Freedom and grace

The themes of freedom and grace are the foundation of the Christian life. Augustine realises so on the eve of his conversion, when, through personal experience, he becomes aware of his responsible engagement and of the aid and that the grace of the one Mediator offers him for escaping from the dead end into which he has driven himself, entrusting himself only to the resource of reason.

Once converted, Augustine strenuously defends FREEDOM against the Manichaeans, for whom he had been brother auditor, and against any determinism (that is, the way of thinking according to which events happen because of fate, destiny, or the intersection of the stars). The Manicheans denied freedom and said that man is a mixture of two elements, one negative (evil) and one positive (good). All evil comes from the evil principle, all good from the good principle.

Thus the responsibility for human actions falls not on man, but on the evil principle for evil deeds, and on the good principle for good deeds.
Augustine affirms, without hesitation, human freedom:When, therefore, I was willing or unwilling to do anything, I was most certain that it was none but myself that was willing and unwilling; and immediately I perceived that there was the cause of my sin” (Confess. 7: 3, 5).Through freedom, man is responsible for his deeds (see Comm. on Psalm 31: 2, 16). Augustine defended freedom against all forms of fatalism that submits man, the cosmos, the gods to an invincible force, against which human efforts are useless. Augustine combats these errors above all in The City of God.

Freedom does not mean that man can do what he wants; today there are many who say so, but this is wrong. Freedom, says the saint, means acting responsibly, according to one’s own dignity and that of others. Whereby we are truly free when we choose the good that we "must" do; this means choosing the primary value of the human person and his promotion. Unfortunately, man experiences evil; he knows how difficult it is to conquer passions; how many times, as St. Paul says, do we not do the good that we would like to do and do the evil that we would like to avoid. Hence the need for divine grace.

There is no shortage of scholars, in fact there are many, who believe that, by defending GRACE against the Pelagians, Augustine denied freedom. This is simply not true. Here is an important Augustinian principle that illuminates the whole question of the relationship between freedom and grace: “he freedom of the will is not destroyed by being helped  by grace; it is rather helped because it is not destroyed” (Letter 157: 2, 10).With these words, Augustine means that the help offered by grace does not take away the forces from man, but makes them more effective.

Thus help, grace, supports freedom. The problem of the relationship between freedom and grace is difficult, and to explain it Augustine turns to other truths: to Christ the Judge and Christ the Saviour.

To Christ the Judge, for the simple reason that judgment presupposes that one is responsible for what one does in order to be judged; if man were not free, how could he be judged by Christ? To Christ the Saviour: Christ, says Augustine, came to save men; He threw into the sea the lifeboat ("grace"), and man takes it, mounts and saves himself. Here, in summary, the Doctor about grace: “If there is no grace, how can (Christ) save the world? If there is no free will, how can (Christ) judge the world?” (Letter 214, 2). The need for grace, while it does not exclude free will, helps it so that good can be chosen; from this arises the necessity of prayer to obtain the same grace. Grace helps us to overcome the obstacles that Augustine sees in ignorance and in weakness. The Augustinian reflection on grace reaches the highest point where it leads grace to love. “He acts freely who acts for love”. It is not only a question of free will (= choosing one thing rather than another), but of true freedom: freedom from error, from sin, from disordered passions, from law, from death, from time, that is, Christian freedom.

Thus, in a nutshell, we have outlined the spiritual thought of the greatest Father of the Western Church, the only one who "never disappoints ... His power is so strong that it seems to preserve him from the fear of aging. It is an understatement to say that this seems to have been written for us, he is always ahead of the times in which he is read” (Julien Green).

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