What Augustine Can Teach Us
There are two ways in which Augustine’s theology challenges us theologically.
A Long View of Salvation
First, for many Christians, the central defining point in all of Christianity is the cross of Christ. We rightly revel in looking back to Christ’s death as the turning point of all history and thus the turning point of our lives. Two thousand years ago, at Christ’s death, our sins were forgiven, we were justified, and we were united with Christ. And our new life of regeneration, our new identity as sons and daughters of God, and our receiving of the Holy Spirit, all can be traced back to Calvary and Pentecost—the first century.
All of New Testament ethics, Anglican pastor and scholar John Stott once said, can be summed up in four words: “Be Who You Are.” Remember who you are in Christ—and then live like it. Continually remember, remember, remember all that has happened for you and in you, due to that singular event two thousand years ago. You have been saved, Calvin would exhort us, so live out your present and future life through remembering, by faith, who Christ is and what he has done.
Augustine would not disagree with the importance of Christ’s death for the Christian. But he would have us spend as much or more time also reflecting on Christ’s resurrection, ascension, and future judgment of the world. We must look for Christ not only in His past work of redemption, Augustine insists, but also in His present work of sanctification and His future awaiting of our arrival in heaven. The Christian should not merely look back but must also look ahead. (The celebration of the Lord’s Table is a time for the church not only to look back at Christ’s death, but also to look forward to His second coming and our future banquet with Him at the consummation of the ages.)
This is not to suggest that some have no theology of hope or heaven. But is it possible to emphasize salvation so strongly in the past tense that the Christian’s current journey is seen almost as an afterthought or fait accompli? Sometimes an overemphasis on our having been saved can belittle a focus on our being saved now, in the present, and on our future destination, where we one day will be saved. When the Israelites were wandering in the desert for forty years after having crossed the Red Sea, sometimes Moses exhorted them to think back on what God had done in redeeming them from slavery in Egypt; but he also sometimes encouraged them to think ahead to the Promised Land to which they were journeying, a land flowing with milk and honey.
For many of us, justification is the central defining concept; both sanctification and glorification are seen as but its subsets and inevitable consequences. In fact, for many Christians, justification is synonymous with salvation. But for Augustine, salvation, not justification, is the controlling theological framework. Justification, sanctification, and glorification are all subsets of salvation.
When the metaphor of salvation-as-journey-to-heaven is allowed to coexist with the metaphor of salvation-aspast- rescue-from-sin, a more holistic theological balance can be achieved in the way we understand salvation as a whole.
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