The Grievous Sin of Autonomy

Barb Wire

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.

The 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 center 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.

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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.

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Barb Wire.

Bill Muehlenberg
Bill Muehlenberg, who was born in America, lives in Melbourne, Australia. He runs a web-based ministry of pro-faith, pro-family activism called CultureWatch: http://www.billmuehlenberg.com. Bill is widely sought out by the media for comments on social issues, faith issues, and family issues, and has appeared on all the major television and radio news shows, current affairs shows, and debate programs. He is the author of In Defence of the Family; Strained Relations: The Challenge of Homosexuality, and several other books.

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