Why Believe? Why does Christianity have so many rules and feel restrictive? (John 8:31-48)

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In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry has just run away from his awful aunt and uncle’s house when he sees an ominous black dog. He’s recued by the Knight Bus, which picks up stranded magical folk. But throughout the book, this dog keeps cropping up. Harry sees it in the tea leaves in Professor Trelawney’s class. He sees it in the grounds of Hogwarts School. He even sees it in the bleachers of the Quidditch field. Harry isn’t sure if he’s going crazy, imagining the creature everywhere. But then one night the ominous black dog grabs his best friend Ron by the leg and drags him down a tunnel. Harry dashes after, a bit terrified, but the dog has turned into the supposed evil murderer Sirius Black, who betrayed Harry Potter’s parents to their death. Harry thinks he’s going to murder him too.

Yet, if you’ve read the Potter books, you know that Sirius Black wants to protect Harry not murder him. Rather than betraying Harry’s parents, Sirius was himself betrayed. Rather than being Harry’s enemy, Sirius turns out to be a faithful friend. In fact, Sirius is the closest thing to family that Harry has. When Harry first saw Sirius, all the evidence was stacked against him. But when Harry found out the truth of who Sirius was, Harry’s mind was changed… and so was Harry’s heart.[1]

Likewise, when people look at Christianity, they sometimes make the same mistake that Harry made with Sirius Black. People think Christianity is against the things they care about the most, so they reject a relationship with God or reading the Bible. To find out who Sirius was, Harry had to dive down a tunnel. Our aim with this series (and our AM seminars) is to help people dive in to look more closely and think more deeply about the topics so that your views of Christianity might just change too.

Our sermon series has been about “Why believe in Christianity?” We’re looking the barriers that keep people from believing in God and following Jesus. So far, we’ve looked at

  • How do we know God exists? (John 1)
  • How do we know which religion is true? (John 3)
  • TODAY: Why does Christianity have so many rules and feel restrictive? How can I be free? (John 8:31-38)

Freedom is a powerful and pregnant word. Hearing the word makes you think about…

  • Braveheart with William Wallace “Freeeeeedom!”
  • Politicians promising help and freedom… and they all think they’re telling the truth.
  • Everyone wants freedom. Yet, they think freedom is without authority or accountability.
  • But freedom is not the ability to do whatever you desire but what God has designed for you.
    • A fish might want freedom, but if it seeks to live outside of water it will flounder and perish.  
    • God has designed freedom to operate based on His purposes.
    • Freedom is a profound concept…


3 profound layers of freedom

  • External: national autonomy and individual opportunity
  • Internal: unburdened by disappointments & despair in world… not controlled, addicted, or enslaved.
  • Eternal: spiritual freedom determines present confidence and eternal contentment.

Today’s message will explore why Christianity feels restrictive.

EXAMINE           Why Believe?              John 8:31-48

The context is Israel celebrating the Feast of Booths (Jn 7:2). This was a commemoration of the Israelites living in tents or booths during their wilderness journey after the exodus (cf Lev 23:33-43). Further, the season was in the fall and the people were to express thanksgiving toward the Lord for provision during harvest season. Living in a booth reminded the people life’s comforts and blessings come from God.

In all, the religious leaders had a heightened awareness about spiritual life and were contrasting and conflicting with Jesus. Jesus communicates three ways to experience full freedom.

  1. Believe in Jesus as Lord is liberating (Jn 8:31). Jesus speaks to those who believe in Him. The first step toward finding freedom is to trust Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. God is not the cosmic sheriff forcing you to obey His laws; instead He’s the one who sent Jesus – the Savior – to free you from the prison of your disobedience.

The Jews response to Jesus was “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free?’” (Jn 8:33). They viewed themselves as inherent sons of God when they were innately slaves. In other words, their ethnic identity and religious activity was placed higher than authenticity of knowing God. Further, they viewed themselves as externally free, but Jesus was explaining they were inwardly slaves.

  • Interestingly, Israel’s history has long segments living enslaved: Egypt, Canaan, Assyria, Babylon, Rome.
  • Like Israel, we can conveniently rewrite history that doesn’t deal with reality. We think of ourselves as free and without fault… but our comparison twisted compared to Jesus. We are not only imperfect but inadequate. (When you’re married there’s a witness!/ When you have kids there’s a jury!) Life apart from Jesus is setting us up to meet a significant road block when we least expect and a shocking surprise at our life’s end.

We’re all searching for freedom and something to believe. The great philosopher Rocky Balboa (ha!) is an example of humanity pursuing freedom and belief. Adrian, Rocky’s wife, asks him why he must box and fight the world champ Apollo Creed. Rocky says, “if I can go the distance and [fight 15 rounds with the champ Apollo Creed,] then I’ll know for the first time in my life that I’m not a bum.” Everyone has something that compares to fifteen rounds to feel free, achieve purpose and escape “bumness.”

  • Yours might be success and status in your grades as a student, or career as an adult. So, you pour effort and resources into these areas only to find an ever increasing and endless pursuit.
  • Yours might be relationships – trying to please others because other’s opinions weigh on your life and cause you to change how you think, act, dress, and devote your time. When people criticize you, it weighs and worries you at a deeply emotional level.
  • Others search for the ultimate feeling of happiness and freedom in self-pleasure. Comforts with materialism (newer & bigger), pleasure (food, substances, sensual)… or any other item of pride & identity.
  • In words of another famous philosopher Bob Dylan
    You may be a construction worker working on a home
    You may be living in a mansion or you might live in a dome
    You might own guns and you might even own tanks
    You might be somebody’s landlord you might even own banks
    But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes
    You’re gonna have to serve somebody
    Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
    But you’re gonna have to serve somebody
  • We must choose between the gods who enslave and the God who saves. Serving God w/ Jesus as Lord is not restrictive bc we know He is always working for our best, even in problems & pain of life (cf. Rom 8:28-29).

  • Believing in Jesus starts by knowing who He is.
  • v.38-42 Jesus claims deity and to come from the Father.
  • v.46 Jesus claims perfection. “Which one of you convicts me of sin?” This claim is unique among history and every religion – who claims this without validity?!?
  • Saving faith is in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

“confessing with mouth that Jesus is Lord and believing in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom 10:9-10). No matter if you have taken multiple steps away from God, it only takes one to return: repentance. Stop and turn toward Jesus.

  • If you’re already a believer, your identity informs your activity. Being made in God’s image and forgiven by His grace should result in living with Jesus as our Lord. We cannot claim Jesus as our Savior if we are unwilling to commit to Jesus as our Lord… which leads to next way to experience freedom:

    2. Abiding in God’s word is wise (Jn 8:31). “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples” Abide means to stay, make your home, endure, and never depart (μένω). God is not satisfied with mere admires but seeks apprentices; Christians are not casual fans but committed followers of Jesus. Disciples of Jesus are deeply devoted to reading and heeding God’s word.
  • “be doers of the word and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves… the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.” (James 1:22, 25)

Even if the Jews were externally free, inwardly they were captive – slaves to sin. And if you are a slave to sin, then you remain outside God’s house forever. The OT sacrificial system could never save or change your heart. Sin was a perpetual and perilous cycle.

Yet, Jesus says, “Follow me.” He calls people not to a futile religion but to a faith relationship. Today we select our schools, but in biblical days you chose your teacher and you became an apprentice – with life on life learning, or imitator (μιμητής/mimic). Jesus says, if you abide in His words, “the Son sets you free and you will be free indeed” (Jn 8:36).

Following Jesus will not make us perfect or sinless but will help us make progress to sin less. God’s word is our only power to resist temptation and make wise decisions (cf. Mt 4; Ps 119:11). For many, we are found sliding more than abiding. We slide into disobedience for the same reason our first parents (Adam & Eve) did –
God’s ways appear irrational; God’s commands seem unproven; the consequences for rejecting God feel reasonable and rewarding. And it doesn’t take long for spiritual cruise-control, patterns of drift, and a lifestyle of disobedience to grow established.

Author Jerry Bridges[2] describes Christians who fall into this temptation:

“My observation is that most of us who are believers practice what is called a ‘cruise-control’ approach to obedience. …we press the accelerator pedal of obedience until we have brought our behavior up to a certain level or ‘speed.’ The level of obedience is most often determined by the behavior standard of other Christians around us. We don’t want to lag behind them because we want to be as spiritual as they are. At the same time, we’re not eager to forge ahead of them because we wouldn’t want to be different.”

“By contrast consider race-car drivers. They wouldn’t think of using a cruise control. They are not interested in blending in with the speed of those around them. They are not out for a Sunday afternoon drive. They want to win the race. Race-car drivers are totally focused on their driving. Their foot is always on the accelerator as they try to push their car to the outer limits of its mechanical ability and endurance. Their eye is always on the track as they press to its limit their own skill in negotiating the turns of the track and the hazards of other cars around them. They are driving with all their heart, soul, and mind.”

  • Abiding is not automatic, it takes disciplined habits to read Scripture, pray sincerely, and seek to honor the Lord in every area of life. (Illus: Lele & Mia journaling… Scripture, Study, Soak in)
  • Abiding must start alone but is not sustained alone. You need a spiritual community – a faith family to support and spur you onward. This summer/fall we will be launching two kinds of groups “family groups” with 4-7 families and “formation groups” with 4-7 same gender individuals. We want to encourage these groups to meet alternate weeks for the purpose of loving God (Content), loving others (Community), leading generations (Catalysts).


    3. Basing life on the truth is foundational (Jn 8:32). When you believe in Jesus and abide in God’s word, then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.

The Jews’ interactions and actions with Jesus revealed their faulty foundation. They claimed to be Abraham’s descendants (God’s children), but they were not seeking to be a blessing but to assassinate Jesus (Jn 8:40).

  • They charged Jesus as being born of sexual immorality… and even as a Samaritan (Jn 8:41; 48). In other words, they rejected the truth claims Jesus was virgin born by Mary.
  • They charged Jesus’s miracles as demon-inspired (Jn 8:48, 52).
  • They charged Jesus as a blasphemer – not from God (Jn 8:53, 57-59).

Some in the world will say that religion – or those who take it seriously – is the world’s greatest problem. All the evils and harm done to humanity is done in the name of religion, so they say. Admittedly, religious followers can be some of the most horrible hypocrites. On behalf of Christians, I’m sorry and that should never be.[3]

The foundational truth of Christianity is based on God’s character and God’s commands. He is truth (Jn 14:6) and His commands are wise and good for human flourishing. In fact, one doctor and professor, Paul Offit, based on some unfortunate experiences, sought to write a book on How Religious Belief Undermines Modern Medicine. Yet, as he studied the Bible and explored the history of medicine, he changed his mind. Jesus’s advocacy inspired him, and he concluded,

“Independent of whether you believe in the existence of God… you have to be impressed with the man described as Jesus of Nazareth. At the time of Jesus’ life, around 4 B.C. to 30 A.D., child abuse, as noted by one historian, was ‘the crying vice of the Roman Empire.’ Infanticide was common. Abandonment was common. Hippocrates, who lived about 400 years before Jesus, often wrote about how physicians should ethically interact with patients. But Hippocrates never mentioned children. That’s because children were property and not different than slaves. But Jesus stood up for children, cared about them, when those around him typically didn’t.”

Offit’s observations also noted that Rome outlawed infanticide in 315 and provided a form of welfare in 321 so poor families would not sell their children. Ultimately, he changed his book content and his mind about <><.

Another writer says, “Go to the front lines at home or abroad, in the battles against hunger, malaria, prison rape, [childbirthing assistance], human trafficking or genocide, and some of the bravest people you meet are Christians who truly live their faith.”[4]

It’s not that non-Christians and secular philosophers are not caring or constructive toward society. It’s just that the foundations they seek to build are borrowed from the Christian worldview. The late atheist intellectual Christopher Hitchens agrees, saying, “How do I know there are such things as human rights? I don’t. I don’t know there are such things… Our [grounding for human rights] is about as tenuous as our position as a primate species on a rather dodgy planet.”[5]

Peter Singer, Princeton Professor, candid atheist says, “A week-old baby is not a rational and self-conscious being, and there are many nonhuman animals whose rationality, awareness, capacity, and so on, exceed that of a human baby… Therefore, the life of a newborn baby is of less value… than the life of a pig, a dog, or a chimpanzee.”[6]

Basing our life apart from God’s truth is building on a foundation of fleeting sand.

  • You can borrow rationalized ethics from Christianity, but sooner or later you will not be able to borrow but required to make a payment. Will you be ready to face Jesus? (cf. Mt 7:21-27).

APPLY/THINK

Jesus said, “Before Abraham was, I am” (Jn 8:58). The same Jesus who was before the foundations of the earth, is the same Jesus who chose to display His love for you through dying on the cross. He loves you not because there is anything good in you – we were sinners and enemies – but because there is everything good in Him. There is nothing more liberating than receiving the undeserved love and amazing grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.


[1] Entire illustration from Rebecca McLaughlin, 10 Questions Every Teen Should Ask (And Answer) About Christianity, pp.19-20.

[2] Jerry Bridges, The Discipline Of Grace, p. 116.

[3] For a full discussion of this point, see Rebecca McClaughlin, Confronting Christianity, chapters 4-5.

[4] Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and human rights activist Nicholas Kristoff, “Evangelicals Without Blowhards,” New York Times, June 31, 2017.

[5] “Hitchens and Haldane – Why Human Rights?” The Veritas Forum (video) Feb 17, 2011.

[6] Singer, Practical Ethics, 2nd Ed. Cambridge Press, 1999, p.169.

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