Last month Tony Blair pledged, I quote, an end "to the 1960s liberal, social consensus." The journalist Simon Jenkins was horrified. In The Times newspaper the following day he extolled the virtues of sixties liberalism - from allowing abortion to modernising the laws on gambling. The Church of England Newspaper, however, then said this:
"While Her Majesty's Government is busy legalizing cannabis, proposing to give brothels a legal place in our social structure, and institutionalizing gay sex, we are told by Mr Blair that the legacy of the 1960s has had negative effects on our national culture.
How very confusing!"
And there is confusion - huge confusion in our society - and in the church - about freedom [or liberty or being liberal], on the one hand, and about toleration of other people's freedoms, on the other. There is undoubtedly a modern problem about freedom. So this morning in this series on the Bible and Modern Problems our subject is True or False Freedom.
I want us now to look at John 8 verses 31-36 and see what the Bible teaches about freedom; and my headings are first, TRUE DISCIPLES; secondly, THREE PROBLEMS - ANCIENT AND MODERN; and, thirdly, TRUE FREEDOM.
First, TRUE DISCIPLES
Look at verses 31-32:
"To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, 'If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.'"
The devil so often counterfeits what is good. That is why there is false as well as true freedom. The devil also counterfeits Jesus' disciples. There are false as well as true disciples. And a true disciple, Jesus says here (verse 31) is one who holds to his teaching. So the false disciple is someone who does not hold to Jesus' teaching. People may think Jesus is attractive and kind and wise. And he is. But that is not the mark of a true disciple.
A true disciple is someone who literally (according to the original) makes his or her home in Jesus' teaching. For them that is the centre of their existence. It is that which nurtures them. And unlike false disciples who pick and choose, they want to submit to all his teaching. And then, says Jesus (verse 32), "the truth [that you get from his teaching] will set you free".
So Jesus teaches that the mark of the true disciple is someone who "holds to his teaching" and this teaching and truth is essential for the enjoyment of true freedom. Let's now move on to our second heading ...
Secondly, THREE PROBLEMS - ANCIENT AND MODERN
Look at verses 33-34:
"They answered him, 'We are Abraham's descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?' Jesus replied, 'I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin.'"
This looks like an example of "true and false believers". These people who reply to Jesus seem to be Jews who had believed (in some sense), but only in a very superficial way. And they have a false confidence. They believe they are free enough. They say, "we are Abraham's descendants."
It is perfectly true that the Old Testament (like the New Testament) gives rise to a tradition of freedom. In a unique way the Bible teaches God's sovereignty over every person and every event. Yet, at the same time it teaches there is individual freedom to reject God and his law. But it also teaches divine judgment and divine judgment for eternity. It is this Biblical doctrine of Hell that is important for the concept of liberty. If you choose to defy God to the end, he will not stop you. He gives you freedom. He will not enforce belief. Neither must we.
Now whether this was the reason or not for the Jews' confidence, what we can be sure about is that they had got three things wrong and so have millions like them down the centuries and up to today.
First, these people believed that political freedom was more important than spiritual freedom. They said, verse 33, "we ... have never been slaves of anyone." So they are thinking of a political situation where someone else has power over them and their basic rights are being denied. They are seeing freedom in terms of political freedom or freedom in terms of their relationships with their fellow human beings. Now Jesus doesn't deny the value of political freedom. Nor should we.
Political freedom is a great gift. It is good in itself. It is also essential for sharing the gospel. In other faith societies where there is little freedom, Christians often find it hard to evangelize. By contrast in Christian countries Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and others are free to propagate their beliefs.
For example, at the moment Buddhists in Sri Lanka are wanting to pass a bill to outlaw conversions to Christianity, while Buddhists have freedom in this country. So do pray for our friends at the Navajeevana Healthcare Centre in Colombo. No! Jesus doesn't deny the value of political freedom. He simply makes it clear that spiritual freedom is vital if there is to be true freedom. You see, to the question, in verse 33, "How can you say that we shall be set free?" Jesus replies, verse 34:
"I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin."
And he is so emphatic. "I tell you the truth", he says. The Bible teaches that everyone, by nature, sins; therefore, by nature, everyone is a slave and in bondage. And if you are a sinner in the way Jesus is meaning here, it is certainly no good thinking you are free. You are a slave. In terms of eternity, spiritual bondage is far worse than any political bondage.
Who can deny there is bondage in specific sins? There was a programme on TV last week on the National Lottery. It revealed that there are now one quarter of a million gambling addicts. One woman interviewed receives a weekly benefit allowance of £79 and spends £70 of it on the Lottery and never wins anything. She is a slave.
If you sin and repent and seek, with Christ's help, to change, you are not a slave to sin. But if you sin and sin again and again and again, without repentance and without seeking Christ's help and the help of others - however, remorseful you may be - you are obviously a slave to sin.
Also in terms of this world's political societies, unless both the guilt and power of sin are dealt with, you will get less and less liberty. One of the State's duties is to restrain the worst excesses of human sinfulness. Paul teaches that in Romans 13. So the more sin there is in a State, the more laws have to be enacted and enforced to restrain sin. Therefore there is less liberty for the population to enjoy. It was the political philosopher Burke who said years ago:
"Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less there is within, the more there must be without."
So these Jews were wrong in thinking that political freedom was more important than spiritual freedom. And people are wrong today who think like that.
Secondly these Jews failed to face political realities. In asking Jesus, "How can you say that we shall be set free?" they are assuming that they are politically free at the moment. That was palpably untrue. They were in real bondage to their Roman overlords. That is why there were many revolutionary movements and leaders at this time. You can read about some in the New Testament. One of the most notorious was Barabbas who ...
"... had been thrown into prison for an insurrection in the city, and for murder" (Luke 23.19).
It is amazing how blind otherwise intelligent people can be. Revisionist liberals since the sixties have wanted liberty for immorality and have been legislating for it. But they have actually eroded political liberties. Take the case of an old man, Mr Harry Hammond.
He liked to preach in the open air in Bournemouth. But in April 2002 he was prosecuted under the Public Order Act of 1986. Mr Hammond's crime was to display a placard - now destroyed by order of the bench - on which were written six words: "Stop immorality. Stop homosexuality. Stop lesbianism." A small crowd gathered that included hecklers. A young woman then tried to take the placard from him. During the struggle Mr Hammond fell flat on his back and had to be helped to his feet by security guards from a nearby shop. Then some of his opponents threw clods of earth at him that hit him on the head and chest. Someone else then emptied a bottle of water over his head. Then the police arrived. But it was Mr Hammond who was arrested.
At his trial the magistrate ruled that the sign, I quote, "clearly insulted members of the crowd who had gathered round him". She pronounced him guilty and fined him £300 plus £300 in costs. She also ordered that his placard be destroyed. So much for liberty. The crime was not insulting language but simply six printed words.
This implies that communicating that something is wrong insults anyone who does that wrong. But if you allow such judgments to continue, it will stop any public declaration of absolute morality. You will only be allowed to say publicly what the State thinks is wrong. Morality and legality will be equated. And that is very, very serious. That is a denial of fundamental liberties. Our civilization depends on believing that there is a higher law than Parliament - that laws themselves stand under judgment. This magistrate, like these Jews, was blind to her own illiberality while no doubt thinking she was a very liberal woman.
Then, thirdly, the Jews were ignorant of history. They had the disease of historical amnesia, a disease so many still have today. Listen to what they said (verse 33):
"We are Abraham's descendants and have never been slaves of anyone."
That, too, was palpably false. In their history they had been slaves to the Egyptians in Egypt until Moses led them out of Egypt at the Exodus. Then they were slaves, many times, in the period of the Judges. Then they were slaves to the Babylonians at the time of the Babylonian Exile. They seemed to have forgotten their own history. And that is so true of many today who want licence not liberty. They have forgotten the roots of historic political liberalism in the UK. These were at the end of the 17th century with the Act of Toleration in 1688 and under the influence of philosophers, who were Christians, like John Locke.
What was then basic and new was the principle that religious belief may not be enforced by the State. After the Wars of Religion, conscience was now to be free. The State should never again exert its authority and power to make someone believe or confess what they did not believe or were willing to confess. For Jesus never enforced belief. There were to be no more burnings at the stake and no more imprisonment for the John Bunyans of this world. Every belief was to be tolerated. But toleration never meant that you were to be silent over what you considered wrong or false. Toleration was not to be indifferentism. By definition, you can only tolerate what you think is wrong. Here are words from a historic document written by John Locke and in the context of not enforcing beliefs:
"But I would not have this understood as if I meant hereby to condemn all charitable admonitions and affectionate endeavours to reduce men from errors which are indeed the greatest duty of a Christian. Anyone may employ as many exhortations and arguments as he pleases, towards the promoting of another man's salvation. But all force and compulsion are to be forborne."
Nor was there to be absolute toleration. For the State was not to tolerate violence or sexual immorality. The State was not to tolerate the violation of the basic Divine law that is essential, I quote, to "the bonds of human society." Until the 1960s that was the theory behind much of British Liberalism and enshrined in our laws.
Now there is a new revisionist liberalism. It is taught in our universities; it is assumed in our schools; it surfaces in our courts; it is uncritically propagated by the media; and sadly it is even preached in some pulpits. It is the notion that there are no moral rules or higher Divine law or Natural Law or basic conscience - however you describe it. Paul refers to this in Romans 2. Rather each person is to make up their own moral rules for themselves.
Political philosophers like John Rawls are now talking about "comprehensive" liberalism where there is a totally open society and where there is no idea at all of what is the good life. But this is a sophisticated form of libertinism, not liberalism. Our liberal forefathers would be horrified. They wanted to steer a middle course between, again I quote, "a spirit of persecution" and "impunity for libertinism and licentiousness." How we need to re-read our history!
Being ignorant of history is a serious problem. God's complaint in the Old Testament against the Jews was that they too often forgot their history. If you doubt that, read Psalm 78. These Jews here with Jesus certainly were ignorant of (or forgot) their history. So three problems - ancient and modern:
one, believing that political freedom is more important than spiritual freedom;
two, refusing to face current political realities; and,
three, being ignorant of (or forgetting) history.
Finally, TRUE FREEDOM
Now the motive behind those who shaped our democratic freedoms in the West, particularly in Britain and North America, was freedom for the gospel. Particularly in the USA, but also in Britain, the separation of Church and State was not to secure in the State freedom from the Christian gospel. Rather it was to secure freedom for the Christian gospel. John Locke in part was responding to English Puritans who had suffered at the hands of the courts in England for their preaching and teaching. So what is the gospel that needs freedom to be preached? It is the "gospel of freedom". Look at verses 35-36:
"Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed."
Jesus is clearly implying that there can be true or false freedom. "You," he says, "will be free indeed [literally, really free, as distinct from having an unreal freedom]." And Jesus says that he, the Divine Son, is the source of that true freedom. He says, "if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed." As we saw last week, he is the only source of true freedom. No other religious leader or philosopher will give you true freedom. Only the Son - Jesus Christ the Lord - really sets you free. That is because you need to be freed from sin that enslaves you.
First, you need to be freed from the guilt of sin. We have spoken about God's judgment. God loves you but he hates your sin and unless you do something about it, you will suffer. You say, "what do I have to do?" The answer is nothing. For Christ has done it for you. He died on the Cross, in your place, to bear the judgment you deserve. You simply have to receive his forgiveness by trusting him, and saying "Thank you, Lord."
Secondly, you need to be freed from the power of sin - not least the crippling self-centredness that can eat away your life. But as you receive new life from Christ by his Holy Spirit, you will have new power to resist sin. And you will have freedom from so much else, not least freedom from the fear of death as you enjoy a new relationship with God - one of sonship rather than one of slavery. You will look forward to heaven with your sins forgiven, and becoming more and more like Christ.
So, thirdly, Christ frees you not only from the guilt and power of sin, but also for a life of sonship - of beginning to be the sort of person you were meant to be. You are now free to love God and your neighbour, in ways that you never were before.
One question, therefore, in conclusion.
Who needs Jesus Christ to set them free this morning? This may be the first time you have come to Jesmond Parish Church. Or you may have been coming quite some time. But you are one of these false disciples who needs to become a true disciple. Well, think about this wonderful truth:
"If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed."
Then simply pray,
"Lord Jesus, I don't want to be a slave. Please set me free from the guilt and power of sin to be a son or daughter in your kingdom."
And if it would help you, take one of the "Why Jesus?" booklets from the Welcome Desk at the back of the church on your way out; and read it when you get home.