Johns Hopkins University, Ottawa University, and Southern Methodist University all have as their motto the Latin translation of “The truth shall set you free”: Veritas Liberabit Vos.
This is one of Jesus’ most well-known, yet also most misunderstood, sayings.
In John 8:30, John tells us, “As He spoke these words, many believed in Him.”
The words, “many believed in Him” are the same as what we find in John 3:16. Since whoever believes in Him has everlasting life, we know that the people Jesus is addressing in v 31 are believers.
Yet many commentators say that neither v 30 nor v 31 refers to “true” believers.i Why? They have four reasons:
- What Jesus went on to say about abiding,
- What He said about being His disciples,
- What He said about being set free, and
- The ensuing acrimonious dialogue in the rest of the chapter.
But that involves a misunderstanding of all four of these points.
Abiding. To abide is to remain or to dwell with. It is found in John 15 and in John’s first epistle. Believers are commanded to remain in Christ’s Word and to remain in fellowship with Him. But that is neither guaranteed nor is it a condition of everlasting life. It is a condition of discipleship.
We know from 1 John 1:7-9 that abiding in His words means not only that we are walking in the light of His words (1 John 1:7), but that we also confess our sins when we become aware of them (1 John 1:9). If we are walking in the light, we do not deny our sin. We admit it, and that is part of the transformation process which occurs as we abide in Christ.
Being disciples of Jesus. A disciple is not the same thing as a believer, as these verses clearly show. A disciple is a learner. If you are a believer who is in Christian instruction, then you are a disciple of Jesus. If, however, you stopped following Christ and learning more about Him, you would remain a believer, but you would no longer be a disciple, a learner. To be a disciple of Jesus, one must abide in His teachings.
Being set free. The issue here is not being set free from eternal condemnation. The issue is being set free from bondage to sin, as vv 33-36 show.
Unbelievers are enslaved to sin, and if they do not believe in Jesus before they die, then they go to the grave still enslaved. See John 8:21, 24. Compare Rom 6:18.
When a person comes to faith in Christ, he is no longer a slave of sin in his position. He has a new master. But in order to know that freedom in his experience, the believer must abide in Christ and in His teachings. Compare Rom 6:19.
The conflict in verses 33-59. Those who argued with Jesus in verses 33 and following were not the believers He had just addressed. In verses 45-46, the Lord specifically said that these people did not believe in Him. Yet the people He addressed in verses 31-32 were believers.
On my written exams for my doctorate at DTS, I was asked how I could explain that vv 30 and 31 indicate that Jesus was speaking to believers, and yet vv 33-59 and especially vv 45-46 directly indicate that He was speaking to unbelievers. How can you reconcile this seeming discrepancy?
The answer is simple. There was a big crowd of unbelievers, and some of them came to faith. He addressed the new believers in vv 31-32, and he addressed the unbelievers in vv 33-59.
Richard Lenski, a Lutheran scholar who died in 1936, in his commentary on John, wrote,
Jesus has a word for [the new believers] in particular. No sooner does he utter it than the hostile crowd of Jews raises further objection. They act just as they did from the start: they pick at some point to which to object (compare v. 22 and 25; also v. 13 and 19). John does not need to say in v. 33 who these objectors are, for we have heard them from the very start…The clash becomes more and more intense until these Jews take up stones, and Jesus leaves them (p. 628).
The Lord’s point is that believers are not automatically set free from sin’s bondage in our experience. We must abide in Jesus’ teachings in order to experience that freedom.
The Bible teaches that following Christ is accomplished by abiding in His teachings. Paul said as much in Rom 12:2. We are transformed by the renewing of our minds. Discipleship is a battle for our minds. Paul said the spiritual believer is one who has “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2:16).
In order to be a disciple of Jesus, we must abide in His words.
Discipleship is not identical to salvation. That can be clearly seen in John 8:30-32. It is also clear in Romans 6-8 and in 1 John and in the Book of Galatians.
What a powerful truth the Lord expressed in John 8:32. The truth shall set you free.
Man was created to be free. True freedom allows us to glorify God and thereby enjoy fullness of life. When we are born again, we are set free from sin’s bondage in our position. But in order to experience that freedom, we must abide in Christ and His teachings.
If we are open and honest before Christ and walk in the light of His Word, then we will be fulfilled, happy, and contented, though not necessarily healthy, and wealthy. If we abide in Christ, then we will be ready for His soon return as John said in 1 John 2:28, “And now, little children, abide in Him, that when He appears, we may have confidence and not be ashamed before Him at His coming.”
i See, for example, Ed Blum (John, BKC, pp. 304-305), Leon Morris (John, p. 404), Raymond Brown (John, vol. 1, p. 354), and D. A. Carson (John, pp. 346-48).