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Home > Fathers of the Church > Sermons on the New Testament (Augustine) > Sermon 78

Sermon 78 on the New Testament

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On the words of the Gospel, John 5:31 ,If I bear witness of myself, etc.; and on the words of the apostle, Galatians 5:16 , Walk by the spirit, and you shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusts, etc.

1. We have heard the words of the holy Gospel; and this that the Lord Jesus says, If I bear witness of Myself, My witness is not true, may perplex some. How then is not the witness of the Truth true? Is it not Himself who has said, I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life? Whom then are we to believe, if we must not believe the Truth? For of a surety he is minded to believe nothing but falsehood, who does not choose to believe the truth. So then this was spoken on their principles, that you should understand it thus, and gather this meaning from these words; If I bear witness of Myself, My witness is not true, that is, as you think. For He knew well that His Own witness of Himself was true; but for the sake of the weak, and hard of belief, and without understanding, the Sun looked out for lamps. For their weakness of sight could not bear the dazzling brightness of the Sun.

2. Therefore was John sought for to bear witness to the Truth; and you have heard what He said; You came unto John; he was a burning and a shining lamp, and you were willing for a season to rejoice in his light. This lamp was prepared for their confusion, for of this was it said so long time before in the Psalms, I have prepared a lamp for Mine Anointed. What! A lamp for the Sun! His enemies will I clothe with confusion: but upon Himself shall my sanctification flourish. And hence they were in a certain place confounded by means of this very John, when the Jews said to the Lord, By what authority do You do these things? Tell us. To whom He answered, Do ye tell Me too, The baptism of John, was it from heaven, or of men? They heard, and held their peace. For they thought at once with themselves. If we shall say, Of men: the people will stone us; for they hold John as a prophet. If we shall say, From heaven; He will say to us, Why then have ye not believed him? For John bore witness to Christ. So straitened in their hearts by their own questions, and taken in their own snares, they answered, We do not know. What else could the voice of darkness be? It is right indeed for a man when he does not know, to say, I know not. But when he does know, and says, I know not; he is a witness against himself. Now they knew well John's excellency, and that his baptism was from heaven; but they were unwilling to acquiesce in Him to whom John bore witness. But when they said, We do not know; Jesus answered them. Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things. And they were confounded; and so was fulfilled, I have prepared a lamp for Mine Anointed, His enemies will I clothe with confusion.

3. Are not Martyrs witnesses of Christ, and do they not bear witness to the truth? But if we think more carefully, when those Martyrs bear witness, He bears witness to Himself. For He dwells in the Martyrs, that they may bear witness to the truth. Hear one of the Martyrs, even the Apostle Paul; Would ye receive a proof of Christ, who speaks in Me? When John then bears witness, Christ, who dwells in John, bears witness to Himself. Let Peter bear witness, let Paul bear witness, let the rest of the Apostles bear witness, let Stephen bear witness, it is He who dwells in them all that bears witness to Himself. For He without them is God, they without Him, what are they?

4. Of Him it is said, He ascended up on high, He led captivity captive, He gave gifts unto men. What is, He led captivity captive? He conquered death. What is, He led captivity captive? The devil was the author of death, and the devil was himself by the Death of Christ led captive. He ascended up on high. What do we know higher than heaven? Visibly and before the eyes of His disciples He ascended into heaven. This we know, this we believe, this we confess. He gave gifts unto men. What gifts? The Holy Spirit. He who gives such a Gift, what is He Himself? For great is God's mercy; He gives a Gift equal to Himself; for His Gift is the Holy Spirit, and the Whole Trinity, Father and Son and Holy Spirit, is One God. What has the Holy Spirit brought us? Hear the Apostle; The love of God, says he, has been shed abroad in our hearts. Whence, you beggar, has the love of God been shed abroad in your heart? How, or wherein has the love of God been shed abroad in the heart of man? We have, says he, this treasure in earthen vessels. Why in earthen vessels? That the excellency of the power may be of God? Finally, when he had said, The love of God has been shed abroad in our hearts; that no man might think that he has this love of God of himself, he added immediately, By the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. Therefore, that you may love God, let God dwell in you, and love Himself in you, that is, to His love let Him move you, enkindle, enlighten, arouse you.

5. For in this body of ours there is a struggle; as long as we live, we are in combat; as long as we are in combat, we are in peril; but, in all these things we are conquerors through Him who loved us. Our combat ye heard of just now when the Apostle was being read. All the law, says he, is fulfilled in one word, even in this, You shall love your neighbour as yourself. This love is from the Holy Spirit. You shall love your neighbour as yourself. First see, if you know yet how to love yourself; and then will I commit to you the neighbour whom you are to love as yourself. But if you do not yet know how to love yourself; I fear lest you should deceive your neighbour as yourself. For if you love iniquity, you do not love yourself. The Psalm is witness; But whoever loves iniquity, hates his own soul. Now if you hate your own soul, what does it profit you that you love your flesh? If you hate your own soul and love your flesh, your flesh shall rise again; but only that your soul may be tormented. Therefore the soul must first be loved, which is to be subdued unto God, that this service may maintain its due order, the soul to God, the flesh to the soul. Would you that your flesh should serve your soul? Let your soul serve God. You ought to be ruled, that you may be able to rule. For so perilous is this struggle, that if your Ruler forsakes you, ruin must ensue.

6. What struggle? But if you bite and devour one another, take heed that you be not consumed one of another. But I say, Walk in the Spirit. I am quoting the words of the Apostle, which have been just read out of his Epistle. But I say, Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfil the lusts of the flesh. But I say, Walk in the Spirit, and the lusts of the flesh, he did not say, You shall not have; nor did he say, You shall not do; but, You shall not fulfil. Now what this is, with the Lord's assistance, I will declare as I shall be able; give attention, that you may understand, if you are walking in the Spirit. But I say, Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfil the lusts of the flesh. Let him follow on; if haply anything, as this which is here obscure, may be understood more easily by the sequel of his words. For I said, that it was not without a meaning that the Apostle would not say, You shall not have the lusts of the flesh; nor again would even say, You shall not do the lusts of the flesh; but said, You shall not fulfil the lusts of the flesh. He has set forth this struggle before us. In this battle are we occupied, if we are in God's service. What then follows? For the flesh lusts against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh. For these are contrary the one to the other, so that you do not the things that you would. This, if it be not understood, is with exceeding peril heard. And therefore anxious as I am lest men by an evil interpretation should perish, I have undertaken with the Lord's assistance to explain these words to your affection. We have leisure enough, we have begun early in the morning, the hour of dinner does not press; on this day, the sabbath that is, they that hunger after the word of God are wont especially to meet together. Hear and attend, I will speak with what carefulness I can.

7. What then is that which I said, Is heard with peril if it be not understood? Many overcome by carnal and damnable lusts, commit all sorts of crimes and impurities, and wallow in such abominable uncleanness, as it is a shame even to mention; and say to themselves these words of the Apostle. See what the Apostle has said, So that we cannot do the things that you would. I would not do them, I am forced, I am compelled, I am overcome, I do the things that I would not, as the Apostle says. The flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh, so that you cannot do the things that you would. You see with what peril this is heard, if it be not understood. You see how it concerns the pastor's office, to open the closed fountains, and to minister to the thirsty sheep the pure, harmless water.

8. Be not willing then to be overcome when you fight. See what kind of war, what kind of battle, what kind of strife he has set forth, within, within your own self. The flesh lusts against the Spirit. If the Spirit lust not also against the flesh, commit adultery. But if the Spirit lust against the flesh, I see a struggle, I do not see a victory, it is a contest. The flesh lusts against the Spirit. Adultery has its pleasure. I confess that it has its pleasure. But, The Spirit lusts against the flesh: Chastity too has its pleasure. Therefore let the Spirit overcome the flesh; or by all means not be overcome by the flesh. Adultery seeks the darkness, chastity desires the light. As you would wish to appear to others, so live; as you would wish to appear to men, even when beyond the eyes of men so live; for He who made you, even in the darkness sees you. Why is chastity praised publicly by all? Why do not even adulterers praise adultery? Whoever then seeks the truth, comes to the light. But adultery has its pleasure. Be it contradicted, resisted, opposed. For it is not so that you have nothing wherewith to fight. Your God is in you, the good Spirit has been given to you. And notwithstanding this flesh of ours is permitted to lust against the spirit by evil suggestions and real delights. Be that secured which the Apostle says, Let not sin reign in your mortal body. He did not say, Let it not be there. It is there already. And this is called sin, because it has befallen us through the wages of sin. For in Paradise the flesh did not lust against the spirit, nor was there this struggle there, where was peace only; but after the transgression, after that man was loth to serve God and was given up to himself; yet not so given up to himself as that he could so much as possess himself; but possessed by him, by whom deceived; the flesh began to lust against the Spirit. Now it is in the good that it lusts against the Spirit; for in the bad it has nothing to lust against. For there does it lust against the Spirit, where the Spirit is.

9. For when he says, The flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; do not suppose that so much has been attributed to the spirit of man. It is the Spirit of God who fights in you against yourself, against that which in you is against you. For you would not stand to Godward; you fell, wast broken; as a vessel when it falls from a man's hand to the ground, were you broken. And because you were broken, therefore are you turned against yourself; therefore are you contrary to your own self. Let there be nought in you contrary to yourself, and you shall stand in your integrity. For that you may know that this office appertains to the Holy Spirit; the Apostle says in another place, For if you live after the flesh, you shall die; but if you through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the flesh, you shall live. From these words man was at once uplifting himself, as though by his own spirit he were able to mortify the deeds of the flesh. If you live after the flesh, you shall die; but if through the Spirit ye do mortify the deeds of the flesh, you shall live. Explain to us, Apostle, through what spirit? For man also has a spirit appertaining to his proper nature, whereby he is man. For man consists of body and spirit. And of this spirit of man it is said, No man knows the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him. I see then that man himself has his own spirit appertaining to his proper nature, and I hear you saying, But if through the Spirit ye do mortify the deeds of the flesh, you shall live. I ask, through what spirit; my own, or God's? For I hear your words, and am still perplexed by this ambiguity. For when the word spirit is used, it is used sometimes of the spirit of a man, and of cattle, as it is written, that all flesh which had in itself the spirit of life, died by the flood. And so the word spirit is spoken of cattle, and spoken of man too. Sometimes even the wind is called spirit; as it is in the Psalm, Fire, hail, snow, frost, the spirit of the tempest. For as much then as the word spirit is used in many ways, by what spirit, O Apostle, have you said that the deeds of the flesh are to be mortified; by my own, or by the Spirit of God? Hear what follows, and understand. The difficulty is removed by the following words. For when he had said, But if through the Spirit ye mortify the deeds of the flesh, you shall live; he added immediately, For as many as are acted upon by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God. Thou dost act, if you are acted upon, and actest well, if you are acted upon by the Good. So then when he said to you, If through the Spirit ye mortify the deeds of the flesh, you shall live; and it was doubtful with you of what spirit he had spoken, in the words following understand the Master, acknowledge the Redeemer. For That Redeemer has given you the Spirit Whereby you may mortify the deeds of the flesh. For as many as are acted upon by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God. They are not the sons of God if they are not acted upon by the Spirit of God. But if they are acted upon by the Spirit of God, they fight; because they have a mighty Helper. For God does not look on at our combattings as the people do at the gladiators. The people may favour the gladiator, help him they cannot when he is in peril.

10. So then here to; The flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh. And what means, So that you cannot do the things that you would? For here is the peril with one who understands it amiss. Be it now my office to explain it, howsoever incompetent. So that you cannot do the things that you would. Attend, you holy ones, whosoever you are that are fighting. To them that are battling do I speak. They who are fighting, understand; he that is not fighting, understands me not. Yea, he that is fighting, I will not say understands me, but anticipates me. What is the chaste man's wish? That no lust should rise up in his members at all opposed to chastity. He wishes for peace, but as yet he has it not. For when we shall have come to that state, where there shall rise up no lust at all to be opposed, there will be no enemy for us to struggle with; nor is victory a matter for expectation there, for that there is triumphing over the now vanquished foe. Hear of this victory, in the Apostle's own words; This corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. Now when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality; then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. Hear the voices of them that triumph; O death, where is your contention? O death, where is your sting? You have smitten, you have wounded, you have thrown down; but He has been wounded for me who made me. O death, death, He who made me has been wounded for me, and by His Death has overcome you. And then in triumph shall they say, O death, where is your contention? O death, where is your sting?

11. But now, when the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh, is the contention of death; we do not what we would. Why? Because we would that there should be no lusts, but we cannot hinder it. Whether we will or not, we have them; whether we will or not, they solicit, they allure, they sting, they disturb us, they will be rising. They are repressed, not yet extinguished. How long does the flesh lust against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh? Will it be so, even when the man is dead? God forbid! You put off the flesh, how then shall you draw the lusts of the flesh along with you? Nay, if you have fought well, you shall be received into rest. And from this rest, you pass to be crowned, not condemned; that you may after it be brought to the Kingdom. As long then as we live here, my brethren, so it is; so is it with us even who have grown old in this warfare, less mighty enemies it is true we have, but yet we have them. Our enemies are in a measure wearied out even now by age; but nevertheless, wearied though they be, they do not cease to harass by such excitements as they can the quiet of old age. Sharper is the fight of the young; we know it well, we have passed through it: The flesh then lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; so that you cannot do the things that you would. For what would ye, O holy men, and good warriors, and brave soldiers of Christ? What would ye? That there should be no evil lusts at all. But ye cannot help it. Sustain the war, hope for triumph. For now in the meanwhile ye must fight. The flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; so that you cannot do the things that you would; that is, that there should be no lusts of the flesh at all.

12. But do what you are able; what the Apostle himself says in another place, which I had already begun to repeat; Let not sin reign in your mortal body, to obey the desires thereof. Lo, what I would not; evil desires arise; but obey them not. Arm yourself, assume the weapons of war. The precepts of God are your arms. If you listen to me as you should, you are armed even by that which I am speaking. 'Let not sin,' he says, 'reign in your mortal body.' For as long as you bear a mortal body, sin does fight against you; but let it not reign. What is, Let it not reign? That is, to obey the desires thereof. If you begin to obey, it reigns. And what is it to obey, but to yield your members as instruments of iniquity unto sin? Nothing more excellent than this teacher. What would you that I should yet explain to you? Do what you have heard. Yield not your members instruments of iniquity unto sin. God has given you power by His Spirit to restrain your members. Lust rises up, restrain your members; what can it do now that it has risen? Restrain your members; yield not your members instruments of iniquity unto sin; arm not your adversary against yourself. Restrain your feet, that they go not after unlawful things. Lust has risen up, restrain your members; restrain your hands from all wickedness; restrain the eyes, that they wander not astray; restrain the ears, that they hear not the words of lust with pleasure; restrain the whole body, restrain the sides, restrain its highest and lowest parts. What can lust do? How to rise up, it knows. How to conquer, it knows not. By rising up constantly without effect, it learns not even to rise.

13. Let us then return to the words, which I had set forth out of the Apostle as obscure, and we shall now see them to be plain. For this I had set forth, that the Apostle did not say, Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not have the lusts of the flesh; because we must necessarily have them. Why then did he not say, You shall not do the lusts of the flesh? Because we do them; for we do lust. The very lusting, is doing. But the Apostle says, Now it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwells in me. What then have you to beware of? This doubtless, that you fulfil them not. A damnable lust has risen up, it has risen, made its suggestion; let it not be heard. It burns, and is not quieted, and you would that it should not burn. Where then is, So that you cannot do the things that you would? Do not give it your members. Let it burn without effect, and it will spend itself. In you then these lusts are done. It must be confessed, they are done. And therefore he said, You shall not fulfil. Let them not then be fulfilled. You have determined to do, you have fulfilled. For you have fulfilled it, if you determine upon committing adultery, and dost not commit it, because no place has been found, because no opportunity is given, because, it may be, she for whom you seem to be disturbed is chaste; lo, now she is chaste, and you are an adulterer. Why? Because you have fulfilled lusts. What is, have fulfilled? have determined in your mind upon committing adultery. If now, which God forbid, your members too have wrought, you have fallen down headlong into death.

14. Christ raised up the daughter of the ruler of the synagogue who was dead in the house. She was in the house, she had not yet been carried out. So is the man who has determined on some wickedness in his heart; he is dead, but he lies within. But if he has come as far as to the action of the members, he has been carried out of the house. But the Lord raised also the young man, the widow's son, when he was being carried out dead beyond the gate of the city. So then I venture to say, You have determined in your heart, if you call yourself back from your deed, you will be cured before you put it into action. For if you repent in your heart, that you have determined on some bad and wicked and abominable and damnable thing; there where you were lying dead, within, so within have you arisen. But if you have fulfilled, now have you been carried out; but you have One to say to you, Young man, I say unto you, Arise. Even though you have perpetrated it, repent you, return at once, come not to the sepulchre. But even here I find a third one dead, who was brought even to the sepulchre. He has now upon him the weight of habit, a mass of earth presses him down exceedingly. For he has been practised much in unclean deeds, and is weighed down exceedingly by his immoderate habit. Here too Christ cries, Lazarus, come forth. For a man of very evil habit now stinks. With good reason did Christ in that case cry out; and not cry out only, but with a loud Voice cried out. For at Christ's Cry even such as these, dead though they be, buried though they be, stinking though they be, yet even these shall rise again, they shall rise again. For of none that lies dead need we despair under such a Raiser up. Turn we to the Lord, etc.

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Source. Translated by R.G. MacMullen. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 6. Edited by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1888.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <>.

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