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Home > Fathers of the Church > Tractates on the Gospel of John (Augustine) > Tractate 12

Tractate 12 (John 3:6-21)

1. We observe, beloved, that the intimation with which we yesterday excited your attention has brought you together with more alacrity, and in greater number than usual; but meanwhile let us, if you please, pay our debt of a discourse on the Gospel Lesson, which comes in due course. You shall then hear, beloved, as well what we have already effected concerning the peace of the Church, and what we hope yet further to accomplish. For the present, then, let the whole attention of your hearts be given to the gospel; let none be thinking of anything else. For if he who attends to it wholly apprehends with difficulty, must not he who divides himself by diverse thoughts let go what he has received? Moreover, you remember, beloved, that on the last Lord's day, as the Lord deigned to help us, we discoursed of spiritual regeneration. That lesson we have caused to be read to you again, so that what was then left unspoken, we may now, by the aid of your prayers in the name of Christ, fulfill.

2. Spiritual regeneration is one, just as the generation of the flesh is one. And Nicodemus said the truth when he said to the Lord that a man cannot, when he is old, return again into his mother's womb and be born. He indeed said that a man cannot do this when he is old, as if he could do it even were he an infant. But be he fresh from the womb, or now in years, he cannot possibly return again into the mother's bowels and be born. But just as for the birth of the flesh, the bowels of woman avail to bring forth the child only once, so for the spiritual birth the bowels of the Church avail that a man be baptized only once. Therefore, in case one should say, Well, but this man was born in heresy, and this in schism: all that was cut away, if you remember what was debated to you about our three fathers, of whom God willed to be called the God, not that they were thus alone but because in them alone the figure of the future people was made up in its completeness. For we find one born of a bond woman disinherited, one born of a free woman made heir: again, we find one born of a free woman disinherited, one born of a bond woman made heir. Ishmael, born of a bond woman, disinherited; Isaac, born of a free woman, made heir: Esau, born of a free woman, disinherited; the sons of Jacob, born of bond women, made heirs. Thus, in these three fathers the figure of the whole future people is seen: and not without reason God says, I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob: this, says He, is my name for ever. Exodus 3:6, 15 Rather let us remember what was promised to Abraham himself: for this was promised to Isaac, and also to Jacob. What do we find? In your seed shall all nations be blessed. Genesis 22:18 At that time the one man believed what as yet he saw not: men now see, and are blinded. What was promised to the one man is fulfilled in the nations; and they who will not see what is already fulfilled, are separating themselves from the communion of the nations. But what avails it them that they will not see? See they do, whether they will or no; the open truth strikes against their closed eyes.

3. It was in answer to Nicodemus, who was of them that had believed on Jesus, that it was said, And Jesus did not trust Himself to them. To certain men, indeed, He did not trust Himself, though they had already believed on Him. Thus it is written, Many believed in His name, seeing the signs which He did. But Jesus did not trust Himself to them. For He needed not that any should testify of man; for Himself knew what was in man. Behold, they already believed on Jesus, and yet Jesus did not trust Himself to them. Why? Because they were not yet born again of water and of the Spirit. From this have we ex horted and do exhort our brethren the catechumens. For if you ask them, they have already believed in Jesus; but because they have not yet received His flesh and blood, Jesus has not yet trusted Himself to them. What must they do that Jesus may trust Himself to them? They must be born again of water and of the Spirit; the Church that is in travail with them must bring them forth. They have been conceived; they must be brought forth to the light: they have breasts to be nourished at; let them not fear lest, being born, they may be smothered; let them not depart from the mother's breasts.

4. No man can return into his mother's bowels and be born again. But some one is born of a bond woman? Well, did they who were born of bond women at the former time, return into the wombs of the free to be born anew? The seed of Abraham was in Ishmael also; but that Abraham might have a son of the bond maid, it was at the advice of his wife. The child was of the husband's seed, not of the womb, but at the sole pleasure of the wife. Was his birth of a bond woman the reason why he was disinherited? Then, if he was disinherited because he was the son of a bond woman, no sons of bond women would be admitted to the inheritance. The sons of Jacob were admitted to the inheritance; but Ishmael was put out of it, not because born of a bond woman, but because he was proud to his mother, proud to his mother's son; for his mother was Sarah rather than Hagar. The one gave her womb, the other's will was added: Abraham would not have done what Sarah willed not: therefore was he Sarah's son rather. But because he was proud to his brother, proud in playing, that is, in mocking him; what said Sarah? Cast out the bond woman and her son; for the son of the bond woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac. Genesis 21:9-10 It was not, therefore, the bowels of the bond woman that caused his rejection, but the slave's neck. For the free-born is a slave if he is proud, and, what is worse, the slave of a bad mistress, of pride itself. Thus, my brethren, answer the man, that a man cannot be born a second time; answer fearlessly, that a man cannot be born a second time. Whatever is done a second time is mockery, whatever is done a second time is play. It is Ishmael playing, let him be cast out. For Sarah observed them playing, says the Scripture, and said to Abraham, Cast out the bond woman and her son. The playing of the boys displeased Sarah. She saw something strange in their play. Do not they who have sons like to see them playing? She saw and disapproved it. Something or other she saw in their play; she saw mockery in it, observed the pride of the slave; she was displeased with it, and she cast him out. The children of bond women, when wicked, are cast out; and the child of the free woman, when an Esau, is cast out. Let none, therefore, presume on his birth of good parents; let none presume on his being baptized by holy men. Let him that is baptized by holy men still beware lest he be not a Jacob, but an Esau. This would I say then, brethren, it is better to be baptized by men that seek their own and love the world, which is what the name of bond woman imports, and to be spiritually seeking the inheritance of Christ, so as to be as it were a son of Jacob by a bond woman, than to be baptized by holy men and to become proud, so as to be an Esau to be cast out, though born of a free woman. Hold ye this fast, brethren. We are not coaxing you, let none of your hope be in us; we flatter neither ourselves nor you; every man bears his own burden. It is our duty to speak, that we be not judged unhappily: yours to hear, and that with the heart, lest what we give be required of you; nay, that when it is required, it may be found a gain, not a loss.

5. The Lord says to Nicodemus, and explains to him: Verily, verily, I say unto you, Unless a man be born again of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. Thou, says He, understandest a carnal generation, when you say, Can a man return into his mother's bowels? The birth for the kingdom of God must be of water and of the Spirit. If one is born to the temporal inheritance of a human father, be he born of the bowels of a carnal mother; if one is born to the everlasting inheritance of God as his Father, be he born of the bowels of the Church. A father, as one that will die, begets a son by his wife to succeed him; but God begets of the Church sons, not to succeed Him, but to abide with Himself. And He goes on: That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. We are born spiritually then, and spirit we are born by the word and sacrament. The Spirit is present that we may be born; the Spirit is invisibly present whereof you are born, for you too must be invisibly born. For He goes on to say: Marvel not that I said unto you, You must be born again. The Spirit blows where it lists, and you hear its voice, but know not whence it comes, or whither it goes. None sees the Spirit; and how do we hear the Spirit's voice? There sounds a psalm, it is the Spirit's voice; the gospel sounds, it is the Spirit's voice; the divine word sounds, it is the Spirit's voice. You hear its voice, and know not whence it comes, and whither it goes. But if you are born of the Spirit, you too shall be so, that one who is not born of the Spirit knows not, as for you, whence you come, or whither you go. For He said, as He went on, So is also every one that is born of the Spirit.

6. Nicodemus answered and said unto Him, How can these things be? And, in fact, in the carnal sense, he knew not how. In him occurred what the Lord had said; the Spirit's voice he heard, but knew not whence it came, and whither it was going. Jesus answered and said unto him, Are you a master in Israel, and know not these things? Oh, brethren! What? Do we think that the Lord meant to taunt scornfully this master of the Jews? The Lord knew what He was doing; He wished the man to be born of the Spirit. No man is born of the Spirit if he be not humble, for humility itself makes us to be born of the Spirit; for the Lord is near to them that are of broken heart. The man was puffed up with his mastership, and it appeared of some importance to himself that he was a teacher of the Jews. Jesus pulled down his pride, that he might be born of the Spirit: He taunted him as an unlearned man; not that the Lord wished to appear his superior. What comparison can there be, God compared to man, truth to falsehood? Christ greater than Nicodemus! Ought this to be said, can it be said, is it to be thought? If it were said, Christ is greater than angels, it were ridiculous: for incomparably greater than every creature is He by whom every creature was made. But yet He rallies the man on his pride: Are you a master in Israel, and know not these things? As if He said, Behold, you know nothing, you are a proud chief; be born of the Spirit: for if you be born of the Spirit, you will keep the ways of God, so as to follow Christ's humility. So, indeed, is He high above all angels, that, being in the form of God, He thought it not robbery to be equal with God, but emptied Himself, taking upon Him the form of a servant, being made into the likeness of men, and found in fashion as a man: He humbled Himself, being made obedient unto death (and lest any kind of death should please you), even the death of the cross. Philippians 2:6-8 He hung on the cross, and they scoffed at Him. He could have come down from the cross; but He deferred, that He might rise again from the tomb. He, the Lord, bore with proud slaves; Matthew 11:30 the physician with the sick. If He did this, how ought they to act whom it behooves to be born of the Spirit!— if He did this, He who is the true Master in heaven, not of men only, but also of angels. For if the angels are learned, they are so by the Word of God. If they are learned by the Word of God, ask of what they are learned; and you shall find, In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The neck of man is done away with, only the hard and stiff neck, that it may be gentle to bear the yoke of Christ, of which it is said, My yoke is easy, and my burden is light. Matthew 11:30

7. And He goes on, If I have told you earthly things, and you believe not; how shall you believe, if I tell you heavenly things? What earthly things did He tell, brethren? Unless a man be born again; is that an earthly thing? The Spirit blows where it lists, and you hear its voice, and know not whence it comes, or whither it goes; is that earthly? For if He spoke it of the wind, as some have understood it, when they were asked what earthly thing the Lord meant, when He said, If I told you earthly things, and you believe not; how shall you believe, if I tell you heavenly things?— when, I say, it was asked of certain men what earthly thing the Lord meant, being in difficulty, they said, What He said, The Spirit blows where it lists, and its voice you hear, and know not whence it comes, or whither it goes, He said concerning the wind. Now what did He name earthly? He was speaking of the spiritual birth; and going on, says, So is every one that is born of the Spirit. Then, brethren, which of us does not see, for example, the south wind going from south to north, or another wind coming from east to west? How, then, know we not whence it comes and whither it goes? What earthly thing, then, did He tell, which men did not believe? Was it that which He had said about raising the temple again? Surely, for He had received His body of the earth, and that earth taken of the earthly body He was preparing to raise up. They did not believe Him as about to raise up earth. If I told you earthly things, says He, and you believe not; how shall you believe if I tell you heavenly things? That is, if you believe not that I can raise up the temple cast down by you, how shall you believe that men can be regenerated by the Spirit?

8. And He goes on: And no man has ascended into heaven, but He that came down from heaven, the Son of man who is in heaven. Behold, He was here, and was also in heaven; was here in His flesh, in heaven by His divinity; yea, everywhere by His divinity. Born of a mother, not quitting the Father. Two nativities of Christ are understood: one divine, the other human: one, that by which we were to be made; the other, that by which we were to be made anew: both marvellous; that without mother, this without father. But because He had taken a body of Adam,— for Mary was of Adam,— and was about to raise that same body again, it was an earthly thing He had said in saying, Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up. But this was a heavenly thing, when He said, Unless a man be born again of water and of the Spirit, he shall not see the kingdom of God. Come then, brethren! God has willed to be the Son of man; and willed men to be sons of God. He came down for our sakes; let us ascend for His sake. For He alone descended and ascended, He who says, No man has ascended into heaven, but He who came down from heaven. Are they not therefore to ascend into heaven whom He makes sons of God? Certainly they are: this is the promise to us, They shall be equal to the angels of God. Matthew 22:30 Then how is it that no man ascends, but He that descended? Because one only descended, only one ascends. What of the rest? What are we to understand, but that they shall be His members, that one may ascend? Therefore it follows that no man has ascended into heaven, but He who came down from heaven, the Son of man who is in heaven. Do you marvel that He was both here and in heaven? Such He made His disciples. Hear the Apostle Paul saying, But our conversation is in heaven. Philippians 3:20 If the Apostle Paul, a man, walked in the flesh on earth, and yet had his conversation in heaven, was the God of heaven and earth not able to be both in heaven and on earth?

9. Therefore, if none but He descended and ascended, what hope is there for the rest? The hope for the rest is this, that He came down in order that in Him and with Him they might be one, who should ascend through Him. He says not, And to seeds, says the apostle, as in many; but as in one, And to your seed, which is Christ. And to believers he says, And you are Christ's; and if Christ's, then are Abraham's seed. What he said to be one, that he said that we all are. Hence, in the Psalms, many sometimes sing, to show that one is made of many; sometimes one sings, to show what is made of many. Therefore was it only one that was healed in the pool; and whoever else went down into it was not healed. Now this one shows forth the oneness of the Church. Woe to them who hate unity, and make to themselves parties among men! Let them hear him who wished to make them one, in one, for one: let them hear him who says, Be not ye making many: I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase. But neither he that plants is anything, neither he that waters; but God that gives the increase. 1 Corinthians 3:6-7 They were saying, I am of Paul, I of Apollos, I of Cephas. And he says, Is Christ divided? Be in one, be one thing, be one person: No man has ascended into heaven, but He who came down from heaven. Lo! We wish to be yours, they said to Paul. And he said to them, I will not that you be Paul's, but be His whose is Paul together with you.

10. For He came down and died, and by that death delivered us from death: being slain by death, He slew death. And you know, brethren, that this death entered into the world through the devil's envy. God made not death, says the Scripture, nor delights He in the destruction of the living; but He created all things to be. But what says it here? But by the devil's envy, death entered into the whole world. Wisdom 1:2 To the death offered for our entertainment by the devil, man would not come by constraint; for the devil had not the power of forcing, but only cunning to persuade. Had you not consented, the devil had brought in nothing: your own consenting, O man, led you to death. Of the mortal are mortals born; from immortals we have become mortals. From Adam all men are mortal; but Jesus the Son of God, the Word of God, by which all things were made, the only Son equal with the Father, was made mortal: for the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.

11. He endured death, then; but death He hanged on the cross, and mortal men are delivered from death. The Lord calls to mind a great matter, which was done in a figure with them of old: And as Moses, says He, lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up; that every one who believes in Him may not perish, but have everlasting life. A great mystery is here, as they who read know. Again, let them hear, as well they who have not read as they who have forgotten what perhaps they had heard or read. The people Israel were fallen helplessly in the wilderness by the bite of serpents; they suffered a great calamity by many deaths: for it was the stroke of God correcting and scourging them that He might instruct them. In this was shown a great mystery, the figure of a thing to come: the Lord Himself testifies in this passage, so that no man can give another interpretation than that which the truth indicates concerning itself. Now Moses was ordered by the Lord to make a brazen serpent, and to raise it on a pole in the wilderness, and to admonish the people Israel, that, when any had been bitten by a serpent, he should look to that serpent raised up on the pole. This was done: men were bitten; they looked and were healed. Numbers 21:6-9 What are the biting serpents? Sins, from the mortality of the flesh. What is the serpent lifted up? The Lord's death on the cross. For as death came by the serpent, it was figured by the image of a serpent. The serpent's bite was deadly, the Lord's death is life-giving. A serpent is gazed on that the serpent may have no power. What is this? A death is gazed on, that death may have no power. But whose death? The death of life: if it may be said, the death of life; ay, for it may be said, but said wonderfully. But should it not be spoken, seeing it was a thing to be done? Shall I hesitate to utter that which the Lord has deigned to do for me? Is not Christ the life? And yet Christ hung on the cross. Is not Christ life? And yet Christ was dead. But in Christ's death, death died. Life dead slew death; the fullness of life swallowed up death; death was absorbed in the body of Christ. So also shall we say in the resurrection, when now triumphant we shall sing, Where, O death, is your contest? Where, O death, is your sting? 1 Corinthians 15:54 Meanwhile brethren, that we may be healed from sin, let us now gaze on Christ crucified; for as Moses, says He, lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up; that whosoever believes in Him may not perish, but have everlasting life. Just as they who looked on that serpent perished not by the serpent's bites, so they who look in faith on Christ's death are healed from the bites of sins. But those were healed from death to temporal life; while here He says, that they may have everlasting life. Now there is this difference between the figurative image and the real thing: the figure procured temporal life; the reality, of which that was the figure, procures eternal life.

12. For God sent not His Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world through Him may be saved. So far, then, as it lies in the physician, He has come to heal the sick. He that will not observe the orders of the physician destroys himself. He has come a Saviour to the world: why is he called the Saviour of the world, but that He has come to save the world, not to judge the world? You will not be saved by Him; you shall be judged of yourself. And why do I say, shall be judged? See what He says: He that believes in Him is not judged, but he that believes not. What do you expect He is going to say, but is judged? Already, says He, has been judged. The judgment has not yet appeared, but already it has taken place. For the Lord knows them that are His: He knows who are persevering for the crown, and who for the flame; knows the wheat on His threshing-floor, and knows the chaff; knows the good grain, and knows the tares. He that believes not is already judged. Why judged? Because he has not believed in the name of the only-begotten Son of God.

13. And this is the judgment, that light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. My brethren, whose works does the Lord find to be good? The works of none: He finds the works of all evil. How is it, then, that some have done the truth, and have come to the light? For this is what follows: But he that does truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God. In what way have some done a good work to come to the light, namely, to Christ? And how have some loved darkness? For if He finds all men sinners, and heals all of sin, and that serpent in which the Lord's death was figured healed them that were bitten, and on account of the serpent's bite the serpent was set up, namely, the Lord's death on account of mortal men, whom He finds unrighteous; how are we to understand that this is the judgment, that light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil? How is this? Whose works, in fact, are good? Have You not come to justify the ungodly? But they loved, says He, darkness rather than light. There He laid the emphasis: for many loved their sins; many confessed their sins; and he who confesses his sins, and accuses them, does now work with God. God accuses your sins: and if you also accuse, you are united to God. There are, as it were, two things, man and sinner. That you are called man, is God's doing; that you are called sinner, is man's own doing. Blot out what you have done, that God may save what He has done. It behooves you to hate your own work in you, and to love the work of God in you. And when your own deeds will begin to displease you, from that time your good works begin, as you find fault with your evil works. The confession of evil works is the beginning of good works. You do the truth, and come to the light. How is it you do the truth? Thou dost not caress, nor soothe, nor flatter yourself; nor say, I am righteous, while you are unrighteous: thus, you begin to do the truth. You come to the light, that your works may be made manifest that they are wrought in God; for your sin, the very thing that has given you displeasure, would not have displeased you, if God did not shine into you, and His truth show it you. But he that loves his sins, even after being admonished, hates the light admonishing him, and flees from it, that his works which he loves may not be proved to be evil. But he that does truth accuses his evil works in himself, spares not himself, forgives not himself, that God may forgive him: for that which he desires God to forgive, he himself acknowledges, and he comes to the light; to which he is thankful for showing him what he should hate in himself. He says to God, Turn away Your face from my sins: yet with what countenance says it, unless he adds, For I acknowledge mine iniquity, and my sin is ever before me? Be that before yourself which you desire not to be before God. But if you will put your sin behind you, God will thrust it back before your eyes; and this He will do at a time when there will be no more fruit of repentance.

14. Run, my brethren, lest the darkness lay hold of you. Awake to your salvation, awake while there is time; let none be kept back from the temple of God, none kept back from the work of the Lord, none called away from continual prayer, none be defrauded of wonted devotion. Awake, then, while it is day: the day shines, Christ is the day. He is ready to forgive sins, but to them that acknowledge them; ready to punish the self-defenders, who boast that they are righteous, and think themselves to be something when they are nothing. But he that walks in His love and mercy, even being free from those great and deadly sins, such crimes as murder, theft, adultery; still, because of those which seem to be minute sins, of tongue, or of thought, or of intemperance in things permitted, he does the truth in confession, and comes to the light in good works: since many minute sins, if they be neglected, kill. Minute are the drops that swell the rivers; minute are the grains of sand; but if much sand is put together, the heap presses and crushes. Bilge-water neglected in the hold does the same thing as a rushing wave. Gradually it leaks in through the hold; and by long leaking in and no pumping out, it sinks the ship. Now what is this pumping out, but by good works, by sighing, fasting, giving, forgiving, so to effect that sins may not overwhelm us? The path of this life, however, is troublesome, full of temptations: in prosperity, let it not lift us up; in adversity, let it not crush us. He who gave the happiness of this world gave it for your comfort, not for your ruin. Again, He who scourges you in this life, does it for your improvement, not for your condemnation. Bear the Father that corrects you for your training, lest you feel the judge in punishing you. These things we tell you every day, and they must be often said, because they are good and wholesome.

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Source. Translated by John Gibb. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 7. Edited by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1888.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1701012.htm>.

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