Telling the Truth Does Not Set You Free

Like many cycling enthusiasts, I watched the career of Lance Armstrong unfold. I was inspired by his fight against cancer, and using his fame and success to launch the Livestrong Foundation. I was deeply saddened to see it all come crashing down over the last few months of 2012. In January of the New Year, Lance admitted not only to being a rule breaker but also a liar, a bully, and a vengeful destroyer of other peoples’ lives.

At the close of his confession-interview with Oprah Winfrey, Lance was asked what he thought the moral of the story was. After bumbling through a weak response that showed how much he has yet to learn about himself, Oprah told him that she wants the moral to be, “The truth will set you free.” This was in reference to something that Mr. Armstrong’s ex-wife Kristin had told him in 2009 when he was seeking her approval for a cycling comeback. While coming clean about his ethics violations and acknowledging that he became an evil person is an important a first step, I confess that hearing Ms. Winfrey misquote and misapply the scripture left me with an even worse taste in my mouth than I already had.

In John Chapter 8, Jesus teaches an important principle that is crucial for us to understand if we want to actually be His disciples and not just those who say they are (or think they are.)

So Jesus was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, “If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:31)

Notice first of all to whom Jesus is speaking: He is addressing those Jews who believed Him! Not scoffers, not backsliders, not disgraced professional cyclists; He is giving an important principle to believers who have listened to His teachings and believed Him, and who think they are his disciples. Someone once said that the biggest word in the bible is “if.” Whenever we see a principle or a promise prefaced with “if”, we can be certain that we do not qualify to enjoy the desired result unless we first obey the conditions set forth. Otherwise, we will experience the “if not” that is always implied.

With this in mind, let us examine what Jesus is saying. There are three conditions that He articulates right up front to these believers; these three conditions are if, continuing, and His word. Jesus tells them, “If you continue in My word, then…” In this account, these believers immediately do what many do- they ignore the conditions, cite references to external proof of their good standing with God, and become offended when sin is mentioned! Beloved, the promises of Jesus are inseparably linked to obedience to His teaching and commands. Jesus tells this group of church-goers that only if they continue in His word (obey with a heart of love) are they His true disciples. Today our churches are filled with people who are living as they choose, who think they are disciples of the Lord, who can give many external reasons why they are in good standing with God, but who have been captured by a distorted message of grace that comes up far short of requiring obedience.

Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love Me, for I proceeded forth and have come from God, for I have not even come on My own initiative, but He sent Me. Why do you not understand what I am saying? It is because you cannot hear My word. You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. (John 8: 42-44)

Jesus speaks plainly here and unambiguously qualifies who is and who is not born of God: If God is truly our Father then we will love whom the Father has sent. And, if we love Jesus, we will keep his commandments. (John 14:15) How do we know that we are His true disciples? If we continue in His Word, then we are truly His disciples and we qualify for the promise. What does Jesus mean by continue? The Greek word meno means to stay or remain in a given place or state of relationship or expectancy. It is important to note the qualifier is of continuing in His word; far too many are merely continuing in church attendance, loyalty to human institutions or leaders, or to our assignments. While faithfulness to our assignment is of great value to the Lord, it is only continuing in His word that brings the fruits of the promise: “You will know the Truth and the Truth will make you free.”

I can’t tell you how many times I hear this promise misquoted and taken out of the context of the preceding qualifications that are attached to it. A safe estimate is that over 80% of the time this principle is repeated as, “the truth will set you free.” My friends, there is a huge difference between being set free and being made free! Many believers will say that when we are born again by the power of God, we are set free from sin and death. This is true in a certain context, but many today fail to discern the perilous gap between our legal position in Christ and the level to which we are actually living in light of that legal reality. This has resulted in the lukewarm heart condition of much of the church, which is relying on the legal reality of freedom in Christ without any real change in lifestyle. When this gap is addressed, the usual answer is that we are under ‘grace.’ This attitude is a dangerous and unbiblical heart posture that makes Jesus threaten to vomit us out of His mouth. (Rev. 3:16) Biblical grace is the power to live in whole-hearted obedience to Jesus, not an excuse to cover our lack of love for Him.

We all want instant results and instant gratification. We don’t want to invest decades of pressing hard after God and years of striving to enter at the narrow gate that few find. We just want to be set free so that we can have a great life, rather than embracing the blessings promised to those who are poor in spirit and who mourn over the gap between what Christ has purchased for them and how they actually live. What is the difference between being set free and being made free? Being made free is a process that takes time and effort, and it results in a permanent heart change. Being set free happens in a moment and may have no lasting impact on the heart. Being set free results from the action of another on our behalf; being made free is the result of being willing to continue long term in the Word of God. Being set free puts the responsibility on someone else; being made free is our own responsibility. It is not surprising that this principle is so often misrepresented by a postmodern, lazy church.

There are many ways to illustrate the difference. A parrot is set free if the cage door is suddenly opened, but it is made free when it is trained to not fear humans and enjoys a life of receiving love and care. A human slave can be set free in a moment of time when the prison door is opened or the chains are unlocked, but it may take years of therapy to heal from the mentality of being owned and abused. When we enter the Kingdom of God as new believers, we are like those who have had the shackles removed, but it is only by continuing in His Word for years and decades that we are truly made free. Churches are full of believers who struggle with heart issues and many kinds of bondage because they are not continuing in His word, but merely continuing in a religious facsimile. According to Jesus these are not true disciples.

The only place of true freedom, true inner peace, and a life lived with a vibrant spirit regardless of circumstances is the place of true discipleship to Christ. Our carnal, unrenewed minds see such a life as bondage and our flesh rebels against anything that challenges our comfortable lifestyles. But the born again human spirit longs for this deep communion with the Father, and in fact we are created for this whole-hearted relationship. We are miserable without it, although we may learn to take the edge off of our inner sadness with the toys and idols of this present age. The rewards of pressing after the prize of the high calling are far more than the wonderful fruits we enjoy in this life; they are eternal and will mark us forever. In the resurrection, no one will regret for a moment whatever sacrifices they made to follow Jesus with a heart of love and passion!

So to Lance Armstrong and Oprah Winfrey I would say, forget about being “set free” by admitting wrongdoing. When the blind lead the blind, they both fall into a ditch. Both of these lost celebrities desperately need the same thing we all need: To be made free by loving Jesus enough to follow Him no matter what the cost, embracing the lifestyle He outlined in the Sermon on the Mount, and steadfastly continuing in His word, faithful to the end.