Part 5: Catholic Europe. lesson 4 of 8.
Lesson 29. Augustine

Through today’s lesson, we hope you will emphasize God’s grace as your main theme when you share your faith.  We hope your concept of grace will also prevent you from presenting yourself as better than others.

1.Free Will and Grace. Have you ever wondered: if I avoid sinning, can I take the credit for it, or is it all due to God’s grace?  If you became a Christian, is it because you are smarter than those who didn’t, or is it because God led you to believe?  Can you freely choose to believe in God, or would you have stayed away from God were it not that God intervened in your life?  These question about free will and the respective roles of God and individual were debated in the early years of the church and we continue to think about them today.  Your answers to these questions are important, because they will determine how you lead people to Christ and how you help people to grow in Christ.

2.Analysis. A very complete analysis of these questions appears in the writing of Augustine.   He lived in the 400’s AD in North Africa, during the time when the barbarian tribes from Eastern Europe were destroying the Roman Empire in Europe.  He was a very significant Christian intellectual, one of the last to receive a full education in the Greek and Roman cultures, before education became impossible for most people during the Dark Ages.  His writings therefore sum up the logic and wisdom of western civilization up to that point, and became a reference for those who lived afterward. He made use of human reason, but not in conflict with faith: his position was that we can use reason to understand the things that we already believe.  His views on many questions became the authoritative views of the Catholic church,  and many of Augustine’s ideas were retained by the Protestants.

3.Grace. Augustine stressed the grace of God.  He taught that I should not take credit for doing good, and not think that I can choose God out of my own resources, but admit that it is due to God’s grace working in me.  However, a monk named Pelagius noticed that some people living under this system did not seem to avoid immorality.  He heard them say that God had not given them enough grace to be moral, so when they sinned hey could say it was not their fault.  So Pelagius began to teach that humans can choose to be good, and have the responsibility to do so, even without the help of God’s grace.  Augustine could not accept this, and wrote many books against Pelagius.

4.Pelagius. Below is a summary of Pelagius’ ideas:

(1).  Humans are not sinful when they are born.  They learn to sin because they live in an evil world.

(2).  After people are baptized, they can choose to avoid sin without relying on God’s grace.

(3).  Perfection must be possible, otherwise it would not have been fair of God to demand it.  (Pelagius did not say that any person had actually achieved this level).

(4).  It is true to say that we have the ability to choose to sin or not to sin, because if not, it would not be fair of God to judge us.

5.Reaction. To respond to these ideas, and based on Paul’s teachings,  in 397 Augustine wrote that we are saved by grace, through faith, and that even faith is a gift of God.  He also quoted Paul by teaching that we all deserve to die, because we are all descendants of Adam.²  Augustine concluded that since all die, therefore all are born with sin: this is called “originalsin.”  Paul said the only way he could be rescued from his desire to sin was through Jesus Christ our Lord.³  That is why Augustine said that God’s grace was essential, both to become a Christian, and to continue to live as a Christian.

Below is a summary of Augustine’s teachings:

(1).  All humans are sinful, even babies, because they are descended from the first sinner.

(2).  When people use their free will, they will choose to do wrong, unless God’s grace intervenes.

(3).  If it were possible to be perfect without God’s help, then Jesus died for nothing.

(4).  Although we cannot choose to do good, we are still responsible when we choose to do evil.    Pelagius and Augustine wrote against each other for many years.  In the end, the Catholic Church accepted Augustine’s position that salvation and good works can happen only if God moves us, and this position was also retained by Luther and Calvin, even after they left the Catholic church.

6.Luther. Martin Luther often quoted from Augustine.  Luther had been a Catholic monk and priest, so Luther was familiar with Augustine’s writings.  Luther used Augustine as an authority especially concerning the central role of “grace” in the Christian life, which Luther wanted to emphasize.  Grace was important for Augustine because, like Luther, he had a strong sense of his personal unworthiness and the great love and patience of God.  In his book “confessions,” Augustine told about the emptiness and immorality of his life before he knew God, and how he did not deserve to be accepted by God.  God’s grace was very precious to Augustine.

7.Calvin. Augustine was also quoted often by Calvin, especially in the matter of the authority and power of God.  Augustine had stressed that nothing could prevent God’s will from being done.  Calvin used this to develop his teaching that God had already chosen who was to be saved,¹ and that God would find a way for these people to hear the gospel and believe it.. Augustine did not try to answer the question about why God would give grace to some and not to others, but in later years, those who followed Calvin developed the teaching that God determines who will be saved and who will be damned.  Within the story of Calvin’s followers (the “reformed” church), there was a division between those who accepted this view, and those who rejected it, teaching that people had a choice as to whether they would accept or reject salvation.  One of the chapters below will describe this controversy more completely.

8.Free will. On the other hand, the Eastern Orthodox Church did not accept Augustine’s view, and so free will has a larger place in that church.  The Anabaptists also placed great emphasis on free will, and their view influenced the Baptist church, which divided into many small groups, some of which stress “free will” and some of which stress “God’s predestination.”    John Wesley and the Methodist church taught that God gives grace to all to prepare them to choose, and this grace is sufficient for anyone to be able to come to trust Christ for salvation.  Thus Wesley agreed that grace is needed, but also emphasized man’s ability to choose faith and goodness based on that grace, and rejected Augustine’s teaching that man was depraved and impotent against sin.  The churches that are influenced by Wesley’s views, such as the Holiness and Pentecostal churches, believe that God has given men enough grace to be able to choose salvation and to choose to adopt good behavior.  These views influenced and the methods of 19th century evangelism, which challenged people to make a decision for Christ.

9.Even today, people who emphasize God’s grace and power in these questions are said to be following the lead of Augustine, and those who stress man’s free will and natural abilities are criticized by being called “Pelagian” or “partly-Pelagian.” But even as Augustine placed more and more emphasis on God’s power, there were still conclusions that Augustine did not dare to make.  For example, if God is all powerful, then is God the source of evil?  It would be logical to say that, but Augustine did not want to say that.  So today, even though most Catholics and many Protestants agree with Augustine’s views, there are still enough mysteries to keep this topic alive.  The ideas of Augustine and his opponents can still found in today’s Chinese churches.

10.Augustine resolved another problem that had begun during the days of persecution: how to deal with those who think they are better than others. Here is how the problem started: in the days of persecution, when the judge gave Christians a choice to reject Christ or be punished, some Christians were weak and said they would reject Christ.  Later, after the persecution had ended, they would regret what they had done, and return to church.  How would the ones who endured the persecution feel about the ones who escaped persecution?  How would you have felt?  Were they happy to welcome the weak Christians back into the church again?

11.In fact, many of the Christians, led by a man named Donatus, refused to welcome the weak Christians.  They even went so far as to say that if a priest left the church and then returned, any baptism or communion he would administer was not valid.  They taught that the validity of baptism and communion depended on the level of purity of the priest.  Thousands of Christians, especially in northern Africa, refused to have fellowship with the established church, because the church was willing to accept the weak Christians back again.  They felt that their own churches were more pure, and because of this they were willing to divide the church.

12.The power of the sacraments.  This problem went on for hundreds of years. Finally, Augustine established principles that led to the gradual decline of the Donatists.  Augustine taught that the efficacy of baptism and communion does not depend on the purity of the priest.  The power in baptism and communion comes from Christ.  Augustine also provided a simple definition of a sacrament: “the word in visible form.”

13.Pride. Although the Donatists have passed into history, this type of problem can appear at any time. It is a temptation for people who are strong, who are successful in resisting temptation, or who have a special insight or revelation to think that they are better than other Christians, rather than to use their gift for the good of everyone.  Read Romans 15:1-3.  We are to bear with the failings of the weak.  Remember that Peter rejected Christ when Christ was arrested.  But Jesus forgave him and even gave him a responsibility to help others.

14.Application. Even today there is a continuing threat of divisions caused by those who see themselves as better than others, and who do such things as “making small things into big things,” making extra laws, or demanding special experiences.  They may consider themselves to be a different class of Christians because they claim special revelations or see themselves as more advanced in sanctification.  If you have any of these special experiences, we hope you will use them for the good of all, and be dedicated to the position that all who trust Christ are together in one body.  Your special experiences and your growth in maturity are all due to the grace of God.  The greatness of God’s grace can also help us when we are discouraged because we have fallen into sin.  Jesus on the cross has already dealt with the problem of your sin, and because of God’s grace you will never use up the forgiveness God provides for you.

15.Augustine wrote clearly on many other issues that became basic in Roman Catholic doctrine. He stressed the importance of priests and bishops.  He created the terms “visible church,” which means the church organization, and “invisible church,” which means the true believers who are within the organization.  This idea was retained by Luther and Calvin, although the Anabaptists and their followers took on the challenge of trying to limit the visible church to true believers only.  Because of the attacks of the barbarians against the Roman Empire, after 413 Augustine wrote a book called the “City of God.”   This book encouraged people that even though the Roman Empire may be defeated, God’s kingdom cannot be defeated.

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Footnotes.  1) Ephesians 2:8-9
2)  1 Corinthians 15:22
3)  Romans 7:15-25

Chinese translations:
Augustine 奥古斯丁     奧古斯丁; Pelagius 伯拉纠; Predestination 预定论