Commentary on John 8:31-36
It is hard to miss the theme of freedom in our text from John.
And since this is Reformation Sunday, it useful to remember that freedom was a key concern for many of the Reformers. One of Martin Luther’s most famous writings is “The Freedom of a Christian,” which he wrote in 1520 just before he was excommunicated by the church.1 Preachers might find their proclamation well-served by reviewing this classic work. Freedom is also a slippery word. It can mean a multitude of different things and proclaimers who focus on freedom need to clear a path if the biblical word of liberation is to be clearly heard.
Confused by Freedom
Probably the first task is to help listeners understand the difference between commonly held views of freedom and how the word is being used in the gospel of John. In fact, our text from today indicates that Jesus’ original hearers were also perplexed by his stress on freedom. When Jesus tells “the Jews who had believed in him” that the truth will make them free (John 8:31-32), they are confused and puzzled because as “descendants of Abraham” they had never been enslaved to anyone and therefore his talk of needing to be freed was nonsensical (John 8:33).
Similarly, it is easy for Christians in Western nations to have overlapping views on freedom. For some the mention of freedom is closely tied with the political realm. Here freedom is closely intertwined with democracy and the ability to elect our own representatives. Of course, political freedom is a great gift and this should be regularly emphasized to Christians in the West. Sometimes it is easy to take a cynical path and assume that all political systems are more or less the same. After spending six months in China in 2011, I can assure you that nothing is further from the truth! At the same time, preachers who touch on this theme would do well to remind their listeners that with the gift of political freedom comes the ongoing responsibility to work for a just society.
Others will link freedom closely to the economic sphere. Freedom here connotes the great range of choices before many consumers. A walk down an aisle in Wal-Mart can almost paralyze a shopper. Free market economies mean that average citizens enjoy an array of goods and services unimaginable a century earlier. Millions have been lifted out of poverty (again, see China in the last thirty years) by the “miracle” of the market. Of course, a shadow side accompanies economic freedom. People tend to be reduced to “consumers” and often the natural world is misused in the name of economic progress.
Of Human Bondage
But these are preliminary comments. Because of confusion about “freedom” the association with politics and economics should probably be mentioned. However, preaching on this text needs to be clear regarding Christian freedom. Jesus makes a contrast between slavery and freedom. The former indicates our bondage to sin: “everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:34). Here we must be careful to avoid the notion that sin is only an action and not the reflection of an underlying condition. Our acts of sin are a reflection of a prior state of alienation from God. An addict may steal or lie in the name of his habit but the real problem is not the theft or deception. The main issue is the enslavement or bondage to the craving for the drug.
And what is our underlying problem? We reject the truth about ourselves: “If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). In other words, we convince ourselves that there is nothing really wrong with us. All we need is some good advice and a self-help manual or two and things will be fine. We stubbornly persist in the idea that we are fundamentally in control. Surely our church-going and charitable giving and general all-around respectability is sufficient!
In this way of thinking responsibility for our freedom rests with us. But this makes hash out of John 8:36 for there we are told “if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” Apparently we are not able to liberate ourselves. The text clearly claims we need a liberator.
Of Christian Freedom
The key to freedom is Christ: for freedom Christ has set us free (Galatians 5:1). And the best preaching does not offer liberation or make it conditional upon the response of the listener. It is not held up as a doctrine that needs to be “believed” or a story that needs to be “applied.” It does not move quickly and nervously to all the things freedom is “for”: the work for justice, the care for the poor, the need to tend to creation. All such activity is laudable and such things can be stressed in other parts of worship or in future sermons.
But, above all, be sure to announce loudly and clearly that the day of liberation has come! Now! Declare unmistakably that the captives have been delivered. The proclaimer must announce with boldness that freedom has happened and that there is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1). Preach with urgency so that your listeners hear the most important news they can possibly hear: the foes of sin and death have been routed by Christ crucified and risen. The Son has made them free and they are free indeed (John 8:36).
1See new translation and introduction in Martin Luther, The Freedom of a Christian, tr. by Mark D. Tranvik (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008).