January 7, 2024
When Jesus gave instruction to aspiring disciples, He delivered the true but difficult news that “everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.” Not understanding how they could be enslaved, His listeners questioned Him. Alistair Begg addresses this provocative statement from Jesus, explaining that apart from Christ, we are all bound to sin. Counter to contemporary thinking, the problem is within us: we sin because we are sinners. Only Jesus, who gave up His own freedom to secure our own, sets us free from sin’s reign and allows us to live in a way that pleases God, our Maker.
Sermon Transcript: Print
Now, we left ourselves with a little bit of a challenge before we share in Communion this evening. We need to turn back to John chapter 8. Those who were present this morning know that we set ourselves the challenge of verses 31–38, and we found ourselves there because the next “Truly, truly” along our path is found in verse 34, where Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.”
And we covered point number one, which was noticing in the opening verses, Jesus was giving instruction to aspiring disciples. And then we went on to consider the reaction of these religious Jews to Jesus’ statement. They were aware of the fact that the way in which he framed his words made it perfectly clear to them—indeed, unavoidable—that the assumption on the part of Jesus was that they themselves were enslaved. And, of course, they didn’t like the sound of that. Religion often doesn’t: “You don’t realize who we are; we are the offspring of Abraham,” and so on.
And what we left for us to handle was to address the source of this freedom, which is the freedom that is at the end of verse 36: “free indeed.” “Free indeed.” And Jesus has set this up with his “Truly, truly,” which is, essentially, “I tell you most solemnly.” And what he goes on to tell us is that the problem, in terms of enslavement, is not an external problem but that the ultimate enemy of freedom is on the inside. That’s what he’s explaining. And he says it very straightforwardly, doesn’t he? “The slave does[n’t] remain in the house forever …. If the Son sets you free…” But the fact of the matter is, “everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.”
Now, he’s not in this instance saying that every sinful act equals slavery, although that is actually the case. But what he’s saying is—and John captures this very well when he writes about Christian assurance in his first letter, where he uses this phraseology: “Everyone who makes a practice of sinning…” That’s the notion: the idea of not an intermittent engagement—either an outburst of anger or of lust or whatever it might be—but that that has now become the established pattern of our minds and, as a result of that, of our actions. And Jesus is saying quite categorically that when a person is in that condition, they are enslaved to sin, whether they realize it or not.
It’s very important that we’re clear in our minds what the Bible teaches, and that is that we’re not sinners because we sin; we sin because we’re sinners—that our hearts are fallen; that they are, as Luther says, they’re curved in upon ourselves, and we’re oriented to ourselves and to our own desires. The same kind of notion Peter covers in his second letter, where, just in a sentence, he says, “A man is a slave to whatever controls him.” “A man is a slave to whatever controls him.”
Not only does the practice of sin prove that one is a slave to sin, but the practice of sin actually enslaves us. And we could, if we were in a different context, tease this out in a number of ways. You can tease them out in your own mind.
At a very simple level, as we were taught as children in Scotland… I remember the first time it was illustrated to me, somebody asked me to come out. They wanted to use me as an illustration. They took a piece of thread. They tied two of my fingers together, and they asked me to break the thread—which, actually, at that point I was able to do. They then tied it a second time around. And by the time they’d gone to a third or fourth, it was impossible for me to break free. And then they gave us this little line, which I think is familiar to you by now: “Sow a thought and reap an action. Sow an action and reap a habit. Sow a habit and reap a character. Sow a character and reap a destiny.” So that sin is not only an expression of our enslavement, but the more that we are prepared to go down that road, the more we become enslaved. It is perfectly obvious in certain areas of addiction and so on. And indeed, addiction has become such a large part of the psychiatric and social welfare of our nation, which is actually testifying to the very enslavement that Jesus is addressing here.
Now, we need to acknowledge, too, that this runs counter to contemporary thinking. Because contemporary thinking is the reverse of this. If you go and explain to somebody that you’re having difficulty in this way, well, they’ll tell you that the problem is outside of you. It is that people have interfered with you, or they are placing constraints upon you, and you don’t want to have anybody constraining you or disavowing your freedom to be what you’re supposed to be, and if you look inside of yourself, you will be able to make sense of that.
Well, that’s why, again, we say to one another routinely, we’d better be considering all that is presented to us in the framework of our lives through the grid of our Scriptures. Because what Jesus is saying here is the word of God. It is the truth of God. He is the truth of God—so that the Bible says that from the very beginning, our pattern, by nature, is to reject God’s wisdom, is to rebel against God’s authority, and is to suppress the truth about God himself. And if you think about that for a moment or two, you realize that that’s fairly obvious as we consider our own lives and as we look around.
Now, how does that express itself? Well, in a number of ways—simply, that God has given to us, if you like, the Maker’s instructions. He said, “This is how life is to be lived. I made you. I fashioned you. And I have given you the instructions for life in my book.” Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m not a very good instruction reader. I have people that do that for me—one person. Sue is very detailed on that, and so I say, “You do it, and tell me what to do.” And sometimes I launch off ahead of the game and realize, “Oh, you’ve made a complete mess of the whole thing. You know, you’ve got screws going in fifteen directions, and nothing will eventually look the way it’s supposed to look. Why don’t you pay attention to the maker’s instructions?”
Well, because the Maker’s instructions say things about marriage. They say things about sex. They say things about purity. They say things about honesty. They say things that are all regarded in contemporary culture as manmade constraints with a religious tinge that will prevent you from being all that you might be. The Bible says, “No, you’ve got it completely upside-down.”
Did you ever, as a child, lie on the floor and look up at the ceiling long enough to wonder whether you were actually on the ceiling or on the floor? Is there anybody who does that? Anyone? Because I think I have a psychiatric condition otherwise. Or you go, “Life was pretty boring in Glasgow on a Saturday, you know: ‘It’s pouring outside. What should I do? I’ll just lie on the floor and imagine I’m on the ceiling.’”
But that’s it. Our world is upside-down. It’s upside-down. It’s a contemporary article of faith that you can be whatever you choose to be. And the ultimate expression of it in the present climate is, of course, “Choose from a variety of genders.” Incidentally, that is only a further expression of that same mentality which is pervasive throughout our culture: the idea—it is actually, you know, it’s a statement of faith—that I can choose to be whatever I want to be and that nobody tells me how to live my life, because I am the center of my own universe. I believe that I should be able to do what I want to do without anyone interfering at all.
Of course, what happens in that is it doesn’t work. It doesn’t work. Because it is the embodiment of self-centeredness. And when I’m a self-centered person, my needs come first. They come first, before anybody else—before my wife. Now, I’ve got a real problem if she’s operating on the same basis. When my needs come first, when I’m self-centered, then I will seek to use people to achieve my own objectives, to get out of situations what I want out of situations. And the more that I do that, the more I become enslaved to that kind of mentality.
And this is the sin, this is the bondage from which we are liberated through Jesus. Augustine in his book, his [Tractates on the Gospel of John], has a long quote on this. And I want to read it to you. I hope you like it. This is what Augustine says: he says, “At times a man’s slave, worn out by the commands of an unfeeling master”—so, I’m working for Mr. Jones, and he’s driving me nuts, and he’s wearing me out—that slave then “finds rest in [running away]. Whither,” he says,
can the servant of sin flee? Himself he carries with him wherever he flees. An evil conscience flees not from itself; it has no place to go; it follows itself. Yea, he cannot withdraw from himself, for the sin he commits is within. He has committed sin to obtain some bodily pleasure. The pleasure passes away; the sin remains. What delighted is gone; the sting has remained behind.
And then he writes, “[O,] evil bondage!”
Now, that’s what Jesus is addressing here. And it’s wonderful. I mean, it’s so good, isn’t it? Look at that verse: “The slave does not remain in [his] house forever; the son remains forever.” A slave has no permanent place in the family. Think of Upstairs, Downstairs, or Downton Abbey, or whatever you want, and all those folks that were down the stairs in the kitchen. They could be dismissed in a moment if they didn’t do a very good job. They could be sold. They could be given away.
And the presence of someone who is living in an enslaved position is completely determined—his continuance is determined—by his or her performance: “As long as I perform well, maybe I’ll be able to stay. And if I don’t perform well, maybe they’ll get rid of me.” That’s why “the slave does not remain in the house forever.” But the son—the son cannot be anything other than the son. And ultimately, the son here, the ultimate Son, is the Lord Jesus Christ. And what Jesus is saying is that “when men and women are united to me, when they become sons of the heavenly Father, then there’s freedom. But as long as,” he says to these Jewish listeners in this immediate context, “as long as you reject my words, you live in servile and slavish fear.”
And if you think about the ultimate fear of life being the fear of death, you realize what an enslavement it is to live your whole life realizing that there is an inevitability about this that we cannot handle at all, unless somebody sets us free from that fear. How could we be set free from the fear of death? Because “the wages of sin is death.” Sin pays wages. We know that. “But the … gift of God is eternal life” through Jesus Christ. That’s why Paul writes in that way at the end of chapter 6, which is why we read it.
You see, the religious person views God not as a Father but as a boss. And if you view God as like the boss, then, again, the only way that you’re going to be able to make it is to keep obeying the commands, hopefully making the boss pleased with you. And what that inevitably does is it creates phenomenal anxiety: “I don’t know if he’s pleased with me. I don’t know if God is pleased with me. How can I know that he’s pleased with me?” So, anxiety on the one hand, and then anger on the other hand. Because in my self-assertiveness, I’m tempted to believe that I’m not getting what I deserve out of this program: “I tried to be a good person. I started to go to church. I actually began reading one of those ‘Through the Bibles’ and so on, ‘Through the New Testament in a Year.’ And here I am.” Is that not because you don’t understand who God is?
You see, when God is your Father, then all of that goes away. That’s why Jesus says elsewhere, “If you, being earthly or evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good gifts to them that ask him?” Only Jesus is qualified to set us free. Only Jesus sets us free from the settled habit of rejecting his wisdom, rebelling against his authority, and enthroning ourselves. But as long as his word has no place in us… That’s verse 37: “I know you’re the offspring of Abraham. I know you have a great lineage. I know you have a great background. But the fact is, you’d like to kill me. And the reason you would is because my word finds no place in you. But if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
You remember when we come to Easter time and the Gospel writers tell us of the way in which Jesus was arrested and so on, and you come to the end of the section in Matthew’s Gospel, where he records this. This is 27 of Matthew: “When morning came, all the chief priests and the elders of the people took counsel against Jesus to put him to death. And they bound him.” “They bound him.” They tied him up. They curtailed his liberty. They made it impossible for him to escape. And then they killed him.
In other words, Christ, as the second person of the Trinity, gave up his freedom, was bound and enslaved, in order that we might be set free from the bondage of our own sinful propensities. There’s no story like this in all the religions of the world. And as we think about coming around the Lord’s Table tonight, we recognize that all the time hundreds of years before Jesus came, the prophets were writing about these very things and pointing out the very stupidity of man without God.
“Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows,” Isaiah writes.
We esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God ….
… He was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we[’ve] turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
Not a very pleasant diagnosis, is it? It’s not easy, I think, to be a doctor, especially when you have to take those reports and those blood tests and finally come out and say what’s going on. Sometimes, I guess, it’s good news, but often it’s fairly daunting. And you see, self-centered, self-righteous, self-oriented humanity has no way to deal with this, except when Jesus opens our eyes. What the Bible is saying is that we’re all like stupid sheep. We wander away from him. We’ve got self-righteous excuses as to why we do what we do. We’ve got futile attempts at remedying our own condition. We’d love to set ourselves free, but we can’t.
And when he sets us free, it’s an amazing freedom—freedom not to do as I please but to do what pleases him; the freedom to do what I ought, because doing that now pleases me. You think about it in marital terms: I mean, the curtailing of one’s own freedom in a love relationship makes it possible, then, to serve others. And Christ epitomizes this, ’cause he has curtailed his own freedom in order that we might then know the freedom that only he can bring.
Can I just give you two quotes before we sing a hymn and go on? The hymn writers help me with so much of this stuff, and this is one of my favorite hymns by George Matheson, who lived in the nineteenth century. You know these words, but I want you to listen to them, because this is the great mystery of Christian freedom. It goes like this:
Make me a captive, Lord,
And then I shall be free;
Force me to render up my sword,
And I shall conqu’ror be.
I sink in life’s alarms
When by myself I stand.
“I can do this. I can fix this. I’ve got this.”
Imprison me within thine arms,
And strong shall be my hand. …
My will is not my own
Till thou hast made it thine;
If it would reach [the] monarch’s throne,
It must its crown resign.
It only stands unbent
Amid the clashing strife
When on thy bosom it has leant
And found in thee its life.
And better still: Cowper—dear William Cowper. Whew! This is a poem entitled “Love Constraining to Obedience”:
No strength of nature can suffice
To serve the Lord aright;
And what she has…
That is, “strength of nature.”
And what she has she misapplies
For want of clearer light.
How long beneath the law I lay
In bondage and distress!
That’s it: “God is a boss. All I can do is hope that I please him enough or make sure that I don’t annoy him.”
How long beneath the law I lay
In bondage and distress!
I toiled the precept to obey
But toiled without success.
Because we can’t do it!
Then, to abstain from outward sin
Was more than I could do;
Now, if I feel its power within,
I feel I hate it too.
Then, all my servile works were done
A righteousness to raise;
Now, freely chosen in the Son,
I freely choose His ways.
“What shall I do” was then the word
“That I may worthier grow?”
“What shall I render to the Lord?”
Is my inquiry now.
To see the law by Christ fulfilled
And hear His pardoning voice
Changes a slave into a child
And duty into choice.
And Jesus says, “You’re religious guys with such a terrific background. And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
Father, thank you that your Word is your Word, and thank you for the opportunity to turn to it again in this evening hour. I pray, Lord, that any cloudiness that is there in our minds as a result of my ineptitude may be banished, that the clarity that we finally rest in is the clarity which comes by way of the Holy Spirit applying things to us. You know every one of us. You know where we are tonight. And now, as we seek to come around this Table, invited by Jesus himself, the one whose hands, when he fed the breakfast to them on that beach, bore the scars of the punishment, his wrists marked by the cords that bound him, bound in order that we might be free, punished in order that we may not face punishment on that day, dying in order that we might live forever—how marvelous! How wonderful! Amen.
 1 John 3:4 (ESV).
 2 Peter 2:19 (TLB).
 Augustine, Tractates on the Gospel of John, tractate 41, trans. John Gibb, https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1701041.htm.
 Romans 6:23 (ESV).
 Matthew 7:11 (paraphrased).
 Matthew 27:1–2 (ESV).
 Isaiah 53:4–6 (ESV).
 George Matheson, “Make Me a Captive, Lord” (1890).
 William Cowper, “Love Constraining to Obedience” (1779).
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.