Augustine and the Doctrine of Election

                

augustine

Augustine of Hippo

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

January 25, 2015

Romans 8:18-30

 

I am continuing my review of the theology that makes us Presbyterian and a part of that great body within Christ’s church known as the Reformed Tradition.  Today, the topic is election and no, I am not talking about going to the polls, those sickening TV commercials, or even politics.  I am talking about the only election that manners in eternity: God voting for us.  Election is another name for predestination—the theology that maintains God’s control over our salvation.  As one set of theologians writes, “In prosperity and in adversity, God is for us, in us, and with us.  This conviction is not a deduction to be demonstrated to a skeptic, but a mystery to be experienced by the faithful.”[1]  This doctrine is a source of our comfort as followers of Christ who says to the disciples, “You did not choose me, but I chose you.”[2]

As I have done with this series so far, I am going to attach a theologian to this doctrine and that is Augustine.[3]  Augustine lived in North Africa in the late fourth and early fifth century. He’s considered the most influential theologian from the early church; therefore, it’s important we know something about him.  His father was a pagan, but his mother was a Christian. He was an academic early in life, who loved women and liked to party.  Much to his mother’s dismay, he kept a mistress.  During the first thirty years of his life, he certainly didn’t appear to be on the road to sainthood.  But that changed!

Augustine had a mother who continually prayed for him.  Any of you who are mothers who wonder if your prayers for your children do any good, this is an example from which you can draw inspiration.  Thanks to his mom’s prayers along with the work of Ambrose, another leading figure in the early church, and most importantly the work of the Holy Spirit, Augustine was converted.  At the age of thirty, he put aside his wild ways and focused his attention on the church, resigning his professorship so he could concentrate on serving his Savior.

During Augustine’s ministry, the Roman world which had held together for centuries, collapsed.  The church found itself being attacked by left-over pagans, who blamed this chaos on Rome abandoning the gods of old.  The church also found itself attacked internally.  Like Calvin’s Geneva, many Romans flooded North Africa as refugees. Among these refugees was the English theologian Pelagius.  Pelagius, whose writings have not survived so we must reconstruct his views by how his opponents viewed him, questioned the doctrine of Original Sin and held that the human race could, by its God-given will, accept Christ, make the necessary changes, and be saved.  So Augustine had two battles—one with those outside the church and one with a sect within the church.  In his answer to Pelagius, he expands upon the doctrine of election (or predestination), a doctrine from which he borrows heavily from Pauline thought.

Today’s sermon will be taken from the eighth chapter of Romans.  Paul begins discussing our suffering, how it is not comparable to our future glory.  Then he discusses the hope and longing for the unfolding of God’s kingdom, and how all creation is anxiously waiting.  It seems strange that creation yearns, but we must remember that in Genesis, Adam’s fall did not just affect humanity, the rest of creation was also impacted.  If there is any question to this, we just have to look to the mess we humans have made out of the environment.  But we don’t have to depend on ourselves, God’s Spirit has been promised to help us in our weakness.  Paul concludes, reminding us that we can trust in God because all things will come together for the good.

This is an interesting passage.  Paul moves from talking about suffering, creation’s longing for rebirth, and predestination….  Paul continues, in this chapter after our reading, reminding us that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Jesus Christ.  This is a comforting passage.  Ultimately, for Augustine and Calvin, election or predestination is a doctrine of comfort.  Read Romans 8:18-30

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Two of my favorite theologians are Frank and Ernest (from the comic strips).  Ernest asks Frank if he believed in fate.  “Sure,” Frank says, “I’d hate to think I turned out like this because of something I had control over!”

In the last 200 years, predestination has taken a bad rap.  Some equate predestination to fate, but it isn’t exactly the same.  Predestination is a part of Christian Theology which says that God is all powerful and is in control of the world and because of this, God knows what will happen and is working to bring out good in all things.  Of course this type of thought doesn’t seem to allow much room for “free will.”  And we, especially us Americans, like to think of ourselves as free…  We only need to look from a Biblical perspective to see what freedom does for us.  It only gets us deeper into sin.  So, if we are to have any chance at salvation, God has to be in control…  God, not us, is the author of salvation.

One analogy that attempts to explain this imagines the world as one giant supermarket—a huge Publix!  We’re all inside shopping and are freed to pick the items that we can reach and place them into our carts.  Some of these items are good for us like spinach and celery.  We are also able to pick up things that aren’t so good like highly processed foods loaded with sugars and fats.  But God is with us and guides us and, when we’re not looking, is also adding things to our cart that which his way up on the top shelves, where we can’t reach, things like salvation.  We think we’re in control, but are we really?[4]

We Presbyterians have often been characterized as believing in an elitist form of predestination.  I believe this is generally because most people perceive this doctrine on the same level as Frank in the comic strip that I referred to earlier.  They see predestination, our fate, as a crutch.  If I am predestined to be saved, I don’t have to worry about anything and if I am not predestined, then I cannot do anything to change my fate anyway…  This maybe how the average person understands this doctrine, but that’s not totally correct.

Our Confessions challenge such thinking as foolish, for we are to teach everyone God’s word in the hope that they might repent.[5]  That is part of our calling as a Christian.  The doctrine of predestination is a doctrine of comfort for those who are saved, yet still suffer.  It is not a doctrine designed to lead people to Christ. To perceive predestination only in the area of salvation is to misunderstand it.

Before I go too far, I would like to clear up one basic misunderstandings concerning predestination.  This is not only a “Presbyterian” doctrine, regardless of what the followers of Wesley might say.  The concept was clearly presented by Augustine, in the early church and his writings influenced both Calvin and Luther, but all three were deeply inspired by Scripture.  Paul writes that we have been “chosen before the foundations of the world”, and that “from the beginning, God has chosen us to be saved.”[6]  In the Old Testament, Jeremiah is told by the Lord that before he was formed in the womb, God knew him![7]

I do not believe you can have a theology which takes sin and the power and providence of God seriously without having some kind of doctrine of election.  However, this is a part of the counsel of God and we will never fully understand it. As with much with God, it is a mystery.[8]  But it is also a hopeful concept which is firmly grounded in our belief that God is at work in the world to bring things around for the best.

At the risk of over simplifying, I will summarize our theology into four basic parts:  First, we are sinners.  Paul made an extended effort in Romans to emphasize this.[9]   Second, God still loves us as shown in the life of Jesus.  (God did not throw up his hands and say, “you’re on your own.”)  Third, God’s Spirit gives us the power to respond to this love and frees us from our bondage to sin.  And finally, we respond to God’s love with praise, worship, and dedication of our lives to God’s purpose.

If you followed this, you will see that our salvation is God’s doing.  Once we accept God’s love, once we accept Jesus as Lord, we then respond by working to bring God further glory within our lives.  Works and ethics, for a Christian, are a response to God.  They are not an attempt to earn God’s favor, for God has already freely loved us.  Predestination then, is not something terrible.  Instead it is a comforting mystery.  We know God is working things out for the best and we do not need to control.

Paul, in this section of his Roman’s letter, ties predestination with human suffering and misery.  Paul does not diminish the suffering which Christians and every human being experiences in life.  We suffer from illness and accidents, from broken hearts and back-stabbing friends, and from other people prejudices and our own missed opportunities.  Life can be painful, and Paul does not deny it.   Instead he points out that all of creation is longing for the fulfillment of God’s promise.  Creation, which was cursed along with Adam, Eve and the snake, longs for the new day when decay will be no more.[10]

All creation and humanity share in the hope.  They share together in their quest for a better world, one that we cannot conceive but trust that the pain known here will be removed.[11]  But we are in a transition period in which sin and hurt still prevail…  In order to comfort us in the interim, God’s Spirit is present.  Paul even writes that we cannot pray properly, so the Spirit intercedes on our behalf.   God even helps us to prayer, which is kind of like God dropping goodies into our grocery basket!

When we think of predestination, we should not be concerned with loss of freedom.  Instead, we should focus on our call into God’s kingdom and therefore our response, to glorify God.[12]  We must understanding what God has done in our lives; knowing that even when things seem messed up, God is there beside us; and that the future belongs to God and it will be glorious.

There are two basic things which come out of our theology.  First is a comfort God’s providence.  We know that God is in control and we trust in God’s judgment.  We do not have to worry and work ourselves to death trying to prove to God, and to others, that we are good…  And once we understand that our salvation is grounded in God as revealed in Jesus Christ, we are freed to praise and worship God out of gratitude rather than fear.  And we can reach out and love and serve others, not because we need the extra brownie points to get into heaven, but because God loved us first and has given us the capacity to love others.

What can we take from this passage?  If we are in God’s hands, we’re going to be okay, regardless.  God has the future under control.  Don’t worry about it; instead, accept this gift of grace and then strive to live a life pleasing to God, knowing that the Almighty has got your backside covered.  Yes, there will still be suffering, but that, too, one day, will come to an end.  Until then, we glorify and enjoy God and that which God has given.

Yes, predestination is a Presbyterian doctrine.  But it is not the cornerstone of our beliefs, as some of our critics charge.  Instead, our theology is built upon a belief in an all- powerful and loving God who is in control of the world and of our future.  It is this God who created us and who, through Jesus Christ, promises us new life.  I encourage you to accept this mystery of faith and be at peace.  To God be the glory!  Amen.

 

©2015

[1] Andrew Purves and Charles Partee, Encountering God: Christian Faith in Turbulent Time (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2000),

[2] John 15:16.

[3] For a biography of Augustin, see Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967).  Much of the information about Augustine’s life I refreshed my memory with his entry in The Westminster Dictionary of Church History, Jerald C. Brauer, editor (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1971), 72-74.

[4] Partee and Purvis, 110.

[5] See Presbyterian Church USA, Book of Confession, Second Helvetic Confession, 5.057.

[6] Ephesians 1:4; 2 Thessalonians 2:13

[7] Jeremiah 1:5

[8] Presbyterian Church USA, Book of Confessions, Westminster Confession of Faith, 6.021.

[9] Paul uses the first five chapters in Romans to build the case of our sinfulness.

[10] Genesis 3:14–19

[11] Revelation 21:1-4.

[12] Presbyterian Church USA, Book of Confession, Westminster Shorter Catechism, 7.001.


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