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.

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