any Christians are greatly indebted to John Calvin for his articulation of our faith. Our final authority of course is God’s revelation, Holy Scripture, but Calvin and other sixteenth-century Reformers have given us a helpful theological lens through which we can better understand the Bible in a historically orthodox way.
We may be less aware of how indebted we also are to Saint Augustine. Many of the theological convictions we take for granted—for example, how we think about original sin, anthropology, God’s grace, the nature of the church, the Holy Trinity, the relationship between church and state, and “just war” theories—were first formulated with clarity by Augustine in the late fourth and early fifth centuries (A.D. 354–430).
Calvin tried to recapture an Augustinian orthodoxy, which he believed had become muddled in the Middle Ages. In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin quoted Augustine more than any other church father or theologian, and he spoke of him usually (though not always) in an authoritative way. Calvin understood himself, largely, as an Augustinian Christian.
Two themes that surface in Augustine’s sermons may be helpful for our discipleship: understanding (1) salvation as primarily a process, a pilgrimage that is completed only in the future at our final destination, heaven, and (2) future rewards as a motivating factor for present godliness.
Augustine, the Preacher
We usually think of Saint Augustine as philosopher or theologian. He was a prolific writer and his admirers today quote most often from his carefully argued treatises and his polemical pieces. Yet in his own day, Augustine was best known as a pastor. He preached nearly ten thousand sermons over the course of his lifetime. Churches were jammed when word spread that he was in town presiding, as priest or bishop. Nearly 550 of Augustine’s sermons have been preserved today, spanning the course of his ministry, from his early years as a new priest (A.D. 393) right up to his death (A.D. 430).
Salvation as Process and Future Focused
Like many of the church fathers, Augustine often referred to the Israelites’ crossing of the Red Sea as a paradigm for Christian salvation. Just as Israel, after crossing the Red Sea, needed to press on to reach the Promised Land, so too with us. “There remains after baptism,” Augustine preached,
the crossing of the desert, by a life that is lived in hope, until we come to the promised land, to the land of the living where God is our portion, to the eternal Jerusalem; until we get there, the whole of this life is the desert for us, the whole of it a trial and temptation.1
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