I been a faithful church member for years? Others may need to hear about freedom, but I’m doing just fine.”
But then Jesus explains, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin.” The Jews prided themselves in their family heritage and in their exemplary outward lives, but they were still sinners. We may not have committed a crime that will put us behind bars, but we were born prisoners of sin as well. We are no different than David who confessed, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51:5 NIV). John adds, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8 NIV).
God does not say, “Just do the best you can and everything will be fine,” or “Just be sure you don’t fall into any ‘big’ sin.” He says, “Be holy as I the Lord your God am holy!” (Leviticus 19:2). Anything less is sin.
Are we sinners? All we have to do is compare our lives with God’s holy standard. Ask yourself: “Do I always give God the respect and honor due Him? Is my prayer and devotional life up to what God would like to see?” If not, I am guilty of sin. “Am I a model husband or wife? Am I always kind and considerate toward brothers and sisters and the people with whom I work and go to school?” If not, I am guilty. “Have I ever been jealous of someone else’s success or held a grudge against someone?” That, too, is sin. It doesn’t matter how many sins we can recall or even how little or large they may be in our eyes. James says, “Whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it” (James 2:10 NIV).
Each sin is another bar in our prison cell locking us in and holding us accountable to God Himself. That prison of sin is infinitely worse than a thousand Alcatrazes, because the consequences are eternal. The sentence is not just for a certain length of time on earth, but for eternity. The wages of sin is death (cf. Romans 6:23)—not just physical death, but eternal separation from God in the fires of hell.
Martin Luther understood this, and it terrified him. He was afraid to close his eyes at night for fear that he would die and wake up facing an angry Judge who would certainly condemn him. He wrote in a hymn stanza:
Fast bound in Satan’s chains I lay,
Death brooded darkly o’er me,
Sin was my torment night and day,
In sin my mother bore me;
Yea, deep and deeper still I fell,
Life had become a living hell,
So firmly sin possessed me.
Touring Alcatraz, the visitor hears that there were many attempts to escape, and yet no one ever made it out alive. There were just too many barriers in the way: things like concrete walls, guards armed with shotguns, and rolls of razor wire. Even if a prisoner could have made it through all of that, there was still the water and treacherous ocean currents blocking the path to freedom. The only way out of Alcatraz was to have a judge rule that the person’s debt to society had been paid in full. Then, and only then, could an individual walk out a free man.
There have also been many schemes to escape the prison walls of sin. Martin Luther was told that if he was holy enough, prayed enough, and did enough works of penance, God would accept him. Many people today live under that same dark cloud. They believe that it’s up to them to make themselves worthy of God’s love and salvation by being “good” people. It is popular, reasonable, and it’s an ego-booster, but it’s all a lie! No one gets to heaven by being good.
Luther, however, put his whole heart into trying to earn God’s favor by being “good.” He nearly killed himself by fasting for days on end, spending sleepless nights in constant prayer, and trying to beat the sinfulness out of his heart. But when all was said and done, he was right back where he started. All it took was one angry thought toward God, or a lapse in concentration while praying, and Luther realized there was more sin putting him at odds with the holy God.
Trying to break free from sin by turning our lives around or trying to make up for today’s sin by promising to be especially holy tomorrow is like trying to climb up the sheer face of a concrete wall, crawl through a maze of razor wire, and swim miles through shark-infested waters. It can’t be done! We would never make it! “By observing the law no one will be justified” (Galatians 2:16 NIV).
But the situation is not hopeless. There is a way out to freedom! 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.” The truth which Jesus teaches is that He alone is the way to freedom.
God is a just Judge. That means we cannot bypass the problem of sin and ignore God’s demand that we be perfectly righteous and holy. But instead of trying to do the impossible and find the holiness we need in ourselves, the Lord invites us to put our trust in Him. Jesus set us free by taking our place.
By God’s command, we absolutely need to keep the whole Law of God in every detail. There is no way we can do it, but Jesus came and did it for us. Our sins absolutely had to be punished. But Jesus became the prisoner under sin’s curse for us. He became sin in our place, so that we could receive His righteousness (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:21). He took your greed, lust, selfishness, and death, and in exchange gives you peace, joy, righteousness, and life. “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:1-2 NIV). The Judge pronounces the world justified, not guilty, because in Christ the debt of all sin has been paid in full.
The bars disappear, the walls are broken down, and the gate to freedom swings wide open. Luther wrote, “I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before the ‘justice of God’ had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love….If you have a true faith that Christ is your Savior, then at once you have a gracious God, for faith leads you in and opens up God’s heart and will, that you should see pure grace and overflowing love.”
Jesus sets us free! Because of His life, death, and resurrection, our sins cannot cut us off from God. Because it is God’s doing from start to finish, we don’t have to wonder whether we have done enough or if we have done it well enough. We have the truth of God standing forever which assures us that “whoever believes and is baptized shall be saved” (Mark 16:16). If the Son sets you free, you are free indeed!
Imagine that you are not a visitor to Alcatraz, but an inmate. You have been there for years, but it’s hard to keep track of the time since every day is the same hopeless routine. Then, unexpectedly, word comes that you have been pardoned. The cell door slides open and you are ushered out the front gate into freedom. What would you do? Would you sit outside just as hopeless as ever, waiting until the guards took you back in? Of course not! You would be filled with the greatest joy and would want to savor every moment of your new-found freedom. You would be anxious to catch the ferry back to San Francisco and involve yourself once again in the flow of society.
Jesus sets us free for an active life in His service. When the Holy Spirit led Luther to see his freedom in Christ, no one could hold him back. His life took on a whole new purpose and meaning. His joy flowed out in all the hymns he wrote and in every sermon he preached. Love for the Lord showed in his determination to hold onto the Lord’s truth no matter who opposed him. Standing before one of the most powerful men of his time, the emperor, Luther stated: “Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason, I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other. My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise.” Luther’s spiritual freedom moved him to share the Gospel of Christ with everyone he could, which led to the writing of the Catechisms and the translation of the Bible into German.
Today we are the beneficiaries of the Reformation. Through the work of Luther and others, the message of a Savior from sin has been preserved for us. May God’s love move us to appreciate and exercise our freedom. May we never grow tired of praising the Lord for the free forgiveness which cost Christ so much. May we eagerly hold onto the truth no matter how many other people and churches abandon or oppose it. May the joy of forgiveness set us free from worry and self-centeredness and inspire us to do everything possible to share the Gospel with the world.
There are still millions in our country and around the world who are locked up in that prison of sin. Some may live next door or even be in our families. Some may be among the people we will meet tomorrow in the course of usual routine. May the Lord reach them through us! May we live every moment of every day conscious of the truth that, while we were once prisoners and slaves, Jesus has set us free. And if the Son sets you free, you are free indeed! Thank God! Amen.
Since Christ hath full atonement made
And brought to us salvation,
Each Christian therefore may be glad
And build on this foundation.
Thy grace alone, dear Lord, I plead;
Thy death is now my life indeed,
For Thou hast paid my ransom.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations marked (NIV) are taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. NIV®. Copyright© 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.