If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.
Who doesn’t want to be free? Free from sin? Free from guilt? Free from pain? Free from all those things that bind us up, that stop us from experiencing the freedom Christ intends for all people?
Or to say it in more theological terms, who doesn’t want to experience justification? Who doesn’t want to know that they’re justified by faith through the free gift of the grace of God in Christ Jesus?
Well, but that begs the question of how such saving happens. How does God justify us? How, in other words, does God bring us into right relationship with God, and with other people, and with the world?
And more, once we’re justified, what comes next?
To help answer these questions I turn, as I have done every Reformation Sunday for 12 years running, to the writings of Gerhard Forde in the book, Justification by Faith – A Matter of Death and Life.
“We are justified freely, for Christ’s sake, by faith, without the exertion of our own strength, gaining of merit, or doing of works. To the age old question, “What must I do to be saved?” the confessional answer is shocking: “Nothing! Just be still; shut up and listen for once in your life to what God the Almighty, creator and redeemer, is saying to his world and to you in the death and resurrection of his Son! Listen and believe!” When one sees that it is a matter of death and life one has to talk this way. The “nothing” must sound, risky and shocking as it is… Faith is the state of being grasped by the unconditional claim and promise of the God who calls into being that which is from that which is not. Faith means now having to deal with life in those terms. It is a death and resurrection.
The “nothing,” is a radical, controversial, explosive, and even disconcerting answer. It has always been so. We should make no mistake about that. It was so when Paul first shocked the synagogues… It was so when Augustine provoked Pelagius… It was so at the time of the Reformation, and – though rarely stated with vigor – it is so today…
Justification… is an absolutely unconditional decree, a divine decision, indeed an election, a sentence handed down by the judge with whom all power resides…
The unconditional language is what causes us so much trouble… our lives in this age are shaped by conditional promises and statements. Conditional promises are “if-then” promises. If you fulfill the conditions then the promise will be fulfilled. “If you eat your spinach…, then you will get your dessert.” If you put your coin in the slot, then you will get the candy bar. If you study hard, then you will get good grades and maybe a scholarship to Yale or Harvard. If you do your job well, then you will get a promotion or a raise, or get called to a big city congregation or be made a bishop or a full professor. Always “if-then.” Almost everything we live with is conditional and so it must be here.
The gospel of justification be faith is such a shocker, such an explosion, because it is an absolutely unconditional promise.” (Justification by Faith – A Matter of Death and Life, Gerhard O. Forde, Fortress Press, Philadelphia. 1982 pg. 22-24)
Call it justification, or salvation, or being born again, or getting saved. Whatever you call it, it’s all completely, unconditionally, free. And it makes you free!
If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.
Only, freedom in Christ is wholly different from what we would normally define as human freedom. Christ himself demonstrates this time and again in the Gospels:
By healing and feeding and meeting the needs of those who came to him when he was trying to get away to mourn and to rest and to pray after finding out the Herod has murdered his cousin, John the Baptist
By getting up from the table on the night before he suffered and died and washing the feet of his disciples.
In these ways and many others we see that, in Christ, freedom equals servanthood.
And in the face of this call to servant living the question still sounds: What do we have to do? And God’s answer remains unchanged: Absolutely nothing! So maybe we’re asking the wrong question.
Here’s another passage from Forde:
“It is, I suppose, the very explosiveness and radicality of this unconditional act that causes us all the difficulty. Perhaps it is precisely because we are so totally exposed for what we are! At any rate it seems to be just at the point where we begin to glimpse the radicality of it all that all the questions and protests begin to spew out: “We have to do something, don’t we?” Stuck in our old ways of thinking… justification by faith can only appear terribly dangerous and even threatening. Is the justifying word absolutely unconditional? Aren’t there some little conditions after all? Is not imputed righteousness “cheap grace?” What about morality? What about good works? Virtue? The building program? Won’t people (usually called the “simple folk” or “the ordinary layperson”) get the wrong idea?
It is in the face of such questions that we are tempted to “chicken out” and go on the defensive and thus lose the battle little bit by little bit. When the question comes, “But…, but, we have to do something, don’t we?” we are most likely to say, “Well, yes, now that you mention it, there is a little something. You have to bake cookies for the bazaar, bring your pledge up to date, and maybe go to church at least once a month.” And then we are through. We may as well quit, for then and there the battle is lost.
The point, the confessional point, is to stick with it and sail into the storm with all guns blazing. “We have to do something, don’t we?” NO! In fact that is no longer the question. Now the question becomes, “What are you going to do now that you don’t have to do anything?”” (Justification by Faith – A Matter of Death and Life, Gerhard O. Forde, Fortress Press, Philadelphia. 1982 pg. 33)
If the Son has set you free, you will be free indeed! Free to not to have to do anything! But also free to do everything and anything we can!
Free to really love, and welcome our neighbor as unconditionally as God has loved and welcomed us.
Free to proclaim, through word and in deed, the radical, unconditional gift of God’s saving grace.
And free to take up the cross and follow our savior for the sake of the world. Free to be good stewards of God’s many gifts to us:
Stewarding the gifts of creation by reusing and recycling whatever we can.
Stewarding the gifts of relationships by being kind and loving to one another, especially within the household of faith.
Stewarding the gifts of finances by sharing generously what God has first given us, by saving wisely for the unknown future, and by living off what’s left after you do those things first.
Free to experience new things and to welcome the gifts of others as equal in value and worth to the gifts we’ve been given.
Free to live as servants who, following our savior’s example, take the lowest place always for the sake of the other.
Yes, if the Son has set you free, you will be free indeed! Free even to die with him that he might raise you up to a whole new dynamic way of life, where the old question of what we have to do is replaced by a vigorous desire to be who God has created us to be… Free! Amen.