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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Title:Are you a true disciple or a fake disciple?
Text:John 8:31-38 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Life in Christ

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Hymn 5:1-2

Hymn 5:3-4 (after the law)

Psalm 116:1-3

Psalm 116:9-10

Psalm 118:1,2,8

Scripture reading:  Matthew 13:1-23

Text:  John 8:31-38

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation of Christ,

Human trafficking is a huge global problem.  It’s estimated that over 40 million people are affected – and 75% of them are women and girls.  Most of them are trafficked into pornography and prostitution.  Rebecca was one such woman.  She’d grown up in a good family in Oregon.  She was a good student in school, got good grades.  She was going to university when she became pregnant.  Rebecca decided to keep the baby.  She then moved to another city where she thought she’d have more support to continue her university studies.  There Rebecca met a man who said he’d take care of her and her daughter.  He was her knight in shining armour.  Until he moved them down to Las Vegas.  There he put her into a life of prostitution so she could “pay him back” for all his kindness.  He threatened to harm her daughter if she wouldn’t do it.

Do you think Rebecca chose that life?  Do you think she wanted to be trafficked into prostitution?  No, the 40 million people who are essentially modern-day slaves would never choose that life.  You’d be foolish and irrational to want to be a victim of human traffickers.  You wouldn’t want it for someone you love, and you wouldn’t want it for yourself.  Human trafficking is slavery and no one in their right mind would want to be a slave.

In our text for this morning Jesus says that “everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.”  Sin enslaves.  Yet for so many people, it’s a slavery they’re quite happy to embrace.  It’s a slavery that’s awful, but yet they accept it and are content to live with it.  If you can remember a time when you were an unbeliever, perhaps you can remember what that was like.  You’re in slavery, but you probably don’t even realize it as slavery.  Still, from an objective point of view, it makes no sense.  It’s irrational to embrace slavery.  It’d be crazy for someone to embrace being a victim of human traffickers, but it’s just as crazy for someone to embrace the slavery of sin.

But there are crazier things.  Many people profess to be Christians.   But then you hear them saying things like, “I’m a Christian, but I don’t believe what the Bible says about everything.”  “I’m a Christian, but I don’t believe in heaven and hell.”  “I’m a Christian, but I don’t believe God created the world in six days.”  “I’m a Christian, but I’m also gay.”  “I’m a Christian, but I believe in abortion rights.”  And on it goes.  It’s not unusual to hear people claim to be Christians, but then their beliefs on so many things don’t line up with the Bible.  How can that happen? 

Well, the answer is in John 8.  It begins to get laid out in our passage.  The reality is that there are true disciples of Christ and fake disciples.  The fake disciples of Christ are irrational.  The fake disciples are caught in slavery.  But true disciples of Christ receive freedom.  Let’s see how that gets explained in John 8:31-38.  God’s Word puts to each one of us the question:  Are you a true disciple or a fake disciple?           

We’ll see:

  1. How the true disciples receive freedom
  2. Why the fake disciples remain slaves

Before getting into verse 31, I just want to back up for a moment to the previous verses.  Jesus was talking with the Jewish religious leaders in Jerusalem.  He told them that unless they believed in him as God come for their rescue, they’d die in their sins.  In other words, if they didn’t believe in him as a Saviour, they’d go to hell.  Then look at verse 30 again:  “As he was saying these things, many believed in him.” 

Now at first glance those words might look positive.  But if you go further into John 8, you find that these people who “believed” are still children of Satan.  And look further at verse 46, “Which one of you convicts me of sin?  If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me?”  So you have people who “believed in him,” yet Jesus says they really don’t.  What’s going on here?  It’s the difference between a genuine disciple and an impostor.  Just saying you believe in Jesus isn’t enough.

That becomes clear in verse 31.  Let’s look there.  Jesus is speaking to the people who supposedly believed in him.  Whether they said out loud that they believed in him, or whether they “believed” in their hearts, he’s fully aware of what’s going on.  He knows he has to speak the truth to them.

So he says, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples.”  Jesus is talking about what it means to really, truly be one of his disciples.  And what is a disciple?  A disciple is simply a follower of Jesus.  A disciple is a student of Jesus.  In the Bible, a disciple doesn’t just learn information from his Master or Teacher.  A disciple wants to become like his Teacher.  Christians want to become like Jesus.  And if you’re a Christian, you are a disciple.  That’s another way of saying you’re a believer in Jesus Christ.  You could say, “I’m a Christian.”  But you could also just as well say, “I’m a disciple of Jesus Christ.  I’m one of his students who wants to be like him.”

Now Jesus says, “You are truly my disciples, if you abide in my word.”  To abide here means to remain with, to stick with, to follow faithfully.  When Jesus says, “my word,” he means what he teaches.  That refers to things he was teaching and preaching during his earthly ministry, but it’s not restricted to that.  The whole Bible is Jesus’ word.  Jesus speaks and teaches through the pages of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation.  The whole Bible is where Christ the living God speaks.  If you’re truly a disciple of Jesus, then it’s going to be evident by the fact that you stick with what he teaches in his Word.  You don’t depart from the teachings of your Master.  You persevere in his Word. 

This is where the so-called “believers” in verse 30 fell over.  They believed in Jesus in some sense, but it was selective.  They apparently liked some of the things he was saying.  Some of what he was saying resonated with them and perhaps they vocalized that.  But they weren’t going to abide in his Word from beginning to end.  Thus they weren’t truly his disciples.  True disciples don’t pick and choose from their Master’s teaching.  True disciples aren’t fickle with their Master’s teaching – one day believing a particular part of his teaching, and then the next day not.  True disciples embrace everything their Master teaches and they want to embrace it with consistency.

So, what about you, are you a true disciple?  Do you abide in the Master’s teaching?  Or are there certain things in the Bible that rub you the wrong way and you won’t accept them?  Or maybe you once did, but now you don’t anymore?  If you’re going to be a true disciple of Jesus Christ, accept his Word and abide in it.  Resolve to yourself and to the Lord that if his Word says it, you’ll believe it.  You’ll believe it, no matter what anyone else says.  You’ll believe it and you’ll follow it, you’ll do what it says, no matter the cost. 

But you might say, “How can we abide in the word of our Master?  Where do we get the strength to do that?”  That’s a great question.  The answer is that we don’t have the strength within.  We can’t do it on our own. We need to pray to God and ask him for the Holy Spirit’s strength.  You can only abide in the Word of your Master through the power of his Holy Spirit.  So pray for the Holy Spirit.  Ask God to give you what you need to be a true disciple of Jesus Christ.                         

Being a true disciple brings with it blessings.  Jesus speaks about those blessings in verse 32.  He says, “You will know the truth.”  In other words, you’ll know the gospel message about Jesus.  He’s the one who describes himself later as “the way, the truth and life,” the only way to the Father.  When Jesus says you will know the truth, he means you’ll really know him and what he’s about.  You see, the “truth” is not an intellectual concept here, but a person, a person who rescues you from the condemnation you deserve for your sins.

That’s why Jesus says that knowing the truth will set you free.  You know there are certain expressions from the Bible that find their way into popular culture.  People use these expressions, but they’re used in a way that doesn’t fit with the original context.  This is another example of that: “the truth will set you free.”  The American Central Intelligence Agency uses that as its motto.  The way the CIA uses it, the way it’s often used, people are talking about truth as an intellectual concept, about knowing something as a fact.  As another example, today many people regard evolution as a fact.  Then they’ll say, “The truth will set you free!” If you know the truth about evolution, then you’ll be free from anti-scientific superstition, you’ll be set free from religion.  But remember:  a text without context is a pretext.  When Jesus says the truth will set you free, he’s talking about the gospel, he’s talking about the good news of salvation in him.  The gospel is what gives you freedom. 

Freedom from what?  What does the truth of the gospel set you free from?  The answer is right there a couple of verses down in verse 34.  The answer is right there a few verses before in verses 21 and 24.  Jesus is speaking about freedom from sin and its consequences.  Sin is a slave master.  If you’re an unbeliever, you’re compelled to do its bidding.  You just have to sin, because sin is in control.  It dominates you.  You’ve got no power in yourself to say ‘no’ to sin.  Sin directs you, commands you, and you’re its slave.  All your choices line up with sin.  There are consequences that come from that.  Your slave master destroys your life from the inside out.  Sin is self-destructive.  Sin destroys others around you too, breaking down relationships and causing conflict.  Sin destroys society.  Just think of assisted suicide or euthanasia.  The world is so messed up.  They grieve and get troubled when a celebrity takes his own life.  But then they turn around and want to help other troubled people take their own lives.   That’s destructive and foolish.  Sin is the destructive slave-master behind it.  Sin causes wars and genocides.  The list goes on.  Sin is the slave-master that has no mercy, no love, no interest in human flourishing.  Sin just wants to dominate and destroy.  It wants to dominate and destroy you.

But there’s freedom in the gospel!  The truth of the gospel will set you free from sin.  It sets you free from many of its bad consequences in the here and now.  But it also sets you free from the worst consequence of all, which is hell.  The gospel sets you free from the eternal wrath of God against sin.  This is what you get when you’re a true disciple of Jesus Christ.  You receive freedom when you abide in his Word, when you believe everything he says, including and especially the message of salvation. 

So, loved ones, why wouldn’t you want to be a true disciple of Jesus Christ?  Why wouldn’t you want the freedom that comes from the truth of the gospel? 

Sadly, the Jewish people in our passage didn’t really want that.  They shoot back at Jesus in verse 33.  They hear Jesus speaking about freedom and they get it that he’s saying that without him, there’s slavery.  But they refer to their family ancestry.  They’re proud of the fact that they’re descendants of Abraham.  They’ve never been enslaved.  As descendants of Abraham, they’ve always naturally been free.  Apparently they’re not thinking in political terms, because it’s pretty obvious the Jews had been enslaved in that sense.  Remember, for example, they’d been slaves in Egypt.  But they seem to think that being physical descendants of Abraham, who was a friend of God, that somehow guaranteed their spiritual freedom.  Maybe they’re thinking in terms of the covenant.  God made a covenant with Abraham and his seed.  Maybe they’re thinking this covenant guaranteed them spiritual freedom.  In their thinking, it’s all automatic.  You’re a descendant of Abraham, you’re part of the covenant, boom, automatically you’re spiritually free.  I wonder:  do we sometimes think along similar lines in our church community?  Do we sometimes think that being part of the covenant of grace automatically gives freedom to us?  That’s there’s no personal responsibility to repent and believe in Jesus Christ for ourselves?  

The Jews in our passage denied they were slaves.  So they think, how can Jesus say, “You will become free?”  “If we’re not slaves, we’re already free.  We don’t need your truth to set us free, we’re already there.  We’ve already arrived.”  But they’re deceiving themselves and Jesus is about to rebuke their self-deception. 

He starts doing it in verse 34.  He uses the words “Truly, truly” again – whenever Jesus does that he’s pointing out this is really serious.  You should always take him seriously, of course, but pay special attention to these words:  “everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.”  Let me first tell you what that doesn’t mean.  It doesn’t mean that true Christians who sin are slaves to sin.  No, true Christians sin, but they’re not slaves to sin.  Jesus is speaking here in the same way as 1 John 3:6, “No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him.”  Then it says in 1 John 3:8, “Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil…”  Our Lord Jesus is speaking here about habits and patterns of life.  He could just as well have said, “Everyone who lives in sin is a slave to sin.”  If you live in sin, you practice it, you habitually do it, you’re a slave to it.  If you live in sin, you can never say ‘no’ to it because it controls you.  You’re totally in its grip and you have to do what it says:  sin, act rebelliously against God, it’s the only way.

Have you ever experienced that?  Every Christian who can remember being an unbeliever knows what Jesus is talking about here.  If you can remember a time when you didn’t truly believe in Christ, and you weren’t really his disciple, then you know how sin had you in its grip.  You just followed your sinful desires like it was a compulsion to do it.  You couldn’t not do it.   Sin was your master and it had you enslaved. 

Maybe there’s someone here this morning experiencing this in their lives right now.  You can’t say ‘no’ to sin.  You feel the slavery and the bondage.  You’re being dominated by wicked impulses and compulsions.  Maybe the slavery hasn’t bothered you too much.  But let me ask you, does slavery to sin make sense?  Does slavery to something that’s going to destroy you make any sense at all?  This slavery is destroying your life now and it’s going to eternally destroy you later.  Does that make sense?  If you can see that it doesn’t, then perhaps the Holy Spirit is opening your heart to something better, to following Jesus Christ as a true disciple.

Jesus begins speaking about that in verse 35.  He talks about slaves and sons and contrasts them.  A slave can be sold, traded, given away.  A slave doesn’t have any security with his master and no rights.  A slave isn’t human, but just property.  But a son is quite different.  A son has security in his father’s house.  A son has rights.  A son can say things and do things, also when it comes to slaves.  That’s where verse 36 comes in.  The Jewish people are part of the household, so to speak.  They’re God’s people.  But if they’re going to be really free from the destructive powers of sin, they need the Son to set them free.  That’s what Jesus has come to do.  He’s come to free them and if they’ll follow him in faith, they’ll definitely receive freedom from sin and its consequences.  And so will anyone else, including you.

As our Lord Jesus goes on he acknowledges their ancestry from Abraham, but he says that makes no difference.  In verse 37 he points out how these people who supposedly “believed in him” or perhaps claimed to believe in him, they’re also plotting to kill him.  They may have appreciated Jesus at some level.  There may have been some social advantage to claiming to believe in him.  But whatever the case may have been, they weren’t actually true disciples of Jesus Christ.  They were seeking to kill him and it was all because his word found no place in them.  He taught them, but they didn’t accept his teaching and believe it.  They didn’t act like true disciples.  They were just fakers and their actions proved it.  Fake disciples don’t believe the Master, even if they make a show of it at times.  Fake disciples can be religious people, like the Jews in our text.  Fake disciples can be covenant people, like the Jews in our text.  But fake disciples have no room in their hearts for the teachings of Jesus.  Ultimately that’s because those hearts are dead in sin.  Those hearts are stone cold dead, unregenerated, untouched by the power of the Holy Spirit. 

Verse 38 drives home the contrast between Christ and his fake disciple opponents.  Jesus declares what he’s seen from the Father in heaven.  He speaks of truths and realities that come from God his Father.  But these fake disciples have a father too, but it’s not the same the Father of Jesus.  As will become clear in the following verses, their father is Satan.  They do what they’ve heard from him – and that’s really why they remain slaves.  They’re slaves because they’re in the service of Satan.  Satan has them in his grip and they quite like it.  Even though they “believed,” they’re children of Satan.  You can understand that in the light of James 2:19.  In some sense, even the demons believe in God.  They acknowledge his existence, for example.  But that doesn’t mean they’re saved.  Saving faith goes way further than what the demons “believe” about God, or what these religious leaders “believed” about Jesus.  Saving faith takes hold of Jesus Christ as a Saviour in a personal way.  Saving faith says, “I’m a sinner, but Jesus has come to pay for my sins.  I trust in what he has done to put me right with God.”  

If you think about it, what Jesus says here must have been so shocking and offensive.  He’s talking to Jewish people descended from Abraham.  He’s speaking to people of the covenant.  He’s talking to people who pride themselves on being religious people who are fervently serving God.  Yet he says, “You do what you have heard from your father.  You’re following Satan, not God.  You’re fake disciples following God’s enemy.  You don’t follow me and you don’t follow God either.”  What a bold thing to say!  They must have been astounded that Jesus would talk to them like that.

Jesus could talk to them like that because he knew their hearts inside out, better than they knew themselves.  I can’t know your hearts.  I can’t know whether you’re a fake disciple who’s still in slavery.  But God knows.  And this passage has God calling you to examine yourself, “Am I a true disciple of Jesus Christ who abides in his Word?  Or am I a fake disciple who remains a slave to sin, and a child of Satan?”  How can you tell the difference?  Let me ask you: is the Word of God important to you?  Do you delight in reading the Bible and hearing the Bible preached?  Are you the good soil from the Parable of the Sower?  Do you pray for God to help you apply what you hear in the word of Christ?  Do you pray for the Holy Spirit to be at your work in your life so you can follow Christ more faithfully?  Are you abiding in Christ’s word?  If you can answer those questions positively, then you are a true disciple of Jesus Christ, you have the freedom the gospel promises. 

But then what about sin?  You think you might be a true disciple, but yet there’s sin and it’s sometimes hard to say ‘no’ to certain sins in your life.  Let me say a couple of things. 

First, are you happy to have it this way?  Are you content with the status quo?  If you say, ‘no,’ that’s a mark of a disciple of Christ.  True disciples don’t want to have sin in their life.  They hate it and they want to fight it.  True disciples are praying constantly for the Holy Spirit’s help in fighting sin.  So even though there is sin, you’re engaged with it.  You’re fighting it.  Disciples are not sinless, but they’re also not at peace with their sin. 

Second, never become fatalistic about your struggle with sin.  Ask anyone who’s been a believer for many decades and they’ll tell you that there is progress.  God will work in you and help you to grow.  And because you have the Holy Spirit, you can say ‘no’ to sin.  You are not a slave to it.  You can turn away from that wickedness that’s tempting you.  Not in your own strength, but because you have God the Holy Spirit living in you and empowering you.

Slavery is awful.  Slavery is dehumanizing.  Human beings weren’t created for slavery.  We were created for freedom.  We were created to be free to follow God’s will.  God’s will is designed for our good, for our flourishing.  Slavery to sin makes no sense because it doesn’t lead to flourishing but destruction.  How thankful we can be that the good news of Jesus Christ comes to set us free so we can joyfully serve our God as we were designed to.  If you’re a true disciple of Jesus Christ, you’ve received freedom, now treasure it, use it, and praise God for it!  AMEN.


Father in heaven,

We want to truly be disciples of our Lord Jesus.  Please give us strength with your Holy Spirit so that we can abide in the Word.  Help us to treasure what your Word teaches, most of all what it tells us about Christ and how he is the truth which sets us free.  Thank you for the freedom the gospel promises.  Help us all to really know that freedom.  Help us to experience that freedom in our daily lives.  Please work in us with your Holy Spirit so that we don’t walk in sin, but hate it and fight against it.  Please draw us closer and closer to you.  Make us more and more like Christ.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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