Wednesday, May 16, 2012

St. Augustine's On the Spirit and the Letter

St. Augustine of Hippo
If you're looking for a good book which deals about the role of the divine law in Christian sanctification, I would recommend St. Augustine's On the Spirit and the Letter. Personally, this book has helped me in lot of different ways - theologically, apologetically, and spiritually - because it teaches and emphasizes plenty of biblical principles (which I will summarize later) that I find to be greatly beneficial to our spiritual warfare with the world.

The book, written by St. Augustine in 412 AD, is in many ways similar to Luther's famous treatise On the Bondage of the Will. Firstly, they are similar in occasion and purpose. Luther's On the Bondage of the Will was a response to the semi-Pelagian sentiments of Erasmus who argued that since God does not command impossibilities, the commands of the law, then, indicates that we possesses the natural ability of will to apply ourselves to the things which lead to eternal salvation, or turn away from them. In On the Spirit and the Letter, on the other hand, St. Augustine responds to the Pelagian teaching that the only grace necessary for man to live rightly is the knowledge of the law, and that man doesn't need to be helped by God from within since he has the natural capacity and free determination of the will to do that which the law prescribes (cf. Ch. 4). This heresy is derived directly from Pelagius' repeated assertion: "If I ought, I can", which is the very same argument Erasmus used against Luther. Secondly, the two books are similar with respect to the counter-arguments used by the authors to refute their theological rivals. Both Luther and St. Augustine devastatingly refuted their opponents by (1) emphasizing the bondage of man's will in Sin, (2) the insufficiency of the law to redeem us from sin, (3) the proper use and purpose of the law being to reveal sin and condemn the sinner in order that he may take refuge in God's mercy by faith, (4) the absolute necessity of God's enabling and empowering grace for the execution of any godly virtue, (5) and the unrestricted sovereignty of God in dispensing His gifts on whomever He wills.

So why not read Luther's On the Bondage of the Will rather than St. Augustine's On the Spirit and the Letter? Both books are actually commendable, but I would still prefer St. Augustine because of his lucid and gracious style in dealing with the subject he is treating. I'm not saying Luther wasn't lucid or he isn't gracious (though there are instances in his writings where he is evidently sarcastic and somewhat full of himself). It's just that I find St. Augustine's approach more reader-friendly.  

As usual, St. Augustine's deep commitment to Sola Gratia and Solus Cristus shines noticeably thorough the entire book, which makes it overall a great read. Chapter after chapter, the sincere reader will find himself drawn into God's grace in Christ more and more as St. Augustine strips the human flesh of all its alleged natural sufficiency, in accordance to the testimony of God's Word.

Perhaps the only turn-off an evangelical Christian will have on this book is the apparent misunderstanding of the author on the nature of justification. As we all know, St. Augustine didn't see justification as a one-time event wherein God declares a sinner righteous in His sight, but instead a process by which sinners are morally transformed and made righteous as they cling to God's mercy in Christ by faith (cf. Ch. 18 [XI], 45, 58). According to scholars, this misunderstanding is due to St. Augustine's misinterpretation of the Greek word "dikaioo" [a courtroom term meaning "to declare righteous in the sight of the law"] by using the Latin word "justificare" [which meant "to make righteous"] to translate it. The difference is apparent and crucial because the former indicates an issued instant verdict, while the latter a gradual change from something bad to good. Nonetheless, I suggest the discerning reader to overlook this glitch as he read the whole book, since the reason I recommend the book in the first place is that it essentially deals with the role of God's law in the Christian sanctification (though wrongly equated by St. Augustine to justification)

Overall, I would rate On the Spirit and the Letter nine stars (over 10) because of its clarity, simplicity, lucidity, and consistent Christ-centeredness. After you read this book, you'll understand why St. Augustine was dubbed as "blessed doctor of Grace" and why both Catholics and Protestants hold him in very high esteem. May this book be as helpful to you as it has been to me.

God bless!


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