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History of the Christian Church, Volume III: Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 311-600.
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§ 157. Augustine’s Doctrine of Redeeming Grace.


Augustine reaches his peculiar doctrine of redeeming grace in two ways. First he reasons upwards from below, by the law of contrast; that is, from his view of the utter incompetency of the unregenerated man to do good. The greater the corruption, the mightier must be the remedial principle. The doctrine of grace is thus only the positive counterpart of the doctrine of sin. In the second place he reasons downwards from above; that is, from his conception of the all-working, all-penetrating presence of God in natural life, and much more in the spiritual. While Pelagius deistically severs God and the world after the creation, and places man on an independent footing, Augustine, even before this controversy, was, through his speculative genius and the earnest experience of his life, deeply penetrated with a sense of the absolute dependence of the creature on the Creator, in whom we live, and move, and have our being. But Augustine’s impression of the immanence of God in the world has nothing pantheistic; it does not tempt him to deny the transcendence of God and his absolute independence of the world. Guided by the Holy Scriptures, he maintains the true mean between deism and pantheism. In the very beginning of his Confessions18291829    Liber i. c. 2. he says very beautifully: ’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 art 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.” In short, man is nothing without God, and everything in and through God. The undercurrent of this sentiment could not but carry this father onward to all the views he developed in opposition to the Pelagian heresy.

While Pelagius widened the idea of grace to indefiniteness, and reduced it to a medley of natural gifts, law, gospel, forgiveness of sins, enlightenment, and example, Augustine restricted grace to the specifically Christian sphere (and, therefore, called it gratia 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. 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. 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.18301830    De spiritu et litera, c. 26 (tom. x. f. 109): “Quid est enim aliud, justificati, quam justi facti, ab illo scilicet qui justificat impium, ut ex impio fiat justus?” Retract. ii. 33: “Justificamur gratia Dei, hoc est justi efficimur.” Yet, as he refers this whole process to divine grace, to the exclusion of all human merit, he stands on essentially Evangelical ground.18311831    Comp. De gratia et libero arbitrio, c. 8 (§ 19), and many other places, where he ascribes fides, caritas, omnia bona opera, and vita aeterna to the free, unmerited grace of God. 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.18321832    “Non lege atque doctrina insonante forinsecus, sed interna et occulta, mirabili ac ineffabili potestate operatur Deus in cordibus hominum non solum veras revelationes, sed bonas etiam voluntates.” De grat. Christi, cap. 24 (x. f. 24). Hence he frequently calls it the inspiration of a good will, or of love, which is the fulfilling of the law.18331833    De corrept. et grat. cap. 2 (x. 751): “Inspiratio bonae voluntatis atque operis.” Without this grace men can “nullum prorsus sive cogitando, sive volendo et amando, sive agendo facere bonum.” Elsewhere he calls it also, “inspiratio dilectionis” and “caritatis.” C. duas Epist. Pel. iv., and De gratia Christi, 39. “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.”18341834    “Nolentem praevenit, ut velit; volentem subsequitur, ne frustra velit.” Enchir. c. 82. 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 1 Cor. iv. 7: “What hast thou, that thou hast not received?” to change his view.18351835    Comp. Retract i. c. 23; De dono perseverantiae, c. 20, and De praedest. c. 2. 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 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 contained 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.”18361836    “Erant tamen et legis tempore homines Dei, non sub lege terrente, convincente, puniente, sed sub gratia delectante, sanante, liberante.” De grat. Christi et de peccato origin. l. ii. c. 25 (§ 29).

It is, moreover, unmerited. Gratia would be no gratia if it were not gratuita, gratis data.18371837    Comp. De gestis Pelagii, § 33 (x. 210); De pecc. orig. § 28 (x. 265): “Non Dei gratia erit ullo modo, nisi gratuita fuerit omni modo.” In many other passages he says: gratia gratis datur; gratia praecedit bona opera; gratia praecedit merita; gratia indignis datur. 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 God, 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!18381838    De pecc. orig. § 28 (x. 265): “Et ipsorum [prophetarum] corda eadem mundabantur mediatoris fide, et diffundebatur in eis caritas per Spiritum Sanctum, qui ubi vult spirat, non merita sequens, sed etiam ipsa merita faciens.” 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.” 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 an 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.18391839    De gratia et libero arbitrio, cap. 22 (§ 44, tom. x. f. 742). Parvuli, he says, have no will to receive grace, nay, often struggle with tears against being baptized, “quod eis ad magnum impietatis peccatum imputaretur, si jam libero uterentur arbitrio: et tamen haeret etiam in reluctantibus gratia, apertissime nullo bono merito praecedente, alioquin gratia jam non esset gratia.” He then calls attention to the fact that grace is sometimes bestowed on children of unbelievers, and is withheld from many children of believers. His own experience, finally, afforded him an argument, to him irrefutable, for the free, undeserved compassion of God. 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.”18401840    De grat. et lib. arbitrio, c. 6 (f. 726), where Augustine, from passages like James i. 17; John iii. 27; Eph. ii. 8, draws the conclusion: “Si ergo Dei dona sunt bona merita tua, non Deus coronat merita tua tamquam merita tua, sed tamquam dona sua.”

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 subject.18411841    “Subventum est infirmitati voluntatis humanae, ut divina gratia indeclinabiliter et insuperabiliter [not inseparabiliter, as the Jesuit edition of Louvain, 1577, reads] ageretur; et ideo, quamvis infirma, non tamen deficeret, neque adversitate aliqua vinceretur.” De corrept. et grat. § 38 (tom. x. p. 771). 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, Solomon, Ananias, and Sapphira, and even the traitor Judas, were under the influence of divine grace, and repelled it. Augustine, therefore, must make irresistible grace identical with the specific grace of regeneration in the elect, which at the same time imparts the donum perseverantiae.18421842    It is in this sense that the Calvinistic theologians have always understood the Augustinian system, especially the Presbyterians. So, e.g., Dr. Cunningham(l.c. vol. ii. p. 352): ”Augustine, in asserting the invincibility or irresistibility of grace, did not mean—and those who in subsequent times have embraced this general system of doctrine as scriptural, did not intend to convey the idea—that man was compelled to do that which was good, or that he was forced to repent and believe against his will, whether he would or not, as the doctrine is commonly misrepresented, but merely that he was certainly and effectually made willing, by the renovation of his will through the power of God, whenever that power was put forth in a measure Sufficient and Adequate to produce the result. Augustine, and those who have adopted his system, did not mean to deny that men may, in some sense and to some extent, resist the Spirit, the possibility of which is clearly indicated in Scripture; inasmuch as they have most commonly held that, to use the language of our [the Westminster] Confession, ’persons who are not elected and who finally perish, may have some common operations of the Spirit,’ which, of course, they resist and throw off.” Similarly Dr. Shedd(Hist. of Doct. vol. ii. 73), who, however, extends irresistible grace to all the regenerate. “Not all grace,” he says, “but the grace which actually regenerates, Augustinedenominates irresistible. By this he meant, not that the human will is converted unwillingly or by compulsion, but that divine grace is able to overcome the utmost obstinacy of the human spirit. ... Divine grace is irresistible, not in the sense that no form of grace is resisted by the sinner; but when grace reaches that special degree which constitutes it regenerating, it then overcomes the sinner’s opposition, and makes him willing in the day of God’s power.” This is Calvinistic, but not Augustinian, although given as Augustine’s view. For according to Augustineall the baptized are regenerate, and yet many are eternally lost. (Comp. Ep. 98, 2; De pecc. mer. et rem. i. 39, and the passages in Hagenbach’s Doctrine History, vol. i. p. 358 ff. in the Anglo-American edition.) The gratia irresistiblis must therefore be restricted to the narrower circle of the electi. Augustine’s doctrine of baptism is far more Lutheran and Catholic than Calvinistic. According to Calvin, the regenerating effect of baptism is dependent on the decretum divinum, and the truly regenerate is also elect, and therefore can never finally fall from grace. Augustine, for the honor of the sacrament, assumes the possibility of a fruitless regeneration; Calvin, in the interest of election and regeneration, assumes the possibility of an ineffectual baptism.

Grace, finally, works progressively or by degrees. It removes 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 a living knowledge of sin and longing for redemption, grace is gratia praeveniens or praeparans. In creating faith and the free will to do good, and uniting the soul to Christ, it is gratia operans. Joining with the emancipated will to combat the remains of evil, and bringing forth good works as fruits of faith, it is gratia cooperans. 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.18431843    Summing all the stages together, Augustinesays: “Et quis istam etsi parvam dare coeperat caritatem, nisi ille qui praeparat voluntatem, et coöperando perficit, quod operando incipit? Quoniam ipse ut velimus operatur incipiens qui volentibus coöperatur perficiens. Propter quod ait Apostolus: Certus sum, quoniam qui operatur in vobis opus bonum, perficiet usque in diem Christi Jesu” (Phil. i. 6)). De grat. et lib. arbitr. c. 27, § 33 (tom. x. 735). This includes the donum perseverantiae, which is the only certain token of election.18441844    Augustinetreats of this in the Liber de dono persevemntiae, one of his latest writings, composed in 428 or 429 (tom. x. f. 821 sqq.). “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.18451845    Comp. upon this especially the book De gratia et libero arbitrio, which Augustinewrote a.d.426, addressed to Valentinus and other monks of Adrumetum, to refute the false reasoning of those, “qui sic gratiam Dei defendunt, ut negent hominis liberum arbitrium” (c. 1, tom. x. f. 717).

We may sum up the Augustinian anthropology under these three heads:

1. The Primitive State: Immediate, undeveloped unity of man with God; child-like innocence; germ and condition of everything subsequent; possibility of a sinless and a sinful development.

2. The State of Sin: Alienation from God; bondage; dominion of death; with longing after redemption.

3. The State of Redemption or of Grace: Higher, mediated unity with God; virtue approved through conflict; the blessed freedom of the children of God; here, indeed, yet clogged with the remains of sin and death, but hereafter absolutely perfect, without the possibility of apostasy.



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