Free Indeed! — Part One
return to the main player
Return to the Main Player
return to the main player
Return to the Main Player

Free Indeed! — Part One

John 8:31–38  (ID: 3641)

As Jesus taught in the temple, many believed and were curious about Him but still rested in their religious pedigree, blind to their spiritual need. Alistair Begg reminds us that although Jesus’ words about enslavement recalled the Jews’ history as slaves in Egypt, we, too, are in bondage to sin, unable to set ourselves free. True disciples of Christ will have more than a passing curiosity about Jesus, acknowledging that their greatest need is for Him and abiding faithfully in His word.

Series Containing This Sermon

“Truly, Truly, I Say to You…”

Twenty-Five Divine Declarations from John’s Gospel John 1:1–21:25 Series ID: 29001

Sermon Transcript: Print

Let me encourage you to turn to the Gospel of John and to chapter 8 and to follow along as I read from verse 31. John chapter 8.

John 8:31:

“So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed [in] him, ‘If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’ They answered him, ‘We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, “You will become free”?’

“Jesus answered them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. I know that you are offspring of Abraham; yet you seek to kill me because my word[s] [find] no place in you. I speak of what I have seen with my Father, and you do what you have heard from your father.’”


And we pray briefly:

Speak, O Lord, as we come to you
To receive the food of your Holy Word.
Take your truth, plant it deep in us;
[And] shape and fashion us in your likeness.[1]

For Christ’s sake we ask it. Amen.

Well, earlier… Well, yeah. I was going to say earlier in the year, but last year, those of you who are present along the journey know that we began to look together at the “Truly, truly” statements that we find in the Gospel of John. And although we’ve had a gap of maybe three or four weeks, we are seeking to get back on track this morning. And you will notice that in the passage that we read, verse 34 contains our “Truly, truly” statement for today: “Jesus answered them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.’”

Now, as we study this passage today, I think probably this morning and this evening, there are a number of questions that are both raised and are answered. One obviously is “What does it mean to be a true disciple?” Another is to consider the question “Is it possible that the practice of religion may prove to blind us to our real need?” And then, thirdly and perhaps most importantly, “Where then is true freedom to be found?”

Instruction for Aspiring Disciples

Now, we begin with—and I have a heading in my notes, if this is helpful to you—Jesus in verses 31 and 32 provides instruction for those to whom we might refer as aspiring disciples. Instruction for aspiring disciples. Verse 30, which we didn’t read, tells us that as Jesus was teaching in this way, there were “many” who “believed in him.” And as we’ve already seen in studying John, the level of belief, the significance of that belief varies, and it is in the context of the wider context that we discover just what that actually means. Certainly, there were numbers of people who were professing a belief in Jesus. But when we read on in the chapter, we discover that when push comes to shove—verse 43, if your Bible is open—these same individuals, Jesus says to them, “You are unwilling to hear God’s word.”[2] You see that there in verse 43? “Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word.”[3]

Now, he’s speaking to the same people who are described at the end of verse 30 and those to whom we are now introduced, “the Jews who had believed [in] him.” J. C. Ryle, the onetime bishop of Liverpool, commenting on this, says, “They appear to have acted under the influence of temporary excitement, without considering what they were doing.”[4] I thought that was a really good sentence, and I made a note of it. I said I must tell you all about it, which I’ve just done now. But it struck me, because my mind immediately went somewhere with this notion of temporary excitement without considering what they were doing.

Now you want to know where my mind went. Well, it went to Wales, and it went to Wales in 2010, because in Wales, 2010, there was the Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor. I was going to the Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor in Wales in order to join my brothers-in-law, one a Scot and the other one an Englishman. In preparation for this, over the couple of weeks and months, actually, in anticipation of it, I began to talk to myself. And I said, “You know, Alistair, you have lived in America now for twenty-seven years. You are an American citizen. Many of your friends are involved in this way.” And indeed, the captain that year was Corey Pavin, and through a variety of circumstances, he sent to me in anticipation of my going to the Ryder Cup one of the team jackets which were worn by the American Ryder Cup team, which I carried with me in my suitcase transatlantically.

And I arrived, and I told my brothers-in-law, “Hey, twenty-seven years. I’ve been supporting Europe all of my life. This is the year.” Until I walked into Celtic Manor. Until I saw the flags. Until I met my people. I even had the team jacket, but I couldn’t put it on. Temporary excitement could carry me into the place, but my heart wasn’t in it. And as soon as push came to shove, it’s here.

These people are excited by Jesus. They’re the kind of people who would routinely come to church services if it were now. They are intrigued by the things that he says. They are interested in his dealings. They’re curious about so much. And in one sense, they’ve begun to believe him. But what does that believing actually mean?

And so, what Jesus is doing here is not seeking to reduce his numbers, but he is seeking simply to clarify for those who’ve now begun to follow him in this way just exactly what it means for them to be disciples. And so he says to them, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples.” See, he’s making the point that it is possible to talk about discipleship in a way that has a connotation of affection or diligence, and yet it may not be anything other than a superficial moment of excitement that has carried people along. So he wants them to understand. Abiding in his word means holding to his word. It means embracing his word. It means, if you like, living in his word, continuing in his word.

He’s going to pray later on—you can read it in chapter 17, if you care to look for it—in what we refer to as his High Priestly Prayer, he’s going to pray to his Father, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.”[5] “Sanctify them in the truth.” How is it that we grow to become more like Jesus? How is it that we actually become the disciples of Jesus? Well, he tells us. He says, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples.” In other words, steady continuance—steady continuance, steady holding to the teaching of Jesus, no matter how uncomfortable or how unappealing it may actually appear at times to be.

Actually, in chapter 17 he says, “I have given them your word, and the world has hated them.”[6] So in other words, it’s okay to say, “Oh, I hold to the word, provided it’s the word that I want to believe and I want to obey and that is immediately accessible to people around me.” But as soon as it cuts across, that’s when we discover whether we are doing this. And it is that steady, on-the-horse continuance that Jesus is saying is evidence of true discipleship.

He was aware of the fact that there were in his company people that we might refer to as fickle followers. They were there for a little while, and then they were gone, and then they might reappear, or whatever it would be. We’ve already seen that at the very beginning of our studies, actually, in chapter 2, it says at the end of 2, “Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast”—here we go—“many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing.” And then, interestingly, it says, “But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them.” So here are these people. They’re interested. They’re following. They think the signs are quite remarkable. And Jesus did not on his part entrust himself to them. He did not. Why did he not? “Because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what [is] in man.”[7] So in other words, he’s able to distinguish between the fickle and the faithful.

The ground of our salvation is the work of Christ. The evidence of our discipleship is our continuance in Christ.

That is why he on one occasion gave to his followers the parable of the sowers. You remember that. You can read it in Matthew 13. You needn’t turn to it right now, but I’ll just remind you of part of it. The disciples, after he has used this parable, eventually get him on his own, and they say to him, “Can you please explain the parable to us? I mean, we listened as best we could. What is it all about?” And so he says, “Well, then listen; let me just tell you.”[8] I can’t read it all for time’s sake, but Matthew 13:20–21: “As for what was sown on rocky ground…” Okay, remember, some seed has fallen, and the birds of the air come and snatch it away. “As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy.” So, the word is made known, and the immediate response, the instantaneous response is “Oh, yes, I want that.” “Yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away.”

And it would appear, as we come here in John chapter 8 to this section, that a number of the people that he is now addressing are from the rocky category. They are from this environment—what we might refer to as the instant bloom, instant fade. The seed goes in, and immediately you’ve got a response, but it withers quickly because there is no subsoil to contain it. One of the joys of pastoral ministry over a long period of time is to watch people continue. It’s to continue oneself. It’s to waken up in the morning and say, “Lord, this is amazing. I am still trusting you. I am still believing your word. You are a gracious God.” Those are the joys. The flip side of it is to look out on the congregation and to realize those who were apparently once very enthusiastic but, at least ostensibly, are nowhere to be found.

Now, the Bible is replete in relationship to this, and it’s good for us to pause. It’s unsettling, perhaps, but it is a good unsettlement. When you shake something, you find out—a plant, I suppose—if you shake it, you find out whether there’s a pretty good root structure in it. So if this is a little bit of a shake, we find out whether we’re rooted.

FirstJohn, and he writes of those who “went out from us” because “they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us.”[9] The ground of our salvation is the work of Christ. The evidence of our discipleship is our continuance in Christ. That’s why the writer to the Hebrews is making the very same point in chapter 3 and in—Hebrews is before James—and in chapter 3 (I say that for your encouragement) and verse 12. (He was going, “He thought Hebrews was after James. It just shows you!”) “Take care, brothers [and sisters]”—wise up, get ahold of yourself—“lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.” This is the exhortation: “But exhort one another every day, as long as it[’s] called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.”[10] One of the reasons we’re in the company with one another is to do what the Bible says in order that we might be those who continue to the end and are saved,[11] and not that we might be among the company of those who are instant bloom and instant fade. Here’s how it finishes: “For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence … to the end.”[12] We hold our confidence to the end.

“Ah, but wait a minute,” says somebody. “This seems to be calling in question what we were studying in John chapter 6. Because in John chapter 6, you were reminding us of the security that is ours in the electing purposes of God.” We paused for a while in John 6:37: “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.”

So this is the juxtaposition, you see, between the sovereignty of God in his purpose from all of eternity and the human activity and responsibility of man. The one does not exist in a vacuum. And let me just quote to you what we said on this occasion when we were looking at 37 and we addressed the question “Well, what about the issue of people falling away from the faith?” And this is what I said: anyone who after making profession of faith returns wholeheartedly to sin, renounces his former Christian allegiance, displays no remorse in doing so, and continues in apostasy to the end of life—that individual was surely, despite initial appearances, never born of God. Some Christians—indeed, we could say all Christians—stumble and fall. Some fall back a long way, and they know it. And yet, even in that position, they retain some desire, some degree of awareness of what they had left behind, and they testify to a lingering desire to return.

That is the difference between apostasy and backsliding. That is the difference between a wholesale rejection. I remember when I came here in the ’80s, there were fellows who had a very particular perspective on things. They were young men. They were probably the same age as myself, in their early thirties. And they were very—they wanted to make sure that I believed what they believed, and they had very strong views about Reformed soteriology and so on and about the nature of the electing purposes of God. Today, they’re nowhere. They’re nowhere! The last I heard of one of them was that he had disavowed faith entirely and had moved away. One of the great joys is to see the continuance. The reverse is the case.

Now, Sinclair always helps us, doesn’t he? Because you see, what happens is that people say, “Well, if the grace of God brings me to himself and secures me, then, given that I am now secure, can’t I just go ahead and, you know, play the game, do whatever I want to do? After all, ‘Once saved, always saved’!” Sinclair: “When rightly understood the doctrine of election”—the saving purposes of God—“never leads to moral carelessness …. The logic of election is not:

‘I have been chosen for salvation and so I can live any way I please’ but ‘I have been chosen for salvation … therefore I will live in a way that pleases God.’”[13] You understand why it is so important that we grasp this. Ryle, again, says the person—the person—“he that has true grace will not fall away. He that falls away [for good] has no true grace.”[14]

It’s interesting that Jesus has now been gathering a crowd. He’s had occasion, prior to this chapter, to say even to his disciples, “Do you want to go away?” And they said, “No, we’re going to stay.”[15] And not only have they stayed, but others are present. And so he says, “Well, let me tell you, you aspiring disciples: if you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples. And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

What is the truth? Well, it’s the truth of the gospel. It’s the truth of who Jesus is: that Jesus has come as a substitute and as a Savior. And what has he set us free from? He sets us free from the guilt of sin, from the burden of sin. He sets us free from the dominion of sin. Sin remains, but it no longer reigns in the Christian life. And so Jesus is driving this home.

And incidentally, genuine faith in Jesus is founded when a person comes to the place where I say, you know, “I acknowledge my total inability to get myself out. I acknowledge my total inability to liberate myself. I’m trapped, and I can’t free myself. Jesus, you hold the key to freedom. I’ve fallen down, and I can’t get up. Jesus, you can lift me up.”

It’s got a bit of a sting to it, because we had some people working in our yard. They had dug big holes in the yard, and out of an uncharacteristic expression of interest on my part, I went down to talk to them and to try and make it look like I had some sensible questions. In the course of that, it was phenomenally muddy, and I sunk deep down—I mean deep down—into the mud. I was wearing Wellington boots. The two gentlemen who were present outside are from an Amish background, who have recently come to a solid understanding of faith in Jesus. And so we are having this stulted conversation. And I decided it was probably time for me to go. And so I went to walk away.

But when I tried to take my foot out of the mud, it never came out. And so I made a sort of abortive attempt at forward movement, and then I just fell entirely flat on my back—just completely gone. Mercifully, it was three inches or four inches of mud. And there was just that pregnant pause, and then one of them reached forward to take my hand, try and get me up. He couldn’t get me up, I was in so stuck. And then the other guy, he—they got me up. And they pulled me; they got me upright. And so I stood there, and I said, “Yeah, I’m good. I’m good.” And the one guy says, “Pastor, from now own, stay in your pulpit.”

You see, Jesus is talking about people who had a casual interest in him, not the people who had said, “I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up. I’m trapped, and I can’t be liberated.” That’s the key. That’s the moment. You had that moment?

The Reaction of the Jews

From instruction for aspiring disciples, now, in verse 33 and in some measure in 37 and 38, we pay attention to the reaction of the Jews themselves—these religious people. And it’s very straightforward, isn’t it? “They answered him, ‘We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, “You will become free”?’” How can those who have never been enslaved be set free?

Now, the response might be regarded simply as curiosity, but I think it’s more than that. I think it’s animosity. That’s why I tried to put emphasis on the “you” there: “How can you say…? How is it that you say…?” You say, “Well, why did you do that?” Well, if you have your Bible at 8, if you look forward to 8:53, these same individuals are having the conversation, and they say, “Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? And the prophets died! Who do you make yourself out to be?” “I mean, who do you think you are?” It’s a question of identity. John is writing in order “that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ … and that by believing you [might] have life in his name.”[16] And they said, “Well, we’re starting to believe in you, Jesus.” And Jesus says, “If you’re truly believing in me, you will abide in my word, and the truth will set you free.” And they immediately go, “No, no, no, no. You don’t understand. We are the offspring of Abraham. We’ve never been enslaved to anybody.”

A heritage of religious privilege does not guarantee a right response to Jesus.

Now, what really gets them is surely this: that underlying Jesus’ statement is the assumption that they are currently slaves. And that’s offensive. It’s always offensive to religious people. Religious people are always going to say, “Well, I’m quite happy with the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount and so on, but I don’t like this stuff about Jesus setting me free. I mean, it makes it sound as though I need to be set free.” Well, actually, that’s exactly what it means, and that’s why it feels that way.

Surely they’re not denying their history, are they? I mean, they had four hundred years enslaved in Egypt. The Assyrians came and gave them a working-over. The Babylonians did a number on them. They’re presently essentially under the jurisdiction of Rome. So are they so blind, are they so keen to say, “We are not enslaved,” that they’re prepared to deny the facts that are right there in front of them? It’s possible. Or, perhaps more likely, that since they are the offspring of Abraham, they believe that they have a sort of inward freedom that comes as part of the high privilege of their pedigree: “You don’t understand. We are the offspring of Abraham, and we really don’t have anything at all to say about that.”

Now, Jesus in verse 37 acknowledges that they are the offspring of Abraham. Look at that: “I know that you[’re] [the] offspring of Abraham,” he says. (“You got a biological, a physical context, a physical descent. But you don’t have any spiritual kinship.”) “My word[s] [find] no place in you.” Why did they have no place for Jesus’ words? Because they had no place for Jesus! You’ve got a place for Jesus in your heart, you’ll be interested in the words of Jesus. You love somebody? “Write me a letter. Tell me things!” “You are the descendants of Abraham. I know that. But…” Because he’d already told them, “[Listen,] whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him.”[17]

They were intent on killing Jesus—verse 37: “I know that you[’re] [the] offspring of Abraham; yet you seek to kill me.” Why? “Because my word finds no place in you.” The entrance of the word of God brings light. The resistance to the word of God leaves us in darkness. That’s what the Bible is actually teaching.

You know, I just read that line earlier this morning—they were intent on killing Jesus—and I wrote underneath it, “What kind of disciple seeks to kill the one they’re following?” Well, you know of one, don’t you? Judas Iscariot.

So proud of their pedigree that they were blind to their need. They had a high opinion of themselves and a low opinion of Jesus. “I speak of what I[’ve] seen with my Father”—verse 38—“and you do what you have heard from your father.” Now he’s going to go on and absolutely confront them when he says, “I know that Abraham is your father in terms of your pedigree, but you know who your father is? Satan’s your father.”[18]

I think it’s Luther who sees the will of man as being like a horse, and the horse then is ridden by one of two: Jesus, the risen Lord, or the Evil One. So our wills—and we’ll see this this evening as we come to Communion, in Romans chapter 6—our wills by nature are ridden by the Evil One until, by grace, he is dethroned and Christ takes the saddle, takes the reins, and guides us along the path.

Now, let me just apply this. Because perhaps you’re saying, “Well, this is interesting. The reaction of the Jews—that’s a long time ago and a long way away.” I think if we’re honest, we can acknowledge that now, as was true then, a heritage of religious privilege—a heritage of religious privilege—does not guarantee a right response to Jesus.

I mean, I meet people all the time, and they find out that you’re a minister, or they’ll tell you, “Oh, yes, you know, my grandfather was in such-and-such a church down in southern Ohio.”

And I say, “Well, so have you followed in his footsteps?”

“Oh, no, no, no. No, no, no. But I still, you know, I… I keep in touch enough. You know, I’m still ‘plugged in.’”

“Plugged in to what?”

“Well, I don’t know. But it’s… I think…”

You see, religious… And this is why I asked the second question: Do you think that religion can blind us to our real need? People who are religious, who have no understanding of their real predicament. In their imagination they’re actually free. They believe they’re free! “I don’t listen to anybody. I can do what I want. I am the master of my own destiny,” and so on. It’s not true, of course. And what Jesus is going to do in this context is simply show them that they’re out of touch with reality, that they’re blind to the truth about themselves.

Religious people… And I mean by that people for whom religion as an external structure means something significant to them. And they are often, as I’m suggesting, quite proud of their lineage; and they are often, in an accompanying fashion, usually quite proud of the contributions that they’ve been able to make, their endeavors. And as a result, they are easily tempted to rest in some fancy position of privilege.

And this can involve all kinds of things. It can involve the dependence on rites and ceremonies: “My great-uncle was a Roman Catholic priest, and we’ve always felt very strongly about many of these things.” Which is fine. That’s good. But do you think that the priestly lineage is the key to freedom? You think if you were free, you might believe that; but you’re not. Rule keeping, or a self-oriented, kind of contemporary perspective.

The greatest need of man is to know his greatest need. And that is addressed in Jesus.

When you think about these things, you realize that, as was true with these folks—let’s say, for example, when they are saying, “We’ve never been enslaved to anyone”… Reinhold Niebuhr, who was once a pastor in Detroit, makes this comment: he says, “No amount of contrary evidence seems to disturb humanity’s good opinion of itself.”[19] “No amount of contrary evidence seems to disturb humanity’s good opinion [about] itself.” So, the evidence, if you like—they were blind to the reality of it.

How about what Jesus is saying here? See, Jesus is dealing with the immediate historical reality of the Jew, but the view of human nature which Jesus conveys in these verses is abundantly verified by human experience. You are in bondage. You need to be set free. “No amount of contrary evidence”: Auschwitz; Pol Pot and the killing fields (that was Cambodia); Stalin’s gulag; the daily toll of gratuitous violence, rape, abuse, abortion, torture, murder, all across the globe.

The greatest need of man is to know his greatest need. And that is addressed in Jesus. Because he’s now going to explain, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.” And that will bring us, then, to the source of true freedom, which will allow us to come to it again this evening at Communion.

Just a brief moment of quietness.

Let’s just remember: “All … the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never [turn away].”[20] How do you know you’ve been given by the Father? Because you come to him. How do you know you’ve been given by the Father? Because you continue in him.

Lord Jesus Christ, help us to come, and help us to continue. For your name’s sake. Amen.


[1] Stuart Townend and Keith Getty, “Speak, O Lord” (2005).

[2] John 8:43 (paraphrased).

[3] John 8:43 (ESV).

[4] J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels: St. John (New York: Robert Carter and Brothers, 1878), 2:101.

[5] John 17:17 (ESV).

[6] John 17:14 (ESV).

[7] John 2:23–25 (ESV).

[8] Matthew 13:10–16 (paraphrased).

[9] 1 John 2:19 (ESV).

[10] Hebrews 3:12–13 (ESV).

[11] See Hebrews 10:39.

[12] Hebrews 3:14 (ESV).

[13] Sinclair B. Ferguson: Devoted to God: Blueprints for Sanctification (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2016), 15n2.

[14] Ryle, Expository Thoughts, 2.104.

[15] John 6:67–69 (paraphrased).

[16] John 20:31 (ESV).

[17] John 5:23 (ESV).

[18] John 8:44 (paraphrased).

[19] Bruce Milne, The Message of John: Here Is Your King!, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1993), 132. The words quoted are Milne’s summary of Niebhur’s point, not Niebhur’s own.

[20] John 6:37 (ESV).

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.