Jeremy Sarber
Disciple of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, Reformed Baptist, funeral home chaplain, and host of Sunday Tapes. All glory be to Christ.

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They Still Speak

Augustine’s theology of sovereignty and joy

At the heart of Augustine’s theology is the heart, and he discovers the greatest joy of all is found only in Christ.

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Today, we continue our study of notable figures in church history, which I’ve unofficially titled, They Still Speak. Hebrews 12 tells us we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses (Heb 12:1). These so-called witnesses help us to run with endurance the race that is set before us. In context, the author of Hebrews is referring to men and women of the past who have already run their portion of the race, and they did so faithfully to the end. We can study their lives and find a great deal of encouragement.

Last week, we began looking at the life of Augustine, and we made it up to the time of his conversion. I suspect many of us can relate to his experiences and thoughts as God slowly but surely drew Augustine to himself.

I’ll begin with a brief review.

Augustine’s conversion

Augustine was born in Africa in AD 354 to an unbelieving father and a Christian mother. His mother, unsurprisingly, prayed that he would grow up to know the Lord himself, while his father wanted nothing more than to give his son the best education possible in rhetoric. He begins his education at the age of eleven, and at the age of seventeen, he moves to Carthage to complete his education.

As Augustine will later describe in his Confessions, Carthage was “a hissing cauldron of lust.” It was in Carthage that Augustine swelled with pride and conceit in his own rhetorical abilities. It was there he also found himself unable to resist the temptation of women. He began an extramarital affair with a concubine, which he would continue for the next fifteen years. In fact, even after he decided to send her away in an effort to reform himself, he couldn’t resist his impulses. He quickly found another girlfriend.

Meanwhile, Augustine develops an interest in God. He reads Cicero, who was not a Christian, and becomes infatuated with some very unbiblical ideas about God. But he’s interested in God nonetheless. He’s interested in morality and discovering eternal truth. Eventually, he moves on to other unbiblical ideas about God, but his interest in God is growing. He’s also becoming increasingly discontent with his chosen lifestyle. In other words, he’s convicted by his sin, specifically lust, but he can’t bring himself to let it go.

Then, Augustine moves to Milan, Italy, where he meets the great bishop Ambrose, and Ambrose confronts him with the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us (Jn 1:14). Augustine had come to believe God is impersonal and unknowable, but Ambrose is preaching something altogether different. According to Ambrose, God is so personal, so knowable that he became a human being and walked this earth only three hundred years before.

Augustine was captivated by Ambrose’s preaching. He later writes the following prayer to God, “Unknown to me, it was you who led me to [Ambrose], so that I might unknowingly be led by him to you.”

While Ambrose is certainly pointing Augustine to the true God of the Bible, Ambrose is also leading him into what he describes as a “madness that would bring [him] sanity” and “death that would bring [him] life.” How so? As Augustine moves closer and closer to God, his conviction of sin gets stronger and stronger. And as this guilt grows weightier, he tries harder and harder to put away his sin. Like Christian in The Pilgrim’s Progress, the burden on Augustine’s back is growing, and he’s desperately trying to figure out how to remove it, but he fails over and over again. As I said, he finally ends the relationship with his concubine only to quickly get another. He can’t break himself free from his sin.

I read this passage last time, but let me read it once more. Augustine writes:

I was astonished that although I now loved you … I did not persist in enjoyment of my God. Your beauty drew me to you, but soon I was dragged away from you by my own weight and in dismay I plunged again into the things of this world … as though I had sensed the fragrance of the fare but was not yet able to eat it.

In short, Augustine’s dilemma is that he’s learned enough about God to know he should love God—more than that, he wants to love God—but he doesn’t know how to love God more than his sin. He says, “I did not persist in enjoyment of my God.” Every time he tried, he failed, and he seems to be painfully aware that if anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1Jn 2:15). What is he supposed to do? This was the madness he experienced. He’s trying to love God through sheer willpower and self-determination, but he fails every time and soon returns to his sin.

What was the answer? Augustine writes, “I began to search for a means of gaining the strength I needed to enjoy you [speaking to God], but I could not find this means until I embraced the mediator between God and men, Jesus Christ.” In other words, he would never find the answer in himself or by his own efforts. It wasn’t until he finally gave up this vain attempt to overcome his own sin that he found the cure. He stopped looking to himself for salvation and turned to Christ alone.

Those fruitless joys

Let me read one of my favorite passages from Augustine’s Confessions. He writes:

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. 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.

I remember having a late-night conversation with a friend when I was a child. I remember asking him, “How do you know whether you’re saved?”

He responded, “Well, I think I heard my dad say that if you love God, you must be saved.”

I remember saying to my friend, “Well, that’s good because I love God,” but the truth is, I really struggled with that answer. I struggled with that answer for years. I struggled because it felt right to me. It made sense. I struggled because it felt right and because I had serious, well-founded doubts about my love for God. When I was honest with myself, I knew I loved many other things more than God.

That was Augustine’s dilemma. He says, “How sweet all at once it was for me to be rid of those fruitless joys which I had once feared to lose.” Why wasn’t he converted sooner? He enjoyed his sin. He enjoyed his sin more than God and feared that by leaving his sin behind, he would also leave his greatest joys behind.

I’m certain many unbelievers share Augustine’s perspective. Just a few weeks ago, I preached at the funeral of a longtime alcoholic. He basically drank himself to death. By God’s grace, however, he did not die with alcohol in his system. About a year before his death, he repented of sin, threw himself at the mercy of God, professed his wholehearted trust in the Savior, became a Christian, and never touched a drop of alcohol again.

At his funeral, an old friend of his stood up to speak near the end of the service. She said, “I’ve heard a lot said today about the new, godly Randy, but I never met that version of Randy, and I don’t think I would want to meet him because the old Randy was a blast.”

Here’s what I heard her say. I’d rather my friend drink himself to death than become a boring Christian. In her mind, to become a Christian is to sacrifice joy, and why would anyone want to do that? But according to Augustine, that kind of fear is unfounded. He could look back and say, “Thank God I can be rid of those fruitless joys I once feared to lose.” On the other side of the cross, if you will, he discovered those things that once brought him pleasure could not compare with the joy he found in Christ. He thoroughly and emphatically enjoyed God through Christ.

How did this happen? Here we come to the cornerstone of Augustine’s theology. At the heart of Augustine’s theology is the heart.

Sovereign joy

In John 14, Jesus tells his disciples, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (Jn 14:15). When many of us read that statement, we hear, “If you want to love Christ, you must keep his commandments. Keeping his commandments is loving him.” There’s some truth to that, but Augustine hears something a little different in that verse. He hears, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (Jn 14:15). And someone responds, “Of course, that’s what he hears. That’s precisely what the text says.”

Listen closely. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (Jn 14:15). Obedience does not become love. Love becomes obedience.

Similarly, the apostle John writes, “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome” (1Jn 5:3). Notice that the one who loves God not only keeps his commandments but also finds them relatively easy. They are not burdensome to him. He loves God and delights in pleasing him. He wants to keep the commandments. His heart is bent Godward, and that is where he finds his greatest joy.

For Augustine, the heart of sound theology—particularly, sound soteriology, the doctrines of salvation—is the heart. It’s a matter of joy and affection. What separates the believer from the unbeliever, according to Augustine, is not that one goes to church while the other doesn’t. It’s not that one prays while the other doesn’t. It’s not that one does good deeds while the other doesn’t. It’s that one truly enjoys God more than the world, while the other enjoys the world more than God.

In his Confessions, Augustine writes, “Without exception we all long for happiness … all agree that they want to be happy. … They may all search for it in different ways, but all try their hardest to reach the same goal, that is, joy.” The pursuit of happiness is what drives each of us. Typically, we don’t voluntarily make decisions that we know will bring us misery. We all want to be happy, and we try our best to move in the direction of increased happiness.

Of course, Augustine discovered the greatest joy of all is found only in Christ. Again, he says:

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. You drove them from me and took their place, you who are sweeter than all pleasure.

Notice that phrase sovereign joy. That tells us a lot about Augustine’s theology, particularly regarding salvation. Most of us are quite familiar with references to God’s sovereign grace, but what is sovereign joy?

For Augustine, sovereign grace and sovereign joy, though there is a distinction to be made between them, are essentially one and the same. You can’t be the recipient of God’s sovereign grace without also being the recipient of his sovereign joy. In other words, to be saved by grace is to be saved to enjoy God. Again, the heart is at the heart of Augustine’s theology. One of the great miracles of salvation is that God gives us joy in him that triumphs over our fruitless joys in sin.

We should keep in mind, though, Augustine was clear about this joy being a sovereign joy. It is sovereign in that God gives it without anyone earning it or anyone persuading him to give it. He gives it simply because he purposes to give it. It’s also sovereign in that it reigns supreme in our hearts. Believers may still face temptations and fall into sin at times, but the prevailing force in our lives will always be the love of God. As Romans 5 says, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Ro 5:5).

Augustine versus Pelagius

Augustine’s understanding of the sinner’s depravity and God’s sovereignty took time to develop. Not long after his conversion, he wrote a book titled, On the Freedom of the Will, which was later used by his theological opponents to discredit some of his arguments. His book, Confessions, came ten years later after he had time to mature and arrive at a much fuller understanding of the human condition and salvation itself.

Augustine’s best-known dissenter was a British monk by the name of Pelagius. Pelagius picked up a copy of Augustine’s Confessions and was shocked to read the following passage. Augustine writes, “Give me the grace [O Lord] to do as you command, and command me to do what you will! … O holy God … when your commands are obeyed, it is from you that we receive the power to obey them.”

I trust most of us do not detect any problems in that statement. If we turn back to the Old Testament, we find that man’s natural inability to obey God is a core feature of the new covenant. For example, the prophet Ezekiel writes:

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezekiel 36:25-27)

This is God’s way of saying, “If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.” God’s people of the Old Testament failed to keep his commandments generation after generation. They would fall into sin, God would punish them, they would repent, God would renew his covenant with them, and they would fall into sin all over again. Time and time again, they proved they could not keep his law.

The promise of the new covenant was God saying, “You can’t keep my law, not apart from my divine work in your hearts. I will remove the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and—what?—cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” (Eze 36:26, 27). He will accomplish our obedience himself.

The apostle Paul echos this promise in Ephesians 2 when he writes:

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:8-10)

Again, Augustine writes, “Give me the grace [O Lord] to do as you command. … When your commands are obeyed, it is from you that we receive the power to obey them.” That is entirely biblical, but Pelagius is offended. He is a well-disciplined teacher of morality who believes in the goodness and freedom of humanity.

Pelagius argues that if God gives us commands, we must be able to obey them. He reasons that it would be illogical and unfair for God to demand something of someone he or she isn’t capable of doing. He frequently extolls the virtue of man and our inherent ability to do God’s will. He once said, “As often as I have to speak about moral improvement and the leading of a holy life, I am accustomed first to set forth the power and quality of human nature and to show what it can accomplish.”

According to Pelagius, “[Man has] the absolutely equal ability at every moment to do good or evil.” His slogan became, “Whatever I ought to do, I can do.” Just compare that mantra with Augustine. Augustine said, “Give me the grace [O Lord] to do as you command.” Augustine is bowed before the throne of God, humbly begging to receive the ability to do good, while Pelagius seems to be thumping his chest, shouting, “I can do it all.”

If you feel I’m exaggerating, Pelagius believes it is at least theoretically possible for someone to be perfect. Jesus said, “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). Since Pelagius assumes command implies ability, it must be possible for us to be perfect because Jesus commands us to be perfect.

Pelagius denies original sin. He believes Adam’s sin affected only Adam. The rest of us are born morally neutral. We aren’t born sinners. We merely choose to sin. And if someone wants to be righteous, all he has to do is beat himself into submission, pull himself up by his bootstraps, and become righteous. Yes, we need God’s grace, but everyone already has a measure of his grace.

You won’t be surprised to learn that Augustine passionately disagreed. Even if the Bible had not taught him about original sin and the depravity of man, his own experiences told him more than enough. He writes:

Who has it in his power to have such a motive present to his mind that his will shall be influenced to believe? Who can welcome in his mind something which does not give him delight? Who has it in his power to ensure that something that will delight him will turn up? Or that he will take delight in what turns up? If those things delight us which serve our advancement towards God, that is due not to our own whim or industry or meritorious works, but to the inspiration of God and to the grace which he bestows.

Again, a core part of Augustine’s theology is the heart. He’s asking, “How can you make yourself love something you don’t love?” It’s like telling a man to pursue a woman he’s not attracted to. It’s like telling him to love a woman he doesn’t love and expecting him to love her sincerely. Man may have free will, but that will is bound by two things. First, our will is bound by ability. We cannot accomplish something we’re not able to accomplish. Second, our will is bound by desire. We will inevitably pursue what we enjoy.

Augustine says:

A man’s free-will, indeed, avails for nothing except to sin, if he knows not the way of truth; and even after his duty and his proper aim shall begin to become known to him, unless he also take delight in and feel a love for it, he neither does his duty, nor sets about it, nor lives rightly. Now, in order that such a course may engage our affections, God’s “love is shed abroad in our hearts,” not through the free-will which arises from ourselves, but “through the Holy Ghost, which is given to us” (Ro 5:5).

To be clear, both men believe in free will. Both men believe in moral accountability. Both men believe in what we might call Christian freedom. For Augustine, though, true freedom is not struggling with a perpetual choice between good and evil. In his estimation, true freedom is the ability to enjoy God so much that sin becomes contemptible. In his estimation, the struggle of choice between good and evil only exists in a fallen world. In other words, God’s grace doesn’t merely grant us the potential to do good. It gives us a strong, unyielding affection for good. It causes us to hunger and thirst for God. It is sovereign joy, which does not remove our ability to sin, but it fundamentally transforms the desires of our hearts.

As Romans 3 says:

“None is righteous, no, not one;
no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.”

“Their throat is an open grave;
they use their tongues to deceive.”

“The venom of asps is under their lips.”
“Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
“Their feet are swift to shed blood;
in their paths are ruin and misery,
and the way of peace they have not known.”

“There is no fear of God before their eyes.” (Romans 3:10-18)

Genesis 6 says of humanity in the days of Noah, “The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Ge 6:5).

This is Anthropology 101. As the Baptist Confession states:

Humanity, by falling into a state of sin, has completely lost all ability to choose any spiritual good that accompanies salvation. Thus, people in their natural state are absolutely opposed to spiritual good and dead in sin, so that they cannot convert themselves by their own strength or prepare themselves for conversion.

The next paragraph says, “When God converts sinners and transforms them into the state of grace, he frees them from their natural bondage to sin and by his grace alone enables them to will and to do freely what is spiritually good.” It is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure (Php 2:13).

Here’s the problem as Augustine saw it:

The soul of men shall hope under the shadow of Thy wings; they shall be made drunk with the fullness of Thy house; and of the torrents of Thy pleasures Thou wilt give them to drink; for in Thee is the Fountain of Life, and in Thy Light shall we see the light? Give me a man in love; he knows what I mean. Give me one who yearns; give me one who is hungry; give me one far away in this desert, who is thirsty and sighs for the spring of the Eternal country. Give me that sort of man: he knows what I mean. But if I speak to a cold man, he just does not know what I am talking about.

Why doesn’t he know? His heart isn’t yet changed. How can a man’s heart be changed? By his free will and effort? No.

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved. (Ephesians 2:1-5)

From death to life. From carrying out the desires of the body and the mind to sovereign joy (Eph 2:3). We were dead in our trespasses, but God made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved (Eph 2:5, 4).

The grace of God prevailed

Neither Augustine nor Pelagius ever budged in this debate. In AD 427, just three years before his death, Augustine writes to a friend, “I have tried hard to maintain the free choice of the human will, but the grace of God prevailed.” By his own admission, Augustine combatted more than eighty heresies throughout his life, but somehow his fight against Pelagianism always remained a priority. When asked why he spent so much of his time and energy on this subject, he replied:

First and foremost because no subject [but grace] gives me greater pleasure. For what ought to be more attractive to us sick men, than grace, grace by which we are healed; for us lazy men, than grace, grace by which we are stirred up; for us men longing to act, than grace, by which we are helped?

Pelagius remained equally stubborn, though his motivations were certainly different. He blamed so-called Augustinian teaching for the lack of holiness he saw in people when he traveled. He thought Augustine’s doctrine of sovereign joy made people lazy and complacent, but as we’ve just heard from Augustine, what’s better than God’s grace at stirring men up and giving them the means to act? Apart from grace, all we have are empty works. Apart from grace, there can be no sincere love for God.

In AD 417, Pelagius was excluded from the church for heresy. Pelagianism was then condemned at the Council of Carthage a year later. In fact, it was condemned a few more times over the years because it continued to make a comeback in one form or another. Even today, we find traces of it all over the place. R.C. Sproul once said the church today is very largely in Pelagian captivity. He went on to summarize Pelagianism as the teaching that “though grace may facilitate the achieving of righteousness, it is not necessary to that end.”

Obviously, the antidote to Pelagianism is Augustine’s sovereign joy. The question is, where did these ideas about sovereign joy come from? In short, they came from the Bible.

I’ve noticed a stark difference between the arguments of Pelagius and Augustine. Augustine is thoroughly biblical. His writings are saturated with both direct references and allusions to Scripture. Pelagius, on the other hand, begins with an idea, and as logical as his idea may seem, he fails to provide proof from God’s word.

I’ll never forget the story of the preacher who was visited by a Jehovah’s Witness. The man knocked on the preacher’s door and began his usual spiel. The preacher interrupts and says, “Hold on a second,” and runs back inside to get his Bible. It doesn’t take the Jehovah’s Witness long to realize this guy knows the Bible, and he tries to quickly flee the scene, but the preacher follows him down the sidewalk.

After a block or so, the Jehovah’s Witness is tired of hearing what the preacher has to say. He turns around and says, “You see, that’s your problem. You can’t understand the Bible without one of our qualified elders teaching it to you.”

The preacher replies, “No, that’s your problem. You would never believe some of the things you do if someone had not told you to believe them. If you relied on Scripture alone, your understanding would be different.”

Lessons from Augustine

We can learn a lot from Augustine. We learn to rely on Scripture alone rather than leaning on our own understanding. We learn to depend entirely upon God and his grace. We learn there is no means of righteousness and salvation apart from Christ. We learn the power of prayer. I didn’t mention it before, but Augustine was eternally grateful for the prayers of his mother. He wholeheartedly believed Jesus when he said, “Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full” (Jn 16:24).

Perhaps more than anything, Augustine teaches us that Christianity is more than traditions, doctrines, and good works. While God certainly redeems us to believe the right things and do the right things, we believe the right things and do the right things because of his sovereign joy. He doesn’t merely turn our steps in a new direction. He gives us a new heart. He frees us from “fruitless joys,” the only joys we could know while we were dead in our sin. He frees us to enjoy him forever.