St Augustine on Justification by Grace

by Phillip Cary, Ph.D.

To ask about Augustine’s view of justification is already something of an anachronism. To begin with, Augustine does not make a distinction between justification and sanctification. Of course he speaks a great deal about righteousness (i.e. justitia) and holiness (i.e. sanctitas) but these terms are not related to each other the way the later Protestant tradition relates justification and sanctification. That distinction comes much later. Indeed, it’s only beginning to emerge in Calvin himself (e.g. Inst. 3:14.9). What later Calvinists call sanctification, Calvin himself will often call regeneration or repentance (ibid. 3:3 passim), which can get rather confusing.

Still less does Augustine distinguish between an event of justification and a process of sanctification. In fact for Augustine justification, so far as he discusses it at all, is not a particular event but the activity of God throughout our lives. When he uses the verb justificare, Augustine is thinking of God’s role in bringing us along in our lifelong journey to Him (cf. the article on “Justice” in the encyclopedia Augustine through the Ages). This image of a journey, pilgrimage or road to God is central to his theology, and any account of justification that is true to Augustine’s thought will really just be an account of that journey, in which we grow closer to God by growing in charity, which is the righteousness (justitia) that consists in obeying the twofold law of love.

The linking of justification with a one-time event of conversion is a much later development, though it is often read back into the famous “conversion” narrative in Confessions 8. This in fact is not a conversion in the Protestant sense, because Augustine is clear that he already had a personal faith in Christ as savior at that point (Conf. 7:5.7, end, and 7:7.11, beginning). The outcome of this narrative is not faith in Christ, which he already had, but the decision to get baptised, which he had been resisting for many years. And Augustine is abundantly clear that his sins are forgiven and he is born again, not because of the change of heart he narrates in book 8 but because of his baptism, which he narrates in book 9.

Augustine does have a kind of ordo salutis, or order of events in the process of salvation, but neither justification nor sanctification are terms that play a role in it (e.g. in On the Spirit and the Letter, 30.52). Typically, he’s trying to figure out how grace is related not to justification and sanctification but to faith and love. He always assumes that faith comes first in the process of salvation, and then love of God and neighbor is a gift of grace given in response to the prayer of faith (a process actually illustrated quite nicely in Confessions 8 ).

Augustine does, however, lay the groundwork for later notions of conversion toward the end of his life, when he explicitly teaches that the very beginning of faith is a gift of grace (e.g. in On the Predestination of the Saints 3ff), so that grace is wholly prevenient, coming even before our prayer for grace, because the faith with which we pray is itself a gift of grace. That makes it possible for late-medieval theologians to fuss over when exactly “first grace” is given (the question that tormented young Luther, until he realized he should believe in the Gospel promises contained in baptism and sacramental absolution) which leads in turn to Calvinist preoccupation with conversion, which rapidly becomes identified with justification as a one-time event—a notion almost wholly alien to the Bible and the previous Christian tradition.

In this connection, it’s worth considering Calvin’s rejection of the Catholic side of Augustine in Inst. 3:11.15f: “Augustine’s view, or at any rate his manner of stating it, we must not entirely accept. For even though he admirably deprives man of all credit for righteousness and transfers it to God’s grace, he still subsumes grace under sanctification, by which we are reborn in newness of life through the Spirit. But Scripture, when it speaks of faith righteousness [i.e. justification] leads us to something far different: namely, to turn aside from the contemplation of our own works and look solely upon God’s mercy and Christ’s perfection.” If I understand him right, Calvin’s saying that Augustine does not actually have a doctrine of justification, properly speaking, but only a doctrine of sanctification. And my gloss on this is, that Calvin is imposing categories on Augustine that are alien to him and the whole prior tradition. But if you’re going to use these terms the way Calvinists use them, then that’s the correct thing to say about Augustine: he knows nothing of the Calvinist doctrine of justification, but only of sanctification.

As for Augustine’s doctrine of operative grace, this is simply God beginning the process of justification (or, to use more genuinely Augustinian terms, getting us on the road by which we journey to him), a beginning which takes place prior to our active co-operation and thus becomes the starting point of all our faith, love and good works, like the first time we set foot on the right road. From our perspective, this gift of operative grace is called the “beginning of faith” (initium fidei)—the key term in On the Predestination of the Saints, from whence it ends up becoming a technical term in medieval theology, and then much later is identified with conversion and justification by Protestants—leading to much misreading of Augustine, as both sides of the Reformation debates try to recruit him for their cause.

Since for Augustine justification is not an event but a process, how does the idea that justification is an event arise in the tradition? I think it stems from a key development that takes place between Augustine’s time and Luther’s, which is often overlooked. Some time in the middle ages the term “justification” came to be used to describe the outcome of penance—especially sacramental penance (cf. e.g. Aquinas, Summa Theologica III 85.6 ad 3 and I-II 113.1). This means justification is an event that recurs many times in life, beginning with baptism and repeated every time we truly repent of our sins and are forgiven—in contrast to the classic Protestant doctrine of a single event of justification that is closely connected with, if not identical to, a once-in-a-lifetime conversion.

Luther is with Aquinas on this score. For him justification is the repeated event in which the righteousness of God “is given to men in baptism and whenever they are truly repentant” (from his famous sermon “On Two Kinds of Righteousness,” LW 31:297). This is one of many ways that Luther is, I argue, not quite Protestant (cf. Pro Ecclesia, Fall 2005). For both Luther and Aquinas, the first time one is justified is in baptism (which is itself a form of repentance) and then all subsequent events of justification are also results of repentance—which for Luther consists of nothing other than a “return to baptism.”

So when someone asks whether justification is an event or a process, the first thing to notice is what the question implicitly leaves out. Typically the hidden assumption is that “event” means a once-in-a-lifetime conversion, not repeated events of repentance and forgiveness. Indeed, typically the default position is assumed to be that justification is a one-time event, and the person asking the question wants to know whether justification might also involve a process stretching beyond the one-time event. So the first thing to say to such a question is that it takes for granted the novel Protestant view that justification is a one-time event, which is not even shared by Luther, much less by Aquinas or Augustine or any previous Christian theologian.

Having clarified that point, you can say: yes, justification is an event, but one that happens many times in life, just like Aquinas and Luther teach. But it’s best to leave Augustine out of this discussion. If you asked him whether justification was a process or an event, he’d be utterly baffled, since he shares none of the key assumptions lurking behind the question. If you wanted to give him a sense of what the 16th-century questions mean, you’d need to take a different approach. You could ask, for instance: when you pray for grace or forgiveness of sins, how do you know God will give it to you? Do you know? These are not the kind of questions Augustine actually asked, but they make good sense in an Augustinian context, and it was such questions that drove Luther to the doctrine of justification and the promises of the Gospel, which he first found in sacramental absolution.

(Originally published on my old Pontifications blog on 14 July 2006)

Dr Phillip Cary is Professor of Philosophy at Eastern University. He is the author of several books on St Augustine, including Augustine’s Invention of the Inner Self.

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4 Responses to St Augustine on Justification by Grace

  1. Fr. Joseph Bittle says:

    Can you give us a reference source for this article?


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      This article was originally published on my now defunct blog Pontifications. The original Pontifications was lost due to the irresponsibility of the host; hence I do not have an URL for the original posting.


  2. Fr. Joseph Bittle says:

    Ah, I had assumed that it would have been published elsewhere and then run on Pontifications later. My error.


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