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Jesus Christ sets us free from sin, guilt, and self-centeredness.

by John Stott

There are two reasons why I have chosen the topic of freedom. The first is that everybody is thinking and talking about freedom today, and many people are spending their lives in pursuit of it.

For some, it is national freedom: emancipation from the colonial yoke. For others, it is civil freedom: civil rights and civil liberties, freedom from an oppressive regime. For others, it's economic freedom: freedom from hunger, poverty, and unemployment.

For all of us, it is personal freedom. Even those who are campaigning most vigorously for other freedoms I've mentioned, often know that they are not free themselves. They cannot identify what the oppressions or tyrannies are in their lives, but they feel frustrated, unfulfilled, and unfree.

So freedom is a common topic of conversation and thought today.

Secondly, freedom is a great Christian word. The Lord Jesus is portrayed in the pages of the New Testament as the world's supreme liberator. Jesus quoted from Isaiah 61 in the first sermon he preached. He said he came "to proclaim release to the captives and to set at liberty the oppressed." Later in his public ministry, he said, "If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed."

The apostle Paul appealed to the Galatians to stand firm in the liberty with which Christ has set us free. And for those who find "salvation" a rather embarrassing word or a word of traditional religious vocabulary that has no meaning today, "freedom" would be an excellent substitute. To be saved by Jesus Christ is to be set free.

Those are the two reasons why I've chosen this topic.

Tyrannies from which we need liberation

What is freedom? I want to begin negatively with those tyrannies from which we need liberation, and then I will turn toward the positive counterpart. There are many tyrannies, but two major ones are guilt and self.

I'm thankful there is a reaction today against Freud's insistence that guilt feelings are pathological. Guilt is a symptom of various kinds of mental illness or depressive illness, but not all guilt is false guilt. Psychologists are now telling us that we must take our responsibility and guilt seriously. Indeed, it's part of our distinctive humanness that we are moral beings with an urge to do what is right and a sense of guilt when we do what we know to be wrong.

You'll know, I'm sure, one of Mark Twain's many witticisms about man as the only animal that blushes and the only animal that needs to. For there have been times in all our lives when we did things for which we now are thoroughly ashamed.

The Bible is explicit on this point. It tells us that we have asserted ourselves against God's love and authority. We've gone our own way. We've provoked his just displeasure, and our conscience tells us so. Our first and greatest need is forgiveness.

Nobody is free who is unforgiven. If I were not sure of the forgiveness of God by his sheer unutterable mercy, I could not look him in the face. I could not even look you in the face. I'd want to run away and hide as in the Garden of Eden, because it was there in Eden, not at Watergate, that the device called "cover up" was first invented.

A leading British humanist was interviewed recently on television. In a moment of surprising candor, she said, "What I envy most about you Christians is your forgiveness. I have nobody to forgive me."

There is forgiveness with God, for he entered into our world in the person of his son, Jesus Christ. He lived a perfect life of love, and on the Cross identified himself with our sin and guilt. God in Christ bore in his own innocent person the condemnation that we deserve, and he did it in order that we might be forgiven.

Guilt is the first tyranny. We know it very well, and I trust we found the remedy in Christ.

The second tyranny is self or self-centeredness.

Once speaking to some Jews who had believed in him, Jesus said, "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free."

The Jews were indignant. They said, "What on earth are you talking about? We've never been in bondage to anybody."

Jesus replied, "Truly I say to you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin."

Like "salvation," "sin" is another word of traditional religious vocabulary, and many people today are saying that sin has no meaning.

I can remember when I was an undergraduate student, how enlightening it was to learn from William Temple that what the Bible means by sin as "self-centeredness." Let me tell you how Temple puts it in his great little book, Christianity in the Social Order. He says, "I am the center of the world I see. And where the horizon is depends on where I stand. Education may make my self-centeredness less disastrous by broadening my horizon of vision. It's like a man climbing a tower who sees further in terms of physical vision while remaining himself the center and the standard of reference. I am the center of the world I see."

That's what the Bible means by sin. Luther talks about man curved in on himself. Malcolm Muggeridge talks about the dark little dungeon of my own ego. That is sin, a twist of self-centeredness that has us imprisoned. But God's order is that we love him with all our being, and then that we love our neighbor and put ourselves last. Sin is the reversal of the order.

We Christians believe that Jesus Christ is the only remedy for this radical self-centeredness. He not only died on the cross, he also rose again. He is alive, and by the power of his Spirit he can enter our personality and begin to change us from within. Christians do not claim to be perfect. We claim that Jesus has begun to liberate us from the cramping bondage of our own self-centeredness.

Here is the good news of freedom from tyranny. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus, we have freedom from our guilt because he died for us, and freedom from our self-centeredness in the power of his resurrection.

The nature of our freedom

I cannot stop there because I think the second part of my talk is more important. It's a great mistake to think of freedom in purely negative terms—in terms of those things from which we've been set free. We need to think of freedom in positive terms—that for which we've been set free.

This is the principle I want to develop: True freedom is freedom to be myself, my true self as God made me and meant me to be. Let me illustrate that principle.

I begin with God himself. Have you ever thought that God himself is the only person who enjoys perfect freedom? You could argue that God is not free. His freedom is certainly not absolute in the sense that he could do absolutely anything whatsoever. He cannot. The Bible speaks of several things that God cannot do. He cannot lie. He cannot sin. He cannot tempt or be tempted. So, God s freedom is not absolute, but God's freedom is perfect because he's able to do absolutely anything that he wills to do.

The major thing that God cannot do, according to Scripture, is to contradict himself. God's freedom is freedom to be always entirely himself. But there's nothing arbitrary about God, nothing capricious, nothing unpredictable. He never changes. He's always the same, and he never contradicts himself. If he did, then, of course, he would be God no longer. So God finds his freedom in being himself and never changing.

What is true of God, the Creator, is equally true of all his creatures; absolute freedom is impossible. It's impossible for God. It must be impossible for us. It's an illusion. The freedom of every creature is found in its or his or her nature, and it is limited by that nature.

Take a fish as an obvious example. God created fish to live and thrive in water, whether salt or fresh. Gills are adapted to absorb oxygen from water, so water is the element in which a fish finds its identity, its "fishness," its freedom. It finds itself in the element for which it was created: water. It's limited to water, but in that limitation is liberty.

Suppose you had a little tropical fish in one of those old-fashioned, spherical goldfish bowls. Suppose the little fish swam round and round his blessed bowl until its frustration became unbearable. The fish decided to make a bid for freedom and leap out of the bowl. If it landed in a pond in your backyard, it would increase its freedom because there would be more water to swim in. But if it landed on the concrete or on the carpet, then its bid for freedom would spell death.

If fish were meant for water, what are human beings made for? It would be interesting if we had time to sit down alongside one another and share our answers to that question. If fish were made for water, what are human beings made for? What is the element in which human beings find themselves, as water is the element in which a fish finds itself?

I don't hesitate to say that according to Scripture the answer is love. Human beings are made for love because God is love. When he created us in his own image, he gave us the capacity to love and to be loved. So human beings find their destiny in loving God and in loving their neighbors.

It's not an accident that the first commandment is to love the Lord our God with all our being and to love our neighbor as ourselves because in obeying those commandments we find our humanness. A truly human existence is impossible without love. Living is loving, and without love we die.

That brings me to a startling Christian paradox: True freedom is freedom to be myself as God made me and meant me to be.

God made me for loving, but loving is self-giving. In order to be myself, I have to deny myself and give myself to others in love. In order to be free, I have to serve. In order to live, I have to die to my own self-centeredness.

Michelangelo is recorded as having said, "When I am yours, then at last I am truly myself."

True freedom is the exact opposite to what many people think it is. Most people think freedom is freedom from responsibility to God and others in order that I may live for myself and be free. That isn't freedom. That's bondage to my own self-centeredness. True freedom is to be set free from my silly little self in order to give myself in love to God and to my fellow human beings.


In conclusion, let me remind you that this is what Jesus himself taught. He taught it in one of his famous, favorite epigrams, which in the King James version goes like this:

"He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it."

I used to think that Jesus was talking about martyrs who lost their lives in a good cause, maybe the cause of the gospel. Let me read the same epigram in more modern English:

"He who holds on to his life and refuses to let himself go will lose himself, but he who loses himself is willing to give himself away in love and in the service of God and others. In the moment of complete abandon, when you think everything is lost, at that moment you find yourself, and you are free."

Preaching Today Issue #102

John R. W. Stott (1921 – 2011) is known worldwide as a preacher, evangelist, author, and theologian. For 66 years he served All Souls Church, Langham Place, in London, England, where he pioneered effective urban evangelistic and pastoral ministry. During these years he authored more than 50 books, and served as one of the original Contributing Editors for Christianity Today. Stott had a global vision and built strong relationships with church leaders outside the West in the Majority World. A hallmark of Stott's ministry was his vision for expository biblical preaching that addresses the hearts and minds of contemporary men and women. In 1969 he founded a trust that eventually became Langham Partnership International (www.langham.org), a ministry that continues his vision of partnership with the Majority World Church. Stott was honored by Time magazine in 2005 as one of the "100 Most Influential People in the World."

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Sermon Outline:


I. Tyrannies from which we need liberation

II. The nature of our freedom