Not All Are Free Who Mock Their Chains
Gotthold Lessing, 18th century German writer, said, Not all are free who make mock of their chains. I hesitate to quote him because he promoted the Enlightenment and rationalism. And the words I quote he aimed at religion as superstition. But I think they can be pressed into the service of our text.
The truth presented in our text is that none are free and no amount of mocking can make them so. Surely you know enough Old Testament history to see how ridiculous the Jews sounded when they said, We have never been slaves of anyone. What about their enslavement to the Egyptians, Babylonians, Syrians and Romans? How can they stand before Jesus with a straight face and say, We have never been enslaved? Thats like the Aggie saying, Weve never lost to UT, or the French claiming, Weve never lost a war. They may make mock of their defeats, but that doesnt undo them.
Yet we do it too. As the Jews were able to forget about centuries of slavery, so all men forget about their sins and the person who sins is a slave of sin as surely as the Jews were slaves to their many masters. Thats what Jesus plainly says: Everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Thats not quite what the Greek says. It says, Everyone who sins is a slave to that sin. If youre hearing this preaching of the law, you should gasp, gulp, or sigh. How many masters must you have, sinner? What sort of taskmasters are worry, greed, lust, fear, doubt, and more?
The plain truth is that addiction is not the condition of the few but of all. Go ahead and mock those weak people who are addicted to alcohol, drugs, sex, food, whatever. Not all are free who mock the chains of others. In fact none are. Everyone who sins has that sin as their taskmaster. Isnt this Pauls lament in Romans 7? The good I want to do; I dont do. The evil I dont want to do; I do. Whats that but slavery? Whats that but addiction?
And when can an addict be helped? Only when theyre as good as dead; only when they despair of ever breaking their addiction themselves; only when they admit they are enslaved and all the mocking in the world wont break those chains. And now were to the festival were celebrating. The medieval theology Luther confessed against is the same theology Jesus was up against in our text and we confront in Evangelical and Catholic circles.
This theology is summed up in these short sayings: God does not deny grace to the man who does his best (Luthers Theology of the Cross, McGrath, 6). When man fulfills his obligations to God, God will respond by bestowing the gift of justifying grace (Ibid. 86). Man is required to desist from consenting to sin, and as consequence of this, God will remit his sin (Ibid. 60). To those who do what is in them, God will not deny grace (Formula for Parish Practice, 33).
Last week we heard that the Jews thought they did their best while the tax collectors and prostitutes didnt, so they certainly couldnt be saved. The Catholic Catechism says if Jews and Muslims pursue the faith they hold sincerely they can be saved. Evangelicals tell you if youll do your part of believing, your part of choosing Jesus, your part of trying your hardest to break with your sin, your part of giving your firstfruits to God, God will do His part of saving you.
None of these believe that theyre enslaved by sin; addicted to sin. They mock the chains that are so heavy on you and bite so into your soul. They make it sound that your chains are in your mind or that they are better than you because they can mock theirs and you cant. No, no one can truly mock their chains until they have been really freed from them. This is what Jesus promised the Jews, and this is what they rejected preferring to go on mocking their chains rather than real freedom from them. How about you?
None are free from their chains except those set free by Jesus. Jesus is the Son; the text doesnt say a son. Jesus isnt interested in talking about any old son but about the only begotten Son of the Father from eternity. He says, The slave doesnt remain in the house forever; the Son remains forever. Therefore if ever the Son should free you, really free you will be.
Jesus as God the Son had the right to remain in the house of His Father forever. Its His house. Remember He said, I and the Father are one. What belongs to Him belongs to Me. But God the Son left the house to take on flesh and blood in the Virgin Mary. He willingly was born under the Law. He willingly took on all the obligations of the Law, all the 10 Commandments, all the things you and I are suppose to do. And as a Man Jesus did them perfectly. He didnt break one Commandment; didnt fail to meet one obligation. Not the Devil himself could find anything even amiss in the life of Jesus. As a Man Jesus won the right to remain forever in the house of His Father. He always had that right as True God; now He had won it as True Man.
Jesus completed, fulfilled the Law that could only forge more chains for us. The strength of sin is the Law, says Paul. Every time we broke another Law, another length of sins chain was fastened to us. But whats this? Christ is the end of the Law, says St. Paul to all who believe. Where there is no Law no more chains can be formed. There is no condemnation, no more chains are forged, to them that are in Christ Jesus, says Paul.
But Jesus did more than take our place under the obligations of the Law; He took our place under its punishments. Jesus took our chains upon Himself. Wrapped Himself in them Jacob Marley-like. He took the chains of sin, guilt, drugs, booze, sex. He took the chain of always having to be right. He took the chain of worry that weighs you down so and you just cant break. He took the chains of greed and lust that perch on your heart like hideous gargoyles mocking you.
Jesus took all your chains; indeed He took the chains of the entire sinful world, and answered for them. And what other answer can there be for chains of sin but judgment, sentence, punishment, damnation? Yes you and I were bound to serve our sins and sinfulness, until Jesus carried them away from us. You and I were bound to regard ourselves as addicts, as slaves of sins until Jesus fulfilling the Laws demands and punishments breaking their power over us. The slave masters of Sin, Death, and the Devil cant point to one commandment that Jesus failed to keep in your place or one punishment that He didnt bear in your place. Therefore, they have no hold over you.
The Person and Work of Jesus has opened the cell you were imprisoned in. Walk out; run out; dont look back. You are free. For freedom Christ has set you free, Paul trumpets. How does one walk or run out? By believing that for Jesus sake the door is wide open. I cant push you out the door; I cant kick you out the door. I can only promise you, assure you, or with Paul in 2 Corinthians 5, I can implore you on behalf of Christ to mock those chains of sin and sinfulness that lay broken at your feet in Jesus name.
Christ is the end of the law; Christ is the end of your chains, says Scripture, to them that believe, and it is here we Lutherans can go awry. We want to put everything on faith rather than on Jesus where it belongs. First consider our text. The first verse says Jesus is speaking to the Jews who had believed in Him. But skip to verse 40 and hear that they wanted to kill Jesus. Then go to verse 43 where Jesus says that they can no longer bear to hear His words. Then move to verse 45 where Jesus says, Because I tell you the truth, you do not believe Me. Then finally go to verse 47 where Jesus tells them, The reason why you do not hear the Words of God is that you are not of God.
Dont put all your eggs in the basket of your believing for you never get beyond the man who proclaimed, Lord I believe; help Thou my unbelief. You never get beyond the apostles in Matthew 28. When seeing Jesus after the resurrection the text says of them they worshipped; they doubted. If you focus on the mustard seed-size faith the Holy Spirit has created in you by Words and Sacraments, it will only shrivel. Or worse yet, you will think of that faith as you doing your part; as you doing what lies within you; as you doing your best. And thats the error the Lutheran Reformation broke free from.
Now, go back to our text. Jesus never says that believing or faith sets you free. Its true that faith steps through the door of the prison cell but it doesnt open it. No, the cell has to be opened first before faith can step through. In our text, Jesus says the truth will set you free and the Son sets you free. Jesus isnt saying two different things. Jesus who declares Himself later in John to be not only the Way and the Life but the Truth says here that Hes the One, the only One, who can free them and us.
He cant free people from chains they mock as if they werent there. He can only free people from chains they despair over as did Paul in Romans 7. O wretched man that I am who will deliver me from this body of death. Ive said before this could be a reference to the Roman practice of chaining a murderer to the dead body of the person he murdered, so he would see, smell, touch, and taste it as it rotted away driving him insane in the process. In the end it is me, myself and I that I am chained to. The chains of sin that are all wrapped around me bind me to my sinful nature, my old Adam and I with Paul cant free myself.
Jesus bids me come to Him. Only He can free me. I cant separate where my sinful old Adam ends and where my holy New Man begins. Jesus can. His Word is sharper than any two edge sword able to divide what is impossible for me to. By His Word preached, taught, read Jesus hammers away at that old Adam while freeing and feeding the new Man. At the baptismal font Jesus drowns that old adam and his chains and brings out the new man holy and righteous in His sight. And what about at the Altar? Here Jesus comes once more in Person to join you in the fight of faith against your chains strengthening and preserving you with His Body and Blood. Jesus breaks the chains to self, and as Augustine put it, Where I am not I, I am more happily I (Ancient Christian Commentary, VIII, 31).
Its true; not all are free who mock their chains, but those in Christ are. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Reformation Sunday (20111030); John 8: 31-36