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Home > Fathers of the Church > Tractates on the Gospel of John (Augustine) > Tractate 41

Tractate 41 (John 8:31-36)

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1. Of what follows of the previous lesson, and has been read publicly to us today from the holy Gospel, I then deferred speaking, because I had already said much, and of that liberty into which the grace of the Saviour calls us it was needful to treat in no cursory or negligent way. Of this, by the Lord's help, we purpose speaking to you today. For those to whom the Lord Jesus Christ was speaking were Jews, in a large measure indeed His enemies, but also in some measure already become, and yet to be, His friends; for some He saw there, as we have already said, who should yet believe after His passion. Looking to these, He had said, When you have lifted up the Son of man, then shall you know that I am [He]. There also were those who, when He so spoke, straightway believed. To them He spoke what we have heard today: Then said Jesus to those Jews who believed on Him, If you continue in my word, you shall be my disciples indeed. By continuing you shall be so; for as now you are believers, by so continuing you shall be beholders. Hence there follows, And you shall know the truth. The truth is unchangeable. The truth is bread, which refreshes our minds and fails not; changes the eater, and is not itself changed into the eater. The truth itself is the Word of God, God with God, the only-begotten Son. This Truth was for our sake clothed with flesh, that He might be born of the Virgin Mary, and the prophecy fulfilled, Truth has sprung from the earth. This Truth then, when speaking to the Jews, lay hid in the flesh. But He lay hid not in order to be denied, but to be deferred [in His manifestation]; to be deferred, in order to suffer in the flesh; and to suffer in the flesh, in order that flesh might be redeemed from sin. And so our Lord Jesus Christ, standing full in sight as regards the infirmity of flesh, but hid as regards the majesty of Godhead, said to those who had believed on Him, when He so spoke, If you continue in my word, you shall be my disciples indeed. For he that endures to the end shall be saved. Matthew 10:22 And you shall know the truth, which now is hid from you, and speaks to you. And the truth shall free you. This word, liberabit [shall free], the Lord has taken from libertas [freedom]. For liberat [frees, delivers] is properly nothing else but liberum facit [makes free]. As salvat [he saves] is nothing else but salvum facit [he makes safe]; as he heals is nothing else but he makes whole; he enriches is nothing else but he makes rich; so liberat [he frees] is nothing else but liberum facit [he makes free]. This is clearer in the Greek word. For in Latin usage we commonly say that a man is delivered (liberari), in regard not to liberty, but only to safety, just as one is said to be delivered from some infirmity. So is it said customarily, but not properly. But the Lord made such use of this word in saying, And the truth shall make you free (liberabit), that in the Greek tongue no one could doubt that He spoke of freedom.

2. In short, the Jews also so understood and answered Him; not those who had already believed, but those in that crowd who were not yet believers. They answered Him, We are Abraham's seed, and were never in bondage to any man: how do you say, You shall be free? But the Lord had not said, You shall be free, but, The truth shall make you free. That word, however, they, because, as I have said, it is clearly so in the Greek, understood as pointing only to freedom, and puffed themselves up as Abraham's seed, and said, We are Abraham's seed, and were never in bondage to any man: how do you say, You shall be free? O inflated skin! such is not magnanimity, but windy swelling. For even as regards freedom in this life, how was that the truth when you said, We were never in bondage to any man? Was not Joseph sold? Genesis 37:28 Were not the holy prophets led into captivity? And again, did not that very nation, when making bricks in Egypt, also serve hard rulers, not only in gold and silver, but also in clay? Exodus 1:14 If you were never in bondage to any man, ungrateful people, why is it that God is continually reminding you that He delivered you from the house of bondage? Or mean you, perchance, that your fathers were in bondage, but you who speak were never in bondage to any man? How then were you now paying tribute to the Romans, out of which also you formed a trap for the Truth Himself, as if to ensnare Him, when you said, Is it lawful to give tribute to Cæsar? in order that, had He said, It is lawful, you might fasten on Him as one ill-disposed to the liberty of Abraham's seed; and if He said, It is not lawful, you might slander Him before the kings of the earth, as forbidding the payment of tribute to such? Deservedly were you defeated on producing the money, and compelled yourselves to concur in your own capture. For there it was told you, Render to Cæsar the things that are Cæsar's, and to God the things that are God's, after your own reply, that the money-piece bore the image of Cæsar. Matthew 22:15-21 For as Cæsar looks for his own image on the coin, so God looks for His in man. Thus, then, did He answer the Jews. I am moved, brethren, by the hollow pride of men, because even of that very freedom of theirs, which they understood carnally, they lied when they said, We were never in bondage to any man.

3. But to the Lord's own answer, let us give better and more earnest heed, lest we ourselves be also found bondmen. For Jesus answered them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, that every one who commits sin is the servant of sin. He is the servant — would that it were of man, and not of sin! Who will not tremble at such words? The Lord our God grant us, that is, both you and me, that I may speak in fitting terms of this freedom to be sought, and of that bondage to be avoided. Amen, amen [verily, verily], I say unto you. The Truth speaks: and in what sense does the Lord our God claim it as His to say, Amen, amen, I say unto you? His charge is weighty in so announcing it. In some sort, if lawful to be said, His form of swearing is, Amen, amen, I say unto you. Amen in a way may be interpreted, [It is] true [truly, verily]; and yet it is not interpreted, though it might have been said, What is true [verily] I say unto you. Neither the Greek translator nor the Latin has dared to do so; for this word Amen is neither Greek nor Latin, but Hebrew. So it has remained without interpretation, to possess honor as the covering of something hidden; not in order to be disowned, but that it might not, as a thing laid bare to the eye, fall into disrepute. And yet it is not once, but twice uttered by the Lord, Amen, amen, I say unto you. And now learn from the very doubling, how much was implied in the charge before us.

4. What, then, is the charge given? Verily, verily, I say unto you, says the Truth who surely, though He had not said, Verily, I say, could not possibly lie. Yet [thereby] He impresses, inculcates His charge, arouses in a way the sleeping, makes them attentive, and would not be contemned. What does He say? Verily, verily, I say unto you, that every one who commits sin is the servant of sin. Miserable slavery! Men frequently, when they suffer under wicked masters, demand to get themselves sold, not seeking to be without a master, but at all events to change him. What can the servant of sin do? To whom can he make his demand? To whom apply for redress? Of whom require himself to be sold? And then at times a man's slave, worn out by the commands of an unfeeling master, finds rest in flight. Whither can the servant of sin flee? Himself he carries with him wherever he flees. An evil conscience flees not from itself; it has no place to go to; it follows itself. Yea, he cannot withdraw from himself, for the sin he commits is within. He has committed sin to obtain some bodily pleasure. The pleasure passes away; the sin remains. What delighted is gone; the sting has remained behind. Evil bondage! Sometimes men flee to the Church, and we generally permit them, uninstructed as they are — men, wishing to be rid of their master, who are unwilling to be rid of their sins. But sometimes also those subjected to an unlawful and wicked yoke flee for refuge to the Church; for, though free-born men, they are retained in bondage: and an appeal is made to the bishop. And unless he care to put forth every effort to save free-birth from oppression, he is accounted unmerciful. Let us all flee to Christ, and appeal against sin to God as our deliverer. Let us seek to get ourselves sold, that we may be redeemed by His blood. For the Lord says, You were sold for nought, and you shall be redeemed without money. Isaiah 52:3 Without price, that is, of your own; because of mine. So says the Lord; for He Himself has paid the price, not in money, but His own blood. Otherwise we had remained both bondmen and indigent.

5. From this bondage, then, we are set free by the Lord alone. He who had it not, Himself delivers us from it; for He alone came without sin in the flesh. For the little ones whom you see carried in their mothers' hands cannot yet walk, and are already in fetters; for they have received from Adam what they are loosened from by Christ. To them also, when baptized, pertains that grace which is promised by the Lord; for He only can deliver from sin who came without sin, and was made a sacrifice for sin. For you heard when the apostle was read: We are ambassadors, he says, for Christ, as though God were exhorting you by us; we beseech you in Christ's stead,— that is, as if Christ were beseeching you, and for what?— to be reconciled unto God. If the apostle exhorts and beseeches us to be reconciled unto God, then were we enemies to God. For no one is reconciled unless from a state of enmity. And we have become enemies not by nature, but by sin. From the same source are we the servants of sin, that we are the enemies of God. God has no enemies in a state of freedom. They must be slaves; and slaves will they remain unless delivered by Him to whom they wished by their sins to be enemies. Therefore, says be, We beseech you in Christ's stead to be reconciled unto God. But how are we reconciled, save by the removal of that which separates between us and Himself? For He says by the prophet, He has not made the ear heavy that it should not hear; but your iniquities have separated between you and your God. Isaiah 59:1-2 And so, then, we are not reconciled, unless that which is in the midst is taken away, and something else is put in its place. For there is a separating medium, and, on the other hand, there is a reconciling Mediator. The separating medium is sin, the reconciling Mediator is the Lord Jesus Christ: For there is one God and Mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus. 1 Timothy 2:5 To take then away the separating wall, which is sin, that Mediator has come, and the priest has Himself become the sacrifice. And because He was made a sacrifice for sin, offering Himself as a whole burnt-offering on the cross of His passion, the apostle, after saying, We beseech you in Christ's stead to be reconciled unto God,— as if we had said, How shall we be able to be reconciled?— goes on to say, He has made Him, that is, Christ Himself, who knew no sin, [to be] sin for us, that we may be the righteousness of God in Him, 2 Corinthians 5:20-21 Him, he says, Christ Himself our God, who knew no sin. For He came in the flesh, that is, in the likeness of sinful flesh, Romans 8:3 but not in sinful flesh, because He had no sin at all; and therefore became a true sacrifice for sin, because He Himself had no sin.

6. But perhaps, through some special perception of my own, I have said that sin is a sacrifice for sin. Let those who have read it be free to acknowledge it; let not those who have not read it be backward; let them not, I say, be backward to read, that they may be truthful in judging. For when God gave commandment about the offering of sacrifices for sin, in which sacrifices there was no expiation of sins, but the shadow of things to come, the self-same sacrifices, the self-same offerings, the self-same victims, the self-same animals, which were brought forward to be slain for sins, and in whose blood that [true] blood was prefigured, are themselves called sins by the law; and that to such an extent that in certain passages it is written in these terms, that the priests, when about to sacrifice, were to lay their hands on the head of the sin, that is, on the head of the victim about to be sacrificed for sin. Such sin, then, that is, such a sacrifice for sin, was our Lord Jesus Christ made, who knew no sin.

7. With efficacious merit does He deliver from this bondage of sin, who says in the psalms: I have become as a man without help, free among the dead. For He only was free, because He had no sin. For He Himself says in the Gospel, Behold, the prince of this world comes, meaning the devil about to come in the persons of the persecuting Jewsbehold, He says, he comes, and shall find nothing in me. Not as he found some measure of sin in those whom he also slew as righteous; in me he shall find nothing. And just as if He were asked, If he shall find nothing in You, wherefore will he slay You? He further said, But that all may know that I do the will of my Father, rise and let us go hence. I do not, He says, pay the penalty of death as a necessity of my sinfulness; but in the death I die, I do the will of my Father. And in this, I am doing rather than enduring it; for, were I unwilling, I should not have had the suffering to endure. You have Him saying in another place, I have power to lay down my life, and I have power to take it up again. Here surely is one free among the dead.

8. Since, then, every one that commits sin is the servant of sin, listen to what is our hope of liberty. And the servant, He says, abides not in the house forever. The church is the house, the servant is the sinner. Many sinners enter the church. Accordingly He has not said, The servant is not in the house, but abides not in the house forever. If, then, there shall be no servant there, who will be there? For when as the Scripture speaks, the righteous king sits on the throne, who will boast of having a clean heart? Or who will boast that he is pure from his sin? Proverbs 20:8-9 He has greatly alarmed us, my brethren, by saying, The servant abides not in the house forever. But He further adds, But the Son abides ever. Will Christ, then, be alone in His house? Will no people remain at His side? Whose head will He be, if there shall be no body? Or is the Son all this, both the head and the body? For it is not without cause that He has inspired both terror and hope: terror, in order that we should not love sin; and hope, that we should not be distrustful of the remission of sin. Every one, He says, that commits sin is the servant of sin. And the servant abides not in the house forever. What hope, then, have we, who are not without sin? Listen to your hope: The Son abides forever. If the Son, therefore, shall make you free, then shall you be free indeed. Our hope is this, brethren, to be made free by the free One; and that, in setting us free, He may make us His servants. For we were the servants of lust; but being set free, we are made the servants of love. This also the apostle says: For, brethren, you have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another. Galatians 5:13 Let not then the Christian say, I am free; I have been called unto liberty: I was a slave, but have been redeemed, and by my very redemption have been made free, I shall do what I please: no one may balk me of my will, if I am free. But if you commit sin with such a will, you are the servant of sin. Do not then abuse your liberty for freedom in sinning, but use it for the purpose of sinning not. For only if your will is pious, will it be free. You will be free, if you are a servant still — free from sin, the servant of righteous ness: as the apostle says, When you were the servants of sin, you were free from righteousness. But now, being made free from sin, and become servants to God, you have your fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life. Let us be striving after the latter, and be doing the other.

9. The first stage of liberty is to be free from crimes. Give heed, my brethren, give heed, that I may not by any means mislead your understanding as to the nature of that liberty at present, and what it will be. Sift any one soever of the highest integrity in this life, and however worthy he may already be of the name of upright, yet is he not without sin. Listen to Saint John himself, the author of the Gospel before us, when he says in his epistle, If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 1 John 1:8 He alone could say this who was free among the dead: of Him only could it be said, who knew no sin. It could be said only of Him, for He also was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. Hebrews 4:15 He alone could say, Behold, the prince of this world comes, and shall find nothing in me. Sift any one else, who is accounted righteous, yet is he not in all respects without sin; not even such as was Job, to whom the Lord bore such testimony, that the devil was filled with envy, and demanded that he should be tempted, and was himself defeated in the temptation, to the end that Job might be proved. Job 1:2 And he was proved for this reason, not that the certainty of his carrying off the conqueror's wreath was unknown to God, but that he might become known as an object of imitation to others. And what says Job himself? For who is clean? Not even the infant whose life is but a day's span upon the earth. But it is plain that many are called righteous without opposition, because the term is understood as meaning, free from crime; for in human affairs there is no just ground of complaint attaching to those who are free from criminal conduct. But crime is grievous sin, deserving in the highest measure to be denounced and condemned. Not, however, that God condemns certain sins, and justifies and praises certain others. He approves of none. He hates them all. As the physician dislikes the ailment of the ailing, and works by his healing measures to get the ailment removed and the ailing relieved; so God by his grace works in us, that sin may be consumed, and man made free. But when, you will be saying, is it consumed? If it is lessened, why is it not consumed? That is growing less in the life of those who are advancing onwards, which is consumed in the life of those who have attained to perfection.

10. The first stage of liberty, then, is to be free from crimes [sinful conduct]. And so the Apostle Paul, when he determined on the ordination of either elders or deacons, or whoever was to be ordained to the superintendence of the Church, says not, If any one is without sin; for had he said so, every one would be rejected as unfit, none would be ordained: but he says, If any one is without crime [E.V. blame], such as, murder, adultery, any uncleanness of fornication, theft, fraud, sacrilege, and others of that sort. When a man has begun to be free from these (and every Christian man ought to be so), he begins to raise his head to liberty; but that is liberty begun, not completed. Why, says some one, is it not completed liberty? Because, I see another law in my members warring against the law of my mind; for what I would, he says, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I. The flesh, he says, lusts against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh; so that you do not the things that you would. Galatians 5:17 In part liberty, in part bondage: not yet entire, not yet pure, not yet full liberty, because not yet eternity. For we have still infirmity in part, in part we have attained to liberty. Whatever has been our sin, was previously wiped out in baptism. But because all our iniquity has been blotted out, has there remained no infirmity? If there had not, we should be living here without sin. Yet who would venture to say so, but the proud, but the man unworthy of the Deliverer's mercy, but he who wishes to be self-deceived, and who is destitute of the truth? Hence, from the fact that some infirmity remains, I venture to say that, in what measure we serve God, we are free; in what measure we serve the law of sin, we are still in bondage. Hence says the apostle, what we began to say, I delight in the law of God after the inward man. Romans 7:22 Here then it is, wherein we are free, wherein we delight in the law of God; for liberty has joy. For as long as it is from fear that you do what is right, God is no delight to you. Find your delight in Him, and you are free. Fear not punishment, but love righteousness. Are you not yet able to love righteousness? Fear even punishment, that you may attain to the love of righteousness.

11. In the measure then spoken of above, he felt himself to be already free, and there fore said, I delight in the law of God after the inward man. I delight in the law, I delight in its requirements, I delight in righteousness itself. But I see another law in my members — this infirmity which remains — warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin, which is in my members. On this side he feels his captivity, where righteousness has not been perfected; for where he delights in the law of God, he is not the captive but the friend of the law; and therefore free, because a friend. What then is to be done with that which so remains? What, but to look to Him who has said, If the Son shall make you free, then shall you be free indeed? Indeed he also who thus spoke so looked to Him: O wretched man that I am, he says, who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Therefore if the Son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed. And then he concluded thus: So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin. Romans 7:23-25 I myself, he says; for there are not two of us contrary to each other, coming from different origins; but with the mind I myself serve the law of God, and with the flesh the law of sin, so long as languor struggles against salvation.

12. But if with the flesh you serve the law of sin, do as the apostle himself says: Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in the lust thereof: neither yield your members as weapons of unrighteousness unto sin. Romans 6:12-13 He says not, Let it not be; but, Let it not reign. So long as sin must be in your members, let its reigning power at least be taken away, let not its demands be obeyed. Does anger rise? Yield not up your tongue to anger for the purpose of evil-speaking; yield not up your hand or foot to anger for the purpose of striking. That irrational anger would not rise, were there no sin in the members. But take away its ruling power; let it have no weapons wherewith to fight against you. Then also it will learn not to rise, when it begins to find the lack of weapons. Yield not your members as weapons of unrighteousness unto sin, else will you be entirely captive, and there will be no room to say, With the mind I serve the law of God. For if the mind keep possession of the weapons, the members are not roused to the service of raging sin. Let the inward ruler keep possession of the citadel, because it stands there under a greater ruler, and is certain of assistance. Let it bridle anger; let it restrain evil desire. There is within something that needs bridling, that needs restraining, that needs to be kept in command. And what did that righteous man wish, who with the mind was serving the law of God, but that there should be a complete deliverance from that which needed to be bridled? And this ought every one to be striving after who is aiming at perfection, that lust itself also, no longer receiving the obedience of the members, may every day be lessened in the advancing pilgrim. To will, he says, is present with me; but not so, how to perfect that which is good. Romans 7:18 Has he said, To do good is not present with me? Had he said so, hope would be wanting. He does not say, To do is not present with me, but, To perfect is not present with me. For what is the perfecting of good, but the elimination and end of evil? And what is the elimination of evil, but what the law says, You shall not lust [covet]? Exodus 20:17 To lust not at all is the perfecting of good, because it is the eliminating of evil. This he said, To perfect that which is good is not present with me, because his doing could not get the length of setting him free from lust. He labored only to bridle lust, to refuse consent to lust, and not to yield his members to its service. To perfect, then, he says, that which is good is not present with me. I cannot fulfill the commandment, You shall not lust. What then is needed? To fulfill this: Go not after your lusts. Sirach 18:30 Do this meanwhile so long as unlawful lusts are present in your flesh; Go not after your lusts. Abide in the service of God, in the liberty of Christ. With the mind serve the law of your God. Yield not yourself to your lusts. By following them, you add to their strength. By giving them strength, how can you conquer, when on your own strength you are nourishing enemies against yourself?

13. What then is that full and perfect liberty in the Lord Jesus, who said, If the Son shall make you free, then shall you be free indeed; and when shall it be a full and perfect liberty? When enmities are no more; when death, the last enemy, shall be destroyed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.— And when this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your struggle? What is this, O death, where is your struggle? The flesh lusts against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh, but only when the flesh of sin was in vigor. O death, where is [now] your struggle? Now shall we live, no more shall we die, in Him who died for us and rose again: that they, he says, who live, should no longer live unto themselves, but unto Him who died for them and rose again. 2 Corinthians 5:15 Let us be praying, as those who are wounded, for the physician; let us be carried into the inn to be healed. For it is He who promises salvation, who pitied the man left half-alive on the road by robbers. He poured in oil and wine, He healed the wounds, He put him on his beast, He took him to the inn, He commended him to the innkeeper's care. To what innkeeper? Perhaps to him who said, We are ambassadors for Christ. He gave also two pence to pay for the healing of the wounded man. Luke 10:30-35 And perhaps these are the two commandments, on which hang all the law and the prophets. Matthew 22:37-40 Therefore, brethren, is the Church also, wherein the wounded is healed meanwhile, the traveller's inn; but above the Church itself, lies the possessor's inheritance.

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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. <>.

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