Augustine on Justification

Recently out NT2 class had an online discussion on the topic of the “New Perspective on Paul” (NPP). One of the issues revolves around N. T. Wright’s view of justification. Some people found themselves skeptical of Wright’s position on the basis of the fact that it is a “new” view in church history. In fact some cited Augustine as an example of the fact that justification by faith has always been the position of the church. Here is my response:

Let me push back again on the use of Augustine to support that the church always believed in justification by faith. I think your broader point that we should pay attention to church history is valid, but let me argue my case for this, since Augustine has been cited a couple of times as a supporter of the traditional protestant view.

The issue is what does Augustine mean when he says that we are justified by faith? Michael Reeves, in his book Unquenchable Flame: Discovering the Heart of the Reformation, says this: “Augustine taught that we exist in order to love God. However, we cannot naturally do so, but must pray for God to help us. This he does by ‘justifying’ us, which, Augustine said, is the act in which God pours his love into our hearts (Romans 5:5). This is the effect of the grace the God was said to channel through the sacraments: by making us more and more loving, more and more just, God ‘justifies’ us. God’s grace, on this model, was the fuel needed to become a better, more just, righteous and loving person. And this was the sort of person who finally merited salvation, according to Augustine. This is what Augustine meant when he spoke of salvation by grace.” (p. 20).

You can find a good discussion of this in Augustine’s “On the Letter and The Spirit.” His big point in that writing is to say that the Old covenant commanded what was right, but could not produce what it commanded (which I think is right on, as far as it goes). In contrast, the central point of the New Covenant is that we receive the Spirit by which we are made righteous. In light of that, notice how he talks about justification in the following places:

“Must then the unrighteous man, in order that he may be justified,—that is, become a righteous man,—lawfully use the law, to lead him, as by the schoolmaster’s hand, to that grace by which alone he can fulfill what the law commands? Now it is freely that he is justified thereby,—that is, on account of no antecedent merits of his own works; “otherwise grace is no more grace,” since it is bestowed on us, not because we have done good works, but that we may be able to do them,—in other words, not because we have fulfilled the law, but in order that we may be able to fulfill the law.” ( Notice the focus is on how grace enables us to fulfill the law by living a righteous life.

Again, he says that, “For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith. This is the righteousness of God, which was veiled in the Old Testament, and is revealed in the New; and it is called the righteousness of God, because by His bestowal of it He makes us righteous . . .” ( God gives us righteousness in the sense that he gives us the ability to live righteous lives (what we would call sanctification).

Again, he says, “Now, having duly considered and weighed all these circumstances and testimonies, we conclude that a man is not justified by the precepts of a holy life, but by faith in Jesus Christ,—in a word, not by the law of works, but by the law of faith; not by the letter, but by the spirit; not by the merits of deeds, but by free grace.” ( Notice he says that we are not justified by the letter, but by the Spirit. How can the Spirit be said to justify us? In the sense that the Spirit is the agent that transforms us into righteous people. This is the core idea of Augustine (as I understand it): it is not God’s commands that produces righteousness and holiness in us, but the gift of the spirit through faith in Christ and the sacraments. God “pours out his love in our hearts” (Rom 5:5) is how Augustine would look at it.

In conclusion, I am not sure if Augustine would disagree with Luther, but in general, he does not distinguish what we would call justification and sanctification. By the way, if any of you are interested in studying the historical dimension more, I understand that the best treatment of this is Alister McGrath, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification (Cambridge University Press, 2005).

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