Election of Grace: Augustine’s Doctrine of Predestination
The following article by Rev. William Langerak appeared in the Oct. 15, 2014 edition of the Standard Bearer.
All who love the Reformed faith should give thanks for Augustine. Through him, the Lord imparted to us a rich, enduring knowledge, especially of grace. His contribution to our understanding of grace is substantial, even foundational, for by grace are we saved.
But Reformed believers may want to consider his development of predestination greater, more important, and essential to our faith. Not because predestination itself is more important, or even because his development of it was so robust. Rather, please consider it because Augustine established the principle that without predestination, there is no grace by which we are saved.
Our purpose is not to lay out all the salient points of Augustine’s view on predestination, but rather to set forth its particular significance in defense of grace over against semi-Pelagianism. Nevertheless, we may briefly describe his doctrine. We can be brief, because anyone familiar with the Reformed creeds will recognize it—because Augustine’s presentation is biblical, often being mere quotes from Scripture; and because his teaching is basic, clear, yet thorough.
These traits are easily visible in what is probably the closest he gives to a definition of predestination:
God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world…to the adoption of children, not because we were going to be of ourselves holy and immaculate, but…that we might be so…. He did this according to the good pleasure of His will, so that nobody might glory concerning his own will, but about God’s will towards himself. He did this according to the riches of His grace…which He purposed in His beloved Son, in whom we have obtained a share…to the purpose, not ours, but His…that He worketh in us to will also. Moreover, He worketh according to the counsel of His will, that we may be to the praise of His glory…for which purpose He called us…[with] that special calling of the elect.1
These, then, are the basic elements: predestination is an act of God’s will, grace, and pleasure, before time, in which He chose certain people to be members of Christ (who was first chosen, for God purposed this in His Son), by which they share in His holiness and are made to will and work good, to the end that they will glorify and praise God, and not themselves. This, as to its basics.
The particular significance of Augustine’s predestination we want to promote is this: the necessary, causal relationship he establishes between grace and election. In general, this relationship is summarized by his oft-repeated phrase “election of grace” (Rom. 11:5). By this he meant that election is grace unto grace, so that all grace is out of election. Predestination, therefore, is the act of God before time that is the necessary cause of all gifts and acts of grace in time; and predestination requires grace to be discriminating in distribution, irresistible in reception, and efficacious in power.
Augustine’s linking of predestination with grace was deliberate. It was to establish predestination as an “impenetrable bulwark for the defense of God’s grace.”2 As with most doctrinal developments, this one grew out of necessity in battle. It occurred during the last ten years of his life against a modified form of Pelagianism that had established a beach-head in Southern France (then Gaul). Later called the semi-Pelagians, Augustine knew them as Massilians due to their city of origin, Marseilles. So around the age of 65, when most men quietly contemplate retirement, and after already enduring the Pelagian siege of the City of God, Augustine again reinforces the walls against what amounted to an old foe, albeit one with fresh resolve and new weapons. Significantly, he fortifies primarily with predestination.
Predestination was not unknown to the church or Augustine prior to this. He had written on it decades earlier, and referred to it often against Pelagius. But it did not play a major role then because that conflict was mainly about human nature, the necessity of divine grace, and the role of human merit. The semi-Pelagian controversy was different. It chiefly and directly impugned the nature of divine grace. The semi-Pelagians agreed (against Pelagius) that everyone is born with original sin so none can be saved except by grace. However, they also insisted human nature, although sick and weak, can begin faith, and merit the other gifts of grace. B. B. Warfield says they admitted that “all men…needed God’s grace for salvation. But…objected to…prevenient and irresistible grace…and denied that the gifts of grace came irrespective of merits.”3 In other words, although they championed grace in salvation, it was defective—merited, dispensable, subsequent, common, and resistible grace. Sound familiar?
Against this, Augustine champions grace as free, antecedent, particular, irresistible, and efficacious.4 Importantly, he does not do this merely by arguing the nature of grace directly. Rather, he grounds grace in predestination. Why? He believed their errors regarding grace were because “they are in darkness…concerning predestination.”5 This darkness was partly, that they limited predestination to foreknowledge, and charged that Augustine’s teaching was fatalism, rendered God unjust, abolished free-will, and was contrary to sound doctrine. Besides, according to them, preaching predestination would drive men into indifference or despair.6 They also claimed predestination contradicted the “will of God to save all men” and the death of Christ for all.7 Sound familiar?
Augustine, of course, refutes them, especially with copious quotes from Scripture. He dismisses the cavil of fatalism by appeal to the determinative will of God, demolishing the underlying premise of free will: “The human will does not attain grace by freedom, but rather attains freedom by grace.”8 Against a “will of God to save all men,” he explains this is impossible because “man’s will cannot withstand the will of God.” He also asserted that “all” in I Timothy 2:4 may be understood as “all the predestinated…because every kind of men is among them.”9
Augustine also defends preaching predestination. To oppose it was to oppose the preaching of Christ and the apostles. Saying it rendered useless exhortations and rebuke was to indict Scripture.10 Preaching predestination did not hinder progress or perseverance of faith, but rather promoted them.11 He states, for example: “Although… we say obedience is the gift of God, we exhort men to it.”12 And, “Predestination must be preached, that God’s true grace…may be maintained with insuperable defense.”13
Strikingly, Augustine rarely argues predestination for its own sake, or even because it is biblical. His basic, underlying purpose is always to teach predestination because grace is dependent upon it. If grace is divorced from election, grace is no longer grace. Augustine knew this from experience, for it was his error at one time: “I thought…faith whereby we believe on God is…in us from ourselves…and to consent when the gospel was preached to us…was our own doing…[because] I had not as yet found what is the nature of the election of grace.”14 So he argues vigorously that “God’s grace…is given according to the good pleasure of His will…. The grace of God, which both begins a man’s faith and…enables it to persevere unto the end…is given according to His own most secret…righteous, wise, and beneficent will.”15 “This is the predestination of the saints—nothing else, to wit, the foreknowledge and the preparation of God’s kindnesses.”16
Augustine’s commitment to defending grace by predestination is especially evident in his willingness to explain its difficulties. He acknowledged “the mystery” of the doctrine, but denied it was contradictory or unknowable. To him, the mystery of it was that we can know only what God reveals and can expect opposition because it seems contrary to our natural (depraved) sense of justice. Besides, there are limits to our understanding. Nevertheless, he is not shy or ashamed to teach whatever Scripture reveals—that grace through election might stand, and not fall.
One example of this is Augustine’s defense of particular grace. He recognizes that if grace is of election, then “grace…is not common to the good and the wicked.” But he also recognizes that then not everything commonly called grace is grace—grace is not properly every “unmerited gift of God.” So he addresses the issue: “Grace…is that which makes the good to differ from the wicked,” that is, grace has a moral quality to it.
Let the grace, therefore, whereby we are living and reasonable creatures, and are distinguished from the cattle, be attributed to nature; let that grace also by which, among men themselves, the handsome are made to differ from the ill-formed, or the intelligent from the stupid…be ascribed to nature…[even] the capacity to have faith, as the capacity to have love, belongs to men’s nature; but to have faith, even as to have love, belongs to the grace of believers.”17
Another evidence of Augustine’s zeal for predestination in the interests of grace is his attempt to explain the apostasy of the baptized. It is a problem because he promotes irresistible, efficacious grace by election from a sovereign God. “Of these [elect] no one perishes…. None of them perishes, because God is not mistaken…[and] because God is overcome by nothing.”18 The number of those “predestinated…is so certain that one can neither be added to them nor taken from them.”19 And the basic reason is that the grace of election works everything necessary to persevere:
For such [the elect] it is provided that they should hear the gospel, and when they hear they believe, and in the faith…they persevere unto the end; and if, perchance, they deviate from the way, when they are rebuked they are amended…and return into the path which they had left…. For He worketh all these things in them…, who also elected them in His Son before the foundation of the world by the election of grace…. As it is said, of grace, not of any precedent merits of theirs.20
But this creates a problem. For many called the children of God, or Israel, or the church, fall away in unbelief. Again, Augustine addresses the difficulty. First, he appeals to the biblical distinction between children of “flesh” versus “promise,” and those “Israel” versus “of Israel.” Second, he distinguishes between what we know only outwardly and what God knows eternally:
Far from being so [that] these [who fall away] were of those who are predestinated and called according to His purpose—who are truly the children of the promise…. While they live piously, they are called children of God; but because they live wickedly and die in impiety, the foreknowledge of God does not call them God’s children…. They are not so called by God…. They who are truly children are foreknown and predestinated…. Such children would be given to Christ the Son,…[and] are ordained to eternal life…. And therefore none of them ends this life when he has changed from good to evil…. [And] those whom we call His enemies…, whomever of them He will so regenerate that they may end this life in that faith which worketh by love, are already, and before this is done, in that predestination His children…, and may not perish but have everlasting life.21
In defense of grace, Augustine also boldly teaches double predestination. Some (such as Schaff himself ) deny or doubt this. We are not sure why. Perhaps because Augustine routinely uses election interchangeably with predestination. Perhaps because he teaches election from an infralapsarian perspective—elected before time, they are chosen logically post-lapse, that is, out of the mass of fallen humanity. Perhaps it’s because he consistently refers to reprobation in terms of God’s leaving sinners in perdition, or an act of God’s justice. But all this is simply the same perspective, language, and doctrine of the Canons of Dordt (1618-19). Besides, his position is clear from his writings, especially two somewhat unrelated works written during that controversy. “These we call…the two cities, or two communities of men, of which the one is predestined to reign eternally with God, and the other [predestined] to suffer eternal punishment with the devil.”22 And,
When the intelligent creation, both angelic and human, sinned, doing not His will but their own, He used the very will of the creature which was working in opposition to the Creator’s will as an instrument for carrying out His will, the supremely Good thus turning to good account even what is evil, to the condemnation of those whom in His justice He has predestined to punishment, and to the salvation of those whom in His mercy He has predestined to grace.23
Lastly, to demonstrate not only the veracity of Augustine’s doctrine of predestination, but especially its significance for the promotion and defense of grace as free, antecedent, particular, irresistible, and efficacious, consider this wonderful proof which Augustine raises in a number of places—Christ according to His human nature. Something all who love Christ should consider.
There is no more illustrious instance of predestination than Jesus Himself…. If any believer wishes thoroughly to understand this doctrine, let him consider Him, and in Him he will find himself also…. The believer, I say; who in Him believes and confesses the true human nature that is our own…. Therefore He predestinated both Him and us, because both in Him that He might be our head, and in us that we should be His body, He foreknew that our merits would not precede, but that His doing should.”24
Therefore in Him who is our Head let there appear to be the very fountain of grace, whence…He diffuses Himself through all His members. It is by that grace that every man from the beginning of his faith becomes a Christian, by which grace that one man from His beginning became Christ. Of the same Spirit also the former is born again of which the latter was born. By the same Spirit is effected in us the remission of sins, by which Spirit it was effected that He should have no sin…. This, therefore, is that same predestination of the saints which most especially shone forth in the Saint of saints…; and who is there of those who rightly understand the declarations of the truth that can deny this predestination?25
Yet, the sad truth is, many have done just that. Rome did, while still upholding, at least officially, Augustine’s doctrines of grace. Sadder still is that Reformed folk, whose creeds teach this same grace and predestination, deny it (or muddle it or treat it like a disease). The legacy of Augustine is that he shows us the inevitable result—grace is no longer grace and varies little from of the semi-Pelagians. Conversely, where this happens to grace, one can be certain that predestination has been denied. Why? Because election is of grace, and grace is of election—any grace given, taught, received, or worked, that is cut-off, divorced, or not flowing from election, is no grace at all.
This is the citadel Augustine built upon the foundation of Christ and the apostles. This is the same fortress of the Reformed creeds, particularly the Canons of Dordt, a vigorous, thorough confession of predestination made in the interest of grace. In this bulwark about the City of God, grace is kept safe. Grace kept safe, God’s people are secure—for by grace are we saved. Remember, sometime, to give thanks to our predestining, gracious Lord for Augustine, especially those last 10 years of his life.