Autonomy and Divine Justice

by David Browder

There is a deep and inherent disconnect in the human condition that is the source of much tension and consternation. We desire complete and unfettered personal autonomy and, at the same time, we long for divine justice. Personal autonomy is located in the subjective: to be autonomous is, literally, to be “a law unto oneself”. Divine justice is located in the objective: divine law and the justice that undergirds it is true and right for all of humanity. But divine law negates or seriously limits personal autonomy.

The Disconnect in Action on Social Media and in the Arts

You can see this irreconcilable disconnect work itself out on social media. On the one hand, people assert their personal values, beliefs, or actions and demand affirmation from others. On the other hand, these same people seek divine, objective justice for those who don’t fit their view of the world. You, the reader, can see how poorly these two actions fit together.

We also see this disconnect at work in the art we consume. Sometimes, we cheer on heroes (or anti-heroes) in movies or television shows as they assert their wills on their environments. At other times, we cheer on superheroes (when will these movies ever end?) and Jedi as they confront the bad guys asserting their wills on their environments. Why? Because we desperately want good to triumph over evil in something that looks like divine, objective justice.

You probably feel this tension in your life.

The Disconnect in Action in our Lives

As much as we desire autonomy and a personal liberation defined by our desires, we feel limited and often powerless to fulfill our own laws. Are you as far along in your career as you require for yourself? How successful have you been in molding your children into what you desire for them? Have you truly accounted for every hour and minute in your day as it relates to your plan for your life? (I know this feeling: in college, I couldn’t work up the courage to ask out the girl by whom I was deeply captivated. She was a very accomplished biology major from an awesome sorority; I was having difficulty finding my social and academic footing. I felt unworthy at the time.)

As much as we desire the good to triumph over evil — divine justice — we have the sneaking suspicion that we don’t fulfill divine justice’s requirements and ideals. So we have something to fear from divine justice. Do you have regrets? Have you hurt someone — perhaps in your past? Do you have sudden onsets of deep guilt without knowing where they came from? Is there a memory seared on your conscience that you would do anything to change but cannot? Well, you’re in good company because that is a pretty universal experience in the human condition.

We go through life constantly facing judgment. Beginning very early in our lives, we are tested, ranked, stacked, critiqued, and judged. What high school did you attend? What is your SAT score? Where did you go to college? Was it upper-tier or are you just an average joe? “Your competitor offers this. Why don’t you?” We are constantly aware of our place in the pecking order, even in our leisure activities. How good are you really on the guitar? What is your score on the video game? You mean you have been to Europe but not to Asia? You haven’t lived until you have done that.

The Cross is the Answer

What hope is there for those of us who are both so deeply conflicted, deeply limited, and deeply judged? The students at our school are studying The Apostles’ Creed this semester. This week, they are looking at the phrase, “He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried.” This phrase is talking about what Jesus Christ did at the cross – and the cross is the answer to all the questions that arise about limitation and judgement.

At the cross, the Second Person of the Trinity — Jesus Christ the Righteous — willingly took on himself the full measure of divine justice. He is not limited. He could have summoned the entire might of Heaven to assert His will in this world. Yet, He did not. In His incomprehensible love, He emptied Himself (Phil. 2:7) for those of us with deep limitations and little understanding. Due to the cross, those of us who are in Him through faith have nothing to fear from divine justice. Justice has been meted out in the mystery and Unity of the Trinity, borne by Christ Himself. There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1). The regrets, the hurt we have inflicted, and the searing scars on our respective consciences have been dealt with totally and finally. The cross has separated our causes of guilt and fear from us as far as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:12)

We no longer need radical personal autonomy because we have been firmly established as heirs of The King. Christ’s righteousness is now ours: so we need no longer be burdened by our fears, limitations, and feelings of unworthiness. We also need no longer fear divine justice. In Him, we are declared just. In Christ, all that is now left to do is hope and love. It is this profound change in the human condition, wrought by Christ, that gives us another kind of freedom — a freedom for which we were all created. The freedom to love God and our neighbor.

This is Christian freedom.