Great Texts of the Bible
Truth and Freedom
And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.… If therefore the Son shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed.—John 8:32; John 8:36.
1. In the text we find united two of the greatest words in our language. There are perhaps no words in the language which have been so variously interpreted, or around which the conflict of opinion has raged more fiercely; no words which have had greater power to call forth the energy and devotion of human hearts, or which, on the other hand, have more often been employed to give an ideal colouring to base and selfish ends. How many rebels against just law, or wholesome moral restraint, have masked their caprice under the name of liberty; how many fires of persecution have been kindled in the pretended cause of truth! And, on the other hand, what noble battles have been fought for the most sacred interests of humanity, which were identified with these two names! We should blot out half of the heroic pages of history if we were to erase the deeds done, and the sufferings endured, for Truth and Freedom. In the text the two words are used to throw light upon each other, and, as it were, to exclude the false interpretations which might be given to each taken by itself. That is Truth which makes me really free; that is the genuine and only valuable Freedom which is based upon the Truth.
2. Let us recall the occasion on which the words were spoken. To some who had attached themselves (slightly, as it would seem) to Him, the Lord had said, “If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” Instead of joyfully accepting, they resented this gracious encouraging word of His, this promise, “Ye shall be made free,” and rejoined in displeasure—“We were never in bondage to any man.” How strangely men are often blinded by pride and presumption! Listen to these proud Jews, “We were never in bondage to any man”; while yet the whole past history of their nation was the record of one bondage following hard on another, they for their sins having come at one time or another under the yoke of almost every people round about them. They had been, by turns, in bondage to the Canaanites, in bondage to the Philistines, in bondage to the Syrians, in bondage to the Chaldeans; then again to the Græco-Syrian kings; and even at the very moment when this indignant disclaimer was uttered, the signs of a foreign rule, of the domination of a stranger, everywhere met their eye. They bought and sold with Roman money; they paid tribute to a Roman emperor; a Roman governor sat in their judgment hall; a Roman garrison occupied the fortress of their city. And yet, with all this plain before their eyes, brought home to their daily, hourly, experience, they angrily put back the promise of Christ, “The truth shall make you free,” as though it conveyed an insult: How sayest Thou, Ye shall be made free? We were never in bondage to any man.
3. These words of the Jews grew out of a total misunderstanding of the freedom of which Christ was speaking. It was not, in the first place, freedom from the yoke of the stranger, it was not deliverance from the tyranny of Rome, that Christ was promising here to as many as continued in His word, but freedom from the yoke of sin, deliverance from the bondage of corruption, from the tyranny of their own passions and desires. It was this that Christ promised, for it was this that He came from heaven to impart. That other freedom might and would follow in course of time; for men who are free inwardly are sure, sooner or later, to achieve an outer freedom as well. It was not, however, of this that Christ was speaking here, but of quite another freedom; and therefore, not caring to note that angry rejoinder of theirs, or to entangle Himself in controversy on so unprofitable a theme, but lifting up the whole question between Himself and them into a higher sphere, He replied, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin.” Every sinner, He would say, is the servant, or slave, of the sin which he commits—is in bondage to it, and needs liberty, even the liberty which I, the Truth, alone am capable of giving him; which he can receive from no other hands save only from Mine. If the Son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed; otherwise, you are slaves and servants, and such must continue to the end. The text, therefore, deals with—
I. The Need of Liberation.
II. The Truth that Liberates.
III. The Liberty that the Truth gives.
The Need of Liberation
Christ’s aim was to make all men free. He saw around Him servitude in every form—man in slavery to man, and race to race; His own countrymen in bondage to the Romans—slaves of both Jewish and Roman masters, frightfully oppressed; men trembling before priestcraft; and those who were politically and ecclesiastically free, in worse bondage still—the rich and rulers slaves to their own passions. Conscious of His inward Deity and of His Father’s intentions, He, without hurry, without the excitement which would mark the mere earthly Liberator, calmly said, “Ye shall be free.”
1. First, then, we have to face this fact, that we are in bondage.—The Jews felt their political position acutely; they writhed under foreign dominion, and again and again broke out into rebellion, seeking an external freedom by casting off the hated Roman yoke. It was intolerable to them to be considered the slaves of Cæsar, and the most horrible scenes attended their several patriotic uprisings. The purpose of our Lord was to convince them of an underlying slavery, which accounted for their political servitude, and to confer upon them the spiritual liberty which contains the potency and promise of all freedoms. The essential slavery is interior; political coercion may imprison the body or intellectual error degrade the mind, but by far the most abject and fatal bondage is that of the soul under the dominion of ignorance, passion, and wilfulness.
(1) The bondage of the mind is one source and method of the essential slavery, the bondage of the mind being the tyranny of materialism. Our Lord often speaks of sin as unbelief, unbelief in the spiritual universe—blindness to God, to the spirituality of the law, to the rewards and retributions of the life beyond; and this unbelief, blocking out the spiritual universe, leaves us slaves of the senses. We are caged in by the body, limited by the bars of circumstance, victims of the material, the worldly, and the temporal. The carnally-minded may fancy themselves possessed of a large liberty, but earth and time at their widest are narrow to the spirit. To be governed from below is the essential slavery. To obey only animal impulses, to seek sensuous pleasure, to hope for nothing beyond social promotion, to find our motive and end in earthly things, and, in a word, to surrender ourselves to the fatalism of circumstance, is an infinitely worse slavery than to be bound hand and foot. In this cruel bondage thousands live and die without one great thought, principle, or hope in their maimed and fettered life.
A recent writer upon the London Zoological Gardens refers to “the spacious aviary” provided for the eagles. Spacious aviary! One would like to know what the eagles think of that. Surely the amplest artificial horizon is narrow and the loftiest dome mean to creatures born to range the skies and seek the sun. The noble birds must feel in dull, strange ways the loss of their native heaven; the most spacious aviary can only grievously and mysteriously fret them. So the world, and the things of the world, painfully cramp the creature in whose heart God has set eternity; his cage is narrow even when the stars are its gilded wires. It is said that a bird of the north, confined in a yard, and longing for his arctic haunts, has been known in spring to migrate from the southern to the northern side of his narrow confines. And, however men doom themselves to the straitened life of sense, the instinct of eternity pathetically asserts itself within absurd limits, and distracts the soul with morbid repinings.1 [Note: W. L. Watkinson, The Bane and the Antidote, 228.]
(2) The bondage of the will is another part of the essential slavery. All see what an awful tyranny sin is when it has once become the habit of life. Some kinds of sin are coarser, others less offensive, but thousands who have committed sin find themselves miserably incapable of shaking off its tyranny; they are victims of vanity, envy, covetousness, ambition, temper, impatience, or sensual indulgence, and they struggle unavailingly with the despotism which holds them down. He who unwittingly grasps the handles of an electrifying-machine soon writhes in pain and shrieks for deliverance. Why does he not let go the torturing thing? He cannot; he is at the mercy of the operator, and is the butt of the crowd. It is thus with multitudes who have committed sin: they are its slaves; they are astonished at themselves, ashamed of themselves, filled with grief and remorse, yet utterly unable to break the infernal spell. There is often more hope for the poor wretch agonizing in the tentacles of the devil-fish than there is for some of these victims of vice.
In the Bay of Naples are several islands famous for their beauty. The sky of infinite depth and purity; the sea pure as the sky, and rivalling its manifold tints of ever-changing glory; the landscapes rich with the silver of the olive and the purple of the vine; the atmosphere full of the balm of flowers; and the horizon studded with picturesque spots, as a royal girdle with jewels, conspire to create a vision of delight. The Greek and Roman in their quest of loveliness and pleasure built their palaces here, and to this focus of colour and joy the modern lovers of beauty hasten as butterflies to roses. Now one of these fairy islands is the property of the Italian Government, and its only inhabitants are convicts. How little to them all this matchless scenery! Fettered, watched, driven, scourged, they can only be sickened by the splendour and irritated by the lavish treasures of earth and heaven. Is it not much like this with unregenerate man in regard to the blessings of life and the glory of the world?1 [Note: W. L. Watkinson, The Bane and the Antidote, 235.]
(3) The bondage of the conscience is part of the slavery of sin. Men are built in three storeys, so to speak. Down at the bottom, and to be kept there, are inclinations, passions, lust, desires, all which are but blind aimings after their appropriate satisfaction, without any question as to whether the satisfaction is right or wrong; and above that a dominant will which is meant to control, and above that a conscience. That is the pyramid; and as the sunshine illumines the gilded top of some spire, so the shining apex, the conscience, is illumined when the light of God falls upon it. The commission of sin defiles the conscience, and conscience degrades us into convicts and cowards. The sense of dignity, freedom, and confidence is lost in the act of transgression, and with the consciousness of guilt comes fear and bondage. And is not life to the unregenerate man a harsh and gloomy servitude? We look upon God as “a hard Master.” Is not that the natural conception of God? The heathen look upon Him in this light and represent Him by terrible images in their temples; and although we do not set up ghastly idols, our pessimistic conceptions of the world’s Creator and Ruler are equally terrible. We think of Him, and are troubled. We look upon human duty as inequitable and exhausting, and fulfil our task with the discontent and bitterness of a slave. Finally, we look forward to the issues of life with deep misgiving. Through fear of death we are all our lifetime subject to bondage. At the bottom of all our pessimism, abjectness, and hopelessness is the consciousness of sin and guilt. Never did Shakespeare write a greater, deeper line than the one he puts into the mouth of Hamlet—“Thus conscience does make cowards of us all.” The unintelligible wretchedness of human life and the vague terrors which haunt us are not in any wise mental in their origin and strength and to be abolished by fuller intellectual light; they arise in the accusing conscience, and here primarily must our bondage and cowardice be dealt with.
The evils that we do, and that we cherish undone in our hearts, are like the wreckers on some stormy coast, who begin operations by taking the tongue out of the bell that hangs on the buoy, and putting out the light that beams from the beacon. Sin chokes conscience; and so the worse a man is, the less he feels himself to be bad; and while a saint will be tortured with agonies of remorse for some slight peccadillo, a brigand will add a murder or two to his list, and wipe his mouth and say, “I have done no harm.” We are ignorant of our sins because we bribe our consciences, because we drug our consciences, and will not attend to the facts of our own spiritual being.1 [Note: A. Maclaren.]
2. The second thing that claims attention is that we may be unconscious of our bondage. This unconsciousness may be due to our never having consciously enjoyed freedom, or it may be due to the long time that has elapsed since we lost it, so that slavery has become a second nature.
(1) We may never have opened our hearts to the joy of being free. There is nothing about us that is more remarkable and more awful than the power that we have, by not attending to something, of making that something practically non-existent. The great searchlights that they now have on battleships will fling a beam of terrible revealing power on one small segment of the vast circle of the sea; and all the rest, though it may be filled with the enemy’s fleet, will be lying in darkness. So just because we will not think of the facts of our slavery to sin, the facts are non-existent as far as we are concerned. Surely it is not a thing worthy of a man never to go down into the deep places of his own heart and see the ugly things that coil and wrestle and swarm and multiply there.
Ezekiel was once led to a place where, through a hole broken in the wall, there was shown him an inner chamber, on the walls of which were painted the hideous idols of the heathen. And there, in the presence of the foul shapes, stood venerable priests and official dignitaries of Israel, with their censers in their hands, and their backs to the oracle of God. There is a chamber like that in all our hearts; and it would be a great deal better that we should go down, through the hole in the wall, and see it than that we should live, as so many of us do, in this fool’s paradise of ignorance of our own sin.1 [Note: A. Maclaren.]
(2) The unconsciousness may be due to the force of habit. A slave may be only all the more a slave that he is insensible to his bondage. There is no sense of bondage when the instincts of freedom are unrepressed; but neither is there any when despotism has lasted long enough to kill them out. A man’s nature may have become so thoroughly habituated to slavery that he has ceased to know or think of anything better. On the other hand, the very consciousness of bondage is a kind of emancipation. He who has begun to know and feel the irksomeness of his limits, is already, in a sense, beyond them. There must be in him at least some measure of, and sympathy with, what transcends the bounds that hem him in, before he can feel them as bounds. Pain is the proof that vitality is not extinct. Shame is the witness that the soul is not utterly lost to goodness. And the blush on the slave’s cheek and the sense of degradation in his heart are at least the sign that he is not all a slave.
In the closing stanzas of that most graphic yet touching poem, “The Prisoner of Chillon,” Byron well expresses the deadness of soul, the hopelessness, and even carelessness concerning life and freedom, begotten in those who have too long worn the chains of slavery. For the canker of such fetters eats more deeply into the soul than into the enchained limbs.
It might be months, or years, or days,
I kept no count, I took no note,
I had no hope my eyes to raise
And clear them of their dreary mote;
At last men came to set me free,
I asked not why, and reck’d not where,
It was at length the same to me,
Fetter’d or fetterless to be
I learn’d to love despair.
And thus when they appear’d at last,
And all my bonds aside were cast,
These heavy walls to me had grown
A hermitage—and all my own!
And half I felt as they were come
To tear me from a second home.
The Truth that Liberates
All truth gives freedom. We hardly need to prove this in the present day. We know that in every sphere ignorance is bondage, and knowledge is power. So sure are we of it that we fearlessly argue from effect to cause. That which fetters is not true, that which frees us and gives us power cannot be false.
1. The craving for liberty lies deep in human nature, and many means have been tried to satisfy it.
(1) Force has been tried. Wherever force has been used on the side of freedom we honour it; the names which we pronounce in boyhood with enthusiasm are those of the liberators of nations and the vindicators of liberty. Israel had had such—Joshua, the Judges, Judas Maccabæus. Had the Son of God willed so to come, even on human data the success was certain. Let us waive the truth of His inward Deity, of His miraculous power, of His power to summon to His will more than twelve legions of angels. Let us only notice now that men’s hearts were full of Him, ripe for revolt; and that at a single word of His, thrice three hundred thousand swords would have started from their scabbards. But had He so come, one nation might have gained liberty; not the race of man. Moreover, the liberty would only have been independence of a foreign conqueror. Therefore as a conquering king He did not come.
Cromwell was strong that things obtained by force, though never so good in themselves, are both less to the ruler’s honour and less likely to last. “What we gain in a free way is better than twice as much in a forced, and will be more truly ours and our posterity’s”; and the safest test of any constitution is its acceptance by the people. And again, “It will be found an unjust and unwise jealousy to deprive a man of his natural liberty upon a supposition he may abuse it.” The root of all external freedom is here.1 [Note: John Morley, Oliver Cromwell, 513.]
(2) Legislation has been tried. Perhaps only once has this been done successfully, and by a single effort. When the names of conquerors shall have been forgotten, and modern civilization shall have become obsolete, when England’s shall be ancient history, one Act of hers will be remembered as a record of her greatness, that Act by which in costly sacrifice she emancipated her slaves. But one thing England could not do. She could give freedom, but she could not make fit for freedom, she could not make it lasting. The stroke of a monarch’s pen will do the one, the discipline of ages is needed for the other. Give to-morrow a constitution to some feeble Eastern nation or a horde of savages, and in half a century they will be subjected again. Therefore the Son of Man did not come to free the world by legislation.
(3) Civilization has been tried. Civilization does free; intellect equalizes. Every step of civilization is a victory over some lower instinct. But civilization contains within itself the elements of a fresh servitude. Man conquers the powers of nature and becomes in turn their slave. The workman is in bondage to the machine which does his will; his hours, his wages, his personal habits are determined by it. The rich man fills his house with luxuries, and cannot do without them. A highly civilized community is a very spectacle of servitude. Man is there, a slave to dress, to hours, to manners, to conventions, to etiquette. Things contrived to make his life more easy become his masters. Therefore Jesus did not talk of the progress of the species or the growth of civilization. He did not trust the world’s hope of liberty to a right division of property. He freed the inner man, that so the outer might become free too. “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
If there were any doubt as to Christianity being truth, that complete freedom, which cannot be oppressed by anything, and which a man experiences the moment he makes the Christian life-conception his own, would be an undoubted proof of its truth.1 [Note: Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God is Within You (Complete Works, xx. 220).]
2. Only the Truth can make us free. We must be true in our attitude to ourselves and to our fellow-men.
(1) Of course the Truth meant is not mere information. In that sense, the wisest of men can know only a little; he has to content himself with being ignorant of all but a fraction of what is knowable. And, what is more important, true wisdom does not depend upon the extent of a man’s information. There cannot indeed be wisdom without information, gathered from books and from communication with others; but such information is but the raw material out of which wisdom has to be extracted; and often a mind that is not possessed of any great store of knowledge, and whose experience is very limited, shows itself able to draw more light out of it than others who have had a wide intercourse with men and things.
(2) Nor, again, is the Truth referred to the holding of correct doctrines in theology, or in any other subject. It has been one of the most fatal mistakes to regard such correctness according to some standard of orthodoxy as the root of the matter, and to suppose that the one thing needful was, by whatever measures might be necessary—by violence or constraint, by hindering men from speaking and thinking freely, by narrowing their lives, and so preventing the natural action of their minds—to confine them to one set of opinions. Opinions, however right, are mere prejudices, unless they spring from a living root in our own experience and thought. We have many opinions which have come to us, we might almost say, in our sleep—by imitation of those around us, by the fact that we have heard things said and never heard them controverted, or at best, by a superficial exercise of our understanding upon first appearances. Such opinions therefore sit upon us very lightly, and we could part with them without much loss or change. We should not feel diminished, nor would our lives be essentially altered, if they were turned into their opposites.
(3) There is, however, a deeper kind of conviction than this, which is continually forming itself within every man, and constitutes for him the genuine result of his experience; a conviction as to the real meaning of his life in this world, what is most to be sought for, and what is most to be avoided, what he himself would wish to be, and what attitude he should take up in relation to his fellow-men; a conviction which may be said to constitute his real religion or to determine what he really worships. This conviction may not come readily to our lips, and indeed it often needs a kind of self-analysis, to which most men are very averse, to recognize it at all; yet it is continually shaping itself more and more definitely within us, and every act we do, and every serious thought we think, is a contribution to its growth. Every one is continually, by every action and thought, building up within him a true or a false view of his own nature and of the world, a view which puts him into a right or a wrong attitude to himself and to his fellow-men. Now, if we ask the secret of success or failure in this process, looking at conspicuous instances of either, what do we find? It is that success seems to depend upon a certain inward sincerity of soul, a willingness to apprehend the real facts of the case and to accept their lesson, upon a hatred of falsehood and illusion and a desire to stand in the clear light of day, and to understand the real meaning of the experience which life brings to us; while failure seems to be the result of a certain unwillingness to admit anything we do not like, a readiness to accept anything as true that flatters our desires, and an obstinate shutting of our ears to anything that opposes them.
“O ye hypocrites,” said Christ to the Pharisees, “ye can discern the face of the sky; but can ye not discern the signs of the times?” At first it seems hard that men should be condemned for not having insight enough to discern the signs of the times, that is, to see what were the really important circumstances in their surroundings and what was the line of conduct, of thought and action, which would make them useful to their day and generation. But the justice of the condemnation becomes evident when we realize that such want of discernment is due, not to merely intellectual limitations, but to that lack of truthfulness of soul which alone makes a man open to the inner meaning of the facts before him. In truth, men often go through life only half-awake, or seeing as in dreams only the pictures evoked by their own desires and feelings; and thus that which is most important in the experiences of their own lives is all but entirely lost to them.1 [Note: E. Caird, Lay Sermons Delivered at Balliol College, 30.]
3. What, then, is the Truth which Christ says shall make us free? Truth is the vital law or principle of life. “If ye continue in my word … ye shall know the truth.” Clearly, this sequence of ideas regards truth as the vital principle of life. It is not a theory, a calculation, an abstraction, a logical deduction, but a practical continuing in the word of life. When a man has discovered the word which fulfils his life he has found the very soul and essence of truth. In no other way can truth be found, in no other way can it be satisfactorily tested.
(1) The essential truth for the seed that is sown in the ground consists in the vital principle in virtue of which it germinates and unfolds its own proper life. By this principle it is distinguished from all the other products of the world, and receives its own charter of individual existence. The truth of the barley seed lies in that principle by which it unfolds its particular and distinctive qualities, and produces wholesome barley, and not something else. The truth of the rose tree is held in the principle which distinguishes it from all other flowering plants, and causes it to produce the beauty of the rose. Plainly enough, the truth of any and every plant does not consist in what botany discourses about them, but in the vital principle which gives them distinctive existence and perfection of life. The principle is, of course, as wide as creation. The essential truth for all created things lies in the potent principle in which they “live and move and have their being.” In the last issue, universal truth is the eternal pulse of the life of God.
(2) The truth of intellect lies, therefore, not in any discoveries or theories of the human mind, but in the deeper laws by which the mind itself is constituted and developed. The things that are essential to mind, not the theories that are incidental to it, are its truth. The things that cannot be denied without contradicting the being of thought are indisputable truth. Among these are the ideas of order, arrangement, cause and effect, and universal relation.
(3) When we carry this principle into the province of the human spirit, we reach the deepest home of truth, the last word upon which all others depend, to which all others are subjugated, and in which all others are completed. The truth for the human spirit is that which is experienced and realized by it as the energy and satisfaction of its own life; that which, in flowing through its being, imparts inspiration, expansion, and potency. For example, the consciousness of an indwelling God, the pulse of a universal moral law, and the potencies of immortality, are vital elements of our spiritual nature, being essential to spiritual self-realization. The spirit of man cannot deny these without committing spiritual suicide. These are as fundamental a part of spiritual being as order and relation are of intellectual being. It is in spiritual life, and there alone, that the truth of the spirit can be tested and approved. The word of Jesus Christ answers this test; for it has been proved by man’s spiritual nature to give life, and to give it abundantly. No arguments in the world can countervail a fact like this. As the principle of life for a tree constitutes the truth of that tree, so the proved principle of life for the spirit of man constitutes the truth for his spirit. In the word of Christ the vital principle of spiritual life is given in its perfect form; the indwelling God is invested with supreme glory, the consciousness of moral law is uplifted into its perfected grandeur, and the pulse of immortal life is flushed with the final energy of demonstration and revelation. In Jesus Christ the spiritual life of man has experienced a power and development unknown to it before. “As many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name.” For the spirit (which is the only rightful judge), this proof is irrefragable, for it lies in undeniable potencies of life. The question, “What is truth?” is satisfactorily answered. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”
4. Christ is “the Truth,” and His teaching, accepted by the will and expressed in the life, is the Truth that makes us free. The truth which He taught was chiefly on three points—
(1) God.—Blot out the thought of God, a Living Person, and life becomes mean, existence unmeaning, the universe dark, and resolve is left without a stay, aspiration and duty without a support. The Son exhibited God as Love: and so that fearful bondage of the mind to the necessity of Fate was broken. A living Lord had made the world; and its dark and unintelligible mystery meant good, not evil. He manifested Him as a Spirit; and if so, the only worship that could please Him must be a spirit’s worship. Not by sacrifices is God pleased; nor by droned litanies and liturgies; nor by fawning and flattery: nor is His wrath bought off by blood. Thus was the chain of superstition sent asunder; for superstition is wrong views of God; exaggerated or inadequate, and wrong conceptions of the way to please Him.
(2) Man.—We are a mystery to ourselves. Go to any place where nations have brought together their wealth and their inventions, and before the victories of mind you stand in reverence. Then stop to look at the passing crowds who have attained that civilization. Think of their low aims, their mean lives, their conformation only a little higher than that of brute creatures, and a painful sense of degradation steals upon you. So great and yet so mean! And so of individuals. There is not one whose feelings have not been deeper than we can fathom, not one who would venture to tell out to his brother man the mean, base thoughts that have crossed his heart during a single hour. Now this riddle He solved. He looked on man as fallen, but magnificent in his ruin. We, catching that thought from Him, speak as He spoke. But none that were born of woman ever felt this or lived this like Him. Beneath the vilest outside He saw this—a human soul, capable of endless growth; and thence He treated with what for want of a better term we may call respect all who approached Him; not because they were titled Rabbis, or rich Pharisees, but because they were men. Here was a germ for freedom. It is not the shackle on the wrist that constitutes the slave, but the loss of self-respect, to be treated as degraded till he feels degraded, to be subjected to the lash till he believes that he deserves the lash. And liberty is to suspect and yet reverence self, to suspect the tendency which leaves us ever on the brink of fall, to reverence that within us which is allied to God, redeemed by God the Son, and made a temple of the Holy Ghost.
(3) Immortality.—Christ taught that this life is not all; that it is only a miserable state of human infancy. He taught that in words, by His life, and by His Resurrection. This, again, was freedom. If there is a faith that cramps and enslaves the soul, it is the idea that this life is all. If there is one that expands, and elevates, it is the thought of immortality; and this is something quite distinct from the selfish desire of happiness. It is not to enjoy, but to be that we long for; to enter into more and higher life—a craving which we can part with only when we sink below Humanity, and forfeit it. This was the martyrs’ strength. They were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might attain a better resurrection. In that hope, and the knowledge of that truth, they were free from the fear of pain and death.
5. We must know the Truth. A servant may obey his master’s will without any intelligent apprehension of its meaning, or sympathy with his intentions and aims. If he is sent on an errand, he may carry correctly the words of a message which he does not understand. He may go on a mission the nature of which is quite above his apprehension, simply following out certain precise directions without any discretionary power of action. He may construct, if he has mechanical skill, an elaborate piece of mechanism, simply working, bit by bit, according to the detailed plan or drawing placed before him. But suppose that by diligent study the workman’s mind has become developed and his knowledge increased, so as to enable him to understand the principle and enter with intelligent appreciation into the idea of the thing; or even more than that, suppose advancing knowledge and culture have raised him generally into a capacity of sympathy and fellowship with the master’s mind—then, in that case, though he might continue to obey the master’s behests, there would be a complete change in the character of the work.
Only then have I reached the deepest conviction, only then does faith stand on the impregnable rock of certitude, when I can say, “I know this to be the truth of God; its teaching has touched the deepest springs of thought and feeling within my breast, it has awakened my conscience, moved my heart, kindled my aspirations after a, purer, better life, brought peace and rest to my spirit, and though a thousand authorities should contradict it, though Paul or an angel from heaven should teach another doctrine, I will not, cannot receive it.”1 [Note: John Caird, University Sermons, 206.]
(1) To desire the truth is the beginning. We might almost call it the end as well. The desire, if it is genuine, will inevitably teach a man the true road to follow. For the genuine desire to see and hold the truth is bound up with the longing for excellence which our Lord calls the hunger and thirst after righteousness. “If any man willeth to do God’s will,” our Lord says, “he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God.” To desire to see the truth is one condition of seeing it; to will to do God’s will is the other. The truth is revealed to those who are straining towards their Father in heaven. Heavenly aspirations, earnest desire for goodness, the face turned towards Christ, the desire ever to live by whatever within us is highest and best, the willing obedience to our own best thoughts, the cheerful, the glad resolution to do whatever shall seem to us kindest, truest, justest, purest, noblest—that is the life which opens the eyes, and, whenever God reveals any part of the excellence of His holiness, as He will assuredly reveal it to each man in fitting time, that is the life which catches the light, and that is the man whom the truth conducts to perfect freedom.
(2) The light of truth is, in some degree, like the light of heaven. It comes by God’s ordinance for the most part, and not wholly by man’s seeking. The pearl of great price was found by the man who was seeking goodly pearls. He sought for truth, and he found in the course of his search the one truth of all. But the treasure hid in a field was found by one who was not seeking at all. The truth was given in the course of God’s Providence, and looked as if it came by chance.
He accepted with his whole heart and soul the Christian representation of man as originally a child in the house of the Infinite Father, who speaks truth to him in a voice he can recognize as His. This representation he was well aware rests upon two vast assumptions, 1st, that man actually knows God, and, 2nd, that he is able to recognize His voice. He always frankly admitted that he could not prove these positions, but he held them fast as the main support of his intellectual and moral life. He strongly held that man reaches highest truth only when God utters it to his soul by His Word and Spirit. Through learning and science we get subordinate truths; but through Divine teaching alone the highest truth. This conviction, which took full possession of him, produced a beautiful intellectual humility. No one ever imbibed more of the levelling spirit of the Gospel that calls the sage to sit beside the little child in the school of Christ.1 [Note: David Brown, Memoir of John Duncan, 381.]
The Liberty that Truth Gives
The whole Bible is a book of liberty. It rings with liberty from beginning to end. Its great men are the men of liberty; and the Old Testament is the emancipator, leading forth out of imprisonment the people of God, who were to do the great work of God in the very much larger and freer life in which they were to live. The prophet and the psalmist are ever preaching and singing about liberty, the enfranchisement of the life of man. When we turn from the Old Testament to the New Testament, how absolutely clear that idea is! Christ is the very embodiment of human liberty. In His own personal life and in everything that He did and said, He was for ever uttering the great gospel that man, in order to become his completest, must become his freest; that what a man did when he entered into a new life was to open a new region in which new powers were to find their exercise, in which he was to be able to be and do things which he could not be and do in more restricted life.
1. What is Liberty? Try to give a definition of liberty, and it will be something of this kind: Liberty is the fullest opportunity for man to be and do the very best that is possible for him. There is no definition of liberty, that oldest and dearest phrase of men, and sometimes the vaguest also, except that. It has been perverted; it has been distorted and mystified, but that is what it really means—the fullest opportunity for a man to do and be the very best that is in his personal nature to do and to be. It immediately follows that everything which is necessary for the full realization of a man’s life, even though it seems to have the character of restraint for a moment, is really a part of the process of his enfranchisement, is the bringing forth of him to a fuller liberty.
(1) Man thinks of every change that is to come to him as in the nature of denial of something that he is at the present doing and being, as the laying hold upon himself of some sort of restraint, bringing to him something which says: “I must not do the thing which I am doing. I must lay upon myself restraints, restrictions, commandments, and prohibitions. I must not let myself be the man that I am.” The Old Testament comes before the New Testament, the law ringing from the mountain-top with the great denials, the great prohibitions, that come from the mouth of God. Thou shalt not do this, that, or the other. Thou shalt not murder. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s goods. That is the first conception which comes to a man of the way in which he is to enter upon a new life, of the way in which the denial in his experience is to take effect. It is as if the hands were stretched out in order that fetters might be placed upon them. The man says: “Let some power come that is to hinder me from being this thing that I am.” And the whole notion, is the notion of imprisonment, restraint.
So is it with all civilization. It is perfectly possible for us to represent civilization as compared with barbarism, as accepted by mankind, as a great mass of restrictions and prohibitions that have been laid upon human life, so that the freedom of life has been cast aside, and man has entered into a restricted, restrained, and imprisoned condition. So is it with every fulfilment of life. It is possible for a man always to represent it to himself as if it were the restriction, restraint, and prohibition of his life. The man passes onward into the fuller life which belongs to a man. He merges his selfishness in that richer life which is offered to human kind. He makes himself, instead of a single, selfish man, a man of family; and it is easy enough to consider that marriage and the family life bring immediately restraints and prohibitions. The man may not have the freedom which he used to have. So all development of education, in the first place, offers itself to man, or seems to offer itself to man, as prohibition and imprisonment and restraint. There is no doubt truth is such an idea. We never lose sight of it. No other richer and fuller idea which we come to by and by ever does away with the thought that man’s advance means prohibition and self-denial, that in order that man shall become the greater thing he must cease to be the poorer and smaller thing he has been.
You capture a fish in the stream, and place it in a confining globe or bowl of water. You have taken away its liberty by restriction. But suppose that, instead of placing it in the globe, you fling it far away upon a far-stretching lea. You have not confined it. You have given it more free space than it had before. It was previously confined within the waters of the stream, but now all the wide world is an open space around it. Have you given it freedom? No; you have enslaved it by depriving it of its vital constraint. Within the constraint of the waters it flashed along joyously like a beam of light. On the open meadow, it gasps and writhes in pitiful helplessness and distress. It has lost its liberty in the lawlessness of licence. You have taken it out of those vital relations that controlled and perfected its activities.1 [Note: J. Thomas.]
In a lecture given at Woolwich, Ruskin recalled an incident of his early childhood which his mother was fond of telling him. “One evening when I was yet in my nurse’s arms, I wanted to touch the tea-urn, which was boiling merrily. It was an early taste for bronzes, I suppose; but I was resolute about it. My mother bade me keep my fingers back; I insisted on putting them forward. My nurse would have taken me away from the urn, but my mother said—“Let him touch it, Nurse.” So I touched it,—and that was my first lesson in the meaning of the word Liberty. It was the first piece of Liberty I got, and the last which for some time I asked for.2 [Note: E. T. Cook, The Life of Ruskin, i. 10.]
(2) But when a man turns away from his sins and enters into energetic holiness, when a man sacrifices his own self-indulgence and goes forth a pure servant of his God and his fellow-men, there is only one cry in the whole gospel of that man, and that is the cry of freedom. As soon as I can catch that, as soon as I can feel about my friend, who has become a better man, that he has become a larger and not a smaller, a freer and not a more imprisoned man, as soon as I lift up my voice and say that the man is free, then I understand him more fully, and he becomes a revelation to me in the higher and richer life which is possible for me to live. The man puts aside some sinfulness. He breaks down the wall that has been shutting his soul out of its highest life. He has been a drunkard, and he becomes a sober man. He has been a cheat and becomes a faithful man. He has been a liar and becomes a truthful man. He has been a profligate, and he becomes a pure man. What has happened to that man? Shall he simply think of himself as one who has crushed this passion, shut down this part of his life? Shall he simply think of himself as one who has taken a course of self-denial? No. It is self-indulgence that a man has really entered upon. It is an indulgence of the deepest part of his own nature, not of his unreal nature. He has risen and shaken himself like a lion, so that the dust has fallen from his mane, and all the great range of that life which God gave him to live lies before him. This is the everlasting inspiration. This is the illumination.1 [Note: Phillips Brooks, Addresses, 82.]
(3) It is no wonder that, if the negative, restricting, imprisoning conception of the new life is all that a man gets hold of, he should still linger on in the old life. For just as soon as the great world opens before him he is like a prisoner going out of the prison door—is there then no lingering? Does not the baser part of him cling to the old prison, to the ease and the provision for him, to the absence of anxiety and of energy? There can hardly be a prisoner who, with any leap of heart, goes out of the prison door, when his term is finished, and does not even look into that black horror where he has been living, or cast some lingering, longing look behind. He comes to the exigencies, to the demands of life, to the necessity of making himself once more a true man among his fellow-men. But does he stop? He comes forth, and if there be the soul of a man in him still, he enters into the new life with enthusiasm, and finds the new powers springing in him to their work.
When I bring a flower out of the darkness and set it in the sun, and let the sunlight come streaming down upon it, and the flower knows the sunlight for which it was made and opens its fragrance and beauty; when I take a dark pebble and put it into the stream and let the silver water go coursing down over it and bringing forth the hidden colour that was in the bit of stone, opening the nature that is in them, the flower and the stone rejoice. I can almost hear them sing in the field and in the stream. What then? Shall not man bring his nature out into the fullest illumination, and surprise himself by the things that he might do?1 [Note: Phillips Brooks, Addresses, 88.]
2. What is that Liberty which the Truth gives?
(1) Is it political freedom?—Christ’s gospel did not promise political freedom, yet it gave it; more surely than conqueror, reformer, or patriot, that gospel will bring about a true liberty at last. And this, not by theories or by schemes of constitutions, but by the revelation of truths. God is a Spirit: man is His child—redeemed and sanctified. Before that spiritual equality, all distinctions between peer and peasant, monarch and labourer, privileged and unprivileged, vanish. A better man, or a wiser man than I, is in my presence, and I feel it a mockery to be reminded that I am his superior in rank. Let us hold that truth; let us never weary of proclaiming it: and the truth shall make us free at last.
(2) Is it intellectual freedom?—Slavery is that which cramps powers. The worst slavery is that which cramps the noblest powers. Worse therefore than he who manacles the hands and feet is he who puts fetters on the mind, and pretends to demand that men shall think, and believe, and feel thus and thus, because others so believed, and thought, and felt before. There is a tendency in the masses always to think—not what is true, but—what is respectable, correct, orthodox: we ask, Is that authorized? It comes partly from cowardice, partly from indolence, from habit, from imitation, from the uncertainty and darkness of all moral truths, and the dread of timid minds to plunge into the investigation of them. Now, truth known and believed respecting God and man, frees from this, by warning of individual responsibility. But responsibility is personal. It cannot be delegated to another, and thrown off upon a church. Before God, face to face, each soul must stand, to give account.
We hear much about “free-thought”; but free-thought is realized only in Him who delivers from the illusions of time and matter, and persuades us of the real and abiding universe. He fres the understanding from the most fatal of errors. He opens our eyes that we may see; strikes from the soul the fetters of sense; cleanses our wings from the clogging bird-lime of earthliness; and for the first time we are free, gloriously free like the eagle “ringed round with the azure sky.”1 [Note: W. L. Watkinson.]
(3) Is it freedom of the will?—It is not enough to define the liberty which Christ promises as freedom from sin. Many circumstances will exempt from sin which do not yet confer that liberty “where the Spirit of the Lord is.” Childhood, paralysis, ill-health, the impotence of old age, may remove the capacity and even the desire for transgression: but the child, the paralytic, the old man, are not free through the Truth. Therefore, to this definition we must add, that one whom Christ liberates is free by his own will. It is not that he would, and cannot; it is that he can, and will not. Christian liberty is right will, sustained by love, and made firm by faith in Christ. Wherever a man would and cannot, there is servitude. He may be unable to control his expenditure, to rouse his indolence, to check his imagination. Well—he is not free. He may boast, as the Jews did, that he is Abraham’s son, or any other great man’s son; that he belongs to a free country; that he never was in bondage to any man; but free in the freedom of the Son he is not.
An act is free when it is the expression of our own thought and will, when our own nature and our whole nature goes with it. If in what we do we are merely doing blindly another’s bidding, following mechanically the directions laid down for us, we may be a useful tool, a convenient instrument of a master’s purposes, but our work is not our own, but his; we are not free. To make us free, the work itself must constitute or contain the motive of our activity. The satisfaction or delight of doing it, and not any ulterior end or object, must be all in all to us. In the measure in which any other motive,—hope or fear, desire of honour or reward, dread of punishment or disgrace, nay, even a sense of duty or obligation,—interferes or intermingles with our activity, in that measure we are not free.2 [Note: John Caird, University Sermons, 208.]
“A man,” said Epictetus, is free only when “whatever is the will of God is his will too, and whatever is not God’s will is not his will.” This was a true definition of the highest freedom, provided that acceptance of the will of God is not a matter of necessity and submission merely, as it was with many of the Stoics. This would be the self-contradictory thing, freedom under compulsion. A man is truly free only when the will of God is not merely accepted, but loved and desired as that which is wholly good; when the love of God, of His Will, and of all that He is, becomes the active principle of the life. Then God’s will is for the man not merely law but love and life. He has the will of God, as far as may be, as his will; in the highest sense possible to man he is one with God.1 [Note: W. L. Walker, The True Christ, 27.]
(4) Is it freedom of the conscience?—Is it freedom of the inner self, carrying with it the fulness of moral freedom, and the superiority to all fears? Fear enslaves, courage liberates—and that always. Whatever a man intensely dreads, that brings him into bondage, if it be above the fear of God, and the reverence of duty. The apprehension of pain, the fear of death, the dread of the world’s laugh, of poverty, and the loss of reputation enslave alike. From such fear Christ frees, and through the power of the truth. He who lives in the habitual contemplation of immortality cannot be in bondage to time or enslaved by transitory temptations. Do not say he will not; “he cannot sin,” saith the Scripture, while that faith is living. He who feels his soul’s dignity, knowing what he is and who, redeemed by God the Son, and freed by God the Spirit, cannot cringe, or pollute himself, or be mean. He who aspires to gaze undazzled on the intolerable brightness of that One before whom Israel veiled their faces, will scarcely quail before any earthly fear.
Of truth, as well as of love, it may be said that there is no fear in truth, but perfect truth casteth out fear. The eye which is strong enough to pierce through the shadow of death is not troubled because the golden mist is dispelled and it looks on the open heaven.2 [Note: Benjamin Jowett.]
A lady with whom he was slightly acquainted assailed him for “heterodox opinions,” and menaced him with the consequence which in this world and the next would follow on the course of action he was pursuing. His only answer was, “I don’t care.” “Do you know what don’t care came to, sir?” “Yes, madam,” was the grave reply, “He was crucified on Calvary.”3 [Note: S. A. Brooke, Life and Letters of F. W. Robertson, 353.]
Then he stood up, and trod to dust
Fear and desire, mistrust and trust,
And dreams of bitter sleep and sweet,
And bound for sandals on his feet
Knowledge and patience of what must
And what things may be, in the heat
And cold of years that rot and rust
And alter; and his spirit’s meat
Was freedom, and his staff was wrought
Of strength, and his cloak woven of thought.
For what has he, whose will sees clear,
To do with doubt and faith and fear,
Swift hopes, and slow despondencies?
His heart is equal with the sea’s
And with the sea-wind’s, and his ear
Is level with the speech of these,
And his soul communes and takes cheer
With the actual earth’s equalities,—
Air, light, and night, hills, winds, and streams,
And seeks not strength from strengthless dreams.1 [Note: Swinburne.]
(5) It is the freedom of fellowship with God.—Freedom is perfect harmony between our souls and God’s law. Jesus is the truth that shows us God and gives us hearts to love Him; teaches us our relations to Him and enables us to live in harmony with those relations. “If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed.” The choice is before us—the bondage of Satan or the liberty of the sons of God; slaves of sin or freemen in Christ Jesus. No other choice is open to us. We cannot say, “I will be free, but not in Christ.” We cannot free ourselves, else the Son would never have come to free us. We can be made free only by the truth as it is in Jesus.
“If the Son shall make you free.” We can all admit that what the Son of the King does, He does with an authority and delegated power second only, if second, to the King Himself. But this is not all. This parallel will go only a very little way to meet the case. To the Christ, the crucified and risen Christ, and because He was crucified, the Father has committed the whole government of our world. This Son, the Son of God, became the Son of man, that He might do this very thing; so that the word is doubly true and doubly emphatic, the Son, the Son of God, being the Son of man. “If the Son shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed.” It is all to be attributed to the promise of God’s incarnate Son; there is no other way in which it can be accomplished.
“Ye shall be free indeed.” It is a grand word, “indeed.” It is very comforting in its simplicity; and it is a word for wonder—“indeed.” There are many kinds of liberty, but not “indeed.” There is the liberty of forgetfulness; there is the liberty of licentiousness; but “indeed” means so much behind it, “Ye shall be free indeed.”1 [Note: J. Vaughan.]
“I was one of a party who visited Chatsworth the other day. We were allowed the privilege of going through the noble house. But our liberties were severely restricted. We were allowed to pass rapidly through what is called “the showrooms,” but we were rigidly excluded from the “living-rooms.” In many places there were red cords stretched across inviting passages, and our progress was barred. If I had been a son of the house, I could have passed into the living-rooms, the place of sweet and sacred fellowships, the home of genial intercourse, where secrets pass from lip to lip, and unspoken sentiments radiate from heart to heart.”2 [Note: J. H. Jowett, British Weekly, Dec. 29, 1910.]
Truth and Freedom
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Banks (L. A.), Christ and His Friends, 265.
Brooks (P.), Addresses, 1.
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Caird (E.), Lay Sermons and Addresses, 21.
Caird (J.), University Sermons, 196.
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Dresser (H. W.), The Greatest Truth, 221.
Eaton (T. T.), The Southern Baptist Pulpit, 67.
Farquhar (J. W.), The Gospel of Divine Humanity, 60.
Fothergill (H.), The Hiding of His Power, 151.
Hopkins (E. H.), The Law of Liberty in the Spiritual Life, 77.
Horne (C. S.), The Doctrine of the Trinity, iii.
Hutton (W. H.), A Disciple’s Religion, 186.
Mayor (J. E. B.), Twelve Cambridge Sermons, 53.
Mills (B. R. V.), The Marks of the Church, 189.
Moore (A. L.), in Keble College Sermons, 211.
Robertson (F. W.), Sermons, i. 265.
Spurgeon (C. H.), Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, x. (1864) No. 565.
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Vaughan (J.), Sermons (Brighton Pulpit), xxiii. (1883) No. 1246.
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Watkinson (W. L.), The Bane and the Antidote, 225.
Whiton (J. M.), Gloria Patri, 205.
Cambridge Review, iv. Supplement No. 91; vii. Supplement No. 163.
Christian World Pulpit, x. 376 (Caird); xxxvii. 209 (Brooks); xlix. 145 (Gore); lxiv. 423 (Lang); lxvii. 97 (Henson).
Contemporary Pulpit, 1st Ser., v. 104 (Cowie); x. 193 (Barry).