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Here’s How Augustine Confused Protestants About Salvation

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Augustine has a mixed legacy, to say the least.

On the one hand, he’s genuinely one of the towering geniuses of all time—on par with Plato and Aristotle in his influence on the development of Western culture, theology, and politics. You can’t understand Western civilization without him. And, if you read him, you’ll always learn something good.

On the other hand, people love to hate him. The Eastern Orthodox blame Augustine for the “Latin” errors that finally led the bishop of Rome into schism. And anti-Calvinists blame him for the errors of Calvinism.

Right or wrong, Augustine was just that influential. And you see his influence in Lordship Salvation, too.

Augustine makes some good points. For example, in chapters 30–33 of the Enchiridion, he rightly denies that works could merit salvation:

“But this part of the human race to which God has promised pardon and a share in His eternal kingdom, can they be restored through the merit of their own works? God forbid. For what good work can a lost man perform, except so far as he has been delivered from perdition?”

Is salvation by works? God forbid! Lost people have no power to save themselves through works. So far, so good.

Then, in the very next sentence, Augustine suddenly took a wrong turn:

“Can they do anything by the free determination of their own will? Again I say, God forbid.”

Did you catch that? After correctly denying that we can be saved based on our works, he says the same about our free will. And that attack on free will lead Augustine and his disciples down a crooked path that eventually becomes an attack on salvation by faith.

How so?

You can see it in what Augustine does next, namely, he misuses Eph 2:8-9 to teach that since we can’t be saved by anything due to free will, faith itself must be a gift from God:

“And lest men should arrogate to themselves the merit of their own faith at least, not understanding that this too is the gift of God, this same apostle, who says in another place that he had ‘obtained mercy of the Lord to be faithful,’ here also adds: ‘and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast.’”

Then things get worse as Augustine misuses Eph 2:10 to teach that, since faith is the gift of God, it will always produce good works:

“And lest it should be thought that good works will be wanting in those who believe, he adds further: ‘For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God has before ordained that we should walk in them.’”

Augustine goes on to explain that God determines what we will:

“it follows that the true interpretation of the saying, “It is not of him that wills, nor of him that runs, but of God that shows mercy,” is that the whole work belongs to God, who both makes the will of man righteous, and thus prepares it for assistance, and assists it when it is prepared. For the man's righteousness of will precedes many of God's gifts, but not all; and it must itself be included among those which it does not precede.”

In other words, when Augustine says “the whole work belongs to God,” he’s defending divine determinism. God causes all things to happen, including what you will.

I’ve seen these same moves made by Lutherans and Calvinists. They say good things, such that salvation is by grace, apart from works. But then they begin to attack faith, too, saying that if we were free to believe, then it would be meritorious, and salvation would no longer be by grace. So it must be that God predestines who will believe and be saved.

Now I know where that line of reasoning comes from—it all goes back to Augustine and this illegitimate move of confusing Paul’s argument against salvation by works with an argument of salvation by free will.  

How do we answer Augustine?

By sticking closely to Paul and refusing to make arguments that the apostle doesn't make.

For example, Paul argues that grace and works and incompatible:

Now if by grace, then it is not by works; otherwise grace ceases to be grace (Rom 11:6).

He never says that grace and free will are incompatible. He never says that free will is equivalent to a work.

Neither does Paul teach that faith is a gift. Augustine misread Eph 2:8-9. We know that because faith (pistis) is a feminine noun while this (touto) is a neuter demonstrative pronoun, so this does not refer to faith, but to the whole event of salvation.

If you put Eph 2:8-9 together with Rom 11:6, you see that grace-based salvation has nothing to do with determinism but with the fact that it’s apart from works. Grace has to do with being saved apart from the law, not apart from the will.

Unfortunately, this attack on free will ultimately led Augustine and his disciples to further unbiblical conclusions, such as that salvation is by predestination, that regeneration precedes faith, that God’s election is accomplished through baptismal regeneration, that babies should be baptized and regenerated, and that assurance is based on behavior. Each of those positions can be traced to the attack on our freedom to believe, and each undermines or contradicts the simple truth that you’re saved forever the moment you believe in Jesus as your Savior.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying Augustine isn’t worth reading. He most certainly is. Grab a copy of his Confessions. He’s brilliant and has numerous profitable insights in his writings. What I’m saying is intellectual giants often make giant mistakes.

Send your questions or comments to Shawn.

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2 comments on “Here’s How Augustine Confused Protestants About Salvation”

  1. Salvation is a free gift from God.we are save by grace,in order to sustain our salvation good works will follow.We must work it out by following the will of God for us,it does not mean that when you are save you are save forever.We will take our cross and follow Christ.

  2. Good explanation on how Augustine diverted from the biblical definition of the word faith. Unfortunately, his definition ended up influencing a great segment of Christendom for ages to come.

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