Son or Slave?
“A slave does not abide in the house forever, but a son abides forever.” (John 8:35)
In that passage Jesus was speaking to new believers, showing them the difference between their relationship to God under the old covenant and under the new. Under the old covenant they were subject to the Law of Moses, which was designed to reveal their inability to be approved by God through their works. Because of the new covenant, they had a new position, Jesus said, and, by implication, a new motivation. The old position — that of a servant — was an inferior relationship. The new position — that of a son — was superior in every way, including motivation.
New Position, New Motivation
The motivation of a son serving his father was love, while the motivation of a slave serving his master was fear. The consequences of failing to do his master’s will motivated the servant to fulﬁll that will meticulously. As a result, he lived in a constant state of insecurity, fearing the hour of reckoning, dreading his master would ﬁnd fault with him and punish him.
Regardless, though, of whether the servant succeeded at his tasks or failed at them, at the end of the day he had to leave the master’s house and retreat to the servants’ quarters. No matter how well he performed his duties, at the end of the day it was his status, not his service, that distinguished him, determining not only where he stayed but how long he stayed there.
In contrast to the tenuous nature of the servant-master relationship, Jesus declared that a son “abides forever.” He had a room in his father’s house, a place at his table, a share in his business. His position was permanent. His place was secure. And he never had to fear losing any of those things, because all of those things were his by virtue of his birth. His status distinguished him, determining not only how near he was to the father but how dear he was to the father’s heart.
Jesus came to liberate us, not only from our enslavement to sin but also from our employment as servants, loosing us from servitude under a covenant of law and leading us to freedom under a covenant of grace: “Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed.” (John 8:36)
From Bondage to Freedom
If Jesus came to free us from fear-motivated servitude and bring us into the enjoyment of our position as sons, why do so many believers still see themselves as servants, living in fear of displeasing God and incurring his wrath?
The answer to that question came to me from a passage in Romans 8:15: “For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, ‘Abba, Father.’”
The verse puzzled me. Why did Paul use the word “again”? I wondered. I thought a long time about it, and then the Holy Spirit opened my eyes to all that one little word meant. Think with me through Paul’s logic.
When Paul became a Christian, the law of the Spirit did not condemn him for his failure to measure up. “There is therefore now no condemnation,” he declared. (8:1) Instead of pointing out Paul’s sin, the Spirit pointed him to his “life in Christ Jesus.” (8:2) The Holy Spirit imparts life to us in place of the death that comes through the Mosaic Law. He will never minister law and condemnation to us because that always produces death: “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” (2 Cor. 3:6)
Instead, the Spirit’s ministry to the believer is to show us the fullness of life that is ours in Christ Jesus. This revelation acts as a mirror in which we see the ways that we fall short of the life in Jesus. Then, as we come into agreement with that, he guides us out of the bondage of sin and into the freedom of life in Christ Jesus.
However, anyone who has been a Christian for any time at all will have discovered that there are people who desire to put you back under law. Some do this intentionally, as did the false teachers that Paul talked about in Galatians 3:1. Others do this unintentionally. It is possible that the person who prayed with you when you received Jesus as Savior encouraged you with words such as these: “Now that you are a Christian, you need to read the Bible, pray, attend church, witness, and give.” That is not bad advice because those are ways in which your new life should be expressed. The problem is that “you need” is often taken as “you must.” When that happens, we are brought into bondage … “again.” We receive a “spirit of bondage” the moment we go back to trying to gain God’s approval on the basis of what we do rather than on the basis of who we are. That well-intentioned advice, given to us when we ﬁrst became believers and later turned into a commandment, leads to motivation by fear.
Paul said, “You did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear.” We can correctly translate the last phrase as “leading to fear.” What fear was Paul talking about? The fear of punishment that comes with not keeping the law.
‘Perfect Love Casts Out Fear’
“There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love.” (1 John 4:18) John makes a bold statement: “There is no fear in love.” Why is that? “Because,” he said, “fear involves torment” — or, more accurately, fear involves punishment. The only one who fears is the one who doesn’t understand the ﬁnished work of Jesus in paying the penalty of our sin. That means that since he took the punishment for our sin, we need not fear being punished.
“Perfect love casts out fear.” The presence of fear indicates the absence of love. Therefore, if I have fear, that is the surest sign that I do not understand my position as a son and am still in bondage to performance by trying to please God and be accepted through my obedience to commandments. Fear enters when I feel that I am not reaching the acceptable standard of performance and consequently might be punished.
As an heir of the new covenant, you are no longer a servant. You are a son or a daughter, the apple of your Father’s eye. As his child, you have nothing to fear. The punishment for your shortcomings and your sins, for your frailties and your failures, for the bad things you have done and for the good things you have left undone — all those debts were paid for at the cross.
Though our heavenly Father will not punish us, he will discipline us. His discipline is proof of his love for us and not to be feared by us, for it is redemptive, not punitive. It does not look back in anger at what we have done but looks forward in anticipation of who we will become.
Which is like Jesus.
John Sheasby’s book The Birthright is available with your gift towards Water For LIFE. Excerpted from The Birthright by John Sheasby. Copyright 2010, 2022 by John Sheasby. Produced by Breakfast For Seven. Used by permission.