This morning in our series on British Values, we come to the third in the Government's list of four, namely Individual Liberty.
The two we have considered so far are Democracy and the Rule of Law. In two weeks time we will be thinking about the fourth, Mutual Respect and Tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs. But this morning it is Individual Liberty.
So without any more introduction we will be looking at John 8.31-36 that gives us something Jesus said about liberty. And my headings this morning, as we focus on our subject and this passage, are first, Jesus Christ, Truth and Liberty; secondly, Illusions and Universal Bondage; and, thirdly, Real Freedom.
So first, Jesus Christ, Truth and Liberty.
Look at verses 31-32 of John 8:
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."
The Western concept of individual liberty at its best is the result of centuries of European history directly influenced by the Christian faith. And the Christian faith includes this teaching of Jesus, namely that freedom (or liberty) results from knowing the truth, and such knowledge comes from being a true disciple of Jesus Christ. And being a true disciple means by faith you "abide" in Christ's word. You, as it were, immerse yourself in all Jesus says (and does and is). But as we shall see these particular Jews were not true disciples; they just had believed.
And that promise of freedom to those who truly trust in Christ, however you define freedom, has been proved true in history. For Christ's promise is not only true spiritually but also socially and politically. For the Western ideal of liberty is a direct result of the beliefs, writings and activities of Christians. On the one hand, there was the influence of the Puritans in both Britain and America following the 17th century Wars of Religion. On the other hand, at the end of the 18th and early 19th centuries there was the work of British evangelicals under the leadership of William Wilberforce. It was their lengthy but finally successful campaigns that eradicated the wicked slave trade and then slavery itself throughout the British Empire, which in the 19th century covered a significant part of the world.
Interestingly the French sociologist, de Tocqueville, after a visit to the young American republic in the early 1830s, saw this connection between liberty and the Christian faith so clearly. After quoting from several State charters, he wrote:
"in America, religion [referring to the Christian religion] is the road to knowledge, and the observance of the divine law leads men to civil freedom."
But you say, "all that was in the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries in Britain and America. What about the 20th century?"
Well, this Christian ideal of liberty was still alive in the first half of the 20th century. We know it was in 1944. For as the Second World War was drawing to a close, but with Hitler still undefeated, there were serious discussions around the world on the fundamental values that would shape the post-war period.
However, in the UK the national discussion focused then, just like it is doing now, on education and especially the great Education Act of 1944. But then, unlike now, the majority of British people were convinced that the British values we had fought Hitler over, and now wanted fostered in our schools, were based on (and needed to be based on), Christian beliefs. And they were convinced that if you lose that Christian dimension, you will lose those values that include this principle of liberty.
Listen to Lord Selbourne. He was summing up for the Government in the concluding debate on the Education Bill in the House of Lords; and these were his final words:
"The real enemy is … the naked materialistic paganism, which has reared its head in Europe to a height unknown for a 1000 years, and which threatens Christendom today, and with it our civilization, our homes and our people. I trust and pray that this Bill … may lead us to an England that is not only better educated … but also an England which allows, as never before, the principle of liberty, justice, toleration and discipline on which this realm depends, and which themselves are founded on the teaching of the Church of Christ."
So much for the 16th to the 20th centuries that confirm Jesus' teaching as regards political freedom. What then about the 21st century? Things are, indeed, now very different.
And that brings us to our second heading, Illusions and Universal Bondage
Look at verses 33-34 of our chapter:
They [the Jews] 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 commits sin is a slave to sin."
Jesus here is implying that the people he is talking to have an illusion of being free, whereas in reality they are in a condition of slavery, namely slavery to sin. And that is the most serious of all slaveries, for its wages and outcome, as the Bible teaches, are death, and not only moral and physical death but spiritual and eternal death which Jesus describes in the most fearful of terms as hell. And those wages come to people, Jesus says, who in effect reject him, the divine Son of the one God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit and put themselves in his place.
And as you read on in John 8 you discover that these people Jesus is talking to were doing just that. They were rejecting Jesus. And Jesus could see into their hearts and he knew they were slaves to sin and (verse 37) wanting to kill him. So Jesus having just stressed the positive regarding freedom, now hammers home the corresponding negative truth, namely that rejecting him is the way to a loss of freedom both in this world and eternally. However, people who were rejecting Christ cannot even see the loss of freedom in this world. For when Jesus talks about the truth making you free, they think it irrelevant. They say, verse 33:
"We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone..."
But how wrong they were! As individuals living under Roman authority they certainly weren't living freely. And as a nation of the "offspring of Abraham", there had certainly been captivity in Egypt and the Babylonian captivity. So there was a level of delusion about their political judgments. And the same happens today with people who reject Christ. However, Christ here in John 8 is concerned less with political judgments than wrong spiritual judgments. So he says in verse 34 to Christ-rejecting people:
"Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin."
How relevant that is for the 21st century Western world! For there has been a frightening rejection of Christ in the second half of the 20th and early 21st centuries, certainly in Europe. And with this rejection of the gospel, predictably there has been an erosion of Individual Liberty. It is as if those who are slaves to sin, can't help spreading slavery themselves, or diminishing liberty, as they obey their master, who, as Jesus points out later in this chapter, is the devil.
Certainly we are losing freedoms in the West. Following the earlier godless fascisms of Marx, Lenin and Stalin and then the Nazis, the West now is experiencing at one extreme illiberal Islamic fascism (which few deny – the violence is so obvious) and at the other extreme Secular fascism (which to some is less obvious). But this extreme secularism is eroding Christian freedoms by requiring Christians and others of good will to support, promote and teach what the Bible and mainstream Christianity clearly teaches is wrong and evil. And this secular extremism is in our own Government, in our schools and in other organizations. So on our own doorsteps there are attempts to destroy the freedom of the individual conscience which is a fundamental historic British value.
But how has this all gone wrong? Well, there have been various drifts and shifts towards godlessness over the last three centuries. But in the 1960s there was a sea change. So by the 21st century even old fashioned godlessness with its rational certainties was giving way to an anarchic so called post-modernism. This is where, for a host or reasons, people are saying there is no truth only truths; no principles only preferences; and so nothing is fixed for all is in flux. By the 21st century, therefore, there had evolved a philosophy, articulated only by a few but unconsciously absorbed by many, that the only thing you can be certain about is yourself.
That has led to what is now being called "the Religion of Me", where unashamedly you put your human self in the place of God. And that, as a simple matter of fact, has led to gross illiberalism.
We at JPC have experienced that first hand. Our Guide leader, Glynis Mackie, had her Guide group (among the oldest in the city and, yes, highly regarded by parents) threatened with closure. This was because our Guide leaders rightly refuse to substitute the word 'self' for the word 'God' in the Guide Promise. Thank God, the threats were withdrawn after Glynis gained massive media support. But the most common illiberality is over sex and sexuality. Go to the Christian Institute website for countless numbers of instances.
I first realized that things were profoundly wrong way back in the 1990s when a local politician said that another local politician was "obscene" to suggest that sexual intercourse should be reserved for heterosexual lifelong monogamous marriage. And this politician labelled "obscene" happened to be a medical doctor who knew that such an ethic is in the best interest of individuals, families and the State. And things have gone from bad to worse. For example, last year our Government threatened the Archbishop of Kenya with the loss of British aid for suggesting in a sermon in Nairobi Cathedral that marriage is under threat in Kenya externally by the promotion of homosexual marriage in the UK, and internally by the promotion of polygamy in Kenya.
But two points need to be understood about all this – one very simple, the other more complicated.
First, note that of the nearly 200 lands represented in the United Nations, only 20 or so have adopted some version of same-sex marriage or same-sex unions. And this has been written recently (I quote):
"Despite intense forms of bribery and extortion now practiced by the United States and the European Union, few others are likely to join 'the West' in this latest surrender to the sexual revolution."
Carlson, A, The Majority Report
But secondly, it is important to understand how this new "Religion of Me" works and the illiberal power of this new orthodoxy about sex and sexuality. For this power generates a visceral hatred against the majority in the world who say that humanity suffers when there is a sexual free-for-all.
The point is this. This new religion has rejected the Christian common sense understanding of reality. That is of a world out there in which God, our creator, has placed us and in which we need to live together in ordered liberty (not absolute liberty) and according to his rules. Instead "the Religion of Me" says that it is not God who is at the centre of my universe, but "me".
However, what consequentially also is being rejected includes the truth that men and women are of infinite worth because they are made in God's image, as the Bible teaches. But in "the Religion of Me" how then do you have any significance at all so you are not just a chunk of meat, when you reject God?
Well, the irrational pagan 21st century solution is to say that your dignity and worth comes from you yourself being able to create your own world and morals and pleasures. And that is why your absolute individual liberty is so important. For you must be at liberty to do anything you desire provided there is no immediate short term apparent harm to someone else. For such unhindered fulfilled desires give you, it is believed, human significance and human worth. So no laws or morals must stop you.
And as the most unique thing to you is your body, you must be free to do as you wish with it. So science must (if it can and if necessary) change nature to help you. For example, if you don't want to be Edward, society must help you to be Edwina by drugs and surgery, and the law and everyone else must co-operate and refer to you as her and not him. And woe betide any who believe that there are limits to what science should do.
Also all this is to be enshrined in law. So in the United States, its Supreme Court some years ago ruled that the individual has the right to define the nature (I quote) "of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life." These were the actual words used by the US legal establishment to express the essence of what in the 21st century it means, in the godless West, to live now in a free society.
But Christ says, this is not a free society. This is an enslaved society living with an illusion of freedom. For the reality is that you are not the creator with power to determine right and wrong. To suggest that you are is not only the ultimate blasphemy and idolatry but the ultimate foolishness. However, there is a way out and a way back.
And that brings us to our third heading, Real Freedom.
Look at verses 35-36:
The slave does not remain in the house for ever; the son remains for ever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.
Verse 35 is probably a one verse parable, drawing attention to the insecurity of slavery. And slavery to sin is so insecure. Yes, there are pleasures in sin. But, says the Bible, they are only "fleeting pleasures" (Heb 11.25). They are not for long or for ever. There will be a day of reckoning.
So what is this real freedom or liberty that Christ offers? First, it includes political freedom as history has proved. But, secondly, and most importantly, it is spiritual freedom and the dealing with sin in the human heart. For it is the sinful human heart that causes the political problems politicians find so hard to solve. And all of us need this freedom. That is why verse 36 is such Good News, namely that Christ can and does set us free, and "really" free – that in the original is the meaning of "indeed": "So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed."
And this freedom is the new freedom and life that comes through saving faith in Jesus Christ. For by nature we are all slaves to sin. Contrary to some modern thinkers, the Bible and common sense teach that we are not born good. Rather we are born inheriting the fallen condition of the first man and woman. So it is not sinning that makes you sinful. No, you sin because you are sinful. And in that natural sinful condition there is also a spiritual bondage of the human will. That is not to say you don't have the freedom to make choices in terms of what you think is right or wrong. You do have that freedom. But because you are sinful, you don't naturally choose God's way.
However, the good news is that your old sinful nature can be changed through the freedom Christ offers. For Christ not only died in your place on the Cross to set you free from the guilt of sin. But also by his Resurrection and the power of the Holy Spirit he gives you new life and power over sin.
Who this morning needs to pray (for the first time if necessary), in the words of a famous hymn (Rock of Ages), that Christ would,
"… be of sin the double cure, cleanse me from its guilt and power"?
So Christ sets you free from the guilt of sin by his Cross. And the power of Christ's new life sets your heart free so that as a true believer you want to do God's will in a way you didn't before. Sure, you won't be perfect until heaven. But this is the true way to the individual liberty that really matters.
I must conclude.
I do so with some words of Paul to meditate on. They are verses 17-18 of Romans 6:
But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.