Pleasure Set Him Free from Sexual Sin
Augustine’s influence in the Western world is simply staggering.
Benjamin Warfield argued that through his writings Augustine “entered both the Church and the world as a revolutionary force, and not merely created an epoch in the history of the Church, but . . . determined the course of its history in the West up to the present day” (Calvin and Augustine, 306). The publishers of Christian History magazine simply say, “After Jesus and Paul, Augustine of Hippo is the most influential figure in the history of Christianity” (Vol. VI, No. 3, p. 2).
A Hissing Cauldron
Augustine was born in Thagaste, near Hippo, in what is now Algeria, on November 13, 354. His father, Patricius, a middle-income farmer, worked hard to get Augustine the best education in rhetoric that he could, first at Madaura, twenty miles away, from age eleven to fifteen, then, after a year at home, in Carthage from age seventeen to twenty.
Before Augustine left for Carthage to study for three years, his mother warned him earnestly “not to commit fornication and above all not to seduce any man’s wife.” But Augustine would later write in his Confessions, “I went to Carthage, where I found myself in the midst of a hissing cauldron of lust. . . . My real need was for you, my God, who are the food of the soul. I was not aware of this hunger” (55). He took a concubine in Carthage and lived with this same woman for fifteen years and had one son by her, Adeodatus.
Augustine became a traditional schoolmaster teaching rhetoric for the next eleven years of his life, from age nineteen to thirty.
With Ambrose in Milan
In his twenty-ninth year, Augustine moved from Carthage to Rome to teach, but was so fed up with the behavior of the students that he moved to a teaching post in Milan in 384. There he would meet the great bishop Ambrose.
Augustine, who at that time had absorbed the Platonic vision of reality, was scandalized by the biblical teaching that “the Word became flesh” (John 1:14). But week in and week out he would listen to Ambrose preach. “I was all ears to seize upon his eloquence. I also began to sense the truth of what he said, though only gradually” (Confessions, 108). Eventually, Augustine knew that he was held back not by anything intellectual, but by sexual lust: “I was still held firm in the bonds of woman’s love” (Confessions, 168).
Therefore, the battle would be determined by the kind of pleasure that triumphed in his life. “I began to search for a means of gaining the strength I needed to enjoy you, but I could not find this means until I embraced the mediator between God and men, Jesus Christ” (Confessions, 152).
A Fierce Struggle
Then came one of the most important days in church history. This story is the heart of his Confessions, and one of the great works of grace in history, and what a battle it was.
This day was more complex than the story often goes, but to go to the heart of the battle, let’s focus on the final crisis. It was late August 386. Augustine was almost thirty-two years old. With his best friend, Alypius, he was talking about the remarkable sacrifice and holiness of Antony, an Egyptian monk. Augustine was stung by his own bestial bondage to lust, when others were free and holy in Christ.
There was a small garden attached to the house where we lodged. . . . I now found myself driven by the tumult in my breast to take refuge in this garden, where no one could interrupt that fierce struggle in which I was my own contestant. . . . I was beside myself with madness that would bring me sanity. I was dying a death that would bring me life. . . . I was frantic, overcome by violent anger with myself for not accepting your will and entering into your covenant. . . . I tore my hair and hammered my forehead with my fists; I locked my fingers and hugged my knees. (Confessions, 170–71)
But he began to see more clearly that the gain was far greater than the loss, and by a miracle of grace he began to recognize the beauty of chastity in the presence of Christ.
I was held back by mere trifles. . . . They plucked at my garment of flesh and whispered, “Are you going to dismiss us? From this moment we shall never be with you again, for ever and ever.” . . . And while I stood trembling at the barrier, on the other side I could see the chaste beauty of Continence in all her serene, unsullied joy, as she modestly beckoned me to cross over and to hesitate no more. She stretched out loving hands to welcome and embrace me. (Confessions, 175–76)
“Take It and Read”
So now the battle came down to the beauty of purity and her tenders of love versus the trifles that plucked at his flesh.
I flung myself down beneath a fig tree and gave way to the tears which now streamed from my eyes. . . . In my misery I kept crying, “How long shall I go on saying ‘tomorrow, tomorrow’? Why not now? Why not make an end of my ugly sins at this moment?” (Confessions, 177)
In the midst of his weeping, Augustine heard the voice of a child sing, “Take it and read. Take it and read.”
At this I looked up, thinking hard whether there was any kind of game in which children used to chant words like these, but I could not remember ever hearing them before. I stemmed my flood of tears and stood up, telling myself that this could only be a divine command to open my book of Scripture and read the first passage on which my eyes should fall. (Confessions, 177)
So Augustine grabbed his book of Paul’s letters, flipped open its pages, and rested his eyes on Romans 13:13–14: “Not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”
“I had no wish to read more and no need to do so,” he wrote. “For in an instant, as I came to the end of the sentence, it was as though the light of confidence flooded into my heart and all the darkness of doubt was dispelled” (Confessions, 178).
Bishop of Hippo
He was baptized the next Easter, 387, in Milan by Ambrose. That autumn his mother died, a very happy woman because the son of her tears was safe in Christ. In 388 (at almost thirty-four) he returned to Africa, with a view to establishing a kind of monastery for him and his friends, whom he called “servants of God.” He had given up any dreams for marriage and committed himself to celibacy and poverty — that is, to the common life with others in the community. He hoped for a life of philosophical reflection in the monastic way.
But God had other plans. Augustine’s son, Adeodatus, died in 389. The dreams of returning to a quiet life in his hometown of Thagaste evaporated in the light of eternity. Augustine saw that it might be more strategic to move his monastic community to the larger city of Hippo. He chose Hippo because they already had a bishop, so there was less chance of his being pressed to take on that role. But he miscalculated. The church came to Augustine and essentially forced him to be the priest and then the bishop of Hippo, where he stayed for the rest of his life.
And so, like many in the history of the church who have left an enduring mark, he was thrust (at the age of thirty-six) out of a life of contemplation into a life of action. Augustine established a monastery on the grounds of the church and for almost forty years raised up a band of biblically saturated priests and bishops who were installed all over the continent, bringing renewal to the churches. Along the way, he defended orthodox doctrine under heavy assault and wrote some of the most influential books in the history of Christianity, including Confessions, On Christian Doctrine, On the Trinity, and The City of God.
The Swan Is Not Silent
When Augustine handed over the leadership of his church in 426, four years before he died, his successor was overwhelmed by a sense of inadequacy. “The swan is silent,” he said, fearing the spiritual giant’s voice would be lost in time.
But the swan is not silent — not in 426, not in 2018, and not in the centuries between. For 1,600 years, Augustine’s voice has continued to beckon hungry sinners to feast upon the liberating, sovereign joy of Jesus Christ:
How sweet all at once it was for me to be rid of those fruitless joys which I had once feared to lose! . . . You drove them from me, you who are the true, the sovereign joy. You drove them from me and took their place, you who are sweeter than all pleasure, though not to flesh and blood, you who outshine all light, yet are hidden deeper than any secret in our hearts, you who surpass all honor, though not in the eyes of men who see all honor in themselves. . . . O Lord my God, my Light, my Wealth, and my Salvation. (Confessions, 181)