March 16, 2014
As Americans, we value freedom. Our nation was founded on the principle of “liberty and justice for all.” Our First Amendment guarantees freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom to assemble, and freedom to petition the government for redress. While our freedom of religion is under assault today more than ever before, it is the foundation of our nation.
Political freedom is a wonderful thing, but spiritual freedom is even better, because you can experience it no matter what sort of government you live under. And true spiritual freedom lasts forever. But what is it? John Piper (“You Will Know the Truth and the Truth Will Set You Free,” on DesiringGod.org) describes true freedom: “You are fully free when you have the desire, the ability, and the opportunity to do what will leave you with no regrets forever.” He explains,
If you don't have the desire to do a thing, you are not fully free to do it. Oh, you may muster the will power to do what you don’t want to do, but nobody calls that full freedom…. And if you have the desire to do something, but no ability to do it, you are not free to do it. And if you have the desire and the ability to do something, but no opportunity to do it, you are not free to do it. And if you have the desire to do something, and the ability to do it, and the opportunity to do it, but it destroys you in the end, you are not fully free—not free indeed.
He illustrates this with an example of skydiving. Say you want to experience the thrill of the freedom of skydiving, but on the way to the airport you have an accident and can’t get there. You lack the freedom of opportunity. Or, suppose you get there, but you didn’t take the required class, so you don’t know how to operate your parachute. You lack the freedom of ability. Or, you get to the airport, you took the classes, and you go up in the plane. But when they open the door and you look down, you’re paralyzed with fear. You lack the freedom of desire, so you don’t jump.
But there’s one last requirement for true freedom. Suppose you get to the airport (freedom of opportunity), you took the classes (freedom of ability), and you go up in the plane, look out the door, and can’t wait to jump (freedom of desire). So you jump and are enjoying the freedom of falling through the air. But your parachute is defective and you’re going to smash into the ground. You are not truly free because what you’re doing is going to destroy you. To go back to his definition: “You are fully free when you have the desire, the ability, and the opportunity to do what will leave you with no regrets forever.”
So, how do we get that kind of freedom spiritually? The Jews with whom Jesus was speaking in our text thought that they were spiritually free through their descent from Abraham (8:33): “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never yet been enslaved to anyone; how is it that You say, ‘You will become free’?” Jesus explains that even though they don’t see it, they are actually enslaved to sin. He shows them (and us) the way to true spiritual freedom:
True freedom comes from knowing Christ through genuine faith and abiding in His word.
Jesus gives these arrogant Jews both a warning and an invitation. After stating that they are slaves to sin (8:34), He gives the warning (8:35), “The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son does remain forever.” He means, “As descendants of Abraham, you’re in God’s household, but because of sin, you’re in His household as slaves, not as true sons. Slaves don’t enjoy the full privileges of sons. Slaves can be expelled from the household at any time, especially if they’re not faithful. You’re currently enjoying the privileges of being in God’s household, but you could lose this status if you continue in your sinful ways.”
Since they had mentioned Abraham, the story of Ishmael, the son of Hagar the slave, is behind verse 35. When Ishmael taunted Isaac, Abraham was forced to expel him from his household. The Jews who were threatening to kill Jesus (8:37, 40) were in danger of losing the privileges of being in God’s household (Rom. 9:4-5). But Jesus didn’t leave them with a warning only. He gave them an invitation (8:36), “So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” He’s saying, “Come to Me; I will give you true freedom.”
John 8:30 tells us, “As He spoke these things, many came to believe in Him.” Verse 31 states that Jesus was addressing the following comments to the Jews who had believed Him. So you would think that these people had come to know Christ through faith. But as the dialogue continues through the chapter, we learn that not only were they slaves of sin (8:34), also they were seeking to kill Jesus (8:37, 40); God was not their Father (8:42); in fact, they were children of the devil (8:44); they accused Jesus of having a demon (8:48); they were liars (8:55); and they attempted to kill Jesus (8:59). So why does John say that these Jews believed in Jesus?
Some have tried to resolve this by saying that 8:30-31 speaks about true believers, while “they” in 8:33 refers to the hostile Jews that we encountered earlier in the chapter. But the text does not indicate that there is a change of subject. Others argue that there is a difference in meaning between the Greek construction used with the verb “to believe” (in 8:31), but this distinction doesn’t hold up in other places (D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans/Apollos], pp. 346-347). Other solutions have been proposed.
The best interpretation is that the “believers” in 8:30, 31 are like those back in 2:23, who believed in Jesus after seeing some of His miracles, but Jesus didn’t entrust Himself to them, because He knew that their faith was superficial. We saw that same false faith in 6:60, when many of Jesus’ disciples turned away from Him after He said some difficult things that they didn’t like. False faith is implied in 8:31, where Jesus says that if they continue in His word, they are truly His disciples. And so we should conclude that it’s possible to have a superficial, false faith in Christ that does not save from sin.
Other New Testament texts support this view. Jesus’ parable of the sower (Luke 8:5-15) mentions the seed that was sown on the rocky, thin soil. These people received the word with joy, but they had no root. They believed for a while, but in a time of temptation or trial, they fell away. The same was true of the seed sown among the thorny ground. Eventually the thorns choked out the word, so that it did not bear fruit. We see the same thing in the warning passages in Hebrews (6:4-8; 10:26-31) and in John’s mention of the false teachers who went out from the church, but never were genuine believers (1 John 2:19). Paul mentions false apostles who disguise themselves as workers of righteousness (2 Cor. 11:13-15).
I’ve seen the same thing many times, even with some who have served for a while in some capacity in the church. Perhaps they came to faith at a time when many of their friends were professing faith in Christ. It was the cool thing to do. Or, maybe they came to Jesus because they were told that He would give them some blessing or solve some difficult problem that they were wrestling with. But when things didn’t go as they had hoped, they fell away. Some now even deny the faith that they once professed.
How can we know that our own faith is genuine? I’ll say more about that in a moment, but for now, note two marks of false faith that we see in these “believing unbelievers”:
After Jesus tells them (8:32), “And you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free,” they react defensively by asserting that they are Abraham’s descendants and they have never been enslaved to anyone. They couldn’t be referring to political slavery, since the nation had been enslaved in Egypt for 400 years, plus to many other foreign powers, such as Babylon, Greece, and (as they spoke) Rome. So they must mean that they were spiritually free and, as Jews, always had been free.
But they were blind to their self-righteousness and spiritual pride. Their religion was externally impressive, but their hearts were far from God (Mark 7:6-7). In Matthew 23:27-28, Jesus, who knew their hearts, reams them out: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. So you, too, outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” They thought that they were righteous, but their sin deceived them so that they didn’t see their own slavery to sin.
As I said last week, the starting point for going to heaven is to recognize that you are a guilty sinner in God’s sight. If you think that you’re good enough to go to heaven, or that by adding a few more good deeds, you’ll merit eternal life, you don’t understand God’s absolute holiness and justice. If our good deeds could get us into heaven, then Christ did not need to die on the cross. Invariably, those with false faith do not see their own slavery to sin. They brush it off by thinking that they just have a few faults.
These Jews were trusting in their religious heritage as descendants of Abraham to put them in right standing with God. John the Baptist had already hit them with this when he called them to repentance (Matt. 3:9): “And do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father’; for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham.” If you think that going to church or going through religious rituals or giving money or any religious activity will commend you to God, you do not have genuine saving faith in Christ. You aren’t truly free spiritually. False faith does not save from sin.
In 8:31, Jesus says, “If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine.” The mark of genuine faith is not just mental or verbal profession that you believe in Christ. The mark of true faith is to continue (or, “abide”) in Jesus’ word. This is not the condition for getting saved; rather, it’s an evidence that you are truly saved. It’s the evidence that your faith in Christ is genuine. So, we need to understand what Christ’s word is and what it means to continue or abide in it.
Christ’s word is everything that He taught, summed up in all that He is and all that He did for us on the cross. Jesus said that all of Scripture speaks of Him, His suffering, and the glory to follow (Luke 24:25-27, 44-46). Jesus told the Jews (John 5:38-39), “You do not have His word abiding in you, for you do not believe Him whom He sent. You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me.”
To continue in Christ’s word implies that you first started in His word. The starting point for saving faith is when you recognize from God’s Word that you’re a sinner and that Christ died to pay the penalty for your sin. God saves you when you stop trusting in your own good works and instead rely totally on what Jesus did for you on the cross and believe that God raised Jesus from the dead. Christ’s word is the same as God’s Word. The central message of God’s Word is how we can be reconciled to God through faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection.
“Continue” translates the Greek word that the NASB translates as “abide” (15:4, 6, 7, 10). It means to dwell or be at home in God’s Word. You don’t just visit the Word as an occasional guest. You move in and live there. You wake up there and you return there every night. The Word shapes your worldview. It governs and guides your thinking, your attitudes, your speech, and your behavior. There isn’t any area of your life that is not subject to God’s Word or influenced by it. Continuing or abiding obviously implies time spent in the Word over the long haul.
Are you abiding in God’s Word? Do you “live” there? Are you comfortable there? Do you know its rooms? Do you enjoy its many amenities that are for your blessing? Do you seek to obey it? Let me suggest a radical idea that could transform your life: Turn off your TV, computer, and phone for between one half to one hour each day and spend the time reading, meditating on, and memorizing God’s Word with the prayer that you might know Christ better. God’s promise in Joshua 1:8 applies to us: “This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have success.”
We’ve seen that it’s possible to have false faith that does not save. True freedom comes from knowing Christ through genuine faith, which means to continue in His word.
Rather than being a slave of sin (8:34), “you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (8:32). “So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” So, how does abiding in Christ’s word of truth set us free?
Jesus emphasizes truth in this dialogue (8:32 [2x], 40, 44 [2x], 45, 46), which refers especially to saving truth. Those who do not know God are in spiritual darkness (Eph. 4:18). They cannot understand the things of the Spirit of God (1 Cor. 2:14). They do not know why they’re on earth or what will happen after they die. But when we come to know the truth through knowing Christ, all the riches of God’s grace are opened to us (1 Cor. 2:9-10; Col. 2:2-3).
This is illustrated even in the natural realm: truth liberates, but ignorance keeps people in bondage. A person who can read is much freer than an illiterate person. He is free to study medicine or law or finance or whatever field interests him. But the illiterate person is severely restricted in what he can do.
In the same way, spiritual ignorance keeps a person from knowing the living and true God and from being conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. Ignorance cuts a person off from enjoying the many blessings that are ours in Him. Abiding in Christ’s word opens the treasure chest and frees us to enjoy Him.
This is the primary focus of Jesus’ words (8:34), “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin.” Jesus does not mean that committing a single act of sin enslaves a person (although one sin is the first step to slavery), but rather that a person who continues in sin is under its domination (Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans], p. 458). But as we abide in Christ’s word, we can experience consistent victory over sin, beginning on the thought level (where all sin begins).
Note that religion can’t free a person from slavery to sin. These Jews were as religious as they could be and yet Jesus asserts that they were slaves to sin. They were trying to kill the sinless Son of God, but they thought that they were spiritually free! The first step to being free from sin is to recognize your slavery to it.
True spiritual freedom is not the freedom to sin, but the freedom not to sin. Let me illustrate how abiding in Christ’s word sets you free from slavery to sin. Say that a young man from a pagan, immoral background becomes a Christian, but he doesn’t know what the Bible says about how to resist temptation. He still feeds his mind on gross TV shows and movies where couples quickly jump into bed. So he has professed faith in Christ, but he hasn’t learned to abide in Christ’s word. Meanwhile, a cute girl where he works flirts with him every day. She invites him over to her apartment where he yields to her advances. Soon, he’s living the same way he used to live, in slavery to sin.
But take the same young man and say that after he trusts in Christ he begins to abide daily in God’s Word. He reads the Word often and begins to memorize key verses. He listens to sound preaching of the Word. In the process, he reads the story of Joseph and how he resisted the advances of Potiphar’s wife, even though he could have found many excuses for yielding. He learns from Joseph’s Godward focus when he says (Gen. 39:9), “How then could I do this great evil and sin against God?”
He also reads the Book of Proverbs, with its many plain warnings about the dangers of sexual sins. He reads Jesus’ warnings about lust beginning in the heart (Matt. 5:27-30). He memorizes Paul’s warning (1 Cor. 6:18), “Flee immorality,” and the promise in 1 Corinthians 10:13, “No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it.” So when the young woman at work acts seductively toward him, he is able to resist and remain pure. Abiding in the Word set him free from his former slavery to sin.
You can apply this to any sin: anger, jealousy, bitterness, drunkenness, selfishness, or whatever. If you abide in God’s Word, you will be freed from bondage to those sins. If you do not abide in the Word, you will be enslaved to various sins.
Paul wrote (Gal. 5:13), “For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” Before we were saved, we lived to serve ourselves. We indulged the flesh, thinking that it would satisfy. But Christ saved us and set us free from selfishness so that we can serve others in love. As Jesus said (Mark 10:44-45), “Whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”
Let’s come back to John Piper’s description of true freedom: “You are fully free when you have the desire, the ability, and the opportunity to do what will leave you with no regrets forever.” When you truly believe in Christ, He gives you the desire to please Him who lavished His grace upon you. He gives you the ability to obey Him as you walk in the Spirit who lives in you. He gives you opportunities daily to say no to sin and selfishness and to serve others in love. And you will dwell with Jesus in heaven forever, with no regrets that you left your life of sin to follow Him.
That’s the true freedom that comes from knowing Christ through genuine faith and abiding in His word! If you’re still a slave of sin, Jesus offers you true freedom: “If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (8:36).
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2014, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation