Augustine on Salvation and the Christian Life
In this article I will explain the perspective of 4th-century theologian Augustine on the nature of salvation and the Christian life. I will trace his perspective through the three primary stages of the gospel story: creation, fall, and redemption. Near the end of the article I will suggest ways in which Pelagius—the famous heretic and theological opponent of Augustine—might criticize Augustine’s views. In articulating Augustine’s views I will draw on his Confessions (Books 1-10), which is pictured to the right.
Augustine on Creation
According to Augustine, human nature as God originally created it was good. In Book 1 of Confessions, Augustine states, “the God who made me must be good (A-40).” Elsewhere he testifies to God, “you made man in your own likeness (A-115),” implying his belief in the goodness of human nature as originally created.
Augustine seems to attribute both free will and a conscience to God’s original design for people. Describing himself prior to his conversion, Augustine writes, “I knew that I had a will, as surely as I knew that there was life in me (A-136).” While he believed the human will to be severely constrained after the fall (as discussed below), presumably Augustine would affirm its freedom in God’s original design. Augustine understood conscience—the faculty by which people internally distinguish good from evil—as part of God’s design for human nature. He described it as God’s law “written in men’s hearts,” which “cannot be erased however sinful they are (A-47).
Augustine on the Fall of Humanity
According to Augustine, human nature changed significantly as a result of Adam’s first sin, known as “the fall”. The fall resulted in “the bond of original sin (A-102),” which had several implications. First, this bond brought death to human beings. Augustine describes Adam as “the first sinner, in whom we all died (A-226).” Second, the bond changed human nature, resulting in a proclivity toward sinfulness. The fall produced a sinful “heritage of misery (A-226)” for all humans, whereby people are unavoidably sinful from birth. Augustine writes: “Lord, where or when was I, your servant, ever innocent (A-28)?” He characterizes the post-fall state of sinfulness as a form of just punishment sent by God (A-209; also 155, 172).
Augustine understands the condition of sinfulness to issue from the human will, damaged by the fall. Speaking of his fallen will he affirmed, “herein lay the cause of my sin (A-136).” For Augustine, the damaged will is no longer free: it prevents people from embracing God. Immediately prior to his conversion, Augustine was aware of two wills within him, one that desired God and another that rejected Him. Without God’s intervention he found that rejection prevailed. Referring to his years prior to conversion, he asks, “where was my free will (A-181).”
In Augustine’s theology, “habit” plays an important role in constraining the fallen will. He understands habit as a pattern of behavior that conforms the will to sin. The role of habit is clear from Augustine’s description of the events leading to his bondage to sin. First, sin grew from his perverted will. Second, yielding to sin produced habit. Finally, Augustine confessed, “when I did not resist the habit it became a necessity (A-164).” For Augustine, habit is that which binds fallen people in the prison of sin (A-129, 131, 165) and restrains the exercise of free will (A-172, 175).
Augustine on Salvation
Augustine’s view of salvation flows logically from his understanding of the fallen human will: because the will cannot incline toward God of its own accord, God must initiate salvation. Reflecting on his conversion, Augustine writes to God, “You called me; you cried aloud to me; you broke my barrier of deafness. You shone upon me; your radiance enveloped me; you put my blindness to flight (A-232).” Many other passages testify to Augustine’s view of God’s sovereignty in conversion (for example, A-21, 116, 118, 123, 155, 163, 181, 211); people cannot contribute anything to this process (A-87, 151, 152, 165).
Upon conversion, God restores human free will. Augustine writes that his free will was “summoned in a moment,” at conversion (A-181). Also, God forgives converts of their sins. Augustine confesses to God, “you have forgiven me such great sins (A-51).” Furthermore, at conversion God begins to restore the convert from the sickness of sin (A-116). Augustine refers to this process as God “remaking” his creature (A-99). While this process is occurring, the Christian life remains a struggle between flesh and spirit (A-164, 232), hindered by temptations (A-113) and a continuing tendency to sin (A-233-249). While transformation includes the obedience of the believer, Augustine attests that the power to accomplish good works comes from God (A-236; A-208, 209, 233). Resurrection with Christ (A-152) and entry into the “blessed country (A-154)” of heaven is the culmination of Christian salvation. The process of gradual transformation, continues until this time (A-232, 234).
For Augustine, Christ is central to salvation. Augustine characterized Christ’s humanity as “mortal (A-251),” yet “perfect…complete…superior to other men (A-153),” and without fault (A-204). Augustine refers to Christ’s divinity when he calls Him “the Word of God…equal with God (A-251),” and more explicitly “God himself (A-152).” He also refers to Christ as the Mediator between God and humanity (A-251). Christ played several roles in the process of salvation. First, the sacrifice of Christ paid humanity’s debt of sin: the “debt has been paid by Christ (A-204).” As “both Priest and Sacrifice (A-251)” Christ offered Himself for the atonement of human sin. Second, Christ took the death sentence for sin upon Himself that “he might make null the death of the wicked whom he justified (A-251).” Third, the sacrifice of Christ brought reconciliation: through the forgiveness of the cross Christ “dissolved the enmity (A-102)” that had existed between people and God. Fourth, Christ defeated the powers of evil on the cross. Augustine refers to Christ as the “Victor (A-251),” and elsewhere he states that in Christ “we have triumphed over the enemy (A-204).” Fifth, Christ offered a living example of humility and good works (A-210, 251).
Pelagius Against Augustine
Pelagius might counter Augustine’s theology at several points. First, he could argue that if the human will is inevitably bent toward sin in its fallen state, God could not hold humans responsible for their sin. Since God clearly does hold humans accountable for their sin, Augustine’s anthropology cannot be true. Second, as a corollary, Pelagius might argue that if people are inevitably bent toward sin, they could not accomplish the moral commandments of God. Would God command something that is not possible? Third, Pelagius could argue that Augustine radically underestimates the goodness and power of human nature. As Pelagius notes, the goodness of human nature “sometimes manifests itself even among the Gentiles who do not worship God (P-43).” If this is so, human nature does not appear to be as damaged and sinful as Augustine suggests. Fourth, Pelagius might argue that if God sovereignly initiates salvation, and if all people are equally sinful and unable to help themselves, it would be unjust for God save some and condemn others. God is just and therefore leaves the choice of salvation up to people.
Summing up, Augustine’s perspective of salvation and the Christian life is fundamentally different from that of Pelagius. While the two share a view of the goodness of human nature as God’s original design, their views diverge with regard to the significance of Adam’s sin and the character of salvation. For Augustine, Adam’s sin was decisive for all humanity, damaging human nature such that it tends toward sin and is unable to embrace God. In light of this anthropology, Augustine views salvation as a process initiated and completed by Christ.