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Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

The Grievous Sin of Autonomy

Apr 10, 2014

Normally it is a good thing to not have to rely on and depend upon others. Usually it is good to have a fair degree of autonomy. We expect of every baby and toddler that they will eventually grow up to be self-sufficient in so many ways – able to feed and clothe themselves, able to support themselves, and able to be independent and self-functioning adults.

But in the biblical and spiritual sense, autonomy means something quite different: it is not a virtue at all, but a horrendous sin. The biblical worldview posits a God who is there, who has created all things, and expects of his moral creatures a loyalty, dependency and obedience at all times.

autonomyThe essence of the Fall, and of all sin, is personal autonomy – the idea that we do not need God, that we can pretend we can live a life totally apart from God, and that we in fact are the centre of the universe. That rejection of reliance upon and complete dependency on God is the height of what sin means – a radical independence of God and his standards.

I quite like how Terry Chrisope expresses this in Confessing Jesus As Lord (Mentor, 2012):

The biblical story can be told as a reflection on two Greek words: kyriotes and autonomia. The first means ‘lordship’ and refers to God’s right to rule; the second means ‘living by one’s own laws’ and describes man’s effort to live independently of God. From Genesis to Revelation, the story of the Bible is one of God’s assertion of his lordship – his ‘right to rule’ – over all the universe but more specifically over human beings, and of humans’ counter-assertion of their right to live apart from God’s rule. Genesis 3:1-7 describes humankind’s decisive rejection of God’s right to rule and thus the initial expression of human autonomy, while the rest of the Bible describes the disastrous consequences of that action and God’s program of redemption to bring humans back under his acknowledged rule, forgiven and willingly submitting to him.

This sort of autonomy was not only the original sin but the ongoing sin found in the world. Man’s rebellion against God and his refusal to allow God to be God is the fundamental problem of the universe – one which Jesus came to remedy.

In his book on atheism, R. C. Sproul says this: “Ultimately man can be completely autonomous only if, indeed, there is no God.” But if God does exist, then the quest for human autonomy is a fool’s quest. It simply cannot happen. It is like a piece of pottery thinking it came into existence entirely apart from the potter.

All creation came into being because of God, and remains in existence because of God. And while moral creatures are granted a degree of freedom, they were never meant to be autonomous. As Sproul explains, “In biblical categories of free will, man is created within a framework of freedom, but not autonomy. Man is given freedom, but is refused autonomy. Full autonomy belongs to God alone. Man’s freedom is within limits. In the Eden situation he enjoys freedom, but it is not unlimited freedom.”

In the garden, man is given freedom to take dominion over the earth, as faithful stewards of God’s good creation. “Freedom is his, but with one restriction placed upon him: Man is free and responsible, but he is responsible to the law of God.”

But fallen, sinful man rejects the law of God and elevates self-law, as the word autonomy in fact means, as we have already seen. As long as this relentless desire for autonomy prevails, man is simply digging himself further into the grave.

This of course is basic Christian theology 101, and we could leave things as that, as a sort of apologetics argument. But I want to take this one step further. I want to speak about ‘Christian autonomy’. The sad truth is, millions of Christians are living as if they are still pagans: they still want to be able to call the shots and make the rules.

They want to be the boss, in other words, and are really living just as non-Christians do. They may have put their hand up at a meeting years ago, or went down the aisle after an emotional gospel appeal, but they are still living for all intents and purposes as unredeemed sinners.

Such folks still think they can be the ones to decide what is true and false, right and wrong. Instead of submitting fully to the Lordship of Christ and the authoritative and binding Word of God, they are basically a law unto themselves. They determine what they will obey and what they won’t obey.

They decide what is right and what is true. By their very lives they demonstrate that Christ is not Lord at all. Self is still king, and self has never been crucified, put to death, or told to get out of the way. Instead of King Jesus ruling and reigning in their lives, self is.

When we speak about the Kingdom of God, we mean quite simply the rule and reign of Christ. Either Christ reigns supreme in our life or he does not. It is that simple really. So those who claim allegiance to Christ but still think they can call the shots are in fact part of the fallen order: autonomous man, unregenerate and unredeemed.

In our heads most of us can affirm the sinfulness of human autonomy, but in our hearts many of us are still living as if we don’t really think it is sinful at all. Self is still on the throne, and Christ is nowhere to be found. Until we actually put to death self, we will never have Christ as Lord of our lives.

Others have spoken of this most heinous of sins far more eloquently than I can. So let me finish with a few remarks from just one of them. Francis Schaeffer is widely known as one of the great Christian apologists of last century. But anyone familiar with his work knows that he also spoke much about the Christian life.

He longed for transformed hearts, not just transformed heads. Consider his superb 1971 volume, True Spirituality. In it he wrote:

We do everything we can, whether it is in a philosophic sense or a practical sense, to put ourselves at the centre of the universe. This is where we naturally want to live. And this natural disposition fits in exactly with the environment which surrounds us in the twentieth century. This was the very crux of the fall.

Calvary is the only solution to all this:

In Luke 9:22-24, we find Christ puts forth a chronological order. In verse 22: “The Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be slain, and be raised the third day.” The order is in three steps: rejected, slain, raised. This speaks of his coming unique and substitutionary death, yet this order—rejected, slain, raised—is immediately related by Jesus Christ himself, in verses 23 and 24, to us, the Christians. “And he said unto them all, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself [renounce himself], and take up his cross daily, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: but whosoever will lose himself for my sake, the same shall save it.” Here Jesus takes this order that was so necessary for our redemption in the unique substitutionary death of the Lord Jesus Christ and applies it to the Christian’s life. The order—rejected, slain, raised—is also the order of the Christian life of true spirituality; there is no other….

I am to face the cross of Christ in every part of life and with my whole man. The cross of Christ is to be a reality to me not only once for all at my conversion, but all through my life as a Christian.

The answer to autonomous man is the cruciform life. As long as we exalt ourselves above God, we will find only death. Yet paradoxically, when we seek to put self to death, we then can in fact find life. Autonomous man is nothing more than the walking dead. The crucified life is the only answer to this.

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10 Responses to The Grievous Sin of Autonomy

  • Thanks Bill for your warning against autonomy.  Thanks for sharing with us Francis Schaeffer’s words about rejected, slain and raised.  It’s important to regularly remind ourselves of Luke 9:23:
    ‘And He was saying to them all, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me.’

  • Amen! Paul clearly states in Romans that we are slaves of something either of righteousness (God) or of sin (Satan/self). The idea of man having free will is not even Biblical. The term is never used, never indicated. I laugh at those who say that man has a ‘choice’ to ‘accept or reject’ Christ, when the the Apostle John clearly states in his Gospel that salvation is NOT of the will of man,but of God.

    The very idea of autonomy was imbedded into the First Lie. “…you shall be as gods, determining (knowing) good and evil.” Man has been trying (and failing miserably) to do this ever since.

    God is a sovereign King. He doesn’t give choices, He gives commands. “You shall not eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, for in the day that you do so, you shall surely die” is a command and the consequences of its violation are spelled out. DISOBEY AND DIE. That’s not a choice and anyone who thinks it is is dumber than a fencepost. When the Commanding General says “Do this!” you do it. To refuse to obey the order is to be a traitor and treason is punished by death.

    All men have committed treason against the Most High God by violating His Law with impunity and are therefore under the death penalty. Fortunately, he has given a command which will supercede the death sentence: Repent and believe on the Name of the Only Begotten Son of God. Obey THIS command and live.

  • We cannot serve 2 masters. Either the Spirit rules in us, where we submit to God’s righteousness (and our faith is counted for righteousness, Rom 4:5) OR our flesh rules and we seek to establish our own autonomous righteousness by works of the law, Rom 10:3.

    We cannot mix grace with works of the law, Rom 11:6.
    Such a mix is lukewarm and God will spew such out of His mouth.

  • I think the current expression is to be “empowered”- which of course,to the atheist, is done by oneself.

  • Hi Bill yes you are right, many professed Christians are living outside of the Lordship of Christ and are apostates and imposters, however to be gracious there are also many who are ignorant of the Scriptures.

    We have a point on our Church banners in our churches which states ‘Holding Christians accountable to obey the Word of God’…..and this is what seems to have us lied about and persecuted so severely.

    Tonnes of professed Christians waltz into our churches big mouthing and playing the part, throwing a scripture or past story here and there and we then put them through our 10 week sunday school course to see if indeed they pass in accepting and holding to the most basic and fundamental early believer tenets of the Bible……most don’t even pass, they run from us realizing they cannot hide their lying apostate lives and that this is a place where Christians at least must try to serve God, yet they refuse to even do that.

    Its an absolute pleasure to reveal to these liars and imposters the truth about themselves, that they are God haters and lovers of self and we are one such people along with God who know exactly who they are….keep on telling us the truth mate, its rare. blessings

  • Precisely why, sad though it may be, the atheist consigns himself to hell.

  • Great article!

    @ Ed Sumner: your theology is quite interesting…even though I agree with some points of what you’re saying, I definitely disagree with ‘God doesn’t give us a choice’… if He wouldn’t give us free will/choice, He forces us to love Him, but how can anyone love by command? God is not a dictator! Are you a calvinist? Just read an interesting article about that yesterday…maybe it helps you to understand God’s character more in depth… www.gospelway.com/salvation/predestination.php

    God bless you

  • Jenn,

    God is not a dictator, He’s a KING. But as for your other assertion, it is written, “If you love me, keep my choices” right?

    Obviously, no. It is written, “If you love me, keep my COMMANDMENTS.”

    You see, man is a servant from the beginning. You are either the servant of SIN through Adam, or the servant of righteousness (in and through Christ).

    Yes, I’m a Calvinist, but first and foremost, I am a BELIEVER in Christ. All Calvin has done for me is to help me see things more clearly. Calvin makes the most sense in the light of Scripture.

  • Whether we like it or not, notions of individual autonomy are a myth: “…everyone who sins is a slave of sin.” [Joh 8:34]. I, for for one, am loathe to disagree with the line in Bob Dylan’s song which says: “You gotta serve somebody.”

    Persistent quest for absolute individual autonomy is well-illustrated by the anarchy and violence reported in the closing chapters of the book of Judges, where it is observed that “There was no king in Israel in those days and everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”

  • Self must be mortified

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