Augustine and the Temporary Christian

Posted by on Dec 4, 2012 in Augustine, Paul Helm | No Comments

By Paul Helm–

Augustine discusses temporary Christianity in his anti-Pelagian writings, as seen in  Rebuke and Grace, composed in 426-427 and On the Gift of Perseverance, written in 428/429.  In these short books Augustine strongly defends the sovereign grace of God, especially the idea of effectual calling and what later on came to be called the ‘golden chain’ of Romans 8. Remember that the concept of effectual grace is not a novelty in his thinking provoked by the rise of Pelagianism, for it occurs as early as 397 in his letter to Simplicianus, Bishop of Milan, written shortly after Augustine himself became a bishop.

It seems that that letter, written in response to certain questions addressed to him by Simplicianus, was the occasion in which, while writing, he came to recognize the significance of Paul’s argument in Romans 9. (In his Retractions, writing about the Letter, Augustine wrote ‘In resolving the question, I really worked for the free choice of the human will, but the grace of God won out’.) He not only wrote back to Simplicianus, giving him answers to his questions, but the letter seems to be the record of him changing his mind. (The passage from the Retractions is quoted at length in the anti-Pelagian writing On the Predestination of the Saints. (408 or 409; Ch.8) In writing to Simplicianus, Augustine came to formulate the idea of effectual calling, and then stoutly defended it in the following words:

For the effectiveness of God’s mercy cannot be in the power of man to frustrate, if he will have none of it. If God wills to have mercy on men, he can call them in a way that is suited to them, so that they will be moved to understand and to follow. It is true, therefore, that men are called but few chosen. Those are chosen who are effectually [congruenter] called. Those who are not effectually called and do not obey their calling are not chosen, for although they were called they did not follow. Again it is true that “it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that hath mercy”. For although he calls many, he has mercy on those whom he calls in a way that is suited to them. —Augustine: Earlier Writings. Selected and translated with an introduction, John H.S. Burleigh, (London SCM Press, 1953), 395.

In his later work, Rebuke and Grace he works this out in more detail, using the same text, ‘For many are called, but few are chosen’ (Matt. 22.14) to distinguish between those who are outwardly called, and those who besides being outwardly called are inwardly called by God’s effectual grace.

But he also addresses a new problem. What of those Christians who fail to persevere, to those ‘of his children God does not give this perseverance’. He response is that there are those who ‘while they live piously, are called the children of God; but because they will wickedly, and die in that impiety, the foreknowledge of God does not call them God’s children’. (Ch.20) God gives them grace, but not persevering grace. Had they been given persevering grace then they would have persevered, and this perseverance would be evidence that they were ‘children of the promise’. So ‘there are some who are called by us children of God on account of grace received even in temporal things, yet are not so called by God’. Augustine cites I John 2.19 and comments ‘even when they appeared among us, they were not of us’.

He may surprise us in saying that the righteousness of such as were not granted perseverance was not hypocritical: ‘not because they simulated righteousness, but because they did not continue in it’,(480) citing John 8.31, and the ‘disciples’ called such by Jesus in John 6.59 ff.

We, then, call men elected, and Christ’s disciples, and God’s children because they are to be so called whom, being regenerated, we see to live piously; but they are then truly what they are called if they shall abide in that on account of which they are so called. But if they have not perseverance—that is, if they continue not in that which they have begun to be—they are not truly called what they are called, and are not; for they are not this in the sight of Him to whom it is known what they are going to be, that is to say, from good men, bad men.

Augustine’s emphasis is on following the Apostolic practice. Men and women professing the faith, join the church in various circumstances and conditions.  They are to be received accordingly, and only were they to leave the church or seriously to fail in life are the descriptions of them as ‘elected, and Christ’s disciples, and God’s children’ to be reconsidered. This may make it appear that Augustine believes that all that adhere to the church are in that adherence regenerate and truly Christian, and that if they fall away they ‘fall from grace’, and so there is a class of persons who once were regenerated etc., but who now are not.

But this would be a mistaken way to take Augustine, I believe. His emphasis is on the point that actually persevering is the one and only test of whether one possesses ‘perseverance’. Because life as a professing Christian is lived out in real time, human assessments of such a life, whether that of the person himself, or of other people, can only be provisional, so Augustine’s teaching on perseverance cannot be exactly or finally applied at any moment or stage in a person’s life. In The Gift of Perseverance there is a distinct emphasis on the sovereignty and inscrutability of God’s purposes for individual men and women.

He has mercy on whom he will, no merits of his own preceding; and the truth is unsearchable by which he hardeneth whom he will, even though his merits may have preceded, but merits for the most part common to him with the man on whom He has mercy….For is there unrighteousness with God? Away with the thought! But His ways are past finding out’. (The Gift of Perseverance Ch. 25)

(It is routinely stated that unlike Calvin and other Reformers Augustine did not hold to double predestination, but reading a passage such as this makes one wonder.)

It is interesting also that Augustine places little or no emphasis on personal assurance, or on the grounds of true assurance and the reasons for false assurance in the manner characteristic of Reformed theology in the seventeenth century.  Much less does he think of perseverance as a gift that can be enjoyed in separation from the visible church. He places great store by John’s report that ‘They went out from us, but the were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us’. (I Jn. 2.19)  Perseverance is not an individual gift, entailing ‘personal assurance’, that is portable from one congregation to another without good reason, or enjoyable in isolation from any congregation. In this sense Augustine was not an ‘individualist’ But on the other hand, since perseverance manifests itself in persevering to the end, and in no other way, and can endure through periods of weakness, no final verdict can be passed on others by ourselves. ‘So that he who thinks he stands may take heed lest he fall, and he who glories may glory not in himself, But in the Lord’.

Is it ‘Once saved always saved’? Augustine would say that looked at from the divine perspective, undoubtedly yes. But what about the point of view of the pilgrim? I think he might say that the evidence for perseverance cannot be taken wholly from the past, but must include evidence of present persevering. Those have the gift of perseverance who, by God’s grace and strength, in fact persevere. And he might add: beware of ‘mischievous elation’ and heed the Apostle: ‘Wherefore let him who seems to stand take heed lest he fall’. ‘It is good not to be high-minded, but to fear’.

NOTE: For those who do not already know, several of Augustine’s Anti-Pelagian writings (as found in the Schaff edition) are available for next to nothing as Kindle e-books via Amazon. B.B. Warfield in his Introduction to these writings, ‘Augustine and the Pelagian Controversy’ (in Studies in Tertullian and Augustine), surveys the field in his usual masterly way.

Paul Helm was appointed J.I. Packer Chair of Philosophical Theology at Regent College, Vancouver, in 2001. He is presently a Teaching Fellow there. Among his many books are Calvin and the Calvinists, Faith and Reason, The Trustworthiness of God, The Providence of God, Eternal God, The Secret Providence of God, The Trustworthiness of God (with Carl Trueman), John Calvin’s Ideas, Calvin at the Centre, and Calvin: A Guide for the Perplexed. 

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