St. Augustine on the Place of the Law

ImageI found Stephen Westerholm’s summary of Augustine’s perspective on the Law to be very helpful.

Excerpted from Westerholm, Stephen. Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The “Lutheran” Paul and His Critics. Grand Rapids, MI: William. B. Eerdmans, 2004.

Chapter 1: “Augustine” (pp. 13-15)

iv. The Place of the Law

“Since our actions are steered by what we love, they will conform with the eternal law if our love is fixed on the supreme good, God. Those who love God will also love their neighbor, as God commands them (De Trin. 8.10; cf. De doctr. Chr. 3:52-53). The eternal law of love (De spir. et litt. 17-29) has been written by God on the human heart and never quite effaced by human sin (28.48; cf. De Trin. 14.21). Other laws and customs may change, depending on the conditions under which people live and the stage in the divine plan in which they find themselves (cf. Conf. 3.7.13; Ep. 138.2). Such diversity of laws and customs is by no means to be taken as an indication that there is no eternal, unchanging law or justice (De doctr. Chr. 3.52).

The Mosaic law itself combines expressions of the eternal law with prescriptions suited peculiarly to Israel in the period before Christ (C. Faust. 6.2). The latter, ceremonial laws foreshadowed in various ways the coming of the Messiah and his redemptive work; while during the age of anticipation it was incumbent upon Israel to observe these commandments (6.7, 9; De gest. Pel. 5.14), and the Maccabees rightly suffered martyrdom in their defense (Ep. 40.6), the fulfillment by Christ of their very raison d’être renders pointless any further fulfillment (C. Faust. 19.18). Admittedly, many of the earliest Christians, who were Jews themselves and accustomed to their obvservance, continued to keep them for a time, and it was right that they should (19.17). These were not, after all, the “diabolical impieties of heathenism” (Ep. 82.20), but divinely given commands which, even after their lifetime had passed, were worthy of respect and “honorable burial” (82.15-16, 20). It would, however, be disastrous to believe that salvation depended on their keeping (C. Faust. 19.17); nor should their “ashes” now be disturbed by contemporary Christians (including Jewish converts) inclined to renew their observance (Ep. 82.16). The continued observance of commandments that foreshadowed Christ’s work would imply that the reality to which they point is still awaited (C. Faust. 19.8)

But the Mosaic law also contains moral commandments: in particular, and apart from the Sabbath command, those of the Decalogue (C. duas epp. Pel. 3.4.10; De spir. et litt. 14.23). These are, of course, to be kept by Christians (C. Faust. 10.2; De spir. et litt. 14-23): it is inconceivable that Christians would be free to murder, commit adultery, or steal (C. Faust. 19.18; cf. C. duas epp. Pel. 3.4.10). In the Sermon on the Mount Christ added little to the moral prescription of the Old Testament (C. Faust. 19.28; Retr. 1.21.2), but rather interpreted and explained them, enjoining conduct that would ensure conformity with their true intention (C. Faust. 19.24-27). The sum and substance of all the commandments is the command to love (De Trin. 8.10; Ench. 32.121).

Far from “destroying” the law, then, Christ “fulfilled” it. The ceremonial laws were fulfilled when the significant aspect of his work which they foreshadowed became a reality. To the moral commands Christ brought fulfillment by enabling, through the gift of the Holy Spirit, that love which constitutes the law’s true observance among Christians (C. Faust. 19.7, 18).

The Mosaic order (the “old testament” properly so called; C. duas epp. Pel. 3.12-13; De gest. Pel. 5.14) could not itself provide salvation, and was not intended to do so (De grat. Chr. 1.8.9; Serm. 152.5). The institution of its laws and threats brought fear to the hearts of the ancient Israelites (155.6; cf. Exod. 20:19), a fear that ought to have led them to seek the aid afforded only by Christ’s grace (De nat. et grat. 1.1).

The stages in history through which God’s people passed have their parallels in the lives of individuals (De civ. Dei 10.14; De div. quaest. 66.3-7). The first phase is that in which, because no law has been encountered, we are ignorant of sin and submit without a struggle to its desires. The second is that “under law” when, fearing the law’s sanctions, we struggle in vain to overcome sinful habits. The law thus brings knowledge of sin but not its destruction; it discovers our disease but does not cure it (De grat. Chr. 1.8.9); cf. Serm. 154.1). Those who turn to Christ for aid then live “under grace”: the struggle with sin remains, but with the Spirit’s help sin can be resisted and the law fulfilled. This stage continues until, passing through death, we are perfected by God (De Trin. 14.23), the struggle with sin is over, and we live “in full and perfect peace” (Ench. 31.118) for all eternity.

Even before the coming of Christ there were those who used the law as it was intended (C. Faust. 4.2; De doctr. Chr. 3.30-31). They understood the realities its ceremonies foreshadowed and trusted in the promised Christ. They looked beyond its promises of earthly happiness to the spiritual and eternal goods that the promises prefigured (De gest. Pel. 5.14). They sought, and were aided by, God’s Spirit in doing right (C. duas epp. Pel. 3.4.6). As stewards of the old testament, they were faithful in observing its statues. At the same time, however, they were heirs of the new testament (3.4.6): who can deny that the psalmist who wrote, “Create in me a clean heart, O God,” knew new testament grace (3.4.6)? So, too, did the patriarchs, Moses, and the prophets, and all the righteous in Israel: they lived before Christ, but yet, through faith in Christ, “under grace” (3.4.11; De grat. Chr. 2.25.29). One must not exclude the ancient saints from the grace of the Mediator (2.26.31)!

Other Jews, however, heeded only the prescribed ceremonies themselves, not the realities of which they were signs (De doctr. Chr. 3.23). They lived “under the law” in that their motive for obeying the law’s commands was fear of its sanctions rather than love of righteousness (De spir. et litt. 8.13). Most disastrously, they set about to “establish their own righteousness” rather than receiving that which comes from God; deeming themselves competent to fulfill the law in their own strength, they did not seek the grace to be found in Christ (De grat. et lib. arb. 12.24; Serm. 156.4). When Paul writes that they sought to attain the law of righteousness “as though by works” (Rom 9:32), he means that they thought the law of righteousness could be “wrought … by themselves, not believing that God wrought it in them” (De spir. et litt. 29.50).

Christians who in love fulfill the law (Ep. 145.3; cf. De spir. et litt 21.36) are not in need of the law themselves: the law is not for the righteous (10.16, citing 1 Tim. 1:9). The true function of the law applies before, not after, their justification. The justified may dispense with its use, as those who complete a journey have no further need of their vehicle (10.16). Not that they disregard the law’s commands (C. duas epp. Pel. 3.4.10); the point is rather that love, not the sanctions of the law, now motivates their obedience (De spir. et litt. 29.51).

Only by grace can the law be kept (De grat. et lib. arb. 12.24). The law commands, “Love one another.” Grace adds at once the provision for its fulfillment: “Love is of God” (18.37). “By the law of works God says, ‘Do what I command’: by the law of faith we say to God, ‘Give what thou commandest'” (De spir. et litt. 13.22; cf. Conf. 10.29.40).”


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