Grace, Death, Predestination, and Autonomy

Given the title of this post, this is going to be a heavy topic (thank you Captain Obvious!), and we are going to get a bit theological. Apologies in advance again to those looking for a quicker read, I realize this post isn’t very ‘bloggy’.

Here is the question I am trying to answer: does a strong grace position indicate a cessation of personal autonomy? Is there any place for free choice in our justification or our sanctification (as these terms are understood in contemporary theology)? If God chooses us, are we not to seek? If we are to seek, does that nullify grace?

Before I launch into answering this question, I need to summarize some of the ideas I have developed over time, so we can see lay some groundwork to think about this the way I want.

  • The nature of the fall. “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.” Gen 3:6

    The nature of the fall is a split in our understanding of the good. (Read more about this here.) Before the fall all that was desirable was also all that was moral. It was when the woman saw that the forbidden tree was good and desirable, that our notion of moral good was split from our notion of aesthetic good. The gospel addresses this essential nature of the fall, restoring and reuniting this split in us.

  • Obedience From the Heart. “…thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart…” Romans 6:17

    This obedience from the heart cannot be a requirement for justification, because if it is coerced by the threat of punishment or promise of reward, it is no longer obedience from the heart for the pure desired good of it, but goes back under the realm of law. However, if it is obedience, it implies I am choosing it. This implies that under the umbrella of grace, even under the umbrella that I have died and have been raised with Christ, I still obey from the heart. It is the rift of the heart that is solved, and apparently it is not solved by completely removing our autonomy. Clearly, if I disobey I do not nullify grace, because grace seeks the obedience of the heart and desire, not the punishment and coercive threat of rejection of the law.

  • Predestination and Free Will. “3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.” Ephesians 1:3-6 ESV

    “7 Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” Matthew 7:7

    Are we chosen, completely apart from works, before the foundation of the world? Yes. Are we to seek in order to find? Yes. Which is true? Both. Isn’t that impossible? Yes. How do you explain it? I don’t. It is the mystery of God. There is not a balance between these two ideas. They are both true, all the way. When we confront this reality, we have reached the end of human understanding, and have reached the mystery of God. We ought not think it is surprising that this is an extremely difficult question. It isn’t a difficult question, it is an impossible question. It is meant to be.
    If God has chosen us, that is the activity of God, causing us to will and to work. The exact agents of change and influence are not known to us, they are known to God. God has given to us that we know, we are able to act, we seek. We are not God and are not asked to act or refrain from acting based on perceiving the world from God’s perspective. We don’t know God’s perspective, and so we think and act from that which we do know – which is our own perspective. If He in a mystery causes that to be part of His foreknown and foreordained plan, that is His glory, not ours. When we overplay the predestination card and seek to remove the mystery of the interaction of this with our autonomy, we play at being God. It isn’t our place.
    More importantly, and I have seen this play out, if we entangle our notion of grace with a strong position on predestination, to the point that it removes human autonomy, it creates a false barrier to grace. It says, unless you understand not only that grace means that God loves you and that you are justified by Christ, but that you have all of your theological ducks lined up in your opinions about predestination and free will, you are not really understanding grace. It makes a strong position on predestination into a law, a barrier to grace. These ought not be combined ideas. I am convinced that God wants grace to be perceptible and comprehensible on the human side of the mystery regardless of how well one understands the issues swirling around this ultimate impossible puzzle of theology.

  • Autonomy. “26 Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.'” Genesis 1:26

    Atheistic naturalists have no basis for personal autonomy. The possibility of free will is a hotly debated philosophical topic these days, and they won’t say it out loud, but it is because they have painted themselves into a conceptual corner. If we are only the random product of time plus chance, the adaptive result of mutation and survival and environment, then how can we be said to have autonomy, to be real individuals? Our autonomy, our ability to act and decide and create, is the crown jewel gift of God to humanity. Contrary to the clear direction of naturalist worldview implications, we are real boys and real girls. Despite all the trouble it causes, God never removes the element of free choice from people.

    God is careful in every circumstance to introduce true choice. In the garden He was careful to include the forbidden tree, so that our autonomy, our choice of relationship with Him, was truly present. The father of the prodigal not only released the errant son, but supplied him with his entire inheritance. When we are tempted, He is careful to make sure we are not tempted beyond what we are able, but provides a way of escape. Why? If it is overwhelming it is not truly an opportunity for autonomous choice. For example, He never let me as a libidinous young man be dumped into a locker room full of naked cheerleaders. The temptations I failed at were more subtle than that. Our choices are doable. On the other hand, if He were to remove substantial choice altogether, it is not really choice. If we exist in an environment where we can only choose between chocolate syrup and caramel syrup, that is still a prison. If you think about it He is very careful to control and orchestrate these things.

So, back to our question. Does a strong grace position indicate a cessation of personal autonomy? Let’s look at some delicious quotes concerning grace:

“When you finally admit that you are dead, then you will stop balking at grace.” – Paul Walker

“Let us make an end: as long as you are struggling like the Pharisee to be alive in your own eyes–and to the precise degree that your struggles are for what is holy, just, and good — you will resent the apparent indifference to your pains that God shows in making the effortlessness of death the touchstone of your justification. Only when you are finally able, with the [tax collector], to admit that you are dead will you be able to stop balking at grace. – Robert Farrar Capon

“I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” – Jesus Christ

“And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” – Jesus Christ

Obviously I agree with all of this. I have got nothing when it comes to living right. If you give me the chance to fail, I will fail. I admit that I am dead. The problem is that the terms “death” and “life” are huge and this being a crucial point, it would do to unpack them a bit.

Consider the following picture (yes, I did it myself, I’m not much of an illustrator!):

In the garden, God said, do NOT go in there! Outside, all was permissible and desirable. There was no notion of moral will, of right and wrong. Inside the prison, all is colored by the notion of good and evil, right and wrong. When Jesus came to earth, He came into the prison of the tiny world of good and evil, and fulfilled its dictates. He became the door out of the prison.

We have autonomy inside the prison, and autonomy outside the prison, but we do NOT have autonomy to escape the prison without a redeemer. The only autonomy we have inside the prison is that we can keep trying to apply our efforts within the tiny world of right and wrong, of earning and deserving and karma. Inside we can only see aesthetic good as divided and at war with moral good. We do not have the autonomy to act in any other way. We cannot redeem ourselves, we cannot stop viewing the world and our place in it apart from deserving it and earning our significance. We can’t even interpret the free offer of grace and justification in any other terms except the law-based ways of thinking – you have to PRAY, you have to ACCEPT, you have to OPEN THE DOOR, you have to HAVE FAITH. You have to at least DO SOMETHING!! These things are true, but within the prison of law we make these things law-like. It’s like saying, “you are invited to the party!” and saying, “Do I have to go to the party to be in the party?” Of course, to be at the party, you have to go to the party, but the people at the party aren’t really thinking about it in terms of obligatory actions.

Before the fall, man had full freedom except for the one missive, do not eat the fruit. All that was desirable was also all that was moral. The one command was, don’t go in that prison, you won’t be able to get out. Once in the prison, all things are either right or wrong, good or evil, win or lose. Now in the prison, we have many futile choices, but one opposite provision. The entire world is a forbidden fruit, but we are now faced with one simple choice. Believe in Jesus Christ, go out the door into the universe of grace. Once outside, we have autonomy, but it operates within a gift culture. The only currency is gratitude. We do not need to work to earn our significance in this universe because approval is given as a gift carte blanche.

So, have we answered our question? Yes. We die to the universe of law when we enter the universe of grace. We remain dead. Any life we had under the law was an illusion. People who are irreligious may think they have escaped the law, but they are just rearranging furniture inside the prison of ought. We were never able to fulfill the law, to escape the condemning prison of right and wrong. We always have autonomy, but not to escape the prison of law. Outside the prison, we have autonomy, but we do not need to exercise it to justify ourselves, and if we misuse our autonomy we do not nullify grace. We enter the place where we are loved without measure, given all things as a pure gift, forgiven 70 X 7 daily, and act and work from the basis of gift and gratitude and the endless resource of the creative power and kindness of God Almighty.

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  1. Jim, I love your illustration!
    I just read a great passage in Tullian Tchividjian’s new book (Jesus+Nothing=Everything) that pertains to this subject:

    “Most people think that the human dilemma is that our lives are out of adjustment; we don’t meet God’s expectations. Salvation then becomes a matter of rearranging our priortities or adjusting our life-style to crrespond with God’s will. In its crassest form, this error leads people to think they earn their own salvation. More often in today’s evangelical world, the error as a more subtle disguise: armed with forgiveness through Jesus, people are urged to practice the techniques and principles Christ gave to bring their life-style back into line.
    It is certainly true that sinful lives are out of adjustment. We are all in need of the Spirit’s sanctifying power. But that comes only after our real problem is solved. Sins are just the symptom; our real dilemma is death.
    God warned Adam and Eve that the knowledge of evil came with a high price tag:”…when you eat of (the tree of the knowledge of good and evil) you will surely die” (Gen 2:17). Our first parents wanted to be like God and were willing to pay the price. And we are still paying the price: “the wages of sin is death…” (Rom. 6:23);”…in Adam all die” (1 cor. 15:22);”…You were dead in your transgressions and sins” (Eph. 2:1)
    The real problem we all face is death. Physical death, to be sure. But ultimately and most horribly, spiritual death – being cut off from God forever. And everyone must die. You can either die alone or die in Jesus.
    In his death Jesus Christ swallowed up our death and rose again triumphantly to take all of the teeth out of the grave. In the promise of the resurrection, death loses its power. When we die with Jesus, we really live!”

    Senkbeil from Justified: Modern Reformation Essays on the Doctrine of Justification.

  2. Where does the Bible say that we have “autonomy”? Where does the Bible say that the three persons of the Trinity have the ‘autonomy” to be on different pages, if they want to? “Autonomy” seems to be your idol, your way of imposing your “rational analysis” (your own version of doctrinal correctness) on some missing texts from the Bible. You assume a tension and a conflict because you assume human “autonomy”.

    You write: “How can both things be true? I don’t know, i am not God.” But nevertheless you “know” that autonomy is one of “two things”. You don’t “not know it”. You assume that the persons of the Trinity are “autonomous”. You assume that you are also. But where does the Bible ever say that you have a “free choice based on honest desire”? But you are SURE that predestination does not remove your “autonomy”. What is your text for this? “Eternity in the heart”? The image of God? You don’t need a text. You just know….

    • I think I made it clear in this statement:

      “God is careful in every circumstance to introduce true choice. In the garden He was careful to include the forbidden tree, so that our autonomy, our choice of relationship with Him, was truly present (Gen 2:16,17). The father of the prodigal not only released the errant son, but supplied him with his entire inheritance (thus honoring his autonomy)(Luke 15:12). When we are tempted, He is careful to make sure we are not tempted beyond what we are able, but provides a way of escape (1 Corinthians 10:13).”

      Jesus says, “And I say to you, ask, and it shall be given to you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened to you.”
      (Luke 11:9, NASB). At the least, this is clearly an endorsement of choice and autonomy by Jesus.

      I think these are all excellent instances where we are said to have autonomy. There are many many more. It is strange to assert that we have no autonomy of any kind.

      I think that it is the proper distinction to say, we have the autonomy to choose our socks or refuse or give in to temptation, but we do not have the autonomy to escape the prison of law.

  3. I don’t agree with your rationalistic analysis of what “true” choice is. It assumes that God did not determine it. It assumes a tension and a mystery you have yet to prove. It’s simply your presupposition. Choices, yes. But what you mean by “real choices”, no….

    What you find “strange” or “extreme” is not the standard of truth. There are more things real and true than you have yet dreamed of in your version of rationalism. You continue to conflate the two ideas, choice and autonomy, and this simply continues to beg the question.

    pentecost— ACTs 2:23 this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.

    God’s choice, a result of God’s nature and character, determined that these sinners would choose to kill Jesus. No tension, except if your rationalism puts it in.

    Jim, in your book, you do rightly reject the pelagianism that bases sin on our ability to do otherwise. (p59, Jesus can command us to do what we cannot do). You need to stick with that.

    Not even sin depends on “autonomy”. And certainly grace does not depend on ‘autonomy”. Beneath the veneer of your logical analysis, all you have is the rhetoric of words like “puppets.

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