The account of Augustine’s conversion in his own words

20 12 2011

The account begins with Augustine in despair over both his sins and his sinful condition…

I sent up these sorrowful cries: “How long, how long? Tomorrow and tomorrow? Why not now? Why not this very hour make an end to my uncleanness?”

I was saying these things and weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, when suddenly I heard the voice of a boy or a girl I know not which–coming from the neighboring house, chanting over and over again, “Pick it up, read it; pick it up, read it.”  Immediately I ceased weeping and began most earnestly to think whether it was usual for children in some kind of game to sing such a song, but I could not remember ever having heard the like. So, damming the torrent of my tears, I got to my feet, for I could not but think that this was a divine command to open the Bible and read the first passage I should light upon. For I had heard Doubtless from Ponticianus, in their earlier conversation. how Anthony, accidentally coming into church while the gospel was being read, received the admonition as if what was read had been addressed to him: “Go and sell what you have and give it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come and follow me.”  By such an oracle he was forthwith converted to thee.

So I quickly returned to the bench where Alypius was sitting, for there I had put down the apostle’s book when I had left there. I snatched it up, opened it, and in silence read the paragraph on which my eyes first fell: “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof.” I wanted to read no further, nor did I need to. For instantly, as the sentence ended, there was infused in my heart something like the light of full certainty and all the gloom of doubt vanished away.

Augustine, Confessions Book VIII Ch. XII





Augustine on Sanctification: Good Works Flow From those Who Have Become Drunk on God’s Mercy

20 12 2011

What a wonderful little passage on the well that Christians draw from to produce their good works!

This holy meditation preserves “the children of men, who put their trust under the shadow of God’s wings,” so that they are “drunken with the fatness of His house, and drink of the full stream of His pleasure. For with Him is the fountain of life, and in His light shall they see light. For He extendeth His mercy to them that know Him, and His righteousness to the upright in heart.” He does not, indeed, extend His mercy to them because they know Him, but that they may know Him; nor is it because they are upright in heart, but that they may become so, that He extends to them His righteousness, whereby He justifies the ungodly. This meditation does not elevate with pride: this sin arises when any man has too much confidence in himself, and makes himself the chief end of living. Impelled by this vain feeling, he departs from that fountain of life, from the draughts of which alone is imbibed the holiness which is itself the good life,—and from that unchanging light, by sharing in which the reasonable soul is in a certain sense inflamed, and becomes itself a created and reflected luminary; even as “John was a burning and a shining light,” who notwithstanding acknowledged the source of his own illumination in the words, “Of His fulness have all we received.” Whose, I would ask, but His, of course, in comparison with whom John indeed was no light at all? For “that was the true light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.” Therefore, in the same psalm, after saying, “Extend Thy mercy to them that know Thee, and Thy righteousness to the upright in heart,” he adds, “Let not the foot of pride come against me, and let not the hands of sinners move me. There have fallen all the workers of iniquity: they are cast out, and are not able to stand.”  Since by that impiety which leads each to attribute to himself the excellence which is God’s, he is cast out into his own native darkness, in which consist the works of iniquity. For it is manifestly these works which he does, and for the achievement of such alone is he naturally fit. The works of righteousness he never does, except as he receives ability from that fountain and that light, where the life is that wants for nothing, and where is “no variableness, nor the shadow of turning.”

From Augustine’s “The Spirit and the Letter” 11.7





Augustine’s on Nature and Grace

19 12 2011

Below is an excerpt from the introductory section of a work written by Augustine that God used to help lead me into a deeper understanding of God’s grace and my own sinfulness.  I first encountered this work at the Radcliffe Camera in Oxford in 20I’ve attached a link at the bottom where you can click through and read the whole thing.

The book which you sent to me, my beloved sons, Timasius and Jacobus, I have read through hastily, but not indifferently, omitting only the few points which are plain enough to everybody; and I saw in it a man inflamed with most ardent zeal against those, who, when in their sinsthey ought to censure human will, are more forward in accusing thenature of men, and thereby endeavour to excuse themselves. He shows too great a fire against this evil, which even authors of secular literature have severely censured with the exclamation: The human race falselycomplains of its own nature! This same sentiment your author also has strongly insisted upon, with all the powers of his talent. I fear, however, that he will chiefly help those who have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge, who, being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves to the righteousness of God. Now, what the righteousness of God is, which is spoken of here, he immediately afterwards explains by adding: For Christ is the end of thelaw for righteousness to every one that believes. This righteousness of God, therefore, lies not in the commandment of the law, which excites fear, but in the aid afforded by the grace of Christ, to which alone the fear of the law, as of a schoolmaster, usefully conducts. Now, the man who understands this understands why he is a Christian. For If righteousness came by the law, then Christ is dead in vain. If, however He did not die in vain, in Him only is the ungodly man justified, and to him, on believing in Him who justifiesthe ungodly, faith is reckoned for righteousness.  For all menhave sinned and come short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His blood.  But all those who do not think themselves to belong to the all who have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,have of course no need to become Christians, because they that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick; whence it is, that He came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.

click here to read the whole thing.  Read it carefully and follow the logic.





Augustine: On the Incarnation

19 12 2011

This is not only a clever bit of Christology, but it is also a powerful argument for the orthodox claim that salvation is found exclusively in knowing Christ. Note for Augustine, it is in the knowing that we are saved because only Christ does man  (Jesus) mark a trail for men to follow.  Only Christ as God can mark a trail to our salvation.  Thus, it is only in knowing the God-Man, Jesus Christ, that we can come to salvation.

It is a great and very rare thing for a man, after he has contemplated the whole creation, corporeal and incorporeal, and has discerned its mutability, to pass beyond it, and, by the continued soaring of his mind, to attain to the unchangeable substance of God, and, in that height of contemplation, to learn from God Himself that none but He has made all that is not of the divine essence.  For God speaks with a man not by means of some audible creature dinning in his ears, so that atmospheric vibrations connect Him that makes with him that hears the sound, nor even by means of a spiritual being with the semblance of a body, such as we see in dreams or similar states; for even in this case He speaks as if to the ears of the body, because it is by means of the semblance of a body He speaks, and with the appearance of a real interval of space,—for visions are exact representations of bodily objects.  Not by these, then, does God speak, but by the truth itself, if any one is prepared to hear with the mind rather than with the body.  For He speaks to that part of man which is better than all else that is in him, and than which God Himself alone is better.  For since man is most properly understood (or, if that cannot be, then, at least, believed) to be made in God’s image, no doubt it is that part of him by which he rises above those lower parts he has in common with the beasts, which brings him nearer to the Supreme.  But since the mind itself, though naturally capable of reason and intelligence is disabled by besotting and inveterate vices not merely from delighting and abiding in, but even from tolerating His unchangeable light, until it has been gradually healed, and renewed, and made capable of such felicity, it had, in the first place, to be impregnated with faith, and so purified.  And that in this faith it might advance the more confidently towards the truth, the truth itself, God, God’s Son, assuming humanity without destroying His divinity, Homine assumto, non Deo consumto. established and founded this faith, that there might be a way for man to man’s God through a God-man.  For this is the Mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.  For it is as man that He is the Mediator and the Way.  Since, if the way lieth between him who goes, and the place whither he goes, there is hope of his reaching it; but if there be no way, or if he know not where it is, what boots it to know whither he should go?  Now the only way that is infallibly secured against all mistakes, is when the very same person is at once God and man, God our end, man our way.   Quo itur Deus, qua itur homo.

From Augustine’s The City of God, XI.2

the thought is expressed almost word for word in Chrysostom, but since I can’t remember the reference I must resort to what Calvin and Luther often do; “Chyrsostom somewhere says…”  Anybody know the reference? 





Rob Sturdy: The Glory of Christ and the Destruction of Sin

19 12 2011

I think it would be good for me to do a little explanation on the front end for why I have chosen these two themes, “the glory of Christ” and the “destruction of sin.” I think it would also be wise for me to explain why I have chosen such a hard sounding session for a “renewal” conference.  So let me begin with the two themes, and I trust that it will become clear in time how the two relate.  First the glory of Christ:

The Glory of Christ

Let me begin by saying that the glory of Jesus Christ is an all consuming passion of mine, and I believe it is a passion well ingrained in the language of Scripture.  First of all let me say from Scripture that I gain the sense that God the Father’s consuming passion is the glorification of his Son:

“If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my Father who glorifies me, of whom you say, ‘He is our God.’ (John 8.54)

“Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus ever knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2.9-11)

Furthermore, the glorification of the Son is one of the if not the principle work of the Holy Spirit:

“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” (John 16.12-14)

I want to take a second and unpack that last verse for a moment.  Jesus says “I still have many things to say to you, but I won’t say them now.  I will say them later.”  But how will Jesus say them later if he leaves?  “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak and he will declare to you the things that are to come.”  So the work of the Spirit is to come and complete the words of Jesus.  That is the action of the Spirit, and the fruit of that action is the New Testament.  Now I believe the next verse is crucial for how we read the new testament.  “He will glorify me,” that is when God the Holy Spirit inspires the New Testament into being he is inspiring words of Jesus’ glory into being.  The whole of this book is to be read as a praise song to the Lord Jesus.  If you read it in any other way you have wandered far off the rails of reading this book rightly.

Aside from the glory of Christ being an obvious passion of the Father, the Holy Spirit, and Scripture it is also a personal passion.  In August and September of 1999 I had the great opportunity to read about Jesus for the first time in my life.  In August of 1999 I left my home in Alabama to study at The Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina.  Wednesday of Hell Week we were escorted to the chapel where a team of chaplains greeted us and gave us Bibles.  It was not the first Bible I had ever owned, but it was the first Bible I had ever read.  By mid September I had made it clear through John’s Gospel and without knowing the cross, or the forgiveness of sins, or the adoption of sons, or of eternal life, I did know simply from reading about Jesus in John’s Gospel that Jesus was glorious.  I knew he was worth following and from that moment on I committed my life to following him.  I want to be very careful as I talk about commitment, because Christian commitment is not a work but a grace.  What do I mean by this?  Augustine described Christian commitment as grace best when he wrote:

Do not think that thou are drawn against thy will.  The mind is drawn also by love… “Delight thyself in the Lord, and He shall give thee the desires of thy heart” (Psalm37.4).  There is a pleasure of the heart to which that bread of heaven is sweet.  Moreover, if it was right in the poet to say, “Every man is drawn by his own pleasure,” –not necessity, but pleasure, not obligation, but delight, -how much more boldly ought we to say that man is drawn to Christ?…Give me a man that loves, and he feels what I say.  Give me one that longs, one that hungers, one that is travelling in this wilderness, and thirsting and panting after the fountain of his eternal home; give such and he knows what I say

– Augustine, Homilies on John’s Gospel [1]

According to Augustine, Christian commitment is commitment to the extent that a thirsty man is committed to drinking a cup of water, or a hungry man is committed to eating a sandwich.  As Augustine says I was drawn by pleasure, not obligation but delight.  To the extent that is commitment, I suppose you could say I was committed, but I hope you now see what I mean by commitment as grace rather than as work.

And finally, I want to argue that a passion for the glory of Christ is one of the key distinguishing factors between a hypocrite and a true child of heaven.  As a pastor of a church I see men and women who have a Biblically informed worldview.  I also see many men and women who profess Christ as Lord and savior.  I also see a great deal of men and women who pray, attend worship, tithe, read their Bibles etc.  But where the rubber really hits the road for me relates to the glory of Christ and the desires of the heart.  Let me draw back for a moment in order to enhance this theme somewhat.  C. S. Lewis in his Reflections on the Psalms had some interesting things to say about worship, praise, and glory and how they relate to the human heart.  He writes:

“I had not noticed either that just as men spontaneously praise whatever they value, so they spontaneously urge us to join them in praising it: “Isn’t she lovely? Wasn’t it glorious? Don’t you think that magnificent?” The Psalmists in telling everyone to praise God are doing what all men do when they speak of what they care about. My whole, more general, difficulty about the praise of God depended on my absurdly denying to us, as regards the supremely Valuable, what we delight to do, what indeed we can’t help doing, about everything else we value.”[2]

First you will notice from Lewis’ quote that all people worship something. Second you will notice that all people worship whatever they most value.  Thirdly you will notice that when people do this they take delight in it. And finally you will notice that because they delight in praising what they value, they cannot help but praise what they value. The true child of heaven worships Christ because they value him most, and delight in praising him because it is the consummation of their desire.  William Guthrie a Scottish Puritan living in the 1600’s once wrote:

“Hypocrites never apprehended Christ as the only satisfying good in all the world, for which with joy they would quite all; for then the kingdom of God were entered into them…The truly renewed man dare, and can upon good ground say, and hath a testimony of it from on high, that his heart hath been changed in taking up with Christ, and hath been led out after him, as the only enriching treasure in whom ‘to be found he accounteth all things else loss, and dung (Phil 3.8,9)”[3]

The Destruction of Sin

In regards to the destruction of sin let me first say that the destruction of sin is a calling placed up all those who have been adopted by the Father and called into the Body of Christ. “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity,passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Col 3.5).

1)      The destruction of sin directly relates to the glory of Christ.  “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” (Rom 2.24).  In a recent national survey the number one reason why people said they would not become Christians was because their principle experience with Christians was one of hypocrisy.

2)      Sin can keep us from the light of Christ.  “And this is the judgment:  the light has cominto the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil.  For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light lest his deeds should be exposed” (John 3.19-20).  Many times in the lives of young Christians, not young in age but young in experience I have witnessed this phenomena.  They receive Christ.  Sin is dealt a crushing blow.  Their lives are visibly and dramatically changed, so much so that they begin to trust in their changed lives rather than in the God who changed it and they set up their changed life as a false God.  When that false God fails them, they withdraw from the God, from the church, and from the Godly people who have poured into them because they don’t want the sin, which they proclaimed form the rooftops as defeated to be exposed.

3)      Sin will be with us as long as we are in the body:  “So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.” (Rom 7.21-23).  I want to be clear that this seminar is not about abolishing sin in your life.  Rather, if Paul’s words resonate with you at all take heart!  For you would not even struggle if the Spirit of God were not struggling within you.

4)      Sin will sicken the “new man”.  “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.”  Commenting on this verse John Owen writes:

“Paul affirms that the inward man is renewed day by day, while the outward man perishes.  Those who neglect mortification allow the inner man to perish.  Grace in the heart must have exercise.  If it is allowed to lie still, it withers and decays (Rev 3.2), and sin seeks to harden our hearts (Heb 3.13).  The omission of mortification withers grace while lust flourishes.  The frame of the heart grows worse and worse.  When sin gains a considerable victory, it breaks the bones of the soul (Psa 31.10; 51.8).  It makes a man weak, sick, and ready to die (Psa 38.3-5), so that he cannot look up (Psa 40.12). [4]

5)       If you neglect the destruction of sin you will cause both yourself and those you love enormous pain. Read the rest of this entry »





Dante, Sin, Repentance, and Desire

19 12 2011

One of the things I’ve learned through my reading of Scripture and my experience of the Christian life, is that spiritual growth is not so much about restraining old (sinful) desires but about gaining new, godly desires.  But in order for this to happen, our desires must be changed and this is the root of the Christian concept of repentance.  Repentance is not merely a conscious turning away from the world towards God, but on a deeper level it is exchanging old desires for new ones.  The new desires are not sinful but Godly, and they are to be enjoyed.  So the Christian life is not so much about restraining desire, as it is about indulging desire (the right desires!).  But how do we understand this?  And more importantly, how do we go about doing it?

Dante Alighieri’s Inferno contains a treasure of Augustinian theology wrapped in stunning verse after stunning verse. It also has much to say on the nature of sin, deisre, and repentance.   So we will turn to his most famous work,  The Divine Comedy, but particularly to the inferno to help us understand the complex interplay of sin, repentance and desire.

In the passage below we find our travelers in the eighth circle of hell (also in the eighth bolgia) with the “evil counselors”. The evil counselor we are here concerned with is Count Guido Da Montefeltro.[1] He was a “man of arms” who laid down the sword to become a Franciscan monk.Unfortunately, Pope Boniface VIII, who Dante describes as the new “Prince of Pharisees” persuades the new monk to use his old skills as a warrior to help him persecute a Christian land that he was hoping to acquire.  He does so with these words:

“Your soul need fear no wound; I absolve your guilt beforehand; and now teach me how to smash Penestrino to the ground.”[2]

With the assurance that the power to forgive sins rests with the Pope, our monk goes on to counsel him how to defeat his fellow Christians to acquire land and wealth for himself.  Thus, the monk becomes a “false counselor.”

For the purposes of the discussion we wish to have, “sin, repentance and desire” what happens next is far more interesting.  St. Francis, hearing that one of his monks is in Hell, goes to Hell to rescue him.  However, Francis is turned away at the gate.  We read of the account starting at vs. 109:

“Later, when I was dead, St. Francis came to claim my soul, but one of the Black Angels said: ‘Leave him.  Do not wrong me.  This one’s name went into my book the moment he resolved to give false counsel.  Since then he has been mine, for who does not repent cannot be absolved, nor can we admit the possibility of repenting a thing at the same time it is willed, for the two acts are contradictory.”[3]

What is important to notice about Dante’s theology of repentance is how closely it is tied to his theology of desire.  First let us notice what repentance is not.

1.  Repentance is not a turning to God to gain forgiveness

2.  Repentance is not a turning to God to avoid punishment

The essence of repentance for Dante is that the human will is turned towards God and away from all things that  are not God, or “no God” as Barth would say.  The repentance described above is a turning away from sin to gain forgiveness, or to avoid punishment, but it is not a turning towards God for God’s sake.  It is a turning towards God for something else.  The point being, at the end of the day, our monk still does not desire or will after God.  If fear of punishment were removed, he would still sin because that is his desire.  This excludes any possibility of repentance.

Genuine repentance (and genuine Christian discipleship) is not about restraining sinful behavior, it is about changing desires.  Hundreds of years later, it is Martin Luther who helpfully draws the distinction between restraint and a new creation.  He writes:

Every law was given to hinder sins.  Does this mean when the Law restrains sins, it justifies?  Not at all.  When I refrain from killing or from committing adultery or from stealing, or when I abstain from other sins, I do not do this voluntarily or from the love of virtue but because I am afraid of the sword and of the executioner.  This prevents me, as the ropes or the chains prevent a lion or a bear from ravaging something that comes along.  Therefore restraining from sin is not a sin of righteousness, but rather an indication of unrighteousness…This restraint makes it abundantly clear that those who have need of it- as does everyone outside of Christ- are not righteous but unrighteous and insane, whom it is necessary to tame with the rope and with prison to keep from sinning[4].

– Luther, Commentary on Galatians 1535  vs. 3.19

The problem for Luther is that restraint, like Dante’s false repentance, is not done voluntarily but under coercion.  The heart is not changed, it is corralled.  What then is the remedy?  For Dante, as for Luther, the remedy is a new heart, with new desires, and a new will.  One that can voluntarily turn to God.  How then is this accomplished?  We catch a glimpse from the source of both men’s thoughts, that is in Augustine who commenting on John 6..44 “No man comes to me unless the Father draws him”, writes:

Do not think that thou are drawn against thy will.  The mind is drawn also by love… “Delight thyself in the Lord, and He shall give thee the desires of thy heart” (Psalm37.4).  There is a pleasure of the heart to which that bread of heaven is sweet.  Moreover, if it was right in the poet to say, “Every man is drawn by his own pleasure,” –not necessity, but pleasure, not obligation, but delight, -how much more boldly ought we to say that man is drawn to Christ?…Give me a man that loves, and he feels what I say.  Give me one that longs, one that hungers, one that is travelling in this wilderness, and thirsting and panting after the fountain of his eternal home; give such and he knows what I say[5].

– Augustine, Homilies on John’s Gospel

The important thing to highlight about Augustine, especially in terms of repentance, is that God replaces our desire for worldly things by luring us away from them by showing us Himself, which is infinitely more lovely, infinitely more valuable, and infinitely sweeter than all our other lusts and desires.  This is the Christian’s experience of Rom 2.4, “it is God’s kindness that leads us to repentance.”  When God shows us his kindness, it is an irresistible beauty that compels us to repentance.  For Luther especially, this kindness is demonstrated most clearly on the cross, and nowhere is it more beautiful, or more alluring, than the savior who suffers for the ungodly.

When God draws men and women to himself, by showing himself to them, they begin to desire him.  So they repent.  Their repentance is both voluntary and genuine.  Rather than sinning freely and repenting grudgingly, they not repent freely and sin grudgingly.  So it can be said that their will has changed, their desire has changed, and their heart has changed. May God draw you and I daily by the beauty of the crucified Savior, away from the things of this world that we might desire him, and have our desire!


[1] Canto XXVII

[2] Canto XXVII.97

[3] Canton XXVII.109

[4] LW. Vol 26 pg 308

[5] Augustine, Homilies on John’s Gospel Tractate XXVI.4 NPNF vol. 7 pg 169