Augustine fervently defended the truth of God’s grace against distortions. In fact, his whole life was a testimony to the triumph of grace. On this episode of 5 Minutes in Church History, Dr. Stephen Nichols considers Augustine’s famous controversy with Pelagius.
Speaking of the grace of God, Augustine once said that no greater gift has been bestowed by God. Tucked in near the end of the City of God, that great book of his, Augustine says,
For ‘the Lord knoweth them that are His;’ and ‘as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are sons of God,’ but by grace, not by nature. For there is but one Son of God by nature, who in His compassion became Son of man for our sakes, that we, by nature sons of men, might by grace become through [Christ] sons of God. For He, abiding unchangeable, took upon Him our nature, that thereby He might take us to Himself; and holding fast His own divinity, He became partaker of our infirmity, that we, being changed into some better thing, might, by participating in His righteousness and immortality, lose our own properties of sin and mortality, and preserve whatever good quality He had implanted in our nature, perfected now by sharing in the goodness of His nature. For as by the sin of one man we have fallen into a misery so deplorable, so by the righteousness of one Man, who also is God, shall we come to a blessedness inconceivably exalted.
That is the grace of God. Augustine says in our fall, in our connection to Adam, we are in a misery so deplorable. But through Christ, who is a gift of God to us, God’s Son, and through our salvation, which is a gift of God, and through our faith, which is a gift of God, we enter into a blessedness, again as Augustine says, “inconceivably exalted.”
That is Augustine on the doctrine of grace. It comes both from a significant controversy that he dealt with in his life and from his own life’s journey. The controversy has to do with Pelagius, a Britain who went to Rome around 380. In the first decade of the 400s, he began to teach that Adam is more of an example to us than any real connection to us. We are not born sinful, Pelagius argued, but we have a natural capability. Pelagius said, simply, we are able not to sin.
That controversy ricocheted for decades through the church, and Augustine spilled much ink responding to Pelagius. He simply says back to Pelagius, quoting Romans 9:16, that it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God’s mercy. For Pelagius to be right, Augustine said, we have to flip that around. Imagine if Romans 9:16 read this way: it depends not on God’s mercy, but on human will. Augustine said if that were the case, we would all be doomed. But that’s not the case. And our God is a God full of mercy and full of grace. Our salvation does not depend on human will or human exertion, but it depends on God’s mercy.
Augustine taught this through the controversy of Pelagianism, but he also saw the triumph of grace in his own life. In fact, his life is a testimony to the triumph of grace. Augustine said if it were up to us, the world we would create would simply be “a barren waste.” But enter the grace of God into a life, and a beautiful, glorious, majestic landscape comes into being. By the grace of God, there goes Augustine. And by the grace of God, there go we all.