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 Seventh Lesson: The Reality of the Mixture of Error in Conversion
Another important practical truth about all true conversion illustrated by the conversion of Augustine is that we must expect a mixture of misconception and error both in doctrine and practice in true conversions. Of course, this is not to say that such error is a matter of indifference or justifiable, but it is to say that in a fallen world and in an imperfectly redeemed church such error must be expected to be mixed in with even true conversions. Such error, assuming it is not an error which overthrows the foundation of the Christian faith, does not mean that the conversion in question is false. We know of two such serious errors which accompanied Augustine’s conversion.
Misconception about the Necessity of Celibacy
It was the example of St. Antony and the Egyptian monks which fired his imagination and deepened his conviction. It is clear that Augustine could contemplate no Christian life for himself which did not involve a commitment to celibacy. It is clear that he did not make this a standard for everyone else, but he certainly required it of himself. By rights his teachers and his conscience should have told him to go find Adeodatus’ mother and marry her! Sadly, this was not even on Augustine’s radar. This glorification of the monastic ideal including celibacy was not Christian, but it colored Augustine’s vision of Christianity.
Misconception about the Sovereignty of Grace
As becomes clear in the anti-Pelagian writings of Augustine, and as we will see in a later lecture, Augustine later confesses that he was not at first clear about the sovereignty of grace in salvation. While Augustine had never been Pelagian, he will tell us that he was for a while as a Christian semi-Pelagian in his views. That is to say, he believed, if we only take the first step, then the grace of God will intervene for our salvation. Of course, Augustine should have known that this was wrong from his own experience. It was, however, only his gradually maturing understanding of grace that showed him the error of semi-Pelagianism.
I have spoken to certain Christians who think that an Arminian cannot be a Christian. I have been asked by others who wonder if Arminians can be saved. Much can be said in response to those with such questions and such views. It is, however, certainly important to realize that the first Christian to affirm the sovereignty of grace in salvation and predestination in unmistakable terms was not himself a believer in these things when he himself was converted.
All of this teaches us the requirement of divine forbearance and mercy in the conversion of every sinner. Every sinner comes into the Christian faith with many misconceptions about both doctrine and practice from which he must be weaned by progressive sanctification. If God exercises such merciful forbearance towards his children, then so must we.
Our Eighth Lesson: The Consequence of the Seal of Baptism in Conversion
Paedobaptists will, of course, find all sorts of ways to explain away the fact that Augustine was not baptized as an infant. It is, however, clear that he was only baptized as a believer some months after the time of his conversion and only after a period careful instruction in the Christian faith had been completed.
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.