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Fourth Thursday of Advent: Augustine of Hippo – “Good Works”

December 23, 2010

For Thursday of the fourth week of Advent, here is another reading from the text by William James E. Bennett titled Advent Readings From The Fathers – this one being “Good Works” by Augustine of Hippo.


S. Augustine.

What then? Ought no works to be placed before faith, so that before faith one may be said to do good works? No, for those very good works, so called, before faith, although they may seem to man worthy of praise, are nothing worth. To me they seem to be such, as great strength and the swiftest speed, out of the way! Let none then count his works before faith good; where faith was not, good works were not. For it is the intention that maketh the work good; faith that directs the intention. Attend not so much to what one doeth, as to what, in doing it, he hath regard, whither he is directing his arms which steer so excellently. For suppose a man to steer a ship right well, and yet to have lost his course; what avails that he holds the topsail bravely, moves it bravely, keeps the head to the waves, careth lest the sides be beaten in, hath so great strength that he turn the ship whither he will, and whence he will? And suppose it be said to him, Where goest thou? and he say, I know not; or say not, I know not, but, I am going to such a port; and yet goeth not to that port, but hurrieth on to the rocks: doth not such an one, the more he seemeth to himself active and powerful in steering the ship, so much the more dangerously steer it, so as through haste to bring it to shipwreck at last? Such is he who runs the best, out of the way. Were it not better, and more tolerable, that the pilot should be somewhat weaker, so as to direct the ship with some labour and difficulty, and yet hold his right and due course; and that the other again should walk even somewhat slowly and feebly, yet in the way, than out of the way run bravely? He then is the best who both holds the way, and walks well therein; but he is next in hope, who though he halteth somewhat, yet not so much as to go astray, or stand still, but advances, though by little and little ; for haply there is hope that he will arrive whither, though slowly, he tendeth.

Therefore, brethren, by faith was Abraham justified ; but if works did not precede his faith, yet they followed it. For can thy faith be barren? If thou art not barren, thy faith is not barren. Thou hast believed somewhat of evil, and in the fire of thy evil hast burned up the root of thy faith. Therefore hold fast thy faith and work. But thou sayest, The Apostle Paul said not this. Nay, this said the Apostle Paul, ” Faith which worketh by love:” and in another place, ” Therefore love is the fulfilling of the law :” and in another, ” For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this, thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” See if He does not will thee to work, who saith, ” Thou shalt not commit adultery, thou shalt do no murder, thou shalt not covet, and if there is any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” “Love worketh no ill to his neighbour ; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” Doth love permit thee to do any evil to him whom thou lovest? But perhaps thou only doest no evil, and dost not further any good. Doth love then permit thee not to do whatever thou canst for him whom thou lovest? Is not that love which prayeth even for enemies? Doth he then desert his friend who blesseth his enemies? Therefore if faith be without love, it will be without works. But lest thou think much of the works of faith, add unto it hope, and love, and think not what thou workest. Love itself cannot be empty. For what is there in any man that worketh at all, even to evil, except love? Shew me the love that is empty, and doth no work. Uncleanness, adulteries, violence, murders, every luxury ; doth not love work these? Therefore cleanse thy love : the water flowing into the draught, turn into the garden; what desires it had for the world, the same let it have for the world’s Creator.

Do we say unto you, Love nothing ? God forbid ! Dull, dead, hateful, miserable will ye be, if ye love nothing. Love, but look well what ye love. The love of God, the love of our neighbour, is called charity : the love of the world, the love of this life, is called covetousness. Let covetousness be bridled, charity stirred up. For the very charity of him that doeth good works, gives him hope out of a good conscience ; for a good conscience produceth hope ; as an evil conscience is wholly in despair, so a good conscience is wholly in hope. And so there will be these three of which the Apostle speaketh, ” faith, hope, charity.” Also in another place speaketh he of three likewise, but instead of ” hope” he has placed ” a good conscience.” ” For the end of the commandment,” said he. What is the end of the commandment? That by which the commandments are perfected, not whereby they are destroyed. For in one sense we say, The meat is ended; in another, The coat is ended, which was being woven; meat is ended, so that it be not; a coat is ended so that it be made perfect: and yet both in this we say the end, and in that. Here then he calleth not that the end of the commandment, whereby, as it were, the commandments finish, but that whereby they are perfected and consummated; not consumed. The end then is for these three: “The end of the commandment,” saith he, “is charity, out of a pure heart, and of a good conscience, and of faith unfeigned.” Instead of hope, he placed a good conscience. For he hath hope who beareth a good conscience. But he whom an evil conscience pricketh, draws back from hope, and expects nothing for himself but condemnation. That he may then hope to reign, let him have a good conscience; and that he may have a good conscience, let him believe and work. That he believeth, is of faith; that he worketh is of charity.

In one place, then, the Apostle begins from faith, ” faith, hope, charity ;” in the other he begins from charity itself, ” charity, out of a pure heart, and of a good conscience, and of faith unfeigned.” We but now begin from the middle, from conscience itself, and from hope. Who wishes, I say, to have good hope, let him have a good conscience ; and that he may have a good conscience, let him believe and work. From the middle we go to the beginning and end ; let him believe, and work. That he believeth is of faith, that he worketh is of charity. How then saith the Apostle, that man is justified without works by faith; when in another place he saith, ” Faith which worketh by love?” Let us then oppose not the Apostle James to Paul, but Paul himself to Paul, and say unto him, Here thou permittest us in some wise to sin with impunity, when thou sayest, ” We conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.” Then thou sayest, ” Faith which worketh by love.” How am I here made as it were secure, even if I have not worked ; but then seem to have neither hope nor faith itself aright, unless I have worked by love? I hear thyself speak, O Apostle; certainly, thou wouldest here commend unto me faith without works; but the work of faith is love, which love cannot so be void, but that it must both work no evil, and work whatever it can of good. For what doth love? Depart from evil, and do good. This faith then without works thou commendest; and in another place thou sayest, “Though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.” If then, faith without charity profiteth nothing, but where charity is, needs must that it works, faith itself worketh by love. How then shall man be justified by faith without works? The Apostle himself answers, for this cause said I this to thee, O man, lest thou shouldest seem as it were to presume of thy works, and for the merit of thy works to have received the grace of faith. Therefore presume not of works, before faith. Thou knowest that faith found thee a sinner; although faith given made thee righteous, it found ungodly whom it made righteous. ” To him that believeth (saith he,) on Him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.” If the ungodly is justified, from being ungodly he becometh righteous : if from being ungodly he becometh righteous, what are the works of the ungodly? The ungodly may boast indeed his works, and say, I give to the poor, I take nothing from any, I covet not another man’s wife, I do no murder, I do no wrong to any, that which is pledged with me, no man witnessing, I restore: all this he may say; I ask whether he be godly or ungodly. And how am I ungodly, saith he, doing all these things? Even as they of whom it was said, ” They served the creature more than the Creator, Who is blessed for ever.” How art thou ungodly? What if, for all these good works, thou either hope for that which is to be hoped for, but not from Him from Whom alone it is to be hoped for; or hope for that which is not to be hoped for, even from Him from Whom eternal life is to be hoped for? For thy good works thou hast hoped for some earthly happiness; thou art ungodly. That is not the reward of faith. A precious thing is faith, to a vile thing hast thou devoted it. Ungodly then art thou, and vain are those works of thine.

Though in good works thou mayest move thine arms, and seem to steer the ship exceeding well, thou art running on the rocks. What if thou hope for that which is to be hoped, that is, life eternal, but not from the Lord God, through Jesus Christ, through Whom alone eternal life is given, but thinkest that thou canst arrive at life eternal through the host of Heaven, through the sun and moon, through the powers of the air, of the sea, of the earth, of the stars? Thou art ungodly. Believe in Him that justifieth the ungodly; that thy good works may be indeed good works : for neither call I them good, as long as they proceed not from a good root. What is this ? Either thou hopest for life temporal from God the Eternal, or life eternal from devils ; on either side thou art ungodly. Correct thy faith; direct thy faith aright, direct thy way aright; and if thou have good feet, walk on secure, run, thou holdest the way. The better thou runnest, the more speedily wilt thou arrive. But perhaps thou haltest somewhat. At least wander not out of the way; though but slowly, thou wilt arrive: stand not still; turn not back; go not astray.

What then? Who are blessed? Not they in whom God findeth no sin, for He findeth it in all; for “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” If, then, sins are found in all, it remains that none are blessed but they whose sins are forgiven.

This, then, hath the Apostle thus commanded; “Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness. And to him that worketh,” that is, presumeth of works, and saith that for their merits the grace of faith is given him, “is the reward not reckoned of grace but of debt.”

What is this, but that our reward is called grace ? If it be grace, it is given gratis. What meaneth ? It is given gratis? Gratis is evident. Thou hast done nothing good, and yet forgiveness of thy sin is given thee. Thy works are considered, and are found all evil. If God should pay thee what is due to those works, He would surely condemn thee. ” For the wages of sin is death.” To evil works what is due? What but condemnation? To good works what is due? The Kingdom of Heaven. But thou art found in evil works; if that be paid thee which is thy due, thou must needs be punished. What befals then? God payeth thee not the punishment due, but giveth thee grace not due. He owed vengeance, He giveth mercy. Thou beginnest then to be in faith, through mercy ; now thy faith, having added to itself hope, and love, beginneth to do good works; but even so, glory not, nor lift up thyself; remember by Whom thou art set in the way ; remember that with strong and swift feet thou wast wandering; remember that when thou wast languishing, and lying in the way half dead, thou wast set upon a beast, and brought to an inn. ” But to him that worketh,” saith he, ” is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt.” If thou wouldest be an alien unto grace, boast of thy merits. Yet He seeth what is in thee, and knoweth what He oweth to each.

” But to him that worketh not.” What? Suppose here some ungodly sinner; see, he worketh not. What then ? He believeth on Him that justified the ungodly. But in that he doeth not good works, he is ungodly; though he seem to do good works, yet, because without faith, neither are they to be called good. ” But believing on Him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness. Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works.” But what righteousness? That of faith, which good works have not preceded, but which good works do follow.

Attend ye then; otherwise, by misunderstanding, ye will plunge yourselves into that gulf of sinning with impunity; but I am free as the Apostle himself was, from all who misunderstood him, free. For they misunderstood him wilfully, lest good works should follow. Be not ye, my brethren, among the number of such. It is said in a certain Psalm of a certain man such as this, that is, of a class of men as it were under the name of one, “He hath refused to understand, that he might do good.” It is not said, he could not understand. It behoveth you then to be willing to understand, that ye may do good. For so ye will not fail of clear understanding. What is the clear understanding? Let none boast his good works before faith, none be slothful in good works after faith received. God sheweth mercy then to all ungodly, and justifieth them through faith.

This comes from Augustine on the Psalms, Psalm xxxii.

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