Augustine and Soteriological Individualism: Roots of Reformation Election

Augustine and Soteriological Individualism: Roots of Reformation Election

1.3 Augustine and Soteriological Individualism: Roots of Reformation Election

Augustine’s preoccupation with the will singlehandedly shifted the western world toward an individualistically and introspectively interpreted fatalism. Before Augustine, though between the second and fourth centuries much soteriological ambiguity existed, many assumed that humans have freewill, and thus, salvation was defined in terms of choosing by one’s freewill to do God’s will. However, Augustine provided a different model for understanding sin and salvation through his preoccupation with the will. From him, extended the reformation’s reading of Paul, which essentially maintained the same line of thought. Moreover, for protestant theologians going back to the reformation, Augustine’s teaching on Grace and Free Will has been significant for their own views of soteriology. They have since exegeted the scripture through the eyes of the Augustine-Pelagius debate. Thus, Augustine’s soteriology, has been mimicked by Western Christian thought ever since.

Concerning Augustine, Gonzalez says,

“Augustine is the end of one era as well as the beginning of another. He is the last of the ancient Christian writers, and the forerunner of medieval theology. The main currents of ancient theology converged in him, and from him flow the rivers, not only of medieval scholasticism, but also of sixteenth-century Protestant theology.”1

It was Augustine’s own life experiences that contributed to his pessimistic outlook on human nature. Evident in his Confessions, it seems that it was Augustine’s inability to exercise self-control over his sexuality, which led to great disappointment with himself. In his twenties, Augustine at the urging of his mother broke off his relationship with his long-time mistress and sent her back to Africa, because his mother felt that he should marry someone of the same social class. Augustine agreed and became engaged to a twelve-year-old girl; but because she was too young for an immediate consummation, the wedding was postponed for two years. Thus Augustine, unable to practice two years of sexual abstinence, fell back into a licentious lifestyle with another mistress. Even at this point he describes his will as being a “slave to lust.”2

Through the course of Augustine’s life he adopted an increasingly pessimistic anthropology. If one is to consider his involvement in the latter part of the Arian controversy, then it is not hard to understand why. Moreover, if Augustine’s mentor Ambrose was anti-Arian, and then so was Augustine. Thus, if Arianism carried an optimistic anthropology, then anti-Arianism carried a pessimistic one. It was these experiences that led Augustine to a pessimistic anthropology. Thus, in my opinion, it was Augustine’s own personal experiences and disappointments with himself, which contributed to his idea that humans cannot trust themselves.

For Augustine sin was not simply a behavior. It was a disease, which infected all humans. The symptom of this disease was the loss of freewill. Humans are then enslaved to our compulsions and we are really only free to sin. If we persevere, it is only because of God’s grace. Therefore, if our will is to be directed toward salvation, it must be all by God’s doing. In Augustine’s words, “the spirit of grace, therefore, causes us to have faith, in order that through faith we may, on praying for it, obtain the ability to do what we are commanded. On this account the apostle himself constantly puts faith before the law; since we are not able to do what the law commands unless we obtain strength to do it by the prayer of faith.”3

For Augustine, the will is so fallen that all it can do is sin. Thus, the human will is born broken; it is hell-bent, i.e., bent away from God. Therefore, God’s grace must fix it if we are ever to do the right thing, so then; the will to believe is from God. It is God, “therefore, in such ways [that] acts upon the reasonable soul in order that it may believe in Him (and certainly there is no ability whatever in free will to believe, unless there be persuasion or summons towards some one in whom to believe), it surely follows that it is God who both works in man the willing to believe, and in all things prevents us with His mercy.”4

Therefore, for Augustine, without God’s grace the human will is only free to sin. Thus, it is God’s grace that frees the will. In light of the Augustine-Pelagius controversy, for Pelagius, one is born with freewill, but for Augustine, one is born with a will in bondage, and grace must free one’s will if he/she is ever going to do anything good. Thus, the will is only free to believe by the persuasion of God.

Pelagius was concerned that Augustine’s view would lead to moral laxity, later called antinomianism. His thought was that if we think we in our natural state are unable to fulfill God’s commands then we might think we have an excuse to not fulfill them. Unlike Augustine, who believed that sin and not just death passed unto all humanity by means of Adam, Pelagius drew the conclusion that there was no original sin and denied that when Adam sinned he brought guilt and corruption upon the whole human race. Therefore, according to Pelagius, we have the power from birth to fulfill God’s commands by our own free will. Thus, we can be saved by human effort apart from God’s divine grace and merit eternal life by freely choosing good over evil. Thus, we have seen, Augustine is 100% grace and 0% human effort. Pelagius was 100% human effort and 0% grace.

So why then do some believe and others do not, if believing is something God has to give you the power to do? This has something to do with God’s election, i.e., the “hidden determinations of God,”5 an idea which would lead to Augustine’s later doctrine of Predestination, and subsequently, Calvin’s and other reformers. Additionally, Calvinism would later find its roots here. Thus, “God works in the hearts of men to incline their wills wherever He wills, whether to good deeds according to His mercy, or to evil after their own deserts.”6

Augustine’s view concerning the will can be summed up in his famous statement, “My whole hope is in thy exceeding great mercy and that alone. Give what thou command and command what thou wilt. Thou command continence from us, and when I knew, as it is said, that no one could be continent unless God gave it to him, even this was a point of wisdom to know whose gift it was.”7 Therefore, as we have seen, Augustine took the individualistic and introspective view that because of our fallen nature, being captive to sin, we cannot fulfill God’s command without God’s grace. In other words, we cannot fulfill God’s command without God first giving us the ability to fulfill God’s command. Our will is bent away from God; it must be delivered from its place of captivity before man will even call upon the Lord. Thus, Augustine’s view is that humans are born in original sin. Their will is bound by their sinful natures. Therefore, they are unable to please God. Thus they are naturally condemned before God and in need of a God who will awaken their will by his grace.


1. Justo L. Gonzalez, A History of Christian Thought, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1987), 15.

2. Augustine’s Confessions, Book 6, Chapter 15, 25.

3. Augustine, On Grace and Free Will, 28.

4. Augustine, On the Spirit and the Letter, 60.

5. Augustine, On Grace and Freewill, 45.

6. Ibid., 43.

7. Augustine’s Confessions, Book 10, Chapter 29, 40.