31 So Jesus was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, “If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 33 They answered Him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never yet been enslaved to anyone; how is it that You say, ‘You will become free’?” 34 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin. 35 “The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son does remain forever. 36 “So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed. – John 8:31-36 NASB
I have always had a fascination with this passage. I love the idea that truth and freedom are linked together, and I love the idea that there is a false freedom and that you can be “free indeed!” However, I have always had the nagging question for much of my Christian experience: where’s my freedom?! Do I not know enough? Are the things I think I know fake? So in preparation for a sermon on this splendid passage, I realized that the gospel is the answer to these questions.
The Centrality of Belief
Notice who Jesus was talking to. He was talking to those Jews in the crowd who had started to entertain belief in Him. So, He says, “If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine.” This means once again that belief for Jesus is front and center. If you believe in Him and you keep to that faith, you are true disciples. I think that you will search in vain in the broad context of this passage to find any other interpretation of the idea of “continuing in My word.” Later He says, “Therefore I said to you that you will die in your sins; for unless you believe that I am He, you will die in your sins.” – John 8:24 NASB
This is entirely encouraging, because notice how Jesus puts mere belief, raw unadulterated naked faith, front and center. He doesn’t say “unless you repent and sin no more, then you are truly disciples of Mine.” Nor does He say, “unless you make a strong commitment to My Lordship, you will die in your sins.” Belief in Christ, and only belief in Christ, has the power to make genuine disciples. Belief in Christ, and only belief in Christ, has the power to save you from your sins. Discipleship is belief.
Now, it is belief, real belief that continues to believe and doesn’t neglect so great a salvation, which makes disciples. This is what is meant by “continuing in My word.” So it is belief in Christ which leads to the knowledge of truth. I speculate that perhaps we sometimes perhaps think that if we present reasonable facts that the universe was truly created, or that Jesus was a historical man, or that it is reasonable to think the resurrection really happened, that people will be led to faith. Perhaps this is backwards. We know from this passage that it is faith that leads to truth, not truth that leads to faith.
Truth 1: We are ignorant
Anyway, what is this truth? What is the truth to which belief leads us? First, it shows us that we are ignorant. The pharisees claim to know, they claim to be able to see. They claim to have a grasp on the real truth. The ironic truth is, they don’t know a thing. Secondly, it shows that we are slaves. We are not free at all. We are terribly constrained. Pharisees claim to be free and happy, but they are not free at all.
We constantly see this with unbelievers of every stripe. We as humans think we know it all. We think our lack of knowledge and wisdom is on the outer fringes. For the most part, we know. Furthermore, we think we are free! We are our own gods, we are calling the shots, we are in charge of our own success and felicity. This can take a more secular and irreligious form, or a more religious form, but the effect is the same. I have people come into my church all the time who are already firmly convinced that they know everything about the faith, and that they are there to teach and correct us. When I begin to teach the gospel of grace and the sufficiency of Christ’s blood, they are scandalized and they feel obliged to correct us. They are unteachable. You cannot even talk to them. They are like Nicodemus – unless they become born again like a little baby and learn everything over from scratch, you can’t even talk to them at all. These are the modern day pharisees, and they are very difficult!
Truth 2: We are slaves
How does this ignorance lead to slavery? It is easy to think that it means that if you sin, you will sin more because you have opened the door to it, and that you will sin again and again, and so become a slave. This isn’t untrue, but it is not the core truth. We think that is what Jesus means when He says “everyone who sins is the slave of sin.” How is it that John says that our fellowship is based on confession and forgiveness and not on moralism (1 John 1:5-10).
I think there is a more compelling way in which sin causes us to become slaves. When we sin, we offend justice, and there is no repentance and no remorse and no ‘godly sorrow’ which can atone for it. If a robber says, “hey, I forgave myself! Let me go!” no one is going to give any credence to that! The uncomfortable truth is, because you are a sinner, you have been branded forever with guilt.
We want to think that this is some obscure theological idea, but in fact it is the central driver of all human experience. If you read any great novel, notice how much the characters are driven by issues of justice. They are driven by either trying to compensate for their own guilt, or by their reaction to the sins of others against them. Most if not all stories are driven by either revenge or mercy, which are both reactions to justice issues. The tragedy with revenge is that it never seems to satisfy, because justice has to be transgressed to achieve revenge, and because it does not seem that justice is really restored at all. Even death doesn’t seem enough when a guilty person dies. When we attempt to play God and enforce justice, it always seems hollow.
So we have this beautiful statement from Jesus, that you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. The question becomes, what is this truth and in what sense does it make you free? Pharisees would assume that it makes you free in the sense of being a successful pharisee because that is their definition of success. It means you receive the ability to never transgress their boundaries (at least “willfully” or meaningfully), because your prison was willful and behavioral. However, this is a conditional freedom – it is not free indeed, because it hinges on your continued adherence to their ideals. In fact it is not freedom, but conditional acceptance. It is more slavery. If this is freedom, it is a very fragile and conditional freedom that one must worry over constantly. It is not an assured freedom, but rather a freedom under constant threat. One starts to wonder if it is any kind of freedom at all.
So what is freedom in the sense of being “free indeed?” I think it is the freedom of being justified. It means, not just that from now on you vow to keep your nose clean. It means, justice is satisfied concerning you in general. It means you no longer live your life in a futile attempt to achieve justice through your own mind games by “forgiving yourself” or by enacting some terrible scheme of vengeance. It means that past present and future instances of your sinfulness have been propitiated. Jesus even alludes to this in this passage:
28 So Jesus said, “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am He, and I do nothing on My own initiative, but I speak these things as the Father taught Me. – John 8:28 NASB
It is not until He is lifted up, the wrathful viper crucified, that their eyes would be able to be opened, to see that He is the propitiation Himself. So the prison of the unalterable grip of justice over you, the sinner, is removed from you when you believe in Christ. It means that in Christ, all things are lawful, but not all things are profitable. It means that for those who believe, rightness is forever made an affair of the heart and no longer an affair of rules and measures forced upon you. All of the threat is removed. This is real freedom, and it is real in the here and now. It is not that we will at some point perhaps receive eternal life if we measure up and deserve it. It means through mere belief we receive it now as a free gift.
Now, if we are still under the law, it means that by our merits we must pretend at righteousness before God, but we cannot presume in our conscience that we can freely go to God to receive mercy and help in our time of need. Our prayer life becomes all a public sham. So because we are driven from the heart to seek some refuge, some comfort in life, we go back to the fleeting pleasures of our sin. Our lack of confidence in the grace and kindness of God drives us back into our slavery. But belief in the strong grace and eternal kindness of God gives us the confidence that even in our sin, we can quickly go to Him and receive forgiveness and help, and so the slavery is ended. Even when we fail, in Christ we are more than conquerors through our faith. We are free indeed!
Let’s put this in even more simple terms. Faith in Christ means that I believe that my failures do not define me, but that God’s love for me defines me. It means that my identity is found in God’s sacrificial love for me, not in my perfect performance. And this means I have utter freedom to live as one who is greatly loved. I no longer live to fight off my looming condemnation, I live in the assurance that I am beloved in God’s eyes no matter what happens. None of this means that I now live in sinless perfection. This is freedom – to know that I am forever loved and that I can’t break that or kill it or stop it. His love is bigger than my failure.
“But all the while, there was one thing we most needed even from the start, and certainly will need from here on out into the New Jerusalem: the ability to take our freedom seriously and act on it, to live not in fear of mistakes but in the knowledge that no mistake can hold a candle to the love that draws us home. My repentance, accordingly, is not so much for my failings but for the two-bit attitude toward them by which I made them more sovereign than grace. Grace – the imperative to hear the music, not just listen for errors – makes all infirmities occasions of glory.”
― Robert Farrar Capon, Between Noon & Three: Romance, Law & the Outrage of Grace