When I have the opportunity to talk about holiness I find myself using the language of delight, love, joy, and freedom. Inevitably this will rub someone the wrong way and they will ask a good question, “How can you say we have freedom to live how we want when we are given clear imperatives that are not suggestions but obligations that we must meet?”
There are lots of ways to go about answering this question. Let me offer an answer by going back to the fifth century. In the streets of Rome and Milan a man named Caelestius sounded the clarion call to live righteously. As a devoted ascetic, he and his colleagues found the affluent Christian society offensive. In their minds, there was a gap between God’s demands for holiness and the people’s dutiful fulfillment of those demands–the whole point of life and the Christian faith.
What was even more offensive, however, was that the teaching of prominent Christian leaders only perpetuated this lack of “holy living”. They were hearing bishops teaching, “Love God and do what you want,” or praying, “Grant what you command, and command what you will.” Actually, this last one nearly led to a physical altercation.
But why would a prayer seeking God’s involvement in keeping his commands enrage this group of ascetics?
This very prayer for them undermined the whole Christian endeavor and the created order. To clean up the streets of the capital they were calling people to keep the commands of God and to stop sinning, “by the help of the grace of God.” Now to many evangelical ears, this sounds great! Don’t we want people to take up the task of living holy lives? By which we mean that they must stop sinning and start to obey the commandments. Don’t we want people to pursue righteousness?
Before I answer these questions, let me say one other thing. Their message was popular. Many people wanted to live holy lives, and were happy to hear exactly what they had to do to be holy. We have documents that tell the story of successful people leaving their vocations to serve God on account of Caelestius’ preaching. Even Pope Zosimus, for a time, supported his efforts and doctrine.
Preaching and teaching similar to this is popular today because many people are not well informed on the differing options when it comes to words like grace, holiness, righteousness, sin, etc. You see, Caelestius and his mentor, Pelagius, believed that grace is the human nature to freely choose good and not choose evil. For them righteousness was keeping the law by the self-sufficiency given by the creator.
The threefold definition of grace, for them, was the nature of free will, the scriptures, and the pardon of our sins. Sin was considered an action of breaking the law that has no effect on our nature. We’re born like Adam without sin because sin isn’t a substance, but just an action. They would affirm that everyone sins and will need the grace of pardon and the Law, yet we all have the capacity by nature to not sin.
Now I hope that this paragraph has made your skin crawl a little because definitions like this leave no room for the cross. When Augustine (354-430 AD) came across the teachings of Pelagius and Caelestius it was through two of their disciples Timasius and James. They gave Augustine Pelagius’ Nature to read, which then inspired him to write Nature and Grace.
In Nature and Grace, Augustine, empowered with his talent for rhetoric and an intimate knowledge of the Scriptures, picks apart Pelagius’ doctrine point by point. In this enriching and fun read, Augustine logically and biblically undermines their definitions of grace because it does away with the grace of Christ.
The grace of Christ for Augustine is “the love of God poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit who has been given to us (Rom 5:5).” This is the solution to he problem because Adam’s rejection of God in the garden meant that the very “substance of God” in Adam was lost and therefore damages the nature of Adam’s posterity. Augustine gives this the label “death.” And this is the “heart of the matter” for we are justified by “the grace of God through Jesus Christ, our Lord (Rom 7:25), and him crucified (1 Cor 2:3). That faith of course, healed the righteous people of old, and it now heals us, that is, faith in the mediator between God and human beings, the man Jesus Christ, faith in his blood, faith in his cross, faith in his death and resurrection.”
By the cross we were given the Holy Spirit, who we depend on to love and live for Christ, who first loved us. This love we have for God “is, after all, the truest, most complete, most perfect righteousness.” Therefore keeping commands isn’t a heavy burden but only the overflow of our love for God, commands are only heavy and difficult when love is wanting.
It seems that in the story of the church we keep trying to place the responsibility of our holiness on our backs. But the good news is that Christ’s burden is not a burden at all and “righteousness is the love poured out in our hearts, not by the choice of the will, but by the Holy Spirit.”
Augustine finishes his Nature and Grace concerning the biblical definition of grace and righteousness, “the beginning of love is the beginning of righteousness; progress in love is progress in righteousness; great love is great righteousness; perfect love is perfect righteousness . . . For this love is the grace of God through Jesus Christ our Lord (Rom 7:25) who with the Father and the Holy Spirit has eternity and goodness forever and ever. Amen.”