Augustine on Grace and Pelagianism: An Appreciative Summary

513iqTJbnwL__SX364_BO1,204,203,200_We stand in Augustine’s debt for the classic expression of St. Paul’s teaching on grace. Yet, in our thinking about grace, many of us remain children of Pelagius, rather than descendants of Augustine. This comes as no surprise since history records Pelagius’ widespread appeal among many of his own contemporaries. Today, the church continues to distain Augustine’s reading for a number of reasons. For one, many of us pay lip-service to the Doctrine of Original Sin without embracing its implications. We fail to see how nature twisted by sin questions our innate ability to follow God’s commands. Also, our uncritical, even religious devotion to the idea of “Free Will” leads us to ignore the noetic impact of sin, and discount God’s prerogative in grace. Needless to say, the famed Bishop’s debate with Pelagius over the nature of grace remains of perennial importance. Selected Writings on Grace and Pelagianism published by New City Press, collects six essential treaties, nicely exhibiting the main contours of Augustine’s thought on the subject. The following summary rejoices with Augustine’s main conviction throughout the work, “Salvation is of the Lord” (Jonah 2:9).

The Spirit and the Letter summons us to ask for God’s grace to fulfill God’s commands (242-43). Unlike Pelagius, we seek divine grace to quicken our natural abilities. We don’t seek righteousness through the mere letter of the law, apart from the Spirit, for then God’s commands would morph into swords that kill, instead of living water that renews. The Spirit of life alone enables us to perform the good by first enabling us to love and delight in the good (231). Furthermore, the Spirit flows to us from the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection (235). None of these benefits come from our effort to keep the letter of the law, but we receive them through God’s gift of faith under the New Covenant (256). Although Adam’s race possesses a rational soul, we know the very will to believe is God’s gracious gift (281). We are cast entirely upon the grace of Jesus and the Spirit, as New Covenant gifts, for attaining right standing with God. Thus, The Spirit and the Letter urges us to humbly close our mouths with regard to our own praise, while opening our mouths wide in praise of the Triune God, the glorious fountain of all blessing (291).

Augustine’s Nature and Grace entreats us, against Pelagius, to rethink whether we have the natural ability to avoid sin. Although conceding to Pelagius that Adam’s race indeed can will the good, we know the ability to perform the good is not in ourselves (357). Furthermore, even if we remain whole and healthy as Pelagius claims, we would still need the grace of God not to sin (356). Rather, we should magnify God’s praise, by acknowledging our mortal wound and seeking aid from him as the physician of souls. After all, we know even the baptized still struggle with sin. Thus, if we baptized still war with the flesh after sin’s dominion is broken, how can outsiders expect to overcome (365)? We must see Pelagius’ confidence in the power of human will as rather empowering the devil, by undermining the importance of prayer (366). After all, we know the serpent is too strong for us, and we constantly confess our need of divine grace to tread him under foot (366). Thus, the grace we need to avoid sin does not flow from the grace reminiscent in our created nature. Pelagius would exhort us to live good lives without first exhorting us to faith in Christ. Yet, we know the power to crush the serpent and attain the good springs solely from the mystery of Christ’s cross (360). Our stumbling, and lame nature should give all praise to the Trinity for the gift of righteousness.

The Bishop’s Predestination of the Saints, exhorts us, along with the monks of Provence, to see our present faith in Christ as flowing from God’s prior decree of election. Contrary to Pelagius, faith doesn’t have to originate with us to be our faith. Our faith is truly “thinking with assent,” but can we have a single thought apart from God (2 Cor 3:5)? If not, then the faith we posses is God’s gift (422). Furthermore, we should readily hear Paul and the other apostles concerning the gratuitous nature of faith. When Paul thanks God for the faith of Christians, and when Luke says God opens the eyes of Lydia’s heart, we see faith as his gift (460-62). Furthermore, if Jesus’ choice of the apostles rests upon foreseen faith, then God acts upon the merit of men (John 15:16). Yet, if we read Jesus’ call of the apostles in light of Ephesians 1:4, we see God’s election as sheer grace, and not as something owed (456). God chooses us that we may become believers, not because we believe (455). Thus, along with the monks of Provence, we should lift our voice in praise to the Trinity, who alone quickens the darkened sons of Adam.

Finally, Augustine’s The Gift of Perseverance, reminds us that if the Shepherd calls us, he will also bring us safely home. When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, as commanded by the Savior, we daily voice our reliance upon his grace (467-72). As a means of grace, the Prayer reminds us perseverance is a gift. Furthermore, when we pray that non-believers and enemies become Christians, or when we voice the congregational “amen” after our priest petitions the chief Shepherd to keep his flock eternally secure, we express our conviction that salvation is of the Lord (519). We should never presume upon God’s grace since Paul tells us God gives final perseverance according to his most just, wise, and beneficent will (491). Therefore, as preachers of the holy gospel, we don’t avoid preaching predestination in a pastorally sensitive way, for the doctrine rightly humbles our pride and casts us entirely upon God (518). Thus, along with the other treaties, The Gift of Perseverance calls us to praise and petition the Trinity, as the fountain of all grace.


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