Augustine's Conception of Sin



Kurt A Beard said...

You quote Augustine as saying for our daily sins we can be forgiven "provided as truly as he says, “Forgive us our debts.”" I may argue that this concept is wasted on churches who have spent years minimizing the significance of sin and the need for forgiveness. Rarely (if ever) do we hear or practice confession in churches, pop devotions don't cover forgiveness so many are missing forgiveness for these smaller sins. The pilling up of these small sins at some point combine into a larger sin (or at the very least a larger issue). I'm not brave enough to say that 25 un-confessed small sins equal one big sin but I would say there is a bigger issue when we stop seeking forgiveness for these small sins.

Whether they combine to form a larger sin or act as gateway sins to larger sin the lack of forgiveness for them is causing pain somewhere.

Anonymous said...

I find myself in the unusual place of being a methodist teaching college age students at the local Baptist church. We've had some interesting discussions about this topic. I can't buy the idea that all sin is the same, as the consequences vary dramatically. If God IS love as we claim, then he is surely more concerned about the level of damage caused by sin to the object of His affections. An illustration helps: if the next door neighbor teases one of my kids, I would tell them "sticks and stones...etc". But if the neighbor kid started throwing sticks and stones, the problem escalates quickly! One thing that bothers me is that I have never been able to have a discussion group about 1 John 5 (if any man see his brother commit a sin that is not unto death, he should pray .... ). These verses indicate that there is a sin unto death (what Catholicism would call a mortal sin) and a sin not unto death (aka 'venial'). I'm led to believe that not only can we pray for our own forgiveness for lesser sins, but also have the priviledge of praying for others and asking forgiveness for them. Every time I ask people about these verses, the discussion degrades into the age-old and never completely resolved issue of the security of the believer. But what I really want to hear is "how can we practice this"? I do this from time to time: pray for others who I see commit a sin of ignorance, immaturity, weakness etc (not those who practice 'mortal' sins such as those listed in Ephesians 5, such as idolatry). Jesus prayed "Father, forgive them.." and we are told to go and do the works that He did, so why not? I think that all believers are called to be part of a royal priesthood and can participate in this.
Hugh Anglin

Anonymous said...

I might also add, it is a belief system that allows its followers to cross lines other in the christian community would never dare cross such as:

1) Holiness, because is it based on motive without thought of the letter of the law, allows folks to do to others what is contrary to the law of God because their "intent" in the action was in love. Somehow holiness overlooks the fact that it also says, love does no wrong! It also overlooks the requirements of restitution when wrongs are committed. In short, the holiness persuasion is a belief system of convenience.

2) It, contrary to the denial of its participants, worships the "flesh". A heart strangely warmed is nothing more than a fleshly action or fulfillment of a fleshly desire/need. I might add, so is the desire for a manifestation of tongues.

3) The gifts of God are key to holiness folk. Gifts trump obedience to God in the holiness mindset.

jim watkins said...

Hey Keith,

Good article on sin. Here's my take on it:


--Jim (Or click my name to go to the same article)

Keith.Drury said...

Thanks for insightful comments Kurt & Hugh. Also the nice work on the Bible's terms for sin, from Jim Watkins (a worthy read).

Keep this high-level discussion going on Augustine's conception of sin... ...I promise to delete comments off subject (after all it is my blog ;-) but I happily invite insights and comments on Augustine's six thoughts:

1. Evil = corruption of good.
2. Baptism = antidote for original sin.
3. All sins are not equal
4. Great sins should be rare among Christians.
5. Motive matters.
6. Daily prayers satisfy trivial sins

Matt Guthrie said...

I've always thought it interesting that those who believe that all sins past, present, and future are already covered by the blood still confess the daily sins. My first thought was that in all the prooftexting, 1 John 1:9 has to fit in there somewhere. One guy explained it as the relationship had to be restored. The salvation was still intact, but the "friendship" with God was broken. I asked what happens if you die before restoring the relationship and I can't remember if there was an answer or not.

It is also interesting that Augustine considers baptism to provide the power to overcome sin that modern Holiness folk say comes during sanctification. AS you have noted, the timeline is vastly different in how we administer the sacrament. The Roman Catholics are somewhat in the middle in the sense they with hold Communion until after confirmation. In our modern employ of discipleship and membership, we would do well to refresh our minds on the practices of the early church. I'd like to see how the early church would score on a spiritual health assessment like we use in our churches today.

If we do not consider all sins equal, then we open the door for backsliding and losing one's salvation. Those of us who preach such a possibility will regularly have to assure people that taking the Lord's name in vain when they stubbed their toe are not instantly hell bound. Leviticus does provide details for how to handle the everyday uncleanness that is unavoidable. Somebody has to be the mortician and touch the dead bodies. Women are going to have their periods every month. But these things only required regular and ritual cleansing - not an entire atonement sacrifice every time.

For me, as a Wesleyan and six years after the great membership debate of the 2000 Gen Conf, it is refreshing, yet frustrating to read Augustine in light of all that. But I've said enough. I too only hold amateur status.

Bumble said...

Everything made sense so far, but how would he deal with the big sins?

James Petticrew said...

Last year I had a day long (and it felt long) lecture from Dr Paul Griffiths on material from his book, "LYING, An Augustinian Theology of Duplicity" I found these words from his book thought provoking "For Augustine, to speak of sin without speaking of the will is a solecism. Sin is by definition willed. He is forced to say this because he thinks the only alternative is that God intends sin, and to say that is to impugn God's goodness, which is a fundamental error in Christian thought" p57
I think Wesley is on the same track as Augustine when he describes sin as "A willful transgression of a known law of God"
I do think too many of us use the excuse that sin is an inevitable part of the Christian life to excuse us from the implications of what Augustine and Wesley are saying, namely "we choose to sin" Sin is our choice, our decision and thus we are responsible for it.
Much of the discussion of Ted Haggard's actions I have read have expressed this idea, it boils down to "we all sin," so we shouldn't be surprised Ted did, he is only human after all. The theology underlying these remarks seem to me to express that well known theological statement "Christians aren't perfect only forgiven" Whilst wishing to express grace to Haggard, I do want to say, he chose to sin and that choice was his, it was not predeterminded or inevitable, I agree with Augustine, to say otherwise is to malign the goodness of God.

Keith.Drury said...

Boy these comments are helpful!

Bumble: to answer your question, "big sins" were "treated" like mortal illness... with drastic measures: restrictions, pennance and discipline intended to restore the sinner. For instance adultery might be treated with years of discipline even restriction from taking the Lord's Supper until an eventual restoration. "Mortal sins" were treated like felonies by the church. (Of course this was in the day of one unified Christian church--today the adulterer can go down the street to the nearest "grace-based church" and become a Sunday school teacher in two months.

Anonymous said...

I find it most interesting that sexual sins are considered the big sins with little thought of the destructive nature of hatred, discord and/or pharisical attitudes in the church that have great destructive impacts as well. Funny isn't it, just like the pharisees who killed Christ and overlooked the sin in their own hearts, the church has not yet learned its lesson and is still the same today! The years of the Lord's discipline has accomplished little, has it not! And oddly, when the pharisees were sinning against him, Christ never denied them fellowship with Himself or His disciples. In fact, He continued to encourage them to come and get right. So, I guess Jesus would probably have been from the "grace-based" church of hell that built their building on the next block and defiled "the most holy"!

Seems Jesus just focused on developing the relationship that would save their souls and lives, not their sin! When will those who delve into theology ever learn that lesson and quit bantering over non-essentials to gratify their psychological and spiritual egos?

(By the way, is it not interesting that Jesus and God never removed the pharisees from their positions because of their sin, even after they killed Him. Now tell me, which is worse, killing Christ or adultery?)

FlordiaMike said...

This comment right above here represents what I see as a great new wave of theology coming in the church--this wave ignores sin completely and focuses on loving relationships and loving service. I see it everywhere among the emerging ministers in our area. It will make the Calvinist's preoccupation with sin irrelevant, and will make the Baptist approach to evangelism as quaint as kerosene laterns.

True, it could make the Armenian-Wesleyans (with our emphasis on relationships and acting out the gospel in submission and service) come to a time of popularity, but at what price?

This "god" who is uninterested in sin may be popular with "emerging sinners" but it is not the God of the Bible. It might be a good religion, it might be popular with emerging postmoderns and it might create huge followings of people but it will not be the true church of Jesus Christ--it will be a man-made modern cult that "sells better" to worldly people who refuse to give up their sin.

Millions may line up behind the Joel-Osteen wannabes who preach this religion that does not need the cross and has no sins, but they will not be in a line that heads toward heaven.

Given the choice between Augustine and Joel Osteen I'll stay with Augustine.

Gary Collier said...

Great discussion, Keith. I'm a minister in a holiness church that sprang from Wesleyan beliefs, i.e. 2 works of grace for salvation, firm belief that "he that is born of God doth not commit sin", etc.

As one blogger pointed out, many get excited and preach about visible sins, yet the inward sins that some professed Christians hold in their hearts are overlooked and/or ignored. Jealousy, envy, greed, backbiters... the list goes on and on... and somehow folks accept that in the church while throwing away folks who have committed "public" sins.

I think I shall read some of Augustine's original writings. I find it interesting that you refer to him as a "heavyweight" while referring to Wesley as a "welterweight." Why? I'm curious....

Anonymous said...

Ahahahahaha, I have to laugh at the new wave comment. If you believe the pastor of my "grace, hell-bound" church was light on sin, you need to get your head out of the toilet. In fact, grace folk are much tougher on sin! It is just a different type of toughness that "second work of grace" folks would do well to learn because they have absolutely no concept of what they have been misled into believing!

Bill Barnwell said...

Well, I'm really not breaking any new ground here, but even as a pastor in a church with Wesleyan-holiness roots (The Missionary Church), I find Wesley's definition to narrow. If we define sin as a "willful transgression of a known law" and something that I only do on purpose, then yes, I suppose one doesn't "have" to sin. But all the other involuntary, accidental, "smaller" stuff--it's hard for me to think that that too is not sin. I hear old school Wesleyans describe this as just "human failings" or our "natural limitations" or whatever, but those all just sound to me like weasel words for sin. They are "smaller" sins to be sure, but if we think of sin as "missing the mark" then it is sin nontheless. Where I think both sides can come to an agreement is that the willful stuff that people choose to, or even dwelling on the angry thought and letting it take root, etc, definitely can and should be overcome. Though I just thought of a different angle to this: What about people with addictions who come to the faith who can't simply just hit the "off" lever for their bad habit. Yes, yes, I know, the power of the gospel is stronger than all that, but it's been rare in my experience to see new or even older converts with addictive behavior totally free of their "willful transgressions" after either salvation or a "crisis experience." Usually there is a road to recovery for most of these folks which sees eventual overall victory but with the occassional bump in the road. But I think even most contemporary entire sanctificationists recognize this.

This doesn't mean I agree with the Baptists or Reformed crowd either in their approach (and yes they have affected Wesleyan mindsets!). I do think its important for pastors to be transparent and to admit they have problems too and all that, but many pastors stop there or only give some vague promise of delivery after spending most the time focusing on the fallen condition. I say we need to focus more on the victory in Christ than the fact that we are "all just sinners." To recognize the former, you first need to recognize the latter, but people need not just resign themselves to a willful sinful state.

And the issue of "all sins being the same" has always bugged me immensely. It's so logically absurd I can't believe so many people buy into that. Such a system, taken to its logical extreme, wants to equate massacring a classroom with stealing a Twix bar. They are the same only in the sense that all sin leads to death, and the unregenerated guy who hypothetically committed the sole sin of stealing the Twix bar in his lifetime stands guilty of being a sinner just as the killer. Even though in the real world nobody is guilty of committing just one minor infraction, of course, and prior to our conversions we were indeed slaves to sin.

Jared said...

the comment from Mike in Flordia has my attention. i have not heard abything about this new wave of thinking before but i see it in the young adults in my church. they are fed up with rules and laws and the church's legalism about beer and especially sex (including homosexual behavior) and think that what makes a Christian is not what we don't do but in how we live with love. i did have never heard this was a new theological "wave" of some kind and just considered it a local phenomonon. now my interest is up. are there any books or articles describing this new wave?

John Mark said...

I think, and I am no authority on Wesley, that he did see "small sins" as real sins. John Oswalt, whose book Called to be Holy I find to be very helpful, said in a sermon that someone approached Wesley after hearing him recite the Lords Prayer in a service, and asked him if it was possible he (Wesley) needed forgiveness for anything. Wesley's clever reply was, "Certainly. For example, I might be guilty of thinking more highly of you than I ought." Surely, given Suzanna Wesley's famous and oft quoted definition of sin, Wesley was aware of, and in agreement with a broader idea of sin, beyond his "properly so called" definition.

Anonymous said...

Does one not find it interesting that those who "upheld" the faith with hard noses are the ones who produced the generation of believers/pastors that were abusive, money hungry, and/or didn't want to attend church. So, I would say that the grace churches that are drawing folks back can't be all bad.

Face it, the older generation of pastors and their sibling pastors think they are to be treated as God or the next best thing and that what they say is not fallible.
If you seek me, you will find me. It did not say if you seek me the conservative way, the proper way or the "holy/narrow" way, you will find me -- It says if you seek me.

For those who believe the grace churches are misleading, by definition do not believe the word of God! Simple as that.

And by the way, those who usually have that concern have it out of their own need to control and their concern over their own losses of authority or respect!

Nathan Crawford said...


Love it! Retaking up Augustine is key to theology right now.

In response to the "new wave of theology", I want to bring up how Augustine views Scripture. In On Christian Doctrine, he proposes an overriding hermeneutic for Scripture, which is to love God and to love neighbor. If, for some reason, the passage one is preaching/teaching does not encourage these, then there is a problem and you should just preach love.

What this hermeneutic does is not to go "soft", but to say that it takes strong love of God and love of neighbor to be able to preach/teach the Word of God. It also means encouraging people to this as well. It really becomes an exhortation for all to put away our sinful desires and seek God - Scripture and our interpretation of it must have this purpose.

Thinking in Ohio said...

I have only recently begun reading the Ante-Nicene Fathers; but I have been struck by the seriousness with which they took the sin of "schizm" and/or failure to submit to church authority.

I would dare say that the Church Fathers did not consider all sins were equal, given the weight they placed on this one sin alone.

Anonymous said...

The "new wave" talk linked with postmodernity makes me smile. It's not new--Pietism is at the heart of Wesley and most holiness movements. Often times, pietism broke out into love fests that went a bit overboard and disregarded any laws or rules. See Count Zinzendorf and the Moravians. Ironically, this is the type of crowd that gave Wesley that warm and fuzzy heart of his. It's not new...quit using the word "postmodern" as a scare tactic and an easy target. The target has already moved on anyway. We are post-postmodern. It came, and it went, and we would do well to stop using the label so much for any "new waves."

Let's get back on topic.

Dr. Drury, I think point #2 of Augustine's is the most controversial to me. I'm surprised more people are not tackling it. I understand where the idea that baptism itself washes away sin comes from, but the "antidote to original sin?" What exactly does this "antidote" do? In Augustine's worldview (correct me if I'm wrong), it can't keep you from sinning further...it can't empower you to live as inward and outward holiness...it doesn't restore the natural break of human consequences of the fall between man and himself, man and the world, and man and God...

SO what does this "antidote" practically do for us? I guess the litmus test for me is usually "does this teaching 'work'?" And in this case, my vote established by experience is "no, it does not."

Keith.Drury said...

Thanks for these comments which have expanded our thinking on the definition of sin as proposed by Augustine. After a week of mucking around as evangelicals reflected on Haggard's behavior it is good to go back to some writing that has been around 1600 years. I think I'll stay back in the fifth century for another week(see this week's post).

Thanks again for the depth of thought here... there are hundreds of people who read these comments who never post a word. Your thoughtful on-topic comments help make their visit worthwhile. Thanks!
--Keith Drury