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Sin, Self, State, and Savior

23 years ago David Wells wrote No Place for Truth, in which he suggested that individuals in a society that self-consciously suppresses the truth about the depravity of human nature will inevitably either move toward Statism, in some form or fashion, or the quest for absolute self-realization and self-fulfillment. He writes:

"If the genius of modern individualism lies in the idea of the dignity of the individual, the genius of modern humanism lies in the failure to acknowledge the companion reality of human depravity. The capacity for ultimate knowledge--that we are given by creation--is a fearful thing when it is unhitched from the knowledge of sin. This uncoupling gives rise to individuals who are unsuspicious about themselves, who infuse their own ideas with divine authority, who are oblivious to the inherent darkness of human nature. This realization stands behind Reinhold Niebuhr's attack on political Liberalism, which, he charged, had thrown its lot in with Rousseau, who believed in the inherent goodness of human nature, or with utilitarians, who made a virtue out of collective selfishness, or with Adam Smith, who saw no danger in the unregulated pursuit of self-interest (an interest that is today more often associated with the conservatives). According to Niebuhr, Liberalism always assumes that the conflict of individual wills will automatically produce social good and that unaided reason can tame the passions of selfish people. But this belief, that the benevolent goodwill of society will inevitably prevail, has been sorely tested--indeed, overthrown--by the succession of appallingly destructive nationalistic conflicts that have scarred the twentieth century. Proponents of this Liberalism appear not to recognize the dark potential of fallen human nature. And, given their reluctance to acknowledge a transcendent authority, they have typically defined imminent authority in only two ways in the modern period--either in terms of the state as in Marxism (or of a nationalism embodied in the state as in Nazism) or in terms of the self as in America.

Of course, much has had to happen in America to allow life to be so radically reshaped. Not least, we have had to witness the collapse of the central core of values in our society, that value to which a majority consented and that functioned as a rough guide for how our life should be ordered. As these values have disintegrated, new ways of living have begun to emerge. Accountability, for example, dies when the self is thought to be accountable only to itself and, in its place, there has arisen an ethic that resolves everything into a simple proposition: what's right is what feels good. This in turn dictates that the pursuit of affluence as a means of self-fulfillment holds the key to life."1

Two decades later, we watch our society--that has sought to define imminent authority in terms of the self--now looking to the state to protect the late-modern ethic of individualism and self-actualization. After all, something has to hold the individualism of a society of individuals together as it rages against the transcendent ethic of Scripture. When a society self-consciously rejects the moral law of God it inevitably seeks to replace it with a codification of its own supposed autonomous ethic. Unregenerate man would rather bow his knee to the State than to the Savior. The only remedy is, of course, for men and women to acknowledge their own depravity and their need for the Savior--to embrace Christ by faith and to submit to God's authority in His word and under the government in His church. Instead of looking for political triumph, Christians should look to model, in the church, what it means to submit to the transcendent ethic of God's word and Gospel by submitting themselves to the Savior. 1. David Wells No Place for Truth (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans,1993) pp. 147-148

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