St. Augustine on Law and Grace
By Bryan Cross
One way to help reconcile Protestants and Catholics to full communion is to consider together the writings of the early Church Fathers, because in the Fathers Protestants and Catholics share a common history and a common patrimony. One of the most fundamental points of disagreement between Protestants and the Catholic Church concerns the relationship between law and grace. And one of the most important Church Fathers is St. Augustine (A.D. 354-430) bishop of Hippo. The Princeton Presbyterian theologian Benjamin Warfield once described the Reformation as the triumph of Augustine’s soteriology over his ecclesiology. Such a statement implies that St. Augustine’s soteriology was at least nascently Protestant. So in this post I’ve sketched a summary of St. Augustine’s teaching on the relation of law and grace, from various books that he wrote, in chronological order.
I. Overview of the Reformed and Catholic positions on Law and Grace
II. St. Augustine on Law and Grace
A. On Continence (A.D. 395)
B. Contra Faustum (A.D. 397-398)
C. On Merit and the Forgiveness of Sins (A.D. 412)
D. On the Spirit and the Letter (A.D. 412)
E. On Nature and Grace (A.D. 415)
F. On Man’s Perfection in Righteousness (A.D. 415)
G. Expositions on the Psalms (A.D. 396-420)
H. On the Proceedings of Pelagius (A.D. 417)
I. Tractate 25 on the Gospel of John (A.D. 406-430)
J. On the Grace of Christ and on Original Sin (A.D. 418)
K. City of God (A.D. 413-427)
L. Against Two Letters of the Pelagians (A.D. 420)
M. On Grace and Free Will (A.D. 426-427)
Before turning to St. Augustine, consider briefly the Reformed and Catholic doctrines concerning the relation of law and grace. According to Reformed theology, justification is by an extra nos (i.e. outside of us) imputation of the obedience of Christ. In other words, God justifies us by counting us as righteous not because of any righteousness infused into us, but by crediting Christ’s righteousness to our account, and crediting Him with our sins. God counts Christ’s suffering and death as punishment for our sins, and God counts Christ’s perfect obedience as our obedience. By this double imputation, nothing we do can bring us into condemnation.1 That is what it means, in Reformed theology, to be no longer under law, but under grace. The law remains normative and binding on believers as a guide to living correctly, but no one who has been justified by grace through faith can be condemned by the law, nor justified by law-keeping. Believers are not under the law for justification or condemnation; they are under grace. Grace and law are, in that respect, mutually exclusive.
According to Catholic doctrine, justification is by an infusion of sanctifying grace and agape. God does not count-us-as-righteous-even-though-internally-we-are-unrighteous; by infusing grace and agape into our hearts at the moment of regeneration He instantly makes us righteous. God does not count (or impute) our sins against us (Rom 4:8), not by leaving us with a wicked sinful heart and merely overlooking our sins, but by mercifully transforming our heart through the infusion of sanctifying grace and agape such that there is no mortal sin to overlook. The person with agape in his heart is in friendship with God, and thus is righteous before God. When Abraham chose to believe God’s promise (Rom 4:3), this act not only showed that Abraham had a faith working through agape and thus was in friendship with God, but it also deepened that friendship, and so God counted it to him as righteousness. Agape fulfills the law (Rom 10:8-10), because agape is the spirit of the law. Without agape, no one is righteous in His sight. But through Christ agape is poured out into our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Rom 5:5). By this agape in our hearts, we walk in newness of life; this infused grace and agape produces the “obedience of faith” of which St. Paul speaks (Rom 1:5, 16:26). This infused grace and agape is the gift of righteousness (Rom 5:17) by which we have been “freed from sin and made slaves of righteousness” (Rom 6:18,22). By this gift we are made “doers of the Law” (Rom 2:13), such that the requirement of the Law is “fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit,” (Rom 8:4). By this gift we subject ourselves to the law of God (Rom 8:7). By this gift of infused sanctifying grace and agape, our spirit is made alive (Rom 8:10) and the law is written on our hearts (cf. Rom 2:28-29), truly in our hearts (Rom 10:8, 10), as the prophet Jeremiah prophesied long ago concerning the New Covenant (Jeremiah 31:33-34). So according to the Catholic doctrine regarding law and grace, by the infusion of sanctifying grace we receive the gift of agape by which we truly fulfill the law. Here, grace and law are not mutually exclusive; grace orients us to God in divine love such that we fulfill the law, and are truly justified in our hearts.
Below I have laid out in chronological order selections from various works in which St. Augustine addresses either directly or indirectly the relation of law and grace. Of course I have not here included everything St. Augustine wrote about the relation of law and grace. But I think what I have included is sufficiently extensive that it accurately presents his position, over the spread of the last thirty five years of his life, and especially during and after his opposition to the Pelagians. Regarding this particular subject of the relation between law and grace, I see no change in his position during those thirty-five years. In my opinion, the four most important works of St. Augustine relevant to this question are “On the Spirit and the Letter,” “On Nature and Grace,” “On the Grace of Christ and on Original Sin,” and “Against Two Letters of the Pelagians.”
But whoso through the Law have come to know [the evil of his lusts], (“For through the Law is the knowledge of sin,” and, “Lust,” says he, “I knew not, unless the Law should say, You shall not lust after,”) and yet are overcome by their assault, because they live under the Law, whereby what is good is commanded, but not also given: they live not under Grace, which gives through the Holy Spirit what is commanded through the Law: unto these the Law therefore entered, that in them the offense might abound. (On Continence, 7)
Here St. Augustine describes those who are “under the Law” as those who know the Law (in contrast to those who do not know the Law), but are overcome by their evil lusts because they do not have the grace through the Holy Spirit to do what is commanded by the Law. That is what he means by “whereby what is good is commanded, but not also given.” The law shows us what is commanded, but does not provide the power to obey it. But grace through the Holy Spirit gives us precisely this power, to do what is commanded by the law.
So also the Jews, of whom all these things are a figure, if they had been content, instead of being turbulent, and had acknowledged the time of salvation through the pardon of sins by grace … they would in confession have referred their sin to themselves, saying to the Physician, as it is written in the Psalm, “I said, Lord, be merciful to me; heal my soul, for I have sinned against You.” And being made free by the hope of grace, they [i.e. the Jews] would have ruled over sin as long as it continued in their mortal body. But now, being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and wishing to establish a righteousness of their own, proud of the works of the law, instead of being humbled on account of their sins, they have not been content; and in subjection to sin reigning in their mortal body, so as to make them obey it in the lusts thereof, they have stumbled on the stone of stumbling, and have been inflamed with hatred against him whose works they grieved to see accepted by God. The man who was born blind, and had been made to see, said to them, “We know that God hears not sinners; but if any man serve Him, and do His will, him He hears;” (John 9:31) as if he had said, God regards not the sacrifice of Cain, but he regards the sacrifice of Abel. Abel, the younger brother, is killed by the elder brother; Christ, the head of the younger people, is killed by the elder people of the Jews. Abel dies in the field; Christ dies on Calvary. (Bk 12)
St. Augustine here explains that the Jews did not accept the Physician from whom they were to seek healing for their souls. Because they preferred to establish a righteousness of their own by the works of the law, rather than receive by grace and mercy the righteousness that comes from Christ, they remain in subjection to sin reigning in their mortal body. Then in Book 19 he writes:
[F]rom the words, “I came not to destroy the law, but to fulfill it” we are not to understand that Christ by His precepts filled up what was wanting in the law; but that what the literal command failed in doing from the pride and disobedience of men, is accomplished by grace in those who are brought to repentance and humility. The fulfillment is not in additional words, but in acts of obedience. So the apostle says “Faith works by love;” (Gal 5:6) and again, “He that loves another has fulfilled the law.” (Rom 13:8) This love, by which also the righteousness of the law can be fulfilled was bestowed in its significance by Christ in His coming, through the Spirit which He sent according to His promise; and therefore He said, “I came not to destroy the law, but to fulfill it.” This is the New Testament in which the promise of the kingdom of heaven is made to this love; which was typified in the Old Testament, suitably to the times of that dispensation. So Christ says again; “A new commandment I give unto you, that you love one another.” (John 13:34) … Since, then, all these excellent precepts of the Lord, which Faustus tries to prove to be contrary to the old books of the Hebrews, are found in these very books, the only sense in which the Lord came not to destroy the law, but to fulfill it, is this, that besides the fulfillment of the prophetic types, which are set aside by their actual accomplishment, the precepts also, in which the law is holy, and just, and good, are fulfilled in us, not by the oldness of the letter which commands, and increases the offense of the proud by the additional guilt of transgression, but by the newness of the Spirit, who aids us, and by the obedience of the humble, through the saving grace which sets us free. (Book 19)
Here St. Augustine is teaching about the role of grace in relation to the law. In what sense did Christ come to fulfill the law? The law by itself, says St. Augustine, was powerless to bring about righteousness in men, because of our prideful, disobedient hearts. But the law is accomplished in us by the grace that comes from Christ, in those who (by grace) are brought to repentance and humility. How is the law fulfilled by grace? Not by an extra nos imputation of Christ’s righteousness, but by “acts of obedience,” faith working through love, and thus fulfilling the law. In other words, the way in which Christ fulfills the law is not by imputing an extra nos righteousness to us, but by infusing us with grace and agape such that we fulfill the law in the newness of the Spirit, and not by an external compulsion, i.e. fear of punishment or desire for earthly reward.
His grace works within us our illumination and justification, by that operation concerning which the same preacher of His [name] says: “Neither is he that plants anything, nor he that waters, but God that gives the increase.” (1 Cor 3:7) For by this grace He engrafts into His body even baptized infants, who certainly have not yet become able to imitate any one. As therefore He, in whom all are made alive, besides offering Himself as an example of righteousness to those who imitate Him, gives also to those who believe in Him the hidden grace of His Spirit, which He secretly infuses even into infants …. We read, indeed, of those being justified in Christ who believe in Him, by reason of the secret communion and inspiration of that spiritual grace which makes everyone who cleaves to the Lord “one spirit” with Him (1 Cor 6:17) (Bk I, chapters 10-11)
St. Augustine explains here that we are justified by God’s grace working within us. Even the infant is justified at baptism when God infuses the “hidden grace of the Spirit.” We are justified not by a divine stipulation that imputes an alien righteousness to our account, but by a divine communion of a spiritual grace that makes us one spirit with God. But extra nos imputation does not make us one spirit with God; it simply exchanges what is in our respective accounts. Only an infusion of grace and agape into our hearts can make us “one spirit” with Him, for only then do we share the same heart with God.
Observe also what follows. Having said, “In which all have sinned,” he at once added, “For until the law, sin was in the world.” (Rom 5:13) This means that sin could not be taken away even by the law, which entered that sin might the more abound, (Rom 5:20) whether it be the law of nature, under which every man when arrived at years of discretion only proceeds to add his own sins to original sin, or that very law which Moses gave to the people. … This reign of death is only destroyed in any man by the Saviour’s grace, which wrought even in the saints of the olden time, all of whom, though previous to the coming of Christ in the flesh, yet lived in relation to His assisting grace, not to the letter of the law, which only knew how to command, but not to help them. In the Old Testament, indeed, that was hidden (conformably to the perfectly just dispensation of the times) which is now revealed in the New Testament. Therefore “death reigned from Adam unto Moses,” in all who were not assisted by the grace of Christ, that in them the kingdom of death might be destroyed (Bk 1, chapters 12-13)
The law could not take away sin, and so death reigned, even under the law. But this reign of death is destroyed by the Savior’s grace, which was “wrought” even in the saints who lived prior to the coming of Christ. The letter of the law knew only how to command, but not to help keep the law. By the law alone those Old Testament saints could not have been righteous. Only through the “assisting grace” that came from Christ’s sacrifice were the saints of the Old Testament able to keep the law and be righteous.
“By the law there shall no flesh be justified in the sight of God.” (Rom 3:20) This may indeed be possible before men, but not before Him who looks into our very heart and inmost will, where He sees that, although the man who fears the law keeps a certain precept, he would nevertheless rather do another thing if he were permitted. (chapter 14)
By the law alone, no one can be justified in God’s sight. Other men might think that some particular man is perfect by the law alone, but God, who looks at the heart, sees that in this man (who does not have the grace of God in his heart), he keeps the law (externally) only out of fear. This man would rather act contrary to the law if he could get away with doing so. In other words, the man without grace does not love God’s law. Only by grace can a man love the law, love to do what it enjoins, and so truly fulfill it.
“Being justified freely by His grace.” (Rom 3:24) It is not, therefore, by the law, nor is it by their own will, that they are justified; but they are justified freely by His grace—not that it is wrought without our will; but our will is by the law shown to be weak, that grace may heal its infirmity; and that our healed will may fulfil the law, not by compact under the law, nor yet in the absence of law. (chapter 15)
Here St. Augustine explains that it is not by the law that we are justified, or by our own will, but by God’s grace. The law shows our will to be weak, but grace heals the will’s infirmity, so that our healed will “may fulfill the law.”
For in this letter of mine we have not undertaken to expound this epistle [i.e. Romans], but only mainly on its authority, to demonstrate, so far as we are able, that we are assisted by divine aid towards the achievement of righteousness — not merely because God has given us a law full of good and holy precepts, but because our very will without which we cannot do any good thing, is assisted and elevated by the importation of the Spirit of grace, without which help mere teaching is “the letter that kills,” (2 Cor 3:6) forasmuch as it rather holds them guilty of transgression, than justifies the ungodly. (chapter 20)
St. Augustine is explaining in this work that St. Paul, in Romans, teaches that we are assisted by divine aid toward the achievement of righteousness, because by the “importation” (i.e. infusion) of the Spirit of grace, our will is assisted and elevated to God. Without this help, the law kills. But by this grace the law is fulfilled in us as we, with this infused divine aid, live out faith working in agape.
And so it is the very law of works itself which says, “You shall not covet;” because thereby comes the knowledge of sin. Now I wish to know, if anybody will dare to tell me, whether the law of faith does not say to us, “You shall not covet”? For if it does not say so to us, what reason is there why we, who are placed under it, should not sin in safety and with impunity? Indeed, this is just what those people thought the apostle meant, of whom he writes: “Even as some affirm that we say, Let us do evil, that good may come; whose damnation is just.” (Rom 3:8) If, on the contrary, it too says to us, “You shall not covet” (even as numerous passages in the gospels and epistles so often testify and urge), then why is not this law also called the law of works? For it by no means follows that, because it retains not the “works” of the ancient sacraments — even circumcision and the other ceremonies, — it therefore has no “works” in its own sacraments, which are adapted to the present age; unless, indeed, the question was about sacramental works, when mention was made of the law, just because by it is the knowledge of sin, and therefore nobody is justified by it, so that it is not by it that boasting is excluded, but by the law of faith, whereby the just man lives. But is there not by it too the knowledge of sin, when even it says, “You shall not covet?” (chapter 21)
Here St. Augustine contrasts the law of works and the law of faith. He asks whether the law of faith also contains the law of works. Some people mistakenly thought that the law of faith did not contain the law of works; these are the people who thought that under grace they could say, “let us do evil that good may come.” St. Augustine shows that while the law of faith does not retain the ceremonial works of the Law of Moses, the law of faith does retain the moral law.2
What the difference between them [i.e. the law of works and the law of faith] is, I will briefly explain. What the law of works enjoins by menace, that the law of faith secures by faith. The one [i.e. the law of works] says, “You shall not covet;” (Ex 20:17) the other [i.e. the law of faith] says, “When I perceived that nobody could be continent, except God gave it to him; and that this was the very point of wisdom, to know whose gift she was; I approached unto the Lord, and I besought Him.” (Wisdom 8:21) This indeed is the very wisdom which is called piety, in which is worshipped “the Father of lights, from whom is every best giving and perfect gift.” (James 1:17) This worship, however, consists in the sacrifice of praise and giving of thanks, so that the worshipper of God boasts not in himself, but in Him. (2 Cor 10:17) Accordingly, by the law of works, God says to us, Do what I command you; but by the law of faith we say to God, Give me what You command. Now this is the reason why the law gives its command — to admonish us what faith ought to do, that is, that he to whom the command is given, if he is as yet unable to perform it, may know what to ask for; but if he has at once the ability, and complies with the command, he ought also to be aware from whose gift the ability comes. (chapter 22)
The law of works (i.e. the covenant made through Moses) exerts its normative force by way of threatened punishment. The law of faith, by contrast, works from the inside, from the heart. Brought low by the law, the person grasps his inability, humbles himself before God, and asks God to give him the grace to do what He commands. Now pride is done away, because one’s law-keeping is no longer by one’s own strength, but by the gift of God. Yet neither does the law of faith do away with the law of works, but fulfills it, because the person living by the faith that works through love keeps the law. When St. Augustine describes the prayer of the person of faith as “Give me what You command” he is not talking about an extra nos imputed righteousness. He is talking about the grace to keep the commandments. And God gives generously to the one who asks for His grace, such that by this divine aid he “complies with the command,” and therefore cannot boast, as though he did this himself. The position St. Augustine is describing is not Pelagianism (wherein grace is reduced either to nature or to the law), but neither is it Calvinism (wherein by extra nos imputation Christ replaces us such that our law-keeping no longer pertains to our justification or condemnation).
In chapters 23-25 St. Augustine explains that by the law St. Paul does not just mean circumcision and animal sacrifices, but even the Decalogue. Then he writes:
Does not its [i.e. 2 Cor 3:3-9] whole scope amount to this, that the letter which forbids sin fails to give man life, but rather “kills,” by increasing concupiscence, and aggravating sinfulness by transgression, unless indeed grace liberates us by the law of faith, which is in Christ Jesus, when His love is “shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost, which is given to us?” (Rom 5:5) (chapter 25)
The reason why the letter “kills” (2 Cor 3:6) is because without grace, the law makes transgression worse. The law is powerless to enable man to keep it, and be righteous. But grace liberates us from that bondage, by the law of faith, when the Holy Spirit pours out agape into our hearts. The infusion of agape liberates us from bondage by enabling us to fulfill the law.
It is evident, then, that the oldness of the letter, in the absence of the newness of the spirit, instead of freeing us from sin, rather makes us guilty by the knowledge of sin. Whence it is written in another part of Scripture, “He that increases knowledge, increases sorrow,” (Ecclesiastes 1:18) — not that the law is itself evil, but because the commandment has its good in the demonstration of the letter, not in the assistance of the spirit; and if this commandment is kept from the fear of punishment and not from the love of righteousness, it is servilely kept, not freely, and therefore it is not kept at all. For no fruit is good which does not grow from the root of love. If, however, that faith be present which works by love, (Gal 5:6) then one begins to delight in the law of God after the inward man, (Rom 7:22) and this delight is the gift of the spirit, not of the letter; even though there is another law in our members still warring against the law of the mind, until the old state is changed, and passes into that newness which increases from day to day in the inward man, while the grace of God is liberating us from the body of this death through Jesus Christ our Lord. (chapter 26)
The Law, without the Spirit, makes us more guilty; the Law does not provide the assistance of grace by which to keep the Law. Those who externally keep the commandments only for fear of punishment, are not truly keeping the commandments. But if the faith that works through agape is present, then the person delights in the law of God in the inner man. The other law to which he refers here (“in our members”) is the law of concupiscence, i.e. the disordered desires of the lower appetites.
“Now the Lord is that Spirit: and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.” (2 Cor 3:17) Now this Spirit of God, by whose gift we are justified, whence it comes to pass that we delight not to sin — in which is liberty; even as, when we are without this Spirit, we delight to sin — in which is slavery, from the works of which we must abstain; — this Holy Spirit, through whom love is shed abroad in our hearts, which is the fulfilment of the law, is designated in the gospel as “the finger of God.” (Luke 11:20) Is it not because those very tables of the law were written by the finger of God, that the Spirit of God by whom we are sanctified is also the finger of God, in order that, living by faith, we may do good works through love? (chapter 28)
Notice that he says that it is by the gift of the Spirit that we are justified. What is this gift of the Spirit? It is the grace and agape that has been poured out into our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Rom 5:5). The Spirit of God is the “finger of God” who writes the law on our hearts, not on stony tablets as with Moses on Mt. Sinai. But in the previous chapter he wrote, “it was not for nothing that the nation was commanded on that day (i.e. the Sabbath) to abstain from all servile work, by which sin is signified; but because not to commit sin belongs to sanctification, that is, to God’s gift through the Holy Spirit.” (chapter 27) For St. Augustine, the gift of the Spirit by which we are sanctified is the very same gift of the Spirit by which we are justified, because to be justified and to be sanctified are the very same thing. Only according to an extra nos conception of imputation could justification and sanctification be distinct. But when justification is by the infusion of agape, sanctification and justification are one and the same. And for St. Augustine, justification is by the infusion of grace and agape.
There [i.e. on Mt. Sinai] the law was given outwardly, so that the unrighteous might be terrified; here it was given inwardly, so that they might be justified. (Acts 2:1-47) For this, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not kill, You shall not covet; and if there be any other commandment,” — such, of course, as was written on those tables — “it is briefly comprehended,” says he, “in this saying, namely, You shall love your neighbour as yourself. Love works no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Rom 13:9-10) Now this was not written on the tables of stone, but “is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost, which is given unto us.” (Rom 5:5) God’s law, therefore, is love. “To it the carnal mind is not subject, neither indeed can be;” (Rom 8:7) but when the works of love are written on tables to alarm the carnal mind, there arises the law of works and “the letter which kills” the transgressor; but when love itself is shed abroad in the hearts of believers, then we have the law of faith, and the spirit which gives life to him that loves. (chapter29)
St. Augustine is very clear here concerning the difference between the law of works and the law of faith. At Mt. Sinai, the law was given outwardly, being written on tablets of stone. Because it was given outwardly, it provoked fear; the carnal mind cannot be subject to the law, and so to the carnal mind (i.e. the mind without the Spirit) the letter of the law kills. But in the New Covenant, the law is given inwardly, so that we might be justified. God’s law, says St. Augustine, “is love.” We are justified by an infusion of grace by the Holy Spirit, such that agape is poured out into our hearts.3 This infusion of agape is what is meant by writing the law on our hearts. By this agape we fulfill the law, because love is the fulfilling of the law. This is how we are justified, as he goes on to say:
“Forasmuch,” says he, “as you are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart.” (2 Cor 3:3) See how he shows that the one is written without [i.e. outside] man, that it may alarm him from without; the other within man himself, that it may justify him from within. He speaks of the “fleshy tables of the heart,” not of the carnal mind, but of a living agent possessing sensation, in comparison with a stone, which is senseless. The assertion which he subsequently makes — that “the children of Israel could not look steadfastly on the end of the face of Moses,” and that he accordingly spoke to them through a veil, (2 Cor 3:13) — signifies that the letter of the law justifies no man, but that rather a veil is placed on the reading of the Old Testament, until it shall be turned to Christ, and the veil be removed — in other words, until it shall be turned to grace, and be understood that from Him accrues to us the justification, whereby we do what He commands. (chapter 30)
We are justified when the Spirit writes the law within in hearts, i.e. when agape is infused into us. From Christ accrues to us the justification where we do what He commands. Again, notice that for St. Augustine, there is no extra nos imputation, or any distinction between justification and sanctification; we are justified by the infusion of agape, such that we do what He commands.
Now, since, as he says in another passage, “the law was added because of transgression,” (Gal 3:19) meaning the law which is written externally to man, he therefore designates it both as “the ministration of death,” (2 Cor 3:7) and “the ministration of condemnation;” (2 Cor 3:9) but the other, that is, the law of the New Testament, he calls “the ministration of the Spirit” (2 Cor 3:8) and “the ministration of righteousness,” (2 Cor 3:9) because through the Spirit we work righteousness, and are delivered from the condemnation due to transgression. The one, therefore, vanishes away, the other abides; for the terrifying schoolmaster will be dispensed with, when love has succeeded to fear. Now “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.” (2 Cor 3:17) (chapter 31)
The New Testament is the “ministry of righteousness” because through the Spirit we work righteousness, and thereby are delivered from the condemnation due to transgression. Our deliverance is not that Christ fulfills the law in our place and then imputes His obedience to us, but that by His work He merited for us the grace of the Spirit whereby we are empowered through agape to work righteousness and so no longer fear the condemnation of the law.
Let no Christian then stray from this faith, which alone is the Christian one; nor let any one, when he has been made to feel ashamed to say that we become righteous through our own selves, without the grace of God working this in us — because he sees, when such an allegation is made, how unable pious believers are to endure it — resort to any subterfuge on this point, by affirming that the reason why we cannot become righteous without the operation of God’s grace is this, that He gave the law, He instituted its teaching, He commanded its precepts of good. For there is no doubt that, without His assisting grace, the law is “the letter which kills;” but when the life-giving spirit is present, the law causes that to be loved as written within, which it once caused to be feared as written without. (chapter 32)
This righteousness of the New Covenant that is by the infusion of agape into our hearts, is not from us, but from the grace of God working this in us. This grace causes that to be loved within (i.e. the law) which was feared without when it was written on stone tablets.
Nevertheless, it is not by that law that the ungodly are made righteous, but by grace; and this change is effected by the life-giving Spirit, without whom the letter kills…. The law was therefore given, in order that grace might be sought; grace was given, in order that the law might be fulfilled. Now it was not through any fault of its own that the law was not fulfilled, but by the fault of the carnal mind; and this fault was to be demonstrated by the law, and healed by grace. (chapter 34)
Grace was given not in the sense that Christ fulfilled the law so that we don’t have to fulfill it for our justification, but precisely so that “the law might be fulfilled” in us whose weak wills have been healed by the grace that was won for us by Christ and has now been infused into our hearts.
It is then on account of the offense of the old man, which was by no means healed by the letter which commanded and threatened, that it is called the old covenant; whereas the other is called the new covenant, because of the newness of the spirit, which heals the new man of the fault of the old. Then consider what follows, and see in how clear a light the fact is placed, that men who bare faith are unwilling to trust in themselves: “Because,” says he, “this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, says the Lord, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts.” (Jer 31:33) See how similarly the apostle states it in the passage we have already quoted: “Not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart,” (2 Cor 3:3) because “not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God.” (2 Cor 3:3) And I apprehend that the apostle [i.e. Paul] in this passage had no other reason for mentioning “the New Testament” (“who has made us able ministers of the New Testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit”), than because he had an eye to the words of the prophet, when he said “Not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart,” inasmuch as in the prophet it runs: “I will write it in their hearts.” (Jer 31:33)
What then is God’s law written by God Himself in the hearts of men, but the very presence of the Holy Spirit, who is “the finger of God,” and by whose presence is shed abroad in our hearts the love which is the fulfilling of the law, (Rom 13:10) and the end of the commandment? (1 Tim 1:5) Now the promises of the Old Testament are earthly; and yet (with the exception of the sacramental ordinances which were the shadow of things to come, such as circumcision, the Sabbath and other observances of days, and the ceremonies of certain meats, and the complicated ritual of sacrifices and sacred things which suited “the oldness” of the carnal law and its slavish yoke) it contains such precepts of righteousness as we are even now taught to observe, which were especially expressly drawn out on the two tables without figure or shadow: for instance, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall do no murder,” “You shall not covet,” “and whatsoever other commandment is briefly comprehended in the saying, You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” (Rom 13:9) Nevertheless, whereas as in the said Testament earthly and temporal promises are, as I have said, recited, and these are goods of this corruptible flesh (although they prefigure those heavenly and everlasting blessings which belong to the New Testament), what is now promised is a good for the heart itself, a good for the mind, a good of the spirit, that is, an intellectual good; since it is said, “I will put my law in their inward parts, and in their hearts will I write them,” (Jer 31:33) — by which He signified that men would not fear the law which alarmed them externally, but would love the very righteousness of the law which dwelt inwardly in their hearts. (chapters 35-36)
Here he first shows that St. Paul understood the New Covenant as the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophesy regarding the law being written on our hearts. The Old Covenant could not heal the heart; but under the New Covenant, our hearts are healed. They are healed by the Spirit of God, who renews us by indwelling us and infusing into our hearts the agape by which the law is fulfilled in us, love being the goal (i.e. telos) of the commandment. The sacramental ordinances of the Old Covenant (e.g. circumcision, Sabbath, etc.) are done away by the New Covenant. But the moral law summarized in the Decalogue is still imperative for Christians. By the infusion of agape into our hearts we are caused to love the very righteousness of the law written within us by the Spirit.
As then the law of works, which was written on the tables of stone, and its reward, the land of promise, which the house of the carnal Israel after their liberation from Egypt received, belonged to the old testament, so the law of faith, written on the heart, and its reward, the beatific vision which the house of the spiritual Israel, when delivered from the present world, shall perceive, belong to the new testament. (chapter 41)
The law of works was written on tablets of stone, and had an earthly reward, but the law of faith is written on the heart by the Spirit, and has a heavenly reward, namely, the beatific vision.
When the prophet [i.e. Jeremiah] promised a new covenant, not according to the covenant which had been formerly made with the people of Israel when liberated from Egypt, he said nothing about a change in the sacrifices or any sacred ordinances, although such change, too, was without doubt to follow, as we see in fact that it did follow, even as the same prophetic scripture testifies in many other passages; but he simply called attention to this difference, that God would impress His laws on the mind of those who belonged to this covenant, and would write them in their hearts, (Jer 31:32-33) whence the apostle drew his conclusion — “not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart;” (2 Cor 3:3) and that the eternal recompense of this righteousness was not the land out of which were driven the Amorites and Hittites, and other nations who dwelt there, Joshua 12 but God Himself, “to whom it is good to hold fast,” in order that God’s good that they love, may be the God Himself whom they love, between whom and men nothing but sin produces separation; and this is remitted only by grace. Accordingly, after saying, “For all shall know me, from the least to the greatest of them,” He instantly added, “For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jer 31:34) By the law of works, then, the Lord says, “You shall not covet:” (Ex 20:17) but by the law of faith He says, “Without me you can do nothing;” (John 15:5) for He was treating of good works, even the fruit of the vine-branches. It is therefore apparent what difference there is between the old covenant and the new — that in the former the law is written on tables, while in the latter on hearts; so that what in the one alarms from without, in the other delights from within; and in the former man becomes a transgressor through the letter that kills, in the other a lover through the life-giving spirit. We must therefore avoid saying, that the way in which God assists us to work righteousness, and “works in us both to will and to do of His good pleasure,” (Philippians 2:13) is by externally addressing to our faculties precepts of holiness; for He gives His increase internally, (1 Cor 3:7) by shedding love abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost, which is given to us. (Rom 5:5) (chapter 42)
Under the Old Covenant, man becomes a transgressor because the law is written outside of us, on tablets of stone; under the New Covenant, man becomes a “lover,” because the law is written within us, on the heart. This is the way in which God “assists us to work righteousness.”
If therefore the apostle, when he mentioned that the Gentiles do by nature the things contained in the law, and have the work of the law written in their hearts, (Rom 2:14-15) intended those to be understood who believed in Christ — who do not come to the faith like the Jews, through a precedent law, — there is no good reason why we should endeavour to distinguish them from those to whom the Lord by the prophet promises the new covenant, telling them that He will write His laws in their hearts, (Jer 32:32) inasmuch as they too, by the grafting which he says had been made of the wild olive, belong to the self-same olive-tree, (Rom 11:24) — in other words, to the same people of God. … For thus do they become of the house of Israel, when their uncircumcision is accounted circumcision, by the fact that they do not exhibit the righteousness of the law by the excision of the flesh, but keep it by the charity of the heart. “If,” says he, “the uncircumcision keep the righteousness of the law, shall not his uncircumcision be counted for circumcision?” (Rom 2:26) And therefore in the house of the true Israel, in which is no guile, they are partakers of the new testament, since God puts His laws into their mind, and writes them in their hearts with his own finger, the Holy Ghost, by whom is shed abroad in them the love (Rom 5:5) which is the fulfilling of the law. (Rom 13:10) (chapter 46)
St. Augustine takes the persons described in Romans 2 to be Gentiles who believe in Christ, and fulfilments of Jeremiah’s prophecy. They are partakers of the New Covenant, and God has written His law on their hearts by His own finger, i.e. the Holy Spirit, by whom agape has been poured out into their hearts, such that they fulfill the law.
Nor ought it to disturb us that the apostle described them as doing that which is contained in the law “by nature,” — not by the Spirit of God, not by faith, not by grace. For it is the Spirit of grace that does it, in order to restore in us the image of God, in which we were naturally created. (Gen 1:27) Sin, indeed, is contrary to nature, and it is grace that heals it — on which account the prayer is offered to God, “Be merciful unto me: heal my soul; for I have sinned against You.” Therefore it is by nature that men do the things which are contained in the law; (Rom 2:14) for they who do not, fail to do so by reason of their sinful defect. In consequence of this sinfulness, the law of God is erased out of their hearts; and therefore, when, the sin being healed, it is written there, the prescriptions of the law are done “by nature,” — not that by nature grace is denied, but rather by grace nature is repaired. For “by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin, and so death passed upon all men; in which all have sinned;” (Rom 5:12) wherefore “there is no difference: they all come short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace.” (Rom 3:22-24) By this grace there is written on the renewed inner man that righteousness which sin had blotted out; and this mercy comes upon the human race through our Lord Jesus Christ. (chapter 47)
Here St. Augustine explains that when St. Paul says (in Rom 2:14) that Christian Gentiles do “by nature” what is contained in the law, he means a nature healed by grace and infused with agape.
[T]hat wide difference will not be disturbed, which separates the new covenant from the old, and which lies in the fact that by the new covenant the law of God is written in the hearts of believers, whereas in the old it was inscribed on tables of stone. For this writing in the heart is effected by renovation, although it had not been completely blotted out by the old nature. For just as that image of God is renewed in the mind of believers by the new testament, which impiety had not quite abolished (for there had remained undoubtedly that which the soul of man cannot be except it be rational), so also the law of God, which had not been wholly blotted out there by unrighteousness, is certainly written thereon, renewed by grace. Now in the Jews the law which was written on tables could not effect this new inscription, which is justification, but only transgression. (chapter 48)
Notice again that St. Augustine defines justification as the writing of the law on the heart. Under the Old Covenant, the law could not effect justification but only transgression, because the law was written on stone tablets. But in the New Covenant, this “new inscription” of the law on the hearts is our justification; we are made righteous by an infusion of grace and agape.
[T]he grace of God was promised to the new testament even by the prophet, and that this grace was definitively announced to take this shape — God’s laws were to be written in men’s hearts; and they were to arrive at such a knowledge of God, that they were not each one to teach his neighbour and brother, saying, Know the Lord; for all were to know Him, from the least to the greatest of them. (Jer 31:33-34) This is the gift of the Holy Ghost, by which love is shed abroad in our hearts, (Rom 5:5) — not, indeed, any kind of love, but the love of God, “out of a pure heart, and a good conscience, and an unfeigned faith,” (1 Tim 1:5) by means of which the just man, while living in this pilgrim state, is led on, after the stages of “the glass,” and “the enigma,” and “what is in part,” to the actual vision, that, face to face, he may know even as he is known. (chapter 49)
Here again St. Augustine describes the New Covenant as fulfilling Jeremiah’s prophesy, such that the law is written on our hearts by the gift of the Holy Spirit, which is agape, and by which we have a pure heart. Through this gift of agape, we are led on through this life, to the beatific vision in the life to come. The beatific vision (i.e. seeing God as He is) is the reward of the pure heart, as Jesus explained in the Beatitudes.
For the Gentiles, which followed not after righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness which is by faith, (Rom 9:30) — by obtaining it of God, not by assuming it of themselves. But Israel, which followed after the law of righteousness, has not attained to the law of righteousness. And why? Because they sought it not by faith, but as it were by works (Rom 9:31-32) — in other words, working it out as it were by themselves, not believing that it is God who works within them. For it is God which works in us both to will and to do of His own good pleasure. (Philippians 2:13) And hereby they stumbled at the stumbling-stone. (Rom 9:32) For what he said, not by faith, but as it were by works, (Rom 9:32) he most clearly explained in the following words: “They, being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believes.” (Rom 10:3-4) Then are we still in doubt what are those works of the law by which a man is not justified, if he believes them to be his own works, as it were, without the help and gift of God, which is by the faith of Jesus Christ? And do we suppose that they are circumcision and the other like ordinances, because some such things in other passages are read concerning these sacramental rites too? In this place, however, it is certainly not circumcision which they wanted to establish as their own righteousness, because God established this by prescribing it Himself. Nor is it possible for us to understand this statement, of those works concerning which the Lord says to them, You reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your own tradition; (Mark 7:9) because, as the apostle says, Israel, which followed after the law of righteousness, has not attained to the law of righteousness. (Rom 9:31) He did not say, Which followed after their own traditions, framing them and relying on them. This then is the sole distinction, that the very precept, “You shall not covet,” (Ex 20:17) and God’s other good and holy commandments, they attributed to themselves; whereas, that man may keep them, God must work in him through faith in Jesus Christ, who is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believes. (Rom 10:4) That is to say, every one who is incorporated into Him and made a member of His body, is able, by His giving the increase within, to work righteousness. It is of such a man’s works that Christ Himself has said, “Without me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5) (chapter 50)
Here St. Augustine explains the difference between seeking to attain righteousness by faith, and seeking to attain righteousness by works. Seeking to attain righteousness by works means to work it out as if were by our own effort, and not by the grace of God working within us. The righteousness of God is the righteousness that comes from Christ, by the Holy Spirit working with us, infusing grace and agape into us. The “works of the law” that cannot save us are not only the sacramental ordinances of the Old Covenant, says St. Augustine. All good works, if we believe them to be our own and accomplished not by the help of God working within us, cannot justify us or save us. The works of the law (under the Old Covenant) could not save because without grace man cannot keep them; insofar as we attribute our good works to our own strength, we are seeking to establish our own righteousness, and not receiving the righteousness of God that comes to us from Christ by faith and baptism.
The righteousness of the law is proposed in these terms — that whosoever shall do it shall live in it; and the purpose is, that when each has discovered his own weakness, he may not by his own strength, nor by the letter of the law (which cannot be done), but by faith, conciliating the Justifier, attain, and do, and live in it. For the work in which he who does it shall live, is not done except by one who is justified. His justification, however, is obtained by faith; and concerning faith it is written, “Say not in your heart, Who shall ascend into heaven? (that is, to bring down Christ therefrom;) or, Who shall descend into the deep? (that is, to bring up Christ again from the dead.) But what says it? The word is near you, even in your mouth, and in your heart: that is (says he), the word of faith which we preach: That if you shall confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus, and shall believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved.” (Rom 10:6-9) As far as he is saved, so far is he righteous. For by this faith we believe that God will raise even us from the dead — even now in the spirit, that we may in this present world live soberly, righteously, and godly in the renewal of His grace; and by and by in our flesh, which shall rise again to immortality, which indeed is the reward of the Spirit, who precedes it by a resurrection which is appropriate to Himself — that is, by justification. “For we are buried with Christ by baptism unto death, that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.” (Rom 6:4) By faith, therefore, in Jesus Christ we obtain salvation — both in so far as it is begun within us in reality, and in so far as its perfection is waited for in hope; “for whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” “How abundant,” says the Psalmist, “is the multitude of Your goodness, O Lord, which You have laid up for them that fear You, and hast perfected for them that hope in You!” By the law we fear God; by faith we hope in God: but from those who fear punishment grace is hidden. And the soul which labours under this fear, since it has not conquered its evil concupiscence, and from which this fear, like a harsh master, has not departed — let it flee by faith for refuge to the mercy of God, that He may give it what He commands, and may, by inspiring into it the sweetness of His grace through His Holy Spirit, cause the soul to delight more in what He teaches it, than it delights in what opposes His instruction. In this manner it is that the great abundance of His sweetness — that is, the law of faith — His love which is in our hearts, and shed abroad, is perfected in them that hope in Him, that good may be wrought by the soul, healed not by the fear of punishment, but by the love of righteousness. (chapter 51)
St. Augustine here says that while apart from grace we cannot keep the law, by faith through grace we attain, do, and live in the law, conciliating the Justifier. Under the Old Covenant, the law brought fear of punishment. The soul which knows the law but has not conquered its evil concupiscence labors under this fear. But the soul that flees for refuge to the mercy of God receives from God the gift of grace by which he may do what God commands. St. Augustine describes this gift as God inspiring in us the sweetness of His grace through His Holy Spirit, by which we are caused to delight more in what He teaches, than in what opposes His teaching. What is this sweetness of grace? It is His love “shed abroad” (i.e. infused) into our hearts; this is the law of faith by which the soul is healed so that it loves righteousness. This is not justification by extra nos imputation in which Christ fulfills the law in our place and then His obedience is imputed to our account. The justification St. Augustine describes is justification by the infusion of grace and agape by which the law is fulfilled in us, not only outside-of-us-but-imputed-to-our-account.
Do we then by grace make void free will? God forbid! Nay, rather we establish free will. For even as the law by faith, so free will by grace, is not made void, but established. (Rom 3:31) For neither is the law fulfilled except by free will; but by the law is the knowledge of sin, by faith the acquisition of grace against sin, by grace the healing of the soul from the disease of sin, by the health of the soul freedom of will, by free will the love of righteousness, by love of righteousness the accomplishment of the law. Accordingly, as the law is not made void, but is established through faith, since faith procures grace whereby the law is fulfilled; so free will is not made void through grace, but is established, since grace cures the will whereby righteousness is freely loved. (chapter 52)
Just as the law is not made void by grace, so free will is not made void by grace. By the law comes the knowledge of sin; by faith comes the acquisition of grace by which the soul is healed from the disease of sin. By this grace we receive the love of righteousness by which the law is accomplished in us. Faith (prior to baptism) procures the grace (through baptism) whereby the law is fulfilled in us, because grace cures the will, enabling us freely to love righteousness.
But there is yet another distinction to be observed — since they who are under the law both attempt to work their own righteousness through fear of punishment, and fail to do God’s righteousness, because this is accomplished by the love to which only what is lawful is pleasing, and never by the fear which is forced to have in its work the thing which is lawful, although it has something else in its will which would prefer, if it were only possible, that to be lawful which is not lawful. These persons also believe in God; for if they had no faith in Him at all, neither would they of course have any dread of the penalty of His law. This, however, is not the faith which the apostle commends. He says: “You have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but you have received the spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father.” (Rom 8:15) The fear, then, of which we speak is slavish; and therefore, even though there be in it a belief in the Lord, yet righteousness is not loved by it, but condemnation is feared. God’s children, however, exclaim, “Abba, Father,” (chapter 56)
Here too St. Augustine contrasts the person under the law of works, and the person under the law of faith. Both persons believe in God. But the person who works out of fear of punishment, and not out of love of righteousness, does not have saving faith; such a person is in bondage to the law, living in fear and condemnation. But the persons having saving faith take delight in God’s law. As sons by adoption we freely obey our Father’s law out of love, not fear.
“For Christ is the end [i.e. telos, purpose] of the law for righteousness to every one that believes.” (Rom 10:4) 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, (Gal 3:24) usefully conducts. (chapter 1)
How do we attain the righteousness of God? Not by an extra nos imputation in which Christ’s obedience is credited to our account, but by a grace that gives aid in keeping God’s law. This is what is meant by Christ being the end or goal of the law. The law, like a schoolmaster, conducts us to Christ, by showing us that by our own power we cannot keep the law. The solution to this weakness is the grace that comes from Christ, by which we are enabled through agape to fulfill the law.
He [i.e. Pelagius] of course does not notice the Scriptures of the New Testament, wherein we learn that the intention of the law in its censure is this, that, by reason of the transgressions which men commit, they may flee for refuge to the grace of the Lord, who has pity upon them — “the schoolmaster” (Gal 3:24) “shutting them up unto the same faith which should afterwards be revealed;” (Gal 3:23) that by it their transgressions may be forgiven, and then not again be committed, by God’s assisting grace. (chapter 13)
Grace is not only for the forgiveness of transgressions, but also assists us such that these transgressions may not again be committed.
This is the faith to which the commandments drive us, in order that the law may prescribe our duty and faith accomplish it. (chapter 17)
The law prescribes our duty, but cannot empower us to keep it. So the law drives us to Christ, and faith accomplishes the law, because this faith is faith informed by agape, through which the law is fulfilled (Rom 13:10).
But what I want to hear from him [i.e. Pelagius], if I can, is about those who live according to the Spirit, and who on this account are not, in a certain sense, in the flesh, even while they still live here — whether they, by God’s grace, live according to the Spirit, or are sufficient for themselves, natural capability having been bestowed on them when they were created, and their own proper will besides. Whereas the fulfilling of the law is nothing else than love; (Rom 13:10) and God’s love is shed abroad in our hearts, not by our own selves, but by the Holy Ghost which is given to us. (Rom 5:5) (chapter 18)
St. Augustine’s debate with Pelagius was not about whether the law of God is fulfilled in us, but whether the law is fulfilled in us by our created nature or by the love of God infused into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.
God, however, whenever He — through “the one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” — spiritually heals the sick or raises the dead, that is, justifies the ungodly, and when He has brought him to perfect health, in other words, to the fullness of life and righteousness, does not forsake, if He is not forsaken, in order that life may be passed in constant piety and righteousness. (chapter 29)
Justification, for St. Augustine, is a spiritual healing of the soul, restoring to the soul the life of God, in order that the believer may live in “constant piety and righteousness.”
They who in a great degree have curbed this sin [i.e. concupiscence], that is, this appetite of a corrupt affection, so as not to obey its desires, nor to yield their members to it as instruments of unrighteousness, (Rom 6:13) have fairly deserved to be called righteous persons, and this by the help of the grace of God. Since, however, sin often stole over them in very small matters, and when they were off their guard, they were both righteous, and at the same time not sinless. To conclude, if there was in righteous Abel that love of God whereby alone he is truly righteous who is righteous, to enable him, and to lay him under a moral obligation, to advance in holiness, still in whatever degree he fell short therein was of sin. (chapter 45)
This is an enlightening statement by St. Augustine, because he is explaining how believers can be simultaneously both righteous and yet not sinless. He does not explain this by appealing to simultaneous extra nos imputation and intra nos damnable sin. Rather, he is teaching that though we are righteous only by the infusion of agape, nevertheless sin is of two sorts, mortal and venial. Venial sin does not destroy agape. So the person who commits only venial sin retains agape, and is thereby nevertheless righteous, and yet will be perfected in righteousness (i.e. no longer subject to concupiscence and no longer able to sin) in the life to come. Yet a person who has agape is not anything less than 100% righteous. Growth in love does not necessarily imply anything less than 100% level; growth in love increases the ‘size’ of the ‘container,’ so to speak.
I do not much care about expressing a definite opinion on the question, whether in the present life there ever have been, or now are, or ever can be, any persons who have had, or are having, or are to have, the love of God so perfectly as to admit of no addition to it (for nothing short of this amounts to a most true, full, and perfect righteousness). (chapter 49)
Again, for St. Augustine, the debate with Pelagius was not whether any persons so perfectly loved God that they could not more perfectly love God. St. Augustine didn’t want to assume that God had never (or would never) grant such grace to a person during this present life. The disagreement with Pelagius was about whether the righteousness we have in the New Covenant is by grace or by our own natural power.
“If you be led of the Spirit, you are no longer under the law.” (Gal 5:18) For that man is under the law, who, from fear of the punishment which the law threatens, and not from any love for righteousness, obliges himself to abstain from the work of sin, without being as yet free and removed from the desire of sinning. For it is in his very will that he is guilty, whereby he would prefer, if it were possible, that what he dreads should not exist, in order that he might freely do what he secretly desires. Therefore he says, “If you be led of the Spirit, you are not under the law,” — even the law which inspires fear, but gives not love. For this “love is shed abroad in our hearts,” not by the letter of the law, but “by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us.” (Rom 5:5) This is the law of liberty, not of bondage; being the law of love, not of fear; and concerning it the Apostle James says: “Whoso looks into the perfect law of liberty.” (James 1:25) Whence he, too, no longer indeed felt terrified by God’s law as a slave, but delighted in it in the inward man, although still seeing another law in his members warring against the law of his mind. Accordingly he here says: “If you be led of the Spirit, you are not under the law.” So far, indeed, as any man is led by the Spirit, he is not under the law; because, so far as he rejoices in the law of God, he lives not in fear of the law, since “fear has torment,” (1 John 4:18) not joy and delight. (chapter 67)
What does it mean to be “under the law”? According to St. Augustine, it means to be attempting to keep the law out of fear of punishment and not from love of righteousness. Even if such a person keeps the law externally, he is guilty in his heart because in his heart he loves something contrary to God’s law. However, when a man receives from Christ the gift of grace and agape and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, then he loves the law and is led by the Spirit. Such a man is no longer “under the law” in the sense of condemnation; he is free to fulfill the law out of love and delight.
St. Ambrose, however, really opposes those who say that man cannot exist without sin in the present life. For, in order to support his statement, he avails himself of the instance of Zacharias and Elisabeth, because they are mentioned as “having walked in all the commandments and ordinances” of the law “blameless.” Well, but does he for all that deny that it was by God’s grace that they did this through our Lord Jesus Christ? It was undoubtedly by such faith in Him that holy men lived of old, even before His death. It is He who sends the Holy Ghost that is given to us, through whom that love is shed abroad in our hearts whereby alone whosoever are righteous are righteous. (chapter 74)
Pelagius had appealed to the writings of St. Ambrose, to justify his [Pelagius's] own claim that man can live without sin in this life. St. Augustine notes that the issue is whether those whom Scripture referred to as righteous or blameless before Christ were righteous or blameless through their own strength and works or through the grace of God. St. Augustine, who had been baptized and catechized by St. Ambrose, knew that for St. Ambrose, even those like Zacharias and Elisabeth who were called blameless, were righteous by faith, and so were righteous by the infusion of agape in their hearts by the Holy Spirit. Only by such infusion is anyone righteous, says St. Augustine, thus ruling out righteousness by extra nos imputation.
But “the precepts of the law are very good,” if we use them lawfully. Indeed, by the very fact (of which we have the firmest conviction) “that the just and good God could not possibly have enjoined impossibilities,” we are admonished both what to do in easy paths and what to ask for when they are difficult. Now all things are easy for love to effect, to which (and which alone) “Christ’s burden is light,” (Matt 11:30) — or rather, it is itself alone the burden which is light. Accordingly it is said, “And His commandments are not grievous;” (1 John 5:3) so that whoever finds them grievous must regard the inspired statement about their “not being grievous” as having been capable of only this meaning, that there may be a state of heart to which they are not burdensome, and he must pray for that disposition which he at present wants, so as to be able to fulfil all that is commanded him. And this is the purport of what is said to Israel in Deuteronomy, if understood in a godly, sacred, and spiritual sense, since the apostle, after quoting the passage, “The word is near you, even in your mouth and in your heart” (and, as the verse also has it, in your hands, for in man’s heart are his spiritual hands), adds in explanation, “This is the word of faith which we preach.” (Rom 10:8) No man, therefore, who “returns to the Lord his God,” as he is there commanded, “with all his heart and with all his soul,” (Deut 30:2) will find God’s commandment “grievous.” How, indeed, can it be grievous, when it is the precept of love? Either, therefore, a man has not love, and then it is grievous; or he has love, and then it is not grievous. But he possesses love if he does what is there enjoined on Israel, by returning to the Lord his God with all his heart and with all his soul. “A new commandment,” says He, “do I give unto you, that you love one another;” (John 13:34) and “He that loves his neighbour has fulfilled the law;” (Rom 13:8) and again, “Love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Rom 13:10) In accordance with these sayings is that passage, “Had they trodden good paths, they would have found, indeed, the ways of righteousness easy.” (Prov 2:20) How then is it written, “Because of the words of Your lips, I have kept the paths of difficulty,” except it be that both statements are true: These paths are paths of difficulty to fear; but to love they are easy? (Chapter 83)
St. Augustine says that we have the firmest conviction that “the just and good God could not possibly have enjoined impossibilities.” The law is not burdensome or grievous to those who have received grace and agape from God. And if we find it burdensome we must pray for grace so as to be able to fulfil all that is commanded us. Without grace we cannot keep the law. But in order to be righteous, we must keep the law. So in order to be righteous we need the grace of God by which, through the infusion of agape, we may walk in righteousness without fear.
Inchoate love, therefore, is inchoate holiness; advanced love is advanced holiness; great love is great holiness; “perfect love is perfect holiness,” — but this “love is out of a pure heart, and of a good conscience, and of faith unfeigned,” (1 Tim 1:5) “which in this life is then the greatest, when life itself is condemned in comparison with it.” I wonder, however, whether it has not a soil in which to grow after it has quitted this mortal life! But in what place and at what time soever it shall reach that state of absolute perfection, which shall admit of no increase, it is certainly not “shed abroad in our hearts” by any energies either of the nature or the volition that are within us, but “by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us,” (Rom 5:5) and which both helps our infirmity and co-operates with our strength. For it is itself indeed the grace of God, through our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, appertains eternity, and all goodness, for ever and ever. Amen. (chapter 84)
Here again we see that for St. Augustine, there is no distinction between justification and sanctification. Justification, as he has said above, is by the infusion of agape. Here he explains that holiness (i.e. sanctification) is agape. This agape is infused into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, who helps our weakness and co-operates with our strength, so that we may walk in righteousness.
Our answer to this is, that sin can be avoided, if our corrupted nature be healed by God’s grace, through our Lord Jesus Christ. … Full righteousness, therefore, will only then be reached, when fullness of health is attained; and this fullness of health shall be when there is fullness of love, for “love is the fulfilling of the law;” (Rom 13:10) and then shall come fullness of love, when “we shall see Him even as He is.” (1 John 3:2) Nor will any addition to love be possible more, when faith shall have reached the fruition of sight. (chapters 2-3)
According to St. Augustine, sin can be avoided by grace. Grace does not replace the law; the law is fulfilled in us by the grace that heals our weak wills. Perfection in righteousness comes only with perfection in love, when there can be no more addition to love (i.e. growth in love); this comes in the beatific vision.
“The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law;” (1 Cor 15:35-36) because the law by prohibiting sin only increases the desire for it, unless the Holy Ghost spreads abroad that love, which shall then be full and perfect, when we shall see face to face. (chapter 6)
For St. Augustine there is not an absolute opposition between law and grace. The law without grace only increases transgressions, and drives us to grace. But the grace that we receive from God is the infusion of agape by which the law is fulfilled in us. There is, of course, an opposition between law-without-grace, and law-fulfilled-through-the-assistance-of-grace. But there is no absolute opposition or incompatibility between law and grace. The law points to our need for grace, and grace enables us to fulfill the law.
“Blessed is the man to whom the Lord imputes not sin.” (Rom 4:8) Now He does not impute it to those who say to Him in faith, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” (Matt 6:12) And justly does He withhold this imputation, because that is just which He says: “With what measure you mete, it shall be measured to you again.” (Matt 7:2) That, however, is sin in which there is either not the love which ought to be, or where the love is less than it ought to be, (chapter 6)
What does it mean that God does not impute sin? A man who is truly contrite and repentant has living faith and therefore, because he seeks mercy and grace from God, God gives him mercy, not counting his past sins against him. Faith is not proud before God, but humble before God, seeking mercy. And therefore to the one seeking mercy, mercy is shown. By grace God does not treat us as our sins deserve, but grants to us the agape whereby we are made righteous.
But who can be ignorant of the fact that, since the generic commandment is love (for “the end of the commandment is love,” (1 Tim 1:8) and “love is the fulfilling of the law” Rom 13:10), whatever is accomplished by the operation of love, and not of fear, is not grievous? They, however, are oppressed by the commandments of God, who try to fulfil them by fearing. “But perfect love casts out fear;” (1 John 4:18) and, in respect of the burden of the commandment, it not only takes off the pressure of its heavy weight, but it actually lifts it up as if on wings. (chapter 10)
Here again St. Augustine distinguishes between the burdensome or grievous nature of the law-without-assisting-grace, and the ease of fulfilling the law through the infused love that comes by grace.
“[T]he law was added because of transgression, until the seed should come to whom the promise was made.” (Gal 3:19) “It entered, therefore, that the offense might abound; but where sin abounded, grace did much more abound.” (Rom 5:20) In other words, That man might receive commandments, trusting as he did in his own resources, and that, failing in these and becoming a transgressor, he might ask for a deliverer and a saviour; and that the fear of the law might humble him, and bring him, as a schoolmaster, to faith and grace. (chapter 19)
According to St. Augustine, the law was given from Moses until Christ, to prepare mankind for Christ, by making us to know and see our transgressions as transgressions, so that we might ask God for a deliverer, thereby leading us to faith and grace.
We run, therefore, whenever we make advance; and our wholeness runs with us in our advance (just as a sore is said to run when the wound is in process of a sound and careful treatment), in order that we may be in every respect perfect, without any infirmity of sin whatever — a result which God not only wishes, but even causes and helps us to accomplish. And this God’s grace does, in co-operation with ourselves, through Jesus Christ our Lord, as well by commandments, sacraments, and examples, as by His Holy Spirit also; through whom there is hiddenly shed abroad in our hearts (Rom 5:5) that love, “which makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered,” (Rom 8:26) until wholeness and salvation be perfected in us, and God be manifested to us as He will be seen in His eternal truth. (chapter 20)
St. Augustine is here opposing Pelagius, who believed that we could be sinless simply because God wills that we not sin. St. Augustine agrees that God wants us to be without sin, but argues here that for us to be without sin, God must help us by His grace. God’s grace, by co-operating with us, causes and helps us to accomplish being “without any infirmity of sin whatever,” and this result cannot be attained without God’s grace.
Through this entire season, when men lived according to the body, “death reigned,” as the Apostle says, “even over those that had not sinned.” Now it reigned “after the similitude of Adam’s transgression,” (Rom 5:14) as the same Apostle says; for it must be taken of the period up to Moses, up to which time the works of the law, that is, those sacraments of carnal observance, held even those bound, for the sake of a certain mystery, who were subject to the One God. But from the coming of the Lord, from whom there was a transition from the circumcision of the flesh to the circumcision of the heart, the call was made, that man should live according to the soul, that is, according to the inner man, who is also called the “new man” (Col 3:10) by reason of the new birth and the renewing of spiritual conversation. (Exposition on Psalm 6)
Here St. Augustine explains three periods. First he mentions the period from Adam to Moses. Then with Moses came the time of the “works of the law” (i.e. those sacraments of carnal observance) which bound those who were subject to the one God. Then came the time of Christ. With Christ came a transition from circumcision of the flesh, to circumcision of the heart, and living according to the inner man (or “new man”) by way of the new birth. In none of the three periods is the moral law done away. But only by grace has any man been able to live according to the Spirit, and not according to the flesh.
Now if a Gentile uncircumcised man comes to us, about to believe in Christ, we give him baptism, and do not call him back to those works of the Law. And if a Jew asks us why we do that, we sound from the rock, we say, This Peter did, this Paul did: from the midst of the rocks we give our voice. But that rock, Peter himself, that great mountain, when he prayed and saw that vision, was watered from above. (Exposition on Psalm 104)
St. Augustine here again uses the term “works of the law” to refer to the sacramental ordinances of the Old Covenant. The Church does not call Christians to those works of the law, by the teaching and example of the Apostles. But all Christians are enjoined to keep the moral law, by the grace of God.
The mass of the members of Christ, who are scattered abroad everywhere, being ignorant of the very profound and complicated contents of the law, are commended by the piety of simple faith and unfailing hope in God, and sincere love. Endowed with such gifts, they trust that by the grace of God they may be purged from their sins through our Lord Jesus Christ. (chapter 3)
St. Augustine points out that among Christians all over the world, there are so many who do not know all the profound and complicated content of the moral law. And yet endowed by the gifts of faith, hope and love, they trust that by the grace of God they may be purged from their sins. By infused grace and the law written on their hearts by the Holy Spirit, they are enabled to know and do what the law commands, such that their sins may be purged. This again is a fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy (Jer 31:34). Under the Old Covenant, the law was complicated and required teachers to explain it; but under the New Covenant, by the infusion of agape, each man knows how to fulfill the law, because he knows how to love.
After all the charges were duly recited, and Pelagius had met them by his answers, the fourteen bishops of the province of Palestine pronounced him, in accordance with his answers, free from the perversity of this heresy; while yet without hesitation condemning the heresy itself. They approved indeed of his answer to the objections, that “a man is assisted by a knowledge of the law, towards not sinning; even as it is written, ‘He has given them a law for a help;’” but yet they disapproved of this knowledge of the law being that grace of God concerning which the Scripture says: “Who shall deliver me from the body of this death? The grace of God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Rom 7:24-25) (chapter 62)
The grace of God, according to St. Augustine and the bishops of Palestine, is not knowledge of the law, contra Pelagius. Knowledge of the law was had by all those under the Old Covenant, and yet it could not deliver them. The grace of God assists us not as knowledge, but by infusing agape within us, and thus enabling us to do what we know.
Faith is indeed distinguished from works, even as the apostle says, “that a man is justified by faith without the works of the law:” (Rom 3:28) there are works which appear good, without faith in Christ; but they are not good, because they are not referred to that end in which works are good; “for Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believes.” (Rom 10:4) For that reason, He wills not to distinguish faith from work, but declared faith itself to be work. For it is that same faith that works by love. (Gal 5:6) Nor did He say, This is your work; but, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent;” so that he who glories, may glory in the Lord.
There is a sense in which faith is rightly distinguished from works, because there are two different kinds of works. There are works that “appear good” but do not refer to Christ, i.e. do not have love of Christ as their source and end or goal. But there are other works that are truly good, because they have love of Christ as their source and goal. Faith is of the latter sort of work, because faith works by love, and has Christ as its source and goal.
Hence, then, it is clear that he [i.e. Pelagius] acknowledges that grace whereby God points out and reveals to us what we are bound to do; but not that whereby He endows and assists us to act, since the knowledge of the law, unless it be accompanied by the assistance of grace, rather avails for producing the transgression of the commandment. “Where there is no law,” says the apostle, “there is no transgression;” (Rom 4:15) and again: “I had not known lust except the law had said, You shall not covet.” (Rom 7:7) Therefore so far are the law and grace from being the same thing, that the law is not only unprofitable, but it is absolutely prejudicial, unless grace assists it; and the utility of the law may be shown by this, that it obliges all whom it proves guilty of transgression to betake themselves to grace for deliverance and help to overcome their evil lusts. For it rather commands than assists; it discovers disease, but does not heal it; nay, the malady that is not healed is rather aggravated by it, so that the cure of grace is more earnestly and anxiously sought for, inasmuch as “The letter kills, but the spirit gives life.” (2 Cor 3:6) “For if there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law.” (Gal 3:21) To what extent, however, the law gives assistance, the apostle informs us when he says immediately afterwards: “The Scripture has concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe.” (Gal 3:22) Wherefore, says the apostle, “the law was our schoolmaster in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:24) Now this very thing is serviceable to proud men, to be more firmly and manifestly “concluded under sin,” so that none may presumptuously endeavour to accomplish their justification by means of free will as if by their own resources; but rather “that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Because by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in His sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin.
But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets.” (Rom 3:19-21) How then manifested without the law, if witnessed by the law? For this very reason the phrase is not, “manifested without the law,” but “the righteousness without the law,” because it is “the righteousness of God;” that is, the righteousness which we have not from the law, but from God — not the righteousness, indeed, which by reason of His commanding it, causes us fear through our knowledge of it; but rather the righteousness which by reason of His bestowing it, is held fast and maintained by us through our loving it — “so that he that glories, let him glory in the Lord.” (1 Cor 1:31) (chapter 9)
Here St. Augustine first explains that Pelagius’ position is that grace is that whereby God points out and reveals to us what we are to do. In other words, Pelagius reduces grace to law. But, teaches St. Augustine, the law is powerless to bring about righteousness, without assisting grace. Rather, the addition of the law increases transgressions, and in that way is a schoolmaster, leading us to the mercy and grace of Christ. What then does it mean, that now the “righteousness of God without the law is manifested”? Of course the righteousness of God is witnessed by the law, not only because the sacramental ordinances of the law all pointed to Christ and the New Covenant, but also because the law commands that we love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves. But the righteous of God “without the law” is manifested in the New Covenant in the sense that this righteousness is a divine gift received through faith and the sacrament of baptism. This not a righteous acquired from ourselves by law-keeping, but is a righteousness that is given from above. This is the supernatural grace and agape that is infused into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. Because this righteousness has been given to us by God, we hold it fast and maintain it not out of fear, but through loving it.
What object, then, can this man [i.e. Pelagius] gain by accounting the law and the teaching to be the grace whereby we are helped to work righteousness? For, in order that it may help much, it must help us to feel our need of grace. No man, indeed, is able to fulfil the law through the law. “Love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Rom 13:10) And the love of God is not shed abroad in our hearts by the law, but by the Holy Ghost, which is given unto us. (Rom 5:5) Grace, therefore, is pointed at by the law, in order that the law may be fulfilled by grace. (chapter 10)
Contra Pelagius, the only way the law (apart from grace) helps us work righteousness, is by helping us recognize our need for grace. No man is able to fulfil the law through the law. But, through the infusion of agape into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, the law may be fulfilled in us, by grace.
By such grace it is effected, not only that we discover what ought to be done, but also that we do what we have discovered—not only that we believe what ought to be loved, but also that we love what we have believed. (Chapter 13)
That statement well summarizes St. Augustine’s understanding of the relation of law and grace. Pelagius would reduce grace to law. But according to St. Augustine, while by the law we discover what ought to be done, by grace we are enabled to do what the law commands.
If this grace is to be called “teaching,” let it at any rate be so called in such wise that God may be believed to infuse it, along with an ineffable sweetness, more deeply and more internally, not only by their agency who plant and water from without, but likewise by His own too who ministers in secret His own increase — in such a way, that He not only exhibits truth, but likewise imparts love. For it is thus that God teaches those who have been called according to His purpose, giving them simultaneously both to know what they ought to do, and to do what they know. Accordingly, the apostle thus speaks to the Thessalonians: “As touching love of the brethren, you need not that I write unto you; for you yourselves are taught of God to love one another.” (1 Thess 4:9) And then, by way of proving that they had been taught of God, he subjoined: “And indeed you do it towards all the brethren which are in all Macedonia.” (1 Thess 4:10) As if the surest sign that you have been taught of God, is that you put into practice what you have been taught. Of that character are all who are called according to God’s purpose, as it is written in the prophets: “They shall be all taught of God.” The man, however, who has learned what ought to be done, but does it not, has not as yet been “taught of God” according to grace, but only according to the law, — not according to the spirit, but only according to the letter. Although there are many who appear to do what the law commands, through fear of punishment, not through love of righteousness; and such righteousness as this the apostle calls “his own which is after the law,” — a thing as it were commanded, not given. When, indeed, it has been given, it is not called our own righteousness, but God’s; because it becomes our own only so that we have it from God. These are the apostle’s words: “That I may be found in Him, not having my own righteousness which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ the righteousness which is of God by faith.” (Philippians 3:9) So great, then, is the difference between the law and grace, that although the law is undoubtedly of God, yet the righteousness which is “of the law” is not “of God,” but the righteousness which is consummated by grace is “of God.” The one is designated “the righteousness of the law,” because it is done through fear of the curse of the law; while the other is called “the righteousness of God,” because it is bestowed through the beneficence of His grace, so that it is not a terrible but a pleasant commandment, according to the prayer in the psalm: “Good are You, O Lord, therefore in Your goodness teach me Your righteousness;” that is, that I may not be compelled like a slave to live under the law with fear of punishment; but rather in the freedom of love may be delighted to live with law as my companion. When the freeman keeps a commandment, he does it readily. And whosoever learns his duty in this spirit, does everything that he has learned ought to be done. (chapter 14)
Against Pelagius, St. Augustine teaches that grace is not merely teaching, but something that God “infuses” into us, imparting love into our hearts, so that we may do what we know ought to be done. The person who has learned what ought to be done, but does not do it, has not yet been taught by grace, but only by law. Then St. Augustine again contrasts the person who appears externally (to man) to keep the law but does so out of fear, with that person who keeps the law through love of righteousness. The righteousness of the former person is commanded, but not given to him. Such a righteousness cannot save. But the righteousness of the person who keeps the law out of love of righteousness is given from above. This is the difference between the righteousness of the law, and the righteousness which is by grace. The righteousness which is of the law is from below, but the righteousness which is by grace is from above, because it is bestowed by grace through the sacrament of faith. By this grace we keep the law not out of fear, but in the freedom of love, “delighted to live with law as my companion,” as St. Augustine says.
That love, however, which is a virtue, comes to us from God, not from ourselves, according to the testimony of Scripture, which says: “Love is of God; and every one that loves is born of God, and knows God: for God is love.” (1 John 4:7-8) It is on the principle of this love that one can best understand the passage, “Whosoever is born of God does not commit sin;” (1 John 3:9) as well as the sentence, “And he cannot sin.” Because the love according to which we are born of God “does not behave itself unseemly,” and “thinks no evil.” (1 Cor 13:5) Therefore, whenever a man sins, it is not according to love: but it is according to cupidity that he commits sin; and following such a disposition, he is not born of God. (chapter 22)
There is a natural love that we can have for others even apart from grace, but the sort of love within us by which we are right before God is a supernatural love, infused into our soul by Holy Spirit. The one who is born of God is infused with divine love. And because love does not behave unseemly and thinks no evil, therefore the one infused with divine love does not sin (mortally). Mortal sin and agape are mutually exclusive. That is why the Apostle John says, “And he cannot sin.” He means, so long as he retains agape, he cannot sin [mortally]. But if he turns against agape, then he sins [mortally], and then nothing he does is ordered to God or pleasing to God, because it is not done out of love for God. St. Augustine explains:
And what good could we possibly do if we possessed no love? Or how could we help doing good if we have love? For although God’s commandment appears sometimes to be kept by those who do not love Him, but only fear Him; yet where there is no love, no good work is imputed, nor is there any good work, rightly so called; because “whatsoever is not of faith is sin,” (Rom 14:23) and “faith works by love.” (Gal 5:6) Hence also that grace of God, whereby “His love is shed abroad in our hearts through the Holy Ghost, which is given unto us,” (Rom 5:5) must be so confessed by the man who would make a true confession, as to show his undoubting belief that nothing whatever in the way of goodness pertaining to godliness and real holiness can be accomplished without it. (chapter 27)
Here too we see why agape and mortal sin are mutually exclusive. If we possessed no agape we could do nothing pleasing to God. And so long as we are retaining agape, then our lives are ordered toward God and are pleasing to God, because they are lived out of love for Him. Those persons who seem to keep the law, but who do not have agape, are not pleasing to God, because they are acting out of fear, not love. Their ‘good work’ is not truly good, and that is why God does not “impute” it as good. This is why, without agape, every act is sin — not because it is necessarily a violation of the second table of the law, but because it involves a rejection of God’s grace and a refusal to love God and others for God’s sake. Without grace, nothing whatever in the way of goodness pertaining to godliness (not just goodness unqualified, but goodness pertaining to godliness) can be accomplished.
For Pelagius, grace was given to us so that we could “more easily” do that which God has commanded us to do. According to Pelagius, even without grace we could keep the law by the power of our free will, but grace makes keeping the law easier. Concerning Pelagius’ doctrine St. Augustine wrote:
Now, expunge the phrase “more easily,” and you leave not only a full, but also a sound sense, if it be regarded as meaning simply this: “That men may accomplish through grace what they are commanded to do by free will.” The addition of the words “more easily,” however, tacitly suggests the possibility of accomplishing good works even without the grace of God. But such a meaning is disallowed by Him who says, “Without me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5) (Bk I, chapter 30)
St. Augustine’s argument is that grace is not given to make it easier for us to keep the law; without grace we could not truly keep the law, because without grace even the law-keeping we could do would be without agape, and hence only external. Pelagius reduced grace to the divine teaching both in the example of Christ’s life and the knowledge of divine revelation concerning God’s law. St. Augustine described Pelagius’ conception of grace, writing, “the assistance which is rendered by grace, for the purpose of helping our natural capacity, consists [for Pelagius] of nothing else than the law and the teaching.” (Bk 1, chapter 45) St. Augustine recognized that grace is not divinely revealed knowledge, either of the law or of the life and work of Christ. For St. Augustine, God infuses grace into our hearts so that we, out of love, might fulfill the law and thus live in righteousness.
[I]f, I repeat, he [i.e. Pelagius] thus consents to hold with us that even the volition and the action are assisted by God, and so assisted that we can neither will nor do any good thing without such help; if, too, he believes that this is that very grace of God through our Lord Jesus Christ which makes us righteous through His righteousness, and not our own, so that our true righteousness is that which we have of Him — then, so far as I can judge, there will remain no further controversy between us concerning the assistance we have from the grace of God. (chapter 52)
According to St. Augustine, the disagreement with Pelagius could be resolved, if Pelagius would agree that the volitions and action of Christians in our good works are so assisted by God that we can neither will nor do any good thing without that divine assistance. This divine assistance to our will and actions, claims St. Augustine, is that very grace which makes us righteous through Christ’s righteousness. St. Augustine is not teaching extra nos imputation of Christ’s righteousness; He is teaching that the righteousness of Christ is given to us as an assisting grace and virtue infused into our hearts by which our volition and action are empowered and enabled through agape to live righteously.
The Apostle Paul, indeed, has told us that he was “blameless, as touching the righteousness which is of the law;” (Philippians 3:6) and it was in respect of the same law that Zacharias also lived a blameless life. This righteousness, however, the apostle counted as “dung” and “loss,” in comparison with the righteousness which is the object of our hope, (Philippians 3:8) and which we ought to “hunger and thirst after,” (Matt 5:6) in order that hereafter we may be satisfied with the vision thereof, enjoying it now by faith, so long as “the just do live by faith.” (Rom 1:17) (chapter 53)
We need to distinguish here between (a) external righteousness, whereby someone seems to other men to be without blame before the law, and (b) true righteousness, whether had by saints under the New Covenant or the saints who lived prior to the coming of Christ. Mere external righteousness is worthless with respect to heaven; it cannot bring men to heaven. But the true righteousness by which alone a man may enter heaven has always been by grace, through infused faith, hope, and agape, even among those who were saved under the Old Covenant.
Now, since we have already prolonged this work too far in treating of the assistance of the divine grace towards our justification, by which God co-operates in all things for good with those who love Him, (Rom 8:28) and whom He first loved (1 John 4:19) — giving to them that He might receive from them: we must commence another treatise …. (Bk 1, chapter 55)
Notice here that St. Augustine speaks of “the assistance of the divine grace towards our justification” and that by this assistance God’s co-operates with us in all things for our good. This is not a notion of grace as mere favor. St. Augustine’s conception of grace here is one of divine assistance, in our hearts, so that we may walk in the love that fulfills the law, and be justified.
Death indeed reigned from Adam until Moses, (Rom 5:14) because it was not possible even for the law given through Moses to overcome it: it was not given, in fact, as something able to give life; (Gal 3:21) but as something that ought to show those that were dead and for whom grace was needed to give them life, that they were not only prostrated under the propagation and domination of sin, but also convicted by the additional guilt of breaking the law itself: not in order that any one might perish who in the mercy of God understood this even in that early age; but that, destined though he was to punishment, owing to the dominion of death, and manifested, too, as guilty through his own violation of the law, he might seek God’s help, and so where sin abounded, grace might much more abound, (Rom 5:20) even the grace which alone delivers from the body of this death. (Rom 7:24-25)
Yet, notwithstanding this, although not even the law which Moses gave was able to liberate any man from the dominion of death, there were even then, too, at the time of the law, men of God who were not living under the terror and conviction and punishment of the law, but under the delight and healing and liberation of grace. Some there were who said, I was shapen in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me; and, There is no rest in my bones, by reason of my sins; and, Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit in my inward parts; and, Stablish me with Your directing Spirit; and, Take not Your Holy Spirit from me. There were some, again, who said: I believed, therefore have I spoken. For they too were cleansed with the self-same faith with which we ourselves are. Whence the apostle also says: We having the same spirit of faith, according as it is written, I believe, and therefore have I spoken; we also believe, and therefore speak. (2 Cor 4:13) Out of very faith was it said, Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call His name Emmanuel, (Isaiah 7:14) which is, being interpreted, God with us. (Matt 1:23) Out of very faith too was it said concerning Him: As a bridegroom He comes out of His chamber; as a giant did He exult to run His course. His going forth is from the extremity of heaven, and His circuit runs to the other end of heaven; and no one is hidden from His heat. Out of very faith, again, was it said to Him: Your throne, O God, is for ever and ever; a sceptre of righteousness is the sceptre of Your kingdom. You have loved righteousness, and hated iniquity; therefore God, Your God, has anointed You with the oil of gladness above Your fellows. By the self-same Spirit of faith were all these things foreseen by them as to happen, whereby they are believed by us as having happened. They, indeed, who were able in faithful love to foretell these things to us were not themselves partakers of them.
The Apostle Peter says, Why do you tempt God to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they. (Acts 15:10-11) Now on what principle does he make this statement, if it be not because even they were saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and not the law of Moses, from which comes not the cure, but only the knowledge of sin? (Rom 3:20) Now, however, the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets. (Rom 3:21) If, therefore, it is now manifested, it even then existed, but it was hidden. This concealment was symbolized by the veil of the temple. When Christ was dying, this veil was rent asunder, (Matt 27:51) to signify the full revelation of Him. Even of old, therefore there existed among the people of God this grace of the one Mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus; but like the rain in the fleece which God sets apart for His inheritance, not of debt, but of His own will, it was latently present, but is now patently visible among all nations as its floor, the fleece being dry — in other words, the Jewish people having become reprobate. (Judges 6:36-40) (Bk II, chapter 29)
First he explains that the law could not give life, but was given to show the people that they were dead in their sins, and needed help from God in order to attain eternal life. Then he points out that even under the Old Covenant there were men who were not living under the terror of the law but under the delight and healing and liberation of grace, with faith in the coming Messiah. Drawing from St. Peter’s statement in Acts 15, St. Augustine shows that anyone in the Old Covenant who was saved, was saved by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and not the law of Moses. This righteousness that is by faith was hidden in the law, but now is fully manifest through Christ.
And, indeed, this is already sin, to desire those things which the law of God forbids, and to abstain from them through fear of punishment, not through love of righteousness. (Bk XIV.10)
It is sin, explains St. Augustine, to abstain from what the law of God forbids, through fear of punishment, and not through love of righteousness. This distinction between fear of punishment and love of righteousness summarizes for St. Augustine the difference between the law of works, and the law of faith.
“They say,” says he [i.e. Pelagius], “that the saints in the Old Testament were not without sins — that is that they were not free from crimes even by amendment, but they were seized by death in their guilt.” Nay, I say that either before the law, or in the time of the Old Testament, they were freed from sins — not by their own power, because “cursed is every one that has put his hope in man,” (Jer 17:5) and without any doubt those are under this curse whom also the sacred Psalm notifies, “who trust in their own strength;” nor by the old covenant which genders to bondage, (Gal 4:24) although it was divinely given by the grace of a sure dispensation; nor by that law itself, holy and just and good as it was, where it is written, “You shall not covet,” (Ex 20:7) since it was not given as being able to give life, but it was added for the sake of transgression until the seed should come to whom the promise was made; but I say that they were freed by the blood of the Redeemer Himself, who is the one Mediator of God and man, the man Christ Jesus. (1 Tim 2:5) (Bk I, 12)
Here St. Augustine clarifies his position in response to an accusation by Pelagius. Pelagius construes St. Augustine’s position as being that the saints of the Old Testament were guilty of crimes even after repentance, and died in their guilt. St. Augustine explains that the saints of the Old Testament were freed from sins, yet not by their own power, or by the law, but by the grace that comes through the blood of Christ.
And again: “Where is boasting? It is excluded. By what law? Of works? No; but by the law of faith. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the works of the law.” (Rom 3:27) … With these and such like testimonies that teacher of the Gentiles showed with sufficient evidence that the law could not take away sin, but rather increased it, and that grace takes it away; since the law knew how to command, to which command weakness gives way, while grace knows to assist, whereby love is infused. And lest any one, on account of these testimonies, should reproach the law, and contend that it is evil, the apostle, seeing what might occur to those who ill understand it, himself proposed to himself the same question. “What shall we say, then?” said he. “Is the law sin? Far from it. But I did not know sin except by the law.” (Rom 7:7) He had already said before, “For by the law is the knowledge of sin.” It is not, therefore, the taking away, but the knowledge of sin. (Bk 1, 13)
The law could not take away sin, but only increased it, because it did not have the power to overcome sin. But grace takes away sin, by assisting the will, by the “infusion” of agape. St. Augustine is clearly not teaching extra nos imputation, but rather justification by infusion of grace and agape.
And here, indeed, they ought at least to concede that “in the law no one is justified,” as the same apostle says elsewhere; but that the law avails for the knowledge of sin, and for the transgression of the law itself, so that sin, being known and increased, grace may be sought for through faith. (Bk 1, 14)
The law cannot justify; the law gives knowledge of sin, and increases transgression, so that we may seek for grace through faith, to overcome sin and keep the [moral] law.
Nor let us be disturbed by what he wrote to the Philippians: “Touching the righteousness which is in the law, one who is without blame.” (Phil 3:6) For he could be within in evil affections a transgressor of the law, and yet fulfil the open works of the law, either by the fear of men or of God Himself; but by terror of punishment, not by love and delight in righteousness. For it is one thing to do good with the will of doing good, and another thing to be so inclined by the will to do evil, that one would actually do it if it could be allowed without punishment. For thus assuredly he is sinning within in his will itself, who abstains from sin not by will but by fear. And knowing himself to have been such in these his internal affections, before the grace of God which is through Jesus Christ our Lord, the apostle elsewhere confesses this very plainly. For writing to the Ephesians, he says: “And you, though you were dead in your trespasses and sins, wherein sometime you walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of that spirit that now works in the children of disobedience, in whom also we all at one time had our conversation in the lusts of our flesh, doing the will of our flesh and our affections, and were by nature the children of wrath, even as others also: but God, who is rich in mercy, for His great love wherewith He loved us even when we were dead in sins, quickened us together with Christ, by whose grace we are saved.” Again to Titus he says: “For we ourselves also were sometime foolish and unbelieving, erring, serving various lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful, and holding one another in hatred.” Such was Saul when he says that he was, touching the righteousness which is in the law, without reproach. For that he had not pressed on in the law, and changed his character so as to be without reproach after this hateful life, he plainly shows in what follows, when he says that he was not changed from these evils except by the grace of the Saviour. For adding also this very thing, here as well as to the Ephesians, he says: “But when the kindness and love of God our Saviour shone forth, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and of the renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom He shed on us most abundantly, through Jesus Christ our Saviour, that being justified by His grace we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” (Bk 1, 15)
Pelagius was using St. Paul’s claim that he was blameless as to the righteousness which is in the Law, to argue that it is possible to keep the Law perfectly. St. Augustine responds by distinguishing between external law-keeping wherein the heart still loves evil but is only acting out of fear of punishment, and doing what is right out of love of righteousness. Before his conversion, St. Paul (as Saul) was blameless in the former sense, but not in the latter sense. Though externally he was blameless with respect to the Law, internally he was dead in his sins. Then St. Augustine shows how Saul received the grace of true righteousness, through the “washing of regeneration,” i.e. through baptism, wherein his sins were washed away. (Acts 22:16)
“Now, then, it is no more I that do it.” For to this belongs what he says subsequently also: “There is, therefore, now no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus.” And because I do not see how a man under the law should say, “I delight in the law of God after the inward man;” since this very delight in good, by which, moreover, he does not consent to evil, not from fear of penalty, but from love of righteousness (for this is meant by “delighting”), can only be attributed to grace. (Bk 1, 22)
Again we see here what it means to be “under the law,” according to St. Augustine. For St. Augustine no one “under the law” would delight in the law of God after the inward man. In other words, to be “under the law” is not to have infused grace and agape. The internal love of righteousness can only be attributed to infused grace. Therefore, being “under the law” is incompatible with being under grace, because the former means not having infused grace and the latter means having infused grace. This also explains why, for St. Augustine, a Christian can be obligated to fulfill the law, and not be “under the law.” Because a Christian through baptism has infused grace, he is not “under the law,” even though he remains obligated to fulfill the law (through agape) for his justification before God on the Day of Judgment.
And it is He to whom is faithfully and truthfully sung, “For You have prevented [i.e. gone before] him with the blessings of sweetness.” And what is here more fitly understood than that very desire of good of which we are speaking? For good begins then to be longed for when it has begun to grow sweet. But when good is done by the fear of penalty, not by the love of righteousness, good is not yet well done. Nor is that done in the heart which seems to be done in the act when a man would rather not do it if he could evade it with impunity. Therefore the “blessing of sweetness” is God’s grace, by which is caused in us that what He prescribes to us delights us, and we desire it — that is, we love it; in which if God does not precede us, not only is it not perfected, but it is not even begun, from us. (Bk II, 21)
Here too St. Augustine contrasts external righteous in the sense of seeming to other men to keep the law, with true righteousness wherein one loves righteousness, delights in it and desires it. In order for a man to love righteous, God must go before with the “blessing of sweetness,” i.e. with grace in the inner man. Without that grace, the person who keeps the law externally does so out of fear of penalty. Such a man is not keeping the law in his heart, whereas the man who by grace loves righteousness in his heart, is keeping the law first in his heart, and so also in his life.
They [i.e. the Pelagians] declare “that we say that the law of the Old Testament was given not for the end that it might justify the obedient, but rather that it might become the cause of greater sin.” Certainly, they do not understand what we say concerning the law; because we say what the apostle says, whom they do not understand. For who can say that they are not justified who are obedient to the law, when, unless they were justified, they could not be obedient? But we say, that by the law is effected that what God wills to be done is heard, but that by grace is effected that the law is obeyed. “For not the hearers of the law,” says the apostle, “are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified.” (Rom 2:13) Therefore the law makes hearers of righteousness, grace makes doers. “For what was impossible to the law,” says the same apostle, “in that it was weak through the flesh, God sent His Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin condemned sin in the flesh: that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us who walk not according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.” (Rom 8:3-4) This is what we say — let them pray that they may one day understand it, and not dispute so as never to understand it. For it is impossible that the law should be fulfilled by the flesh, that is, by carnal presumption, in which the proud, who are ignorant of the righteousness of God — that is, which is of God to man, that he may be righteous — and desirous of establishing their own righteousness — as if by their own will, unassisted from above, the law could be fulfilled — are not subjected to the righteousness of God. (Rom 10:3) Therefore the righteousness of the law is fulfilled in them who walk not according to the flesh — that is, according to man, ignorant of the righteousness of God and desirous of establishing his own — but walk according to the Spirit. But who walks according to the Spirit, except whosoever is led by the Spirit of God? “For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are the sons of God.” (Rom 8:14) Therefore “the letter kills, but the Spirit makes alive.” (2 Cor 3:6) And the letter is not evil because it kills; but it convicts the wicked of transgression. “For the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good. Was, then,” says he, “that which is good made death unto me? By no means; but sin, that it might appear sin, worked death in me by that which is good, that it might become above measure a sinner or a sin by the commandment.” (Rom 7:12-13) This is what is the meaning of “the letter kills.” “For the sting of death is sin, but the strength of sin is the law;” (1 Cor 15:56) because by the prohibition it increases the desires of sin, and thence slays a man unless grace by coming to his assistance makes him alive. (Bk III, chapter 2)
The Pelagians accused the Catholics of saying that the law was given to be the cause of greater sin. In response, first St. Augustine stipulates as undisputed that whoever is truly obedient to the law is justified. Then he explains that the law makes its hearers aware of what God wills to be done, but only by grace are persons enabled to obey the law. He quotes St. Paul in Romans 8, writing, “For what was impossible to the law, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sent His Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin condemned sin in the flesh: that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us who walk not according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.” (Rom 8:3-4) According to St. Augustine, while the law could not effect law-keeping, God sent His Son to condemn sin in the flesh, so that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. In other words, the gospel, according to St. Augustine, is not about an extra nos imputation of Christ’s obedience or replacing our obligation to fulfill the law, but about Christ securing for us through His passion and death the infused grace so that we can fulfill the law, something the law by itself was powerless to do.
Therefore they are not children of the freewoman who have accepted the law of the letter, whereby they can be shown to be not only sinners, but moreover transgressors; but they who have received the Spirit of grace, whereby the law itself, holy and just and good, may be fulfilled. (Bk III, chapter 3)
Those who have accepted the law of the letter, and thus rejected the righteousness from above that is by grace, are transgressors inwardly, even if they conform to the law outwardly. But those who have received the Spirit of grace are children of the freewoman, and fulfill in their lives the holy, just, and good law.
And there are innumerable passages with which the divine writings are filled, which alternately, either in exultation over God’s benefits or in lamentation over our own evils, are uttered by children of God by faith as long as they are still children of this world in respect of the weakness of this life; whom, nevertheless, God distinguishes from the children of the devil, not only by the laver of regeneration, but moreover by the righteousness of that faith which works by love, because the just lives by faith. (Bk III, chapter 5)
What kind of faith is being referred to when the Apostle says that the “just lives by faith”? He is referring to the faith that works by love, i.e. faith-informed-by-agape. Without infused agape, the faith present is not a faith that works by love, and is therefore not the kind of faith that justifies. Hence in this way justification depends upon the infusion of agape.
But those belong to the old testament, “which genders from Mount Sinai to bondage,” which is Agar, who, when they have received a law which is holy and just and good, think that the letter can suffice them for life; and do not seek the divine mercy, so as they may become doers of the law, but, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and wishing to establish their own righteousness, are not subject to the righteousness of God. Of this kind was that multitude which murmured against God in the wilderness, and made an idol; and that multitude which even in the very land of promise committed fornication after strange gods. But this multitude, even in the old testament itself, was strongly rebuked. They, moreover, whoever they were at that time who followed after those earthly promises alone which God promises there, and who were ignorant of that which those promises signify under the new testament, and who kept God’s commandments with the desire of gaining and with the fear of losing those promises — certainly did not observe them, but only seemed to themselves to observe. For there was no faith in them that worked by love, but earthly cupidity and carnal fear. But he who thus fulfils the commandments beyond a doubt fulfils them unwillingly, and then does not do them in his heart; for he would rather not do them at all, if in respect of those things which he desires and fears he might be allowed to neglect them with impunity. And thus, in the will itself within him, he is guilty; and it is here that God, who gives the command, looks. Such were the children of the earthly Jerusalem, concerning which the apostle says, “For she is in bondage with her children,” (Gal 4:25) and belongs to the old testament “which genders to bondage from Mount Sinai, which is Agar.” Of that same kind were they who crucified the Lord, and continued in the same unbelief. Thence there are still their children in the great multitude of the Jews, although now the new testament as it was prophesied is made plain and confirmed by the blood of Christ; and the gospel is made known from the river where He was baptized and began His teachings, even to the ends of the earth. And these Jews, according to the prophecies which they read, are dispersed everywhere over all the earth, that even from their writings may not be wanting a testimony to Christian truth. (Bk III, chapter 9)
According to St. Augustine, those persons belong to the old covenant, who, when they receive the law, think that they can keep it by their own power, and do not seek the mercy and grace of God “so as they may become doers of the law.” Persons belonging to the New Covenant do seek the mercy and grace of God, and do become doers of the law. Persons who by law-keeping seek earthly promises, do not truly keep God’s law, because they do not do so at the level of the heart. Such persons do not have in their hearts the faith that works by love. They follow the law externally, and ultimately unwillingly, because they would rather not keep them, if they could do so without penalty. And for this reason such persons are guilty before God, who looks at the heart.
Because, with the exception of the sacraments of the old books, which were only enjoined for the sake of their significance (although in them also, since they are to be spiritually understood, the law is rightly called spiritual), the other matters certainly which pertain to piety and to good living must not be referred by any interpretation to some significancy, but are to be done absolutely as they are spoken. Assuredly no one will doubt that that law of God was necessary not alone for that people at that time, but also is now necessary for us for the right ordering of our life. For if Christ took away from us that very heavy yoke of many observances, so that we are not circumcised according to the flesh, we do not immolate victims of the cattle, we do not rest even from necessary works on the Sabbath, retaining the seventh in the revolution of the days, and other things of this kind; but keep them as spiritually understood, and, the symbolizing shadows being removed, are watchful in the light of those things which are signified by them; shall we therefore say, that when it is written that whoever finds another man’s property of any kind that has been lost, should return it to him who has lost it, (Lev 6:3) it does not pertain to us? And many other like things whereby people learn to live piously and uprightly? And especially the Decalogue itself, which is contained in those two tables of stone, apart from the carnal observance of the Sabbath, which signifies spiritual sanctification and rest? For who can say that Christians ought not to be observant to serve the one God with religious obedience, not to worship an idol, not to take the name of the Lord in vain, to honour one’s parents, not to commit adulteries, murders, thefts, false witness, not to covet another man’s wife, or anything at all that belongs to another man? Who is so impious as to say that he does not keep those precepts of the law because he is a Christian, and is established not under the law, but under grace? (Bk III, chapter 10)
The sacraments of the Old Covenant (e.g. circumcision, animal sacrifices, etc.) were enjoined because of what they signified typologically, to be fulfilled by Christ in the New Covenant. But the moral laws (especially the Decalogue) are not to be construed as foreshadows, but “are to be done [i.e. obeyed] absolutely as they are spoken.” St. Augustine takes it was undisputed that the Decalogue remains necessary for Christians for the “right ordering of our life.” Christ took away the heavy yoke of all the ceremonial observances of the Old Covenant, but according to St. Augustine conformity to the Decalogue remains absolutely obligatory for all Christians. St. Augustine states, “Who is so impious as to say that he does not keep those precepts of the law because he is a Christian, and is established not under the law, but under grace?” But many Reformed Christians, while not claiming that there is no use for the law, do claim that because we are not under law, but under grace, therefore our justification and salvation do not depend on our degree of obedience or disobedience to the Decalogue.
But there is plainly this great difference, that they who are established under the law, whom the letter kills, do these things either with the desire of gaining, or with the fear of losing earthly happiness; and that thus they do not truly do them, since fleshly desire, by which sin is rather bartered or increased, is not healed by desire of another kind. These pertain to the old testament, which genders to bondage; because carnal fear and desire make them servants, gospel faith and hope and love do not make them children. But they who are placed under grace, whom the Spirit quickens, do these things of faith which works by love in the hope of good things, not carnal but spiritual, not earthly but heavenly, not temporal but eternal; especially believing on the Mediator, by whom they do not doubt but that a Spirit of grace is ministered to them, so that they may do these things well, and that they may be pardoned when they sin. These pertain to the new testament, are the children of promise, and are regenerated by God the Father and a free mother. Of this kind were all the righteous men of old, and Moses himself, the minister of the old testament, the heir of the new — because of the faith whereby we live, of one and the same they lived, believing the incarnation, passion, and resurrection of Christ as future, which we believe as already accomplished — even until John the Baptist himself, as it were a certain limit of the old dispensation, who, signifying that the Mediator Himself would come, not with any shadow of the future or allegorical intimation, or with any prophetical announcement, but pointing Him out with his finger, said: “Behold the Lamb of God; behold Him who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29) (Bk III, chapter 11)
Those who are under the law, conform to the law externally with the desire of gaining earthly happiness or the fear of losing earthly happiness. They do not have their hope fixed on heaven. So they do not truly fulfill the law, because the spirit of the law is agape which is ordered to God, whereas those who keep the law out of desire for earthly goods are motivated by the flesh (i.e. cupidity), and hence do not conform to the spirit of the law. But those under grace are made alive by the Spirit, and fulfill the law by the outworking of faith-informed-by-agape, i.e. a faith working by love oriented toward heaven. By this grace they not only “do these things [acts of obedience to the law] well,” they also are pardoned when they sin. This is the grace whereby not only all of the New Covenant are brought to eternal life, but also whereby those saved under the Old Covenants were brought to eternal life. Those saints of the Old Testament believed by faith in what was promised but not yet revealed, namely, the coming of Christ; they too received the infusion of agape by the Holy Spirit.
Because the old testament was revealed through Moses, by whom the holy and just and good law was given, whereby should be brought about not the doing away but the knowledge of sin — by which the proud might be convicted who were desirous of establishing their own righteousness, as if they had no need of divine help, and being made guilty of the letter, might flee to the Spirit of grace, not to be justified by their own righteousness, but by that of God — that is, by the righteousness which was given to them of God. For as the same apostle says, “By the law is the knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and by the prophets.” (Rom 3:20-21) Because the law, by the very fact that in it no man is justified, affords a witness to the righteousness of God. For that in the law no man is justified before God is manifest, because “the just by faith lives.” (Gal 3:11) Thus, therefore, although the law does not justify the wicked when he is convicted of transgression, it sends to the God who justifies, and thus affords a testimony to the righteousness of God…. In the time, then, of the old testament, we say that the Holy Spirit, in those who even then were the children of promise according to Isaac, was not only an assistant, which these men think is sufficient for their opinion, but also a bestower of virtue; and this they deny, attributing it rather to their free will, in contradiction to those fathers who knew how to cry unto God with truthful piety, “I will love You, O Lord, my strength.” (Bk III, chapter 13)
The law was not to effect righteousness, but to bring a knowledge of the righteousness of God and man’s weakness in relation to it, and thus humble the proud, that they might be convicted of their sinfulness, and turn to the mercy and grace of God for a righteousness that is not from themselves, but from God as a gift. By the law without grace, no man is justified before God, who sees the heart. But the law “sends to the God who justifies” men who by the law are caused to see their weakness before the law. What is this grace given to us by which we are righteous? The Holy Spirit does not only assist us in the inner man, He is the “bestower of virtue.” That is, he infuses the virtues of faith, hope, and agape. It is this infusion that the Pelagians denied, because they believed that they did not need supernatural grace in order to keep the law. Only by the assistance of the Holy Spirit and the infusion of these virtues were the saints of old able to cry unto God, “I will love You, O Lord, my strength.”
Our faith — that is, the catholic faith — distinguishes the righteous from the unrighteous not by the law of works, but by that of faith, because the just by faith lives. By which distinction it results that the man who leads his life without murder, without theft, without false-witness, without coveting other men’s goods, giving due honour to his parents, chaste even to continence from all carnal intercourse whatever, even conjugal, most liberal in almsgiving, most patient of injuries; who not only does not deprive another of his goods, but does not even ask again for what has been taken away from himself; or who has even sold all his own property and appropriated it to the poor, and possesses nothing which belongs to him as his own — with such a character as this, laudable as it seems to be, if he has not a true and catholic faith in God, must yet depart from this life to condemnation. But another, who has good works from a right faith which works by love, maintains his continency in the honesty of wedlock, although he does not, like the other, well refrain altogether, but pays and repays the debt of carnal connection, and has intercourse not only for the sake of offspring, but also for the sake of pleasure, although only with his wife, which the apostle allows to those that are married as pardonable; — does not receive injuries with so much patience, but is raised into anger with the desire of vengeance, although, in order that he may say, “As we also forgive our debtors,” forgives when he is asked — possesses personal property, giving thence indeed some alms, but not as the former so liberally; — does not take away what belongs to another, but, although by ecclesiastical, not by civil judgment, yet contends for his own: certainly this man, who seems so inferior in morals to the former, on account of the right faith which he has in God, by which he lives, and according to which in all his wrong-doings he accuses himself, and in all his good works praises God, giving to himself the shame, to God the glory, and receiving from Him both forgiveness of sins and love of right deeds — shall be delivered for this life, and depart to be received into the company of those who shall reign with Christ. Wherefore, if not on account of faith? Which, although without works it saves no man (for it is not a reprobate faith, since it works by love), yet by it even sins are loosed, because the just by faith lives; but without it, even those things which seem good works are turned into sins: “For everything which is not of faith is sin.” (Rom 14:23) And it is brought about, on account of this great difference, that although with no possibility of doubt a persevering integrity of virginity is preferable to conjugal chastity, yet a woman even twice married, if she be a catholic, is preferred to a professed virgin that is a heretic; nor is she in such wise preferred because this one is better in God’s kingdom, but because the other is not there at all. Now the former, indeed, whom we have described as being of better morals, if a true faith be his, surpasses the second one, although both will be in heaven; yet if the faith be wanting to him, he is so surpassed by him that he himself is not there at all. (Bk III, chapter 14)
Here St. Augustine contrasts two kinds of persons. The former kind of person lives a life of supererogatory goodness, but does not have the faith that works by love. The latter kind of person has faith that works by love, and therefore lives according to the law, but does not live a supererogatory life. St. Augustine explains that the former person departs this life condemned and does not enter heaven, while the latter person attains eternal life. But, if both persons had faith working by love, then the person living the life of supererogatory goodness would surpass (in glory in heaven) the one who had faith but who did not live a life of supererogatory goodness.
Since, then, all righteous men, both the more ancient and the apostles, lived from a right faith which is in Christ Jesus our Lord; and had with their faith morals so holy, that although they might not be of such perfect virtue in this life as that which should be after this life, yet whatever of sin might creep in from human infirmity might be constantly done away by the piety of their faith itself: it results from this that, in comparison with the wicked whom God will condemn, it must be said that these were “righteous,” since by their pious faith they were so far removed into the opposite of those wicked men that the apostle cries out, “What part has he that believes with an infidel?” (2 Cor 6:14) (Bk III, chapter 15)
What St. Augustine says here presupposes the distinction between mortal and venial sin. Those who live by faith, even when they sin venially (and so retain agape), are ‘covered’ by the piety of their living faith, i.e. by the presence of agape by which they remain in friendship with God. St. Augustine is not saying that no matter what they do they remain in friendship with God, as though believers have extra nos imputation of Christ’s obedience. The wicked do not have faith working by agape, but the righteous, even when they sin venially, retain agape. Therefore, even when believers sin venially, they are, in comparison with the wicked (who do not have faith informed by agape), righteous.
But here the grace of God gives the desire of keeping His commandments; and if anything in these commandments is less perfectly observed, He forgives it on account of what we say in prayer, as well “Your will be done,” as “Forgive us our debts.” Here, then, it is prescribed that we sin not; there, the reward is that we cannot sin. Here, the precept is that we obey not the desires of sin; there, the reward that we have no desires of sin. (Bk III, chapter 17)
Here in this life, according to St. Augustine, it is divinely prescribed that we sin not. In heaven our reward will be that we cannot sin. Here we are commanded not to obey the concupiscent desire to sin. In heaven our reward will be that we have no concupiscent desire to sin. In this life the concupiscent desire to sin is not removed, but in this life by the grace of God the desire to keep God’s commandments is infused. And if we sin venially, God forgives it as we confess it and ask for His forgiveness.
Therefore the blessed Paul casts away those past attainments of his righteousness, as “losses” and “dung,” that “he may win Christ and be found in Him, not having his own righteousness, which is of the law.” Wherefore his own, if it is of the law? For that law is the law of God. Who has denied this, save Marcion and Manicheus, and such like pests? Since, then, that is the law of God, he says it is “his own” righteousness “which is of the law;” and this righteousness of his own he would not have, but cast it forth as “dung.” Why so, except because it is this which I have above demonstrated, that those are under the law who, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and going about to establish their own, are not subject to the righteousness of God? (Rom 10:3) For they think that, by the strength of their own will, they will fulfil the commands of the law; and wrapped up in their pride, they are not converted to assisting grace. Thus the letter kills (2 Cor 3:6) them either openly, as being guilty to themselves, by not doing what the law commands; or by thinking that they do it, although they do it not with spiritual love, which is of God. Thus they remain either plainly wicked or deceitfully righteous — manifestly cut off in open unrighteousness, or foolishly elated in fallacious righteousness. And by this means — marvellous indeed, but yet true — the righteousness of the law is not fulfilled by the righteousness which is in the law, or by the law, but by that which is in the Spirit of grace. Because the righteousness of the law is fulfilled in those, as it is written, who walk not according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. But, according to the righteousness which is in the law, the apostle says that he was blameless in the flesh, not in the Spirit; and he says that the righteousness which is of the law was his, not God’s. It must be understood, therefore, that the righteousness of the law is not fulfilled according to the righteousness which is in the law or of the law, that is, according to the righteousness of man, but according to the righteousness which is in the Spirit of grace, therefore according to the righteousness of God, that is, which man has from God. Which may be thus more clearly and briefly stated: That the righteousness of the law is not fulfilled when the law commands, and man as it were of his own strength obeys; but when the Spirit aids, and man’s free will, but freed by the grace of God, performs. Therefore the righteousness of the law is to command what is pleasing to God, to forbid what is displeasing; but the righteousness in the law is to obey the letter, and beyond it to seek for no assistance of God for holy living. For when he had said, “Not having my own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is by the faith of Christ,” he added, “Which is from God.” That, therefore, is itself the righteousness of God, being ignorant of which the proud go about to establish their own; for it is not called the righteousness of God because by it God is righteous, but because man has it from God. (Bk III, chapter 20)
What does it mean to be under the law? It means to think that by one’s own strength of will one can fulfil the commands of the law. This is just what the Pelagians believed, and thus for St. Augustine they were putting themselves back under the law. By thinking that one can, through one’s own strength, keep the law, one falls into the sin of pride, and is not converted to assisting grace from God. Because even if they externally keep the law, they do not do it with spiritual love (i.e. agape), which is from God, and so they remain in a state of unrighteousness that St. Augustine describes as “foolishly elated in fallacious righteousness.” Paradoxically, those who attempt to establish through the law a righteousness of their own, do not fulfill the righteousness which is in the law, because the righteousness hidden in the law is fulfilled only by those who walk not according to the flesh (man), but according to the Spirit (i.e. the infusion of grace by the Spirit). That’s why St. Augustine says that “the righteousness of the law is not fulfilled according to the righteousness which is in the law or of the law, that is, according to the righteousness of man, but according to the righteousness which is in the Spirit of grace.” The righteousness of the law is fulfilled only in those who by the grace from God assisting the freed will, perform the law, not in those who attempt to accomplish the law by their own will power. Why is it called the “righteousness of God”? Not because by it God is righteous, but because man receives it from God, by grace.
Further, if in this life, as no religious person doubts, the more we love God, so much the more righteous we certainly are, who can doubt that pious and true righteousness will then be perfected when the love of God shall be perfect? Then the law, therefore, shall be fulfilled; so that nothing at all is wanting to it, of which law, according to the apostle, the fulfilling is Love. (Bk III, chapter 21)
Since love is the fulfillment of the law, and since in this life we can continue to grow in love, therefore we continue to grow in the fulfillment of the law through love. The perfect fulfillment of the law in us will take place in heaven, when our love will be perfect, unable to be lost or deficient, such that both mortal and venial sin will be impossible.
“For many walk, of whom I have spoken often, and now tell you even weeping, whose end is destruction,” (Philippians 3:16) and the rest. These are the very ones of whom, in the beginning, he had said, “Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers,” and what follows. Therefore all are enemies of the cross of Christ who, going about to establish their own righteousness, which is of the law, — that is, where only the letter commands, and the Spirit does not fulfill — are not subject to the law of God. For if they who are of the law be heirs, faith is made an empty thing. “If righteousness is by the law, then Christ has died in vain: then is the offense of the cross done away.” And thus those are enemies of the cross of Christ who say that righteousness is by the law, to which it belongs to command, not to assist. But the grace of God through Jesus Christ the Lord in the Holy Spirit helps our infirmity. (Bk III, chapter 22)
According to St. Augustine, those persons are enemies of the cross who say that righteousness comes by the law, because if righteousness comes by the law, then Christ died in vain. But, writes St. Augustine, it belongs to the law to command, not to assist. The grace of God through Jesus Christ helps our infirmity not by imputing Christ’s obedience to us, but by empowering our will through the infusion of agape.
Wherefore he who lives according to the righteousness which is in the law, without the faith of the grace of Christ, as the apostle declares that he lived blameless, must be accounted to have no true righteousness; not because the law is not true and holy, but because to wish to obey the letter which commands, without the Spirit of God which quickens, as if of the strength of free will, is not true righteousness. But the righteousness according to which the righteous man lives by faith, since man has it from God by the Spirit of grace, is true righteousness. (Bk III, chapter 23)
Persons who live according to the law but without the faith of the grace of Christ have no true righteousness, because their desire to keep the law is not out of agape but for some carnal desire, because such a desire is for the sake of oneself by oneself, and not out of love for God, by the help of God.
And the law, holy and just and good, is neither grace itself, nor is anything rightly done by it without grace; because the law is not given that it may give life, but it was added because of transgression, that it might conclude all persons convicted under sin, and that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe. (Gal 3:22) (Bk III, chapter 24)
The law is good, but it was not given to provide salvation in itself, but that it might show all men that they are sinners in need of God’s mercy, and that they cannot keep God’s law without grace. In this way, the law is a tutor to lead us to Christ.
Moreover, in that we say that the law, holy and just and good, was given not for the justification of the wicked, but for the conviction of the proud, for the sake of transgressions, — this is, on the one hand, opposed to the Manicheans, in that according to the apostle the law is praised; and on the other opposed to the Pelagians, in that, in accordance with the apostle, no one is justified by the law; and therefore, for the sake of making alive those whom the letter has killed, that is, whom the law, enjoining good, makes guilty by transgressions, the Spirit of grace freely brings aid. (Bk III, chapter 25)
St. Augustine explains that the Catholic position is opposed on both sides by the Manicheans, who rejected the law, and by the Pelagians, who reduced grace to the law. The Catholic doctrine neither rejects the law nor reduces grace to law. Rather, according to Catholic doctrine the law is good and holy, because it commands what is good and holy. Yet the law does not provide for its fulfillment. The Spirit of grace, which is not the law, but is that which we receive as a gift through baptism, aids us in keeping the law. And in this way, the Catholic doctrine is neither Manichean nor Pelagian, but steers a middle course between them.
Once more, in the praise of the law, what advantage is it to them [i.e. Pelagians] that, in opposition to the Manicheans, they say the truth when they wish to bring men from that view to this which they hold falsely against the Catholics? For they say, “We confess that even the old law, according to the apostle, is holy and just and good, and that this could confer eternal life on those that kept its commandments, and lived righteously by faith, like the prophets and patriarchs, and all the saints.” By which words, very craftily expressed, they praise the law in opposition to grace; for certainly that law, although just and holy and good, could not confer eternal life on all those men of God, but the faith which is in Christ. For this faith works by love, not according to the letter which kills, but according to the Spirit which makes alive, to which grace of God the law, as it were a schoolmaster, leads by deterring from transgression, that so that might be conferred upon man which it could not itself confer. For to those words of theirs in which they say “that the law was able to confer eternal life on the prophets and patriarchs, and all saints who kept its commandments,” the apostle replies, “If righteousness be by the law, then has Christ died in vain.” (Gal 2:21) “If the inheritance be by the law, then is it no more of promise.” (Gal 3:18) “If they which are of the law be heirs, faith is made void, and the promise is made of none effect.” (Rom 4:14) “But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, is evident: for, The just by faith lives.” (Gal 3:11) “But the law is not of faith: but The man that does them shall live in them.” (Gal 3:12) Which testimony, quoted by the apostle from the law, is understood in respect of temporal life, in respect of the fear of losing which, men were in the habit of doing the works of the law, not of faith; because the transgressors of the law were commanded by the same law to be put to death by the people. Or, if it must be understood more highly, that “He who does these things shall live in them” was written in reference to eternal life; the power of the law is so expressed that the weakness of man in himself, itself failing to do what the law commands, might seek help from the grace of God rather of faith, seeing that by His mercy even faith itself is bestowed. Because faith is thus possessed, according as God has given to every one the measure of faith. (Rom 12:3) For if men have it not of themselves, but men receive the Spirit of power and of love and of continence, whence that very same teacher of the Gentiles says, “For we have not received the spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and of continence,” (2 Tim 1:7) — assuredly also the Spirit of faith is received, of which he says, “Having also the same Spirit of faith.” (2 Cor 4:13) Truly, then, says the law, “He who does these things shall live in them.” But in order to do these things, and live in them, there is necessary not law which ordains this, but faith which obtains this. Which faith, however, that it may deserve to receive these things, is itself given freely. (Bk IV, chapter 10)
Here St. Augustine takes issue with the Pelagians, who commended the old law as being able to “confer eternal life on those that kept its commandments, and lived righteously by faith.” St. Augustine agrees that the law is holy, just and good, but explains that the law could not confer eternal life; only the faith which is in Christ and which works by love according to the Spirit, could confer eternal life. This grace leads to eternal life not by an extra nos imputation of Christ’s obedience, by “by deterring from transgression,” something the law by itself cannot do. St. Augustine then explains how to interpret St. Paul’s statements about the law, and especially about St. Paul’s statement, “The man that does them shall live in them.” (Gal 3:12) According to St. Augustine, this can be understood in two complementary ways. In one way, it means that those who, without the faith that comes through grace, keep the law [externally] out of desire for earthly rewards or fear of punishment, have their minds set on things of this temporal life. Because, as Jesus said, where your treasure is there also will your heart be, so those who keep the law [externally] for the sake of temporal things do not have the eternal life of heaven, but have only temporal life. But, in a higher way, this verse shows that he who truly wishes to keep the law will be led to seek mercy, and hence to the faith that comes by the grace of Christ. So the one who does the law’s precepts shall live in them, because through them he is led to faith, and through faith he has eternal life.
But those enemies of grace never endeavour to lay more secret snares for more vehement opposition to that same grace than when they praise the law, which, without doubt, is worthy to be praised. Because, by their different modes of speaking, and by variety of words in all their arguments, they wish the law to be understood as “grace” — that, to wit, we may have from the Lord God the help of knowledge, whereby we may know those things which have to be done — not the inspiration of love, that, when known, we may do them with a holy love, which is properly grace. For the knowledge of the law without love puffs up, does not edify, according to the same apostle, who most openly says, “Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies.” (1 Cor 8:1) Which saying is like to that in which it is said, “The letter kills, the spirit makes alive.” (2 Cor 3:6) For “Knowledge puffs up,” corresponds to “The letter kills:” and, “Love edifies,” to “The spirit makes alive;” because “the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who is given unto us.” (Rom 5:5) Therefore the knowledge of the law makes a proud transgressor; but, by the gift of charity, he delights to be a doer of the law. (Bk IV, chapter 11)
The Pelagians praise the law, but reduce grace to law, as that help by which we may attain salvation, whereas in actuality, grace is not merely the knowledge of right and wrong but provides the “inspiration of love” so that we may keep the laws with a holy love. Knowledge without love leads only to pride, not eternal life. But love edifies. By the love poured out into our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Rom 5:5) we, by this gift of charity, delight to be doers of the law. Pelagius was right to praise the law, but wrong to reduce grace to the law. Grace is not merely the provision of knowledge (about the law or about the gospel); grace infused into us transforms us, making us alive with the life of God, and being one in spirit with Him, delighting in His law.
Let us, however, read, and by the Lord’s help understand, what the apostle tells us: “Because by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in His sight; for by the law is the knowledge of sin.” (Rom 3:20) Observe, he says “the knowledge,” not “the destruction,” of sin. But when a man knows sin, and grace does not help him to avoid what he knows, undoubtedly the law works wrath. And this the apostle explicitly says in another passage. His words are: “The law works wrath.” (Rom 4:15) The reason of this statement lies in the fact that God’s wrath is greater in the case of the transgressor who by the law knows sin, and yet commits it; such a man is thus a transgressor of the law, even as the apostle says in another sentence, “For where no law is, there is no transgression.” (Rom 4:15) It is in accordance with this principle that he elsewhere says, “That we may serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter;” (Rom 7:6) wishing the law to be here understood by “the oldness of the letter,” and what else by “newness of spirit” than grace?(chapter 22)
Here St. Augustine, around the age of seventy, explains that the law does not destroy sin, but only provides the knowledge of sin. Without grace, therefore, the law works wrath, because it increases the transgression, by making those who violate it more culpable, because where there is no law there is no transgression. But we who have received grace serve in newness of spirit, because by the infusion of grace and agape our spirit has been made to share in the life of God.
As many, therefore, as are led by their own spirit, trusting in their own virtue, with the addition merely of the law’s assistance, without the help of grace, are not the sons of God. Such are they of whom the same apostle speaks as “being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and wishing to establish their own righteousness, who have not submitted themselves to the righteousness of God.” (Rom 10:3) He said this of the Jews, who in their self-assumption rejected grace, and therefore did not believe in Christ. Their own righteousness, indeed, he says, they wish to establish; and this righteousness is of the law, — not that the law was established by themselves, but that they had constituted their righteousness in the law which is of God, when they supposed themselves able to fulfil that law by their own strength, ignorant of God’s righteousness — not indeed that by which God is Himself righteous, but that which man has from God. (chapter 24)
Who are those “under the law”? They are those who trust in their own virtue or power to keep the law, and so seek to establish a righteousness of their own. St. Augustine explains that St. Paul was referring to those Jews who had not believed in Christ. They were ignorant not only of Christ, but of the righteousness which is from above, received by faith through the sacrament of baptism which Christ Himself established to be the means by which the Spirit of grace is infused into the hearts of men. St. Augustine continues:
And that you may know that he designated as theirs the righteousness which is of the law, and as God’s that which man receives from God, hear what he says in another passage, when speaking of Christ: “For whose sake I counted all things not only as loss, but I deemed them to be dung, that I might win Christ, and be found in Him — not having my own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, which is of God.” (Philippians 3:8-9) Now what does he mean by “not having my own righteousness, which is of the law,” when the law is really not his at all, but God’s, — except this, that he called it his own righteousness, although it was of the law, because he thought he could fulfil the law by his own will, without the aid of grace which is through faith in Christ? Wherefore, after saying, “Not having my own righteousness, which is of the law,” he immediately subjoined, “But that which is through the faith of Christ, which is of God.” This is what they were ignorant of, of whom he says, “Being ignorant of God’s righteousness,” — that is, the righteousness which is of God (for it is given not by the letter, which kills, but by the life-giving Spirit), “and wishing to establish their own righteousness,” which he expressly described as the righteousness of the law, when he said, “Not having my own righteousness, which is of the law;” they were not subject to the righteousness of God — in other words, they submitted not themselves to the grace of God. For they were under the law, not under grace, and therefore sin had dominion over them, from which a man is not freed by the law, but by grace. On which account he elsewhere says, “For sin shall not have dominion over you; because you are not under the law, but under grace.” (Rom 6:14) Not that the law is evil; but because they are under its power, whom it makes guilty by imposing commandments, not by aiding. It is by grace that any one is a doer of the law; and without this grace, he who is placed under the law will be only a hearer of the law. To such persons he addresses these words: “You who are justified by the law are fallen from grace.” (Gal 5:4) (chapter 24)
Here St. Augustine explains what St. Paul means in saying speaking of his “own righteousness, which is of the law.” It was his own because he thought he could fulfill it by his own will, without the aid of grace which is through faith in Jesus Christ. The righteousness which is by faith is the righteousness of God, not given by the letter of the law, but given by the Spirit, through the sacraments. But the righteousness which comes from ourselves is not subject to the righteousness of God. That is, in pride it resists and rejects the righteousness of God, because it does not wish to humble itself, and admits its entire worthlessness before God. Law-keeping without grace is a righteousness of our own that St. Paul describes as “dung.” Without grace, sin has dominion over us, and so we are in bondage to the law. But by grace we are freed from the law, not in the sense of not being obligated to keep it for the sake of our justification and salvation, but freed from being unable to keep it. By grace we are freed from the dominion of sin. That is, by the infusion of grace and agape into our hearts, we are able to keep the law, and no longer powerless to keep from breaking the law. Those persons are under the power of the law, says St. Augustine, who by the law know what is required of them, but have not been given the power to keep the law. Grace aids us internally, so that we become doers of the law, not just hearers. Without grace, anyone who is placed under the law will be only a hearer of the law, not a doer of the law.
What St. Augustine says here about the relation of grace and law could not be preached today in PCA or OPC congregations; they would consider it heretical for allegedly confusing law and gospel. But St. Augustine’s account of the relation of grace and law is fully compatible if not organically identical with what we find in the Catholic Catechism. Consider again the difference between the Catholic and Reformed positions, as I summarized them at the beginning of this post. According to Reformed theology, justification is by God’s extra nos imputation of the obedience of Christ. By contrast, for St. Augustine, justification is by the infusion of grace and the theological virtues of faith, hope, and particularly agape. In Reformed theology, because of its notion of justification by imputed righteousness, being under grace means that our justification (or condemnation) does not depend on our law-keeping. Even though we grievously sin against all God’s commands and never keep any of them, God imputes to our account the obedience of Christ in our place, so that before Him we are as though we had never sinned. All we have to do is accept this gift with a believing heart.4 According to this position, our good works, even under grace, are “imperfect and stained with sin.”5 Even under grace “there is no sin so small, but it deserves damnation,”6 and even the most holy among us sin daily in thought, word, and deed. But God demands an entirely perfect righteousness, which only Christ has. Therefore, we can be saved only by the extra nos imputation of Christ’s righteousness. The Belgic Confession reads:
Therefore to say that Christ is not enough but that something else is needed as well is a most enormous blasphemy against God — for it would then follow that Jesus Christ is only half a Savior. And therefore we justly say with Paul that we are justified by faith alone or by faith apart from works.
That conclusion does not follow, because the Confession goes on to acknowledge that faith is necessary. And conceding the need for faith does not constitute a blasphemy against God. So the question concerns the means by which the grace of Christ is communicated to us, what are the senses in which we attain Christ (both in this life and the next) and how we are to attain Christ. But the quotation indicates the reasoning underlying the Reformed notion that our justification is by faith alone, and through the extra nos imputation of Christ’s obedience.
By contrast, for St. Augustine (and the Catholic Church), being under grace does not mean that our justification (or condemnation) does not depend on our law-keeping. Rather, being under grace means having received grace from God into our hearts, and the infused virtues of faith, hope, and agape such that with this divine help we are enabled to keep the law, it being written on our hearts. This is what it means to walk in the newness of the Spirit. For St. Augustine, by the gift of infused grace and agape, the law is fulfilled in us, because agape fulfills the law. By grace we are enabled to love the law, and not be hearers only, but doers of the law. Grace does not take away our obligation to fulfill the law; it does not mean that Christ fulfills the law so that we do not have to do so. Rather, grace enables to us to keep the law, and so truly fulfill the law, not by extra nos imputation nor, like Pelagius, by ourselves without grace, but through grace by God working in us to will and to do what is pleasing in His sight, i.e. living in accordance with His royal law. The Reformed conception of grace is in this respect a weaker conception of grace, because such grace is unable to make us capable of fulfilling the law. But St. Augustine’s (and the Catholic Church’s) doctrine of grace is a more powerful or higher view of grace, because for St. Augustin grace is the power of God in us enabling us to keep the law and so be truly well-pleasing in His sight.
This overview of St. Augustine’s soteriology indicates that Benjamin Warfield was mistaken when he claimed that the Reformation was the triumph of Augustine’s soteriology over his ecclesiology. The early Protestants not only departed from St. Augustine’s ecclesiology, but also from his soteriology.
- There are objections to this Reformed doctrine of imputation. I cannot address them in this post, but roughly they go like this. If at the moment of imputation nothing is actually transferred from Christ to me, and from me to Christ, but rather, God merely no longer sees things as they actually are, i.e. He stops seeing Christ as righteous and me as guilty, and starts seeing Christ as guilty and me as righteous (even though in actuality nothing in Christ or me has changed), then there is no difference between ‘real imputation’ and imputation as legal fiction. In other words, if extra nos imputation were simply a legal fiction, there would be nothing different about it. Another objection goes like this. My account before God is an account of my heart. Because God is omniscient and Truth, He cannot lie or be deceived. Whatever He speaks is true. So if my heart is evil, then my account before God must be that my heart is evil. God cannot call what is evil good, without changing it from evil to good, lest He be a liar. Likewise, if Christ’s heart is good, then His account before God must be that His heart is good. God cannot without lying say that Christ’s account is evil, when Christ’s heart is good, without making Christ’s heart evil. So if at the moment of extra nos imputation nothing changes in me, and nothing changes in Christ, then when God changes my account from evil to good, but without changing my heart from evil to good, this entails that God is lying about me. Likewise, when God changes Christ’s account from good to evil, without changing Christ’s heart from good to evil, this entails that God is lying about Christ. But God cannot lie. Therefore extra nos imputation is impossible. [↩]
- For St. Augustine, the moral law (i.e. the Decalogue) is not just a helpful guide under grace, bu is the divinely required way of righteousness. No one who lives in violation of the moral law can be saved, unless he repent. [↩]
- St. Augustine cites this verse (Rom 5:5) repeatedly, along with Rom 13:9-10, in which St. Paul teaches that love is the fulfillment of the law. [↩]
- Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 60 [↩]
- Heidelberg Catechism, Q.62. [↩]
- Westminster Confession of Faith XV.4 [↩]