Text: John 8:46-59 [Fifth Sunday in Lent]
In our Gospel lesson this morning, we see Jesus in an intense debate with the Jewish leaders at the Jerusalem temple. At issue was the question “Are you of God?” We can see this in verse 47, where Jesus said, “Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.”
What does it mean to be “of God”? A more idiomatic way to say this in English would be to ask the question “Do you belong to God?” or, as we often say in the Lutheran church, “Are you God’s child?” What does it mean to “hear the words of God”? It does not mean simply to hear God’s words in a aural way, but also to understand and accept them. Probably the best explanation is in Luther’s Small Catechism, the Explanation to the Third Commandment, where Luther writes: “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy! What does this mean? You should fear and love God, so that you do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.”
It is not unusual for Christians, at some point in their life, to experience a period of doubt about their own faith. He or she may wonder whether he or she is “of God,” “belongs to God,” or “is God’s child.” In verse 47, Jesus gives you a simple and clear answer to that question: if you “hear” God’s Word, you are His child. In other words, if you fear and love God, so that you do not despise biblical preaching and God’s Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it, that it is clear evidence that you are “of God” and that you “belong to God.” More specifically, if you accept God’s Law in the Scriptures as His law to you, and trust in the Gospel in the Scriptures as His promise of salvation to you, that is a certain sign that you are God’s child. No unbeliever can keep the Third Commandment in this way, although they may pretend to have interest in the Word of God and attend church regularly for other reasons.
Luther says more about the Word of God and the Third Commandment in his Large Catechism. The entire section is worth reading, but I will quote only a portion here:
We must realize that God insists upon a strict observance of this commandment and will punish all who despise his Word and refuse to learn it, especially at the times appointed. Therefore this commandment is violated—not only by those who grossly misuse and desecrate the holy day, like those who in their greed or frivolity neglect to hear God’s Word, or [who] lie around in taverns dead drunk like swine—but also by that multitude of others who listen to God’s Word [in church] as they would to any other entertainment, who only from force of habit go to hear preaching and depart again with as little knowledge of the Word at the end of the year as at the beginning. . . . Remember then that you must be concerned not only about hearing the Word, but also about learning and retaining it. Do not regard it as an optional or unimportant matter. It is the commandment of God and he will require of you an accounting of how you have heard and learned and honored his Word. In the same way those conceited fellows should be chastised who, after hearing a sermon or two, become sick and tired of it and feel that they know it all and need no more instruction. . . . Let me tell you this. Even though you know the Word perfectly and have already mastered everything, still you are daily under the dominion of the devil, who neither day nor night relaxes his effort to steal upon you unawares and to kindle in your heart unbelief and wicked thoughts against all [of God’s] commandments. Therefore you must continually keep God’s Word in your heart, on your lips, and in your ears. . . . Even if no other interest or need drove us to the Word, yet everyone should be spurred on by the realization that in this way the devil is cast out and put to flight, this commandment is fulfilled, and God is more pleased than by any work of hypocrisy, however brilliant. (Large Catechism, 1st Part, 95-102; Tappert, 378-379).
The importance of the Word of God, and its authority, used to be universally accepted by all Protestant churches. But down through the centuries, little by little, the Protestant churches have become less and less focused on the Word of God. Today, in the twenty-first century, there is a plague of unbelief within the Protestant churches that refuses to go away. Except for a few church-bodies, like our Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the Southern Baptist Convention, a few smaller denominations, and many independent Evangelical congregations, most Protestant churches have adopted a conditional or partial acceptance of God’s Word. They refuse to accept all of the Scriptures as God’s Word, or they deny the inerrancy of Scriptures, or they deny that the Scriptures are verbally inspired by the Holy Spirit. This means that their members and pastors can “pick-and-choose” what is God’s Word and throw away the rest, judging on the basis of their own preferences or reasons.
In our day and age, it is important for you to retain Martin Luther’s confession before the Diet of the Holy Roman Empire at Worms, where he proclaimed before emperor, papal legates, and princes: “The Scriptures never err” (see Luther’s Works 32:11). This is, indeed, the Scriptures own testimony about itself. The Scriptures contain dire warnings not to add to, nor subtract from, what God has commanded and spoken, e.g., in Deuteronomy 4:2, Deuteronomy 12:32, Proverbs 30:5-6, and Revelation 22:18-19.
Jesus himself warned you, “Whoever shall break one of the least of these commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven; but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-19). In 2 Timothy 3:16, Saint Paul stated that “all Scripture is inspired by God.” He did not say that only some Scripture is divinely inspired.
You have heard a lot of Law in this sermon, and even some warnings. Is there any Gospel in this theme? Yes! Let me repeat what Luther said, that through the Word of God “the devil is cast out and put to flight, this commandment is fulfilled, and God is more pleased than by any work of hypocrisy” (LC, 1st Part, 102; Tappert, 379). If that were not enough, you are told by Saint Paul that the Word of God is the “sword of the Spirit” (Ephesians 6:17). Through this spiritual sword, the devil is put to flight and you are able to resist all temptation. Through the Word of God, you can discern His will for your life in any situation; and if the Word says nothing to that situation, then you are free to make your own choice.
Most of all, the Word of God is how you hear and receive the promises of the Gospel. It is thus the means of grace par excellence. These promises include, first, the forgiveness of all of your sins, which is unconditional and free, no strings attached. Second, they include your adoption as children into God’s family, so that you belong to God as his child. Third, these promises include the sure and certain hope of the resurrection of your body on the Last Day. Fourth, they include the absolute promise that, as a forgiven child of God, you will be exonerated by the Judge and declared righteous for Jesus sake. Finally, these promises include all of the wonderful things to come in the life everlasting, when you will live together with all the saints in heaven and the New Jerusalem, in the presence of Him who is the resurrection and the life, Jesus Christ, our Lord.
In his marvelous and gracious name. Amen.