Rev. Terpstra is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of South Holland, Illinois.
Our readers will recall that in these articles on the great church father Augustine we are focusing on his defense and development of the doctrines of grace over against the heresy of Pelagianism. In our last segment we saw how the Spirit of truth specially prepared Augustine for this, and how Augustine began his work by confronting this error of Pelagius with the biblical teaching concerning the sinfulness of natural man. He overthrew the Pelagian figment of salvation by man’s freewill and posited instead the utter helplessness of the sinner because of his guilt and total depravity in Adam. This set the stage for Augustine to set forth the truth of God’s sovereign grace in the salvation of the sinner. This “theology of grace” as set forth by the “Doctor of grace” we wish to examine in this last article on Augustine.
The Nature of God’s Saving Grace
The general principle from which Augustine viewed the work of Gods grace in saving the sinner was theabsolute sovereignty of God. Standing solidly on the truth of the Scriptures—especially the epistles of Paul—Augustine held that it was God alone Who saves, not man. Without God man can do nothing, and any good that man does do is of God alone. One of Augustine’s favorite lines from the New Testament Scriptures was the question raised by Paul in I Corinthians 4:7: “. . . And what hast thou that thou didst not receive?” Referring to this often in his writings, Augustine demonstrated that all that the saved sinner had and was is due to God; the sinner had and was nothing of himself, For Augustine, salvation is from start to finish the work and gift of the sovereign Lord and His sovereign grace. In his own words, God’s sovereign grace was “that by which alone men are delivered from evil, and without which they do absolutely no good thing, whether in thought, or will and affection, or in action” (“On Rebuke and Grace,”The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. V, p. 472; all future references will be from this volume, CJT). Such was Augustine’s position, from which none of the wiles of the Pelagians would shake him.
More specifically, and in the first place, Augustine taught that God’s work of grace in saving the sinner was internal and not merely external. You will recall that when Pelagius spoke of God’s grace he did so only in terms of external helps, such as the law, the gospel, and the example of Christ; there was no sovereign work in the heart, no renewal of the will, no opening of the mind. But Augustine held that, in order for man to be saved, God must work internally. And this is what He does.
For proof of this we need only refer to the first anti-Pelagian work of Augustine, “On the Merits and Forgiveness of Sins.” In one section Augustine argues from the analogy that just as man did not become a sinner by mere imitation, as Pelagius asserted, so man is not saved by mere imitation of Christ. While it is true that the saints must imitate Christ, this does not explain the “how” of their salvation. Accordingly he writes, “But besides this imitation, His grace workswithin us our illumination and justification . . . .” And then he adds that Christ, “besides offering Himself as an example of righteousness to those who imitate Him, gives also to those who believe on Him the hidden grace of His Spirit, which He secretly infuseseven into infants” (pp. 18-19, emphasis mine, CJT). In a later work, “On the Grace of Christ, and On Original Sin,” Augustine was equally insistent. After referring to a passage of Scripture he addresses the Pelagians thus:
Let them therefore read and understand, observe and acknowledge, that it is not by law and teaching uttering their lessons from without, but by a secret, wonderful, ineffable power operating within, that God works in men’s hearts not only revelations of the truth, but also good dispositions of the will (p. 227, emphasis mine, CJT).
In the second place, it was Augustine’s teaching that the work of Gods grace in the sinner is first, i.e., it precedes any response and activity on the part of man. Over against the Pelagians, who held that by the power of his free will man was first and last in the doing of righteousness, and over against the Semi-Pelagians, who taught that, though God was first in the operations of grace, man was just a step behind, helping and assisting God, Augustine maintained that it is God Who works first and throughout in salvation. With the conviction that the natural man is spiritually dead in sin, Augustine taught that without Gods grace the sinner not only cannot do the good, but also cannot even desire to do the good.
In a passage from his treatise “On the Spirit and the Letter” Augustine applies this teaching to saving faith. He raises the question whether faith is in the power of the sinner, that is, “whether the will by which we believe be itself the gift of God, or whether it arise from that free will which is naturally implanted in us?” (p. 108). His answer is plain:
. . . This will is to be ascribed to the divine gift, . . . because God acts upon us by the incentives of our perceptions, to will and to believe, either externally by evangelical exhortations, . . . or internally . . . . Since God, therefore, in such ways works upon the reasonable soul in order that it may believe in Him . . . , it surely follows that it is God who both works in man the willing to believe, and in all things prevents (i.e., precedes, CJT) us with His mercy (p. 110).
In another passage from a different treatise Augustine speaks of the grace of God in the life of the believer as both preceding and following our activity, thereby showing that our salvation is from beginning to end of God. He writes:
. . . No doubt, we do ourselves, too, work; but we are fellow-workers with Him who does the work, because His mercy anticipates (i.e., precedes, CJT) us. He anticipates us, however, that we may be healed; but then He will also follow us, that being healed we may grow healthy and strong. He anticipates us that we may be called; He will follow us that we may be glorified. He anticipates us that we may lead godly lives; He will follow us that we may always live with Him, because without Him we can do nothing (“On Nature and Grace, ” p. 133).
Finally, in the third place, Augustine taught that the saving work of God’s grace was irresistible. Because this work of grace is the divine power to save, no man can withstand God when He comes by His Spirit to save him. No heart is so hard that it cannot be broken; no will is so stubborn that it cannot be made pliable; no mind is so dark that it cannot be made to see. Augustine sets forth this irresistible power of God’s grace in a passage from his work “On the Predestination of the Saints.” He is explaining John 6:37, that the Father by His grace draws the sinner to Christ in faith, but that this grace is invisible to our eyes. And then he writes:
It is true that that grace is exceedingly secret, but who doubts that it is grace? This grace, therefore, which is hiddenly bestowed in human hearts by the Divine gift, is rejected by no human heart, because it is given for the sake of first taking away the hardness of the heart. When, therefore, the Father is heard within, and teaches, so that a man comes to the Son, He takes away the heart of stone and gives a heart of flesh . . . (p. 505).
In connection with this truth of God’s grace Augustine refuted the oft-repeated charge that it makes a man a “stock and a block.” The idea of God dragging the sinner down the road of salvation kicking and screaming or else totally inactive was utterly repulsive to him. Rather did he set down the biblical teaching that God’s irresistible grace makes the sinner a willing, working new creation. Further, he taught that the irresistible power of God’s grace does not destroy man’s free will. God’s sovereign grace sets man’s will free from the bondage of sin, so that he might willingly serve God in all righteousness. God’s grace establishes, not destroys, man’s free will.
The Fruit of God’s Grace
Given his understanding of the truth of God’s sovereign grace, Augustine also went on to teach that the grace of God is always effectual; it always has as its fruit the salvation of the sinner. Where God by His Spirit works in the hearts of sinful, spiritually dead men, there is always produced a living, believing, obedient child of God. When God implants life in the heart, the sinner becomes alive unto God; when God implants faith, the sinner believes in Christ; when God infuses holiness, the sinner becomes holy and walks in good works. Always God’s grace accomplishes what God intends, namely, the deliverance of the sinner from his sin and death. That this was Augustine’s position is evident from the references ‘we have already made.
What we do wish to point out, however, is that along with this Augustine taught the preservation and perseverance of the saints. For him it was clear: if God’s grace is effectual, then it also saves the sinner all the way to the end, so that none is lost and perishes. And this is the truth that he found in the Scriptures too. He dealt at length with this truth in two of his works: “On Rebuke and Grace” and “On the Gift of Perseverance.” In the previous work Augustine argues that the rebukes of the Word are necessary for believers in order that they may be spurred on to persevere in obedience. But at the same time he shows plainly that this perseverance is God’s gift and is the fruit of His sovereign grace in the believer. Thus he writes:
. . . We are not able to deny, that perseverance in good, progressing even to the end, is also a great gift of God. . . . For if we should say that such a perseverance, so laudable and so blessed, is man’s in such wise that he has it not from God, we first of all make void that which the Lord says to Peter: “I have prayed for thee that thy faith fail not.” For what did He ask for him, but perseverance to the end? And assuredly, if a man could have this from man, it should not have been asked from God (p. 475).
And thus God willed that His saints should not—even concerning perseverance in goodness itself—glory in their own strength, but in Himself; who not only gives them aid. . .without which they cannot persevere if they will, but causes in them also the will; that since they will not persevere unless they both can and will, both the capability and the will to persevere should be bestowed on them by the liberality of divine grace (p. 487).
It is also worth noting that Augustine grounded the perseverance of the saints in God’s sovereign election of them. Having quoted from Romans 8:28ff., Augustine stated with powerful logic:
Of these (i.e., the called, justified, and glorified) no one perishes, because all are elected. And they are elected because they were called according to the purpose—the purpose, however, not their own, but God’s . . . . If any one of these perishes, God is mistaken; but none of them perishes, because God is not mistaken. If any one of these perish, God is overcome by human sin; but none of them perishes, because God is overcome by nothing (p. 477).
That leads us to consider our next point.
The Fountain of God’s Saving Grace
The final point we must consider yet in Augustine’s “theology of grace” is his teaching on the doctrine of predestination. He taught that the fountain of God’s saving grace is His sovereign good pleasure ineternal election. This is, of course, the logical point to which one is driven when he takes the view of God’s grace described above. If salvation by grace is entirely of God, then it is also clear that God is the One who determines in His eternal decree who receive it and who do not. And this is the point to which Augustine was led too—not merely by the force of logic, but by the Spirit of truth through the Scriptures and through his controversy with the Pelagians.
Augustine early in his work against the Pelagians faced the question why some only and not all receive the grace of God to believe. In his work “On the Forgiveness of Sins” he answered this briefly but with the conviction that this too is due to the sovereign will of God which is always merciful and just. Thus he wrote:
As to the reason why He wills to convert some, and to punish others for turning away,—although nobody can justly censure the merciful One in conferring His blessing, nor can any man find fault with the truthful One in awarding His punishment, . . . yet, after all, the purpose of His more hidden judgment is in His own power (p. 57).
But it was later in life, after he had battled long with the Pelagian heresy, that Augustine came to a fuller understanding and setting forth of the truth of predestination. In fact, one of his last works was “On the Predestination of the Saints,” a work which represents his mature teaching on this truth. In this treatise he grounds the salvation of the saints in God’s sovereign, free choice of them in Christ from before the foundation of the world. The saints are God’s vessels of mercy, before prepared for glory. This predestination is “the preparation for grace, while grace is the donation itself” (p. 507). Hence, God’s election is the source of all that the saints receive in this life.
And that means that also this election is entirely of grace and not of merit and works, a truth Augustine defended tenaciously. In a series of passages in this treatise he refutes the Pelagian idea that Gods predestination is based on His foreknowledge of who would believe and be righteous, proving from the Scriptures that God elects His people not because they believe and are holy, but in order that they might believe and be holy. A quote from the conclusion to this section shows the fullness of his teaching:
Therefore God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world, predestinating us to the adoption of children, not because we were going to be of ourselves holy and immaculate, but He chose and predestinated us that we might be so. Moreover, He did this according to the good pleasure of His will, so that nobody might glory concerning his own will, but about God’s will toward himself He did this according to the riches of His grace, according to His good will, which He purposed in His beloved Son, in whom we have obtained a share. . . (p. 516).
In connection with this, it should be stated that Augustine also set forth the truth of reprobation, that some men according to the decree of God do not receive the grace of salvation and the benefits of Christ. He was a double-predestinarian, following the truth of Scripture, especially that of Romans 9ff. In this too, Augustine taught, God is sovereign and just, and no man has the right to question God’s eternal purposes.
All of this meant for Augustine that the saints’ boast cannot and must not be in man but in God: “For this reason it is that we cry that no one should glory in man, and, thus, not in himself; but whoever glorieth let him glory in the Lord, that he may be for the praise of His glory” (p. 516).
This then is the great contribution the Spirit of truth has given us through Augustine. We will recognize it as the faith of our Reformed fathers, that glorious heritage rediscovered in the Reformation of the 16th century. Let us love dearly this truth, and continue to uphold it even over against the present-day attacks of Pelagianism. In so doing let us take heed to this final word from the “Doctor of grace”:
Let no Christian then stray from this faith, which alone is the Christian one; nor let any one, when he has been made to feel ashamed to say that we become righteous through our own selves, without the grace of God working this in us,—. . . resort to any subterfuge on this point . . . (“On the Spirit and the Letter,” pp. 96-97).