Selected Book Summaries from the PATRISTIC & MEDIEVAL PERIOD Augustine, On Grace and Free Will[1]


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Augustine, On Grace and Free Will[1]

In his treatise on Grace and Free Will, Augustine writes to Valentinus and the Monks of Adrumetum concerning the Pelagian notion of free will and grace.  He warns that we must not deny free will when defending grace, nor deny grace while defending free will.  Yet, we must be grateful for what we do know, prayerful for what we do not understand, and charitable with each other in the learning process.

Free Will Grounded on God’s Commands

First, Augustine points out that free will exists by virtue of God’s commands.  That is, free choice of will is implied, for reward and punishment are grounded on the ability to choose righteousness or wickedness (Jn.15: 22).  Moreover, since God has revealed to man His righteousness, those claiming ignorance concerning His precepts have no excuse (Rom.1: 18-20).  Both Old and New Testament Scriptures illustrate our free will (Prov.1: 8; Ps.32: 9; Mt.6: 19; 10:28; 16:24).  Furthermore, those desiring to blame God for their sin are found wanting, for God tempts no man to do evil, but man is tempted to do evil from his own hearts desire (Jam.1: 13-15).

Pelagian View of Man’s Sufficiency to do Good Works

Second, Pelagius held that man is sufficient of himself to do good works.  Augustine responds by claiming that such a view is grounded on mans pride (Jer.17: 5), and prevents him from humbly asking for Gods help (Ps.27: 9).  He then maintains that in order for man to lead a good life, both grace and free will are necessary. Augustine grounds this assertion by demonstrating that faithfulness in marriage and in celibacy are gifts from God (Mt.19: 10; 1 Tim.5: 22; 1 Cor.7: 7, 36-37;).  Moreover, another proof of grace and free will is seen in prayer as it relates to temptation.  For when Jesus says, “Watch and pray, that you enter not into temptation” Augustine maintains that both the will (pray) and God’s grace (that you enter not into temptation) are simultaneously at work.  Thus showing man’s insufficiency to do good works, by virtue of the need to pray for assistance.

Pelagius Held That God’s Grace Is Given Due to Man’s Merit

Third, Pelagius held that God’s grace was given to us by our own merits.  For example he quoted, “Turn unto me, and I will turn to you” (Zech.1: 3), to support his position.  However, Augustine points out that even our turning to God, is itself His gift, not our merit (Ps.80: 7; 85:4, 6-7;) and reminds us of what Jesus said, “No man can come unto me, except it were given unto him by my Father” (Jn.6: 65).  Moreover, Augustine argues that grace is not a result of our merits as revealed by the Apostle Paul’s life.  His evil deeds of persecuting the church did not result in condemnation, but rather in mercy (1 Cor.15: 9), and said mercy, or grace, was not in vain, but it was demonstrated by his works, the source of which was God’s grace (1 Cor.15: 10).  In other words, God’s grace and Paul’s free will are seen working together.

Pelagius’ View of Forgiveness & Eternal Life

Fourth, Pelagius also maintained that the only grace that is not given according to our merits is the forgiveness of sins, but that eternal life is rendered by our merits.  Augustine responds by reminding Pelagius that every gift he has is from God, not himself, and that thinking the converse is the womb for pride.  Moreover, the fight and the race Paul the apostle engaged could only be realized through God’s grace and mercy, rather through his own sufficiency (2 Tim.4: 7; 2 Cor.3: 5).  Furthermore, Augustine points out that Paul’s faithfulness resulted from first receiving God’s mercy, “I obtained mercy that I might be faithful” (1Cor.7: 25), not by first showing himself faithful.   Again, the fact that mercy is shown does not negate the need for good works.  For it is impossible to sever faith from the fruit of good works (Eph.2: 8-10).  But good works precede from faith, not he converse.  And as for those who would argue that all we need is to believe, Augustine responds that even the demons believe in God and tremble (Jam.2: 19).

Pelagius’ View of the Law

Fifth, Pelagius maintains that the Law is the grace of God that helps us not to sin.  Augustine argues that the Apostle Paul sees it differently.  Although the commandment is just, holy and good, sin receives its strength through the law against man, for that which is good produces death in man.  The only deliverance from such a death comes from the Spirit’s life (2Cor.3: 6), which helps us mortify the deeds of the flesh, and shows that we are sons of God (Rom8: 14).  The point is not that the law is evil, but that it is good.  However, the law does not aid us to keep the commandments, only grace does this, it alone helps us be doers of the law, not merely its hearers. augustine_360x450

Pelagius’ View of Grace Concerning Past and Future Sins

Sixth, Pelagius also believes that grace only avails for the remission of past sins, not to aid in avoiding future sins.  Augustine reminds him that in the Lord’s Prayer, believers are to ask for pardon from past sins, as to petition for protection from future transgression.  If one could perform the latter without God’s help, then Jesus commanding us to pray in this manner would be empty, and misguided.

Augustine uses other examples of our need for God’s grace: to convert our hard hearts; to deliver our nature’s from the bondage of sin; to aid us in choosing righteousness; etc.  He continues his treatise by reminding us that we love God because He first loved us, that we chose God, because He first chose us, that our wills are also affected by God, that He operates even in wicked men’s hearts as He wills, and finally that the reason God works grace in one mans heart and not in another mans heart lie in His secret judgments.  Therefore, understanding and wisdom must be sought in God.

[1] Augustin, Aurelius, Bishop of Hippo, “On Grace and Free Will,” The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series Volume V, Pp. 443-465, (T & T Clark Edinburgh, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Reprinted in 1997)

 

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