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Augustine: Jesus did what we cannot do

Christ died not to set an example but to save us from sin and death


Augustine: Jesus did what we cannot do

Thomas à Kempis in the 15th century told us we should imitate Christ, so it will surprise some Christians that Augustine a millennium earlier had a different understanding. Augustine described his pre-conversion understanding of Jesus as “a man of most excellent wisdom,” but Gerald Bray tells how the great thinker came to see that “what the Son of God did on the cross was something no ordinary human being could ever do. He took our sins upon himself, not in order to set us an example that we should imitate but in order to remove from us the burden of sin and death that prevents us from enjoying fellowship with him and eternal life. We must be crucified with Christ, not strengthened by his example.” If that analysis interests you, please read the following excerpt from Bray’s Augustine on the Christian Life: Transformed by the Power of God (Crossway, 2015). —Marvin Olasky

The Life of Faith

For Augustine, as for the apostle Paul, to live was Christ and to die was to gain more of him.[61] This was the basic starting point from which everything else flowed logically and, as Augustine would have seen it, inevitably. As Paul said, “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”[62] Everything that Augustine had to say about the Christian life can be understood as an explanation of the deeper implications of this.

Did Augustine believe in justification by faith alone as Martin Luther proclaimed it? Was he a kind of Protestant more than a millennium before that form of Christianity came into being? The answer to such a question must be no. We cannot say that Augustine would have agreed with Luther without qualification, even if Luther believed that he was following in Augustine’s footsteps. The reason for this is not that their spiritual experience was fundamentally different but that it was expressed in different ways. Augustine could not have known that Luther would one day come along and use his theology to proclaim the doctrine of justification by faith alone, but neither did he have any idea that Luther’s doctrine would be rejected by his opponents. The whole framework of the Reformation discussion was unknown to him, and it is anachronistic to force his thoughts into a mold of which he had no knowledge.

But if it is anachronistic to call Augustine a Protestant, he did stress the importance of faith, he had a living relationship with God, and he did not trust in his own works for salvation. He was a sinner saved by grace and he knew it. Luther and his fellow Reformers recognized this in him and claimed him as their forebear, even if they went on to adapt his approach to meet the controversies of a later time. To understand the nature of Augustine’s later impact, let us begin at the beginning.

First of all, there is the question of what is meant by faith. For Augustine this certainly included belief in the sense of intellectual assent to an orthodox creed, and there was never any question of his allowing heretics to claim that they belonged to the church or had any place in it. But doctrinal orthodoxy for him was the result of faith, not its foundation. It was because he had met Christ and knew what he was like that Augustine’s confession was that of the church, which existed to proclaim the good news of salvation in and through Christ. Augustine was not persuaded to become a Christian by intellectual arguments in favor of creation or the divine inspiration of Scripture, but neither was he shaken by challenges to such beliefs. He knew that they were true because they had been taught by the God whom he had met, and so he felt no need to defend them in the court of public opinion. To put it another way, Augustine did not engage in what we would call apologetics. Instead, he proclaimed the faith that he had received in Scripture and sought to explain how it could be understood in the context of human life. He did not try to defend it as true—he accepted that already—but showed how its truth should be applied to the circumstances in which we are called to live.

Faith for Augustine included intellectual belief but went beyond it. For him, it meant union with Christ in a new life that could be understood only in the power of the Holy Spirit. Union with Christ was union with him as both God and man, not because a believer could become God in some way, but because his relationship to Christ was personal, and the person of the Son was divine. But the divine Son had become a man, taking on our nature, precisely in order to make it possible for us to relate to him. In other words, we are united to the person of the Son of God in his human nature, which we share with him, but not in his divine nature, of which we have no direct knowledge or experience. Everything that is human about Christ he shares with us as the second person of the Trinity, but in the secret recesses of his divine nature he remains, along with the Father and the Holy Spirit, incomprehensible to mortal minds. As Augustine expressed it: “This is the way. Walk in humility so that you may come to eternity. Christ as God is the country to which we are going; Christ as man is the way by which we get there.”[63]

This led naturally to the idea of the imitation of Christ, with which modern people are familiar, thanks to the famous devotional book by Thomas à Kempis (d. 1471), and which is also a New Testament concept.[64] It therefore comes as a surprise to discover that Augustine did not emphasize a theme that seems to have fit his way of thinking perfectly. It is hard to say why this was so, but perhaps his pre-Christian life offers us a clue. When describing his preconversion attitude toward Jesus, Augustine had this to say:

I saw in our Lord Jesus Christ nothing more than a man of excellent wisdom, which nobody else could equal. I thought his wonderful virgin birth was an example of how he despised temporal things in order to gain immortality for us, and such divine care for us gave him great authority as a teacher. But the mystery of the Word made flesh I had not begun to guess. … I thought that he excelled others, not because he was the personal embodiment of the Truth, but because of the great excellence of his human character and his more perfect participation in wisdom.[65]

In other words, the pre-Christian Augustine saw Jesus as an extraordinarily gifted man who had achieved a level of wisdom that nobody had managed to equal, but which remained theoretically attainable by anyone with the strength and determination to do so. This view chimed in very well with that of the Platonists, who believed that a more-than-human status could be reached by a philosopher who devoted enough of his time to contemplation. According to Augustine, the great Neoplatonist Porphyry, who was a dedicated opponent of Christianity, actually believed that about Jesus.[66] Certainly there are many intellectual non-Christians today who hold a similar view. They are prepared to accept what they regard as the great moral teachings of Jesus but regard any claim to divinity as a myth imposed on the facts by his disciples, whether they were consciously intending to deceive the public or not.

Seen in this light, promoting the “imitation of Christ” becomes problematic for a Christian theologian because of the danger of suggesting that such imitation was theoretically possible. The apostle Paul’s words on the subject may even have encouraged this when he said, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”[67] Since Paul made no claim to be divine, imitating him was obviously a real possibility for any well-disposed human being. And since he claimed to offer a model of how to imitate Christ, it is easy to see how the philosophical idea of human self-improvement could enter in by the back door, as it were.

The likelihood that Christians would fall into this kind of misunderstanding was made more acute by the teaching of Pelagius, who (according to Augustine) said just that. We must obviously be careful about accepting Augustine’s interpretation of Pelagius at face value since he so strongly opposed Pelagianism and may have distorted what Pelagius actually taught. But there seems to be no reason to doubt that for Pelagius, the gospel was the creed by which “we can learn how we ought to live in theory, but not that we must also be assisted by his grace in order to lead good lives in practice.”[68]

Where Augustine differed from Pelagius—and where those in the Augustinian tradition have always dissented from different forms of Pelagianism that have appeared over the years—was in his understanding of the cross of Christ. For Pelagius, the death of Jesus was a sacrifice to be imitated—as his life was to be imitated—the natural culmination of an asceticism that renounces this world, takes up the cross, and follows him. But Augustine did not interpret the crucifixion of Christ in that way. What the Son of God did on the cross was something no ordinary human being could ever do. He took our sins upon himself, not in order to set us an example that we should imitate but in order to remove from us the burden of sin and death that prevents us from enjoying fellowship with him and eternal life. We must be crucified with Christ, not strengthened by his example, so that, born again by the power of his Holy Spirit, we can live in the way he wants us to. That is what the “imitation” of Christ amounts to. It is what Paul taught and what we must apply to ourselves with the help of God’s grace at work in us.

Augustine did not arrive at this understanding of faith overnight. He inherited a tradition of thought that understood the Christian life as a renewal of something that had been lost, obscured, or corrupted by the fall of Adam. Adam had been created “in the image and likeness of God,” but that had been subtly misunderstood by most of the early fathers of the church. In Hebrew, the word for “image” (tselem) and the word for “likeness” (demuth) are virtually synonymous and could be used interchangeably, as they are in the New Testament.[69] But to the Greek mind, if two words were used to describe something, it must have been because they were different, and the theory emerged that at the fall, Adam lost his likeness to God but not the image.

As a result, salvation came to be understood as the restoration of the image of God in man to the likeness it had before the fall. According to this way of thinking, the image of God was something fixed in man’s nature that distinguished him from the lower creation and was never removed, even after Adam’s fall into sin.

There must be in the rational or intellectual soul of man that image of the Creator which is immortally inserted into its immortality. … It is therefore called “immortal” because it never ceases to live with some kind of life, even when it is most miserable. Thus, although reason or intellect may by turns be dormant, small, or highly active in the human soul, the soul itself is never anything other than rational or intellectual.[70]

The likeness of God, on the other hand, is properly reserved for the Word that became flesh in Jesus Christ, though by relating to him the rest of the created order can share to some degree in the divine likeness: “The Likeness of God, through whom all things were made, is properly called the Likeness, because he is not like God because of some participation in the divine likeness, but is himself the principle of Likeness, in which those things that God has made through him are also alike.”[71]

This innate likeness to God is fundamental, because without it the universe would lack coherence. If God is ultimate Being and Truth, then the things he has made must share in that Being and Truth to some degree, because if they do not, they would be a lie and would not even exist. Augustine makes this point quite forcefully:

[Created] things can be said to be like the [original] One insofar as they have being, for it is to that degree that they are also true. But only the One is Likeness and Truth in itself. … Therefore, things are true insofar as they have being, and have being insofar as they are like the source of all unity, which is the Form of all things that have being, the supreme Likeness of the Principle, and also Truth, for it is without any element of unlikeness [to the One].[72]

Working with this paradigm, we can see why the corruption of the likeness in man after his fall into sin was so disastrous. In principle he retained all the elements of the image in which he had been created, but he ceased to participate in the life of God because he was no longer like him in the way that he was meant to be. Within the created order, this was an anomaly that had to be put right, and that is what the Son of God, the form of the One, came to do in the incarnation of Jesus Christ.

There was (and is) however a difficulty with this model that the early church never properly faced or resolved. If Christ’s work of redemption is tied to creation in this way, must it not be the case that the whole creation is redeemed? Did not the apostle Paul himself say: “As in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive”?[73] The mission of Christ must therefore have been to begin the recapitulation of all things in him, which in practice meant the renewal of the entire created order—and by implication at least, the universal salvation of mankind.[74]

This did not necessarily exclude the operation of divine grace, and here it seems that Augustine and the Pelagians misunderstood each other. For a Pelagian like Julian of Eclanum, for example, the grace of God meant the divine work that brought nature to perfection. That in turn presupposed that when God made man in his image, that image was deliberately imperfect in the sense of not being fully formed, making its subsequent growth into what it was meant to be a natural process. In other words, what the Pelagians called “grace” was a natural development already inherent in the nature of creation and needing only divine action to bring it to fruition. Augustine recognized this and disagreed:

You [Julian] say that it is the good nature of man that merits such a magnificent outpouring of grace. I would agree with this if you meant that it is because man is a rational creature that he merits this grace, because the grace of God through our Lord Jesus Christ is not bestowed on stones, trees, or beasts, but only on man who is the image of God. But I do not agree that man possesses a good will that acts apart from grace and even sacrifices itself before receiving it, so as to give the impression that it was owed something in return. If that were the case, grace would no longer be grace because it would not be given gratuitously, but instead rendered as something that was owed [to the recipient].[75]

What Augustine is saying here is that grace is comprehensible only in the context of a relationship, which in turn is possible only between the Creator and those who have been made in his image. What Augustine does not mean is that something in the nature of man predisposes him to receiving this top-up grace of God, so that what God does for him is only to be expected in the normal course of events.

It was as he worked through the implications of Pelagianism that Augustine came to see that the traditional understanding of the image and likeness of God in man, along with the “restorationist” view of salvation that had been so popular until then, was incorrect. Redemption was not a return to the garden of Eden, but something else altogether. Adam and Eve were not created “imperfect” in the sense of being less than fully formed; their created nature neither gained nor lost anything by the fall, and when the Word became a man, it was in the “likeness of sinful flesh” that he did so.[76] The gospel was not a recipe for human self-improvement, even with the help of God, but the message of death and resurrection to a new life, following the Master who showed us the way and who has made it possible for us to share in his experience, not by imitation but by participation. In other words, it is not by doing what Christ did that we are saved, but by being united with him in his death so that it can be applied to us by the outworking of his grace.

The difference between Adam and the Christian is in effect the difference between the man who is given the freedom to save himself by his works and the one who is set free from the consequences of that.

Free will was given first, with the ability not to sin, but the last gift was the inability to sin. The first freedom was designed for obtaining merit; the last was concerned with receiving a reward. Because human nature sinned when it was given the power to sin, it is set free by a more abundant gift of grace, so that it may be brought to that condition of freedom in which it can no longer sin. The first immortality, which Adam lost by sinning, was the ability to avoid death; the last immortality will be the inability to die.[77]

For God to have restored sinful people to the state of Adam would have been pointless, because they would still have had the ability to sin and would have done so at the first opportunity, just as Adam did. Why go through all that again? Raising those who are saved to the state where they can no longer sin may seem like a deprivation of their freedom, but that is true only if they are perceived as autonomous beings who have been given something that in effect becomes part of their nature. Perhaps this can happen only by an infusion of grace, but the believer’s dependence on Christ is not like a sick man’s dependence on medicine. The sick person takes his medicine in order to be cured, and when that happens, he stops taking it because he no longer needs it. The Christian never gets to that state. To be united to Christ is more like being attached to a life-support machine (if we are to use a medical analogy) than like being prescribed a medicine. Christ makes it possible for the believer to live at all. The Christian is not “improved” in the Pelagian way but is allowed to thrive forever because he is attached to the source of his life, who is Christ. Words like grace and faith are used to describe this attachment—grace from the side of God and faith from the side of man. This is why we say that we have been saved by grace through faith, which is not our own doing, but the gift of God.[78]

With this we come back to the beginning of this section, where I asked whether Augustine believed in justification by faith alone. We recognized then that he did not use that terminology, which did not appear until a thousand years after his death and which he probably would not have understood. But when we examine what he did say and how it departed in some fundamental respects from the way of thinking that had governed most of the Christian world up to his time, we can see that his beliefs were not only compatible with the later doctrine of justification, but also foundational to it. What Augustine did was to shift the discussion from the realm of nature to the realm of relationship, which we might describe as person, grace, or faith according to the context.

Thanks to his engagement with the Pelagians, Augustine came to see that he had to reject any idea that human nature was improved, transformed, or fulfilled by divine activity, whether that activity was called “grace” or not. The image of God in man was not part of his “nature” in this sense, because while it was affected by the fall of Adam, it did not suffer any objective diminution of its powers. Insofar as it could be identified with the rational soul or mind of man, it remained unchanged. Had that not been the case, neither the incarnation of the Son nor the redemption of those who are saved could have taken place, because men and women would no longer have been properly human.

What the image of God in man really bears witness to is the fact that we are personal beings, created with a relationship to God that cannot be taken away from us even if we fall into sin. The negative side of this is that we are held guilty for the sin of Adam, not because we have sinned in the way that he did, but because we have inherited his sinfulness. Those who think that that is unjust need only reflect that if it were not so, we would not have inherited Adam’s rationality either and would not now have any chance of being saved. Salvation is putting right something that has gone wrong, not creating something that was never there or adding something to a preexisting “nature” that makes it essentially different. The believer in heaven is the same person he or she was on earth, with the same capacities and the same identity. The sins that believers commit on earth will no longer be held against them, but neither will they disappear from memory entirely. As Augustine pictured the state of the blessed in heaven:

Such is the power of knowledge—and it will be very great in the saints— that it will prevent not only their own past misery but also the eternal misery of the damned from disappearing from memory. Otherwise, if the saints were to lose the knowledge of their past misery, how would they “sing the mercies of the Lord for all eternity” as the psalm says?[79] Nothing will give more joy to the City [of God] than this song to the glory of the grace of Christ by whose blood we have been set free.[80]

What will change between this world and the next is that then we shall have a new nature, not the flesh and blood in which we live now, but a spiritual body adapted to the conditions of the heavenly realm.[81] But even in that spiritual body, we shall still know where we have come from, how we have been saved, and why we shall be singing to the praise of God’s glory for all eternity.

Content taken from Augustine on the Christian Life by Gerald Bray. © 2015. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, www.crossway.org.)


[61] Phil. 1:21.

[62] Phil. 1:6.

[63] Sermones 123.3.

[64] 1 Cor. 11:1. See also Eph. 5:1–2.

[65] Confessiones 7.14.25.

[66] De civitate Dei 10.27–29.

[67] 1 Cor. 11:1.

[68] De natura et gratia 40.47.

[69] See, for example, James 3:9 where the word “likeness” occurs instead of the more usual “image,” but clearly means the same thing.

[70] De Trinitate 14.4.6.

[71] De Genesi liber imperfectus 16.57.

[72] De vera religione 36.66. The “Form” here is to be understood as the Son in relation to the One (the Father).

[73] 1 Cor. 15:22.

[74] It was claimed that Acts 3:21 referred to this as “the restoration of all things.”

[75] Contra Iulianum 4.3.15.

[76] Rom. 8:3.

[77] De civitate Dei 22.30.

[78] Eph. 2:8–9.

[79] Ps. 89:1.

[80] De civitate Dei 22.30.

[81] 1 Cor. 15:50.


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