Augustine's 'On the Spirit and the Letter'; Chapters 16-20

Chapter 16 [X.]—How the Law Was Not Made for a Righteous Man.

Because “for a righteous man the law was not made;”[1] and yet “the law is good, if a man use it lawfully.”[2] Now by connecting together these two seemingly contrary statements, the apostle warns and urges his reader to sift the question and solve it too. For how can it be that “the law is good, if a man use it lawfully,” if what follows is also true: “Knowing this, that the law is not made for a righteous man?”[3] For who but a righteous man lawfully uses the law? Yet it is not for him that it is made, but for the unrighteous. Must then the unrighteous man, in order that he may be justified,—that is, become a righteous man,—lawfully use the law, to lead him, as by the schoolmaster’s hand,[4] to that grace by which alone he can fulfil what the law commands? Now it is freely that he is justified thereby,—that is, on account of no antecedent merits of his own works; “otherwise grace is no more grace,”[5] since it is bestowed on us, not because we have done good works, but that we may be able to do them,—in other words, not because we have fulfilled the law, but in order that we may be able to fulfil the law. Now He said, “I am not come to destroy the law, but to fulfil it,”[6] of whom it was said, “We have seen His glory, the glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.”[7] This is the glory which is meant in the words, “All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God;”[8] and this the grace of which he speaks in the next verse, “Being justified freely by His grace.”[9] The unrighteous man therefore lawfully uses the law, that he may become righteous; but when he has become so, he must no longer use it as a chariot, for he has arrived at his journey’s end,—or rather (that I may employ the apostle’s own simile, which has been already mentioned) as a schoolmaster, seeing that he is now fully learned. How then is the law not made for a righteous man, if it is necessary for the righteous man too, not that he may be brought as an unrighteous man to the grace that justifies, but that he may use it lawfully, now that he is righteous? Does not the case perhaps stand thus,—nay, not perhaps, but rather certainly,—that the man who is become righteous thus lawfully uses the law, when he applies it to alarm the unrighteous, so that whenever the disease of some unusual desire begins in them, too, to be augmented by the incentive of the law’s prohibition and an increased amount of transgression, they may in faith flee for refuge to the grace that justifies, and becoming delighted with the sweet pleasures of holiness, may escape the penalty of the law’s menacing letter through the spirit’s soothing gift? In this way the two statements will not be contrary, nor will they be repugnant to each other: even the righteous man may lawfully use a good law, and yet the law be not made for the righteous man; for it is not by the law that he becomes righteous, but by the law of faith, which led him to believe that no other resource was possible to his weakness for fulfilling the precepts which “the law of works”[10] commanded, except to be assisted by the grace of God.

Chapter 17.—The Exclusion of Boasting.

Accordingly he says, “Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay; but by the law of faith.”[1] He may either mean, the laudable boasting, which is in the Lord; and that it is excluded, not in the sense that it is driven off so as to pass away, but that it is clearly manifested so as to stand out prominently. Whence certain artificers in silver are called “exclusores.”[2] In this sense it occurs also in that passage in the Psalms: “That they may be excluded, who have been proved with silver,”[3]—that is, that they may stand out in prominence, who have been tried by the word of God. For in another passage it is said: “The words of the Lord are pure words, as silver which is tried in the fire.”[4] Or if this be not his meaning, he must have wished to mention that vicious boasting which comes of pride—that is, of those who appear to themselves to lead righteous lives, and boast of their excellence as if they had not received it,—and further to inform us, that by the law of faith, not by the law of works, this boasting was excluded, in the other sense of shut out and driven away; because by the law of faith every one learns that whatever good life he leads he has from the grace of God, and that from no other source whatever can he obtain the means of becoming perfect in the love of righteousness.

Chapter 18 [XI.]—Piety is Wisdom; That is Called the Righteousness of God, Which He Produces.

Now, this meditation makes a man godly, and this godliness is true wisdom. By godliness I mean that which the Greeks designate θεοσέβεια,—that very virtue which is commended to man in the passage of Job, where it is said to him, “Behold, godliness is wisdom.”[1] Now if the word θεοσέβεια be interpreted according to its derivation, it might be called “the worship of God;”[2] and in this worship the essential point is, that the soul be not ungrateful to Him. Whence it is that in the most true and excellent sacrifice we are admonished to “give thanks unto our Lord God.”[3] Ungrateful however, our soul would be, were it to attribute to itself that which it received from God, especially the righteousness, with the works of which (the especial property, as it were, of itself, and produced, so to speak, by the soul itself for itself) it is not puffed up in a vulgar pride, as it might be with riches, or beauty of limb, or eloquence, or those other accomplishments, external or internal, bodily or mental, which wicked men too are in the habit of possessing, but, if I may say so, in a wise complacency, as of things which constitute in an especial manner the good works of the good. It is owing to this sin of vulgar pride that even some great men have drifted from the sure anchorage of the divine nature, and have floated down into the shame of idolatry. Whence the apostle again in the same epistle, wherein he so firmly maintains the principle of grace, after saying that he was a debtor both to the Greeks and to the Barbarians, to the wise and to the unwise, and professing himself ready, so far as to him pertained, to preach the gospel even to those who lived in Rome, adds: “I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.”[4] This is the righteousness of God, which was veiled in the Old Testament, and is revealed in the New; and it is called the righteousness of God, because by His bestowal of it He makes us righteous, just as we read that “salvation is the Lord’s,”[5] because He makes us safe. And this is the faith “from which” and “to which” it is revealed,—from the faith of them who preach it, to the faith of those who obey it. By this faith of Jesus Christ—that is, the faith which Christ has given to us—we believe it is from God that we now have, and shall have more and more, the ability of living righteously; wherefore we give Him thanks with that dutiful worship with which He only is to be worshipped.

Chapter 19 [XII]—The Knowledge of God Through the Creation.

And then the apostle very properly turns from this point to describe with detestation those men who, light-minded and puffed up by the sin which I have mentioned in the preceding chapter, have been carried away of their own conceit, as it were, through empty space where they could find no resting-place, only to fall shattered to pieces against the vain figments of their idols, as against stones. For, after he had commended the piety of that faith, whereby, being justified, we must needs be pleasing to God, he proceeds to call our attention to what we ought to abominate as the opposite. “For the wrath of God,” says he, “is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold down the truth in unrighteousness; because that which may be known of God is manifest in them: for God hath showed it unto them. For the invisible things of Him are clearly seen from the creation of the world, being understood through the things that are made, even His eternal power and divinity; so that they are without excuse: because, knowing God, they yet glorified Him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools; and they changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and to four footed beasts, and to creeping things.”[1] Observe, he does not say that they were ignorant of the truth, but that they held down the truth in unrighteousness. For it occurred to him, that he would inquire whence the knowledge of the truth could be obtained by those to whom God had not given the law; and he was not silent on the source whence they could have obtained it: for he declares that it was through the visible works of creation that they arrived at the knowledge of the invisible attributes of the Creator. And, in very deed, as they continued to possess great faculties for searching, so they were able to find. Wherein then lay their impiety? Because “when they knew God, they glorified Him not as God, nor gave Him thanks, but became vain in their imaginations.” Vanity is a disease especially of those who mislead themselves, and “think themselves to be something, when they are nothing.”[2] Such men, indeed, darken themselves in that swelling pride, the foot of which the holy singer prays that it may not come against him,[3] after saying, “In Thy light shall we see light;”[4] from which very light of unchanging truth they turn aside, and “their foolish heart is darkened.”[5] For theirs was not a wise heart, even though they knew God; but it was foolish rather, because they did not glorify Him as God, or give Him thanks; for “He said unto man, Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom.”[6] So by this conduct, while “professing themselves to be wise” (which can only be understood to mean that they attributed this to themselves), “they became fools.”[7]

Chapter 20.—The Law Without Grace.

Now why need I speak of what follows? For why it was that by this their impiety those men—I mean those who could have known the Creator through the creature—fell (since “God resisteth the proud”[1]) and whither they plunged, is better shown in the sequel of this epistle than we can here mention. For in this letter of mine we have not undertaken to expound this epistle, but only mainly on its authority, to demonstrate, so far as we are able, that we are assisted by divine aid towards the achievement of righteousness,—not merely because God has given us a law fall of good and holy precepts, but because our very will without which we cannot do any good thing, is assisted and elevated by the importation of the Spirit of grace, without which help mere teaching is “the letter that killeth,”[2] forasmuch as it rather holds them guilty of transgression, than justifies the ungodly. Now just as those who come to know the Creator through the creature received no benefit towards salvation, from their knowledge,—because “though they knew God, they glorified Him not as God, nor gave Him thanks, although professing themselves to be wise;”[3]—so also they who know from the law how man ought to live, are not made righteous by their knowledge, because, “going about to establish their own righteousness, they have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God.”[4]

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