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Did Augustine Get Justification Wrong?

Reading the Father with the Reformers

ABSTRACT: Reformers like John Calvin quoted Augustine more than any other author outside Scripture. They celebrated, among other qualities, how he championed the truth that God saves sinners not on the basis of their works but by his grace. When it came to the doctrine of justification by faith, however, the Reformers did not find the clarity they wanted in the great church father. Augustine never offers a systematic treatment of the meaning of justification, and a careful reading of his works reveals ambiguities in his treatment of the doctrine. Nevertheless, he speaks of justification mainly in terms of God making sinners righteous rather than declaring sinners righteous. To the Reformers, then, his way of expressing the doctrine obscured, even if it did not deny, Christ’s righteousness as the sole ground of a sinner’s justification before God.

Augustine of Hippo (354–430) championed the truth that God saves sinners not on the basis of their works, but by his grace alone. Even faith in God is itself a gift from God, Augustine frequently observed, citing Paul’s question in 1 Corinthians 4:7: “What do you have that you did not receive?”1 The Reformers saw this same biblical doctrine of salvation by grace alone and, with Augustine as a patristic champion, sought to recover and proclaim it against false teaching and practices in their own day. Indeed, Augustine provided so much rich theological insight that Reformers like John Calvin quoted Augustine more than any other author outside the biblical text.2

Nevertheless, Calvin and most other Reformers did not cite Augustine when they proclaimed the related doctrine of justification by faith alone. They celebrated with Augustine that the method by which God justifies man is through the gift of faith, not through the merit of works, from texts like Galatians 2:16 and Romans 3:20. But when it came to describing the meaning of justification from a text like Romans 4:5 — God “justifies the ungodly” — and distinguishing it from the process of sanctification, Augustine and Reformers like Calvin thought differently. For many readers of Calvin or Luther or later Protestant theologians, this may come as a surprise given the central place of justification in Scripture and Augustine’s significance for Reformed soteriology. This essay, therefore, seeks to answer a question that naturally follows: How did Augustine understand the meaning of justification?

“Augustine never systematically stated what he thought justification by faith means.”

There is a significant challenge to answering this question. While the Pelagian controversy that dominated the last twenty years of Augustine’s life echoed in sixteenth-century theological debates, there was no similar crisis around the meaning of justification by faith in Augustine’s day. So, perhaps because there was no crisis driving his theological reflections on the meaning of justification, Augustine never systematically stated what he thought justification by faith means. Rather, his view emerges in response to questions on related controversies of his day and in his preaching on relevant biblical texts. This challenge makes it important to begin by situating Augustine’s understanding of justification within his wider theological reflection on salvation.

Describing Augustine’s View

Augustine’s enduring influence on Christian theology is largely due to the unified vision of salvation he articulated throughout his ministry. More than any of his post-biblical predecessors, Augustine integrated the biblical witness to defend and explain what it means that God through Christ saves sinners. Augustine performed like a choir director, conducting a chorus of biblical voices to harmonize around the truth that God saves sinners not on the basis of their works but by grace through faith in Christ — and that such faith results in a life of good works culminating in unmediated communion with God when Christ returns.3 Our aim is to listen carefully to notes sounding the theme of justification within that larger choir. We will see that Augustine imagined the meaning of justification in at least the following three ways: as a healing of man’s broken nature, as a transformation of the ungodly, and as both an event and a process.

Justification as Healing Man’s Nature

How Augustine understands original sin guides his interpretation for how man can be justified before God. Interpreting Romans 5:9, Augustine writes, “Because they were clothed with the flesh of [Adam] who sinned in his will, they contract from him the responsibility for sin . . . just as children who put on Christ . . . receive from Him a participation in justice.”4 Original sin is not just the act of Adam and Eve’s first sin in the garden, but it is also the result that mankind’s nature is corrupted.5 As a polluted body of water infects everything downstream, so Adam’s sin corrupts all of mankind. For Augustine, then, original sin corrupts man’s very nature such that all mankind is guilty before God even before they choose to commit any specific sins on their own.

“Augustine integrated the biblical witness to defend and explain what it means that God through Christ saves sinners.”

This problem of original sin frames the solution of justification. For Augustine, justification must address not just specific sinful acts by individual people but also the essential corruption of human nature. If justification is about restoring a right relationship with God, Augustine understood such a right relationship as possible only by a change in human nature brought about by the gift of the Holy Spirit. Justice before God must include not just a change in status (as in “not forgiven” to “forgiven”) but primarily a change in nature (from diseased to healed).

One of Augustine’s favorite analogies for describing this reality is Christ as the doctor and us as his patients. When man recognizes that he cannot heal himself — that he cannot justify himself — he turns to the divine doctor, placing complete trust in him to heal his disease. The doctor removes the original cause of the disease and then prescribes medicine to bring about a full recovery. Justification for Augustine is faith in the doctor such that you turn to him for medical intervention, and it is also faith in the doctor such that you follow his prescription for a full recovery.6

Therefore, when Augustine describes God’s act of justification as a gracious gift rather than an earned reward, he identifies the act of justification with the gift of the Holy Spirit, who heals man’s will.7 “[Christians] have been gratuitously justified by his grace (Romans 3:24). . . . The law shows that our will is weak so that grace may heal our will and so that a healthy will may fulfill the law, without being subject to the law or in need of the law.”8 Augustine imagines the meaning of justification as a healing of man’s will — and the rest of his nature — so that he may love God and neighbor, which is what it means to fulfill the law.9 This healing begins with the forgiveness of sins yet continues throughout a Christian’s earthly life. And the healing is miraculous because the patient is not just sick but spiritually dead.10 Thus, for man to be right with God — to be iustus — God must change not only man’s legal status but also man’s nature by healing his will.

Justification as Making the Ungodly Righteous

That Augustine believes God’s solution requires that man’s nature be transformed is not surprising. His every articulation of salvation casts the solution ultimately as transformative since Scripture teaches that we are “being transformed into [Christ’s] image” (2 Corinthians 3:18). What is surprising for modern Protestants is that Augustine associates such a transformation specifically with the term justification and not salvation more generally. Nonetheless, he does so for a specific linguistic and exegetical reason: he understood the Latin term used for justification in the Bible to mean “made righteous,” not “declared righteous.”

Augustine’s Old Latin Bible translated the Greek term dikaioō as iustifico, and he took this term literally.11 “Relying strictly upon the Latin translation,” one scholar explains, “Augustine misunderstood Paul to be saying that the person who was unjust was made to be just.”12 Commenting on Romans 4:5, Augustine explains this understanding of iustificatio in his The Spirit & the Letter: “What does ‘justified’ mean other than ‘made righteous,’ just as ‘he justifies the ungodly’ means ‘he makes a righteous person out of an ungodly person’?”13 Augustine’s misunderstanding of Paul’s term dikaioō leads him to interpret justification in primarily a transformative sense (as God making the ungodly righteous) rather than a declarative sense (God acquitting the ungodly).

Yet later in the same section from The Spirit & the Letter, Augustine acknowledges a different meaning for justified — namely, “counted righteous.”14 He offers an alternative reading of justified this way: “It is certainly true that they will be justified in the sense that they will be regarded as righteous, that they will be counted as righteous. In that sense scripture says of a certain man, But wanting to justify himself (Luke 10:29), that is, wanting to be regarded and counted as righteous.” Augustine then makes a comparison to how readers understood the word sanctify to mean both “make holy” (what God does to us) and “declare holy” (what we say to God in Matthew 6:9). His point in the comparison is that the word sanctify can connote both make and declare. So too can the word justify mean both make and declare. Yet in this passage and elsewhere, he does not elaborate on why this distinction matters, develop its implications, or connect it to other passages in Scripture.

It is appropriate to conclude, then, that although Augustine allows for a declarative sense of justification, his primary understanding of justification is that God makes the ungodly person righteous by healing his nature. And this raises a question: If Augustine means by justification “made righteous,” and to be “made righteous” requires an inner transformation that occurs over time, then, according to Augustine, is man not fully right before God until he is fully remade in Christ’s image?

Justification as Event and Process

One way to answer that question is to describe Augustine’s view of justification as both an event and a process.15 We see both event language and process language in how Augustine distinguishes between the beginning of faith and the progress we make in faith.16 Augustine makes such a distinction frequently.17 In his exposition on Psalm 67, for instance, Augustine reminds his listeners of “the priority of faith over works”: “In the absence of good works a godless person is justified by faith [per fidem iustificatur], as the apostle says: When someone believes in him who justifies the ungodly, that faith is reckoned as justice to the believer (Romans 4:5), so that afterward faith may begin to work through love of choice.”18 Augustine carefully distinguishes works as the grounds of being justified from works that follow being justified. This is not a passing sentence, either: it defines Augustine’s entire paragraph such that he describes the life of a Christian as a journey of faith working through love in order to make the point that “this journey begins from faith.”19

A second example comes from a sermon on Romans 8:30–31, where Augustine declares, “We have been justified; but this justice can grow, as we make progress.”20 By justified, Augustine understands Paul to mean that we have been “already established in the condition of justification.” Such a condition occurs “by receiving the forgiveness of sins in the washing of regeneration, by receiving the Holy Spirit, by making progress day by day” (alluding to Titus 3:5). Justification is a condition we already have, yet also a condition in which we can make progress day by day. In other words, for Augustine, we can have justice and grow in justice.

Simply put, Augustine did not limit the term justification to a declarative event. Justification means that, by faith, we have begun a journey to God, and we will not be fully righteous or have complete justice until that day we meet God face-to-face. The journey begins with the forgiveness of sins and receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit, who heals man’s will such that he is able to love God even as he continues to fight sin. The journey metaphor allows Augustine to maintain the inseparable relationship he sees between the faith at the beginning and the faith along the way. It is the same faith. When he says that the faith that justifies is the faith that works through love (Galatians 5:6), Augustine is seeking to maintain a relationship between the faith that receives forgiveness of sins and the Holy Spirit and the faith that makes progress day by day by growing in love for God and neighbor. Therefore, to be justified by faith is to receive God’s forgiveness — indeed, to receive God himself in the person of the Holy Spirit — and yet it also means to grow in love for God from that moment onward. This is faith that works through love.

Assessing Augustine’s View

The fundamental difference between Augustine’s view of justification and the later Reformers’ view is twofold. First, Augustine understands the meaning of justification more broadly in that it refers not only to the event of God forgiving the sinner but also to the process of God transforming the sinner into the image of Christ. In contrast, the Reformers limit justification to the declarative sense and emphasize its distinction from sanctification. Second, with the term justification, Augustine focuses on the need for man to be transformed, while the Reformers emphasize the need for man to be pardoned. To be “just” for Augustine means to no longer “be a sinner” by the complete healing of man’s nature.21 To be “just” for the Reformers means to be seen as righteous in God’s sight based on the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.

What should we then do with these differences between what Augustine and the Reformers meant by the term justification? We can first learn from how Reformers like Calvin interacted with Augustine and then consider the way Augustine himself addressed concerns raised in his own day.

Calvin’s Assessment of Augustine on Justification

When writing on justification, Calvin repeatedly quotes or cites Augustine to celebrate his insistence that we are saved by grace through faith, and not because of the merit of our works.22 Despite such agreement, Calvin acknowledges where Augustine differs from Scripture on justification. In his extended section on justification by faith in the Institutes, Calvin recounts how medieval “Schoolmen” like Peter Lombard (about 1100–1160) appear to follow Augustine on grace but misunderstand him. Calvin then argues,

Even the sentiment of Augustine [on justification], or at least his mode of expressing it, cannot be entirely approved of. For although he is admirable in stripping man of all merit of righteousness, and transferring the whole praise of it to God, yet he classes the grace by which we are regenerated to newness of life under the head of sanctification. Scripture, when it treats of justification by faith, leads us in a very different direction. Turning away our view from our own works, it bids us look only to the mercy of God, and the perfection of Christ.23

Calvin cannot approve of Augustine’s “mode of expressing” justification because it does not properly distinguish between justification and sanctification. He notes in his commentary on Romans that “it is not unknown to me, that Augustine gives a different explanation; for he thinks that the righteousness of God is the grace of regeneration.”24 In other words, Augustine’s explanation of justification combines the grace by which we are declared righteous before God (what Calvin calls justification) and the grace by which we are made righteous for God (what Calvin calls sanctification). Calvin worries that this “mode of expressing” led to abuses in late medieval Christianity, such as the thinking that man needs to earn his salvation with works.

In distinguishing between the twofold grace of justification and sanctification, Calvin aimed to preserve the truth that the ground of man’s right relationship before God is not his new moral nature but Christ’s righteousness imputed to man’s account. Yet Calvin does not say that Augustine himself argues that way. Rather, he has been refuting a contemporary (Andreas Osiander) and a late medieval scholastic (Lombard) who had misunderstood Augustine, in Calvin’s judgment. Calvin, then, recognizes that Augustine’s “mode of expressing” justification had certain ambiguities that differed from how Scripture spoke of justification and allowed later thinkers like Lombard to wrongly appropriate him on justification.

Calvin’s assessment raises at least two questions for Augustine’s teaching on justification. What did he believe is the right way to describe how faith and works relate to our justification? And what did he think is the ground or basis of a restored relationship with God? These are good questions for Augustine — and questions he addresses when confronting two controversies in his day.

On the Inseparability of Faith and Love

Throughout his pastoral ministry, Augustine responded to the false teaching that you “could not reach eternal life without faith, but could do so without works.”25 Today, we might call this easy-believism or, more technically, antinomianism. Augustine condemned such a belief as misinterpreting Paul, specifically from 1 Corinthians 3:11–15, and advocated for an understanding of faith that is followed by works, or what he called “faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6). He argued that Peter, James, and Paul agreed that works are necessary for eternal life because they prove that genuine faith is present.

Therefore, when the apostle [Paul] says that he considers we are made just through faith without the works of the law (Romans 4:5), he does not mean that works of justice should be disdained once faith is accepted and professed but that everyone should know that he can be made just through faith even if he did not perform the works of the law before. They do not come beforehand, before the person is made just, but they follow afterwards, when the person has been made just.26

Augustine emphasizes here that the event of justification (the beginning of faith) cannot be separated from the result that follows (the progress of faith). So Augustine rejects “faith alone,” not in the sense that later Protestant Reformers taught it, but in the unbiblical version that motivated the apostle James to write, “Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17). With James, Augustine calls such “faith,” which he styles as mere intellectual assent, the “faith of demons” because it has no accompanying obedience to Christ’s commands.

We can agree with Augustine that faith and works must go together in order for us to call anyone’s faith a “living faith.”27 Augustine echoes James and Peter and Paul in proclaiming this truth in his own day. But we are still left with another question: In what sense are works necessary for salvation? Do the works that follow faith contribute to our salvation in the sense that they make God our debtor and are in any way the basis of our salvation?

On God Crowning His Own Gifts

Augustine never conclusively states whether Christ’s righteousness is the sole ground of our justification before God.28 Even as we rightly acknowledge that Augustine does not primarily write about justification in a legal framework but rather one of virtue and therefore transformation, his “mode of expressing” justification — specifically how he understands justification to mean being made righteous — obscures on what basis God sees man as righteous. We must recognize this enduring ambiguity in Augustine’s articulation of justification.

Nonetheless, Augustine does offer clarity about the nature of works that follow faith. In an important letter summarizing the Pelagian controversy, Augustine describes the significance of a Christian’s good works as God crowning his own gifts. Augustine explains,

What merit, then, does a human being have before grace so that by that merit he may receive grace . . . since, when God crowns our merits, he only crowns his own gift? For, just as we have obtained mercy from the very beginning of faith, not because we were believers but in order that we might be believers, so in the end, when there will be eternal life, he will crown us, as scripture says, in compassion and mercy (Psalm 103:4). . . . Even eternal life itself . . . is given as recompense for preceding merits, but because the same merits to which it is given as recompense were not produced by us through our own abilities but were produced in us through grace, it too is called grace for no other reason than that it is given gratuitously, not because it is not given to our merits but because even the very merits to which it is given were given to us.29

“Everything man has is a gift from God, including the good works he does after the beginning of faith.”

Everything man has is a gift from God, including the good works he does after the beginning of faith. And these works God rewards not as our debtor because he gave the grace to complete them. God crowns his own gifts. Thus, even as Augustine does not explicitly identify the righteousness of Christ as the sole basis of our declarative justification before God, neither does he teach that man must earn salvation. This side of the Reformation, we might be tempted to make Augustine answer with greater clarity, but since no doctrinal controversy drove further theological reflection from him, we cannot expect an answer in those terms.

Reading Augustine on Justification for Today

As careful readers of Augustine today, we seek to understand him on his own terms and in his own time before we compare his scriptural exegesis and theological reasoning with later interpreters like Aquinas, Calvin, Edwards, and our contemporaries. And we do so for the sake of retrieving his insights for theological debate and practices today. Just as importantly, though, we carefully avoid making Augustine answer a particular question or problem that he simply did not anticipate or address.

We can celebrate with the Reformers how Augustine champions the truth that God graciously forgives sinners by grace without any preceding merit. We also can celebrate the way Augustine highlights and defends the inseparability of faith and love, or what Calvin would call the inseparability between Christ’s two graces of justification and sanctification. Even so, we recognize that Augustine’s way of expressing the meaning of justification obscures, even if it does not deny, the truth that by Christ’s righteousness alone is anyone counted righteous before God (Philippians 3:9).

  1. Augustine frequently makes this point in his anti-Pelagian writings. For two examples where he does so specifically when discussing that our justification is by God’s grace alone, see The Spirit & the Letter 9.15 (WSA 1.23:152) and Letter 186.3.10 (WSA 2.3:214). All translations of Augustine’s texts are from The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century by New City Press. Since it is sometimes hard to follow citations of Augustine, let me explain the citation method. The name of the work (e.g., The Spirit & the Letter) is followed by the universal section and paragraph numbers (e.g., 9.15). In the parentheses, WSA refers to the specific collection The Works of Saint Augustine, and the numbers “1.23:152” refer in order to part 1 of the series, then volume number 23, and then page number 152 in that volume. 

  2. Anthony N.S. Lane, John Calvin: Student of the Church Fathers (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999). 

  3. For an excellent introduction to Augustine’s unified vision of salvation, see Matthew Levering, The Theology of Augustine: An Introductory Guide to His Most Important Works (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013). 

  4. Gerald Hiestand quotes from Augustine’s Unfinished Work Against Julian VI, as quoted in Eugene Portalié, A Guide to the Thought of Saint Augustine (London: Henry Regnery Company, 1960), 211. See also Augustine, On Original Sin, chs. 43, 252. 

  5. See Gerald Hiestand, “Augustine and the Justification Debates: Appropriating Augustine’s Doctrine of Culpability,” Trinity Journal 28, no. 1 (Spring 2007): 115–39. 

  6. Augustine offers versions of this analogy frequently in his preaching but develops this theme most fully in sermon 360B, especially sections 14–20 (WSA 3.11:372–76). For other examples, see sermons 49, 80.2, 113A.13, and 374.8. 

  7. Peter Dubbelman, “Augustine’s View of Justification and the Faith That Heals,” Southeastern Theological Review 11, no. 1 (Spring 2020): 53–78. 

  8. Augustine, The Spirit & the Letter 9.15 (WSA 1.23:152). 

  9. Augustine makes clear that we fulfill the law through love not so that God will love us, but as a result of God’s love for us. 

  10. Augustine identifies original sin with spiritual and physical death, often citing Ephesians 2:1. 

  11. Alister McGrath points out additional linguistic reasons for why Augustine interprets iustificare in this transformative sense of “made righteous,” including the fact that Augustine could not consult classical authors to clarify the meaning of iustificare because this term was “post-classical” and used only by Christian writers in the Latin West. See Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification, 4th ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020), 46–47. 

  12. Robert Dodaro, “Justice,” in Augustine Through the Ages: An Encyclopedia, ed. Allan D. Fitzgerald (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 481–83. Augustine reads the term iustificare quite literally, as he explains the phrase “just and justifier” from Romans 5: Sicut vivificans vivum faciens, sicut salvificans salvum faciens, sic et iustificans iustum faciens. The Latin here displays the literalism of Augustine’s reading but is difficult to render into English. One translator renders it this way: “Just as the vivifier means making alive, just as being salvifier means making safe, so being a justifier means making just.” See sermon 130A.3 (WSA 3.11:120n10). 

  13. The Spirit & the Letter 26.45 (WSA 1.23:172). Quid est enim aliud, iustificati, quam iusti facti, ad illo scilicet qui iustificat impium, ut ex impio fiat iustus? 

  14. In addition to his explanation of “counted” or “imputed” righteous in this passage, Augustine alludes to or quotes Genesis 15:2 — “And Abraham’s faith was counted to him as righteousness” — in other places, like The Punishment and Forgiveness of Sins and the Baptism of Little Ones 1.18; The Deeds of the Pelagians 14.34; Expositions of the Psalms 70(71).2.4. Yet, nowhere does he explain the concept of imputation in a legal sense, nor does he unpack its meaning or significance in texts like Genesis 15:12 or Romans 4:5. 

  15. I am agreeing with several other scholars in describing Augustine’s view of justification as both event and process (Alister McGrath, David Wright, Robert Dodaro, Peter Dubbelman), and I am disagreeing with a couple who claim Augustine sees justification only as an event (Gerald Hiestand and Dongsun Cho). Dodaro, in Augustine Through the Ages, defines Augustine’s view this way: “For Augustine justification is an active process by which God restores human beings to justice, that is, to a proper relationship in obedience to God.” He goes on to describe that the phrase “the just shall live by faith” means “that active belief in the saving redemption wrought by Christ exercises the human soul in such a manner that it is drawn toward the proper love of God and neighbor (rectus amor), with the result that the individual soul makes gradual progress in holiness” (482). 

  16. David Wright identifies several other examples where “Augustine speaks of justification in the perfect tense, and often in the passive” (66). See “Justification in Augustine,” in Justification in Perspective: Historical Developments and Contemporary Challenges, ed. Bruce McCormack (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 55–72. 

  17. For another clear example, see The Spirit & the Letter 29.50 (WSA 1.23:175–76). 

  18. Augustine, Expositions of the Psalms 67.41 (WSA 3.17:360). 

  19. Augustine, Expositions of the Psalms 67.41 (WSA 3.17:360). 

  20. Sermon 158.5 (WSA 3.5:117). 

  21. Sermon 158.4 (WSA 3.5:116). 

  22. Paul Helm notes three times Calvin positively quotes Augustine on justification in his Institutes: at 3.13.4; 3.14.4; 3.14.20. See Paul Helm, “Duplex Gratia,” in Calvin at the Centre (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 196–226. 

  23. Calvin, Institutes 3.11.15–16. Cf. Paul Helm’s discussion of this passage in “Duplex Gratia,” 205. 

  24. Calvin, Comm. Romans 3:22. 

  25. Augustine, Revisions 2.38 (WSA 1.2:145). 

  26. Augustine, Faith and Works 14.21 (WSA 1.8:241). 

  27. Augustine, Faith and Works 14.21 (WSA 1.8:241). In addition to these passages, Augustine corrects this false idea of “faith alone” in several other places: Enchiridion on Faith, Hope, and Charity 18.67; The City of God 11.17–22; Eight Questions of Dulcitius 1.10–13. 

  28. Wright argues that the logic of Augustine’s position implies forensic justification (“Justification in Augustine”); Cho more confidently argues that Augustine taught “the imputed righteousness of Christ” (“Divine Acceptance of Sinners: Augustine’s Doctrine of Justification,” Perichoresis 12, no. 2 [October 2014]: 163–84). Both admit that Augustine does not address this question explicitly. 

  29. Letter 194.5.19 (WSA 2.3:296). Cum Deus coronat merita nostra, nihil aliud coronat quam munera sua. Cf. Cho, “Divine Acceptance of Sinners,” 178.