Acton Institute Powerblog

Beware of Self-Willed Religion

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Golden-Calf-Painting1Last week, I wrote about the danger of self-chosen sacrifice, channeling evangelist Oswald Chambers, who warns us to “never decide the place of your own martyrdom.”

“Always guard against self-chosen service for God,” he continues. “Self-sacrifice may be a disease that impairs your service.”

As an example of how the process ought to go, Chambers looks to the story of Abraham and Isaac. God demanded something quite peculiar — the sacrifice of Abraham’s son —  and Abraham simply obeyed. “God chose the test for Abraham,” Chambers writes, “and Abraham neither delayed nor protested, but steadily obeyed.”

In Cornelis Vonk’s primer on Exodus, part of CLP’s growing series, “Opening the Scriptures,” he highlights an example of the opposite.

Moses had gone up to Mount Sinai, where God was to send down his law in written form. Yet down below, even as the Israelites had quite visibly witnessed the supernatural power of God — whether through the plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, the fire by night, etc. — they gave way to their humanistic impulses. Anxious and impatient for Moses to return and eager for guidance and direction, they could wait no longer.

“Make us gods who shall go before us,” they said.

They longed to serve something or someone, and they were willing to give of their precious gold. But although the Golden Calf provided a convenient illusion of the “other” — “an image of Yahweh to go before us!” — the idol they indulged was, in fact, themselves.

As Vonk explains, even throughout radical and intimate communion with God, and even upon witnessing the remarkable majesty of our Creator, it can be rather easy for us to fall prey to that routine temptation to look inward instead of upward:

Just then, Yahweh was busy laying a beautiful plan before Moses about how he would live in the midst of his people.

Self-willed religion is always getting in God’s way.

Even God’s descent to us in the incarnation of his Word is shoved aside while self-willed religion tries to come up with something better.

…When it comes to worshiping God, there is no room for invention! We must not slip into a self-willed religion. Everything that we believe and confess about God, about his Christ, his Spirit, his Word, his church, the fruits of our faith, including the forgiveness of sins and the renewal of our lives—all of this we must be able to prove element by element on the basis of what Scripture says. Any step we take beyond Scripture in such matters can cause us to slip back into “Canaanite” errors. (emphasis added)

God sought to set his people apart, and he seeks the same today. Ours is a service that transcends the error and folly of this world. The “distortions of heathendom” are not confined to Old Testament conflicts and spiritual battles. They are alive and well in the basic struggle of our belief, and that struggle continues on in the everyday choices we make, whether in our families, communities, economic pursuits, or otherwise.

Individualism will whisper, materialism will tempt, and lust will allure. The gods of self-willed religion lurk in all places, and they will always demand sacrifice. But standing against them is the the power of the Gospel and the love of the God who gave it: Christ, the Spirit, his Word, his church, and the fruits of our faith. From the mountain, he sends down his law, if only we’d take time to look, listen, and obey.

Through Him, we can reach deeper, stretch wider, and aim higher, serving our neighbors and creation wisely and generously, but doing so for the ultimate glory of the God.

Opening the Scriptures: Exodus

Opening the Scriptures: Exodus

Opening the Scriptures is neither a new series of technical commentaries, nor is it a collection of sermons. Instead it offers devout church members a series of popularly accessible primers so that the average churchgoer can easily grasp them. The organization of this series follows the four main sectional divisions of Holy Scripture: the Torah, the many prophetic books, the Psalms and wisdom books, and the New Testament. The authors of Opening the Scriptures show throughout that Holy Scripture is from A to Z the Book of God's covenant with his people. In this volume, readers are provided with an introduction to the book of Exodus, the second book of the Law of Moses or Torah, which is chiefly intended to give instruction about the series of covenants God made with Abraham and his seed. Contents 1. Learning to Love the Law 2. A Fundamental Place within Scripture and the Pentateuch 3. Deliverance from Egypt (Part 1: Exodus 1:1–15:21) 4. The Journey to Horeb (Part 2: Exodus 15:22–18:27) 5. Making a Covenant at Horeb (Part 3: Exodus 19–24) 6. The Golden Calf (Exodus 32–34) 7. The Building of the Tabernacle (Part 4: Exodus 25-40) 8. The Tabernacle Construction and Furnishings 9. Looking Back at the Book of Exodus

Joseph Sunde Joseph Sunde is a writer and project coordinator for the Acton Institute, serving as editor of the Letters to the Exiles blog and content manager of the Oikonomia channel at He is the founder of Remnant Culture and was a longtime contributor to AEI's Values & Capitalism project. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The City, The Christian Post, The Stream, Charisma News, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Mission:Work, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.


  • JohnE

    I like this article, but it seems incomplete. If everything we believe and confess about God only needs to be proved on the basis of what Scripture says, how do we know if we’ve interpreted scripture correctly? It seems that we would have an even more dangerous problem to be wary of: being deceived (either by ourselves or others) into thinking we do not have a self-willed religion but have received it from God — corroborating with like-minded believers who interpret scripture the same way. We fallen and easily-deceived believers need more than interpretation of scripture to guide us.