Augustine on Falling from Grace

, posted by Godismyjudge

The fifth point of Calvinism is Perseverance of the Saints. The Westminster Confession defines Perseverance of the Saints as:

They, whom God hath accepted in his Beloved, effectually called, and sanctified by his Spirit, can neither totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace, but shall certainly persevere therein to the end, and be eternally saved. (link)

The purpose is this paper is to show that Augustine did not hold this tenet. Clearly, the truth or falsehood of this tenet, must be establish from scripture, not Augustine. Nor does Augustine speak for the whole of pre-reformation church history. However, the reason this topic is of some importance is that Calvinists find historical support for their view in Augustine. They avoid the charge of “novelty” by appealing to his writings. Some extreme Calvinists go as far as to say that there was a “hidden church” holding opinions similar to their own through history. This hidden church maintained the opinions of Augustine, despite the fact that many visible church figures held contrary opinions.

On the specific tenet of Perseverance of the Saints, the importance is somewhat heightened. To my knowledge, no church father, nor any prereformation theologian, clearly taught this view. Many very clearly teach the opposite opinion, that man can fall from grace. The first theologian to clearly teach Perseverance of the Saints was John Calvin. How could the church, for 1500 years, miss a doctrine of such importance? Some say they did not miss it, and look to Augustine as an example of a church father who held this opinion. For example, Francis Turretin, an emanate reformed theologian, quotes Augustine in support of this opinion in his treatise on temporary disciples.

Augustine’s quote which seem to favor Perseverance of the Saints

Augustine held to unconditional election. Election isn’t based on faith foreseen or perseverance foreseen. Rather God, from the fallen masses, unconditionally chooses whom He will save.

He does not say, “What He foreknew, He is able to promise;” nor “What He foretold, He is able to manifest;” nor “What He promised, He is able to foreknow:” but “What He promised, He is able also to do.” It is He, therefore, who makes them to persevere in good, who makes them good. – Chapter 36. 1

Those whom God chooses to save, He gives the gift of perseverance.

Will any one dare to say that this perseverance is not the gift of God, and that so great a possession as this is ours in such wise that if any one have it the apostle could not say to him, ‘For what have you which you have not received?’ 1 Corinthians 4:7 since he has this in such a manner as that he has not received it?” To this, indeed, we are not able to deny, that perseverance in good, progressing even to the end, is also a great gift of God; and that it exists not save it come from Him of whom it is written, “Every best gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights.” James 1:17– Chapter 10

And those given the gift will most certainly persevere and have eternal life.

Those, then, are elected, as has often been said, who are called according to the purpose, who also are predestinated and foreknown. If any one of these perishes, God is mistaken; but none of them perishes, because God is not mistaken. If any one of these perish, God is overcome by human sin; but none of them perishes, because God is overcome by nothing. – Chapter 14

This is starting to sound a lot like the Calvinist view. But if the evidence in favor of Augustine holding to Perseverance of the Saints isn’t firm enough, he goes on to say that those who look like disciples are not actually disciples, nor God’s children. When explaining passages that seem to suggest some are falling from grace, Augustine seems to be saying that they never had grace to begin with.

Are not these even in the words of the gospel called disciples? And yet they were not truly disciples, because they did not continue in His word, according to what He says: “If you continue in my word, then are you indeed my disciples.” John 8:31 Because, therefore, they possessed not perseverance, as not being truly disciples of Christ, so they were not truly children of God even when they appeared to be so, and were so called. We, then, call men elected, and Christ’s disciples, and God’s children, because they are to be so called whom, being regenerated, we see to live piously; but they are then truly what they are called if they shall abide in that on account of which they are so called. But if they have not perseverance,—that is, if they continue not in that which they have begun to be,—they are not truly called what they are called and are not; for they are not this in the sight of Him to whom it is known what they are going to be,—that is to say, from good men, bad men. – Chapter 22

Upon initial investigation, it would seem that Augustine did teach Perseverance of the Saints. At this point I will only point out that it is possible that Augustine did teach that some might not persevere. The above comments on election and the gift of perseverance might be explained in a consistent manor with the view that non-elect persons may be given the gift of conversion, but not the gift of perseverance. Further, the above quote could be explained as talking about God’s view of their future and not current status, which the final sentence seems to support.

Did Augustine Teach that Christians can Fall Away?
There are several places where Augustine seems to suggest that perhaps our first read was incorrect and that we should at least consider the matter a little further. Consider:

If, however, being already regenerate and justified, he relapses of his own will into an evil life, assuredly he cannot say, “I have not received,” because of his own free choice to evil he has lost the grace of God, that he had received. – Chapter 9

Now this person is regenerate and justified and still looses grace. But perhaps by loss of grace, Augustine only means fellowship. But Augustine goes on to say of the same person that what he lacks is the gift of perseverance, which aren’t all Christians supposed to have?

Is such an one as is unwilling to be rebuked still able to say, “What have I done,—I who have not received?” when it appears plainly that he has received, and by his own fault has lost that which he has received? “I am able,” says he, “I am altogether able,—when you reprove me for having of my own will relapsed from a good life into a bad one,—still to say, What have I done,—I who have not received? For I have received faith, which works by love, but I have not received perseverance therein to the end. – Chapter 10

This does seem to indicate that perhaps Augustine taught believers could fall from grace. But what of God’s election guarantee of perseverance? How can these, the elect, not have the gift of perseverance. Augustine has a ready answer. They are not the elect.

But they who are not to persevere, and who shall so fall away from Christian faith and conduct that the end of this life shall find them in that case, beyond all doubt are not to be reckoned in the number of these [the elect], even in that season wherein they are living well and piously. For they are not made to differ from that mass of perdition by the foreknowledge and predestination of God, and therefore are not called according to God’s purpose, and thus are not elected; but are called among those of whom it was said, “Many are called,” not among those of whom it was said, “But few are elected.” And yet who can deny that they are elect, since they believe and are baptized, and live according to God? Manifestly, they are called elect by those who are ignorant of what they shall be, but not by Him who knew that they would not have the perseverance which leads the elect forward into the blessed life, and knows that they so stand, as that He has foreknown that they will fall.- Chapter 16

Why doesn’t God give them perseverance? The answer is the same as why God unconditionally elects some and not others. No one knows, God keeps it secret and we mustn’t complain.

Here, if I am asked why God should not have given them perseverance to whom He gave that love by which they might live Christianly, I answer that I do not know. For I do not speak arrogantly, but with acknowledgment of my small measure, when I hear the apostle saying, “O man, who are you that repliest against God?” Romans 9:20 and, “O the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are His judgments, and His ways untraceable!” Romans 11:33 So far, therefore, as He condescends to manifest His judgments to us, let us give thanks; but so far as He thinks fit to conceal them, let us not murmur against His counsel, but believe that this also is the most wholesome for us. – Chapter 17

Perhaps they were not truly Christians? Augustine says very plainly that they were regenerated, justified and adopted.

It is, indeed, to be wondered at, and greatly to be wondered at, that to some of His own children—whom He has regenerated in Christ—to whom He has given faith, hope, and love, God does not give perseverance also, when to children of another He forgives such wickedness, and, by the bestowal of His grace, makes them His own children. – Chapter 18

Are these gifts possibly mistakenly ascribed to these people by us, but not in fact by God? No. Augustine goes so far as to say that God could have saved them by taking their life before they fell away. Only a relationship with God, not a mistaken identity by man, grants eternal life.

Let the objectors answer, if they can, why, when these were living faithfully and piously, God did not then snatch them from the perils of this life, “lest wickedness should change their understanding, and lest deceit should beguile their souls”? Wisdom 4:11 Had He not this in His power, or was He ignorant of their future sinfulness? – Chapter 19

The timing of their death would not matter if their life was never in a state of salvation. But why doesn’t God take them out of this world while they are in faith and in as state of grace? So that no one will know if they are in the number predestined.

But, moreover, that such things as these are so spoken to saints who will persevere, as if it were reckoned uncertain whether they will persevere, is a reason that they ought not otherwise to hear these things, since it is well for them “not to be high-minded, but to fear.” Romans 11:20 For who of the multitude of believers can presume, so long as he is living in this mortal state, that he is in the number of the predestinated? – Chapter 40

And so that no one will presume he has security.

For on account of the usefulness of this secrecy, lest, perchance, any one should be lifted up, but that all, even although they are running well, should fear, in that it is not known who may attain,—on account of the usefulness of this secrecy, it must be believed that some of the children of perdition, who have not received the gift of perseverance to the end, begin to live in the faith which works by love, and live for some time faithfully and righteously, and afterwards fall away, and are not taken away from this life before this happens to them. If this had happened to none of these, men would have that very wholesome fear, by which the sin of presumption is kept down, only so long as until they should attain to the grace of Christ by which to live piously, and afterwards would for time to come be secure that they would never fall away from Him. – Chapter 40

Yet ultimately it is God’s hidden purpose.

Or they receive the grace of God, but they are only for a season, and do not persevere; they forsake and are forsaken. For by their free will, as they have not received the gift of perseverance, they are sent away by the righteous and hidden judgment of God. – Chapter 42

So short, Augustine’s view was that those who have faith with works by love, those who are faithful and righteous, who are justified, who are regenerated in Christ, those in the grace of God, those that if they died they would have eternal life, those given faith, hope and love, and are God’s children, may not be among the number of the elect, and may not have been given the gift of perseverance, and may fall away and be lost. Therefore no one may be presumptuous and no one knows for sure if they have been given the gift of perseverance. How very different then the Calvinist view.

1All quotations taken from On Rebuke and Grace, St. Augustine of Hippo in A.D. 426 or 427 (link)