What do you hear?

Last week I traced the enduring debate between Pelagius and Augustine and asked, “What do you think?” The question offered two possible readings. The obvious option was, “what’s your opinion?” But I also wondered where a person’s mind goes when it’s free to wander.

Let me chase the second question in this entry.

It’s a uniquely revealing question if Augustine’s premise is correct: that love shapes our thoughts and conduct. Augustine—unlike Pelagius and his kin—held that God changes our hearts as the defining feature of our meeting and knowing Christ. In other words before our spiritual birth we were “dead”—lacking a personal bond with God who is Life—and with that we thought first and foremost about our own concerns and not about God.

This premise is a stopping point for many people. Thinking about God is something everyone does at some level. And professing Christians hopefully think about God more often than non-Christians do. Yet even that may not say much about authentic faith in light of what we considered last week.

Faith, for instance, may be viewed as a function that comes alive at church: as something used for special occasions. Or it might be a creedal commitment that ticks all the right theological boxes and maintains proper moral behaviors. Call this type of faith a responsibility that God imposes on Christians—a duty that some may even manage to fulfill.

Another version of faith displays a response to God’s love poured out in a person’s heart. This is what Augustine had in mind when he said, “Love God and do what you like.” It revealed the bishop’s assumption that Christians love God because he first loved us, and that our response to his love spills out in every other relationship. He presumed that genuine love is certain to be morally sound and affectively robust.

This Augustinian version of faith was at the heart of Boston’s so-called Antinomian Controversy in 1636. John Cotton insisted that faith is something the Spirit of God stirs in a person’s heart unilaterally. Peter Bulkeley, on the other hand, treated faith as something a person initiates in a grace-aided swap that achieves salvation: it’s an exchange between God and his human partners.

What Bulkeley also assumed, as had Pelagius centuries earlier, is that faith requires a state of moral autonomy—the freedom to chose between good and evil—and that God’s power is needed to achieve that state. Both men also believed that intelligent people want the security of eternal life. So the preacher’s role is to chart a proper course in telling listeners how grace is to be applied in avoiding hell. The focus is on the human effort in applying faith. God, by extension, is a necessary benefactor who supplies the grace needed to achieve faith.

Augustine, by contrast, treated sin as “concupiscence”—or self-love—and such love always displaces God as it chases self-concerns. So its focus is never on God for God’s sake; only for self’s sake.

Given Augustine’s reading of the Bible—that concupiscence is the basic state of fallen humanity—salvation requires a miraculous reversal of heart! It pivots on how the soul is moved from self-love to a love for God. The problem is that a commanding desire (as in concupiscence) never desires to be changed. This immovable ambition of an established and satisfied desire is what enslaves the soul: the sinner doesn’t want God—even if he or she wants the benefits God offers. So the function of religion for sinners is always manipulative—to achieve eternal life by using what God supplies while still maintaining substantial autonomy.

So the test of real faith in an Augustinian view is what we think about. If we think mainly about our own welfare and about God as our resource then we still need to be converted. If, on the other hand, we think mainly about pleasing the God we love because we know he loves us, then this discussion is moot. Instead our focus and delight will be on Christ who reveals the Father to us.

There’s also another litmus of real faith: what we hear. In both Galatians and Romans Paul tells us that God’s Spirit shares something very special with all those who have responded to his love. He whispers, “The Father wants you to call him Abba—‘Daddy’”. God’s ambition is for us to enjoy his spiritual intimacy.

So what are you thinking about? And what are you hearing? Don’t be shy to respond if the Spirit nudges you to say, “I’m listening, Lord. Please tell me more about your love!”



  1. Gretchen

    By the time I reached the end of this post, I found myself weeping at the remembrance of how the Lord captured my heart as a 6-year-old child. It was His love that drew me as I lay in my bed on that Sunday night thinking about what my Sunday School teacher had shared earlier that day about God’s love for us demonstrated through Jesus’ death….Mrs. Mastretti, whose name I couldn’t pronounce and always ended up calling Mrs. Spaghetti!

    It’s also sad, though, to look back at how so much of what I was taught in various churches hindered my relationship with Christ. We wouldn’t want to get too excited about His love for us, you know 🙂 The focus does so often end up being on our effort with God supplying the needed infusion of “grace” to enable us to do the right things.

    Thanks for this post, Ron. It’s a really clear, straightforward explanation of the contrasting ways of thinking…and hearing.

  2. Judy Denning

    Thank you for your second thought on the debate between Pelagius and Augustine. I considered your point about our…” response to God’s love poured out through a person’s heart.” Or as Augustine put it “Love God and do what you like.” This is quite a lot to ponder here.

    I have been caught up with the words from Luke lately…deny yourself, take up my cross and follow me. It seems such a risk to deny myself. Yet as, you state in your “if …we think mainly about pleasing the God we love…” then it just becomes a question of who I love..self? or God? He finished the work on the cross, that I thought I was responsible to carry out because He loves me. Then He insists that I take things out of my heart and let Him reign in power and love. This is a serious response to my savior that I see Augustine enjoying.

    I sense, God pursuing us and desiring, no even more, insisting that I be His first love. His love for me is so drastic that He wants me to call Him “Abba, Father.” I hear the Holy Spirit within me saying: “Come, Love me, enjoy My presence within you and live my love.” Then I can say like Augustine and you. “Love God and do what you like.” Thank You, Judy

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