Four Views of Salvation, Part 2: Semi-Augustinianism and Augustinianism

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Previous article in this series: Four Views of Salvation, Part 1: Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism.

C. Semi-Augustinianism

The Semi-Augustinian understanding of salvation is a synergistic understanding of salvation. However, unlike the Semi-Pelagian view, which sees original sin or human depravity as partial or incomplete, leaving humanity with some internal resources to contribute to the work of salvation, the Semi-Augustinian view sees original sin as complete or humanity as totally depraved. Because of Adam and Eve’s disobedience in the Garden of Eden, the moral image of God (holiness, righteousness, love, and relationship to God) is completely destroyed in humanity. Consequently, all human beings in their “natural state” are spiritually dead to God, thoroughly sinful, under divine condemnation, helpless to change themselves, ignorant of their present state, and incapable of grasping their plight. If human beings are going to be saved, God is the One who must take the initiative. If human beings are to be awakened, convicted of their sin, repent, and exercise faith to be converted, then God must do the work, because humanity has no internal resources with which to move toward God and progress in the way of salvation.

Specifically, the Semi-Augustinian view teaches that God takes this initiative by giving to humanity prevenient grace. Prevenient grace, which is given to everyone, brings the power to respond to further works of grace; this grace restores the power to cooperate with further works of grace as divine grace is made available in life. However, humanity can do nothing until God first moves or further grace is given. As a result of prevenient grace given to all, humanity can then choose to cooperate with what God is doing or not. From this perspective, a person cannot recognize their fallen state, unless the Spirit brings this recognition; a person cannot repent of their sins, unless the Spirit empowers them to do so; a person cannot turn toward God, unless the Spirit enables them; and a person cannot exercise faith to believe whenever they hear the gospel, unless the Spirit creates such faith in them. Thus, prevenient grace, given to all, in itself does not restore to people the ability to progress in the way of salvation (be awakened, repent, believe, etc.). Prevenient grace simply enables a person to cooperate with further works of divine grace made available at divinely appointed times and places through the means of grace.

Prevenient grace simply enables a person to cooperate with further works of divine grace made available at divinely appointed times and places through the means of grace.

If human beings are totally dependent upon God’s grace for progression in the way of salvation, the question must be asked, “How does God communicate His grace to people? How does God work to create saving faith in peoples’ lives?” For the Semi-Augustinian, God communicates His saving grace through appointed “channels” or “means.” Semi-Augustinians believe that as people are exposed to the means of grace or as they place themselves in the flow of the means of grace (as they hear the Gospel, partake in baptism and Holy Communion, participate in the Body of Christ, etc.), grace capable of awakening people to the spiritual state, enabling repentance, and creating saving faith is made possible.

However, Semi-Augustinians do not believe that participation in the means of grace always results in the transmission of grace. More specifically, the means of grace are seen as the most likely places for God to give His grace, but grace is not always being given through them. For example, not every time the Gospel is preached is grace communicated. There are times when the Gospel is proclaimed and “little” or “nothing” happens; while at other times, God uses the message to draw, convict, and convince people of the truth of the Gospel.

For Semi-Augustinians, prevenient grace merely enables a person to choose to cooperate with these further works of grace or not, as they are made available. Grace from this perspective is the work of the Holy Spirit in humanity. As the Gospel is being shared in divine moments and places, grace is at work in people: a work that is not humanly generated but of God, drawing people, convincing people of the truth that Christ died for them, compelling them to give their lives to Christ, and creating faith to believe the Gospel. If they cooperate, they will be transformed through the new birth. As such, faith is not a human act so much as a result of cooperating with the “grace” of God at work in people at divinely appointed times through the means of grace. All people have done in the moment of conversion is cooperate with what is being wrought in them. To the Semi-Augustinian, the choice is not to believe or not: it is to resist or submit to God’s grace. As such, only in moments when the Holy Spirit is awakening a person from their spiritual slumber can the person be awakened; only in moments in which the Spirit brings repentance can a person repent; and only when the Spirit creates and enables saving faith in an individual can a person be converted.

To the Semi-Augustinian, the choice is not to believe or not: it is to resist or submit to God’s grace.

Therefore, a Semi-Augustinian believes that people cannot choose the “day or the hour” in which they will be saved. They can only be saved in the moments in which grace capable of creating saving faith is made available. Once awakened to their spiritual state, they can seek salvation and place themselves in the means of grace (those divinely appointed places and activities where God is most likely to work in human hearts and lives) until grace capable of saving them is made available. However, they can not determine when this will take place. This is why John Wesley, the epitome of the Semi-Augustinian view, stated, “any man may believe if he will (to be saved), though not when he will. If he seeks faith in the appointed ways, sooner or later the power of the Lord will be present whereby … man believes.”

A cursory look at John Wesley’s Aldersgate experience provides an excellent case study. John Wesley described his Aldersgate experience as having his heart “strangely warmed.” As a result he testified, “I felt I did trust Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins. He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” Wesley’s “faith” here was not so much an action he took, rather it was something happening inside of him, a divine work creating an internal conviction that Christ loved him and had forgiven him. His heart was being acted upon by a power other than himself, creating personal faith in Christ. Wesley’s Aldersgate experience was a gift of grace.

John Wesley is the epitome of the Semi-Augustinian view.

This understanding of Wesley’s experience is substantiated further by his journals. Before Aldersgate, John Wesley had already been convinced by Peter Bohler that salvation was “by grace through faith,” and he had begun to preach this message. In a sense, Wesley was intellectually convinced of the truth, but he still struggled with personal faith until his Aldersgate experience. Wesley believed in “his head,” but struggled in “his heart.” This “heart struggle” kept Wesley from believing in Christ alone for salvation. Wesley’s Aldersgate experience confirmed that God’s grace creates faith in human hearts.

Overall, the Semi-Augustinian teaching has been overshadowed in the Protestant teaching by the Augustinian teaching, which we will examine next. The best representative of this teaching is John Wesley, and it is the official teaching of The United Methodist Church, seen in her doctrinal standards.

D. Augustinianism

The Augustinian understanding of salvation is a monergistic understanding of salvation. If Pelagianism stands at one end of the spectrum of salvation, anchoring the human monergistic perspective on salvation, the Augustinian view stands at the other end of the spectrum, anchoring the divine monergistic view, believing there is no human involvement or cooperation involved in the work of salvation. Salvation is entirely the work of God. Like the Semi-Augustinian view, Augustinians teach that because of Adam and Eve’s disobedience in the Garden of Eden, the moral image of God (holiness, righteousness, love, and relationship to God) is completely destroyed in humanity. Consequently, all human beings in their “natural state” are spiritually dead to God, thoroughly sinful, under divine condemnation, helpless to change themselves, ignorant of their present state, and are incapable of grasping their plight. If human beings are going to be saved, God is the One who must take the initiative. If human beings are to be awakened, convicted of their sin, repent, and exercise faith to be converted, then God must do the work because humanity has no internal resources with which to move toward God and progress in the way of salvation.

Augustinians argue that God’s electing grace is “irresistible.” Human beings do not have a say in their election to either salvation or damnation.

However, in the Augustinian view, God takes the initiative to save human beings through the work of election. In contrast to the Semi-Augustinian view, the Augustinian position argues that God takes the initiative to save fallen humanity, spiritually dead as a result of original sin, by selecting certain people according to His “secret counsel” for salvation and electing the rest to damnation. Only those who have been elected for salvation by God’s grace and mercy can be converted. Salvation is not available or possible to all. Because all humanity deserves eternal wrath, the fact that God elects some for salvation is a demonstration of God’s mercy and love. Augustinians argue that God’s electing grace is “irresistible.” Human beings do not have a say in their election to either salvation or damnation. There is no cooperation between human beings and God, and human beings cannot resist the grace of a sovereign God when it comes. The work of awakening a person from spiritual slumber, repentance, the exercise of saving faith, new birth, and progressive sanctification is entirely the irresistible work of God’s grace in the person’s life.

The Augustinian understanding of salvation is found primarily in the Protestant tradition. Martin Luther and John Calvin held this view, and it can be found today in the Wisconsin and Missouri Synods of the Lutheran Church, the Presbyterian Church of America, and the Reformed Church.

Conclusion

The four positions presented so far represent four views of salvation or four points found in a spectrum of salvation. In the next post, I will try to offer other points on the spectrum, which would represent softer and harder Semi-Pelagianism, as well as softer and harder Semi-Augustinianism. I will try to pinpoint where the Churches of Christ (Alexander Campbell), some contemporary Open theists, most Wesleyans, and other Christian bodies would fall on this spectrum.

Next article in this series: Four Views of Salvation, Part 3: Other Views of Salvation on the Spectrum.

Chris Bounds
Chris Bounds is Professor of Christian Doctrine at IWU and former Scholar in Residence/Professor of Theology/Gardner Professor for the Promotion of Holiness at Asbury University. He was awarded his M. Phil. in 1994 and Ph. D. in 1997 from Drew University with a focus in systematic theology.