Augustine on Justification as Healing
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 fulfill the law, not by compact under the law, nor yet in the absence of law. De Spiritu 15.
De Spiritu is Augustine’s reflection on the notion that the regenerate person attains the potential to refrain from sin. This potential involves human agency, combined with the absolutely necessary and gracious assistance of the Holy Spirit’s transformative work in the soul, to inspire within it joy and love of goodness, for the regenerate person’s ultimate justification. Augustine concludes that a holy life and ultimate justification are only God’s gifts.
Within this scheme, Augustine is careful to “defend” the grace of God against human boasting in human virtues, and he highlights the deficiencies of the Jewish law operative through fear of punishment, rather than love of righteousness; the moral law inspires and augments desire for sin by highlighting and forbidding those things that are not to be done: “in some strange way the very object which we covet becomes all the more pleasant when it is forbidden.” Augustine thus refutes the Pelagian idea that God is the Author of human righteousness by virtue of being the Author of the instructive law, since the requirements of the law cannot justify, and indeed inspire greater sin. Augustine continuously presses the crucial point of I Corinthians 4:7: what have they, which they have not received? Augustine concludes that “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.” Augustine insists that God’s grace is the sinner’s only recourse for his justification. Augustine’s rich and multivalent description of this grace includes the elements of the supernatural gift of desiring God and the supernatural capacity to love God as He ought to be loved. In response to the Pelagian proposal that humanity had retained the capacity to love and obey God by means of the natural capacities submitting to the revelation of the divine law, Augustine reminded his readers that no one can be free to exercise any capacity until one is first set free and continuously enabled by the gracious action of God.
Although Augustine does not explicitly define his sense of justification in these texts, he is clear that while our justification is not achieved through our will or works, our justification is not wrought without our will and our free obedience to the law; furthermore, though the law only serves our will by showing to be weak, grace can heal the will’s infirmity, such that “our healed will may fulfill the law.” We are thus left to consider the application of God’s grace to the sinner, in order to better understand how this justification takes place.
Augustine clearly holds that the state of original sin is an intrinsic problem for every human person. The readings considered here can be taken as a rather disconcerting summary of the weakness and tendency to sin ingrained in both the fallen human will and the concupiscent body. Given this dire situation, we are hardly surprised by Augustine’s opening address to Marcellinus in De Spiritu, which seems to reassure us that true victory over human weakness is not really possible any way: “no one in this life seems either to have attained or to be likely to attain to (the perfection of human righteousness) except only the Mediator, who bore humanity.” De Spiritu 1. One might be tempted at this point to settle into a consoled complacency at this seeming reassurance about the futility of human striving, recalling the Protestant Reformation’s penchant for locating descriptions of the Mediator’s imputed righteousness in Augustine, as might be suggested from the language of On Marriage I 36-38:
Even now, says he, when the law in my members keeps up its warfare against the law of my mind, and retains in captivity somewhat in the body of this death, there is no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus…How made me free, except by abolishing its sentence of guilt by the remission of all my sins; so that, though it still remains, only daily lessening more and more, it is nevertheless not imputed to me as sin?
Augustine proceeds to describe the conversion of “the wild olive tree” in terms of its “derived” and “contracted” original sin being “remitted,” “covered,” and “not imputed:” Blessed, therefore, is the olive tree whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered…to which the Lord has not imputed sin. Proponents of certain Reformed schemes of justification might particularly rejoice to note that even where Augustine speaks of the “pruning” of the wild olive tree, the process of conversion begins and ends with the juridical language of imputation:
But this, which has received the remission, the covering, and the acquittal, even up to the complete change into an eternal immortality, still retains a secret force which furnishes seed for a wild and bitter olive tree, unless the same tillage of God prunes it also, by remission, covering, and acquittal. On Marriage I 38
It is on the basis of such language that the Augustinian Martin Luther insisted that the hopeless sinner must be “covered” with Christ’s righteousness, “like snow falling on a dung hill.” However, Augustine prevents us from reading Christian justification exclusively in these terms within the first few paragraphs of De Spiritu. Augustine clearly states at the outset of this text that his purpose is to defend the possibility that a regenerate person might live without sin and fulfill God’s commandments. With regard to the remission of sin on the olive tree metaphor, Augustine turns immediately from the language of “covering” and “acquittal” to that of “purging” and “healing.”
The latter reference to healing appears with special emphasis in these texts, in which we find Augustine’s close interweaving of both juridical acquittal and ontological transformation with regard to justification. Although Augustine makes liberal use of forensic terminology in describing God’s determination to forgive the justified and decision to count them in Christ, whereby sins are “covered,” and “remitted,” Augustine presumes a deep connection between the juridical and the transformative elements of justification. For Augustine, God’s covering of human sin is inseperable from the transformed life which God enables the regenerate to live. Thus, whereas at this point a post 16th century audience might insistently ask whether the person’s sin is best described as ultimately “covered” or “healed,” it seems that Augustine would not recognize the apparent dichotomy that is implicit in this question. Augustine constantly interweaves both forensic and medicinal metaphors, such that we might have to conclude that he thinks that both descriptions are simultaneously true in the justification of the sinner: through Christ, God the Judge is properly identified as the One who reaches out to the sinner as the Healer:
Being thus convicted and confounded, he might see not only that he needed a physician, but also God as his helper so to direct his steps that sin should not rule over him, and he might be healed by betaking himself to the help of the divine mercy; and in this way, where sin abounded grace might much more abound—not through the merit of the sinner, but by the intervention of his Helper… Accordingly, the apostle shows that the same medicine was mystically set forth in the passion and resurrection of Christ. De Spiritu 9, 10.
Augustine returns again and again to the notion that God desires a transformed will that delights in holiness by the gifts of the Spirit. Augustine holds that humanity is justified by the gifts of the Spirit of God, who heals the human will, and transforms the heart by inscribing the “New Law” of real piety upon it. Augustine provides an especially vivid example of the tight juxtaposition of justification by imputation and internal transformation in On Marriage:
There is not, to be sure, anything remaining which may be remitted whenever, as the Scripture says, "the Lord forgives all our iniquities." But until that happens which immediately follows in the same passage, "Who heals all your infirmities, who redeems your life from corruption…" On Marriage I 28.
In certain passages of these texts, Augustine does seem to speak in a tone that is primarily forensic, in that he seems to refer to the justified state as a matter of God’s disposition towards the sinner when the sinner has altered his standing before God by the external mechanism of the assent of faith, from which posture good works may follow later: “by faith, conciliating the Justifier, (we) attain, and do, and live in it. For the work in which he who does it shall live, is not done except by one who is justified. His justification, however, is obtained by faith.” De Spiritu 50-51. We find in De Spiritu 22 that “having duly considered and weighed all these circumstances and testimonies, we conclude that a man is not justified by the precepts of a holy life, but by faith in Jesus Christ, —in a word, not by the law of works, but by the law of faith; not by the letter, but by the spirit; not by the merits of deeds, but by free grace.”
Furthermore, in De Spiritu 30: “from Him accrues to us the justification, whereby we do what He commands. And He commands, in order that, because we lack in ourselves, we may flee to Him for refuge.” Finally, Augustine refers to sin as a matter of merely juridical guilt rather than ontological injury in On Marriage I 29: “for not to have sin means this, not to be deemed guilty of sin.” From such language of “conciliation,” “obtaining by faith,” “not by merit,” and “fleeing to Christ for refuge” it might seem reasonable to conclude that Augustine thinks that human justification occurs when the believer’s faith triggers God’s judicial declaration, whereby the unjust is re-named and then gradually learns to obey God, rather than finding that God simultaneously juridically accepts and ontologically heals the regenerate person.
In the end, however, it becomes impossible to identify a purely juridical emphasis in Augustine’s statements in De Spiritu because Augustine emphasizes the ontologically transformative effects of grace. In De Spiritu 42 we find Augustine denying that God aids us “by externally addressing to our faculties precepts of holiness; for He gives His increase internally, by shedding love abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost, which is given to us." Over and over again, Augustine insists that God gives and forms the transformed heart that He requires for justification.
In conclusion, a few considerations: Augustine seems to locate a heavy sense of the merely forensic/juridical nature of justification by imputation under the Old Law, wherein the benefits of circumcision are deemed effective only in relation to practical righteousness; “if the uncircumcision keep the righteousness of the law, shall not his uncircumcision be counted for circumcision?” The appropriate benefits of circumcision are here described as juridically “reckoned” and “counted for” righteousness relative to the dispositional righteousness of the heart and the practical righteousness exercised by the will. In contrast, the real justification effected in the New Law is a matter of the ontological reality of the sinner’s healing and transformation:
There the law was given outwardly, so that the unrighteous might be terrified; here it was given inwardly, so that they might be justified… the one is written without man, that it may alarm him from without; the other within man himself, that it may justify him from within. De Spiritu 29, 30.
In this regard, the Reformation’s suggestion that we might read Augustine as promoting a juridically imputed righteousness appropriated exclusively by the salvific bond of faith in the Gospel, as over and against an infused or created righteousness, might seem to Augustine to involve an implicit revert to the mechanism of the Old Law, since emphasis would fall on an external appropriation by means of the work of the confession of faith:
We must therefore avoid saying, that the way in which God assists us to work righteousness, and "works in us both to will and to do of His good pleasure," is by externally addressing to our faculties precepts of holiness; for He gives His increase internally, by shedding love abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost, which is given to us. De Spiritu 42.
In sum, if asked whether God justifies us by imputation of external righteousness or by the infusion of healing graces, Augustine might respond in a vein similar to his response to the Pelagians: God is not the Author of our righteousness only in as much as He “instructs” us (as under the Old Law) in the mechanism of the Atonement so that we may believe and cooperate. Instead, God the Healer really makes us whole.