Augustine on Free Will, Grace, and Perseverance

Over the past year I have been especially dedicated to the task of learning the differences in the systems known as Calvinism and Arminianism, and in discovering where on that spectrum I fall.  This task has prompted me to read not only the works of contemporary authors on the subjects, but also those of Calvin and Arminius themselves.  This allowed me to get to the root of those systems and to really understand what their namesakes taught concerning salvation.  I have discussed several thoughts around this in previous posts.

One thing that stands out to me is how everyone, during the reformation, wanted to appeal to Augustine for their theological grounding.  I saw this in Luther, Erasmus, Calvin, and Arminius.  Every book I read had quotations from Augustine that these authors used to buttress their arguments, yet each came to a different conclusion.  I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised, considering we see the same thing with the Bible, and Augustine makes no claim to immutability.

Ultimately, I put down each book feeling like I had obtained a fairly clear understanding of what each author believed and taught, but a more muddied understanding of the source of their theology. This made discerning between the truth of oppositional claims more difficult. Each argued both from scripture and from Augustine, and I could see each of their perspectives given the data they presented. So, after a few month period of “simmering”, so to speak, in what I had learned from reading each of these authors, I decided to dive into some of Augustine’s works which specifically related to Free Will, Grace, Faith, and Perseverance. Thankfully, there is a book, translated by Peter King, that collects a number of Augustine’s most important works on those subjects: Augustine: On the Free Choice of the Will, On Grace and Free Choice, and Other Writings. In this post I will summarize some of the insights I took away from reading this book.

First of all, Augustine was an incredible author.  He was clearly very well educated and competent in secular and Christian Philosophy, Logic, Rhetoric, and the Scriptures.  Sometimes I found myself struggling to understand his line of reasoning, but most of the time, he was clear and communicated his points with ease, carrying me along as he reasoned through difficult subjects.  His first book “On the Free Choice of the Will” was especially engaging in that it was written as a dialog between two men, himself and Evodius (who happened to be a real life friend of Augustine).  At times I felt like I was sitting beside them as they discussed the nature of man and his free will.  I would highly recommend this book to anyone who wants a thorough treatment of the subjects.

As to the question of which of the men I had previously read “got Augustine right”, I found that the answer is none of them.  Each of them finds agreement in many of the things which Augustine writes, but each of them also overstated Augustine’s defense of their case.  Overall, I found none of these men’s arguments were the revitalization of Augustine’s position, but that his position was unique in and of itself and argued from scripture and reason coherently.

On the subject of Free Will, Augustine was a fierce defender and proponent of the concept.  He adamantly rejected the idea that man was necessitated to fall into sin by the will of God, on the grounds that such would remove any actual guilt from men.  Augustine writes that

But what, in the end, could be the cause of the will before the will?  Either it is the will itself, in which case there is no getting around this root of the will, or it is not the will, in which case it has no sin.  Hence either the will is the first cause of sinning, or no sin is the first cause of sinning.  No sin is rightly assigned to anyone but the sinner.  Therefore, it is rightly assigned only to someone who wills it…Whatever the cause of the will is, if it cannot be resisted there is no sin in yielding to it; but if it can be resisted, let someone not yield to it, and there will be no sin.

King 106-7

This seems to most closely align with the positions of both Erasmus and Arminius who argued that had man willed to sin because of the explicit determination and plan of God, they could not be culpable.  Calvin and Luther, on the other hand, felt that there was no conflict in God foreordaining that man fall into sin and that man alone bear the guilt of it.

I found Augustine to be a strong ally to Luther, Calvin, and Arminius when it came to the doctrine of salvation by Grace.  Augustine argued against the Pelagians that the ability of man to will any Good was only applicable before it was enslaved to sin at the fall and only after by the help of grace:

unless the will itself is set free by God’s grace from the servitude in which it was made the slave of sin, and is helped to overcome its vices, mortals cannot live rightly and religiously.  And unless this divine kindness by which the will is set free came first, grace would then be given in accordance with deserts, and it would not be grace, which is of course given gratuitously.

King 130

Furthermore he argues that even the good works we do after we are saved cannot be rightly said to be ours, but are also from God’s grace.  He writes

the Pelagians claim that the only grace that is not given in accordance with our deserts is that by which human sins are forgiven, whereas the grace which is given at the end, namely eternal life, is rendered in accordance with our previous deserts…To someone thinking such things, we say in all truth that God crowns His gifts and not your deserts, if your deserts are from yourself and not from Him.  For if they are such, they are evil, and God does not crown them.  But if they are good, they are the gifts of God.

King 153

Once Augustine begins to speak about perseverance it becomes clear that he saw it much more like Calvin and Luther than Arminius.  Augustine seems to be speaking of the concept of “Irresistible Grace” when he writes

There is no doubt, then, that it was arranged for the gospel to be heard by whoever the people are who were singled out from that original damnation through the bestowal of divine grace. And when they hear it, they believe, and they persevere up to the end in the “faith which works through love” [Gal. 5: 6]. If they wander off the path at some point, once reprimanded they are reformed. Some of them return to the life they abandoned even if they are not reprimanded by other people. A few, having received grace at whatever their age may be, are taken away from the dangers of this life by a swift death. He works all these things in them: He Who worked them to be “vessels of mercy” [Rom. 9: 23], He Who elected them in His Son before the foundation of the world…

King 195

Augustine differs on the subject of perseverance of the saints from Calvin and Luther in ways that I find interesting and significant.  Calvin allowed for the provision that God might regenerate an individual who is not Elect, and allow that person to fall away when he says “Nevertheless on occasion he may employ such a call with those whom he illumines for a time; but later, because of their ingratitude, he abandons them and brings greater blindness on them.” (Calvin 490), but in general he felt confident that those who honestly assess themselves to be believing the gospel, can be reasonably assured that they are Elect and that all the good promises of God apply fully to them.  Luther felt similarly.  Modern Calvinism has completely dismissed the idea that a genuine believer could ever lose their salvation.  Augustine on the other hand warns his readers against assuming that we are part of the Elect and rejects assurance because, as he argues, it leads to Pride before God.  Thus he states:

For who among the many faithful, while given life in this mortal condition, would presume to be in the number of the predestined?  That fact must be hidden in this place, where we should be on guard against pride…Because of the usefulness of this matter being secret—namely that no one be filled with pride, but everyone, even those who are running well, be fearful as long as it is hidden who reaches the goal—because of the usefulness of this matter being secret, then, we must believe that some of the ‘children of perdition’, who have not received the gift of persevering up to the end, begin to live in the “faith which works through love” [Gal. 5:6]; they live justly and with faith for a time, but afterwards fall, and they are not taken from this life before they fall.  If this had not happened to any of them, people would have that healthful fear which quells the vice of pride up to the time at which they arrive at the grace of Christ (by which a religious life is led), and from then on would be secure that they would never fall away from Him.  But this presumption is not beneficial in this place of temptations, where our weakness is so great that security can engender pride.  In the end there will be this security too.  What is already the case in angels will also hold for human beings then, when there cannot be any pride.

King 219-20

Augustine’s view seems harsh, and perhaps a little shocking.  Those of us who have grown up in modern Reformed or Baptist environments have generally taken it for granted that if we currently believe, we can be certain that we will persevere to the end.  When we see people walk away from the faith, we are quick to assert “they never had real faith” as though we could see their hearts.  A large part of what put me on this quest to understand the systems of Arminianism and Calvinism is that I would read the numerous warning and apostasy passages in the bible and not even have a category for them since my brain had been conditioned to understand salvation from the perspective of “Once Saved, Always Saved”.

Augustine’s view effectively harmonizes the concepts of “Irresistible Grace” and “Perseverance of the Saints” with those warning passages, but it seems to do so at the cost of Assurance and Security in the heart of believers.  Calvin and Luther, while acknowledging the possibility of apostasy as Augustine describe it, nevertheless pastorally assert that the believer can be assured of their own perseverance.  Modern Calvinists and Baptists take it a step further by either assuming the subject of warning passages to be those who only seem to have faith, but it is false in reality (John Piper), or by arguing that while apostasy is theoretically possible for believers, warning passages help to ensure that it never actually comes about for them (Millard Erickson).  Arminius and Classical Arminians reject “Irresistible Grace” and argue that believers can know for certain that God will never cast out anyone who trusts in Jesus until the end, but that believers can apostatize.

Regardless of the system one holds to or the human teachers we prefer, when it comes to the subjects of perseverance, assurance, and Apostasy, we should go to the bible and look to the “whole council” of the word of God.  I think it makes clear the concerns for those who would be tempted to turn from faith as well as the great joy of assurance available to those who believe:

They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off. And even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again.

Romans 11:20-23 (ESV)

And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister.

Colossians 1:21-23 (ESV)

Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy

Jude 1:24 (ESV)

If you find yourself lacking in assurance, the only solution, no matter which system you favor, is to turn to Jesus.  In Jesus we have forgiveness.  In Jesus we have righteousness.  In Jesus we have security.  Don’t look to the strength of your faith, or your own ability to understand the complexities of our glorious salvation, but look to the Cross where Jesus died for you.

Citations

King, P. (2010). Augustine: On the Free Choice of the Will, On Grace and Free Choice, and Other Writings (Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy) [Kindle iOS version]. Retrieved from Amazon.com

Calvin, J. (2014). Institutes of the Christian Religion (1541 ed.) (R. White, Trans.). Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust.

Image Credit: The Four Doctors of the Western Church, Saint Augustine of Hippo (354–430). Gerard Seghers, c. 1600-1650. Credit: Kingston Lacy. CC BY

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