By the Revd Dr Peter Sanlon
In the fifth century some monks in France realised that Augustine’s theological writings commended a Biblical and God focused vision of the Christian pilgrimage. Augustine has been called the ‘Doctor of grace’ for good reason. In book after book he warned readers of the errors of the Pelagians – who downplayed the priority, power and presence of God’s grace in believers’ salvation. What he called their ‘malicious error’ had to be corrected for the spiritual good of those who could be deceived. The monks in France pondered the debates and concluded that Augustine was right to attribute salvation solely to the grace of God.
However the monks who wanted to uphold Augustine’s vision of grace feared that if God was indeed the sovereign gracious God who saved or damned on the basis solely of his eternal will, surely there was no need for normal pastoral care. They were used to encouraging and correcting one another in their daily lives – rebuking sin in one another for the good of the community. But – they could not see how there was any value in rebuking sin in another person if in the end their salvation was solely on the basis of God’s sovereign grace. How could a rebuke delivered by a fellow sinner make any difference to God’s election established before time was created?
Out of this pastoral theological question about the point of rebuking sin, arose what came to be known as the ‘semi-pelagian’ debate. Augustine was enthusiastic to help the monks who wrote to him for advice on the matter. He first of all established that human pastoral rebuke and correction must be valuable and valid-for the simple reason that it is commended in the same scriptures that exalt God’s sovereign grace. So, God commands ministers to use scripture to ‘teach, correct, rebuke and exhort’ (2 Tim. 3:16). The relationship between human responsibility and divine grace is complex and involves mystery – but in principle and in practice we do not set them against one another.
Ever concerned for people’s hearts, Augustine moved from the doctrinal debate to inner motivations. He pointed out that sinful people by nature deeply dislike being rebuked for their sin. The desire to avoid correction would never merely be an intellectual query over the doctrines at stake – rather Augustine wrote, ‘He who desires not to be rebuked ought to be rebuked for that desire.’ Jesus knew the human heart – he corrected and challenged us as he knew that we ‘love darkness rather than light because our deeds are evil’ (Jn. 3:19).
So as we journey on our pilgrimage to heaven, let’s seek and cultivate brothers and sisters who will know and love us enough to rebuke us for our sin. As Augustine taught – it is through such godly admonition that God’s sovereign grace has its way in our lives.
The Revd Dr Peter Sanlon is the rector of Emmanuel Anglican Church in Tunbridge Wells. For more information: www.emmanuelanglican.uk