The Doctrine of Sin, The Second Period—250-730 A.D., The Pelagian Controversy, The Augustinian System

Toward the conclusion of our preceding article, we had begun to call attention to Augustine’s conception or doctrine of God’s redeeming grace. We noted that this church father’s conception of grace was so completely different from that of Pelagius. He had experienced personally this power of the living God. That Augustine, as guided by the Holy Scriptures, makes the proper distinction between deism and pantheism is expressed very clearly in the following quotation from his Confessions, as quoted by Schaff:

How shall I call on my God, on my God and Lord? Into myself must I call Him, if I call on Him; and what place is there in me, where my God may enter into me, the God, who created heaven and earth? O Lord my God, is there anything in me, that contains Thee? Do heaven and earth contain Thee, which Thou hast created, in which Thou didst create me? Or does all that is, contain Thee, because without Thee there had existed nothing that is? Because then I also am, do I supplicate Thee, that Thou wouldst come into me, I, who had not in any wise been, if Thou wert not in me? I yet live, I do not yet sink into the lower world, and yet Thou art there. If I made my bed in hell, behold, Thou are there. I were not, then, O my God, I utterly were not, if Thou wert not in me. Yea, still more, I were not, O my God, if I were not in Thee, from whom all, in whom all, through whom all is. Even so, Lord, even so.

The above quotation shows conclusively that, in the soul of Augustine, man is nothing without God, and everything in and through God. The consciousness that he lived, moved and had his being in God thrilled this church father. Augustine was so theocentric in his views and conceptions! To know the Lord was surely everlasting life to him. And it is certainly true that the undercurrent of this sentiment could not carry this father onward to all the views he developed in opposition to the Pelagian heresy. He himself had learned to know by experience the power of the grace of God and what it means to have the love of that alone blessed God poured out into his heart. And he had also learned to know, personally, the folly of the Pelagian heresy. 

Schaff compares Pelagianism with the Augustinian conception of grace as follows, in Vol. III, 844:

While Pelagius widened the idea of grace to indefiniteness, and reduced it to a medley of natural gifts, law, gospel, forgiveness of sin, enlightenment, and example, Augustine restricted grace to the specifically Christian sphere (and, therefore, called it gratis Christi), though admitting its operation previous to Christ among the saints of the Jewish dispensation; but within this sphere he gave it incomparably greater depth. (what Schaff says here of Pelagianism is so true also of Arminianism—H.V.) With him grace is, first of all, a creative power of God in Christ transforming men from within. It produces first the negative effect of forgiveness of sins, removing the hindrance to communion with God; then the positive communication of a new principle of life.

Following upon this, Schaff sets forth Augustine’s view of justification and grace as follows, calling attention to the fact that Augustine stands on essentially Evangelical ground:

The two are combined in the idea of justification, which, as we have already remarked, Augustine holds, not in the Protestant sense of declaring righteous once for all, but in the Catholic sense of gradually making righteous; thus substantially identifying it with sanctification. Yet, as he refers this whole process to divine grace; to the exclusion of all human merit, he stands on essentially Evangelical ground. As we inherit from the first Adam our sinful and mortal life, so the second Adam implants in us, from God, and in God, the germ of a sinless and immortal life. Positive grace operates, therefore, not merely from without upon our intelligence by instruction and admonition, as Pelagius taught, but also in the centre of our personality, imparting to the will the power to do the good which the instruction teaches, and to imitate the example of Christ. Hence he frequently calls it the inspiration of a good will, or of love, which is the fulfilling of the law. “Him that wills not, grace comes to meet, that he may will; him that wills, she follows up, that he may not will in vain.” Faith itself is an effect of grace; indeed, its first and fundamental effect, which provides for all others, and manifests itself in love. He had formerly held faith to be a work of man (as; in fact, though not exclusively; the capacity of faith, or receptivity for the divine, may be said to be); but he was afterwards led, particularly by the words of Paul in

I Cor. 4:7:

“What hast thou, that thou hast not received?” to change his view. In a word, grace is the breath and blood of the new man; from it proceeds all that is truly good and divine, and without it we can do nothing acceptable to God.

From this fundamental conception of grace, according to Schaff, arise the several properties which Augustine ascribes to it in opposition to Pelagius:

First, it is absolutely necessary to Christian virtue; not merely auxiliary, but indispensable, to its existence. It is necessary “for every good act, for every good thought, for every good word of man at every moment.” Without it the Christian life can neither begin, proceed, nor be consummated. It was necessary even under the old dispensation, which continued the gospel in the form of promise. The saints before Christ lived of His grace by anticipation. “They stood,” says Augustine, “not under the terrifying, convicting, punishing law, but under that grace which fills the heart with joy in what is good, which heals it, and makes it free.” 

It is, moreover, unmerited. Gratia would be no gratia if it were not gratuita, gratis data. As man without grace can do nothing good, he is, of course, incapable of deserving grace; for, to deserve grace, he must do something good. “What merits could we have, while as yet we did not love God? That the love with which we should love might be created, we have been loved, while as yet we had not that love. Never should we have found strength to love, except as we received such a love from Him who had loved us before, and because He had loved us before. And, without such a love, what good could we do? Or, how could we not do good, with such a love?” “The Holy Spirit breathes where He will, and does not follow merits, but Himself produces the merits! Grace, therefore, is not bestowed on man because he already believes, but that he may believe; not because he has deserved it by good works, but that he may deserve good works.”(how sound are these quotations from Augustine!—H.V.) Pelagius reverses the natural relation by making the cause the effect, and the effect the cause. The ground of our salvation can only be found in God Himself, if He is to remain immutable. Augustine appeals to examples of pardoned sinners, “where not only no good deserts, but even evil deserts, had preceded.” Thus the apostle Paul, “averse to the faith, which he wasted, and vehemently inflamed against it, was suddenly converted to that faith by the prevailing power of grace, and that in such wise that he was changed not only from enemy to a friend, but from a persecutor to a sufferer of persecution for the sake of the faith he had once destroyed. For to him it was given by Christ, not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for his sake.” He also points to children, who without will, and therefore without voluntary merit preceding, are through holy baptism incorporated in the kingdom of grace. His own experience, finally, afforded him an argument, to him irrefutable, for the free, undeserved compassion of God (indeed, how weighty is this argument, namely, the work of God’s grace in the hearts of infants, in support of the doctrine of God’s almighty and sovereign grace—H.V.). And if in other passages he speaks of merits, he means good works which the Holy Ghost effects in man, and which God graciously, rewards, so that eternal life is grace for grace. “If all thy merits are gifts of God, God crowns thy merits not as thy merits, but as the gifts of His grace.” 

Grace is irresistible in its effect; not, indeed, in the way of physical constraint imposed on the will, but as a moral power, which makes man willing, and which infallibly attains its end, the conversion and final perfection of its subjects. This point is closely connected with Augustine’s whole doctrine of predestination, and consistently leads to it or follows from it. Hence the Pelagians repeatedly raised the charge that Augustine, under the name of grace, introduced a certain fatalism: But the irresistibility must manifestly not be extended to all the influences of grace; for the Bible often speaks of grieving, quenching, lying to, and blaspheming the Holy Ghost, and so implies that grace may be resisted; and it presents many living examples of such resistance. It cannot be denied, that Saul, Ananias, Solomon, and Sapphira, and even the traitor Judas, were under the influence of divine grace, and repelled it. Augustine, therefore, must make irresistibly grace identical with the specific grace of regeneration to the elect, which at the same time imparts the donum perseverantiae, the gift of perseverance.

A few remarks in connection with the above par graph are certainly in order. In the first place, when Schaff declares in the above quotation that the grace (God may be resisted, I am sure that he is expressing these words his own personal opinion. To say that the irresistibleness of God’s grace is not to be extended to all the influences of God’s grace, that even the traitor was under the influence of divine grace, as evidently meant by Schaff, is surely in conflict with the very plain and lucid language of the Word of God. Does the fact that Ananias and Sapphira lied against the Holy Spirit imply that the Holy Spirit was in them and attempted to lead them in the way of truth and life? Of course not! The Holy Spirit was in Peter, and, lying before the apostle, they therefore lied against the Holy Spirit. Was Judas under the influence of Divine grace? But do not the Scriptures teach that Christ selected him to be one of the twelve exactly in order that he might fulfill that which had been prophesied of him, as inPs. 41, and stated in John 13:18-19? Secondly, it is certainly true that Augustine championed the truth of God’s sovereign predestination. This doctrine must follow from the doctrine of the irresistible character of God’s grace. If we maintain the one, we must maintain the other. If we are dead in sins and in trespasses, then it is certainly true that we can do nothing toward our own salvation. And if the Lord must begin the work of salvation in us, then it must follow that He begins that work of salvation where He wills. Then it must follow that He is never determined by the will of the sinner. Then He is determined exclusively by His own will, and this must imply that truth of God’s sovereign predestination, that He does not save who will to be saved but whom He wills to save. Augustine’s doctrine of man’s utter corruption and God’s sovereign predestination are inseparably connected.