We are nearing the end of our discussion of the Augustinian system of sin and grace and that church father’s opposition to and rejection of the Pelagian conception of sin and grace. We noted in our preceding article that according to Augustine grace is, first of all, absolutely necessary; secondly, it is wholly unmerited, inasmuch as man can do nothing good without grace and is therefore incapable of deserving grace; and, thirdly, it is irresistible in its effect, not 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. 

Finally, however, according to Schaff, Vol. III 849-850, Augustine also taught that the grace of God worksprogressively or by degrees:

Grace, finally, works progressively or by degrees. It removed all the consequences of the fall; but it removes them in an order agreeable to the finite, gradually unfolding nature of the believer. Grace is a foster-mother, who for the greatest good of her charge, wisely and lovingly accommodates herself to his necessities as they change from time to time. Augustine gives different names to grace in these different steps of its development. In overcoming the resisting will, and imparting knowledge of sin and longing for redemption, grace is gratis praeveniens or praeparans, preparing grace. In creating faith and the free will to do good, and uniting the soul to Christ, it is gratis operans, operating grace. Joining with the emancipated will to combat the remains of evil, and bringing forth good works as fruits of faith, it isgratia cooperam, cooperating grace. Finally, in enabling the believer to persevere in faith to the end, and leading him at length, though not in this life, to the perfect state, in which he can no longer sin nor die, it is gratia perficiens, the grace that finishes and completes even unto the end. This includes the donum perseverantiae, the gift of perseverance, which is the only certain token of election. “We call ourselves elect, or children of God, because we so call all those whom we see regenerate, visibly leading a holy life. But he alone is in truth what he is called, who perseveres in that from which he receives the name.” Therefore so long as a man yet lives, we can form no certain judgment of him in this respect. Perseverance till death, i.e., to the point where the danger of apostasy ceases, is emphatically a grace, “since it is much harder to possess this gift of grace than any other; though for him to whom nothing is hard, it is as easy to bestow the one as the other.” 

And as to the relation of grace to freedom: Neither excludes the other, though they might appear to conflict. In Augustine’s system freedom, or self-determination to good, is the correlative in man of grace on the part of God. The more grace, the more freedom to do good, and the more joy in the good. The two are one in the idea of love, which is objective and subjective, passive and active, an apprehending and a being apprehended.

And so the Augustinian conception of sin and grace stands absolutely over against all Pelagianism The Pelagian denies original sin, guilt and the power of sin, and sets forth the heresy that man is either good or evil as he chooses to be good or bad. Whereas the Scriptures declare that man does the evil because he is evil, Pelagianism teaches that the sinner is what he is as the choice of his own free will. As far as our primitive state is concerned, our original state, Augustine taught that man was created in perfection. As far as our state of sin is concerned, he taught that man is completely alienated from God, is in the bondage of sin and death. And as far as our redemption is concerned, he set forth the Scriptural teaching that we are redeemed solely by grace, and through this grace attain unto the blessed freedom of the children of God. Here, in this life, we are clogged with the remains of sin and death, but in the hereafter we shall be absolutely perfect, without the possibility of apostasy. 

In connection with the teachings of Augustine, we wish to make in conclusion the following two observations. In his notes on the History of Dogma, Rev. H. Hoeksema writes the following:

It is worthy of note that Augustine, over against Pelagius, taught that the so-called virtues of the heathen and unbelievers are essentially nothing but vices. Pelagius highly praised these so-called virtues of the heathen, because he wanted to maintain that the Lord gives His grace not to those whom He wills, but to those that are worthy of acceptation. These virtues, however, according to Augustine, are in reality nothing but vicious sins, whereby the one sin restrains the other. A clear illustration of this is found in misers, whose lust for money controls all the other lusts. And thus it is essentially with all sinners, even with the great and illustrious among the Romans. When these not infrequently suppressed evil lusts, and performed, according to the evaluation of men, praiseworthy deeds, they were motivated by the sin of vain ambition, which over-ruled and controlled all the other lusts. For that reason the so-called virtues of the natural man must be called rather vices than virtues. Even when unbelievers practice chastity in marriage, they are motivated by the sinful desire to avoid all kinds of evil effects. Sins as such are not restrained. And when in some cases they endure hardships, the word of Scripture must be applied, that false wisdom is natural, earthly, devilish. Cf. “De Predestinatieleer van Augustinus, Thomas van Aquinas, en Calvijn,” Dr. A.D.R. Polman, p. 77. From this it will be evident that even though one may appeal with a semblance of justice to Calvin for the view that these virtues of the unbelievers are gifts of common grace, this doctrine certainly does not go back to Augustine.

Rev. H. Hoeksema, in these notes on the History of Dogma, also writes of Augustine the following:

We must understand that in his struggle against Pelagius, Augustine, in the deepest sense of the word, was concerned about God’s sovereign predestination. In the views of Pelagius he saw the denial of God’s sovereign grace, and hence, also the denial of predestination. This was his chief motive in combating the views of Pelagius. This is denied by some. Many claim that the question did not concern so much the truth of sovereign grace as the truth that grace is entirely unmerited. But this is not correct. Augustine could not even have understood, still less justified, such a distinction. For him, sovereign grace must also be unmerited grace, and unmerited grace is necessarily sovereign grace. He clearly discerned the inseparable connection between the two. And at the same time, he also clearly understood the inseparable connection between the truth that man is by nature totally depraved and the truth of predestination. Hence, in his strife against Pelagius he was concerned with the electing grace of God. To election as the deepest background he appeals, when he combats Pelagius’ denial of original sin. In his arguments on this score he proceeds from the truth of Scripture that all have sinned in Adam, that in Adam they are all damnable before God and could justly have been punished with eternal death, even though among men there was no other sin than original sin.

That Augustine should see in the view of Pelagius the denial of God’s sovereign predestination need not surprise us. It lies in the very nature of the case that the doctrine of sovereign predestination and that of man’s utter depravity are inseparably connected. Although this church father did not fully understand these doctrines during the early years of his life, he surely did understand them later in his life and during his struggle with Pelagius. He was about sixty years old when his struggle with Pelagius began. And he had been prepared for this conflict, personally and spiritually, when the Lord had called him out of sin and darkness into His marvelous light. 


We will now call attention to what is known as semi-Pelagianism. The development of semi-Pelagianism need not surprise us. Concerning this development Schaff has the following introductory remarks, Vol. III, 857 ff:

Semi-Pelagianism is a somewhat vague and indefinite attempt at reconciliation, hovering midway between the sharply marked systems of Pelagius and Augustine, taking off the edge of each, and inclining now to the one, now to the other. The name was introduced during the scholastic age, but the system of doctrine, in all essential points, was formed in Southern France, in the fifth century, during the latter years of Augustine’s life and soon after his death. It proceeded from the combined influence of the pre-Augustinian synergism and monastic legalism. Its leading idea is, that divine grace and the human will jointly accomplish the work of conversion and sanctification, and that ordinarily man must take the first step. It rejects the Pelagian doctrine of moral soundness of man, but rejects also the Augustinian doctrine of the entire corruption and bondage of the natural man, and substitutes the idea of a diseased or crippled state of the voluntary power. It disowns the Pelagian conception of grace as a mere auxiliary; but also, quite as decidedly, the Augustinian doctrines of the sovereignty, irresistibleness, and limitation of grace; and affirms the necessary and the internal operation of grace with and through human agency, a general atonement through Christ, and a predestination to the salvation conditioned by the foreknowledge of faith. The union of the Pelagian and Augustinian elements thus attempted is not, however, an inward organic coalescence, but rather a mechanical and arbitrary combination, which really satisfies neither the one interest nor the other, but commonly leans to the Pelagian side. 

For this reason it admirably suited the legalistic and ascetic piety of the middle age, and indeed always remained within the pale of the Catholic Church, and never produced a separate sect.

How true! The union of the Pelagian and Augustinian elements thus attempted never really satisfies either the one interest or the other. No compromise ever satisfies. And this view known as Semi-Pelagianism is really more dangerous than outright Pelagianism. Any attempt which takes off the sharp edges constitutes a sinister attack upon the fundamentals of the Word of God. And the result is invariably that the truth is undermined and that heresy is introduced into the Church of the living God. And, of course, it does not surprise us that the enemies of the truth should resort to these tactics to introduce heresy and the lie into the Church of the living God. We will continue with this, the Lord willing, in our following article.