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

Saint Augustine’s conversion to Christianity

God leads Augustine to a much-needed breaking point, where he finally throws himself at the mercy of God and learns to trust in Christ alone for salvation.

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Hebrews 11:4 says of Abel, “Through his faith, though he died, he still speaks.

Today, we continue a study of some of the most notable figures in church history who still speak to us after all these years through their incredible legacies of their faith. Last time, we considered Athanasius. This time, we will move ahead less than a century and consider Augustine of Hippo. In fact, there was some overlap between these two men. Athanasius died when Augustine was maybe nineteen or twenty years old. To my knowledge, they never met.

Philosopher, theologian, mystic, and poet

Augustine may be the most interesting man in church history. I don’t know of anyone respected and embraced as their own by as many people and denominations as Augustine.

For example, the funeral home where I work hosted a pastor’s appreciation breakfast last year. Just a few days before the breakfast, I had finished re-reading Augustine’s well-known book, Confessions, and it became a topic of conversation a few times. When I mentioned it to a Baptist pastor, he responded, “There’s a lot of truth and wisdom to be found in Augustine’s writings.” When I mentioned it to a Catholic priest, he said, “Augustine is one of the greats.”

Interestingly enough, an Episcopalian pastor mentioned something about receiving Augustinian training in addition to her seminary, so I naturally brought up the book I had just read. She glanced at me, puzzled, and asked, “You read Augustine? Why?” For reasons unknown to me, she wasn’t a fan.

Protestants love Augustine. Catholics love Augustine. Both sides of the Reformation appealed to the writings and teachings of Augustine. Can you think of anyone else in church history for whom that is true?

Even secular philosophers love Augustine. He was a modern man ahead of his time. One of the most distinct characteristics of modern man is his introspection. Read Augustine’s Confessions. Every page of it is Augustine examining himself at some of the deepest levels. Some have even credited him with discovering the sub-conscience. As one author has said, “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.”

If you’re wondering how both Protestants and Catholics could simultaneously adore Augustine, I suppose part is due to misunderstanding him and his doctrines. I think most of it, though, is the consequence of (1) Augustine growing in his understanding over the years and (2) Augustine leaning Catholic in his ecclesiology and Protestant in his soteriology. In other words, he grew up to become a practicing Catholic who also believed in the doctrines of grace—namely, the total depravity of man and the sovereign grace of God.

To be clear, Augustine never made it his mission to be liked by everyone. History has been relatively kind to him, but he proved to be quite a divisive person even when he wasn’t trying to be, which we’ll come to eventually.

A hissing cauldron of lust

Augustine was born in what is now Algeria, Africa, on November 13, 354. His mother was a Christian. His father was not, but he worked very hard as a middle-income farmer to get his son the best education possible in rhetoric. He sent Augustine to school about twenty miles from home when Augustine was eleven. Augustine returned home when he was sixteen, remained home for a year, then went back to school in Carthage until he was twenty.

What exactly does one do with a degree in rhetoric? I don’t know about everyone else, but Augustine became a teacher of rhetoric. Of course, he put his education to use in his preaching and writing. He was undeniably gifted in his ability to structure arguments and communicate in general. For the better part of a decade before his conversion to Christ, one could pay him to argue a case, and he was quite effective.

You might think Augustine would be thankful for his father and, specifically, the education his father provided him, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. Instead, he indirectly blames his father for his sins when he goes to school in Carthage. Here’s what he says:

As I grew to manhood, I was inflamed with desire for a surfeit of hell’s pleasures. … My family made no effort to save me from my fall by marriage. Their only concern was that I should learn how to make a good speech and how to persuade others by my words.

Specifically, he says of his father, “He took no trouble at all to see how I was growing in your sight [O God] or whether I was chaste or not. He cared only that I should have a fertile tongue.”

By the way, Augustine writes the entirety of his Confessions as though he’s speaking to God. As far as I know, he didn’t mean that to be a creative approach to writing, but it certainly has a powerful impact on readers. If you’ve ever written out your prayers to God, you probably know how profound the experience can be. You also know how honest and intimate the writing can be, and Augustine’s Confessions feels very candid and intimate.

While Augustine was studying in Carthage, his father was converted to Christ and died a year later, but Augustine mentions his father’s death only once in all of his writings. After what I’ve already read, he remains silent about his father for the rest of his life. We can only speculate regarding why, but it will become clear that Augustine eventually hated his sin. He hated his struggle against sin. It held him captive for years and years, and he always pointed to that time in Carthage as the beginning of the sin with which he struggled the most. I suspect he harbored resentment against his father for sending him there in the first place.

Here is what Augustine says about his experience in Carthage:

I went to Carthage, where I found myself in the midst of a hissing cauldron of lust. … My real need was for you, my God, who are the food of the soul. I was not aware of this hunger. … I was at the top of the school of rhetoric. I was pleased with my superior status and swollen with conceit. … It was my ambition to be a good speaker, for the unhallowed and inane purpose of gratifying human vanity.

Though Augustine doesn’t mention his father in these statements, you can hear the subtle resentment he carries. His father was the one who sent him into “a hissing cauldron of lust.” He says, “My real need was for you, my God, [but] I was not aware of this hunger.” It reads as though what he really meant was, “I was not made aware of this hunger.” I don’t know whether he truly resented his father, but he does appear to hold him largely responsible for the circumstances in which he found himself.

By his own admission, Augustine was “swollen with conceit.” His singular ambition at the time was to gratify his vanity. Even so, pride would not be the sin that ultimately held him captive for years to come. His greatest struggle would prove to be lust. In fact, he began an extramarital affair with a concubine while he was still in Carthage. Today, many would call her a girlfriend and think nothing of it, but the Bible calls it sinful fornication.

Before I go any further in Augustine’s story, I want to share another quote regarding this time in his life. He said, “I was willing to steal, and steal I did, although I was not compelled by any lack.” That’s a remarkable insight into his sinful behavior. He doesn’t make any excuses for himself. He doesn’t claim to have stolen because he was hungry or destitute of food. He stole for no other reason than to steal. He stole for stealing’s sake. He sinned because he got pleasure from sinning.

“I was willing to steal, and steal I did, although I was not compelled by any lack.” That statement perfectly captures the essence of human depravity. The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick (Jer 17:9). The sinner may try to convince himself he has a legitimate reason for sinning, but we don’t sin because we’re back into a corner with no other choice. We sin because we want to sin. By nature, we simply enjoy sin. As we’ll see, this understanding becomes quite foundational in Augustine’s theology.

Infatuation with Manichaeism

Some of you may know Augustine’s conversion story, but you may not know the full story. In a sense, his conversion took place over the course of eleven years. Starting at age nineteen, he began to realize just how self-absorbed he was and his interest in God and spiritual matters increased. Of all things, it was the writings of the Roman statesman and philosopher Marcus Cicero that prompted his quest for wisdom and truth above mere physical gratification.

We should understand that Augustine thought of himself as an intellectual. At the very least, he aspired to be an intellectual. Meanwhile, he saw Christians as anti-intellectual in many respects. For example, he eventually thought of his mother as a model of wisdom, but for many years, intelligence was not a quality he attributed to her. He thought her faith was naive and foolish.

Then, Augustine discovered Cicero. Here, he thought, is an intellectual concerned with morality and eternal truth. While Cicero wasn’t a believer, he still pointed Augustine’s interests toward God. Augustine writes:

It altered my outlook on life. It changed my prayers to you, O Lord, and provided me with new hopes and aspirations. All my empty dreams suddenly lost their charm and my heart began to throb with a bewildering passion for the wisdom of eternal truth. I began to climb out of the depths to which I had sunk, in order to return to you. … My God, how I burned with longing to have wings to carry me back to you, away from all earthly things, although I had no idea what you would do with me! For yours is the wisdom. In Greek the word “philosophy” means “love of wisdom,” and it was with this love that the [writing of Cicero] inflamed me.

When I say this moment was the beginning of Augustine’s conversion, I’m using the word conversion very loosely. Cicero did nothing to lead him to Christ. Cicero did, however, prompt him to begin thinking about morality and God as he never had before. Unfortunately, Cicero’s philosophical work did not point him to Christ or even the God of the Bible. Instead, he became infatuated with Manichaeism for the next nine years. In short, he joined a cult that believed God and Satan, good and evil, are equally powerful, competing forces in this world.

While the details may be different, Augustine’s story is beginning to sound familiar. A young man goes to school, succumbs to peer pressure, gets a girlfriend, and comes to believe he’s smarter than his parents. My own mother used to remind herself, “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it” (Pr 22:6 KJV). I wonder how many times Augustine’s mother prayerfully read that proverb and hoped for a day she would see her son be saved.

By God’s providence, Augustine finally left Carthage when he was twenty-nine. In AD 384, he moved to Milan, Italy, where he met the great bishop Ambrose. If people knew nothing else about Ambrose, they knew he was a staunch defender of the Nicene Creed. He was still fighting against the same heresies that Athanasius spent his life fighting against. Interestingly enough, though, everyone loved Ambrose. He was so well-respected that even his theological opponents insisted he become their bishop. He also had a somewhat contrarian view regarding the relationship between church and state. He believed the state was subject to the church, not the other way around, but that’s a topic for another day.

Converted to Neoplatonism

Before the paths of Ambrose and Augustine cross, Augustine takes another small step in his so-called conversion. He discovers Neoplatonism. Neoplatonism is a very challenging term to define because it encompasses a series of ideas and philosophical perspectives, which I’m convinced can only make sense to a lost person.

Under Manichaeism, Augustine had a very low view of God. His understanding of God was vastly inferior to the true God of the Bible. Under Neoplatonism, his view of God expanded. He came to see God not as a personal, knowable being but as transcendent, flowing through the material world. This version of God is known only through a series of emanations all around us. We can know he’s there, but we can’t really know him.

Augustine says, “I had my back to the light and my face was turned towards the things which it illumined, so that my eyes, by which I saw the things which stood in the light, were themselves in darkness.”

If you’re as slow as me, you have to read that passage several times before you begin to grasp what Augustine is saying. He’s beginning to see glimpses of God and truth, but he’s still spiritually blind. As they say, even a broken clock is right twice a day. Romans 1 says:

What can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. (Romans 1:19, 20)

Augustine sees evidence of God in the material world, but that’s not the same as knowing God. In a sense, he’s perceiving God and suppressing the truth of God all at once. As the 1689 Baptist Confession says:

The light of nature and the works of creation and providence so clearly demonstrate the goodness, wisdom, and power of God that people are left without excuse; however, these demonstrations are not sufficient to give the knowledge of God and his will that is necessary for salvation.

Enter Ambrose.

The Word became flesh

Augustine and Ambrose finally cross paths in Milan, and the preaching of Ambrose confronts him with an extremely challenging truth of God. According to Ambrose, God became flesh. John’s Gospel tells us:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (Jn 1:1, 14)

God becoming flesh is a hard pill to swallow when you have come to believe God is impersonal and unknowable. Augustine had come to believe God is little more than a spiritual force. He’s in us. He’s around us. He’s the epitome of intelligence. He’s the soul of the world, but he’s not really a person. One can’t know him or have a relationship with him.

If what Ambrose is teaching about God is true, then God is knowable. In fact, he was ImmanuelGod with us (Mt 1:23). He became flesh and dwelt among us (Jn 1:14). God could not become any more knowable than that. He was a human being whom people could see, speak with, and touch. And Augustine is captivated, returning week after week to hear Ambrose preach about this God.

Augustine writes:

In Milan I found your devoted servant the bishop Ambrose. … At that time his gifted tongue never tired of dispensing the richness of your corn, the joy of your oil, and the sober intoxication of your wine. Unknown to me, it was you who led me to him, so that I might unknowingly be led by him to you.

I was all ears to seize upon his eloquence. I also began to sense the truth of what he said, though only gradually. … I thrilled with love and dread alike. I realized that I was far away from you … and, far off, I heard your voice saying I am the God who IS. I heard your voice, as we hear voices that speak in our hearts, and at once I had no cause to doubt.

Even so, by Augustine’s own admission, he was not yet converted. He continues:

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 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.

Do not love the world

Before we discuss what is holding Augustine back, I want you to notice his profound understanding of salvation. Again, he says, “I was astonished that although I now loved you … I did not persist in enjoyment of my God.” In other words, he understood true conversion to be something more than a change in behavior. It’s something more than a religious ritual. According to Augustine, true conversion is that moment when you love and enjoy God more than anything else.

If you know the Westminster Catechism, you likely know the first question, which asks, “What is the chief and highest end of man?” Answer: “Man’s chief and highest end is to glorify God, and fully to enjoy him for ever.”

The apostle John writes, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1Jn 2:15).

Augustine realizes he still loves the world more than God. He wants to love God. He sees God as worthy of his love, yet he still finds himself in bondage to sin. He says, “I was still held firm in the bonds of woman’s love.”

Augustine’s mother eventually comes to Milan and begins to arrange a proper marriage for him, but he rebels against it. Though it breaks his heart, he does send away his concubine of fifteen years along with their son. Yes, they had a son together, which creates its own ethical dilemma, but he ended the relationship and sent them back to Africa nonetheless. Then, unable to control his impulses, he gets himself another girlfriend. This is what he says about it:

The woman with whom I had been living was torn from my side as an obstacle to my marriage, and this was a blow that crushed my heart to bleeding, because I loved her dearly. She went back to Africa, vowing never to give herself to any other man. … But I was too unhappy and too weak to imitate this example set me by a woman. … I took another mistress, without the sanction of wedlock.

I’m sure many of us can relate. When I was in my early twenties, I remember feeling tortured by thoughts of God. I wanted to love him. I knew he was worthy of my love, but I loved my sin more. What ultimately held me back from true conversion was the nagging thought that I could never successfully quit my sin. I was addicted to my sin, and I knew I was incapable of breaking myself free from it.

Augustine seems to have the same problem, and at the heart of the problem is this notion that he must free himself. What does he do? He sends his concubine away. Problem solved, right? No. With or without this woman in his life, his love for sin still remains. He still loves his sin more than God.

Jesus told the following story in Matthew 12. He said:

When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, but finds none. Then it says, “I will return to my house from which I came.” And when it comes, it finds the house empty, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there, and the last state of that person is worse than the first. (Matthew 12:43-45)

That’s the picture of a sinner who attempts to make himself righteous through his own efforts. If only I do X, Y, and Z, I’ll be okay. In a nearly comical scene, Jesus describes this person as cleaning house only to make his house that much more appealing to the unclean spirits, and they return sevenfold.

In hindsight, Augustine realizes his mistake. As he finds himself drawn closer and closer to God, he grows to hate his sin more and more. Therefore, he tries harder and harder to overcome his sin. As he tries harder and harder to overcome his sin, his sin seems to gain a stronger and stronger hold over him. As we’ll discover, God is leading him to a much-needed breaking point, where he finally throws himself at the mercy of God and learns to trust in Christ alone for salvation.

Put on the Lord Jesus Christ

Augustine comes to his wits’ end at the age of thirty-two. He doesn’t know what to do. It’s late August 386. He’s spending the afternoon with his best friend, Alypius, and I’ll let Augustine tell you the story.

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.

Speaking of the sin, which kept such a strong hold on him, he says:

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.

In this climatic battle for Augustine’s soul, Augustine feels the desires of his flesh tugging at him. “You can’t walk away from us,” they say. “You need us. You want us. You love us.” But Augustine also sees the “serene, unsullied joy” of self-control on the other side of the wall. For the first time, he’s captivated by the beauty of what lies beyond always succumbing to sin. He says:

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 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: “Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Ro 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.

As Augustine summarizes elsewhere, “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.”

At this moment, Augustine realizes he’s utterly helpless. He’s been trying to do what he’s incapable of doing. And according to God’s wisdom and providence, he must enter into this “madness that would bring [him] sanity,” “a death that would bring [him] life.” He’s come to the end of hope in himself. And at the end, who does he see? “The mediator between God and men, Jesus Christ.” He was desperately trying to figure out how he could possibly love God more than his sins, and the answer was not willpower or self-determination. It was Jesus Christ.

Augustine is never with another woman for the rest of his life. He commits himself to celibacy and never looks back. He also spends his remaining years using his rhetorical skills to advance the gospel and defend the truth of God’s sovereign grace.

A slave may not contradict his Lord

Ambrose baptizes Augustine the following Easter. Later that year, his mother dies a very happy woman, knowing her son would eventually join her in heaven.

Soon after, Augustine decides he’d like to lead a relatively quiet life near his old hometown in Africa. He thinks he’ll move into a monastery and live out his days studying, praying, and meditating, but God has other plans. Augustine moves to the port city of Hippo primarily because they already have a bishop, so he thinks he’ll be able to avoid serving in a pastoral role or another leadership position in the church. He was wrong. The church practically forced him to become a priest and, later, a bishop.

According to Peter Brown’s excellent biography simply titled, Augustine of Hippo, Augustine later remarks in a sermon to his congregation:

A slave may not contradict his Lord. I came to this city to see a friend, whom I thought I might gain for God, that he might live with us in the monastery. I felt secure, for the place already had a bishop. I was grabbed. I was made a priest … and from there, I became your bishop.

Whether he wanted it or not, God would not let Augustine have the quiet life he anticipated for himself. At the age of thirty-six, he becomes a bishop and spends the next forty years pastoring the churches, raising up ministers, writing several significant books, and, as I said before, defending the truth of God’s sovereign grace, which we’ll discuss next time as we consider the latter half of his life.