Zach Howard

When Curiosity Becomes a Vice

Near the end of the Inferno, Dante encounters Homer’s famous character Ulysses (or Odysseus) suffering from the flame of desire. Surprisingly, however, Ulysses’s unchecked desire was not lust or gluttony, but intemperate curiosity. Dante imagines Ulysses, after his homecoming to Ithaca, overcome by wanderlust so that not even “my fondness for my son, nor pity for my old father, nor the love I owed Penelope, which would have gladdened her,” could restrain his desire to know what lay “beyond the setting sun.”

He rouses his few remaining wizened sailors for one last voyage with a tantalizing “chance to know”:

To such brief wakefulness,     Of our senses as remains to us,do not deny yourselves the chance to know —     following the sun — the world where no one lives.Consider how your souls were sown:     you were not made to live like brutes or beasts,but to pursue virtue and knowledge. (Inferno 26.115–120)

Insatiable Desire to Know

The noble call to explore — to pursue the yet unknown — resonates strongly still, even after the age of Christopher Columbus. Today we no longer explore undiscovered continents but distant galaxies and microscopic quarks and complex genetic codes. We are driven, however, by the same fundamental desire to know.

We often characterize that basic desire to know as curiosity, and it seems to be a desire that knows no excess. Despite a stodgy caution like “curiosity killed the cat,” modern culture gives nearly unmitigated praise to the curious child, pioneering technologist, and inquisitive leader.

“The desire to know, like the desire for food or sex, can be corrupted.”

So why would Dante — and most Christians throughout history — warn against the dangers of curiosity? They recognized that the desire to know, like the desire for food or sex, can be corrupted. Until the modern world, Christians thought of curiosity as a corrupted desire to know. Contemporary culture defines curiosity as any desire to know. The error of our modern approach to knowledge is not in praising our desire to know but in failing to discipline it. Like a vine, the desire to know needs the structure of the trellis and the pruning of the vinedresser in order to bear good fruit.

And in the Information Age, where every desire to know receives praise, we need even more wisdom about how to discipline this desire.

Two Kinds of Curiosity

Disciplining natural desires, Christians have long recognized, is a fundamental part of spiritual formation. Such formation requires that we not only strive to cultivate virtue but recognize and overcome vices. In his Confessions, Augustine of Hippo evaluated his own ongoing vices according to the three categories of sin named in 1 John 2:16: “the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life.” Augustine interprets “the desires of the eyes” as curiositas, the Latin term the ancients used for the disordered intellectual appetite for knowledge (Confessions, 10.35.54–57).

In his succinct summary of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas contrasts curiositas with studiositas. Since the English transliteration of both Latin terms obscures their meaning, we need to clarify what these earlier Christians meant. When they praised studiousness, they did not limit the virtue to nerdy students who constantly hit the books. Rather, studiositas describes the virtue of a strong mind capable of pursuing whatever knowledge it seeks in a well-ordered and godly way. In contrast, curiositas describes an intemperate and weak mind pursuing knowledge in a disordered and ungodly way. Ultimately, curiositas is indulging our desire to know at the wrong time or in the wrong way or for the wrong reasons.

Discovering how our desire to know can go wrong is a crucial first step in learning to discipline that desire so that we avoid the intemperate “desires of the eyes.”

At the Wrong Time

We all know that moment when we discover ourselves watching or scrolling online and think, How did I get here?

We had been diligently working on a project when, almost unconsciously, we gave in to the impulse to just “check the score” or “look at my DMs” or “glance at my inbox.” Then, suddenly, our minds chased after some other object of interest rather than our work or any number of other obligations. Curiositas indulges that impulse. And, ironically, the more we indulge the wrong kind of curiosity, the less we come to know anything that matters. Apps with infinite scroll prey on undisciplined curiosity, distracting us from far more satisfying pursuits. And habituated to distraction, we struggle to be still and know God (Psalm 46:10). Augustine describes how “the great business of prayer is broken off through the inrush of every sort of idle thought” when we regularly fall into curiositas (Confessions, 10.35.57).

“The more we indulge the wrong kind of curiosity, the less we come to know anything that matters.”

Yet curiositas can also cause us to seek knowledge beyond our maturity or position. Like a young teenager who refuses to be satisfied with his parents’ reasons for denying his request to watch a mature film, we can demand knowledge that we are not yet ready to handle with discernment. Similarly, leaders will often classify sensitive information to protect the organization or nation. If the American President’s daily briefing on national security threats was broadcast on cable news, the average American citizen would be overwhelmed with fear. Without the authority to prioritize and respond to such threats, such knowledge would be crippling.

In the Wrong Way

Considering how we come to know guards against fragmented knowledge and ingratitude. First, against fragmented knowledge. In the age of the Internet, it has become increasingly possible to pursue knowledge anonymously. Perhaps out of convenience, but often because we want to know anonymously, we often turn to the Internet first to answer even our most significant questions. Yet certain questions are better asked of people who know us rather than of search engines (or ChatGPT). God put us in families and joined us to communities so that we can grow in knowledge of the truth through wise parents, friends, teachers, and pastors. Cultivating our desire to know requires not only learning what to ask but whom to ask.

Online algorithms that serve up increasingly narrow content undermine our ability to think about knowledge as an integrated whole. Going down the rabbit hole in one aspect of reality while neglecting the wider picture is a kind of curiositas. An expert biochemist without a moral framework will pursue harmful research. A teenager may be radicalized by increasingly narrowing channels on YouTube, or a pastor on Twitter.

Wisdom in how we pursue knowledge also protects us against ingratitude for knowledge. An atheist astrophysicist grasping at knowledge of the stars fails to know the true meaning of a galaxy. Seeking knowledge of created things without recognizing their Creator is a failure of gratitude.

For the Wrong Reasons

Such ungrateful grasping for knowledge also often reveals ungodly motives behind our desires to know. Some, for instance, might seek knowledge in order to sin. A straightforward example would be gossip. Others might pursue knowledge to feed pride. The apostle Paul warns that “knowledge puffs up” because pride often drives our desire to know (1 Corinthians 8:1). Pride often drives our curiosity to grasp at knowledge as if it could be possessed. It’s the chief culprit corrupting our desire to know.

We witness how destructive this self-aggrandizing quest for knowledge can become when we consider the theological student who tries to master the doctrine of God to build his own reputation.

The Gift of Curiosity

Disciplining our desire to know is not just about avoiding clickbait. It’s about cultivating our hearts such that we receive knowledge as a gift from God, rather than grasping at it as something to be possessed. And the greatest gift God gives through knowledge, of course, is himself.

God gave us the fundamental desire to know so that we could find ultimate satisfaction for our restless minds in God. Sin corrupted that desire, which is why we must discipline our curiosity by pursuing knowledge in the right way, at the right time, and for the right reasons. Otherwise, we will bear the bitter fruit of curiositas, which at its most benign can habituate us to binge-watching Netflix and at its worst can lead us to worshiping demons.

God’s command in Psalm 46:10 — “Be still, and know that I am God” — requires that we cultivate his gift of curiosity. So let us steady our curiosity with the trellis of Scripture, and submit it to the pruning of the Spirit, so that we can know God as we were made to know him.

Marriage in Three Postures: How to Cultivate and Protect Trust

Encouraging young couples to cultivate trust is a bit like exhorting a teenage boy to develop healthy eating habits: it’s rarely front of mind. However, like health, trust takes time, intentionality, and effort to develop and guard. So whether you’re engaged, or early in your marriage (or years in, for that matter), how are you and your spouse deepening and strengthening your trust in marriage?

Traditional marriage vows include the phrase “forsaking all others” as a promise of exclusivity “for as long as we both shall live.” In his book A Severe Mercy, Sheldon Vanauken includes an image that offers both a sober warning and a powerful insight into marriage, one my wife and I have benefitted from personally.

As unbelievers, Sheldon and his wife, Davy, so cherished their relationship that they did not want anyone or anything to come between their love for one another. They therefore committed to maintaining a “Shining Barrier” around their marriage to preserve the exclusivity of their love. They vowed to never have children, lest rambunctious little ones invade their shining barrier. Lest death break that barrier, they even promised to one day sail out to sea to sink their sailboat so they could die together. In retrospect, the converted Sheldon judiciously titles the section on their young, distorted commitment to one another’s vows “Pagan Love.” As Christians, we recognize in their marriage a sober warning: a relationship so devoted to itself excludes and replaces God.

Nevertheless, Sheldon and Davy’s commitment to radical exclusivity in their marriage highlights a powerful insight: marriages thrive on trust. Sheldon and Davy prized their “in-loveness” and feared broken trust would destroy it. They therefore sought to cultivate and encourage trust. My wife and I seek to do so too, while wary not to resort to Sheldon and Davy’s extreme exclusivity. We do so by pursuing one another in three distinct but overlapping modes: face-to-face intimacy, back-to-back partnership, and side-by-side friendship.

Face-to-Face Intimacy

Face-to-face trust grows when spouses seek to know and be known by one another. Such intimacy may happen on weekly date nights, or during prayer before bed, or on morning walks, or with playfulness around each other throughout the day. And, yes, in sexual foreplay and consummation too. We’re naive, though, to reduce intimacy to sex. For, as lovers come to know, sex is merely part of a much greater beauty. “To be in love, as to see beauty, is a kind of adoring that turns the lover away from self,” Sheldon observes (A Severe Mercy, 43). Thus, face-to-face intimacy is a beholding of the beloved — a looking up from self and away from the world to truly see another.

“Face-to-face trust grows when spouses seek to know and be known by one another.”

Beholding our beloved will look different in different seasons of marriage. In every season, though, intimacy is an opening up of yourself to your spouse emotionally, physically, and spiritually. This requires vulnerability from both of you. In fact, trust and vulnerability run parallel in intimacy. Thoughtfully and consistently sharing your joys and burdens, fears and successes, and then seeking to hear the same from your spouse, engenders the kind of trust out of which healthy marriages are made.

For many couples early in their relationship, emotional and physical intimacy may come easily. A gentle touch. A whispered word. A quick glance. Eros makes us eager to give ourselves heart, soul, mind, and body to our beloved. And in most marriages, you will quickly rack up more face time with your spouse than with anyone else. But it takes work to develop deeper and lasting intimacy.

In his song “World Traveler,” Andrew Peterson describes how his small-town younger self dreamed of traveling the world to discover “the great beyond.” He had “hardly seen a thing,” though, when he “gave a golden ring / To the one who gave her heart to me.” And he became a different kind of world traveler as “she opened the gate and took my hand / And led me into the mystic land / Where her galaxies swirl.” For deep and lasting trust to take root, we must travel each other’s souls with a kind of patient, unhurried attention that is willing to wonder and delight.

In beholding our spouse, we’re seeking to give and receive the true reward of face-to-face intimacy: being both genuinely known and truly loved. We will ultimately find this only in communion with God, and yet he ordains marriage as one picture that points to such a future heavenly reward (Ephesians 5:25–33). Such face-to-face trust, though, is fragile and requires a different kind of posture to guard and protect it.

Back-to-Back Partnership

When couples, knowing each other’s strengths and weaknesses, seek to guard and protect each other, they develop a kind of back-to-back trust. We all have blind spots, besetting sins, and frailties that our spouse comes to know through the consistent face time of everyday life. And spouses can use those sight lines and their own unique strengths to protect each other. Sin crouches at the door (Genesis 4:7), Satan roars like a lion (1 Peter 5:8), and both seek to devour your marriage. Like two heroes with circling enemies, couples turn back-to-back, trusting the other to call out threats, shout encouragements, and celebrate even the small victories together.

“Sin crouches at the door, Satan roars like a lion, and both seek to devour your marriage.”

Couples, of course, can partner back-to-back without an obvious enemy like sin or Satan. External pressures from difficult circumstances, a challenging boss, high expectations from extended family or friends can all create a setting where a couple needs to practice back-to-back partnership. The in-laws come into town, and their casual, make-it-up-as-we-go style disorients the wife’s thoughtful, well-planned itineraries. Her gift for planning is unwittingly ignored by the husband’s parents, and after day one with them she feels exposed and frustrated. She’s tempted to unload her frustration on him, and he’s tempted to shrug off her concerns as being oversensitive. Both spouses are tempted to start shooting at each other in the very moment they most need to care for the other, building mutual trust by standing back-to-back. In recognizing the urge to attack him, she can instead generously acknowledge the qualities worth praising in her in-laws — while he can initiate a frank conversation with his parents about following the plan for day two.

As we recognize and protect against threats to each other, we reap the fruit of stability and endurance. Back-to-back trust strengthens marriages to bear the heavy burdens we carry together in a fallen world. Yet the intimacy from face-to-face and the strength from back-to-back can both be undermined if we neglect another posture for cultivating trust.

Side-by-Side Friendship

Couples who seek to behold and pursue something together cultivate side-by-side trust. This side-by-side posture is marriage as friendship.

Friendships form around a mutual beholding of a shared delight. When you discover another who shares your interest in something dear to you, you declare, “You too?! I thought I was the only one!” (C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves, 248). Your friendship may include many mutual pursuits or only just a few, but any side-by-side time fosters the kind of trust that comes from holding something in common beyond your relationship itself.

Many couples’ relationships initially form around something they pursued together. Perhaps you two met because of a love for music, or a shared academic interest, or a business venture. Often, however, the demands and trials of life act over time like a centrifugal force, pushing those once-shared pursuits to the periphery. I’m suggesting that, as much as you can, pursue interests held in common, whether old or new, in the regular rhythms of your life together.

Perhaps you host the annual fall festival in your backyard, or serve on the worship team together, or play Terraforming Mars with those other board-game fanatics. Whatever the common pursuit, invest in it together. And if you object that you do not share the same interests, then find one of your spouse’s interests that you can learn too. Sheldon loved literature; Davy excelled in music. Out of love for the other, they “became at home in both worlds” (A Severe Mercy, 38).

Finding Intimacy on the Way to God

Investing in side-by-side trust is essential because a “creeping separateness,” Sheldon and Davy rightly warn, is frequently a “killer of love” (37). And as they later discovered in their conversion, the greatest resistance to that centrifugal force is no mere common pursuit but the greatest pursuit: beholding God together. So even if shared hobbies and interests feel sparse, seek always to go in a Godward direction together. For Christian marriages are built not around mere eros or philia, but around a shared receiving and giving of agape love for God and one another. Therefore, together as a couple we must prize worshiping God at home and with God’s people.

The beautiful thing about these three postures for cultivating trust is their mutually reinforcing nature. You can’t grow in intimacy if you are not working to protect each other from temptation and sin, disappointment and burnout — or just simply protecting your own time together. The reverse is true as well. You can’t grow in your ability to help each other see your blind spots if you do not grow in face-to-face fellowship. And both face-to-face and back-to-back trust flourish in the consistency of a side-by-side friendship set on God.

Did Augustine Get Justification Wrong? Reading the Father with the Reformers

ABSTRACT: Reformers like John Calvin quoted Augustine more than any other author outside Scripture. They celebrated, among other qualities, how he championed the truth that God saves sinners not on the basis of their works but by his grace. When it came to the doctrine of justification by faith, however, the Reformers did not find the clarity they wanted in the great church father. Augustine never offers a systematic treatment of the meaning of justification, and a careful reading of his works reveals ambiguities in his treatment of the doctrine. Nevertheless, he speaks of justification mainly in terms of God making sinners righteous rather than declaring sinners righteous. To the Reformers, then, his way of expressing the doctrine obscured, even if it did not deny, Christ’s righteousness as the sole ground of a sinner’s justification before God.

For our ongoing series of feature articles for pastors, leaders, and teachers, we asked Zach Howard, assistant professor of theology and humanities at Bethlehem College & Seminary, to explore Augustine’s doctrine of justification.

Augustine of Hippo (354–430) championed the truth that God saves sinners not on the basis of their works, but by his grace alone. Even faith in God is itself a gift from God, Augustine frequently observed, citing Paul’s question in 1 Corinthians 4:7: “What do you have that you did not receive?”1 The Reformers saw this same biblical doctrine of salvation by grace alone and, with Augustine as a patristic champion, sought to recover and proclaim it against false teaching and practices in their own day. Indeed, Augustine provided so much rich theological insight that Reformers like John Calvin quoted Augustine more than any other author outside the biblical text.2

Nevertheless, Calvin and most other Reformers did not cite Augustine when they proclaimed the related doctrine of justification by faith alone. They celebrated with Augustine that the method by which God justifies man is through the gift of faith, not through the merit of works, from texts like Galatians 2:16 and Romans 3:20. But when it came to describing the meaning of justification from a text like Romans 4:5 — God “justifies the ungodly” — and distinguishing it from the process of sanctification, Augustine and Reformers like Calvin thought differently. For many readers of Calvin or Luther or later Protestant theologians, this may come as a surprise given the central place of justification in Scripture and Augustine’s significance for Reformed soteriology. This essay, therefore, seeks to answer a question that naturally follows: How did Augustine understand the meaning of justification?

“Augustine never systematically stated what he thought justification by faith means.”

There is a significant challenge to answering this question. While the Pelagian controversy that dominated the last twenty years of Augustine’s life echoed in sixteenth-century theological debates, there was no similar crisis around the meaning of justification by faith in Augustine’s day. So, perhaps because there was no crisis driving his theological reflections on the meaning of justification, Augustine never systematically stated what he thought justification by faith means. Rather, his view emerges in response to questions on related controversies of his day and in his preaching on relevant biblical texts. This challenge makes it important to begin by situating Augustine’s understanding of justification within his wider theological reflection on salvation.

Describing Augustine’s View

Augustine’s enduring influence on Christian theology is largely due to the unified vision of salvation he articulated throughout his ministry. More than any of his post-biblical predecessors, Augustine integrated the biblical witness to defend and explain what it means that God through Christ saves sinners. Augustine performed like a choir director, conducting a chorus of biblical voices to harmonize around the truth that God saves sinners not on the basis of their works but by grace through faith in Christ — and that such faith results in a life of good works culminating in unmediated communion with God when Christ returns.3 Our aim is to listen carefully to notes sounding the theme of justification within that larger choir. We will see that Augustine imagined the meaning of justification in at least the following three ways: as a healing of man’s broken nature, as a transformation of the ungodly, and as both an event and a process.

Justification as Healing Man’s Nature

How Augustine understands original sin guides his interpretation for how man can be justified before God. Interpreting Romans 5:9, Augustine writes, “Because they were clothed with the flesh of [Adam] who sinned in his will, they contract from him the responsibility for sin . . . just as children who put on Christ . . . receive from Him a participation in justice.”4 Original sin is not just the act of Adam and Eve’s first sin in the garden, but it is also the result that mankind’s nature is corrupted.5 As a polluted body of water infects everything downstream, so Adam’s sin corrupts all of mankind. For Augustine, then, original sin corrupts man’s very nature such that all mankind is guilty before God even before they choose to commit any specific sins on their own.

“Augustine integrated the biblical witness to defend and explain what it means that God through Christ saves sinners.”

This problem of original sin frames the solution of justification. For Augustine, justification must address not just specific sinful acts by individual people but also the essential corruption of human nature. If justification is about restoring a right relationship with God, Augustine understood such a right relationship as possible only by a change in human nature brought about by the gift of the Holy Spirit. Justice before God must include not just a change in status (as in “not forgiven” to “forgiven”) but primarily a change in nature (from diseased to healed).

One of Augustine’s favorite analogies for describing this reality is Christ as the doctor and us as his patients. When man recognizes that he cannot heal himself — that he cannot justify himself — he turns to the divine doctor, placing complete trust in him to heal his disease. The doctor removes the original cause of the disease and then prescribes medicine to bring about a full recovery. Justification for Augustine is faith in the doctor such that you turn to him for medical intervention, and it is also faith in the doctor such that you follow his prescription for a full recovery.6

Therefore, when Augustine describes God’s act of justification as a gracious gift rather than an earned reward, he identifies the act of justification with the gift of the Holy Spirit, who heals man’s will.7 “[Christians] have been gratuitously justified by his grace (Romans 3:24). . . . The law shows that our will is weak so that grace may heal our will and so that a healthy will may fulfill the law, without being subject to the law or in need of the law.”8 Augustine imagines the meaning of justification as a healing of man’s will — and the rest of his nature — so that he may love God and neighbor, which is what it means to fulfill the law.9 This healing begins with the forgiveness of sins yet continues throughout a Christian’s earthly life. And the healing is miraculous because the patient is not just sick but spiritually dead.10 Thus, for man to be right with God — to be iustus — God must change not only man’s legal status but also man’s nature by healing his will.

Justification as Making the Ungodly Righteous

That Augustine believes God’s solution requires that man’s nature be transformed is not surprising. His every articulation of salvation casts the solution ultimately as transformative since Scripture teaches that we are “being transformed into [Christ’s] image” (2 Corinthians 3:18). What is surprising for modern Protestants is that Augustine associates such a transformation specifically with the term justification and not salvation more generally. Nonetheless, he does so for a specific linguistic and exegetical reason: he understood the Latin term used for justification in the Bible to mean “made righteous,” not “declared righteous.”

Augustine’s Old Latin Bible translated the Greek term dikaioō as iustifico, and he took this term literally.11 “Relying strictly upon the Latin translation,” one scholar explains, “Augustine misunderstood Paul to be saying that the person who was unjust was made to be just.”12 Commenting on Romans 4:5, Augustine explains this understanding of iustificatio in his The Spirit & the Letter: “What does ‘justified’ mean other than ‘made righteous,’ just as ‘he justifies the ungodly’ means ‘he makes a righteous person out of an ungodly person’?”13 Augustine’s misunderstanding of Paul’s term dikaioō leads him to interpret justification in primarily a transformative sense (as God making the ungodly righteous) rather than a declarative sense (God acquitting the ungodly).

Yet later in the same section from The Spirit & the Letter, Augustine acknowledges a different meaning for justified — namely, “counted righteous.”14 He offers an alternative reading of justified this way: “It is certainly true that they will be justified in the sense that they will be regarded as righteous, that they will be counted as righteous. In that sense scripture says of a certain man, But wanting to justify himself (Luke 10:29), that is, wanting to be regarded and counted as righteous.” Augustine then makes a comparison to how readers understood the word sanctify to mean both “make holy” (what God does to us) and “declare holy” (what we say to God in Matthew 6:9). His point in the comparison is that the word sanctify can connote both make and declare. So too can the word justify mean both make and declare. Yet in this passage and elsewhere, he does not elaborate on why this distinction matters, develop its implications, or connect it to other passages in Scripture.

It is appropriate to conclude, then, that although Augustine allows for a declarative sense of justification, his primary understanding of justification is that God makes the ungodly person righteous by healing his nature. And this raises a question: If Augustine means by justification “made righteous,” and to be “made righteous” requires an inner transformation that occurs over time, then, according to Augustine, is man not fully right before God until he is fully remade in Christ’s image?

Justification as Event and Process

One way to answer that question is to describe Augustine’s view of justification as both an event and a process.15 We see both event language and process language in how Augustine distinguishes between the beginning of faith and the progress we make in faith.16 Augustine makes such a distinction frequently.17 In his exposition on Psalm 67, for instance, Augustine reminds his listeners of “the priority of faith over works”: “In the absence of good works a godless person is justified by faith [per fidem iustificatur], as the apostle says: When someone believes in him who justifies the ungodly, that faith is reckoned as justice to the believer (Romans 4:5), so that afterward faith may begin to work through love of choice.”18 Augustine carefully distinguishes works as the grounds of being justified from works that follow being justified. This is not a passing sentence, either: it defines Augustine’s entire paragraph such that he describes the life of a Christian as a journey of faith working through love in order to make the point that “this journey begins from faith.”19

A second example comes from a sermon on Romans 8:30–31, where Augustine declares, “We have been justified; but this justice can grow, as we make progress.”20 By justified, Augustine understands Paul to mean that we have been “already established in the condition of justification.” Such a condition occurs “by receiving the forgiveness of sins in the washing of regeneration, by receiving the Holy Spirit, by making progress day by day” (alluding to Titus 3:5). Justification is a condition we already have, yet also a condition in which we can make progress day by day. In other words, for Augustine, we can have justice and grow in justice.

Simply put, Augustine did not limit the term justification to a declarative event. Justification means that, by faith, we have begun a journey to God, and we will not be fully righteous or have complete justice until that day we meet God face-to-face. The journey begins with the forgiveness of sins and receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit, who heals man’s will such that he is able to love God even as he continues to fight sin. The journey metaphor allows Augustine to maintain the inseparable relationship he sees between the faith at the beginning and the faith along the way. It is the same faith. When he says that the faith that justifies is the faith that works through love (Galatians 5:6), Augustine is seeking to maintain a relationship between the faith that receives forgiveness of sins and the Holy Spirit and the faith that makes progress day by day by growing in love for God and neighbor. Therefore, to be justified by faith is to receive God’s forgiveness — indeed, to receive God himself in the person of the Holy Spirit — and yet it also means to grow in love for God from that moment onward. This is faith that works through love.

Assessing Augustine’s View

The fundamental difference between Augustine’s view of justification and the later Reformers’ view is twofold. First, Augustine understands the meaning of justification more broadly in that it refers not only to the event of God forgiving the sinner but also to the process of God transforming the sinner into the image of Christ. In contrast, the Reformers limit justification to the declarative sense and emphasize its distinction from sanctification. Second, with the term justification, Augustine focuses on the need for man to be transformed, while the Reformers emphasize the need for man to be pardoned. To be “just” for Augustine means to no longer “be a sinner” by the complete healing of man’s nature.21 To be “just” for the Reformers means to be seen as righteous in God’s sight based on the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.

What should we then do with these differences between what Augustine and the Reformers meant by the term justification? We can first learn from how Reformers like Calvin interacted with Augustine and then consider the way Augustine himself addressed concerns raised in his own day.

Calvin’s Assessment of Augustine on Justification

When writing on justification, Calvin repeatedly quotes or cites Augustine to celebrate his insistence that we are saved by grace through faith, and not because of the merit of our works.22 Despite such agreement, Calvin acknowledges where Augustine differs from Scripture on justification. In his extended section on justification by faith in the Institutes, Calvin recounts how medieval “Schoolmen” like Peter Lombard (about 1100–1160) appear to follow Augustine on grace but misunderstand him. Calvin then argues,

Even the sentiment of Augustine [on justification], or at least his mode of expressing it, cannot be entirely approved of. For although he is admirable in stripping man of all merit of righteousness, and transferring the whole praise of it to God, yet he classes the grace by which we are regenerated to newness of life under the head of sanctification. Scripture, when it treats of justification by faith, leads us in a very different direction. Turning away our view from our own works, it bids us look only to the mercy of God, and the perfection of Christ.23

Calvin cannot approve of Augustine’s “mode of expressing” justification because it does not properly distinguish between justification and sanctification. He notes in his commentary on Romans that “it is not unknown to me, that Augustine gives a different explanation; for he thinks that the righteousness of God is the grace of regeneration.”24 In other words, Augustine’s explanation of justification combines the grace by which we are declared righteous before God (what Calvin calls justification) and the grace by which we are made righteous for God (what Calvin calls sanctification). Calvin worries that this “mode of expressing” led to abuses in late medieval Christianity, such as the thinking that man needs to earn his salvation with works.

In distinguishing between the twofold grace of justification and sanctification, Calvin aimed to preserve the truth that the ground of man’s right relationship before God is not his new moral nature but Christ’s righteousness imputed to man’s account. Yet Calvin does not say that Augustine himself argues that way. Rather, he has been refuting a contemporary (Andreas Osiander) and a late medieval scholastic (Lombard) who had misunderstood Augustine, in Calvin’s judgment. Calvin, then, recognizes that Augustine’s “mode of expressing” justification had certain ambiguities that differed from how Scripture spoke of justification and allowed later thinkers like Lombard to wrongly appropriate him on justification.

Calvin’s assessment raises at least two questions for Augustine’s teaching on justification. What did he believe is the right way to describe how faith and works relate to our justification? And what did he think is the ground or basis of a restored relationship with God? These are good questions for Augustine — and questions he addresses when confronting two controversies in his day.

On the Inseparability of Faith and Love

Throughout his pastoral ministry, Augustine responded to the false teaching that you “could not reach eternal life without faith, but could do so without works.”25 Today, we might call this easy-believism or, more technically, antinomianism. Augustine condemned such a belief as misinterpreting Paul, specifically from 1 Corinthians 3:11–15, and advocated for an understanding of faith that is followed by works, or what he called “faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6). He argued that Peter, James, and Paul agreed that works are necessary for eternal life because they prove that genuine faith is present.

Therefore, when the apostle [Paul] says that he considers we are made just through faith without the works of the law (Romans 4:5), he does not mean that works of justice should be disdained once faith is accepted and professed but that everyone should know that he can be made just through faith even if he did not perform the works of the law before. They do not come beforehand, before the person is made just, but they follow afterwards, when the person has been made just.26

Augustine emphasizes here that the event of justification (the beginning of faith) cannot be separated from the result that follows (the progress of faith). So Augustine rejects “faith alone,” not in the sense that later Protestant Reformers taught it, but in the unbiblical version that motivated the apostle James to write, “Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17). With James, Augustine calls such “faith,” which he styles as mere intellectual assent, the “faith of demons” because it has no accompanying obedience to Christ’s commands.

We can agree with Augustine that faith and works must go together in order for us to call anyone’s faith a “living faith.”27 Augustine echoes James and Peter and Paul in proclaiming this truth in his own day. But we are still left with another question: In what sense are works necessary for salvation? Do the works that follow faith contribute to our salvation in the sense that they make God our debtor and are in any way the basis of our salvation?

On God Crowning His Own Gifts

Augustine never conclusively states whether Christ’s righteousness is the sole ground of our justification before God.28 Even as we rightly acknowledge that Augustine does not primarily write about justification in a legal framework but rather one of virtue and therefore transformation, his “mode of expressing” justification — specifically how he understands justification to mean being made righteous — obscures on what basis God sees man as righteous. We must recognize this enduring ambiguity in Augustine’s articulation of justification.

Nonetheless, Augustine does offer clarity about the nature of works that follow faith. In an important letter summarizing the Pelagian controversy, Augustine describes the significance of a Christian’s good works as God crowning his own gifts. Augustine explains,

What merit, then, does a human being have before grace so that by that merit he may receive grace . . . since, when God crowns our merits, he only crowns his own gift? For, just as we have obtained mercy from the very beginning of faith, not because we were believers but in order that we might be believers, so in the end, when there will be eternal life, he will crown us, as scripture says, in compassion and mercy (Psalm 103:4). . . . Even eternal life itself . . . is given as recompense for preceding merits, but because the same merits to which it is given as recompense were not produced by us through our own abilities but were produced in us through grace, it too is called grace for no other reason than that it is given gratuitously, not because it is not given to our merits but because even the very merits to which it is given were given to us.29

“Everything man has is a gift from God, including the good works he does after the beginning of faith.”

Everything man has is a gift from God, including the good works he does after the beginning of faith. And these works God rewards not as our debtor because he gave the grace to complete them. God crowns his own gifts. Thus, even as Augustine does not explicitly identify the righteousness of Christ as the sole basis of our declarative justification before God, neither does he teach that man must earn salvation. This side of the Reformation, we might be tempted to make Augustine answer with greater clarity, but since no doctrinal controversy drove further theological reflection from him, we cannot expect an answer in those terms.

Reading Augustine on Justification for Today

As careful readers of Augustine today, we seek to understand him on his own terms and in his own time before we compare his scriptural exegesis and theological reasoning with later interpreters like Aquinas, Calvin, Edwards, and our contemporaries. And we do so for the sake of retrieving his insights for theological debate and practices today. Just as importantly, though, we carefully avoid making Augustine answer a particular question or problem that he simply did not anticipate or address.

We can celebrate with the Reformers how Augustine champions the truth that God graciously forgives sinners by grace without any preceding merit. We also can celebrate the way Augustine highlights and defends the inseparability of faith and love, or what Calvin would call the inseparability between Christ’s two graces of justification and sanctification. Even so, we recognize that Augustine’s way of expressing the meaning of justification obscures, even if it does not deny, the truth that by Christ’s righteousness alone is anyone counted righteous before God (Philippians 3:9).

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