A Hard Heart, Or a Hardened Heart?: St. Augustine’s Theology of God’s Sovereignty and Human Free Will

Augustine of Hippo was an interesting dude. He authored probably one of the most honest and transparent confessions (aptly titled, Confessions) in church history. He also is probably the most influential theologian in the history of the church. He regularly interpreted the Bible allegorically. His theological writings provided the foundation for the emergence of Calvinsim and amillennialism. So taking a look at St. Augustine’s writings is always challenging and intellectually stimulating whether you agree with him or not.

 Introduction

 “But that’s just not fair!” can be a typical exclamation from a new Christian who is first introduced to the doctrine of predestination. From the very beginning of the church, theologians and lay Christians alike have wrestled through the relationship of God’s sovereignty and human free will. Probably the most influential theologian to engage this issue was Augustine, who wrote extensively on divine sovereignty and human free will.[1] Despite their seemingly contradicting natures, Augustine affirmed both God’s complete sovereignty over human beings (especially in salvation) and human free will.

God’s Sovereignty over Human Beings

 Augustine asserted God’s sovereignty over human beings. According to Augustine, human beings do not possess the slightest ability to thwart the will of God. In fact, God even controls and directs human will, “For so to will and not to will is in the power of Him who willeth or willeth not” (489). Furthermore, God chose before time those who would be saved, “Therefore they were elected before the foundation of the world with that predestination in which God foreknew what He Himself would do” (515). Therefore, Augustine believed that God was sovereign over the whole realm of human affairs.

In addition, Augustine believed that God expressed His sovereignty in human salvation through bestowing His grace upon sinners. Salvation is not dependent on human good works, but instead, God’s grace. Augustine wrote, “Even those good works of ours, which are recompensed with eternal life, belong to the grace of God” (451). He plainly asserted, “God’s grace is not given according to our merits” (449). In other words, God’s grace provides everything human beings need for salvation. Salvation belongs to a bestowal of God’s grace, an expression of His sovereignty. Augustine goes even further, for not only is God’s grace a manifestation of His sovereignty, but human faith is also His gift. According to Augustine, Jesus taught that faith itself was the work of God (504). Additionally, from beginning to end faith is God’s gift (506). Salvation is thus “from faith to faith,” which comes all by God’s work. So then, no person can claim that any part of salvation belongs to his own will since even the human response of faith is God’s work.

 Human Free Will

Even though Augustine argued for God’s sovereignty over all human affairs, he also believed that humans possessed free will. He illustrated the existence of free will three ways: the presence of divine commands in Scripture, Adam’s condition in the garden, and the necessity of rebuke.

Augustine believed that the presence of divine commands in the Bible indicated that human beings possess free will. After quoting numerous Old Testament passages that contained divine commands, Augustine asked, “And what do they all show us but the free choice of the human will?” (445). He later explained that the divine commands show, “There is at once a sufficient proof of free will” (445). For if humans did not have free will, God’s commandments would be superfluous. However, their very presence in Scriptures, which bids humanity to obey rather than rebel against them, proves the existence of human free will.

Not only do the divine commands demonstrate the presence of free will, but also Adam’s condition in the garden affirms it. Adam possessed free will in the Garden of Eden, for he had the power to choose to remain obedient to God’s commandment or choose to sin (483). But how did Adam’s free will work? Augustine taught that God’s grace was manifested in a different way in the Garden than after the Fall. God did not give Adam the grace to never sin; on the contrary, God invested His grace in Adam’s power of choice, “Assuredly, he had that in which if he willed to abide he would never be evil…but which, nevertheless, by free will he could forsake” (484). In other words, God’s grace did not obliterate Adam’s ability to choose.

However, the only way Adam could have stayed in a pure condition was to rely upon God’s grace, “If that man had not forsaken that assistance of his free will, he would always have been good; but he forsook it, and he was forsaken” (484). Thus, Augustine contrasted the grace given to Adam with the grace given to believers in Christ. God’s grace allowed Adam to will, but the grace of Christ is greater because it makes human beings will (484). Therefore, Adam’s condition in the garden validates the presence of human free will.

Finally, the necessity of rebuke demonstrates the existence of free will. Augustine believed rebuke was the means by which God accomplished salvation, “Severe rebuke should be medicinally applied to all by us that they perish not themselves, or that they may not be the means of destroying others” (491). In other words, rebuke restrains human beings from eternal destruction. However, God not only used rebuke as a means to salvation, but also as a means to eternal punishment for it pushes those assigned to Hell further toward their destination (489). Since rebuke is a means of God accomplishing salvation, Augustine concluded that “neither is rebuke prohibited by grace, nor is grace denied by rebuke” (472). There is compatibility between divine sovereignty and rebuke.

Augustine’s Reconciliation of God’s Sovereignty and Human Free Will

 By affirming God’s complete sovereignty over humanity and at the same time the existence of human free will, Augustine walked a theological tightrope. Since both concepts seem mutually exclusive, Augustine attempted to reconcile both teachings two ways: by redefining free will and by pointing to Scriptures which speak of sovereignty and free will.

First, although Augustine taught that human beings possess free will, he defined free will in a particular way. For Augustine, free will was not necessarily the ability to choose good or evil; for those in heaven are unable to sin, yet their wills are the most free than any others. He wrote, “For what shall be more free than free will, when it shall not be able to serve sin?” (485). Therefore, free will is the ability to choose according to one’s nature. Since the nature of those in heaven is righteous, they will only choose righteousness, thus displaying and acting in accordance with their true free will. On the other hand, the unredeemed are sinners by nature, and their wills are enslaved to sin. Thus, they can only choose to sin, “Their will, I say, free, but not freed,—free from righteousness, but enslaved to sin” (489).  Therefore, by showing that free will is the ability to choose according to one’s nature, Augustine demonstrated that God’s sovereignty and free will do coexist in Scripture.

Second, Augustine pointed to passages that address both human free will and God’s sovereignty in same context to show that they are compatible. Commenting of Philippians 2:12 Augustine wrote, “It is not, however, to be for a moment supposed, because he said, ‘It is God that worketh in you both to will and to do of his own good pleasure,’ that free will is taken away” (452). He affirmed that, “When the command is given ‘to work,’ their free will is addressed” (452). In addition, the Bible demonstrates that both God hardens man’s heart and man hardens his own heart. For example, God hardened Pharaoh, demonstrating His sovereignty, yet Pharaoh hardened his own heart, demonstrating his own free will (464). In other words, the Bible teaches both God’s sovereignty and human free will. Consequently, the believer should accept the Bible’s teaching.

Conclusion

 The relation between divine sovereignty and human responsibility is an acute theological problem. Yet Augustine addressed the problem forthrightly. Augustine believed in God’s total sovereignty over human beings. God gave His grace to human beings and even worked faith in them. Thus, no aspect of salvation can be attributed to the human will.

Nevertheless, Augustine affirmed the presence of free will in human beings. The commands of Scripture, along with Adam’s condition in the garden and the necessity of rebuke, proved its existence. Augustine, however, did not leave the simultaneous concepts stuck in an irresolvable tension, but attempted to reconcile them. Free will is not the ability to choose good or evil. Rather, free will is the ability to choose according to one’s nature. Augustine also pointed to Scripture passages in which free will and God’s sovereignty were presented in the same context. Since the Bible taught both, then the Christian should accept both as Biblical.

 

 


[1] The following citations are taken from: Augustine, “On Grace and Free Will,” in Saint Augustin: Anti-Pelagian Writings, ed. Philip Schaff , vol. 5 of A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, ed. Philip Schaff (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956), 443-465; Augustine, “On Rebuke and Grace,” in Saint Augustin: Anti-Pelagian Writings, ed. Philip Schaff , vol. 5 of A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, ed. Philip Schaff (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956), 471-491; Augustine, “On Predestination of the Saints,” in Saint Augustin: Anti-Pelagian Writings, ed. Philip Schaff , vol. 5 of A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, ed. Philip Schaff (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956), 497-519.

The “We’re One Player Away from the Super Bowl” Fallacy, Or, Why Demarcus Ware Won’t Help Denver Win the Super Bowl

Being a New York Giants fan during NFL free agency stinks…Or does it?

They never sign anyone high profile, and they always seem to lose fan favorites over the years: Steve Smith (the other one), Kevin Boss, Ahmad Bradshaw, now Justin Tuck (though losing Linval Joseph actually hurts more).

And then you see other teams sign the big names with the flashy stats. And some teams go out of their way to pay a lot of money (i.e. Denver with DeMarcus Ware), or throw away draft picks, because “We’re one player away from the Super Bowl!!!!” Your 2011 Atlanta Falcons come on down!

That year, the Falcons traded five (five!) draft picks to the Cleveland Browns in order to take Julio Jones because, you know, they were only one player away from the Super Bowl. Not only did the Falcons not make it to the Super Bowl that year, they totally bottomed out as one of the worst teams in the league last season.

The NFL just doesn’t hinge on one player at one position. There are way too many variables: the performance of the other positions, strength of schedule and injuries.

The slow upward trend of increasing injuries, makes depth more important than having a star player backed-up by scrubs. For example, having a secondary which would grade out from top to bottom as a B+ is more valuable than having one A+ corner and the rest Cs and Ds. Because in one instant, you can lose that A+ corner. It’s just not wise football to bank on one player (Your Washington Redskins since drafting RG3 come on down!!!).

So will DeMarcus Ware help Denver win the Super Bowl? He might. If he doesn’t get injured, and if the other positions on the Broncos play up to their potential, and if his contract doesn’t hamper them from improving other areas, and if another team doesn’t improve more this offseason, and if they get some lucky breaks.

But yea, sure, he’ll probably put them over the top.

God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment–A Review (Kind of)

Does the Bible have a main point? Is there an overarching unity—or a center—which binds Scripture together? Those are the types of questions that Jim Hamilton seeks to answer in God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment. In short, Hamilton argues that—you guessed it—the main point of the Bible is God’s glory in salvation through judgment.

 But what does that actually mean? In such a short phrase, Hamilton packs into a load of Scriptural truth. This is what I think Hamilton is getting at:

First, everything God does is ultimately to glorify Himself (This is the God’s Glory part in the title). As John Piper puts it: God is uppermost in His own affections.Second, God’s glory is primarily shown through His acts of saving sinful people (in Salvation). Finally, God’s salvation comes through, or by means of, judgment (through Judgment). In other words, God’s salvation comes to His people by judgment falling upon something or someone else. For example, God’s people Israel are saved through the exodus in which judgment fell upon the Egyptians. The cross is the supreme example of God’s glory in salvation through judgment, for God’s glory is demonstrated in the cross by God saving sinners by judging Jesus in their stead.

The Method

What is Hamilton’s method? He walks through the whole Bible, moving book by book, attempting to discern its core, center, main point. Predictably, its God’s glory in salvation through judgment.

The Center of No Center

I don’t really want to spend much time summarizing the contents of the book, because what Hamilton does is walk book by book, section by section, of Scripture showing how each book contributes to the theme of God’s glory in salvation through judgment. What I want to spend my time on is looking at how Hamilton interacts with objections, and how his work can help forge a healthy path forward for the church.

At the beginning and end of the book, Hamilton explores the most common objection to his type of work: it seems as if finding a center of the Bible is impossible. Many scholars have proposed different “centers,” yet none have taken hold as the consensus view. Therefore, “some conclude that the very fact of so many ‘centers’ have been proposed proves that there is no center” (52).

In chapter 8, Hamilton responds to objections given against his thesis that the center of the Bible is God’s glory in salvation through judgment. I.H. Marshall criticizes Hamilton’s work for merely stating his conclusion, rather than proving it (556). In other words, what Hamilton has done is taken his “center” as a preconceived grid and imposed it on the Bible.

I find arguments like Marshall’s  exhausting, because they get thrown around every single time someone proposes an overarching motif for the Bible. It’s exhausting because how else can you do theology? You come up with a (hypo)thesis and then test it against what the Bible actually says. If postmodernism has taught us anything, it’s that no one comes to the text as a completely blank slate. Well and good. What Hamilton has done is come to the text with an idea: maybe the Bible’s center is God’s glory in salvation through judgment. So what does he do? He goes through the text and sees if that theme is there.

Sure, Hamilton may have imposed his thesis on the text. But on the other hand, maybe he didn’t! You can’t criticize a proposed center until you can find concrete and tangible examples where “override” has happened. Because everyone believes the Bible has a center, even if it is the belief that the Bible has no center! Maybe that center is being imposed on the text!

How His Work Helps Your Ministry

Hamilton’s work can help your ministry by enabling you to find the meaning of the biblical text easier, especially in the narrative portions of the Bible. Here’s what I mean. Commentaries are usually very good at telling you what the biblical text says but not very good at explaining what it means.

For example, let’s take a look at Jonah 1. Some commentaries merely summarize the story, while giving certain background features and explaining difficult phrases, but they don’t really tell you the significance of the chapter. Unfortunately, although T.D. Alexander has written some very helpful works on biblical theology, I found his commentary on Jonah not very helpful. His outline is merely descriptive of the plot:

I. Jonah at sea (1:1-2:10)
A. Jonah’s initial call (1:1-3)
B. Jonah and the sailors (1:4-16)

If you read his comments on each verse, he usually just summarizes what they say. But what does this chapter mean? Why is it written this way? What is the significance of Jonah fleeing God and God hurling a storm on the sea?

I think  1:16 is the key verse which unlocks the meaning of chapter 1: “The men feared the Lord greatly and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.” The reason why God hurled a great wind upon the sea is not only so that Jonah would be cast overboard and swallowed by a big fish, but for the praise and glory of His name! God desires to be worshipped by all people, and will stop at nothing to have His name glorified. He brings judgment upon Jonah (and consequently the sailors on the boat) so that they might acknowledge His glory and worship Him! So the narrative is not merely recounting one man’s attempt to outrun God,  but revealing God to us as He really is: a God who demonstrates His glory in salvation (which comes through a big fish in 1:17 and chapter 2) through judgment (1:1-16).

Hamilton’s work, then, helps provide a framework for understanding stories like Jonah 1.

Buy, Borrow or Bypass: This book is not for the faint of heart. Clocking in at 571 pages and over 1,000 footnotes, it’s really like an academic book. But it is an important book for pastors to buy, because of all the valuable insights covering the whole Bible. But, to be quite frank, I’m not sure who else in my church would buy and read a book like this.  I think that most people in my congregation should start off reading lighter biblical theologies, such as T.D. Alexander’s work From Eden to New Jerusalem or Michael Goheen and Craig Bartholomew’s work, The True Story of the Whole World.

A to Z of the Christian Life

The gospel is not just the ABCs but the A to Z of the Christian life. It is inaccurate to think the gospel is what saves non-Christians, and then Christians mature by trying hard to live according to biblical principles. It is more accurate to say that we are saved by believing the gospel, and then we are transformed in every part of our minds, hearts, and lives by believing the gospel more and more deeply as life goes on (see Rom 12:1-2; Phil 1:6; 3:13-14).

–Tim Keller, Church Center pg. 48.

Tips and Resources for Bible Intake

Where can you come to know Jesus Christ more? Through God’s Word, the Bible. The life of God’s new creation community, the church, is marked by a devotion to the Scriptures: “Let the word of Christ richly dwell among you” (Colossians 3:16). Below are seven practical ways to take in more of God’s Word.

Read the Bible

Scripture was written for the church’s instruction and growth. It is essential to the life of the church. One of the best ways to get into God’s Word is to read it.

Tips

  • Read when is good for you: There is no mandated time to read the Bible in Scripture. When are you at your best? Mornings? Evenings? On the train during your morning commute? Read the Bible at a time which is good for you.
  • Use a readable translation: One of the issues of the Protestant Reformation was giving the Bible back into the hands of the people, especially in the language of the people (the “vernacular”). Read the Bible using a translation which is understandable to you. Three translations I like are:
    • ESV (English Standard Version)
    • NIV (New International Version)
    • NLT (New Living Translation)
  • Use medium which is good for you: You don’t always have to read a physical hard copy of the Bible. If you have an smart phone or a tablet, download a Bible app. The most popular Bible app out there is YouVersion. The great thing about YouVersion is that it’s free and has hundreds of translations to pick from!
  • Use a plan which works for you: As predictable as New Year’s Resolutions to get in shape is the resolution by Christians to read the Bible in a year. Which is a great goal, but usually by the time they get to Leviticus, it all crashes and burns. So pick a plan which works for you. Maybe reading the Bible in a year is not a realistic goal for you. Maybe try these other plans
    • Read a chapter a day
    • Pick a plan from this list.
    • Read along with a devotional

Resources

Besides those tips, there are plenty of awesome resources to help you get into God’s Word.

  • Study Bibles: Study Bibles have “cheat” notes at the bottom of the page written by pastors and scholars to help you understand the Bible. One of the best study Bibles available today is the ESV Study Bible.
  • Devotionals: A good devotional will usually give an explanation of the Biblical text and then apply it to practical life, and usually end with some encouragement to press on in the faith. Solid devotionals are:
    • Our Daily Bread: A solid devotional for beginning Bible readers. It is available for free online as well as free in print
    • For the Love of God: This devotional was written by renowned New Testament scholar, D.A. Carson. It follows a Bible in a year reading plan, with explanation of a chapter of the Bible each day.
    • Solid Joys: A devotional by John Piper. It is available both online and as an app for a smartphone/tablet.
  • Children’s Bibles: Using a Bible in which your children can understand is important. Here are some children’s Bibles and resources
    • The Jesus Storybook Bible by Sally Lloyd Jones. This is the children’s Bible Pastor Brett most commonly recommends. It fits each smaller story of the Bible into the larger story of Scripture, which is all focused on Jesus
    • The Bible’s Big Story by Jim Hamilton. Hamilton wants to give children an accessible overview of the whole Bible and how the story is all about Jesus. He also wrote a blog post on how to use The Bible’s Big Story to disciple your children here.

Listen to the Bible

Maybe you haven’t read a book since college, and the thought of reading such a big book like the Bible is intimidating. One way to ease into the Bible is to listen to it. “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17).

  • Buy audio Bible CDs and pop in the car. Listen while you are commuting to work.
  • Download a FREE audio Bible and load it on to your iPhone or iPod.

Memorize the Bible

Usually anything worth accomplishing in this lifetimes takes hard work. Is memorizing the Bible hard? Yes. But it is extremely important. A guy who discipled me used to say, “How can you fight temptation if the only verses in your mind are Genesis 1:1 and John 3:16?” The point: we need various Bible verses to fight various temptations. Memorize the Word. If you think your iPhone can bring the Bible with you everywhere, imagine what it would be like to have God’s Word with you at all times, even if your phone runs out of battery. That is what memorization can do for you. Here is a practical way to memorize the Word:

Sample daily procedure: The following is an example of how someone could go about memorizing Ephesians at the rate of one verse per day:

1) Day one: Read Ephesians 1:1 out loud ten times, looking at each word as if photographing it with your eyes. Be sure to include the verse number. Then cover the page and recite it ten times. You’re  done for the day.

2) Day two: Yesterday’s verse first!! Recite yesterday’s verse, Ephesians 1:1 ten times, being sure to include the verse number. Look in the Bible if you need to, just to refresh your memory. Now, do your new verse. Read Ephesians 1:2 out loud ten times, looking at each word as if photographing it with your eyes. Be sure to include the verse number. Then cover the page and recite it ten times. You’re done for the day.

3) Day three: Yesterday’s verse first!! Recite yesterday’s verse, Ephesians 1:2 ten times, being sure to include the verse number. Again, you should look in the Bible if you need to, just to refresh your memory. Old verses next, altogether: Recite Ephesians 1:1-2 together once, being sure to include the verse numbers. Now, do your new verse. Read Ephesians 1:3 out loud ten times, looking at each word as if photographing it with your eyes. Be sure to include the verse number. Then cover the page and recite it ten times. You’re done for the day.

4) Day four: Yesterday’s verse first!! Recite yesterday’s verse, Ephesians 1:3 ten times, being sure to include the verse number. Again, you should look in the Bible if you need to, just to refresh your memory. Old verses next, altogether: Recite Ephesians 1:1-3 together once, being sure to include the verse numbers. Now, do your new verse. Read Ephesians 1:4 out loud ten times, looking at each word as if photographing it with your eyes. Be sure to include the verse number. Then cover the page and recite it ten times. You’re done for the day.

This cycle would continue through the entire book. Obviously, the “old verses altogether” stage will soon swell to take the most time of all. That’s exactly the way it should be. The entire book of Ephesians can be read at a reasonable rate in less than fifteen minutes. Therefore, the “old verses altogether” stage of your review should not take longer than that on any given day. Do it with the Bible ready at hand, in case you draw a blank or get stuck . . . there’s no shame in looking, and it actually helps to nail down troublesome verses so they will never be trouble again (When I Don’t Desire God by John Piper, pg. 117).

Meditate on the Word

Biblical meditation is not like Eastern meditation where the goal is to empty the mind. Rather, the purpose of biblical meditation is to fill the mind with God’s word. [The righteous person’s] delight is in the Law of the Lord and in His Law, he meditates day and night” (Psalm 1:2). Don Whitney gives some practical help for meditating on the Word:

[Meditation] takes the verse or phrase of Scripture and turns it like a diamond to examine every facet. A meditation on Jesus’ words at the beginning of John 11:25 would look like this:

I am the resurrection and the life’
‘I am the resurrection and the life.’
‘I am the resurrection and the life.’
‘I am the resurrection and the life.’
‘I am the resurrection and the life.’
‘I am the resurrection and the life.’
‘I am the resurrection and the life.’

Of course, the point is not simply to repeat vainly each word of the verse until they’ve all been emphasized. The purpose is to think deeply upon the light (truth) that flashes into your mind each time the verse is turned (Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, pg. 53)

Study the Word

Studying God’s Word is a great way to learn it better. By thoroughly investigating the text, you are able to uncover great riches from the Word. Here are two methods for studying God’s Word:

Sing the Word

The full verse of Colossians 3:16 says, “Let the word of Christ dwell richly within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” Singing is an indispensable way of learning the Word and teaching the word to others. Here are some tips for singing the Word.

  • Sing Loud in Church: It took me a while to get over myself (because I have a terrible voice!), but when I did, I realized that God didn’t care about the quality of my singing, but the heart behind it. So I sing loud in church encourage others to join with me in praising for great God.
  • Sing with, and to, your children: This is a great way to bring the Word to them and have them thinking about God. Take, for example, a song like the Doxology: “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.” Think about how much awesome theology is packed into that one line. 1) God is worthy of worship (“Praise God”); 2) He is Good (all blessings flow from Him).
  • Listen to good music: I do not think that listening to secular music is evil, or worldly. But I do liken pop music to candy. It’s good in small doses, but you won’t be nourished by it. I think that Christian music has come a long way in terms of musical quality. So now, there are many choices to listen to which combine great music and great lyrics. Here are some artists who do both really well:

Pray the Word

Another great way to get into God’s Word is to pray it. Pastor Daniel Montgomery  defines prayer as “Getting in God’s face with God’s Word.” I love that. Because it centers us on praying for what God values.

  • One idea might be to consider using the prayers of Paul to shape the prayers that you pray (Ephesians 1:15-23; Colossians 1:3-14; 1 Thessalonians 1:2-10; 2 Thessalonians 1:3-12; 2 Timothy1:3-14)
  • In Colossians 1:9 Paul prays, “We have not ceased to pray for you and to ask that you would be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding.” Here is an example of what it might look like to pray that Scripture for your friend:
    • “God, I ask you that you might fill her with the knowledge of Your will. Let her truly come to understand and Your ways. Give her guidance and direction from Your Word so that she will live in accordance with Your revealed will. Give her spiritual wisdom and understanding into Your will so that she might live according to Your Word. “
  • The best resource I have found for praying God’s Word is Face to Face  by Kenneth Boa. It turns Scriptures into prayers that you can follow along with, and it also gives you prayer request prompts so that you can pray for the specific things which are happening in your life and the lives of those around you.

What practical tips and resources do you have that help you get into God’s Word?