Augustine’s Hope

 In Church Fathers, Church History

Now that we have discussed the nature of the soul, let’s end with Augustine’s hope for the individual and society. In his great work, City of God, he makes the distinction between the two groups of people on the earth: the City of Man and the City of God. The City of Man is comprised of those who do not believe in the one true God. They put their hope and trust in this world. According to Augustine, the things of this world are transient. They are changing before our eyes. If they are sought over God, they become idols. Augustine states in On Free Choice of the Will, “What is evil is the turning of the will away from the unchangeable good and toward changeable goods.” Augustine identifies the “changeable goods” as part of the “temporal” law. The temporal law consists of things that God created such as “wealth, honor, pleasures, and physical beauty.” None of those things are given. One may lose their wealth or they may never attain it. One may not be honored but hated. One may not have the opportunity for pleasure but experience great suffering. And one may not be as physically beautiful as someone else. If they are beautiful, they will only lose that beauty in old age. In fact, with age, our bodies are wasting away. We get weaker, we lose our memory, we become harder at hearing and seeing, and we develop cancer. We are dying every day. So, if the City of Man can’t find their hope in themselves, perhaps they can put their hope in society. Perhaps a philosopher king or a benevolent monarch can come save us by ruling us well. Perhaps communism can give us our purpose in work.

Your idols do not love you. They cannot give you purpose. You cannot look to them as your savior because they will fail you in the end. And ultimately, the City of Man is under the wrath of God. They worship the creature rather than the Creator (Romans 1:25). They will not see eternal life but an eternal death. Those who belong to the City of Man will die like everyone else and they will experience “the second death” (Revelation 21:8). Augustine puts it like this: “The doom in store for those who are not of the City of God is an unending wretchedness that is called ‘the second death,’ because neither the soul, cut off from the life of God, nor the body, pounded by perpetual pain, can there be said to live at all. And what will make the second death so hard to bear is that there will be no death to end it.” This is a just punishment for those who have rejected the eternal, all-glorious Creator in favor of finite creation that was designed only to reflect His glory.

Yes, God is merciful. Yes, God is loving but He is also just. He will not compromise His holiness by letting sin go unpunished. There must be justice. But the City of God has a different story: they actually do have hope. They have hope beyond this life, which is in eternity worshipping God without pain or sorrow but with unending pleasure and joy (Revelation 21:4).

But how do we get there? Aren’t we slaves to sin and can’t choose God? This is where God steps in. Before the foundation of the world, God chose who He would have mercy on and save from the second death (Ephesians 1:4-6). Again, God could not compromise His holiness, so He “sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4). Jesus was conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary which means He was born without the corruption of original sin. He was born under the Law of God and kept the Law perfectly. He fulfilled the Covenant of Works that Adam couldn’t. Therefore, He was able to redeem and justify those who were under the Law (Romans 5:18-19).

Christ was the perfect sacrifice for sin, as He was the sinless God-man, which was why Jesus able to make propitiation for sin on behalf of all those who would believe (Hebrews 2:17, 9:12). He took God’s holy wrath and justice against the sins of the elect on Himself. And, the sins of God’s elect were expiated, that is, they are removed from their souls account before God and were placed on Christ and Christ imputes His righteousness on the person who places their trust and faith in Him (2 Corinthians 5:21) so that when God sees the one who believes, His sees the righteousness of Christ that He fulfilled in the Covenant of Works. The believer has gone from being represented by Adam to being represented by Christ. They have passed from death to life. That is why God is both “just and the justifier” (Romans 3:26). He is “just” as rightly He punishes sin and He is the “justifier” as He is able to have mercy because of the blood of Jesus.

Now, in order for a person to be able to repent of sin and believe in the name of Jesus, God must change their enslaved heart. In On Grace and Free Will,Augustine puts it beautifully: “Almighty God is able to turn to belief wills that are perverse and opposed to faith… But if God were not able to remove from the human heart even its obstinacy and hardness, He would not say through the prophet, ‘I will take from them their heart of stone and will give them a heart of flesh.’” When the heart of stone is removed and the heart of flesh is put into place (Ezekiel 36:26), by regeneration of the Holy Spirit, the person will always believe in Jesus. His grace is not resistible. The Spirit of God has never failed in changing the will of a rebellious sinner. And, at the moment of faith, the Spirit of God dwells within a believer, keeping them in God’s hands for all eternity (Ephesians 1:13-14).

Due to the resurrection of Christ from the dead, the City of God will also resurrect from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:21). Because of this great hope, the City of God can endure suffering and the brokenness of this world. The City of God can lack wealth, honor, pleasure, physical beauty and health that the City of Man lusts after and even be persecuted and killed yet they hope for a better age to come: eternal life in the presence of God (Hebrews 10:32-26). Because the City of God’s hope is set on eternal life and not this temporal life, they are free to love their neighbors by seeking both their individual and their collective good.

Augustine states in the City of God, “Thus, the heavenly City, so long as it is wayfaring on earth, not only makes use of earthly peace but fosters and actively pursues along with other human beings a common platform in regard to all that concerns our purely human life and does not interfere with faith and worship.” So, today that might mean that genuine Christians should go into politics to improve society as a whole, joining in to advocate for social justice issues such as systemic and institutional racism against people of color and abolishing abortion; but it could simply look like helping a neighbor across the street in need. In any case, the City of God seeks to glorify God on this side of eternity with their eyes set on the world to come.

EDITORS’ NOTE: See also the rest of Austin Hobbs‘ series on Augustine: Epistemology, Nature of the Soul, and Hope.

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