In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit
Jesus said in today’s Gospel, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” Truth is powerful. For it liberates you from the slavery of sin. It releases you from the ignorance of unbelief. It protects you from the traps and the schemes of the devil, who is the father of lies.
However, truth is also dangerous. For since it is so powerful, evil cannot tolerate it. Evil wars against the truth, always trying to corrupt it. Darkness hates the light and can’t exist where it shines brightly. And so it does everything in its power to snuff it out. Wherever the truth is spoken, evil is right there to stir up trouble, to fuss and shout and make it seem as if the truth is the problem. The more clearly the truth is spoken, the louder evil will scream. The famous author George Orwell once remarked, “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” Truth is powerful and good, but there is always warfare against it in this fallen world.
And that includes not only the evil that is outside of us in our truth-denying society, but also the evil that is within us, in our old Adam. We may well nod our head in agreement when we hear “the truth will make you free,” but the closer someone gets to the truth of our sin, the louder we protest and deflect blame, don’t we? The Psalmist puts it rather clearly when he says, “All mankind are liars.” We all are skilled at the art of shading and spinning the truth to our advantage, of trying to make our sin seem respectable, of distorting and twisting the truth to justify ourselves and rationalize the way we are. That’s why an essential element of being a Christian is repentance, coming to terms with the truth and honestly acknowledging that we are by nature enslaved to the Lie, focused on what we want to hear, not what we need to hear. What we desperately need is to be released from the power of sin and death and the devil.
The truth which sets you free is more than just information that is factually correct, that you can just download into your brain in a confirmation class. Truth is a person, Jesus Himself. For He said, “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life.” Our Lord Jesus is the embodiment of divine Truth. He is eternal and ultimate reality, the One in whom this whole universe holds together, as Colossians 1 says. He is God in the flesh, who has come into the world to destroy the father of lies forever and to rescue you from the deadly power of sin. When Jesus stood before Pontius Pilate, He said, “Everyone who is of the truth listens to My voice.” And all Pilate could do was to cynically respond, “What is truth?” Truth incarnate was standing right there before him, but the Lie had a hold of Pilate, who loved his power and position. On that Good Friday the Truth appeared to be overwhelmed by the Lie; the darkness seemed to have snuffed out the Light. But as He died, Jesus spoke the truth that not even death nor the devil could conquer. Jesus said simply and clearly, “It is finished.” By His suffering and death, all had been fulfilled and completed and accomplished. Everything necessary to undo the curse and defeat the Lie had been done. Even though it didn’t seem like it, the Truth had won the day. Victory was assured. The resurrection was a foregone conclusion. For Jesus had crushed the serpent’s head and had taken away your deadly sin. That is the truth that liberates you and makes you free. It is finished; it is all accomplished for you in Jesus.
Mortal combat between the truth of Christ and the lies of the evil one continues still. And for long periods of time, it may seem as if the Lie is winning. In the 1400's there was a man named Jan Hus who lived in Bohemia, in the modern-day Czech Republic. Jan Hus spoke the truth of God’s Word against the false teaching in the church of his day. At the Council of Constance, he was condemned by the church as a heretic and burned at the stake. The truth seemed to have lost. However, before he died, Hus made this prophetic statement. The name “Hus” means “goose” in the Bohemian language, and he said, “You are now going to burn a goose, but in a century you will have a swan to whom you will be forced to listen.” Almost exactly 100 years later, Martin Luther, the trumpeter swan, posted his 95 theses on the church door in Wittenberg.
What is of special note is that one of Jan Hus’s fiercest opponents, a man named Johannes Zacharias, was buried in front of the altar in the Augstinian monastery in Erfurt, Germany. And it was on that very spot that Martin Luther laid face down as he made his vows as a monk. How wonderfully ironic that it was on the grave of Jan Hus’s mortal enemy that Luther would begin his journey that led to the Reformation of the church, including some of the very truths that Hus had preached. Let us be encouraged by this, that the Truth of Christ will always win out. In spiritually dark times, we may not see or experience that victory. But it is assured; for the crucified One is risen! Let us then boldly confess the truth of our Christian faith, regardless of the cost, knowing that it will never be in vain. The Truth of Christ will always have the last word.
Martin Luther had no way of knowing whether or not he would end up being executed like Hus. In 1517 Luther set forth 95 theses for debate which told the truth about the corruption in the Church of his day. And like any whistleblower working for powerful bosses, his life would be turned upside down after that point. In 1521 Luther was called before the Emperor himself to recant his teaching or face punishment. After faltering on the first day of his questioning, Luther returned to make his famous speech in reply, “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures and by clear reason (for I do not trust in the pope or councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted. My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me.” And then as the room erupted into noisy jeers and cheers by the gathered crowd, including some shouting “To the fire with him!” Luther spoke these words, “Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.” It was only by the grace of God and the skillful maneuvering of Luther’s prince, Frederick of Saxony, that he was able to escape with his life.
The matters in dispute during the Reformation were of the utmost importance. For they had to do with the nature of the Gospel and God’s grace. Can the forgiveness of sins be sold as a commodity based on the authority of a pope rather than the Word of God? Can forgiveness and eternal life be earned by good works? How does faith fit into the picture? Is faith a good work which we produce that saves us or is it something that God works in us to receive His saving gifts? Martin Luther and the other reformers returned simply to telling the truth of Scripture: The Law of God is good, and we must obey His commandments. But we dare never place our faith in how well we’re keeping the Law, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Through the Law comes the knowledge of sin. Therefore, our faith is entirely in Jesus and what He has done for us. We cannot justify ourselves; rather we are justified, declared righteous, freely by God’s grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. We are saved through faith in Him alone, apart from the deeds of the Law. Salvation cannot be bought, either with money, or even with good deeds and good intentions. For it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. You have been saved by grace alone.
In teaching this, the Lutheran reformers were not teaching anything new. It was all there in Scripture. And it had been taught by the fathers of the Church throughout the Church’s history. That’s one of the things Lutherans emphasized over and over again. They were being the true catholics, for they were simply restoring the teaching of the truth of Christ that had been corrupted and suppressed through the centuries. They weren’t inventing anything or making stuff up. That’s why they kept the liturgy and everything else that belonged to the Church that didn’t contradict the Word of God. The Reformation was about a return to the eternal truth of Holy Scripture. The truth can be denied and suppressed, but in the end it is unconquerable.
That’s the beautiful thing about the truth. Unlike a lie, you don’t have to invent it, and you don’t have to “manage” it. It just is. Once you know the truth, you simply repeat it and proclaim it and say “Amen” to it. By contrast, the lie requires a good memory to recall what you made up. And it requires an army of lies to back up the original lie. Eventually, the tangled web ensnares the liar, and he is caught. So it is that Satan was trapped in his own deceit and ensnared by the death he brought into the world. For through the death of Jesus, the deceiver was undone and his work destroyed. The lie cannot suppress the truth forever. For Truth in the flesh is risen from the dead.
This is why Reformation Day is a great celebration for us, for it is centered in this unconquerable and everlasting truth of Jesus. Our Lutheran ancestors in the faith courageously spoke the truth to power. And as a result, many things changed. The authority of God’s Word was restored to its rightful place, being heard in the language of the people, and the preaching of the pure Gospel rang out again as the delivery of God’s free grace in Christ. Even in churches that rejected Luther’s reforms there was some change for the better. Roman Catholic churches have acknowledged that Luther was right about several things and are different today as a result, though sadly the same underlying poison of false teaching remains in place. In my recent visit to Italy it became clear that the same structure of indulgences and rewards for good works and superstition about saints was still alive and well and being practiced.
So as much as there for us to celebrate this day, the Reformation must continue if it is to mean anything–and that must continue to happen within Lutheranism, too. For much of Lutheranism today is a sad parody of what Luther taught. Lutheran churches don’t always speak the truth confidently and boldly before the world but are too often conformed to the lies of this world. And so the best and greatest thing that Lutherans can do still to this day is to stubbornly cling to the truth, to preach the fullness of God’s Law that exposes our fallen condition, to announce with gladness that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15), to proclaim without fear that He is the exclusive Truth, the only way to the Father and to eternal life, that by His wounds we are healed (Is. 53:5). We have no new truths to offer; for the truth of Christ is both ancient and eternal. We cling to the promise of God that the Church, in her confession of this truth, will even withstand the gates of hell. It is as we just sang regarding the devil, “One little Word can fell him,” namely the Word of Jesus.
So hear again what Jesus says, and take it to heart this Reformation weekend, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit