Reformation: Remaining in Jesus

Connected to Jesus (610x352)“We hold that someone is justified by faith, apart from the works of the law” (Romans 3:28). Can it get any clearer than that? All have sinned and continue to fall short of God’s glory, but they are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (Romans 3:23-24). “Freely” means that God’s justification, His saving you, is a gift that comes through Jesus’ work for you, not through your own efforts or doing. How could it be any clearer?

And yet, it isn’t always so clear. In Luther’s day, it wasn’t clear that being righteous in God’s eyes existed apart from the Law, because of works, because of what you did. People who went to church, week in and week out, often heard sermons about indulgences and duties. Sermons told them to fear the fires of purgatory. They saw Jesus as a stern judge, holding the scales of justice to measure your sins against your righteousness. No; it wasn’t clear at all that God justified someone by faith, apart from the works of the law.

But what about today? Isn’t a person being justified by faith, apart from the works of the Law, the central and core teaching of Christianity today? Well, such teaching does receive lip service. But what might someone hear in many churches these days? It’s the same as in as in former days: It’s Christ, plus something.

Oh, Jesus saves–but now here’s what you have to do. And so, many pastors and people treat the doctrine of justification as a presupposition. Oh, yeah, you can’t save yourself; we know that (as head knowledge). But after that, your justification is all but forgotten; it simply becomes a stepping stone to the “Christian life.”

We know about justification by faith. That’s old news; let’s move on to something else. And so people turn justification by faith into the beginning of being a Christian, not the central core of the Faith. Christianity becomes Christ, plus love. It becomes Christ, plus your obedience. It’s Christ, plus your prayers, your devotion, your decision. Justification by faith becomes justification by faith and works, even if that work is just a prayer to ask Jesus into your heart to be saved.

But what’s at risk if we treat Jesus coming to save us as an afterthought, or an offer that doesn’t become real until we do our part? What happens when God’s speaking and making us righteous, of healing us for eternal life through His Son in the Holy Spirit, no longer is the center of our lives? Easy: We fill that center with something else. And if Jesus isn’t the center of our lives, then something else, something other than Jesus and how He continues to save and strengthen our faith, becomes your god.

You might think: “Come on, pastor. You’re exaggerating. The risk can’t be that serious?” Yes, it is. The verse before the beginning of today’s Gospel reading tells us that many believed in Jesus. But then the next verse says, “So Jesus told those Jews who HAD believed in him.” They HAD believed in Him?   That means they no longer DID believe in him. Somehow, they had lost their faith; something other than Jesus had become their god.

There’s no “once saved, always saved” security here. So, what happened to those former believers? Did God fail them? Did the Word fail to do its faith-creating, strengthening, and enlivening work? No; they turned from the Word, that is, Jesus, to something else. Faith is born of the Word, fed by the Word, and strengthened by the Word. Without the Word, without Jesus, faith dies.

Jesus said to those who had stopped believing in Him, “If you remain in my word, you are truly my disciples.” To be a disciple is to remain in the Word of Jesus. It’s to be connected to Jesus by hearing His Word and having His Word have its way with you.

Jesus used that word–”remain (or “abide”)–when He compared the Christian life to branches being connected to a vine. In that comparison, Jesus said: “I am the vine; you are the branches. The one who remains in me and I in him produces much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not remain in me, he will be like a branch that is thrown out and dries up” (John 15:5-6).

The vine is the life-source for the branch. But if the branch becomes disconnected from the vine, it stops bearing fruit and dies. Jesus is that vine; you are the branch. If you aren’t connected to Jesus, your faith dies. It’s that simple.

But Jesus then speaks a promise, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Jesus has a promise for those who remain in Him. But what does Jesus mean by the word, “truth”? Jesus tells us that later in John’s Gospel. Jesus said: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

When Jesus said, “the truth will set you free,” He wasn’t merely referring to knowing facts that happen to be true. Oh, it’s true that only Jesus gives you eternal life. That’s a true statement. But unless you are connected to the Truth Himself, Jesus Christ, then the truth that Jesus saves is simply a fact, and nothing more. To remain in the Truth is to remain in Jesus. Apart from Jesus, your faith dies.

We see that lack of faith in our Gospel reading, from those who used to believe in Jesus. After hearing Jesus speak about truth and being free in Him, they latched on to what Jesus said about being free. They said: “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves to anybody. So how can you say, ‘You will be set free’?” Instead of having Jesus at the center of their lives, of being connected to Him, they replaced that with something else.

For the Jews who had once believed in Jesus, that something else had become their pedigree, their bloodline. “We are Abraham’s descendants,” they proudly boasted. They had Abraham’s blood running through their veins, what more did they need?

They had even forgotten their past. “We’ve never been slaves to anybody,” they retorted. What about that slavery in Egypt, where God had to rescue you? How we forget! Sin is slavery, and everyone who sins is a slave to sin. You cannot free yourself any more than the Israelites could free themselves from Egypt.

Jesus said: “I assure you: Everyone who sins is a slave to sin.” Do you sin? God’s commandments say that you do. How are you faring toward God? Do you fear, love, and trust in Him above all else? Do you call on God’s name in every need, and with it pray, praise, and give thanks? Do you hear the preached Word? All right, you’re doing that right now. But do you also hold it as sacred and gladly hear and learn it?

And how are you faring toward others? Do you honor, serve, and esteem the authorities whom God has placed over you? Do you help your neighbor and support him in every need? Are your words and deeds pure and honorable, and do you love and respect your spouse? Do you help your neighbor improve and protect his property and means of making a living? Do you speak well of your neighbor and see his actions in the best possible light? Are you fully content with what you have?

Well, then, so we still do sin. And so Jesus’ words to us still ring true: “we are slaves to sin.” And if we are slaves to sin, then we never outgrow our need for Jesus to forgive those sins. And so we are back to Jesus, which is the entire point about justification. Jesus has redeemed you from your slavery to sin. And if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed!

Jesus has freed you, a lost and condemned creature. He has acquired and won you from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil. He did this, not with silver or gold, but with His holy and precious blood, and with His innocent suffering and death. The sinless One became sin, for you. He was baptized into your sin and death, for you. He came to bear your sin in death to give you His life and righteousness.

That’s what propelled the Reformation–God makes the unrighteous righteous. He justifies the ungodly. He gives the sinner the righteousness of Jesus through Word and Sacrament. You have sinned and continue to fall short of God’s glory, but you are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (Romans 3:23-24).

Learn to treasure that truth of Jesus, that Truth that is Jesus, for in Him, you have a blood-bought freedom. It was into that Gospel freedom that you were baptized.   That’s your inheritance as a son of God. In baptism, God makes you, whether male or female, into a son of God, someone who will receive the inheritance that He has for you. That’s how you, a sinner, can stand before a holy God and still live. God does justify the sinner, by grace, through faith, not because of your works. It’s all because of Jesus and how Jesus comes to give you His life-giving forgiveness–through Word and Sacrament.

Yes, you are still a slave to sin. But, in Christ Jesus, you are also someone whom God has adopted as His son. Should you ever doubt that, remember your baptism. Baptism is your adoption paper. The slave is now a son with the full rights of being a son. Because you are part of God’s family, you have a place at the His Table.

Remain in Jesus, the Word and Truth that He is, and you ARE a disciple of Jesus. Remain in Him and you ARE forgiven. Remain in Him and you ARE free. You are free from trying to make yourself righteous through the law. The law can no longer condemn you. You are free from death, free to live before God as a sinner made righteous, free to serve your neighbor in love. Such freedom is yours in Christ Jesus. Remain in Him as He remains in you. Amen.