Rev. Terpstra is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of South Holland, Illinois.
In our last segment we ended by considering briefly the heresy of the British monk Pelagius. We noted that the heart of his error was the denial of man’s need for the sovereign work of Gods grace in saving him. According to Pelagius natural man has God’s gift of free-will and that was all he needed. By directing his will in the right way the natural man could make himself good in the eyes of God and do the good God required of him. He was not a dead sinner who depended on an efficacious operation of God in the heart.
It was on account of this outright attack on God’s grace that Augustine, the great bishop of Hippo, took to holy arms. As soon as the strange breezes of doctrine from the Pelagian camp blew into North Africa, this ardent servant of the Lord took up the sword of the Spirit in sermons, treatises, and personal letters—even though at the time he was busily engaged in another controversy, that against the Donatists. Augustine sensed at once the error of Pelagius and its danger to the church, and knew that it needed immediate attention. He was to devote the next twenty years of his life to the attention of this heresy.
The Spirit’s Preparation of Augustine
It is not difficult to find out why Augustine rose to contend with this heresy so quickly and vigorously. This was due to the fact that the Spirit of truth had prepared him for the defense and development of the “theology of grace” in an extraordinary way. In the first place, the Spirit prepared Augustine naturally for this task. Augustine was a man of brilliant mind and possessed outstanding gifts in logic and speech. He was trained in the art of rhetoric (speaking and writing), and in the early part of his life entered this career, teaching it in the cities of Tagaste, Carthage, Rome, and Milan. These natural skills and training the Spirit put to use for the cause of the gospel against the Pelagian heresy. Augustine was able to grasp the error of Pelagius and expose it clearly in speech and writing because the Spirit had equipped him with these natural abilities. Augustine’s literary output during the Pelagian controversy alone is astounding—ten major treatises—in addition to countless sermons and letters!
But in the second place, the Spirit also prepared Augustine spiritually for his task. We have reference to his difficult journey to conversion. The road to becoming bishop in the church was anything but normal and smooth for Augustine. Born in A.D. 354 to a God-fearing mother, Monica, but a God-less father, Patricius, Augustine was as a child taught the Christian faith and practice by the example and word of his pious mother. But during the period of his formal education outside the home Augustine gradually strayed from his Christian up-bringing and fell deeply into the vain philosophies and wicked lifestyle of the world. For a time his life was a spiritual roller-coaster, as he dabbled in Manichaeism, skepticism, Neo- Platonism, and immorality, and yet found no joy and peace in any of these. Finally, in Milan, through the influence of the godly bishop Ambrose and in answer to his mother’s prayers, Augustine was delivered from his bondage to sin and shown the light of truth by the Spirit. Consequently, he was catechized and then baptized on Easter Sunday in A.D. 387. He then went on to the city of Hippo, where he was ordained presbyter in A.D. 391, and five years later became bishop, in which position he continued until his death in 430.
It was in this way that Augustine was spiritually prepared to confront the Pelagian error. From his own life he knew well the depths of man’s depravity and the wickedness of the human heart. But he had also tasted the power of God’s grace, and knew that it was this alone—not his free-will—that had saved his soul from eternal ruin. When, therefore, Pelagius came out with his novelties, Augustine knew Pelagius was wrong because of the knowledge of his own sin and his own personal experience of the saving work of God’s grace.
There is one thing more that should be noted concerning the Spirit’s preparation of Augustine for the Pelagian controversy. That is that Augustine was led into an unswerving submission to and a deep understanding of the holy Scriptures. This too came about through Augustine’s pre-conversion experience. When he fell in with the sect of the Manichees, he adopted their critical approach to the Bible. But after a time he discovered the folly of their method and instead came to understand that the Bible had to be handled and received as the very Word of God. This had the effect of giving him a deep devotion to the Scriptures. Even before his conversion Augustine applied himself to a careful study of God’s Word. But when through his conversion the light of truth fell upon his heart, he gave himself wholeheartedly to the study of the Scriptures. Hence, by the time the controversy broke out he was well equipped to wield the Sword of the Spirit. With skillful exposition of the Word he exposed the lie of Pelagius and stated the truth of God.
Augustine’s Work Against the Pelagians
The first point at which Augustine confronted the attack of Pelagius was on the doctrine of sin. This necessarily had to be the starting point. If Pelagius was right that man came into the world without original sin, but rather spiritually neutral with the power to do the good if he chose to do so, then Augustine would have to concede that the grace of God was not necessary; man could save himself. If, on the other hand, man was a sinner, born guilty and with a corrupt nature, then clearly man needed the grace of God to be saved and to do the good.
It was this latter that Augustine found to be the truth of Scripture. Repeatedly in his writings against the Pelagians he begins by pointing out that their fundamental error is a denial of sin and its effect on mankind. Hence, in his very first work against the Pelagians, “On the Merits and Forgiveness of Sins, and On the Baptism of Infants” (A.D. 412) Augustine set out to prove the doctrine of original sin. He did this by arguing on the basis of the baptism of infants. In contrast to the Pelagians who said that infants needed baptism only for consecration to God and not as a washing from sin, Augustine taught that infants need this washing precisely because of original sin. Pointing to Romans 5:12, he said that all infants have derived sin and death from Adam by natural descent, not by imitation. Therefore they have need of the Savior from sin, Jesus Christ. That, according to him, is what baptism implies. Thus he writes:
Now, seeing that they (i.e., the Pelagians—CJT) admit the necessity of baptizing infants, . . . they cannot avoid the further concession, that infants require the same benefits of the Mediator, in order that, being washed by the sacrament. . ., they might be reconciled to God, and so live in Him, be saved, and delivered, and redeemed, and enlightened. But from what, if not from death, and the vices, and guilt, and thraldom, and darkness of sin? And, inasmuch as they do not commit any sin in the tender age of infancy by their actual transgression, original sin only is left, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. V (all references in this article are from this volume—CJT), p. 30.
This truth of original sin Augustine also demonstrated clearly in a later work entitled “On the Grace of Christ, and On Original Sin” (A.D. 418). There he wrote:
Now, whoever maintains that human nature at any period required not the second Adam for its physician, because it was not corrupted in the first Adam, is convicted as an enemy to the grace of God. . . . How happens it, then, that the human nature, which first existed, is praised by these men as being so far less tainted with evil manners? How is it that they overlook the fact that men were even then sunk in so many intolerable sins, that, . . . the whole world was in God’s just judgment destroyed by the flood. . . ? From the moment, then, when “by one man sinned entered into the world, and death by sin, and so death passed upon all men, in whom all sinned”, the entire mass of our nature was ruined beyond doubt, and fell into the possession of its destroyer, p. 249.
This meant that Pelagius’ doctrine of the power of that natural man’s free-will was a fabrication. Augustine showed that, while man had indeed been created with the gift of free-will such that he could choose to do and did do the good, in the Fall he lost this, and consequently all men since then have been born without this. Augustine did not deny that man acted freely; but he proved from Scripture that truth concerning the will of men that Luther later set forth against Erasmus, namely, that the will of the natural man is bound to sin and sin only; it has no ability to will or do the good. Accordingly, Augustine stated in his work “On the Spirit and the Letter” (A.D. 412):
A man’s free-will, indeed, avails for nothing except to sin, if he knows not the way of truth; and even after his duty and his proper aim shall begin to become known to him, unless he also takes delight in and feels love for it, he neither does his duty, nor sets about it, nor lives rightly, p. 85.
Having established the Scriptural teaching on the doctrine of sin, Augustine set the stage for the truth concerning the grace of God which alone restores the sinner and enables him to do what is pleasing to God. It was at this point that Augustine was most powerfully on the defensive and on the offensive. In treating the doctrine of God’s sovereign grace he was above all concerned for the truth of God and the glory of His name. To deny the grace of God as the Pelagians did was for Augustine a most grievous offense. In one of his treatises he wrote:
For there are some persons who presume so much upon the free determination of the human wilt, as to suppose that it need not sin, and that we require no divine assistance . . . . Now how hurtful, and how pernicious and contrary to our salvation in Christ, and how violently adverse to the religion itself in which we are instructed, and to the piety whereby we worship God. . . , “On the Merits and Forgiveness of Sins”, p. 44.
In another treatise Augustine was even more forceful:
For if natural capacity, by help of free will, is in itself sufficient both for discovering how one ought to live, and also for leading a holy life, then “Christ died in vain”. . . . Why also may I not myself exclaim?—nay, I will exclaim, and chide them with a Christian’s sorrow,—”Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by nature; ye are fallen from grace . . . . ” “On Nature and Grace”, p. 137.
God’s sovereign grace—that was the theme defended and developed by Augustine in this controversy. This was his chief concern and reason for battling Pelagius and his followers. To him, only that faith which held to God’s grace was the catholic Christian faith. Exactly what the “Doctor of grace” taught concerning this cardinal truth will have to wait until our next article.