Autonomy1 is a devil, coming and going. On the front end he wants us to determine good and evil for ourselves and to leave God’s word completely out of it, and we (like our first parents), are all too happy to buy what he’s selling. Like two-year-olds, no one can tell us what to do. We’ll figure it all out on our own. And then, after we’ve made a real mess of it, we start our work of self-justification, calling evil good and good evil. We have an explanation for everything. Nevertheless, even as our world falls apart (and it always falls apart), we’re not ready to acknowledge that we’re the problem and that perhaps God actually knows what He’s talking about. And so, on the back side, when we’re really desperate, we still don’t want God’s way of remedy. Instead, we insist on saving ourselves, convinced that we can satisfy God on our own terms. Like Cain, we want to decide which sacrifices should be acceptable to God. We always come up short. Martin Luther wrote to Erasmus and explained his dilemma this way:
If I lived and worked to all eternity, my conscience would never reach comfortable certainty as to how much it must do to satisfy God. Whatever work I had done, there would still be a nagging doubt as to whether it pleased God, or whether He required something more.2
The best of men and women fall short, for “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,…” (Rom. 3:23). If we are to be saved from ourselves—saved from our autonomy—then we’ll have to be dethroned and God must be enthroned. He will have to do the saving on His terms, not ours. Salvation is a free gift; it’s all grace and it can’t be earned by us. The Bible lays it all out:
…being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, 26 to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. 27 Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? Of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28 Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law. —Romans 3:24-28
The beauty and simplicity of the Gospel of Christ comes rushing in as we stop trying to fix ourselves and surrender completely to Him; to His lordship. Luther would explain it this way in his Large Catechism:
There was no counsel, no help, no comfort for us until this only and eternal Son of God, in his unfathomable goodness, had mercy on our misery and wretchedness and came from heaven to help us . . . Jesus Christ, the Lord of life and righteousness and every good blessing. He snatched us, poor lost creatures, from the jaws of hell, won us, made us free, and restored us to the Father’s favor and grace . . . he who has bought us back from the devil to God, from death to life, from sin to righteousness, and now keeps us there.3
1 Autonomy: lit. self-law.
2 Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will. Cited in: The Legacy of Luther, p. 146 (Sinclair B. Ferguson).
3 Martin Luther, in The Book of Concord, Cited in: The Legacy of Luther, p. 161. (W. Robert Godfrey).