One Friday evening in October, 1985, I was taking a train from Vienna, Austria to Warsaw, Poland. It was an all-night train and we had to pass through Czechoslovakia. Of course, in 1985 both Poland and Czechoslovakia were communist countries. So when I boarded the train in Vienna there was hardly anyone on the train for few people from the west were visiting the east bloc countries then. In fact, I was the only one in my compartment. But at one of the stops in Czechoslovakia the train was practically overrun with Polish workers who had jobs in Czechoslovakia. I learned that they would work in Czechoslovakia Monday through Friday, and then return to their homes in Poland for the weekends.
In a matter of seconds all the empty seats in my compartment were taken. A young Polish woman, probably in her mid-twenties, sat next to me. She spoke a little bit of English so we had a brief and very basic conversation but spent most of the night trying in vain to get a little sleep.
Partway through the night we came to the border with Poland. As the train slowed to a stop we all got out our passports to be ready for the immigration officers who would soon be passing through each train car. As I was sitting there holding my U.S. passport I noticed the young woman next to me staring at my passport. I’m sure it was the first time she ever saw a U.S. passport. Then she asked me if she could look at it, so I handed it to her. I’ll never forget the expression on her face as she slowly turned the pages, noticing the stamps from the various countries I had visited. It was an expression of both amazement and envy.
For my U.S. passport represented freedom – something she experienced very little of. Yes, she was free to work in Czechoslovakia or visit other communist countries, but that was all her Polish passport gave her access to. My U.S. passport meant I was free to visit almost any country in the world. I could visit her country, but at that time there was no way she could visit mine. Her country would not give her the freedom to do that, or to do a host of other things many of us probably take for granted.
From the expression on her face as she stared at my passport I could tell that she longed for the freedom that I enjoyed simply because I possessed that passport. And it’s no wonder, for we all long for freedom. We may define freedom somewhat differently or have different expectations of what freedom allows us, but we all yearn for freedom.
Jesus knows how central this yearning for freedom is to every human being. In fact, one of the reasons He came was to offer us freedom. Jesus spoke of this in Jn. 8:31-32:
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.”
Jesus offers us freedom, freedom that is rooted in our knowledge of the truth. First, let’s consider just what freedom is, then we will look at how Jesus said we could experience real freedom.
There are two different aspects to freedom from a biblical perspective. To be free is to experience freedom from certain things, and also it is to be set free for certain things.
What are the things that we are set free from as followers of Jesus? Well, there are several things. For one thing, in Christ we are set free from guilt. Whether we think we’re guilty or not, the fact is, we are all guilty before God. Rom. 3:23 states it plainly: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” But we hardly need Scripture to tell us that, for we know it from our own experience. We know how we have sinned against God, how we have neglected His ways in favor of our own. We are fully aware of our selfishness, our greed, our dishonesty, our insensitivity to others, to say nothing of our moral failures. We all stand guilty before a holy God.
But Jesus came to set us free from guilt. That means we are set free from the objective reality of our guilt. II Cor. 5:19 assures us, “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them.” Even though we are guilty of sin and thus deserve separation from God, for as Rom. 6:23 says, “the wages of sin is death,” yet because of Christ we need not receive what we deserve. God no longer counts our sin against us for at the cross, as Jesus died in our place bearing our guilt, God reconciled us to Himself.
The reality of our guilt through sin no longer separates us from God. We are free from guilt and its consequences. We can draw near to God as His forgiven children. We can live in relationship with God, experiencing His presence, His love, His provision, and His power everyday. And we have the assurance of spending eternity in the presence of our loving Heavenly Father, for Jesus sets us free from our guilt.
And not only are we set free from the objective reality of our guilt, but we are also released from the subjective feelings of guilt. The feelings of guilt are like a ball and chain we drag around with us wherever we go. Whether it relates to a pattern of sin or maybe just one time when we really blew it, those feelings of guilt can paralyze us. They haunt us and plague our minds with their accusations of condemnation. What happens then? Well, then we develop feelings of worthlessness. But that is not what God desires for us. God wants us to be free from those negative feelings of condemnation.
It’s not that God takes our sin lightly or casually, for as we’ve seen, Jesus died because of our sin. And when we sin we need to confess that and repent of it. But now that Jesus died for our sin, it’s been dealt with once and for all. God doesn’t count our sin against us. (Ps. 130:3-4) So we can be free from those feelings of guilt that would otherwise crush us day and night.
Today, if you have come with feelings of guilt that overwhelm you, then just take God at His word. All is forgiven in Christ. As David wrote in Ps. 103:12, “as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” In Christ God has removed our transgressions from us by an infinite distance. If God doesn’t look upon as guilty, we need not look upon ourselves that way. Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” The truth is, Jesus bore our guilt on the cross. We don’t need to bear it all over again ourselves. When we hold to this truth, we are set free, free from guilt.
Second, through Christ we are set free from self. By this I mean primarily self-centeredness. It is really self-centeredness that is at the root of all sin. Whether it’s what we may view as the bigger sins, like murder or adultery, or what we might consider more petty sins, like telling a white lie or taking a couple pens from the office, at the heart of all sin is self-centeredness. There is something in it for us and so we grab for it. That’s why Jesus said the greatest commandment is to love God whole-heartedly and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. That’s a reversal of the self-centeredness that characterizes all sin. Instead of living for self we place God and others ahead of ourselves.
Now, we may ask, what’s wrong with living for ourselves? Well, this doesn’t mean we have no regard for our own needs. But if we live self-centeredly, if a self-centered attitude is what characterizes us, we soon discover that we have no real joy. We have few if any real friends because who wants to be friends with a self-centered person? There is no meaning to our lives beyond satisfying our own desires, and that makes for a pretty shallow existence. Life turns sour when we live only for self, when we have no regard for the glory of God or the good of others.
Malcom Muggeridge, the late British author and commentator used to speak and write of “the dark little dungeon of my own ego.” When we live for self, when our ego is all that matters, we create a prison for ourselves. We are not free to experience life in its depth and joy and purpose because we are imprisoned by our own selfishness. Jesus came to set us free from the dungeon of our self-centeredness so we can live life fully as we hold to the truth. As we love God and love others, that’s when we have the joy of seeing how our lives count for more than just satisfying selfish desires.
And third, Jesus sets us free from fear. Fear, of course, can be a good thing in certain circumstances. Fear alerts us to the possibility of danger and thus helps us respond appropriately. Fear can serve a useful purpose. But fear becomes a problem when it ceases to be an alarm that alerts us to danger and becomes instead an anxiety that controls our lives.
Fear can be one of the most destructive forces in our lives. It can and does prevent us from living fully. Fear of sickness, old age, death, the future, the unknown, failure, irrational fears and phobias can control us. They rob us of life and keep us a prisoner. No one who is afraid is free.
But Jesus has the power to release us from our fears. For Eph. 1:22 declares that “God has placed all things under his feet.” Where are the things that strike fear in our hearts? Under the feet of the risen and triumphant Jesus. He has power over all things. That’s the truth we must hold to. When we see that the things that cause us to fear are under the feet - that is, under the authority of Jesus, their power to frighten us is broken. If you have come today with fear in your heart, rather than focusing on those things that bring you fear, focus on Jesus who loves you, who has power over all things, and who will never leave or forsake you.
Jesus came to set us free from our guilt, from self-centeredness, and from our fears, as well as other things we don’t have time to consider today, such as false gods and misguided values. But there is much more than that. Jesus came not only to set us free from certain things but He came to set us free for other things. This is perhaps the most important aspect of freedom. And here we see how the world, and maybe ourselves as well, wrongly understand freedom. For typically freedom is pictured only as freedom from, whether it’s freedom from guilt, self, and fear, or a more worldly perspective of freedom from all restraints, all rules and taboos so you can live as you please. To be free is to be able to do whatever you want. But we have not experienced real freedom until we experience it as freedom for certain things.
And what does Jesus set us free for? Mainly, Jesus sets us free for a full and meaningful life. Or as John Stott wrote: “True freedom is freedom to be our true selves, as God made us and meant us to be.”
That this is what freedom is all about can be seen in God, for God is the only absolutely and perfectly free being. Because God is all-powerful and all-knowing, God is free to do anything. But is God really free to do anything? No. Scripture tells us so. For instance, Heb. 6:18 says that “it is impossible for God to lie.” James 1:13 adds, “For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone.”
While God is perfectly and completely free for no outside force can limit or restrain or control God in any way, yet God is not free to be untruthful, to be tempted or to tempt us to do wrong. For if God acted in those ways He would be untrue to who He truly is. God is always free to be exactly who He is, to always act in accordance with His character. Nothing can make God act otherwise or keep God from acting consistently with who He is. That is true freedom – to live and act in a way that is consistent with who we truly are.
Sometimes we think that freedom means we can do whatever we want, we can follow any course that pleases us. But when we act in ways contrary to how God created us to be, that is not really a mark of freedom. Rather it is a sign that we are enslaved to or under the influence of another person or force of some kind that is in that moment preventing us from being who we truly are. So we are mistaken if we think freedom means we can do whatever we want to do whenever we want to do it. For that limits our freedom because often it means we are doing something contrary to the purpose God has for us. True freedom is always being able and willing to be true to our true selves, and that can only mean our selves as God meant us to be for He created us.
And so there is no such thing as absolute freedom for that is a contradiction of terms. If we choose to be who God made us to be and do what God created us to do, then we are free to be our true selves, but at the same time we are not free to do those things that would keep us from being our true selves. And vice-a-versa, if we express our freedom by following whatever urges or impulses we feel at the moment as they relate to sexuality or materialism or greed, or whatever, if we express our freedom by doing those things that contradict God’s purposes for us, then we are not free to become all God created us to be. We can’t have it both ways. So freedom is limited by the nature and purpose that God gives us, but only as we accept and live within those limitations are we free to fulfill our highest purpose.
Perhaps a simple illustration will be helpful. I used this illustration in a sermon once before, but I want to repeat it because it pictures true freedom so clearly. Consider a fish in a glass fish bowl in your living room. The fish is free to swim wherever it wants in the water of that fishbowl and experience life as a fish experiences it. But suppose this fish has some rational powers, and it sees these other creatures – you and your family – freely moving about the living room. These other creatures are not confined to water. They are not limited to life in a fishbowl. They are free, unbound and unrestrained to move about as they please.
So the fish, lusting after that freedom, decides to leave the confines of the fishbowl. It jumps out and lands on the floor. What happens? It flops around for a few minutes and then it dies. In its quest for freedom it did not find freedom and fulfillment but rather death, for the nature of fish is not to live outside the realm of water. So in one sense, the water limits the scope of its existence, but at the same time, the water provides the environment in which the fish can freely live.
Freedom is being able to live life fully as God created us to live according to our nature, and so by definition that means we are not free to pursue those things that would stifle that purpose. The things that we sometimes long for – things that run counter to God’s good purposes for us yet we freely choose to do - we discover the hard way do not lead to the fulfillment we had hoped for because they limit our freedom to be who we truly are meant to be. Eventually, we end up like a dead fish on the floor.
Now if true freedom means becoming all God created us to be, that there is nothing that hinders or prevents us from becoming that, what does that look like? What does a totally free person look like? Well, in addition to holding to the teaching of Jesus, central to such a person’s life would be the Great Command, that we love God with our whole being and we love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Jesus said there is nothing more important than this, so this must be at the core of God’s purpose for us.
When we are loving God whole-heartedly and loving others as we love ourselves, we are reaching our highest purpose; we become all we were created to be. And if we are loving God and others in this way, the other aspects of God’s purposes for us, such as our growth in character, purity, kindness, and so on will fall into place. And other things that relate specifically to us as individuals, such as our relationships, our career, our family, etc., will be on the right track. If we love God above all and love our neighbors as we love ourselves we will be free to be all we were created to be; to reach our full potential.
That’s why Paul wrote in Gal. 5:13, “You were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love.” That is the mark of true freedom – when we are released from self-centeredness to serve others in love. To quote John Stott again:
True freedom is, then, the exact opposite of what many people think. It is not freedom from all responsibility to God and others, in order to live for myself. That is bondage to my own self-centeredness. Instead, true freedom is freedom from my silly little self, in order to live responsibly in love for God and others.
That is what freedom is. And how can we experience such freedom. In our passage Jesus said it happens as we hold to His teaching, for then we will know the truth, and the truth will set us free. We must not only read God’s word, not only study God’s word, we must absorb God’s word so it can then direct our lives. For false beliefs will hold us in bondage, lead us astray, preventing us from reaching our fullest potential as God has created us. But God, the author and creator of life, has told us what life is all about. If we hold to God’s truth, it liberates us from false views that would enslave us. As we embrace God’s truth we will be free to be all we can be.
And it’s important to note that in John’s gospel, where this passage is found, truth has to do with more than just correct knowledge. Truth is also personal for it is embodied by Jesus. Jesus said in Jn. 14:6, “I am the truth.” So to know the truth we not only come to understand the teaching of Scripture. We also are united with the One who is the truth and we grow in our relationship with Him. As we do, we experience freedom and fulfillment, for the One who is the Truth sets us free.
Perhaps this can all be summed up with an illustration. I used this illustration in a sermon once before, but I want to repeat it because it pictures true freedom so clearly. If you have ever been to an orchestra concert you know that prior to the concert what you hear from the orchestra does not sound pleasant at all. In fact, it is just a bunch of noise. For all the orchestra members are playing freely. They are warming up and each member does that in his or her own way. One member plays this scale, another plays a different scale. Someone else may be playing part of the main musical piece of the evening. It is just this cacophony of harsh and discordant sounds that can be rather irritating as each member plays as he or she freely chooses.
But when the conductor steps out and begins to direct the orchestra, all of a sudden the unity and harmony of the orchestra produces music that is beautiful and inspiring. Why the difference? Because only as the orchestra holds to and remains within the confines of the musical score, and then follows the direction of the conductor, only then are the orchestra members free to use their musical skills to their fullest potential. Only then is the orchestra as a whole free to be all it can be. Only when the orchestra members are not free to play whatever they want are they free to be all they can be and free to fulfill their purpose in creating beautiful music.
So it is for us. Don’t we all yearn to be the most we can be, to fulfill our highest purpose? Don’t we long to make a positive difference in the world and in the lives of those around us? Well, it’s only as we hold to and remain in the score – the teaching of Scripture – and follow the leading of the conductor – Jesus – only then are we free to reach our highest potential and live life to the fullest. Only then are we free to live a life that is truly meaningful and fulfilling.
God has given us a passport. That passport consists of His truth – the written truth in Scripture and the personal truth of Jesus Christ. And this passport grants us freedom – not merely the freedom to travel to different countries, but the freedom to become all God created us to be.
If we take time and make the effort to know the truth – God’s truth about who we are and why we are here, about the depth of God’s love for us and our eternal destiny with Him – and we let that truth direct our lives, then we will be truly free, free to be all God created us to be.