“If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31,32)
Everything begins with God’s Word. The world began with God’s Word, as Scripture explains, “And God said, Let there be…” Salvation began with God’s Word, being initiated when God spoke the promise that His salvation would come through the Seed of the woman. When the fullness of time came, God’s Word was spoken to the Virgin Mary and God’s Son became the incarnate Word. The Word became flesh to die and rise and thus create salvation for humanity. Our faith was then generated by God’s Word. Indeed, faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of Christ. Appropriately the initiatory Sacrament of Holy Baptism seals our salvation as the washing of water with the Word.
In the Gospel for Reformation Sunday (John 8:31-36), Jesus speaks to the Jews who had believed Him. They believed Him. These are people in whom faith had been generated by the Holy Spirit through God’s Word. Jesus infers this Word-worked faith when He states, If you abide in my Word… The Greek word for “abide” means “continue” or “remain”. A person continues or remains with something only if they have already started with such a thing. If a person is told to continue riding in a bus, that means they have already been riding in the bus. Thus even as the Word had generated their faith, so the Jews are enjoined to continue in that Word. What happened to them has also happened to us; we have believed in Jesus through His Word, and we too are called upon to continue in that Word.
So how shall believers continue in God’s Word? Christ instituted the office of Pastor so Christians would have His way to continue in His Word. In Luke 24 Jesus commands that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations… This proclamation is not a punctuated one-time proclamation by a pastor, but it is his continued work, a perpetual proclamation within a given congregation. It is no wonder that the Apostle Paul would enjoin Pastor Timothy (and all pastors) to preach the Word in season and out of season. The Savior also gave the promise to the Apostles (and future pastors): If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. This forgiving pronouncement of absolution is again a continuation in the Word of Christ. When Jesus instituted His Holy Supper He said to the Apostles (and future pastors), Do this. Pastors now continue to do this as they speak Christ’s Words and feed God’s people His body and blood, given and shed for them for the forgiveness of sins. In this Sacred Meal once again believers in Christ have opportunity to continue in His Word, and receive what the words of this meal say and express, namely, the forgiveness of sins.
When in John 8 Jesus sets forth the great truth that if the Son sets you free you shall be free indeed, He explains that this is describing how He sets God’s people free from slavery to sin. An extension of that great truth is that as we abide in His Word we continually remain unshackled to sin. The devil, the world and our flesh are constantly at work, attempting to re-enslave and re-shackle the people of God to sin. Observe then, as summarized in the previous paragraph, that the Word is proclaimed to bring repentance for the forgiveness of sins; that absolution is the spoken bestowal of forgiveness of sins; and that reception of Christ’s body and blood in Holy Communion is for the forgiveness of sins.
This then is one of the great truths recovered at the Reformation, that contrite reception of forgiveness is a lifelong activity of a Christian, accomplished through Christ’s Word. Standing above this is the reality that by Christ alone are we thus freed and remain free, for this freedom was won and created at His cross and empty tomb. As we remain in Christ’s Word may the Spirit continually sanctify us to realize that if the Son has set us free we are free indeed…now and into eternity.