The Book of Life and Predestination (Augustine)

Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers First Series, Volume I
Augustine on the Psalms

I like Augustine’s comments on the perseverance of the saints using the biblical reference of the “book of life” (cf. Phil 4:3, Rev. 3:5, etc.):

Brethren, we must not so take it, as that God writeth anyone in the book of life, and blotteth him out. If a man [Pilate] said, “What I have written I have written,” concerning the title where it had been written, “King of the Jews,” (John 19:22) doth God write anyone, and blot him out? He foreknoweth, He hath predestined all before the foundation of the world that are to reign with His Son in life everlasting (Rom. 8:29).  These He hath written down, these same the Book of Life doth contain.

Augustine, Exposition on the Book of the Psalms, Ps. 29:28, NPNF 1.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

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Knowing God and Scripture Apart From the Church? (Augustine)

  In the first section of the first volume of his Systematic Theology, Douglas Kelly makes a great point about how God is known by his Word in the fellowship of believers, in a covenantal context.  He puts it like this: faith is caused by truth, faith is the only appropriate response to truth, and faith arises within a community context.  Later Kelly gives an excellent quote from Augustine to further explain what he means by knowing and learning Scripture in the fellowship of the saints.  Here’s Augustine:

Let us not tempt the one in whom we have placed our trust, or we may be deceived by the enemy’s cunning and perversity and become unwilling even to go to church to hear and learn the gospel, or to read the Biblical text or listen to it being read and preached, preferring to wait until ‘we are caught up into the third heaven, whether in the body or out of the body’ (in the words of the apostle) [2 Cor. 12:2-4], and there hear ‘words that cannot be expressed, which a human being may not utter’ or see the Lord Jesus Christ in person and hear the gospel from him rather than from men.

Let us beware of such arrogant and dangerous temptations, and rather reflect that the apostle Paul, no less, though cast to the ground and enlightened by a divine voice from heaven, was sent to a human being to receive the sacrament of baptism and be joined to the church. And Cornelius the centurion, although an angel announced to him that his prayers had been heard and his acts of charity remembered, was nevertheless put under the tuition of Peter not only to receive the sacrament but also to learn what should be the objects of his faith, hope, and love…

All this could certainly have been done through an angel, but the human condition would be wretched indeed if God appeared unwilling to minister his word to human beings through human agency.  It has been said, ‘God’s temple is holy, and that temple you are’: how could that be true if God did not make divine utterances from his human temple but broadcast direct from heaven or through angels the learning that he wished to be passed on to mankind?  Moreover, there would be no way for love, which ties people together in the bonds of unity,  to make souls overflow and as it were intermingle with each other, if human beings learned nothing from other humans. (Augustine: De Doctra Christiania, preface)

I always appreciate the reminder that just like it is unbibical to purposely be a “solo” Christian (Heb 10:25, 1 Jn. 4:21, etc.) it is also unbiblical to purposely avoid the church when learning about God from his word (Heb 13:6, 1 Tim. 3:15, etc).

The above quote by Augustine is found in Kelly’s in Systematic Theology, vol. 1, p. 25.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

 

“The Lord Laughed at Me” (Augustine)

Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers 1.1: The Confessions and Letters of St. Augustin with a Sketch of His Life and Work When Augustine, the great African theologian of the early church, first became a leader in the church, he was not prepared.  Using the imagery of a ship’s crew, Augustine said he was appointed to “the second place at the helm” although he “knew not how to handle an oar.”  He said that at the time he thought he knew how to lead in the church, and he had even rebuked the faults of many “sailors” before he learned the nature of their work by experience.  He had criticized other pastors before he became one himself!

Once he started his duties he quickly realized his criticism of other pastors was unfounded and that he himself was ill prepared to be a leader.  He said it was a rebuke of God when he realized his own inadequacy – and it led him to a sorrow that even his friends could not console.  It’s not like Augustine had no idea about the difficulties of the ministry.  He knew of them:

…My experience has made me realize these things [difficulties] much more both in degree and in measure than I had done in merely thinking of them: not that I have now seen any new waves or storms of which I had not previous knowledge by observation, or report, or reading, or meditation; but because I had not known my own skill or strength for avoiding or encountering them, and had estimated it to be of some value instead of none. The Lord, however, laughed at me, and was pleased to show me by actual experience what I am.

Augustine even said that his inadequacy was a source of personal grief:

Moreover, it is true that I did not at any earlier period know how great was my unfitness for the arduous work which now disquiets and crushes my spirit. 

In other words, Augustine thought he could handle the difficulties of the ministry, but quickly realized that his own strength and skill were of no value.  By experience he learned that he wasn’t as strong and skillful as he thought: it was as if God was laughing at Augustine for thinking he could do something on his own that he clearly could not do on his own.  This makes me think of a three-year-old boy taking the shovel from his dad and proclaiming that he can clear the six inches of snow off the driveway by himself.  The dad would chuckle, hand him the shovel, and let him try!

How did Augustine deal with his inadequacy and grief?  He looked to God for mercy and turned to Scripture and to God in prayer:

But if He has done this not in judgment, but in mercy, as I confidently hope even now, when I have learned my infirmity, my duty is to study with diligence all the remedies which the Scriptures contain for such a case as mine, and to make it my business by prayer and reading to secure that my soul be endued with the health and vigour necessary for labours so responsible.

Later in this letter that I’ve been quoting from Augustine asks Bishop Valerius if he could take a sort of study leave or sabbatical to pray and study the Word.  This, he said, would better enable him to face the difficulties of the ministry and make him a better leader.  This letter of Augustine to Valerius is a good one for pastors or future pastors to read and note: even Augustine struggled mightily as a pastor!  He was humbled for thinking he could do it by his own strength and skill.  And he learned from the difficult experience to turn to God in prayer for help and his Word for strength.

You can find this entire letter in the first volume of the Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers’ set – letter 21.4 (Schaff, Philip, ed. The Confessions and Letters of St. Augustin with a Sketch of His Life and Work. Vol. 1. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1886.)

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church, OPC
Hammond, WI

He Inclines Their Wills (Augustine)

Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers 1.5: Saint Augustin: Anti-Pelagian Writings In 1 Kings 12 Solomon’s son Rehoboam had just become Israel’s new king.  Israel begged him to lighten the yoke of hard service.  To make a longer story short, Rehoboam flatly refused and told them that he’d instead add to the hard service (1 Ki 12:11, 14).  Scripture gives us this insight in the middle of the story: So the king did not listen to the people; for it was a turn of events from the Lord, that He might establish His word, which the Lord spoke through Ahijah the Shilonite to Jeroboam the son of Nebat. (1 Ki 12:15 NASB).

While reflecting on this passage and others like it, Augustine (d. 430) wrote some helpful comments concerning God’s sovereign will, man’s actions, and divine grace:

Who can help trembling at those judgments of God by which He does in the hearts of even wicked men whatsoever He wills, at the same time rendering to them according to their deeds? Rehoboam, the son of Solomon, rejected the salutary counsel of the old men, not to deal harshly with the people, and preferred listening to the words of the young men of his own age, by returning a rough answer to those to whom he should have spoken gently. Now whence arose such conduct, except from his own will? Upon this, however, the ten tribes of Israel revolted from him, and chose for themselves another king, even Jeroboam, that the will of God in His anger might be accomplished which He had predicted would come to pass. For what says the Scripture? “The king hearkened not unto the people; for the turning was from the Lord, that He might perform His saying, which the Lord spake to Ahijah the Shilonite concerning Jeroboam the son of Nebat.” All this, indeed, was done by the will of man, although the turning was from the Lord.

Read the books of the Chronicles, and you will find the following passage in the second book: “Moreover, the Lord stirred up against Jehoram the spirit of the Philistines, and of the Arabians, that were neighbours to the Ethiopians; and they came up to the land of Judah, and ravaged it, and carried away all the substance which was found in the king’s house.” Here it is shown that God stirs up enemies to devastate the countries which He adjudges deserving of such chastisement. Still, did these Philistines and Arabians invade the land of Judah to waste it with no will of their own? Or were their movements so directed by their own will that the Scripture lies which tells us that “the Lord stirred up their spirit” to do all this? Both statements to be sure are true, because they both came by their own will, and yet the Lord stirred up their spirit; and this may also with equal truth be stated the other way: The Lord both stirred up their spirit, and yet they came of their own will. For the Almighty sets in motion even in the innermost hearts of men the movement of their will, so that He does through their agency whatsoever He wishes to perform through them, even He who knows not how to will anything in unrighteousness. 

After listing other similar passages in Scripture, Augustine comments again:

From these statements of the inspired word, and from similar passages which it would take too long to quote in full, it is, I think, sufficiently clear that God works in the hearts of men to incline their wills whithersoever He wills, whether to good deeds according to His mercy, or to evil after their own deserts; His own judgment being sometimes manifest, sometimes secret, but always righteous. This ought to be the fixed and immoveable conviction of your heart, that there is no unrighteousness with God. Therefore, whenever you read in the Scriptures of Truth, that men are led aside, or that their hearts are blunted and hardened by God, never doubt that some ill deserts of their own have first occurred, so that they justly suffer these things. Thus you will not run counter to that proverb of Solomon: “The foolishness of a man perverteth his ways, yet he blameth God in his heart.” Grace, however, is not bestowed according to men’s deserts; otherwise grace would be no longer grace.9 For grace is so designated because it is given gratuitously.

 Augustine of Hippo, “A Treatise on Grace and Free Will,” in Saint Augustin: Anti-Pelagian Writings, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. Peter Holmes, vol. 5, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1887), 462-3.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Unconditional Election and Ineffable Grace (Augustine)

Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers First Series, Volume VII Augustine clearly taught unconditional election; it did not originate with Calvin.  They both rejected the teaching of conditional election, that God elects people because he foresaw faith in them.  Furthermore, both Calvin and Augustine found unconditional election in Scripture.  Here are Augustine’s comments on John 15:16 (You did not choose Me but I chose you – NASB):

Ineffable grace! For what were we before Christ had chosen us, but wicked, and lost? We did not believe in Him, so as to be chosen by Him: for had He chosen us believing, He would have chosen us choosing.

This passage refutes the vain opinion of those who say that we were chosen before the foundation of the world because God foreknew that we should be good, not that He Himself would make us good.

For had He chosen us because He foreknew that we should be good, He would have foreknown also that we should first choose Him, for without choosing Him we cannot be good; unless indeed he can be called good who hath not chosen good.

What then hath He chosen in them who are not good? Thou canst not say, ‘I am chosen because I believed’; for hadst thou believed in Him, thou hadst chosen Him. Nor canst thou say, ‘Before I believed I did good works, and therefore was chosen.’ For what good work is there before faith?

What is there for us to say then, but that we were wicked, and were chosen, [so] that by the grace of the chosen we might become good?

This quote can be found in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers 1.7, tractate LXXXVI.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

 

Tongues Now Passed Away (Augustine)

Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers First Series, Volume VII I enjoy reading Augustine’s various writings.  Even though I don’t always agree with him, his insight is helpful, his writing is stimulating, and he was gifted to explain the truth in a captivating way.  This morning when I was reading his comments on 1 John 3:23-24 I was struck by how Augustine spoke about the work and gift of the Holy Spirit in history.  He basically says that at first, the Spirit gifted God’s people to speak in tongues (Acts 2 for example).  However, Augustine notes, that time is passed and now the evidence of the Spirit’s work is in our love for one another.  Here are his comments:

In the earliest times, “the Holy Ghost fell upon them that believed: and they spake with tongues,” which they had not learned, “as the Spirit gave them utterance” [Acts 2:4].  These were signs adapted to the time. For there behooved to be that betokening of the Holy Spirit in all tongues, to show that the Gospel of God was to run through all tongues over the whole earth. That thing was done for a betokening, and it passed away.

In the laying on of hands now, that persons may receive the Holy Ghost, do we look that they should speak with tongues? Or when we laid the hand on these infants [new believers], did each one of you look to see whether they would speak with tongues, and, when he saw that they did not speak with tongues, was any of you so wrong-minded as to say, ‘These have not received the Holy Ghost; for, had they received, they would speak with tongues as was the case in those times?’

If then the witness of the presence of the Holy Ghost be not now given through these miracles, by what is it given, by what does one get to know that he has received the Holy Ghost? Let him question his own heart. If he love his brother, the Spirit of God dwelleth in him.  …Question thine heart. If love of thy brethren be there, set thy mind at rest. There cannot be love without the Spirit of God: since Paul cries, “The love of God is shed abroad in your hearts by the Holy Spirit which is given unto us.”

 Augustine of Hippo, “Ten Homilies on the First Epistle of John,” in St. Augustin: Homilies on the Gospel of John, Homilies on the First Epistle of John, Soliloquies, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. H. Browne and Joseph H. Myers, vol. 7, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1888), 497–498.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

Predestination Must Be Preached (Augustine)

Scripture teaches predestination.  For two examples, consider Ephesians 1 and Romans 9.  In these chapters, Paul says that before the foundation of the world, God chose a certain number of people to salvation in Christ.  He did this not based on man’s merits or choice, but his own mercy and sovereign will.  Election is therefore unconditional; it’s not conditional upon a person’s choice, will, or works.  In the early 5th century Augustine echoed Scripture’s teaching on this point as did others later in church history.  The Reformers also taught this truth in the 16th century and the doctrine of unconditional election is found in the Reformed Confessions.

In fact, the Reformed Confessions say that this truth of election must be taught and preached:  Here’s article 14 of the 1st point of doctrine in the Canons of Dort:

“As the doctrine of divine election by the most wise counsel of God was declared by the prophets, by Christ himself, and by the apostles, and is clearly revealed in the Scriptures both of the Old and the New Testament, so it is still to be published in due time and place in the Church of God, for which it was peculiarly designed….”

Augustine said the same thing around 1,200 years before the Canons of Dort were written:

Wherefore, if both the apostles and the teachers of the Church who succeeded them and imitated them did both these things—that is, both truly preached the grace of God which is not given according to our merits, and inculcated by wholesome precepts a pious obedience—what is it which these people of our time think themselves rightly bound by the invincible force of truth to say, “Even if what is said of the predestination of God’s benefits be true, yet it must not be preached to the people”?

It must absolutely be preached, so that he who has ears to hear, may hear. And who has them if he has not received them from Him who says, “I will give them a heart to know me, and ears to hear”? Assuredly, he who has not received may reject; while, yet, he who receives may take and drink, may drink and live. For as piety must be preached, that, by him who has ears to hear, God may be rightly worshipped; modesty must be preached, that, by him who has ears to hear, no illicit act may be perpetrated by his fleshly nature; charity must be preached, that, by him who has ears to hear, God and his neighbours may be loved—so also must be preached such a predestination of God’s benefits that he who has ears to hear may glory, not in himself, but in the Lord.

Augustine of Hippo, “A Treatise on the Gift of Perseverance,” in Saint Augustin: Anti-Pelagian Writings, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. Robert Ernest Wallis, vol. 5, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1887), 546–547.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI