The Gospel vs. Moral Autonomy

by Scott Sauls June 29, 2018

Today, I want to consider the contrast between the Gospel and self-actualization or moral autonomy — the idea that being a law unto ourselves is the key to freedom and happiness.

The Gospel liberates us from moralism and the restlessness, insecurity, and distorted relationship patterns that moralism creates. But it does more than merely liberate us from moralism. It also liberates us to a new kind of life that is patterned after the beautiful character of Jesus. To think that happiness and independence from God’s rule can coexist is another way of deceiving ourselves. Having been created in his image, we will find true happiness and freedom to the degree that our lives are aligned with God’s vision for human flourishing.

Sin is running from God

From the parable of two lost sons in Luke 15, we see that there are two ways to run from God. The elder, moralistic brother ran from God by keeping all the rules but with ulterior motives. He did not obey to please his father or because he believed his father’s rules were good. Instead, he obeyed in order to gain leverage. He wanted a track record that enabled him to feel entitled to the father’s gifts and blessings. He also wanted a basis by which to judge and belittle others (especially his younger brother) while justifying himself. The younger brother, conversely, ran from God not by keeping his rules but by rejecting them. As he breaks his father’s rules, he also breaks his father’s heart. He is not interested in having a relationship with his father. Rather, like his elder brother, he only wants the perks and money that his father can give to him. The younger son, believing that complete independence and personal autonomy is his ticket to a fulfilled life, wants out. This is what sin is. Sin starts with a decision, conscious or unconscious, that our lives would be better off if God were dead to us.

Sin represents a complete loss of perspective, a forgetfulness of the bigger picture of God’s love and generosity, as well as the freedom of living under his shelter and by his design. The commands of God, including the various limitations that they place upon us, are given not to oppress us or keep us under his thumb, but rather to make us free—to give us a life that is truly life.

But the elder and younger son in us is happy to settle for much less. As CS Lewis has said:

It would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he can’t imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.[1]

Sin is a form of lostness—it estranges us from God

It does not take long for the autonomous son to come to his senses and realize that life apart from his father will eventually ruin him. When he runs out of resources, his friends and even the prostitutes no longer find him useful—so they abandon him. Sin is bound up in self-interest, and self-interested people treat relationships as a means to an end. When the perceived cost of a relationship starts to exceed the perceived benefit, self-interested people hit eject very quickly. The autonomous son, now alone in the world, finds a job feeding pigs—a far cry from his former life with his father. Feeding on pig slop, he finally comes to his senses and realizes that apart from his father, he is completely lost. Even the inheritance he received became sour in the absence of his father.

The story of sin and misery is not isolated to the elder and younger sons in Luke 15. After abusing his power and committing adultery and murder, King David is eaten up inside and he longs to see ‘joy and gladness’ again and cries out to God, ‘Let the bones you have crushed rejoice’ (see Psalm 51). The apostle Paul, remembering his former life as an elder brother moralist, attests that moralism and self-righteousness had turned him into an angry, miserable man (see Philippians 3). King David behaved as a younger brother type, shunning the laws of God for a time. Paul behaved like an elder brother type, leaning on his moral record to justify trusting in himself that he was righteous while treating others with contempt. Both were miserable until, like the younger brother in Luke 15, they ‘came to their senses’ and saw that the self-centered life invites decay.

We are made for God and will be restless without him

Saint Augustine famously prayed, ‘You have made us for Thyself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.’ Blaise Pascal similarly said that there is a God-shaped vacuum within the human heart, and unless God is the one who fills the vacuum, we will be empty.

So where are we to go, and what are we to do, when we experience this emptiness? According to God our Father, the answer is simple.

Come home.

For elder and younger brother types alike, the Father in heaven extends a generous and affectionate ‘welcome home.’ He invites us to turn from distorted behaviors and the distorted beliefs that undergird them. He invites us to come to our senses and to repent. Repenting is simply turning away from our distorted ways and turning toward God’s lovely, life-giving ways.

Moralistic, bitter saints like the elder son must repent of their righteousness. That is, they must turn from their belief that they such good people that they don’t need God. Autonomous people, on the other hand, must repent of their autonomy. That is, they must turn from their belief that they will be more happy, complete, and satisfied by living independently from God’s rule. Both moralism and autonomy are really flip sides of the same coin. Both are vain attempts to find meaning apart from God, and apart from the Gospel. Very thankfully, God, like the father in the parable, opens his arms and his home to both the moralist and the autonomist in us.

Sin and selfishness can be very deep, very ugly, and very shameful. Still, all repentance—all turning from self-salvation through moralism and from self-salvation through autonomy—is met by a Father who not only welcomes us back as his children but lavishes us with his love. He throws a party in heaven every time a selfish and lost child comes home to him! Not only does he say, ‘Come back home…’ Even more than this, he says ‘Come and dance with me!’ That is the heart of God for prodigals who come home.

Billy Joel sings, “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints. The sinners are much more fun.” Once we experience the Father’s lavish love for sinners, however, we understand that the real dance is among the saints, not the sinners. The real dance is among those who have been loved so fully, and given such grace, that the only option is to run home to the Father who, as we trust and obey him, invites us to ‘celebrate and be glad.’

Editor's Note: This originally published at ScottSauls.com

Notes

  1. ^ CS Lewis, The Weight of Glory (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), Kindle edition.