Frederick W. Robertson

Sermon 19

Freedom by the Truth

Preached July 13, 1851

  Frederick W. Robertson

“And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” - John 8:32.

If these words were the only record we possessed of the Saviour’s teaching, it may be that they would be insufficient to prove His personal Deity, but they would be enough to demonstrate the Divine character of His mission.

Observe the greatness of the aim, and the wisdom of the means.

The 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 both of 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.”

See, next, the peculiar wisdom of the means.

The craving for liberty was not new - it lies deep in human nature. Nor was the promise of satisfying it new. Empirics, charlatans, demagogues, and men who were not charlatans nor demagogues, had promised in vain.

1. First, they had tried by force. Wherever force has been used on the side of freedom, we honor 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 Maccabeaus. Had the Son of God willed so to come, even on human data the success was certain. I 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. I 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.

2. Again, it might have been attempted by legislative enactment. 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 be come 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 - she could not 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. It might be done by civilization. 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 machinery which does his will: his hours, his wages, his personal habits determined by it. The rich man fills his house with luxuries, and can not 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 nor the growth of civilization, He did not trust the world’s hope of liberty to a right division of property. But 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.”


I. The truth that liberates.

II. The liberty which truth gives.


The truth which Christ taught was chiefly on these three points: God - man - immortality.

First, 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 rent asunder; for superstition is wrong views of God, exaggerated or inadequate, and wrong conceptions of the way to please Him.

And so when the woman of Samaria brought the conversation to that old ecclesiastical question about consecrated buildings, whether on Mount Gerizim or on Mount Moriah God was the more acceptably adored, He cut the whole conversation short by the enunciation of a single truth: “God is a Spirit, and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth.”

2. Truth respecting 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 here whose feelings have not been deeper than we can fathom, nor one who would venture to tell out to his brother man the mean, base thoughts that have crossed his heart during the last 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 be 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.

Perhaps we have seen an insect or reptile imprisoned in wood or stone. How it got there is unknown - how the particles of wood in years, or of stone in ages, grew round it, is a mystery, but not a greater mystery than the question of how man became incarcerated in evil. At last the day of emancipation came. The axe-stroke was given: and the light came in, and the warmth; and the gauze wings expanded, and the eye looked bright; and the living thing stepped forth, and you saw that there was not its home. Its home was the free air of heaven.

Christ taught that truth of the human soul. It is not in its right place. It never is in its right place in the dark prison-house of sin. Its home is freedom and the breath of God’s life.

3. Truth respecting immortality.

He 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 be a faith that cramps and enslaves the soul, it is the idea that this life is all. If there be one that expands and elevates, it is the thought of immortality: and this, observe, 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 only part with 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.


II. The nature of the liberty which truth gives.

1. Political freedom.

It was our work last Sunday to show that Christianity does not directly interfere with political questions. But we should have only half done our work if we had not also learned that, mediately and indirectly, it must influence them. 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 nor by schemes of constitutions, but by the revelation of truths. God a Spirit: man His child, redeemed and sanctified. Before that spiritual equality, all distinctions between peer and peasant, monarch and laborer, 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. Mental independence.

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.

In Judea life was become a set of forms, and religion a congeries of traditions. One living word from the lips of Christ, and the mind of the world was free.

Later, a mountain mass of superstition had gathered round the Church, atom by atom, and grain by grain. Men said that the soul was saved only by doing and believing what the priesthood taught. Then the heroes of the Reformation spoke. They said the soul of man is saved by the grace of God: a much more credible hypothesis. Once more the mind of the world was made free, and made free by truth.

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 can not be delegated to another, and thrown off upon a church. Before God, face to face, each soul must stand to give account.

Do not, however, confound mental independence with mental pride. It may, it ought to coexist with the deepest humility. For that mind alone is free which, conscious ever of its own feebleness, feeling hourly its own liability to err, turning thankfully to light from whatever side it may come, does yet refuse to give up that right with which God has invested it of judging, or to abrogate its own responsibility, and so humbly, and even awfully, resolves to have an opinion, a judgment, a decision of its own.

3. Superiority to temptation.

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 of 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 can not; but that he can, and will not. Christian liberty is right will, sustained by love, and made firm by faith in Christ.

This may be seen by considering the opposite of liberty - moral bondage. Go to the intemperate man in the morning, when his head aches, his hand trembles, his throat burns, and his whole frame is relaxed and unstrung: he is ashamed, he hates his sin, and would not do it. Go to him at night, when the power of habit is on him like a spell, and be obeys the mastery of his craving. He can use the language of Romans 7: “ That which he would, he does not; but the evil that he hates, that does be.” Observe, he is not in possession of a true self. It is not he, but sin which dwelleth in him, that does it. A power which is not himself, which is not he, commands him against himself And that is slavery.

This is a gross case, but in every more refined instance the slavery is just as real. Wherever a man would and can not, 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.

4. Superiority to fear.

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, or the loss of reputation, enslave alike.

From such fear Christ frees, and through the power of the truths I have spoken of He who lives in the habitual contemplation of immortality can not be in bondage to time, or enslaved by transitory temptations. I do not say he will not; “he can not 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, can not cringe, nor pollute himself, nor 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.

This is not picture-painting. This is not declamation. These are things that have been. There have been men on this earth of God’s, of whom it was simply true that it was easier to turn the sun from its course than them from the paths of honor. There have been men like John the Baptist, who could speak the truth which had made their own spirits free, with the axe above their neck. There have been men, redeemed in their inmost being by Christ, on whom tyrants and mobs have done their worst, and when, like Stephen, the stones crashed in upon their brain, or when their flesh hissed and crackled in the flames, were calmly superior to it all. The power of evil had laid its shackles on the flesh, but the mind, and the soul, and the heart were free.

We conclude with two inferences:

1. To cultivate the love of truth. I do not mean veracity: that is another thing. Veracity is the correspondence between a proposition and a man’s belief. Truth is the correspondence of the proposition with fact. The love of truth is the love of realities - the determination to rest upon facts, and not upon semblances. Take an illustration of the way in which the habit of cultivating truth is got. Two boys see a misshapen, hideous object in the dark. One goes up to the cause of his terror, examines it, learns what it is; he knows the truth, and the truth has made him free. The other leaves it in mystery and unexplained vagueness, and is a slave for life to superstitious and indefinite terrors. Romance, prettiness, “dim religious light,” awe and mystery - these are not the atmosphere of Christ’s gospel of liberty. Base the heart on facts. The truth alone can make you free.

2. See what a Christian is. Our society is divided into two classes - those who are daring, inquisitive, but restrained by no reverence, and kept back by little religion; those who may be called religious: but, with all their excellences, we can not help feeling that the elements of their character are feminine rather than masculine, and that they have no grasp or manly breadth, that their hold is on feeling rather than on truth.

Now see what a Christian is, drawn by the hand of Christ. He is a man on whose clear and open brow God has set the stamp of truth: one whose very eye beams bright with honor; in whose very look and bearing you may see freedom, manliness, veracity; a brave man - a noble man - frank, generous, true, with, it may be, many faults; whose freedom may take the form of impetuosity or rashness, but the form of meanness never. Young men, if you have been deterred from religion by its apparent feebleness and narrowness, remember, it is a manly thing to be a Christian.