The title here comes from John 8:31-32 (ESV): 31 So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” What was Jesus talking about? How can truth set us free; free from what?
Let’s look at what the lead-up to this statement was. Jesus was addressing the Jews in the Temple. Towards the end of the previous chapter, John chapter 7, we read that among the Jews there were differing opinions as to who this Jesus was. Some believed Him and believed in Him. Others, most notably the Pharisees (although a handful of Pharisees did believe in Christ and became His disciples, recognising Him from their Old Testament Scriptures), claimed that Jesus Christ was an imposter and had nothing to do with God. This, despite the numerous amazing miracles performed before their eyes. See, for example, John 9:13-16 (NASB):
13 They brought to the Pharisees the man who was formerly blind. 14 Now it was a Sabbath on the day when Jesus made the clay and opened his eyes. 15 Then the Pharisees also were asking him again how he received his sight. And he said to them, “He applied clay to my eyes, and I washed, and I see.” 16 Therefore some of the Pharisees were saying, “This man is not from God, because He does not keep the Sabbath.” But others were saying, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And there was a division among them.
In John 7 the Pharisees were denigrating the believing Jews as ignoramuses: John 7:47-49 (ESV)
47 The Pharisees answered them, “Have you also been deceived? 48 Have any of the authorities or the Pharisees believed in him? 49 But this crowd that does not know the law is accursed.”
In the verses following John 8:32, when Jesus simply uttered the words of where and how true freedom was to be found, they turned on Him. After He told them that the truth would set them free, they claimed never to have been enslaved to anyone. Jesus told them that slavery to sin would preclude them from God’s eternal company and that as God’s Son, only He could truly free them. This freedom is accomplished through Jesus. Our part is to believe in Him and to obey His directions for us. They are given in our best interests and are in accord with the very fabric of the universe.
Let’s look at John 8:51: (NASB) 51 Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps My word he will never see death. John Wesley’s commentary on “if anyone keeps My word” is helpful: If a man keep my word – … We keep his doctrine by believing, his promises by hoping, his command by obeying. (John Wesley) The state of heart of these Jews whom Jesus was trying to teach and warn is evident as we near the end of John 8: John 8:52-59 (NASB)
52 The Jews said to Him, “Now we know that You have a demon. Abraham died, and the prophets also; and You say, ‘If anyone keeps My word, he will never taste of death.’ 53 Surely You are not greater than our father Abraham, who died? The prophets died too; whom do You make Yourself out to be?” 54 Jesus answered, “If I glorify Myself, My glory is nothing; it is My Father who glorifies Me, of whom you say, ‘He is our God’; 55 and you have not come to know Him, but I know Him; and if I say that I do not know Him, I will be a liar like you, but I do know Him and keep His word. 56 Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad.” 57 So the Jews said to Him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have You seen Abraham?” 58 Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am.” 59 Therefore they picked up stones to throw at Him, but Jesus hid Himself and went out of the temple.
In answer to our question of what Jesus meant when He promised freedom to His true disciples who “abide in” or “keep” His word (as explained by John Wesley above), He is saying that by believing and obeying His ways/directions for how to live our lives, we will experience freedom from lies and bondage to sin.
The ESV SB has some good commentary. See verse 31, with the ESV SB commentary following: John 8:31 (NASB) 31 So Jesus was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, “If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; (ESV Study Bible Notes) 8:31 Their “belief” is shown to be false in the course of the story (see vv. 33–47). To abide in Jesus’ word means to continue believing what Jesus has said and walking in obedience to him (see note on 15:4; also 6:56; 1 John 2:6, 28; 3:6). This verse shows that continuing to trust Jesus and obey Him is one test of who are truly my disciples. So does Dr John MacArthur in his study Bible:
† 8:31–36 These verses are a pivotal passage in understanding genuine salvation and true discipleship. John emphasized these realities by stressing truth and freedom. The focus in the passage is upon those who were exercising the beginnings of faith in Jesus as Messiah and Son of God. Jesus desired them to move on in their faith. Saving faith is not fickle but firm and settled. Such maturity expresses itself in full commitment to the truth in Jesus Christ resulting in genuine freedom. The passage has 3 features: 1) the progress of freedom (vv. 31, 32); 2) the pretense of freedom (vv. 33, 34); and 3) the promise of freedom (vv. 35, 36). ‡ 8:31 who had believed Him. The first step in the progress toward true discipleship is belief in Jesus Christ as Messiah and Son of God. If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine. This reveals the second step in the progress toward true discipleship. Perseverance in obedience to Scripture (cf. Mt 28:19, 20) is the fruit or evidence of genuine faith (see Eph 2:10). The word “continue” means to habitually abide in Jesus’ words. A genuine believer holds fast, obeys, and practices Jesus’ teaching. The one who continues in His teaching has both the Father and the Son (2Jn 9; cf. Heb 3:14; Rev 2:26). Real disciples are both learners (the basic meaning of the word) and faithful followers. Nelson, Thomas. The NASB, MacArthur Study Bible (pp. s7749-7750). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.
Some people believe that we can differentiate between being “disciples” of Christ and getting by as everyday “ordinary” Christians. This is a false distinction. A Christian IS a disciple of Christ, always. Nothing more, and nothing less, is required for salvation and transformation than to believe in Jesus as our indispensable atoning Saviour and to allow God to transform us into His likeness as we yield our will to God’s in all manner of life choices. Of course we sometimes fail. John tells us elsewhere that if we deny our sin we are liars: 1 John 1:8-10 (ESV)
8 If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
All of us have been made in the image of God and the longing of all human beings is to be at peace with God, despite what we are being told by the liars in our midst – everything from state governments offering us the promise of liberation through sexual experimentation to those teaching falsehood of all kinds, religious and cultural. The lies are plentiful. They surround us. Follow the truth. By this you will be free indeed; free from lies and free from bondage to sin. See also the following:
Romans 6:18-19 (ESV) 18 and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. 19 I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.
Romans 6:22 (ESV) 22 But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life.
Romans 8:2 (ESV) 2 For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.
1 Corinthians 7:22-24 (ESV) 22 For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ. 23 You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men. 24 So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God.
2 Corinthians 3:17 (ESV) 17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.
Galatians 5:1 (ESV) 1 For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
Galatians 5:13 (ESV) 13 For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.
James 1:25 (ESV) 25 But 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 2:12-13 (ESV) 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. 13 For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.
1 Peter 2:16 (ESV) 16 Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.
1 John 2:3-6 (ESV) 3 And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. 4 Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, 5 but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: 6 whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.