My reflection on Augustine’s On the Grace of Christ, and on Original Sin (Book I)

What is our way out when facing temptation? What is our help? In what way are we assisted by God? Let’s see Augustine’s wrestling with Pelagius on this before we come to any conclusion.

Chapter 6 [V.]— Pelagius and Paul of Different Opinions.

For we cannot help knowing that, according to his belief, it is not ourvolition nor our action which is assisted by the divine help, but solely our capacity to will and act, which alone of the three, as he affirms, we have of God. As if that faculty were infirm which God Himself placed in our nature; while the other two, which, as he would have it, are our own, are so strong and firm and self-sufficient as to require none of His help! so that He does not help us to will, nor help us to act, but simply helps us to the possibility of willing and acting……. The whole of this dogma of Pelagius, observe, is carefully expressed in these words, and none other, in the third book of his treatise in defence of the liberty of the will, in which he has taken care to distinguish with so great subtlety these three things,— the capacity, the volition, and theaction, that is, the ability, the volition, and the actuality,— that, whenever we read or hear of his acknowledging the assistance of divine grace in order to our avoidance of evil and accomplishment of good,— whatever he may mean by the said assistance of grace, whether law and the teaching or any other thing,— we are sure of what he says; nor can we run into any mistake by understanding him otherwise than he means. For we cannot help knowing that, according to his belief, it is not ourvolition nor our action which is assisted by the divine help, but solely our capacity to will and act, which alone of the three, as he affirms, we have of God. As if that faculty were infirm which God Himself placed in our nature; while the other two, which, as he would have it, are our own, are so strong and firm and self-sufficient as to require none of His help! so that He does not help us to will, nor help us to act, but simply helps us to the possibility of willing and acting. The apostle, however, holds the contrary, when he says, Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. Philippians 2:12 And that they might be sure that it was not simply in their being able to work (for this they had already received innature and in teaching), but in their actual working, that they weredivinely assisted, the apostle does not say to them, For it is God that works in you to be able, as if they already possessed volition and operation among their own resources, without requiring His assistance in respect of these two; but he says, For it is God which works in you both to will and to perform of His own good pleasure; Philippians 2:13 or, as the reading runs in other copies, especially the Greek, both to will and to operate. Consider, now, whether the apostle did not thus long before foresee by the Holy Ghost that there would arise adversaries of the graceof God; and did not therefore declare that God works within us those two very things, even willing and operating, which this man so determined to be our own, as if they were in no wise assisted by the help of divine grace.

So, according to Pelagius, we have a “capacity" which is helped by God, an assistance not avail to our volition and action.  And according to him, “[God] does not help us to will, nor help us to act, but simply helps us to the possibility of willing and acting"

Indeed we do need to have his assistance to work in us “to will and to perform".  As told by Paul also in 2 Tim 1:7, spirit of power and strength, of love, and of self-control is from God.  But in reality, more often we feel what Pelagius is arguing.  This “spirit" does not aid us in anyway or in a way one can very assuredly claim.  

Now the question is when and how that “assistance" is at work.  As N. T. Wright says,

True freedom is the gift of the spirit, the result of grace; but, precisely because it is freedom for as well as freedom from, it isn’t simply a matter of being forced now to be good, against out wills and without our co-operation ……, but a matter of being released from slavery precisely into responsibility, into being able at last to choose, to exercise moral muscle, knowing both that one is doing it oneself and that the spirit is at work within, that God himself is doing that which I too am doing. N. T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, (London: SPCK, 2009), 164.


My personal experience for years has been that for volition and for action, our flesh is so weak and easily tempted by sin.  When Paul says “flesh" in Romans 7, he must have included will as part of our flesh.  In a sudden, our flesh which seems so stable, strong, and in control can suddenly betray us, and sell itself to sin to be enslaved again in sin.  

Let me quote again from Augustine where he refers to Pelagius, that says:

Chapter 2 [II.]— Suspicious Character of Pelagius’ Confession as to the Necessity of Grace for Every Single Act of Ours.

“…….Because, although he (Pelagius) makes that grace of God whereby Christ came into the world to save sinners to consist simply in the remission of sins, he can still accommodate his words to this meaning, by alleging that the necessity of such grace for every hour and for every moment and for every action of our life (my italic), comes to this, that while we recollect and keep in mind the forgiveness of our past sins, we sin no more, aided not by any supply of power from without, but by the powers of our own will as it recalls to our mind, in every action we do, what advantage has been conferred upon us by the remission of sins."

What Pelagius is advocating here, to Paul it is not enough.  Truly in my personal experience, I find the clause “while we recollect and keep in mind the forgiveness of our past sin," and we are able to “sin no more, aided not by any supply of power from without" does not come through.  My will which always captivated in my flesh should be free because my past sin is forgiven, able to will and do whatever is good.  But too often and too easily, my will and action follow not me which is supposed to be free, but flesh that captivates.  If God does not assist me in my will and action, I would fail very often.  But what if what Pelagius is arguing is right.  Indeed, because God does not assist us in our volition and action, but simply in our “capacity", my experience is closer to the truth.

Paul never talks about the remission of our flesh, but simply saying that we should not follow the wish our flesh.  Yes.  We should not.  But for the “should" and “ought", as far as they belong to the realm of “will" or “volition", we always find them, as well as all moral imperatives, unable to assist us in anyway when they are ready to go along with the “will" to submit to the flesh.

But if this will or volition which is not assisted or injected with some strength by God, our effort to live according to the will of God is in vain we think that we will finally reach the goal, but not if we mean to train this will as one trains his muscle.  The substance and essence of the muscle remains the same, it just becomes stronger and carries more strength.  But it still can be hurt, lose its function, and be very weak sometimes.  We do not change the nature of our muscle through workout, but the muscle has its potential to be trained.

I am not saying who is right, Pelagius or Augustine.  I find many of what they say still relevant.  By quoting them, I can wrestle those question in my own situation and perspective.

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