A Great Man
On this day in the year 354, one of the most influential men in the history of Christendom was born. This man was Augustine (354-430). B.B. Warfield once wrote of him, “[Augustine] entered both the Church and the world as a revolutionary force, and not merely created an epoch in the history of the Church, but . . . determined the course of its history in the West up to the present day.” Adolf Harnack is credited with saying that Augustine was the greatest man who the Church possessed between Paul the Apostle and Luther the Reformer. Christian History magazine goes even further: “After Jesus and Paul, Augustine of Hippo is the most influential figure in the history of Christianity.” Both Catholics and Protestants celebrate Augustine, his life, and his works. Now that is a rarity! His writings, teachings, and influence have helped shaped both Catholic and Protestant understanding of the Bible and the faith. His influence reaches to all ends of Christian thought as well as into the secular world. He indeed is an unparalleled figure. Agostino Trapè gives an encompassing view of Augustine the man:
Augustine was . . . a philosopher, theologian, mystic, and poet in one. . . . His lofty powers complemented each other and made the man fascinating in a way difficult to resist. He is a philosopher, but not a cold thinker; he is a theologian, but also a master of the spiritual life; he is a mystic, but also a pastor; he is a poet, but also a controversialist. Every reader thus finds something attractive and even overwhelming: depth of metaphysical intuition, rich abundance of theological proofs, synthetic power and energy, psychological depth shown in spiritual ascents, and a wealth of imagination, sensibility, and mystical fervor.
A Greater God
Augustine was born near Hippo, in what is now Algeria, on November 13, 354. His father, an unbeliever, was zealous for his education and had Augustine study rhetoric at age 11. He continued studying from age 17-20 in Carthage following the death of his father when he was 16 (his father was converted the year before his death). After completing his education, Augustine taught rhetoric until he was 30. For the next 44 years he lived his life as a monk and a bishop. As a man who deeply struggled with sexual sin, Augustine was celibate from age 32-75. Because, at age 32, one of the most important days in the history of Christianity came to pass through this slave to sexually sinful pleasures. Here is the conversion of Augustine in his own words. Notice how he was freed from the lure of sexual sin by the grace of God as he found a much more satisfying joy in God over and against the mere trifles of joy in sex:
There was a small garden attached to the house where we lodged. . . . I now found myself driven by the tumult in my breast to take refuge in this garden, where no one could interrupt that fierce struggle in which I was my own contestant. . . . I was beside myself with madness that would bring me sanity. I was dying a death that would bring me life. . . . I was frantic, overcome by violent anger with myself for not accepting your will and entering into your covenant. . . . I tore my hair and hammered my forehead with my fists; I locked my fingers and hugged my knees.
I was held back by mere trifles. . . They plucked at my garment of flesh and whispered, “Are you going to dismiss us? From this moment we shall never be with you again, for ever and ever.”. . . And while I stood trembling at the barrier, on the other side I could see the chaste beauty of Continence in all her serene, unsullied joy, as she modestly beckoned me to cross over and to hesitate no more. She stretched out loving hands to welcome and embrace me.
I flung myself down beneath a fig tree and gave way to the tears which now streamed from my eyes . . . In my misery I kept crying, “How long shall I go on saying ‘tomorrow, tomorrow’? Why not now? Why not make an end of my ugly sins at this moment?” . . . All at once I heard the singsong voice of a child in a nearby house. Whether it was the voice of a boy or a girl I cannot say, but again and again it repeated the refrain ‘Take it and read, take it and read.’ At this I looked up, thinking hard whether there was any kind of game in which children used to chant words like these, but I could not remember ever hearing them before. I stemmed my flood of tears and stood up, telling myself that this could only be a divine command to open my book of Scripture and read the first passage on which my eyes should fall.
So I hurried back to the place where Alypius was sitting . . . seized [the book of Paul’s epistles] and opened it, and in silence I read the first passage on which my eyes fell: “Not in reveling in drunkenness, not in lust and wantonness, not in quarrels and rivalries. Rather, arm yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ; spend no more thought on nature and nature’s appetites” (Romans 13:13-14). I had no wish to read more and no need to do so. For in an instant, as I came to the end of the sentence, it was as though the light of confidence flooded into my heart and all the darkness of doubt was dispelled.
The Glorious Grace of this Greater God
Augustine was baptized in 387, sought to live out his life as a monk in religious and philosophical thought and writing, and then was “forced” into the role of priest and then bishop in Hippo at age 36. Augustine lived the life of a monk however as he never married and kept to a strict diet. Augustine left no will for all that he possessed never truly belonged to him. But what he left to us–his writings and thought–are invaluable treasures.
One such treasure that I want to close with is his vision and understanding of God’s grace. Though we celebrate the Augustine today, we celebrate his God even more. Augustine was a great man who is worthy of great praise. However, his God is greater still. And this God–the Creator and Redeemer–is worthy of far greater praise. The way to see the greatness of this God is to see the weakness of man. Augustine got that. Augustinian understanding of grace is contagious, attractive, and desirable. This is because Augustine understood the depths, disgust, and depravity of his sin more so than maybe any other Christian since the Apostle Paul. Augustine saw his hopelessness and utter slavery to sin. What kind of grace did Augustine need? He needed the same grace we need. And that grace is exactly the kind that God gives. I’ll leave you with a paragraph by Augustine so you can see his understanding of grace as well as with a paragraph by John Piper commenting on Augustinian grace. Know that the sovereign grace of God that Augustine experienced is the same grace that you have experienced if you have trusted Christ alone for salvation. May your vision and my vision of God’s grace be like that of the bishop of Hippo.
During all those years [of rebellion], where was my free will? What was the hidden, secret place from which it was summoned in a moment, so that I might bend my neck to your easy yoke . . .? How sweet all at once it was for me to be rid of those fruitless joys which I had once feared to lose . . ! You drove them from me, you who are the true, the sovereign joy. [There’s the key phrase and the key reality for understanding the heart of Augustinianism.] You drove them from me and took their place, you who are sweeter than all pleasure, though not to flesh and blood, you who outshine all light, yet are hidden deeper than any secret in our hearts, you who surpass all honor, though not in the eyes of men who see all honor in themselves. . . . O Lord my God, my Light, my Wealth, and my Salvation.
This is Augustine’s understanding of grace. Grace is God’s giving us sovereign joy in God that triumphs over joy in sin (emphasis his). In other words, God works deep in the human heart to transform the springs of joy so that we love God more than sex or anything else. Loving God, in Augustine’s mind, is never reduced to deeds of obedience or acts of willpower. It is always a delighting in God, and in other things only for God’s sake…Loving God is always conceived of essentially as delighting in God and in anything else for his sake.
The Swan Is Not Silent: Sovereign Joy in the Life and Thought of St. Augustine (1998 Bethlehem Conference for Pastors) written by John Piper