Augustine’s Conception of Sin
Wesleyans often get hammered when they talk about sin with other Christians. Most Christians have been trained to accept the popular (AKA “Baptist”) idea of sin. When they run into a Wesleyan with different ideas they freak out.
John Wesley taught that it was conceivable to live a “sinless life.” When most American Christians hear this they immediately fall onto the floor and go into theological seizures. “NO! It cannot be! Nobody can be sinless except Christ!” they assert. Then they stare at the Wesleyan as if they are claiming Humans can fly.
But of course the difference is in how one defines sin. Wesley spoke of living above sin, properly so-called. By this phrase he meant sin as a “willful transgression against a known law”—the kind of sin that is intentional and committed in active rebellion against God. He never taught it was possible to be perfectly sinless in the matters of all short-falling in this life.
To Wesley it was possible for Christians to live without sinning on purpose, with full intention, and in rebellion against God’s clear direction—the sort of sin that lifts a fist against God and sins in rebellion against God’s clear and continually known will and direction. One Wesleyan wag describes this kind of rebellious sin as, “being tempted, sensing God’s clear restraint, but giving God the finger and doing it anyway.”
Once the Wesleyan and Baptist clear up their differing definitions of sin the conversation goes easier. But not for long. The Wesleyan definition of sin divides sin into levels—and that leaves sins “covered by the blood” that are less than willful, less than blatant, and not premeditated. Soon the Baptist is trembling again for they know for sure that all sin is equal, and there is no such thing as “little” sins and big sins. So what is the American “Baptisfied” conception of sin? It goes like this:
MOST AMERICAN CHRISTIANS BELIEVE…
John Wesley took a different tack than this. So did Augustine. Last year I was in a weekly Augustine reading group. In one of those readings (The Enchiridion, written in the 400’s) Augustine dealt most directly and clearly with sin. Perhaps reading my summary might inspire someone to go read Augustine’s original work.
The Enchiridion (handbook) was written after AD 420 and was thus one of Augustine’s latest works. You might agree or disagree with Augustine, but after reading him you will at least have to admit that his view of sin has more in common with John Wesley than the prevailing conception of sin today. Modern American Protestants don’t like Augustine as being “too catholic,” but he is one of the great Christian thinkers anyway—and mostly claimed as a grandfather by reformed folk, not Wesleyans. I urge you to read a bit of Augustine. After all, we know that The Purpose Driven life will evaporate in less than 50 years. Augustine’s writings have been around almost 1600 years. He is worth reading. And after reading him, you’ll also have to quit fighting welterweight Wesley on the sin definitions… and you’ll have to go back 1300 years before and wrestle with heavyweight Augustine. I am not a theologian but an amateur Christian, but in my reading of Augustine I’ve seen ties between his definition of sin and Wesley’s.
AUGUSTINE’S CONCEPTION OF SIN
1. Evil is a corruption of good.
Augustine did not grant sin stand-alone status. God created good, and evil exists only as that which falls short of good. If God had created good without the possibility of evil there would, (practically speaking) be no true good at all (for us). Even the existence of evil is thus “good.” Evil is located in the space falling short of Good. But, to Augustine, while everything that resides in this space falling short of good is evil, all evil is not automatically “sin.”
2. Baptism is an antidote for original sin.
To Augustine baptism actually dealt a blow to the consequences and the power of original sin. Today some might argue that “entire sanctification” (or for Baptists “Glorification”) does this, but to Augustine initial baptism was a full antidote for original sin. His words: “what our birth imposes upon us, our new birth relives us from.” To Augustine baptism was more than an outward sign of an inward work but relieved us fully from the legal consequences of original sin and actually accomplished some level of empowerment and cleansing in the life of a believer. Of course we need to remember that baptism at his time was not offered the moment one asked for it but delayed for several years. To Augustine, today’s drive-thru approach to baptism would have been considered casting pearls before swine.
3. All sins are not equal
To Augustine there were two general categories of sin—great and small. The great sins he termed crime, gross sin or heinous sin and the smaller sins he variously referred to as mistakes, trivial sins, trifling sin, errors, or momentary sin. Western penal law has generally followed his pattern in our laws designating some infractions as high crimes or felonies and others as misdemeanors. To Augustine one’s intention and the consequences figure in to the seriousness of sin. A Christian could commit crime/heinous sin, but it was not normal. And if they did, they were put under severe discipline. As for small sins, Augustine argued that this is why we are to pray the Lord’s Prayer daily. When we say, “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who trespass against us” we were not praying about adultery and other high crimes against God but we were praying for “small sins” –claiming God’s grace for our own short fallings as we forgive others their short fallings against us. Augustine’s observed, “Though every crime is a sin, every sin is not a crime.” The average Baptistified view that all sin is equal and if we break one tiny part of the law we have broken all the law is out of sync with Augustine.
4. Christians regularly commit small sins, great sins should be rare.
Augustine taught that all Christians committed sinful errors, mistakes, trivial sins, and momentary sins, but he did not expect great sins to be a part of the Christian life. They could happen, but if they did severe consequences were expected. Forgiveness was found in the church but also there was found severe penance and an extended path to restoration. No adulterer could say, “Hey, I committed adultery and you gossip, all sin is equal so why punish me more than yourself?” While Augustine taught that humans would never be “sinless” with regard to sinful errors, mistakes and momentary sins, he did not extend this pessimism to great sins and spiritual crimes. While these crimes against God could happen, his over all approach suggests he though they ought to be rare. At the same time he did suggest that a culture could become so hardened to even these heinous sins that a group of people could become completely tolerant of them so that they even celebrated and boasted of such sins. He told of one such instance where he “lost it” in preaching and condemned a congregation that had become accustomed to accepting heinous sins as if they were the smaller trivial sins.
5. Motive matters
Augustine accepted that all lies were evil, but some evil lies were not sin at all, or at least were “trivial sins.” A lie told to help another person was not as serious a sin as one told to harm another and he argued that telling an actually falsehood when one believed it to be true was not a sin at all, “because such an one does not consciously deceive, but rather is himself deceived.” He willingly reversed this claim by arguing that a person who “says what is true, believing it to be false is, so far as his own consciousness is concerned, a liar.” In this approach Augustine laid tracks for William Law and John Wesley who would later teach that our motive is highly relevant to whether a deed is sin nor not (or at least whether we are culpable for it).
6. Our daily prayers satisfy trivial sins
To Augustine the small sins we commit should not be ignored so much as satisfied by our daily asking forgiveness in praying of the Lord’s Prayer. He said, “Now the daily prayers of the believer makes satisfaction for those daily sins of a momentary and trivial kind which are necessary incidents of this life… provided as truly as he says, “Forgive us our debts.” Augustine did not dismiss even these daily small sins as “already under the blood” so much as expected the Christian to daily pray for forgiveness to “satisfy” these little sins. Thus one can see the roots of today’s Baptistified “sin every day in thought word and deed” in Auustine but we cannot (honestly) say Augustine thought this applied to all sins, but merely to “small sins.”
If Augustine taught these things today most American Christians would hang him in the narthex. American Christians are not patient enough to develop two levels of sins so they lazily lump all sin into one category—great and small—then pronounce them all forgiven at once at conversion. Westerners are so introspective and sin-oriented that they cannot imagine living without sin.
It is true that humans are indeed depraved and at the same time have great possibilities of living in obedience to God. Americans are totally convinced of the first. Convincing them of the second is what is hard to do.
This is what Augustine thinks.
So what do you think?
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November14, 2006 Keith Drury
Interested in reading Augustine directly? You can download Albert Outler’s complete translation here as an RTF file to read at your leisure in your own word processor. Or choose online versions from one of these sources. Or click here to access all of Augustine’s works.