Augustine's 'On the Spirit and the Letter'; Chapters 11-15

Chapter 11 [VII.]—From What Fountain Good Works Flow.

This holy meditation preserves “the children of men, who put their trust under the shadow of God’s wings,”[1] so that they are “drunken with the fatness of His house, and drink of the full stream of His pleasure. For with Him is the fountain of life, and in His light shall they see light. For He extendeth His mercy to them that know Him, and His righteousness to the upright in heart.”[2] He does not, indeed, extend His mercy to them because they know Him, but that they may know Him; nor is it because they are upright in heart, but that they may become so, that He extends to them His righteousness, whereby He justifies the ungodly.[3] This meditation does not elevate with pride: this sin arises when any man has too much confidence in himself, and makes himself the chief end of living. Impelled by this vain feeling, he departs from that fountain of life, from the draughts of which alone is imbibed the holiness which is itself the good life,—and from that unchanging light, by sharing in which the reasonable soul is in a certain sense inflamed, and becomes itself a created and reflected luminary; even as “John was a burning and a shining light,”[4] who notwithstanding acknowledged the source of his own illumination in the words, “Of His fulness have all we received.”[5] Whose, I would ask, but His, of course, in comparison with whom John indeed was no light at all? For “that was the true light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.”[6] Therefore, in the same psalm, after saying, “Extend Thy mercy to them that know Thee, and Thy righteousness to the upright in heart,”[7] he adds, “Let not the foot of pride come against me, and let not the hands of sinners move me. There have fallen all the workers of iniquity: they are cast out, and are not able to stand.”[8] Since by that impiety which leads each to attribute to himself the excellence which is God’s, he is cast out into his own native darkness, in which consist the works of iniquity. For it is manifestly these works which he does, and for the achievement of such alone is he naturally fit. The works of righteousness he never does, except as he receives ability from that fountain and that light, where the life is that wants for nothing, and where is “no variableness, nor the shadow of turning.”[9]

Chapter 12.—Paul, Whence So Called; Bravely Contends for Grace.

Accordingly Paul, who, although he was formerly called Saul,[1] chose this new designation, for no other reason, as it seems to me, than because he would show himself little,[2]—the “least of the apostles,”[3]—contends with much courage and earnestness against the proud and arrogant, and such as plume themselves on their own works, in order that he may commend the grace of God. This grace, indeed, appeared more obvious and manifest in his case, inasmuch as, while he was pursuing such vehement measures of persecution against the Church of God as made him worthy of the greatest punishment, he found mercy instead of condemnation, and instead of punishment obtained grace. Very properly, therefore, does he lift voice and hand in defence of grace, and care not for the envy either of those who understood not a subject too profound and abstruse for them, or of those who perversely misinterpreted his own sound words; whilst at the same time he unfalteringly preaches that gift of God, whereby alone salvation accrues to those who are the children of the promise, children of the divine goodness, children of grace and mercy, children of the new covenant. In the salutation with which he begins every epistle, he prays: “Grace be to you, and peace, from God the Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ;”[4] whilst this forms almost the only topic discussed for the Romans, and it is plied with so much persistence and variety of argument, as fairly to fatigue the reader’s attention, yet with a fatigue so useful and salutary, that it rather exercises than breaks the faculties of the inner man.

Chapter 13 [VIII.]—Keeping the Law; The Jews’ Glorying; The Fear of Punishment; The Circumcision of the Heart.

Then comes what I mentioned above; then he shows what the Jew is, and says that he is called a Jew, but by no means fulfils what he promises to do. “But if,” says he, “thou callest thyself a Jew, and restest in the law, and makest thy boast of God, and knowest His will, and triest the things that are different, being instructed out of the law; and art confident that thou art thyself a guide of the blind, a light of them that are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form of knowledge and of the truth in the law. Thou therefore who teachest another, teachest thou not thyself? thou that preachest a man should not steal, dost thou steal? thou that sayest a man should not commit adultery, dost thou commit adultery? thou that abhorrest idols, dost thou commit sacrilege? thou that makest thy boast of the law, through breaking the law dishonorest thou God? For the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles through you, as it is written. Circumcision verily profiteth, if thou keep the law; but if thou be a breaker of the law, thy circumcision is made uncircumcision. Therefore, if the uncircumcision keep the righteousness of the law, shall not his uncircumcision be counted for circumcision? And shall not uncircumcision which is by nature, if it fulfil the law, judge thee, who by the letter and circumcision dost transgress the law? For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision which is outward in the flesh: but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.”[1] Here he plainly showed in what sense he said, “Thou makest thy boast of God.” For undoubtedly if one who was truly a Jew made his boast of God in the way which grace demands (which is bestowed not for merit of works, but gratuitously), then his praise would be of God, and not of men. But they, in fact, were making their boast of God, as if they alone had deserved to receive His law, as the Psalmist said: “He did not the like to any nation, nor His judgments has He displayed to them.”[2] And yet, they thought they were fulfilling the law of God by their righteousness, when they were rather breakers of it all the while! Accordingly, it “wrought wrath”[3] upon them, and sin abounded, committed as it was by them who knew the law. For whoever did even what the law commanded, without the assistance of the Spirit of grace, acted through fear of punishment, not from love of righteousness, and hence in the sight of God that was not in the will, which in the sight of men appeared in the work; and such doers of the law were held rather guilty of that which God knew they would have preferred to commit, if only it had been possible with impunity. He calls, however, “the circumcision of the heart” the will that is pure from all unlawful desire; which comes not from the letter, inculcating and threatening, but from the Spirit, assisting and healing. Such doers of the law have their praise therefore, not of men but of God, who by His grace provides the grounds on which they receive praise, of whom it is said, “My soul shall make her boast of the Lord;”[4] and to whom it is said, “My praise shall be of Thee:”[5] but those are not such who would have God praised because they are men; but themselves, because they are righteous.

Chapter 14.—In What Respect the Pelagians Acknowledge God as the Author of Our Justification.

“But,” say they, “we do praise God as the Author of our righteousness, in that He gave the law, by the teaching of which we have learned how we ought to live.” But they give no heed to what they read: “By the law there shall no flesh be justified in the sight of God.”[1] This may indeed be possible before men, but not before Him who looks into our very heart and inmost will, where He sees that, although the man who fears the law keeps a certain precept, he would nevertheless rather do another thing if he were permitted. And lest any one should suppose that, in the passage just quoted from him, the apostle had meant to say that none are justified by that law, which contains many precepts, under the figure of the ancient sacraments, and among them that circumcision of the flesh itself, which infants were commanded to receive on the eighth day after birth; he immediately adds what law he meant, and says, “For by the law is the knowledge of sin.”[2] He refers then to that law of which he afterwards declares, “I had not known sin but by the law; for I had not known lust except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet.”[3] For what means this but that “by the law comes the knowledge of sin?”

Chapter 15 [IX.]—The Righteousness of God Manifested by the Law and the Prophets.

Here, perhaps, it may be said by that presumption of man, which is ignorant of the righteousness of God, and wishes to establish one of its own, that the apostle quite properly said, “For by the law shall no man be justified,”[1] inasmuch as the law merely shows what one ought to do, and what one ought to guard against, in order that what the law thus points out may be accomplished by the will, and so man be justified, not indeed by the power of the law, but by his free determination. But I ask your attention, O man, to what follows. “But now the righteousness of God,” says he, “without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets.”[2] Does this then sound a light thing in deaf ears? He says, “The righteousness of God is manifested.” Now this righteousness they are ignorant of, who wish to establish one of their own; they will not submit themselves to it.[3] His words are, “The righteousness of God is manifested:” he does not say, the righteousness of man, or the righteousness of his own will, but the “righteousness of God,”—not that whereby He is Himself righteous, but that with which He endows man when He justifies the ungodly. This is witnessed by the law and the prophets; in other words, the law and the prophets each afford it testimony. The law, indeed, by issuing its commands and threats, and by justifying no man, sufficiently shows that it is by God’s gift, through the help of the Spirit, that a man is justified; and the prophets, because it was what they predicted that Christ at His coming accomplished. Accordingly he advances a step further, and adds, “But righteousness of God by faith of Jesus Christ,”[4] that is by the faith wherewith one believes in Christ for just as there is not meant the faith with which Christ Himself believes, so also there is not meant the righteousness whereby God is Himself righteous. Both no doubt are ours, but yet they are called God’s, and Christ’s, because it is by their bounty that these gifts are bestowed upon us. The righteousness of God then is without the law, but not manifested without the law; for if it were manifested without the law, how could it be witnessed by the law? That righteousness of God, however, is without the law, which God by the Spirit of grace bestows on the believer without the help of the law,—that is, when not helped by the law. When, indeed, He by the law discovers to a man his weakness, it is in order that by faith he may flee for refuge to His mercy, and be healed. And thus concerning His wisdom we are told, that “she carries law and mercy upon her tongue,”[5]—the “law,” whereby she may convict the proud, the “mercy,” wherewith she may justify the humbled. “The righteousness of God,” then, “by faith of Jesus Christ, is unto all that believe; for there is no difference, for all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God”[6]—not of their own glory. For what have they, which they have not received? Now if they received it, why do they glory as if they had not received it?[7] Well, then, they come short of the glory of God; now observe what follows: “Being justified freely by His grace.”[8] It is not, therefore, by the law, nor is it by their own will, that they are justified; but they are justified freely by His grace,—not that it is wrought without our will; but our will is by the law shown to be weak, that grace may heal its infirmity; and that our healed will may fulfil the law, not by compact under the law, nor yet in the absence of law.

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