[Augustine] has been strikingly called incomparably the greatest man whom, “between Paul the Apostle and Luther the Reformer, the Christian Church has possessed.” --Adolf Von Harnack quoted by BB Warfield
Christian history is saturated with leaders whose impact has drastically changed the shape of Christian thought. Perhaps no leader, as Adolf Von Harnack has suggested, has transformed our understanding of God as much as that of Augustine. He may very well be the greatest theologian apart from Paul and Jesus that this world will ever know. He is of utmost importance for Christians today to know. We must remember this man of God and the influence he has had and continues to exert in our time. And again, our call to remember leads to imitating the faith exhibited by these Christian leaders. Augustine, a man who lived in the 4th and 5th century, has much to offer us here in the 21st century if we would but remember and seek to imitate his faith.
A Biographical Sketch
Augustine was born on November 13, 354 AD, in Thagaste, a town in northern Africa (modern day Algeria). His mother Monica was a devout Christian, she is a patron saint to many of motherly prayers since throughout her life she prayed earnestly for her son to become a Christian. His father Patrick was not a Christian in whose footsteps Augustine followed. He was a master of rhetoric and finished his doctorate at the age of 21. For the first 31 years of his life he lived far from what we should consider an example of faith. He was chief among womanizers by his own profession. The love of women was the biggest hindrance to his profession of faith. By the age of 16 he had a concubine whom he loved and eventually a son with her, Adeodatus.
As a learned man Augustine sought truth steadfastly in his life. He probed the depths of Manichaeism and platonism (and other philosophies) only to find that they were all but half-truths that he could dissect and debunk. His chief goal in life was to find lasting truth, the bedrock of all other shadows of truth. And so his search for this truth led him eventually to cross paths with many Christian leaders of his day. Chief among these was Ambrose of Milan, another leader in Christian history worthy of remembering. Ambrose directed Augustine by varying degrees towards Christian truth. One afternoon, after many days and weeks of deep struggle with his lifestyle and the incompatibility of the Christian truth he was wrestling with, he came to faith. It happened in a garden in Milan in August of 386 at 32 years of age.
In this garden Augustine wrestled with God was doing by his sovereign hand. He found himself broken, crying beneath a fig tree, when he heard some children next door singing a song with the words “pick it up and read it, pick it up and read it” (Confessions 8.12). Taking it as a sign from God he grabbed the open Bible before him and read feasted his eyes and soul upon Romans 13:13-14: Not in riotousness and drunkenness, not in lewdness and wantonness, not in strife and rivalry; but put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh and its lusts. Augustine then stated, “I neither wished no needed to read more. No sooner had I finished the sentence than it was as if the light of steadfast truth poured into my heart, and all the shadows of hesitation fled away" (Confessions 8.12). By God’s sovereign hand in a Garden a would be giant in the faith came to faith.
Augustine was baptized by Ambrose, his father in the faith. At his conversion God reclaimed one of the most brilliant minds ever to think on this earth for his purposes, to lead the church as an example of faith. He returned to Africa, now Hippo, where he wrote and preached as a life transforming tool of grace for God in a world of unbelievers. It is here that Augustine made a lasting impact through the ages, books such as the City of God and Confessions that have never been out of print. In his lifetime he wrote 5 million words comprising some 113 books. He was an intellectual giant. He died in 430 in Hippo, a year before the Goths sacked the city. It is here that Augustine became a primary tool of God in reshaping Christian history. Sixteen hundred years later there is much we are called to remember and imitate from him. Here are three examples of his faith for us to consider to imitate:
A Language and Life of Delight
Throughout Augustine’s writings and sermons he constantly exhibits a person of faith who utterly delights in his God. Few have written with such genuine passion that God alone is their highest delight and sweetness. In the Confessions in particular Augustine exhibits this with language such as this: “Come, O Lord, I pray. Stir us up and call us back; kindle us and take us to yourself. Set us ablaze, and cast your sweetness over us. Let us love you and run to you” (Confessions 8.4). Few talk like this. Few live like this.
Yet it is our calling as men and women of faith to seek God with our entire heart, to love Him, to praise Him, to delight in Him, to savor Him above all else, and to find Him as the only lasting sweetness in our lives. We miss the mark when we find this kind of satisfaction in things other than God: sex, money, alcohol, personal comfort, health, fulfilling relationships, sports, etc. Augustine in the display of his faith through his writings is a leader that we are called to imitate. On this point in particular we would benefit greatly to have our hearts stirred to make God alone our all-satisfying sweetness and uproot anything that has taken His rightful place on the throne of our hearts. When was the last time you referred to God as your sweetness? Maybe if we talk in this manner, if we seek and ask God to set us ablaze, he will become the passion that we all long for deep down. May we delight in God and may He be our only satisfaction in this life and the next.
Realizing the Reality of Grace
As a champion of biblical theology, Augustine fought for the true reality of grace as we see in Scripture, a free sovereign gift from God that has nothing of our earning mixed in with it. For Augustine this understanding came through a long theological battle with Pelagius. Pelagius believed that a person was not completely sinful in every sphere of life. And since this was the case he believed that it was possible for any man or woman to live in righteousness and earn their own salvation. Against this unbiblical notion proposed and maintained by Pelagius, Augustine became an ardent apologist for the teaching of Scripture on sin, grace, and salvation.
Augustine understood according to Scripture that all humanity is totally sinful (Rom. 3:23; 6:23) and therefore completely incapable at any point of living the life required to attain salvation and relationship with God. The bedrock of orthodox Christianity was defended here by Augustine, that we are totally depraved as Calvin and the Synod of Dort would later articulate. With this theological truth in view, Augustine argued that we can earn nothing but death and separation from God. Instead the biblical model of salvation includes grace as grace, a free gift given by God that no one can earn. Augustine thus paints God as completely sovereign and gracious to the sinner in Jesus Christ. As an apologist Augustine fervently fought for this and recovered and defended a truth that we as Christians stand upon as orthodox.
With this in mind, to imitate the faith of Augustine would lead us to renounce any taint of works righteousness in our understanding of justification. Instead we should look to our own sinfulness, how far we are from God’s created design, and be overwhelmed with the utterly free grace that God gives us in His Son Jesus Christ. To imitate this faith is to rest each and every day in the promises God gives us by grace alone. This causes us to live lives of constant thanksgiving to God, glorifying Him. To imitate this faith is to daily live out of grace, not of works. Let us feel grace as Augustine did.
Witness to God's Grace and Glory
Augustine’s Confessions was one of the first true autobiographies to be written. He created a new genre with its conclusion. It is a prayer, written to God, but also written to man by which Augustine’s “reader may reflect upon the depths from which we must call upon [God]” (Confessions 2.3). It is primarily a testimony to the power and glory of God in how He had worked in Augustine’s life up until it was written. As such, the pages of the Confessions are strewn about with a constant love for God, lifting Him up as the only one worthy of being glorified. And so he wrote to do just this, to testify to the great reality of our good, sovereign, and gracious God.
Augustine should encourage us by his faith to imitate his testimony, to seek with how we live and what we say to reveal to others around us the saving power of God in Christ. Augustine states regarding his readers, “Let them love you not less, but more. Let them see that it is through you, who have saved me from the sickness of my sins, that they too do not suffer the same degree from the sickness of their own.” Our call to imitate his faith leads us to show the world around us that our salvation from our sins comes only through the grace of God. How often do we tell neighbors and friends (Christian or not) what it is that God has done for us? This goes hand in hand with seeing God as sweet to us. For if we delight in God it will exude out from our lips and actions and people will see that we are a living testimony for the grace and love of God. Let us testify that there is none greater, none more loving, none more willing to save us than our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
If you are looking to read something of Augustine, which I believe Hebrews 13:7 would suggest, I would begin first with his Confessions. It is a wonderful entrance into Christian biography and his grand language of delight while upholding orthodox theology. John Piper also has a wonderful series of biographies in his The Swans are Not Silent series, of which the first book titled The Legacy of Sovereign Joy contains a great succinct chapter on the influence of Augustine. If you would like to go deep theologically with Augustine may I suggest On Christian Doctrine.
**Next Week: Remembering Your Leader The Apostle Paul