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Home > Fathers of the Church > Letters of St. Augustine > Letter 215

Letter 215

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1. That Cresconius and Felix, and another Felix, the servants of God, who came to us from your brotherhood, have spent Easter with us is known to your Love. We have detained them somewhile longer in order that they might return to you better instructed against the new Pelagian heretics, into whose error every one falls who supposes that it is according to any human merits that the grace of God is given to us, which alone delivers a man through Jesus Christ our Lord. But he, too, is no less in error who thinks that, when the Lord shall come to judgment, a man is not judged according to his works who has been able to use throughout his life free choice of will. For only infants, who have not yet done any works of their own, either good or bad, will be condemned on account of original sin alone, when they have not been delivered by the Saviour's grace in the layer of regeneration. As for all others who, in the use of their free will, have added to original sin, sins of their own commission, but who have not been delivered by God's grace from the power of darkness and removed into the kingdom of Christ, they will receive judgment according to the deserts not of their original sin only, but also of the acts of their own will. The good, indeed, shall receive their reward according to the merits of their own good-will, but then they received this very good-will through the grace of God; and thus is accomplished that sentence of Scripture, "Indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that does evil, of the Jew first, and also of the Gentile: but glory, honour, and peace to every man that works good; to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile."

2. Touching the very difficult question of will and grace, I have felt no need of treating it further in this letter, having given them another letter also when they were about to return in greater haste. I have written a book likewise for you, and if you, by the Lord's help, read it, and have a lively understanding of it, I think that no further dissension on this subject will arise among you. They take with them other documents besides, which, as we supposed, ought to be sent to you, in order that from these you may ascertain what means the Catholic Church has adopted for repelling, in God's mercy, the poison of the Pelagian heresy. For the letters to Pope Innocent, Bishop of Rome, from the Council of the province of Carthage, and from the Council of Numidia, and one written with exceeding care by five bishops, and what he wrote back to these three; our letter also to Pope Zosimus about the African Council, and his answer addressed to all bishops throughout the world; and a brief constitution, which we drew up against the error itself at a later plenary Council of all Africa; and the above-mentioned book of mine, which I have just written for you,--all these we have both read over with them, while they were with us, and have now dispatched by their hands to you.

3. Furthermore, we have read to them the work of the most blessed martyr Cyprian on the Lord's Prayer, and have pointed out to them how He taught that all things pertaining to our morals, which constitute right living, must be sought from our Father which is in heaven, test, by presuming on free will, we fall from divine grace. From the same treatise we have also shown them how the same glorious martyr has taught us that it behooves us to pray even for our enemies who have not yet believed in Christ, that they may believe; which would of course be all in vain unless the Church believed that even the evil and unbelieving wills of men might, by the grace of God, be converted to good. This book of St. Cyprian, however, we have not sent you, because they told us that you possessed it among yourselves already. My letter, also, which had been sent to Sixtus, presbyter of the Church at Rome? And which they brought with them to us, we read over with them, and pointed out how that it had been written in opposition to those who say that God's grace is bestowed according to our merits,--that is to say, in opposition to the same Pelagians.

4. As far, then, as lay in our power, we have used our influence with them, as both your brethren and our own, with a view to their persevering in the soundness of the Catholic faith, Which neither denies free will whether for an evil or a good life, nor attributes to it so much power that it can avail anything without God's grace, whether that it may be changed from evil to good, or that it may persevere in the pursuit of good, or that it may attain to eternal good when there is no further fear of failure. To yourselves, too, my most dearly beloved, I also, in this letter, give the same exhortation which the apostle addresses to us all, "not to think of yourselves more highly than you ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God has dealt to every man the measure of faith."

5. Mark well the counsel which the Holy Ghost gives us by Solomon: "Make straight paths for your feet, and order your ways aright. Turn not aside to the right hand nor to the left, but turn away your foot from the evil way; for the Lord knows the ways on the right hand, but those on the left are perverse. He will make your ways straight, and will direct your steps in peace." Now consider, my brethren, that in these words of Holy Scripture, if there were no free will, it would not be said, "Make straight paths for your feet, and order your ways; turn not aside to the right hand, nor to the left." Nor yet, were this possible for us to achieve without the grace of God, would it be afterwards added, "He will make your ways straight, and will direct your steps in peace."

6. Decline, therefore, neither to the right hand nor to the left, although the paths on the right hand are praised, and those on the left hand are blamed. This is why he added, "Turn away your foot from the evil way,"--that is, from the left-hand path. This he makes manifest in the following words, saying, "For the Lord knows the ways on the right hand; but those on the left are perverse." In those ways we ought surely to walk which the Lord knows; and it is of these that we read in the Psalm, "The Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the ungodly shall perish;" for this way, which is on the left hand, the Lord does not know. As He will also say at last to such as are placed on His left hand at the day of judgment: "I know you not." Now what is that which He knows not, who knows all things, both good and evil, in man? But what is the meaning of the words, "I know you not," unless it be that you are now such as I never made you? Precisely as that passage runs, which is spoken of the Lord Jesus Christ, that "He knew no sin." How knew it not, except that He had never made it? And, therefore, how is to be understood the passage, "The ways which are on the right hand the Lord knows," except in the sense that He made those ways Himself,--even "the paths of the righteous," which no doubt are "those good works that God," as the apostle tells us, "has before ordained that we should walk in them"? Whereas the left-hand ways--those perverse paths of the unrighteous--He truly knows nothing of, because He never made them for man, but man made them for himself. Wherefore He says, "The perverse ways of the wicked I utterly abhor; they are on the left hand."

7. But the reply is made: Why did He say, "Turn not aside to the right hand, nor to the left," when he clearly ought rather to have said, Keep to the right hand, and turn not off to the left, if the right-hand paths are good? Why, do we think, except this, that the paths on the right hand are so good that it is not good to turn off from them, even to the right? For that man, indeed, is to be understood as declining to the right who chooses to attribute to himself, and not to God, even those good works which appertain to right-hand ways. Hence it was that after saying, "For the Lord knows the ways on the right hand, but those on the left hand are perverse," as if the objection were raised to Him, Wherefore, then, do you not wish us to turn aside to the right? He immediately added as follows: "He will Himself make your paths straight, and will direct your ways in peace." Understand, therefore, the precept, "Make straight paths for your feet, and order your ways aright," in such a sense as to know that whenever you do all this, it is the Lord God who enables you to do it. Then you will not turn off to the right, although you are walking in right-hand paths, not trusting in your own strength; and He will Himself be your strength, who will make straight paths for your feet, and will direct your ways in peace.

8. Wherefore, most dearly beloved, whosoever says, My will suffices for me to perform good works, declines to the right. But, on the other hand, they who think that a good way of life should be forsaken, when they hear God's grace so preached as to lead to the supposition and belief that it of itself makes men's wills from evil to good, and it even of itself keeps them what it has made them; and who, as the result of this opinion, go on to say, "Let us do evil that good may come," --these persons decline to the left. This is the reason why he said to you, "Turn not aside to the right hand, nor to the left;" in other words, do not uphold free will in such wise as to attribute good works to it without the grace of God, nor so defend and maintain grace as if, by reason of it, you may love evil works in security and safety,--which may God's grace itself avert from you! Now it was the words of such as these which the apostle had in view when he said, "What shall we say, then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?" And to this cavil of erring men, who know nothing about the grace of God, he returned such an answer as he ought in these words: "God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?" Nothing could have been said more succinctly, and yet to the point. For what more useful gift does the grace of God confer upon us, in this present evil world, than our dying unto sin? Hence he shows himself ungrateful to grace itself who chooses to live in sin by reason of that whereby we die unto sin. May God, however, who is rich in mercy, grant you both to think soundly and wisely, and to continue perseveringly and progressively to the end in every good determination and purpose. For yourselves, for us, for all who love you, and for those who hate you, pray that this gift may be attained,--pray earnestly and vigilantly in brotherly peace. Live unto God. If I deserve any favour at your hands, let brother Florus come to me.

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Source. Translated by J.G. Cunningham. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 1. Edited by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1887.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <>.

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