Augustine’s Aphorism and Easter

Today is Easter—when Christ’s followers celebrate his resurrection. By going to the cross he kept the promise of Isaiah 25:7—“And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces.” Easter tells us he succeeded.

This truth has both immediate and enduring power.

The immediate impact is that Christ’s saving work is “once for all.” We have freedom from the fear of death, a fear that once ruled our hearts: all our sins are resolved at the cross in a single moment. And all who believe are forever free of the death that came when Adam dismissed God.

And it’s only because of Easter that Augustine’s memorable claim is practical: “Love, and do as you please.” Yet his aphorism, once it got around, created a storm of protest led mainly by a British moralist named Pelagius.

Augustine’s comment does need some unpacking—it can be abused. Joseph Fletcher, an American ethicist of the last century, illustrated the misstep of treating love as an ultimate moral touchstone. In his “Situation Ethics” Fletcher took the Christian language of love to build an ethical system: “Do the loving thing in every situation.” Yet in his apparent paraphrase of Augustine’s fifth century thought Fletcher actually missed the key point.

Augustine’s point looked back to the language of love in a pair of texts from Paul’s letter to the Romans.

The first was, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (5:5); and the second, “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (13:8-9).

What Augustine drew from Romans, and the Bible in general, is that love is a soul’s bond to God—and not a simple sentiment or private decision of the soul. Love, in other words, isn’t an end in itself but a response to God. The ultimate focus of God’s love is his Son, Jesus. True faith—and any sound ethic—only works through this love of Christ. He makes all the difference.

Salvation restores what Adam lost: our love for God. So we come to Christ as the Spirit pours God’s love into our hearts. Where we once had hard hearts—dead to God—we now have his life restored in us. Our ultimate motive is no longer self-love—with the ugly desires that once ruled us—but a love for Christ and for those he loves.

And this is where Easter is so important. When Jesus conquered death he released his children from the spiritual death that rules unresurrected souls. The first Easter meant all of us who share his Spirit will also share his new life. He died by taking on our death and we live by receiving his life.

So Fletcher made the mistake of applying a truth to all humanity when what Augustine promised only works for those who have God’s Spirit pouring God’s love out in their hearts.

And Pelagius was just as mistaken in ignoring Augustine’s underlying premise—the point Paul made in Romans 13—that love will fulfill all the demands of the law. God’s love always does what is right, pure, and holy.

Fletcher’s misapplication and the Pelagian error are still active today. Neither man grasped the focus of Easter. They focused, instead, on human functions. But the Pelagian call to clean up behaviors; and Fletcher’s reliance on unredeemed human love, don’t work.

God’s answer relies on heart-transplants. Behaviors and emotions, apart from the Spirit, only display an underlying problem: hard or sin-deadened hearts. Our old hearts may even appear to be noble for much of the time but any souls that aren’t alive to God are ultimately self-concerned.

God’s Spirit restores a transforming love in the hearts of all who are saved. And by this means faith is “working through love” as presumed in Galatians 5. The Spirit’s presence produces love, joy, peace, patience, and more; and, “against such things, there is no law.” The fruit may not be fully developed in any of us, but it is sure to be growing in us as newborn believers.

So the wonderful focus of Easter is properly on Jesus who swallowed death for us. And he now shares his life with us by his Spirit pouring love out in our hearts. And with that we get to explore a new way of life: “Love, and do as you please.”

And this will by morally safe because our deepest ambition is to please our resurrected Lord. It’s by his love that we celebrate today: Christ has risen. And so have we!

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2 Comments

  1. Gretchen

    I really appreciated what you said about the love of God poured into our hearts, which in turn overflows to others, being “morally safe.” The “love, and do as you please” approach is safe because there is such a purity and wholeness to this kind of love. I would even say that this love is not only safe, it is restorative and healing. What a wonderful reflection for Easter! Thanks, Ron.

  2. R N Frost

    Thanks for the comment, Gretchen. Easter is, indeed, restorative and healing! God is gracious beyond any measure, isn’t he!

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