A little guide to Augustine’s thought on sin, freedom, and grace


"Tolle Lege" - Augustine's famous garden conversion, in a later, fanciful rendering

Following up on a previous post, this is something I cooked up while working as a “preceptor” at Duke–that is, leading seminars for students taking a course (in this case Dr. David Steinmetz’s CH13: Church History to the Reformation), in which we interacted in more depth with the primary documents.

This one’s on that Great Brain of the early church, Augustine of Hippo. It includes a few “notes to myself” about how to lead such a seminar, since as a doctoral student I was still wet behind the ears on this important matter of pedagogy. I wish I could remember which sourcebook we were using for the Augustine quotations. I could go try to figure it out from old syllabi, if anyone’s interested:

A pronunciation suggestion

One of the first and most basic problems we have to deal with when we talk about this great North African theologian is this:  [write on board]  Is it AUG-us-teen or au-GUS-tin?  It makes no difference to me which we say, but somewhere along the way, I was told that if you want to make it at a party with a bunch of church historians, you need to use au-GUS-tin for this man from Hippo, and reserve AUG-us-teen for the archbishop installed in England by the Pope around the year 600, who tried to bring the Celtic [or is that SSSeltic?] church into line.

In any case, it doesn’t matter to me how we pronounce it today.  Saying AUG-us-teen won’t lower your grade…much.

Getting into Augustine’s thought:

1.  Write on the board:  “posse non peccare,” “non posse non peccare,” “non posse peccare.”

2.  Start with the background from Latourette, to put Augustine in context with (1) the E/W distinctions S. has made, (2) some other “fathers,” (3) Augustine’s own personal history.

3.  Deal with quoted sections from Augustine, below, one by one, allowing conversation to develop as it will.  If this serves to jumpstart the process of “dealing with Augustine on freedom,” well and good.  I needn’t return to the quotations.  If things slow down, however, I can reopen with, “what about this statement: [quotation].  What is Augustine saying here and what do we think about it?”

4.  Throughout the process, resist going too far off into either what we think about Augustine (though that’s inevitable) or, especially, whether Wesley (Calvin, Luther, Joe Blow) would have agreed with Augustine.  It is OK to do this now and again, but as in a Bible study, let’s return to the text.  We need to discipline ourselves to do that because it is often so much easier to talk about our own opinions or those of our church traditions, than to confront and work through the thought of the person we are studying.

5.  For the second half (or third, or quarter, or last five minutes) of the class, survey Augustine’s thought on (1) the status, (2) person, (3) and work of Christ, as well as (4) the Holy Spirit, (5) the Trinity, (6) the Church, (7) the Sacraments, and (8) the Last Things.


In general the East…believed in the freedom of man’s will and in the ability of the individual man to do what God commands.…Chrysostom, for example, insisted that men can choose the good and that when they do so grace comes to their aid to reinforce them in their effort to do what God commands.  (177)

In the West, however, even before the time of Augustine, Tertullian, Cyprian, and Ambrose had declared for…original sin.… “Adam perished and in him we all perished,” [Ambrose] said.…In contrast with Chrysostom,…Ambrose believed that God’s grace begins the work of salvation and that, when grace has initiated it, a man through his will cooperates.  (177)

Augustine, says Latourette, went “much further than Ambrose,” because of his own personal history.  Why might that be?  What might Latourette mean by “going further than Ambrose,” and how might Augustine’s own experience have caused him to do that?  How many have read his “Confessions” or read or heard anything about Augustine’s personal history?  What do we know about him?  [Brainstorm on board.] 

Latourette suggests that Augustine goes farther than Ambrose in talking about things like predestination, irresistible grace, and perseverance as a gift from God because of two aspects of his experience:

1.  His personal history of prolonged moral impotence.  [“Slave to sin”]

2.  His experience of having been sought by God’s grace until he could not but yield to it.  [“Hounds of heaven”]  (remember (1) the voice in the garden, “take and read,” and before that (2) the influences of the Christian friends who would not let him rest in philosophy, but continually confronted him with his own moral failings, and thirdly (3) his mother, Monica, a Christian who prayed for him and let him know she was doing so.  All of these he attributed to the grace and direct action of God.

Another way to think about it—my suggested question:  what drove Augustine to think about the things he did, and address them in the ways he did?

Let’s go beyond his personal experience here.  What about the whole situation of the church at his time, the kinds of questions the church faced, the kinds of authorities they might turn to…

[Brainstorm on board]:

My ideas—controversy of the day, heretical positions, yes.  But where did controversy and heresy come from?  Steinmetz has said it several times.  Attempts to reconcile one part of the message of the gospel—one part of the developing canon—with another.

So Augustine driven by this same need to reconcile the parts of this earth-shattering, mind-blowing message of the gospel.  And he puts side by side, in a number of his theological discussions, sets of scripture that seem to contradict one another (tell story about Jack Davis at Gordon-Conwell, teaching on Calvinist vs. Arminian theology, lining up a whole lot of Scripture on each side).

Augustine uses superior powers of logic and rhetoric in trying to resolve these disputed points—and at a few points his argumentation just seems downright twisted or ludicrous (or at least it did to me).

But he is able to do something that many of today’s theologians and churchfolk don’t seem to be able to do.  At a number of points he does what Steinmetz did yesterday.  He looks up from the argument he’s just presented, and he says:  “I didn’t say you had to LIKE it.”  That is, “I KNOW this is paradoxical, contradictory, and intellectually unsatisfying.  But it’s the best we’ve got.  Take it or leave it.”

In fact, he is willing to humble himself by saying:  I don’t have the answers, I don’t know.  And if you can find someone who can explain it better, then by all means go and learn from him.  But beware people who think they’ve got all the answers neatly layed out.  Beware the oversimplifiers, the charlatans.

So first, it is appropriate for us, I think, to take three cues from Augustine.

1.  To increase our tolerance level for paradox—because there are some very paradoxical elements to the orthodox theology of ANY branch of the church.

2.  To practice holding our own opinions with a degree of humility, because in the end, a degree of mystery will remain.  God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts.

3.  To return again and again to Scripture—to say “yes, but what about this or that Scripture passage.”  As Steinmetz has been saying, a heretic is simply someone with a very good solution to a certain Biblical problem, who doesn’t pay enough attention to the canonical counter-evidence.  So where possible, in the few minutes we have here, and in future precepts, let’s look at the Scriptural evidence from all sides.

Let’s go to it.

Augustine—getting to the nub

Ask questions to bring out the four “positions” in which freedom can be examined—pre-fall, post-fall, post-redemption, and glorification.  Put them up as headings, brainstorm the nature of our situation at each stage, with reference to sin, grace, and freedom.  Encourage them wherever possible to refer to the text of Augustine, and even beyond that, to texts of Scripture, especially as used by Augustine (or Pelagius).

Quotes and comments


Our ability to say and think what is good comes from him who granted us this power, who also assists it; but right action, speech, and thought depend on us, for it is in our power to misuse those faculties. (193)

He divides our actions into three elements:  power, will, and actuality or action.  He says God assists us at all times by giving us the power to do good, but we must both will and act according to that power.  So he can honestly say “we assert free will without denying our perpetual need of the help of God” (192)—in that, I’m guessing, we need God in order to have the “power” to do good, though we need to exercise our own free wills and our own energy in acting on that power.

Pelagius does not seem to take the fall seriously.  He behaves as if we still have the freedom to do good that we had at the fall:  “while we have within us a free will which is so strong and steadfast to resist sin, a free will which the Creator implanted…, we are further strengthened…by [God’s] daily help.” (193)  Augustine’s view, of course, is that as fallen people, we cannot help but sin—all of us, no exceptions.  Pelagius cannot except that notion of original sin:  “there is no congenital evil in us, and we are begotten without fault.” (193)  TO support his argument, Pelagius appeas to the “many philosophers who have been chaste, patient, self-controlled.…” (194)

Now, augustine

This was the first freedom of the will, the ability not to sin [posse non peccare].  The final freedom will be a much greater freedom, the inability to sin [non posse peccare.  Hence freedom = inability, or the obverse of sin?] (195)

God made man…of good will.…The first evil will, which preceded all his evil acts, was rather a falling away from the work of God to his own works than any particular act. [evil = substituting one’s own works for God’s.  Q:  But then, is one truly free?  A. says no, then one is “non posse non peccare,” in fact “not able not to sin,” because all actions that proceed out of your own fallen will, without reference to God’s perfect will, are by definition sin.] (195)

Evil is not in the things which occasion our fall, but in the fall itself.…Thus if a man perversely sets his heart on any natural good [and Augustine would have seen even sex as a natural good, despite being convinced that in fallen man it is always the occasion of evil desires], then, even if he attains it, he himself becomes evil in the attainment of a good, and wretched because deprived of the better [that is, deprived of acting always in complete accordance with the will of God—this is why A. will say that in heaven, one achieves “non posse peccare,” the inability to sin, which is the highest freedom.] (195-6)

“[P]ride is the beginning of all sin” And what is pride but a craving for a perverse elevation, perverse in that it deserts him to whom the soul ought to cleave as its source of life, so as to make itself as it were its own source? THis happens when the soul loves itself too much; when it abandons that immutable good, which it ought to love more than itself. (196)

…those who are involved in Christ, although they have done nothing of their own volition, receive from him a share in righteousness and the reward of everlasting life. (197)

…the disease [fallenness, the fallen state] which destroys the power to live a good life… (198)

Although infants do not possess free will, there is no illogicality in calling their original sin voluntary, since it derives from the misused will of the first man, and is theirs as it were by heredity. (199)  [How’s that for a twisted argument?]

On the state of redemption:

When the Apostle says, ‘You have been washed and sanctified’, he speaks of a change for the better; bringing, not exemption from concupiscence [non posse peccare], which is impossible in this life, but freedom from obedience to it, a thing which can happen in a good life.…You are greatly in error in thinking that ‘if concupiscence is an evil the baptized person would be exempt from it’.  The baptized is exempt from sin, not from every evil; or rather, to put it more clearly; he is exempt from the guilt of all evils, not from all evils. (199)

What’s up with that?  Is this a sort of forensic treatment of sin by God, where we keep on sinning all we like, and God pretends like we’re not, so we are absolved from the guilt of sin but not the fact of sinning?  A tough passage.  Here is another, similar one:

“How is it that this carnal concupiscence remains in the regenerate man, who has received remission of all sins?…Carnal concupiscence is not set aside in baptism so that it ceases to exist, but so that it is not reckoned as a sin.  But although the guilt of it is removed, the passion itself remains until every infirmity of ours is healed.…[Again, this seems to be the sort of judicial fiction Wesley objected to in the Calvinist treatment of justification.] (203)

Then he continues:

The guilt of concupiscence is removed when forgiveness is given; for to be free from sin means not be guilty of sin. [Then he goes on to say it is not enough to stop sinning in deed, we must pray about our former sins that they may be forgiven.  I really have no idea what he means when he says “a sin may remain in respect of action, though past in respect of guilt.”] (203)

In the category of “things that don’t preoccupy us these days,” this whole question of how a soul makes it into a baby—and where the soul comes from. As in the four positions stated on p. 200, or this deep question:

When seed is emitted without conception, the question arises whether the seed of the soul does not issue; or does it rush back to its source in an instant?  Or does it perish?  If it perishes, then how can the soul itself be immortal, if its seed is mortal?…[and so on.  We have to remember, Augustine is living in a very different world from us, and asking very different questions.] (200)

For a good statement on one’s condition (with regard to freedom and unfreedom) in relation to God’s grace in salvation, see the bottom of 203, paragraph F.

Liberty was lost through sin, that liberty which existed in paradise, the liberty of perfect righteousness.…And therefore human nature stands in need of divine grace: and the Lord says, “If the Son sets you free, then you will really be free”.… (203)

“Men can only become slaves to sin because they are free.  What frees men from righteousness is just the use of their free choice: what makes them free from sin is nothing but the Saviour’s grace.  [That is, to not sin is not a simple choice of their fallen will, but a choice of their graced will, that they otherwise would not have been able to make.] (203)

The sons of men cannot live a good life unless they are made sons of God.…[T]he power to live a god life…is only given by God’s grace. (204)

Now here’s one that should perk up Methodist antennae; the section marked “prevenient grace.”  Is this prevenient grace as Wesley intends it, that “sets one up” to make the decision, all by one’s lonesome, to yield to God and receive salvation?  Surely, Augustine must mean that.  No, he says “we are also active in this: but it is in co-operation with his action, for his mercy [or grace] goes before me…for “without him we can do nothing.” (204-5)  I take this to mean not only that God’s grace comes first, but that it in fact changes our will so that we are able to choose him.  We do not exert our independent will in salvation, as if we always had, as fallen people, the ability to come to God, and were just encouraged by grace to go ahead and make that decision.  No, according to Augustine it is always grace that carries us.  Without grace every moment “bouying up” our will, so to speak, and in fact remaking it, we could not receive salvation.

Now, regarding the kind of freedom Adam had.  Augustine distinguishes between “grace avialable” and “grace effective”—or what we might call grace irresistible.  He says:

The first man did not have the grace to prevent him from willing evil; what he had was the grace to enable him to be good, if he continued in it, the grace without which he had no power to be good even with free will, though he could abandon it through the use of free will.…Now free will is capable of evil, but incapable of good, unless it is assisted by the all-powerful good. (205)

On perseverance, Augustine says:

“it is not th[e] aid to persevereance which is now given to the saints who are predestined…; the aid bestowed on them is perseverance itself.  It is not merely that without that gift they could not continue to persevere, but that because of this gift they cannot but persevere.” (206).

To a good Wesleyan, that may seem like people are being made into automatons—it doesn’t seem like a proper definition of freedom, to say that a person can do “nothing but persevere,” given that “gift” from God of perseverence.

But of course, there is no room for complacency here, because no person knows if they are in fact one of the elect or not—one does not know if he or she will persevere until he or she has indeed persevered to the very last moment of life.

About “cooperating grace” Augustine says:

We have no power to perform the good works of godliness without his operation to make us will, and his co-operation when we will.… (206)

Again, this seems very deterministic to us as modern Americans.  But A. says exactly what he means, and he means that this is indeed a kind of freedom, a freedom not to sin, given to us by the grace of God.  One is, in the biblical language, “free from sin, because…the slave of righteousness” (206-07).

Augustine anticipates our question, on p. 207:

Are we robbing free choice of all power through grace?  Not in the least.  We are in fact putting free choice on a firm basis.…Through grace comes the healing of the soul from the disorder of sin [notice the medical, therapeutic language here, like Wesley uses when speaking of our need to have our “tempers” changed]; through the health of the soul comes freedom of choice; through free choice comes delight in righteousness; through delight in righteousness comes the fulfilment of the law.…Grace makes the will healthy, so that by that will righteousness may be freely loved.…How is it that wretched men have the effrontery to boast of free will before they have been set free?  Or to boast of their own strength, if they have by now been set free?…It is ‘where the Spirit of the Lord is’ that ‘there is liberty’. (207)

This is a powerful passage, and worth reading over a few times and thinking about carefully!

Thus when A. says “to consent to the call of God, or to dissent from it, as I have said, lies with man’s own will,” he mean’s our GRACED will—for as he goes on to say, “What have you which you did not receive?” (208)  So the process of redemption and sanctification from sin runs like this for A.:

“No one can wish for righteousness, unless the Lord furnishes him with the will, so that the longing for righteousness precedes the achievement; and this is gradually followed by effectual power.…for he alone is able to restore man’s health and increase it.…(208)

And what about this final, glorified state, in which A. says it will be impossible for us to be slaves to sin? (top of 209)  Clearly, he takes it to be a state of freedom, yet a state in which it is not possible for us to choose good or evil.  I like his argument here:

If, as you say, ‘The only freedom is the possibility of choosing good or evil’, then God is not free, since in him there is no possibility of sin. (209)

That seems similar to Steinmetz’s statement that God cannot not be—in a sense he is “incapable” of not being, though at the same time he is obviously free and in control of the universe.  And it seems A. is saying that in a similar sense, a redeemed, glorified person is “incapable” of sinning, though at the same time free and capable of exercising his or her will.

Recap (and snippets) from latourette

Return to this statement of Latourette’s at the end of the class:

Latourette therefore concludes his section on Augustine with these words:

To Christians with the experience of Paul and Augustine only one answer [to the controversy between determinism and indeterminism or free will] is possible, for in their own lives they have known the impotence of their wills and the power of victory which has come from outside themselves as the free gift of God through Jesus Christ.  To them it is easy to regard the action of God as initiated solely by God and at His unfathomable discretion. (181)

Latourette adds that others “who have not known that deep inner conflict with its bitter frustration and the amazing joy of triumph through God’s grace, have been inclined to hold to man’s ability to attain, through his own effort, although perhaps aided by God, to the ideal life.” (181)

Other notes:

Basically man’s sin is pride, the desire of the creature to put himself in the centre rather than God, to do his will rather than God’s will.

Having once put himself in the centre, his every effort to extricate himself is nullified by the fact that it arises from continuing concern for himself, and thus he is mired ever more deeply in the morass into which he has fallen.  Man is still free, but only free to sin, to sink ever lower.  He is not free to turn wholly to God.

All of us have not only a tendency to sin, but through Adam’s sin we share his loss of status, his self-centredness, his inability to choose God, and, therefore, his guilt in the sight of God.  We can be rescued only through a second birth.

God’s grace, so at least some Pelagians held, is seen in giving man free will at his creation, in giving man the law as a guide to his choice, and in sending Jesus Christ who by his teaching and good example assists men to do good.  From Augustine’s standpoint, this view made grace unnecessary and differed little from Stoic morality.

One response to “A little guide to Augustine’s thought on sin, freedom, and grace

  1. “Pelagius does not seem to take the fall seriously.”

    Because any honest reading of the first chapters of Genesis shows there wasn’t one, which is why the Jews also don’t take the so-called “fall” seriously. When Adam and Eve ate the apple, the text plainly says they became like God knowing good and evil, not that they lost the knowledge of good and evil but that they gained it! Yet somehow Paulinists and Augustinians always turn it around and claim they lost what they clearly gained.

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