For St. Augustine, the fall of man took place even before Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit and destroyed the ability of their wills to fear, love, and trust in God – so that they might continue to freely choose Him. According to him, persons can have a good free will, given to them by God – meaning a redeemed one that will choose God – or an evil free will, for which they themselves are blameworthy. Reformed theologian R.C. Sproul says that the free will Augustine speaks of is simply the ability to make “voluntary decisions free from external constraint or coercion”. It is a “self-activity” in that it is an action caused by the self and not actions caused by external forces, and in this sense is active and not passive. In other words, the moral behavior of an individual can be said to be free – and hence they are responsible for their actions (note that a person can choose to perform some good actions even apart from faith in God and a desire to choose and love Him – more on this later).
In Augustine, when it comes to man’s initial conversion to God, fallen man is powerless to restore himself to spiritual life. Man’s will is useless here, because he cannot be restored by a “free determination of his own will”. He does not want to do this as he is an evil tree and not a good one. That said, when persons do move from darkness to light no one is brought into the kingdom of God by some kind of violent coercion, protesting as they are dragged in – grace comes and “unbinds” man’s will. In other words, man is given the gift of faith wholesale in such a way that he finds Christ to be pleasing to Him and voluntarily receives His embrace – and only then embraces Him (here is where Lutherans make a distinction I believe Augustine did not make – receiving the embrace would be passive faith, which we would associate with justification, and then embracing him in a growing active faith and love we would associate with sanctification). Man is “swept off his feet” or wooed by God – “taken away” by the good and powerful words of love, life, and light that He speaks. Here, men are “willing” to be nothing but given to – the greatest examples of this being infants who do not reject any of God’s gifts in spite of their own fallen nature (hence the title of this blog – if this confuses you, please see this post on infant baptism and faith).
What this means is that just as Adam and Eve fall before choosing to eat the fruit, man is given Christ and faith even before consciously choosing Him. When conscious choices are able to be made, in the case of the adult, the redeemed person continually “chooses Christ” precisely because Christ has chosen Him and dwells with Him. The faith that chooses Christ already possesses Christ. Ezekiel 11:19 comes to mind: “I will take from them their heart of stone, and I will give them a heart of flesh”. In what some have dared to call the greatest Romance Story of all time, God “has his way with us” – as it should be – and defeats the darkness within and without that holds human hearts captive.
For now, let’s briefly look at other questions that might come up when these matters are discussed. What about God’s working in non-Christians that they might do good in the world? After all, it is true that even non-Christians might consciously choose to do things that are good – even if it is for all the wrong reasons! After all, who will not seriously consider choosing what is “good” when doing so seems to make sense to them? Or when they see the advantages in doing so for their own sake and those they desire to be found with? For even among thieves there is honor! Therefore, this kind of activity apart from fear, love and trust in God would not be His “having his way with us” in the fullest sense at all – however good and helpful a person’s external actions – or perhaps even motivations (relatively speaking) – may be. While God certainly prefers externally good behavior for the sake of His children who benefit by receiving such actions, the person doing such actions, though propelled by God’s work in them to a certain degree (see following posts for more) has ultimately neither begun to understand nor do God’s will.
That said, there is potential for God to really have His way with human beings when it comes to those who not only do good but who are good in, with, and through His Son. We will look at this more in the next part.
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