We must never allow church history in general or any part of church history in particular to exercise a divine authority over our faith. Nevertheless, there are some persons and events of church history that are so close to the core of what historical Christianity is that to deny their legitimacy seems close to denying the faith. One such event might be the conversion of Luther via his understanding of justification by faith alone. Another such event is the conversion of Augustine. We may well say, “If Augustine was not a Christian, and if his conversion was not true conversion, then whose conversion is?” Thus, we may well ask, indeed, we must ask, What lessons about true conversion can we learn from Augustine’s conversion?
Our Second Lesson: The Necessity of the Conviction of Sin in Conversion
The pages of Augustine’s Confessions which lead up to the account of his conversion reek of sin and the conviction of sin. The increasingly overpowering sense of his
bondage under sexual sin is underscored by the tragic account of the sending away of his much loved concubine because of the marriage arranged for him with an under-age heiress. One can sense Augustine’s crushing sense of moral failure in the astonishing account of his procuring a second concubine because he could not wait the two years till his under-age bride could marry. The deep insight which his experience gave him of the depravity or evil of sin can be read in Augustine’s account of how he and his buddies vandalized the pear tree of a neighbor and did it, as Augustine came to believe, for the sheer evil of it. The profane saying of wicked men about doing something “just for the hell of it” is more true than such men realized, Augustine was convinced. Augustine came to be deeply convinced of both the evil and the power of sin by his own experience. This experience prepared the way for his later insights.
Our Third Lesson: The Over-ruling of the Providence of God in Conversion
Here are Augustine’s remarks about the immediate circumstances of his conversion:
So was I speaking and weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, when, lo! I heard from a neighboring house a voice, as of boy or girl, I know not, chanting, and oft repeating, “Take up and read; Take up and read.” Instantly, my countenance altered, I began to think most intently whether children were wont in any kind of play to sing such words: nor could I remember ever to have heard the like. So checking the torrent of my tears, I arose; interpreting it to be no other than a command from God to open the book, and read the first chapter I should find. For I had heard of Antony, that coming in during the reading of the Gospel, he received the admonition, as if what was being read was spoken to him: Go, sell all that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven, and come and follow me: and by such oracle he was forthwith converted unto Thee. Eagerly then I returned to the place where Alypius was sitting; for there had I laid the volume of the Apostle when I arose thence I seized, opened, and in silence read that section on which my eyes first fell: Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, in concupiscence. No further would I read; nor needed I: for instantly at the end of this sentence, by a light as it were of serenity infused into my heart, all the darkness of doubt vanished away.
We are not to learn from the example of Augustine the foolish method of seeking God’s will by opening the Bible at random and putting our finger on a verse. This is what Augustine did, but we are not to imitate his superstition. We are, however, to marvel at the kindness of an over-ruling providence which in spite of the folly of such a practice used it and the striking providence of the child’s chant of “take up and read.” In His kind providence God used things to lead Augustine to the exact Words of Scripture which God used to convert His soul to Himself.
Dr. Sam Waldron is the Academic Dean of CBTS and professor of Systematic Theology. He is also one of the pastors of Grace Reformed Baptist Church in Owensboro, KY. Dr. Waldron received a B.A. from Cornerstone University, an M.Div. from Trinity Ministerial Academy, a Th.M. from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. From 1977 to 2001 he was a pastor of the Reformed Baptist Church of Grand Rapids, MI. Dr. Waldron is the author of numerous books including A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, The End Times Made Simple, Baptist Roots in America, To Be Continued?, and MacArthur’s Millennial Manifesto: A Friendly Response.