THE TRUE FREEDOM
Dr. W. A. Criswell
John 8:32, 36
8-23-87 8:15 a.m.
And welcome the throngs of you who share this hour on radio. You are now a part of our dear First Baptist Church in Dallas. This is the pastor delivering a message from the eighth chapter of the Gospel of John. It is a textual sermon built upon two incomparable passages from the lips of our Lord. John 8:32: “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” Verse 36: “If the Son of Man therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed” [John 8:36]—free to live, free to serve God, free to be all God hath purposed that we be.
The passion of men to be free is as deep as life itself. In our generation we have seen the breakup of the British Empire, the Dutch empire, the German empire, the French empire, and the Portuguese empire. I was in Jakarta as I watched the Dutch leave their colony of Indonesia, leaving the destiny of the country in the hands of its citizens. I stood by the side of a national leader in the heart of Central Africa. They had just won their independence from a colonial empire; and he said to me, “We had rather govern ourselves poorly than to be subjected and governed well by a foreign power.”
This longing and passion for freedom has characterized humanity throughout human history. The story of the struggle of Israel under Moses to be free from the Egyptians is a part of the Word of God itself [Exodus 1:1-14:31]. The rebellion of Babylon against Assyria under Nabopolassar and his son Nebuchadnezzar is reflected in a large part of the Word of God [Nahum 2:1-3:9; Zephaniah 2:13-15]. What you call a philippic, a forensic confrontation, is from Demosthenes, the incomparable Athenian orator, as he assailed and opposed the conquests of Philip of Macedon. When I was a boy, some of us learned the declamation of Spartacus to the gladiators: a paean of praise of freedom. The French Revolution had as its triumvirate cry, “Liberty, freedom, and fraternity!” And there’s not a child in American history who is not familiar with the words of Patrick Henry in St. John’s church: “Give me freedom or give me death!”
Our country ‘tis of thee,
Sweet land of liberty, of thee we sing;
Land where our fathers died,
Land of the pilgrim’s pride,
From every mountainside let freedom ring!
[from “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” Samuel F. Smith]
The passion of men to be free—but the tragedy, stark and awesome, is: it is possible to win freedom and still be a slave. This occasioned the address of our Lord in the eighth chapter of the Gospel of John [John 8:31-36]. As you know from the two sermons past, the occasion was the Feast of Tabernacles [Leviticus 23:33-43]. They sat in booths; it was a celebration of the liberation of God’s children under Moses from the iron hand and oppressive ward of Egypt [Leviticus 23:42-43]. And during those days nationalism was running high. In every Jewish heart there was the aspiration that the nation once again might be at liberty. You see, Judea was an imperial province. There were two kinds of Roman provinces: one was senatorial, with a proconsul as its leader. If a province was quiet and peaceful, it was placed under the senate. Such a province, say, as the Roman province of Asia, with its capital at Ephesus, it was quiet, not revolutionary and volative. It was governed by a procurator who commanded the army. And it was galling to the Jew to come to his most sacred place of worship in the temple on Mt. Moriah, and there above him was the Tower of Antonio, a Roman bastion and the ubiquitous Roman soldiers looking down day and night into the sacred area. And those soldiers were everywhere. It was galling to the national spirit of the people of God.
They had a party, a national party in Jewry at that time called the Zealots. Simon Zelotes was one of the members of that party, whom Jesus called to be an apostle [Luke 6:15]. And so volative was the Jewish nation that in 66 AD that Jewish Zealot party precipitated the revolution—first in Galilee, then down in Judea—that ensued in the destruction of the nation in 70 AD. At that time, I am saying, nationalism, the longing to be free of the Roman yoke, was running high. And in the midst of that Feast of Tabernacles, celebrating the deliverance of Jewry, of the people Israel, from oppression in Egypt, Jesus spoke these words in the eighth chapter of the Gospel of John: “Ye shall know the truth, and it is the truth that shall make you free” [John 8:32]…”If the Son of Man make you free, ye shall be free ontos, indeed, verily, truly” [John 8:36]. What an amazing comment on the part of our Lord in that kind of a context. “It is the truth that will make you free” [John 8:32].
What is truth? A little later on in this eighteenth chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus is on trial before Pontius Pilate, the Roman procurator, and Jesus says to him, “My kingdom is not of this world: if My kingdom were of this world, then would My soldiers, My disciples fight. . .but now is not My kingdom from hence” [John 18:36]. And Pilate looking at this peasant from Galilee asks an amazing question: “You, are You a king?” And Jesus replies, “Thou sayest that I am a king.” In Greek that is the strongest affirmation possible, to repeat the question: “Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this purpose came I into the world, to bear witness to the truth” [John 18:37]. And Pilate asked, “What is truth?” [John 18:38] and turned away to the mob. Jesus never answered. What is truth? “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” [John 8:32].
May the Lord as He looks down on this service, may the Lord excuse and pardon me if I try to answer what He did not answer. What is truth? Maybe I cannot define it, but let me illustrate it. A fact, a description, a definition of a violin can be the dragging of horse hair over catgut and the ensuing vibrations. That is a violin. But that is not the truth of music. One time I sat in a concert listening to the great, incomparable violinist Fritz Kreisler. Oh, oh, oh! The truth of music, it moves in a different world. This young man playing the harp here this morning, the fact, the creation, the existence; but the truth of his music lies in the soul, in another world separate and apart.
What is truth? A man can stand before us, and his existence described in potassium, hydrogen, oxygen, magnesium; but the truth of the man lies in his soul created in the image of God [Genesis 1:27]. And may I apply that to our Lord who says, “I am the truth” [John 14:6]. What is truth? Seized Him they did, arrested Him they did [John 18:12-13], flagellate Him they did [Matthew 27:26], crucify Him they did [John 19:16-30], and thrust an iron spear into His side followed by a flow of blood and water [John 19:34]; but the truth of our Lord lives today. Truth: “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” [John 8:32].
Let us bring that to our hearts and our culture and our life today. Any freedom apart from our Lord is slavery. I remember when in the United States there was a drive for the presidency, and the theme and foundation of the appeal to the American electorate was, “The four freedoms: freedom from want, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of worship.” It is possible to have freedom from want and be a slave to indulgence, and excess, and appetite, and drunkenness. It is possible to have freedom of speech and be a slave to profanity.
I heard a man this last week say, “Pastor, you live in a sheltered world. You cannot begin to realize the dirty language and the cursing of women.” I could not believe my ears. When I think of godly women and their chaste speech and he says, “So many of them curse”; vile thought and speech.
Freedom of the press, but slaves to pornography and salacious literature, and to lying propaganda. Freedom of religion, but slaves to carnal desecration: God’s holy day made a holiday. Our Lord said, “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free [John 8:32] . . . And if the Son of Man shall make you free, ye shall be free ontos, indeed” [John 8:36]. If the Son of Man shall make you free, ye shall be free truly, wholly, completely, gloriously, triumphantly.
That kind of freedom is unassociated with and unaligned with stocks, and chains, and bars, and prisons. It’s the freedom of the soul, it’s the freedom of the heart, it’s the freedom of God. Daniel in his lions’ den [Daniel 6:16-22] was more free than the king of Babylon and Persia. Simon Peter in the jail [Acts 12:1-6] was more free than Herod Agrippa I who put him there. Paul and Silas in the Philippian jail [Acts 16:25-31] were more free than the Philippian jailer. John the sainted apostle remanded to the lonely isle of Patmos [Revelation 1:9-10] was more free than Emperor Domitian who consigned him there. The Christians in the Coliseum who were fed to the lions were more free than the Caesar and the populous who watched them bleed and die—freedom of the soul, freedom of the heart, freedom before God.
Stone walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage.
[from “To Althea, From Prison,” Richard Lovelace]
Our fathers chained in prisons dark,
Were still in heart and conscience free
How sweet would be their children’s fate,
If we, like them, could die for Thee.
[from “Faith of our fathers, living still,” Frederick W. Faber]
I dare say most of us have never heard of a marvelous, precious, incomparably gifted saint of God; her name Maria Guyon, a noble Frenchwoman, born in 1648. And during the years of her life, she suffered for the sake of Christ in prisons in France, including the notorious Bastille in Paris. She was a saint extraordinary. And in one of her prison sentences, served in Vincennes, France, she wrote these words:
A little bird I am,
Shut from the fields of air;
Yet, in my cage I sit and sing
To Him who placed me there—
Well pleased a prisoner to be,
Because, my Lord, it pleaseth Thee.
Nought have I else to do;
I sing the whole day long;
And He whom most I love to please,
Doth listen to my song;
He caught and bound my wandering wing,
But still He bends to hear me sing.
My cage confines me round;
Abroad I cannot fly;
But, though my wing is closely bound,
My heart it does not die;
My prison walls cannot control
The flight, the freedom of my soul.
Oh! it is good to soar
Beyond these bolts and bars above,
To Him whose purpose I adore,
Whose providence I love;
And in Thy mighty will to find
The joy, the freedom of the mind!
[“A Little Bird I Am,” Maria Guyon]
God’s truth makes us free though bound in chains and prisons dark. “If the Son of Man shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed” [John 8:36].
May I close? The true freedom is to be a slave of Christ. Romans 1:1, Philippians 1:1, Titus 1:1, each begins like this: “Paulos doulos Iesou Christou, Paul,” this King James Version is nice, “Paul, a servant”; doulos is the word for “slave.” “Paul, a slave of Jesus Christ”—a voluntary commitment, something of the heart and of the soul.
I am a free man at the piano. I would be a free man at the harp. But the master musician is a slave and a slave and a slave to the hours and the days of his musicianship. I am a free man at the Olympic track. But if I were seeking to win a gold medal, I’d be a slave. Freedom to choose the world in which I live. A fish out of the sea held up in the air could be free, or a bird sunk in the water could be free, but it’s in the wrong world. A child of God, a Christian, in the sensual world can be free; but he’s in the wrong world. “Be not ye unequally yoked together . . . for what concord hath Christ with Belial? or light with darkness? [2 Corinthians 6:14-15]. Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord . . . and I will be your God, and ye shall be My people” [2 Corinthians 6:16-18]; free, but bound to God in an everlasting bondage; in His service, in His will, in His work, and in His truth.
A kite cut away from the string is free; but it cannot fly. A train confined by two rails, taken away can be free; but it cannot run. Your automobile without steering wheel and brakes is free: but it’s not useful. A leaf attached to a tree is not free. In one of these modern poems:
I watched the leaves that softly fell
Into the streets and vacant yards
I saw the wind begin to blow a gentle jig,
And all the liberated leaves went dancing to the merry tune
They looked as though they were so free,
But did they know they’re actually dead?
[Author and Work Unknown]
We can cut the strings and the cords that bind us to God; but we are then dead. “If the Son of Man shall make you free, ye shall be free ontos, indeed, truly, actually, wholly” [John 8:36]. ‘Tis a wonderful thing to see a man bind himself as a slave to God.
I attended, in these years gone by, the mission in Nigeria, West Africa. Once a year all of the missionaries and the personnel of hospital and school and church come together in what they call their mission. I was seated there in that annual mission in Lagos; I was seated by Dr. Theron Rankin, who was executive leader of our Foreign Mission Board. Seated there by that dedicated missionary himself—had spent his life in China—seated by that dedicated man I listened to a handsome young physician, doctor, give the report of the hospital in Ogbomosho. And as I sat there and listened to that brilliant young doctor, Theron Rankin turned to me and said, “Get a good look at him. After the benediction, I want to tell you about him.” Well, I listened to that handsome, brilliant, young physician as he gave the report for the year of God’s blessings upon their ministry to the sick. And after the benediction, Dr. Rankin said to me, “That young man that you just saw was the most brilliant student in the medical school. And in his senior year, in his senior year, clinic after clinic and medical center after medical center on the Eastern seaboard of America sought by every inducement that they could make to get the young man to join their medical clinic. But,” he said, “he persisted in avowing that God had called him to be a missionary; and that’s the young man you’ve just heard.” And the salary of the missionary at that time was one thousand dollars a year. Anyway, the young man came here to see me on one of his furloughs; he came to Dallas and to our dear church. And I presented him to this congregation. And when I did, I said, “Dear people, I’m not worthy to stand in his presence.”
Freedom to worship God, to love Christ, to serve in His name: “If the Son of Man shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed” [John 8:36]; freedom of the soul, of life, of the purpose and calling of God [1 Corinthians 7:22].
In this moment when we sing our hymn of appeal, to answer God’s call in your heart, in your life; a family, welcome; a couple, welcome; one somebody you, welcome. Make the decision now in your heart and in a moment when we stand to sing, on the first note of the first stanza, “Pastor, God has called me, He has spoken to me, and here I stand.” Down one of these stairways, down one of these aisles, make the decision now in your heart, and on the first note of the first stanza, come. Do it, make it now, while we stand and while we sing.