A Life of Repentance
Saint John 8:31-36
Church conventions, especially Synodical conventions, generally include opportunities for visiting dignitaries to bring greetings to the assembled delegates and other attendees. At the recently held convention of Lutheran Church-Canada, one such greeting was from the bishop of our sister synod in Germany, the SELK, or Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church. Bishop Voigt began his little talk by referring to the theses that Luther nailed to the door of the church in Wittenberg, the act that is seen as the very start of the Reformation. And the good bishop told us something new about this—something that I’d never heard of before. He said that what Luther hammered to that door was not 95 Theses, but rather only 87. Apparently, according to Bishop Voigt, recent discoveries have been made to support this claim—documents that have turned up in some library, I believe he said. If this is true, the 8 theses missing from the original document would have been a later addition. Well, meaning no disrespect to the head of our sister synod, but I have trouble believing this. To paraphrase a line from the disciple Thomas, “Unless I see it with my own eyes, I will never believe it!”
Regardless of the number of theses tacked up by Luther, there is one thing that Bishop Voigt did say about them of which I am in wholehearted agreement. He said that in the first thesis, there resides the heart and soul of the Reformation—what it’s all about, you may say. Now, in case your recollection of the first thesis is a bit fuzzy, let me remind you. It says, “When our Lord and master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ [in Matthew 4:17], He willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”
Is that how it is for you, dear friends? Is your entire life characterized by repentance? If you’re not quite sure what that means, allow me again to refresh your memory, with what Luther says in the Small Catechism, when he answers the question, “What does baptizing with water indicate?” He says, “It indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.” It says that your baptismal life in Christ—what it means to be a Christian—is all about each and every day “‘fessing up” to the truth that you are a poor, miserable sinner and that you need the forgiveness that Christ has earned for you with His innocent suffering and death upon Calvary’s cross. Don’t forget that the goal of your life of faith is heaven and everlasting life, or as the Creed puts it, “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” In order for you to “live before God in righteousness and purity forever,” you must be without sin; you must be absolutely, completely holy, just as God is holy. Nothing less than that will do. And the only way for you to be this way, as God demands and requires, is for you to let Him make you this way, through His Son Jesus and the forgiveness He brings and freely gives to you. There is no other way.
Prior to the Reformation another way was taught. In the Church in which Luther was baptized and raised, it was not taught that salvation is by the grace of God alone through faith in Christ, but that it is achieved alongside of the grace of God through faith in Christ. Christ’s work of atonement was not completely denied, but it was relegated to a secondary role. It was looked upon kind of like the battery in your car—necessary to get things going, but not as important as the car’s engine and transmission. The Roman Catholic Church still teaches this way; it still holds to the error that a spark of God’s grace, which includes Christ’s sacrifice for us on the cross, is infused or plugged into a person in Holy Baptism, making it possible for that baptized individual to do good works that are pleasing to God and that merit salvation. This, most assuredly, dear brothers and sisters, is a damning lie originating from the father of all lies, from him who, as Jesus tells us, is a murderer from the beginning. This is a lie that the devil tells in order to bring spiritual and eternal death to you. So, plug your ears to it and believe the truth that Christ our Lord proclaims this day!
At the beginning of today’s Holy Gospel, from the eighth chapter of Saint John’s account, the evangelist tells us that Jesus is speaking to “Jews who had believed in him.” At the end of His talking to them, which is recorded in verses following our Gospel text, these same believing Jews reject our Lord and pick up stones to throw at Him, very likely with murder as their intent. Their faith in Jesus at the start, I would suggest, is like the seed from the parable that’s sown on rocky ground, which, as Jesus explains, is the person who hears the Word, believes it, and “endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away.” The tribulation or persecution that causes these Jews to fall away is what Jesus tells them about His word and themselves. They’re offended by this because what Jesus tells them goes against everything that they’ve been taught and come to believe about their salvation and everlasting life. And what they’ve been taught is that lie of the devil—the lie that says you don’t need Jesus to be saved—the lie that says you have it in yourself to merit being received by God in His everlasting kingdom.
Now, in essence, what Jesus tells them is that they are sinner just like you—sinners who deserve nothing but the punishment of temporal and eternal death. They’re slaves to their sin, without any hope of freeing themselves from it or from the terrible fate of death and damnation that awaits them because of their sin. But while they have no hope in themselves, they are given to have a sure and certain hope for salvation in Christ. Jesus declares to them, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free”—free from death, free from the devil, and free from everlasting damnation.
Immediately upon hearing this, these Jews protest and say that Jesus has got it all wrong. “We don’t need to be set free because we’re not slaves to anyone,” they tell Him. They appeal to their heritage as descendants of Abraham, as though this gives them some sort of exemption from the righteous demands of God’s holy Law. True, God’s Word from Genesis 15 does say that God regarded Abraham as being righteous, but this is because the patriarch “believed the Lord.” Abraham had faith, and by faith he knew the truth—the truth that set him free from his sins and from the condemnation of the Law. Sadly, the Jews from our text did not have the faith of Abraham, for faith is not something that is passed on like a genetic trait or family heirloom. Faith is a gift that is given by God, which a person may either, by the grace of God, receive or because of sin reject.
As we’ve noted, the Jews of our text were given this gift of faith, but almost right away they reject it. They reject it because of their sinful pride, which is offended by Jesus’ words of truth. Never mind that Jesus speaks this truth in love, so that they might have real salvation apart from themselves—life and salvation that they can never achieve on their own—all they hear is Jesus calling them sinners. How dare He, they thought. To them, their sins are of no matter. This, of course, is the lie fed to them by the devil, which, like a hungry walleye or pike, they devour hook, line, and sinker. What’s also true is that the devil casts his line of deceit right in front of you, too, even as you swim about in the waters of your baptism. And there’s a part of you—that Old Adam in you—that greatly desires to take the bait. He’s gotten you to nibble at it from time to time, hasn’t he? That the devil hasn’t succeeded in reeling you in is all God’s doing. Thanks be to God for His mercy and grace!
In a note that Martin Luther wrote just hours before his death—28 years, 3½ months after starting the Reformation—the Reformer said, “We are beggars. This is true.” Indeed, Luther did not have anything in and of himself that was of any merit or worth to God. Every good thing that Luther had was given to Him by His Creator. And the same is true for you. You have nothing, and can do nothing, on your own to earn your salvation. You are a beggar, like Luther, who can only come before God with open, outstretched, and empty hands to receive the goodness and mercy that God gives you in Christ, the greatest of which is the forgiveness of your sins that makes you holy and righteous in His sight—the forgiveness through which the new man in you, the righteous one, daily emerges and arises “to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”
You have salvation and everlasting life solely because of Christ, dear fellow redeemed—solely because the Father loves you and sent His Son to be your Saviour. And so that you may continue in this salvation—so that you might remain steadfast in His Word unto life everlasting—the Lord Jesus has established and given His Church for you and for all who believe and are saved. And here, in this congregation—where the Church of Christ is located for you—here, among all your brothers and sisters in the faith, the Holy Spirit leads you to be where the Gospel is purely taught and the Sacraments are administered “in harmony with the Gospel of Christ.” Jesus, our Lord, calls you to repent so that here He can forgive you. And this He most assuredly and wonderfully does in the preaching of His Holy Word, and in Holy Absolution, and in the Sacrament of the Altar. These are gifts of greatest worth bestowed by Christ, through the Spirit, by which He renews you in the joy of your salvation and strengthens you in your baptismal faith and grace.
The Son has set you free, dear friends, and you are free indeed! You are forgiven all your sins. In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.