Saturday, November 21, 2009

Autonomy: The MOTHER of All Sin

When the Colonies voted to end British rule, leading to the Revolutionary War, what they were actually voting for was autonomy. They were tired of being under British rule without fair and just representation mediating between them and the ruling power. They decided they would dissociate from Britain and pursue a new and better way. No longer would British law rule over their affairs. This is what it means for a government to be autonomous. In addition to this, it means that an autonomous government is sovereign over itself to do with itself as it pleases. It serves no other nation and owes no particular allegiance to any other nation, except through voluntary treaties which it may freely enter into at its discretion.

Webster defines autonomy as, “the fact or condition or being autonomous; self-government; independence; any state that governs itself.” Autonomy then, as the Christian worldview would understand it, is the sinful desire on the part of man to act, think, and behave in a way that is self-governing. We decide how we will conduct our lives, not Scripture. Do we do this directly? Sometimes we do, but most often it takes a much more subtle form as will be explained in the next section. How does this apply to the individual? When God made man (making them male and female), he made them completely and entirely dependent upon Himself. In fact, every created thing is absolutely dependent on God to sustain it. He upholds all things by the word of His power (Heb. 1:3). The only being that is not dependent on anything outside of itself is the Triune God. God is absolutely independent. God depends on no one for anything whatever. Any view of God that requires God to rely on anything or anyone outside of Himself is not a biblical view of God. The confusion around the nature of God’s being could easily be cleared up if we preached and taught more systematically through the Bible and took the time to explain the implications of holding to false views of the nature and being of God. These false views can often be traced to sinful thinking connected to our desire for autonomy. This subject will be covered a little later in this article.

The Subtly of Autonomy
Christians, even non-devoted Christians so-called, rarely state overtly that they refuse to obey Scripture. Autonomy often takes a much more subtle form. True, it begins with our desire for autonomy in the first place. But this desire must confront and grapple with the revelation of Scripture. For purposes of this article, I will only deal with those who hold that the Bible is indeed God’s revealed word, perfect and pure and accurate in all that it teaches. How does our desire for autonomy emerge in these circumstances? After all, we all claim to be submissive to Scripture and we believe this is the distinguishing mark of those who truly have placed their faith in Christ. This being the case, the intellect of every believer is affected by the sin nature. As we approach Scripture, our sinful nature (intellect included) will desperately search for methods to interpret the Bible in a way that accommodates our autonomous desires. At this point, perhaps an example is in order.

The homosexual community recognizes the numerous passages of Scripture which address their lifestyle in a very negative light. They react in one of two ways: first, they discount the Bible, arguing that the authors were speaking from cultural bias. However, the more subtle form argues that the Bible isn’t really condemning homosexuality as we know it. What the Bible is talking about is pedophilia. By interpreting the Bible differently, they have now paved the way to have their cake and eat it too. They claim to be submissive to Christ, while at the same time rejecting His commands prohibiting their lifestyle. Thus they approach God not as the only absolute independent being, but they seek to share in that absolute independence for themselves. This is how autonomy subtly creeps into the lives of Christians and damages their spiritual condition. (Note: homosexuals are not true believers). If you think you are exempt from such behavior, perhaps you should reconsider. Without actually thinking I was exempt from this sin, in reality I acted as if I were. And I have since learned that my own sinful desires for autonomy were real, deep, and hurtful to those around me. But were it not for God’s grace and His loving correction, I would be left to condemnation. But this is true of all of us. The desire for autonomy is at the root of all sin. In fact, what makes sin, sin, is that it is the practice of an activity that is independent from God’s will. The very nature of sin is creaturely autonomy.

The War for Autonomy
This can be seen in Isaiah 14:13-14 where Isaiah records, “But you said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God, and I will sit on the mount of assembly in the recesses of the north. 14 ‘I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.” Of course this is the record of the great satanic revolt where Satan led fully one-third of the angelic beings in an autonomous revolution against God. Unlike the American Revolution used to introduce this concept, the Autonomous Revolution failed miserably and brought with it eternal, divine wrath for all its participants. The autonomous desires of Satan were manifested in pride. (I am more familiar with the sin of pride than I wish to be). Think about the power and allure of autonomy here. One-third of the angels succumbed to it’s seductiveness. It is that alluring. We must take every measure possible to arm ourselves against it. It intrudes into every part of our lives, seeking to separate us from our God. It manifests itself through various sin of all types and forms. It shows up in pride, arrogance, self-righteousness, false wisdom, sexual desires, anger, bitterness, compromise, false doctrine, unforgiveness, and impurity of all sorts. I could go on and on but you get the point.

Man’s Pursuit for Autonomy
This story begins in Genesis 3. When Satan tempted Eve, he enticed her with the words, “you will be like God.” And this is, after all, the point. Satan wanted to be like God when he led his revolution. And now he is passing off his delusion to God’s creatures. He tells Eve that you can determine right and wrong on your own, apart from God. You can know things, on your own, apart from God. In essence he is telling Eve that she can think and act autonomously, independently from God. This, of course, is easy to see when we examine the morality of society. Moreover, it is not too difficult to see when we examine the philosophies which our culture holds near and dear to its heart. They contradict God and His word at nearly every turn. But once we step into the church, into theology, into hermeneutics (interpreting Scripture), this autonomy becomes much more subtle. It is not as easy to detect. For instance, the Arminian desire for the absolute freedom of the will is borne out of a desire for autonomy. The openness of God view, and the teachings of process theology are the result of autonomous desires. These views do not like the idea that God is absolutely sovereign over all things to include the affairs of man and as a result, they change the nature of God, the nature of sin, the nature of the curse and the nature of man all in an attempt to achieve a degree of autonomy. In the process, Scripture is interpreted in a way that accommodates their views which are borne out of autonomous desires. This, of course, is an ever present threat in our Bible studies. We must be aware of our own evil desire for autonomy at all times. Continuous awareness of autonomous desires is the first step in taking such thoughts captive to the obedience of Christ (2 Cor. 10:3-6).

An Anti-Autonomous Attitude
In hand to hand combat, one of the first lessons you learn is never, ever underestimate your opponent. In terms of autonomy, I have to confess that I have been guilty of doing just that in the past. The result of such a mistake can be devastating to say the least. As I have looked at this fascinating, yet sinful trait of fallen humans, I have been forced to prepare my heart and mind for this battle in a much more deliberate and focused way. For this I am thankful because God’s grace will serve to keep me from repeating this mistake again. What is the best defense then against autonomous thinking? The opposite of autonomy is dependence. We must create an attitude of complete dependence on God. We must rely on Him and His help for all things. When we are making a decision about what we should or should not do, we must depend on God for His guidance. Joshua 1:8 says, “This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have success.” This reflects a complete dependence on and reliance in God’s power to lead and sustain us.

We rely on God to keep us from sin. “Your word I have treasured in my heart so that I might not sin against you.” (Ps. 119:11) According to BDB (the standard Hebrew lexicon) this word actually means “to keep: a teaching close to oneself, to keep in one’s heart”. When we think of this verse, we have been conditioned to think of Scriptural memorization. But memorizing Scripture does not ipso facto cause us to avoid sin. This teaching specifically impacts our behavior and therefore there must be more to it than rote memorization. It has to do with how we view the teachings of Scripture. If we value or treasure the teachings of Scripture, they will in fact keep us from sinning. This is because we will take the time to study them, understand what is expected of us, and then apply them to our lives. That is to say we will live what we believe the Bible is saying to us. In Romans 12:2, Paul instructs us to “be transformed by the renewing of the mind, so that we may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.” The Greek word for renewal ‘anakainosis’ appears only twice in the NT. Here and in Titus 3:5. What is Paul actually saying in Romans 12:2? Paul is arguing that the reason we renew our minds is so that we may ‘prove’ what God’s will is. The word ‘prove’ is the Greek word, ‘dokimadzo’ and it means “to make critical examination of something to determine genuineness, to draw a conclusion about worth on the basis of testing, prove, approve, here the focus is on the result of a procedure or examination.” We can only do this through the study of Scripture and the regeneration and illumination of the Holy Spirit. Without the work of the Spirit in our lives and especially in our minds, we cannot possibly renew our minds in the word. If we are renewing our minds, we can then properly understand God’s revelation and as a result, we can apply it to our lives. This will help us avoid the sin of autonomy. But we must take this discipline very seriously. We must be aware of how evil autonomy is. We must understand that we are not exempt from its seductive allure. And we must constantly submit our minds and lives to Christ as we humbly approach His word in an attempt to understand just exactly how it is we are to please Him in this life.

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