Augustine on Justification (what you must know)

The most significant patristic source of the Protestant Reformation was Augustine of Hippo. In centuries preceding the sixteenth, interest in Augustine had flowered, spawning a widespread attraction to his theology and the order(s) that bore his name. It’s no accident that Martin Luther was an Augustinian, as was Peter Martyr Vermigli. Moreover, we find in John Calvin’s writing, particularly his Institutes, a steady stream of citations from the old Bishop.

It is interesting to see Catholics and Protestants sometimes argue about which tradition has a greater claim to Augustine’s legacy. This is especially true regarding the doctrine of justification, where he is a bright-shining luminary (or “fountainhead” as McGrath puts it) on both sides of the ecclesial divide. In what follows, we won’t tackle that debate, but rather try to summarize Augustine’s teaching on justification in the interest of clarifying the central impulse of his thought. Such knowledge promises to enrich our discussions with Catholic friends and loved ones on the subject of salvation.

Augustine’s Doctrine of Justification in a (Small) Nutshell

Perhaps the most important concept to clarify concerning Augustine’s doctrine is that justification is a matter of being made righteous. With limited facility in and recourse to the Hebrew and Greek language, he took the Latin iustificari as meaning “to make righteous.” This approach distinguishes Augustine from the Protestant Reformers, who understood justification to describe God’s activity of attributing or imputing righteousness to the sinner as the ground of acceptance.

As you would expect from the “Doctor of Grace,” such righteousness was recognized to come from God as a gift. So Augustine writes, “God confers righteousness upon the believer by the Spirit of Grace.” And, “This is the Spirit of God by whose gift we are justified.”[1]

Over and against the teaching of Pelagius, who argued that God offers grace to those who are worthy of it, Augustine insisted that justification is never secured by the autonomous merit of man. The notion that God imparts grace according to human works, he argued, denigrates justification as something owed—a debt—and therefore falls short of grace. Instead, human merit is regarded as a grace from God: “When God crowns our merits,” Augustine famously declared, “he crowns his own gifts.”[2] Protestants celebrate Augustine’s championing of grace against Pelagius, but we dissent from the idea that eternal life can be merited by human works (outside the finished work of Christ).

The process of justification begins with baptism, the event in which sin is forgiven. From there, righteousness proceeds to grow in the life of a believer. Because it unfolds gradually (in the process of being made righteous) justification spans the length of one’s life. Here is how Augustine conveys the outworking of such righteousness:

It follows, as I see it, that in whatever kind of degree we may define righteousness in this life, there is in this life no man entirely without sin: there is need for every man to give that it may be given to him, to forgive that it may be forgiven him, and in respect of any righteousness he possesses not to presume that it has come of his own making, but to accept it as the grace of God who justifies; yet none the less to hunger and thirst for the gift of righteousness from him who is the living bread and with whom is the well of life—who so works justification in his saints that labor in the trial of this life….[3]

In Augustine’s doctrine, it is the Spirit’s enabling grace that empowers one in the growth of justification. Such righteousness is not accessed by faith alone; rather, it is by faith and love. Bear in mind that for Augustine “faith” describes the act of believing the gospel on the basis of the authority of the apostolic message. To be complete, such faith must be accompanied by love (particularly of God and of one’s neighbor). Again, as Augustine put it: “The man in whom is the faith that works through love (Gal 5) begins to delight in the law of God after the inward man; and that delight is a gift not of the letter but of the Spirit.”[4]

A Central Impulse and Significance of Augustine’s Doctrine

A central emphasis of Augustine’s doctrine of justification is the believer’s ethically engaged participation in the life of Christ, a participation empowered by the Spirit that grows and manifests itself in greater levels of love. In Alister McGrath’s words, “For Augustine, it is love, rather than faith, which is the power that brings about the conversion of people.”[5] If I were to express this Augustinian impulse in terms that I hear from Catholic friends, it would be something like this: God, by his Spirit and according to his grace, fortifies the souls of believers with righteousness so they will increasingly embody the love of Christ and merit eternal life.

How then should Protestants think about Augustine’s doctrine, especially in conversation with Catholic friends? In what follows, I’d like to offer some thoughts.

Given the Catholic understanding of justification—that it is a process in which one becomes increasingly righteous—the assertion that God accepts us by “faith alone” often sounds like “cheap grace”(to borrow a phrase from Dietrich Bonhoeffer). It sounds like we’re saying, “Don’t worry about pursuing a life of holiness. Just say this sinner’s prayer, walk this aisle, and then you’ll be safe for all of eternity.” Thus, for Catholics, standing on the shoulders of Augustine, our doctrine of justification may appear to be a form of fire insurance that requires a minimal investment in exchange for an eternal payoff.

Our opportunity among Catholic friends is to explain what we mean by “faith alone,” that humanity is incapable of meriting the smallest amount of divine favor by performing acts of love, and that God therefore gives the gift of Christ’s righteousness as the basis of our acceptance, a gift that comes only through faith. But this should not denigrate the importance of tangible love in the larger outworking of salvation. As the Reformers put it, justification is by faith alone, but not by a faith that remains alone.[6] Or as John Calvin stated, “For we dream neither of a faith devoid of good works nor of a justification that stands without them.”[7] The same emphasis continued among subsequent evangelicals, as Jonathan Edwards wrote, “And one great thing he [Jesus] aimed at in redemption, was to deliver them from their idols, and bring them to God.”[8]

Relating Faith to Acts of Love

An old professor of mine liked to explain the need for tangible acts of love in salvation in terms of a “Costco Card.” Most parts of the country probably have a Costco or equivalent. It is a membership warehouse chain where customers enjoy discounts on a wide array of products because merchandise is purchased in bulk. The decisive transaction that provides access to Costco occurs when one becomes a member. You simply pay the fee, get your membership card with embarrassing photo, and shop to your heart’s desire. Whenever you visit the store, you must present your card to the nice lady at the door to verify that you have paid the requisite price of membership. This card-showing exercise, which is performed in all subsequent visits, simply confirms that you have already completed the membership transaction.[9]

So it is with works of love in salvation. Our virtuous behavior can never procure or somehow enhance God’s favor toward us. The cost of forgiveness and new life is infinite and we are utterly bankrupt. Only Christ can complete the transaction for us, which he did by shedding his blood. By dying on the cross as our substitute, and rising from the dead, Jesus enabled us to approach the throne of grace with confidence. But not only do we have confidence, God has also sent his Holy Spirit to live within us and has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in heaven in order for the Church to walk in good works which he prepared beforehand. Therefore, while we maintain that justification is by faith alone, we must regard salvation to be much more than a sinner’s prayer that gets us into heaven. God’s unmerited favor must take the form of an obedient life of faith here and now, as Paul the Apostle writes: “Since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God” (2 Cor 7:1). This Pauline notion is also deeply Augustinian.



[1] John Burnaby, Augustine: Later Works, Library of Christian Classics, vol 8, (Philadelphia, Westminster, 1980), 15: 205.

[2] Eugene TeSelle, Augustine the Theologian. (Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 2002), 329.

[3] Burnaby, Augustine, 65: 249, 250.

[4] Ibid., 26:215.

[5] Alister E. McGrath. Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification. 3rd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 46.

[6] Or in the Westminster Confession: “Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and His righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification: yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but works by love.” Westminster Confession of Faith. “Of Justification,” Chap. 11.2.

[7] John Calvin. Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2 vols., ed. John T. McNeill. trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960.) 1:798 (3.16.1).

[8] Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol 2, “Discourse: Men Naturally are God’s Enemies” (1834 reprint, Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1998), 139

[9] Like all analogies, there are a few points where the Costco Card breaks down, like when your membership is complete you must purchase another one. You will also perform another monetary transaction when you buy products from the store. For some reason, I find these payments are always quite large.


About the author

Chris Castaldo (PhD, London School of Theology) is the lead pastor at New Covenant Church in Naperville, Illinois. He is the author of Talking with Catholics about the Gospel and coauthor of The Unfinished Reformation.


  1. Chris,

    This is a much fairer take on St. Augustine than I’ve seen from many Protestants, and for that I thank you. I’m presently in the midst of reading his [i]Confessions[/i], so diving in to the mind and heart of St. Augustine are of much current concern for my studies.

    It overjoys me to see such a strong emphasis on the works of love; conversely, it always brings me great sorrow when I’m opposed with the “your works are filthy rags to God” objection, when it’s concluded that my desire to serve the poor, feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, etc. as a Catholic is so that I can build my step-by-step ladder to heaven rather than cooperate with grace as a manner of our Christian vocation. Your writing deeply echos the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification that the Catholic Church and various Protestant churches signed some years back.

    Where we part is the heavy influence on transaction, a word that is mentioned thrice in your article today. Certainly, Scripture speaks of a transactional aspect of our justification, a contractual exchange between two parties. But I think it’s more a function of a larger whole – a [i]covenant[/i] relationship that is ongoing from the initial justification (at Baptism) through the final justification.

    To address Scripture briefly prior to St. Augustine, we know in St. Paul’s famous discourse on love in 1 Corinthians 13 that it exists as one of – and the greatest of – the three theological virtues. In his poetic language, he illustrates that faith is separate from love, and that if one has faith even “to move mountains, but has not love, he is nothing.” How, then, could a faith [i]alone[/i], apart from love, an entirely distinct virtue, save us? Are not both needed, along with the third, an abiding hope in the promises of Jesus Christ?

    The answer I often hear is that if one does not participate in acts of love, they never had faith, or had saving faith, in the first place, but knowing the human condition, is this true? How often do we, knowing full well that God exists and desires us in ways we cannot even comprehend, choose to do wrong or fail to do good? And, even believing in His redemptive sacrifice, what good will it do us if we fail to “persevere in the good works set before us” in St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians 2:10? Jesus speaks clearly on the matter in Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 25, when He addresses the judgment of nations. The sermon speaks nothing of faith [i]alone[/i] but speaks extensively on how faith must manifest itself as love via cooperation of the will. In this discourse, who are the sheep, and who are the goats? How are they described – via descriptions of their faith, or of their acts of love made visible in their faith? And where does each find their eternal resting place?

    Even so, each of those virtues – the deep faith, the abiding hope and the ability to turn the will toward love – are only possible by grace, and never apart from it. But understanding that the three virtues are separate, then seeking to understand Martin Luther’s thoughts on justification, his sermons on sin, and his various writings suggest that hope and love indeed were unnecessary for salvation in his view. Faith, inspired by grace, hope, sustained by grace and love, moved by grace to the cooperation of the human will toward virtue will all be needed to obtain eternal life through the merits of Jesus Christ.

    Now, to briefly discuss St. Augustine, in addition to what you’ve shared above, I can do no better than the portions of his writing and sermons chosen in the Catechism of the Catholic Church on grace, justification and merit to help round out our 360 degree view of his work —

    [i]1 – The preparation of man for the reception of grace is already a work of grace. This latter is needed to arouse and sustain our collaboration in justification through faith, and in sanctification through charity. God brings to completion in us what he has begun, “since he who completes his work by cooperating with our will began by working so that we might will it” – St. Augustine, Tractates on John, 72

    – Indeed we also work, but we are only collaborating with God who works, for his mercy has gone before us. It has gone before us so that we may be healed, and follows us so that once healed, we may be given life; it goes before us so that we may be called, and follows us so that we may be glorified; it goes before us so that we may live devoutly, and follows us so that we may always live with God: for without him we can do nothing. – St. Augustine, On Nature And Grace, 31

    – God’s free initiative demands man’s free response, for God has created man in his image by conferring on him, along with freedom, the power to know him and love him. The soul only enters freely into the communion of love. God immediately touches and directly moves the heart of man. He has placed in man a longing for truth and goodness that only he can satisfy. The promises of “eternal life” respond, beyond all hope, to this desire:

    If at the end of your very good works . . ., you rested on the seventh day, it was to foretell by the voice of your book that at the end of our works, which are indeed “very good” since you have given them to us, we shall also rest in you on the sabbath of eternal life. – St. Augustine, Confessions, 13[/i]

    The part I want to key on, as it relates to this discussion, is man’s free response to God, not just once, and not just intellectually, but in outward love that imitates Christ, and that such a love will be necessary for eternal life, not as a matter of good works “earning” salvation naturally apart from grace, but in collaboration with Him who is now in us, our good works are meritorious because they are Christ’s works being completed by His Body.

    In any case, thanks for the illuminating article and hopefully the illuminating discussion to follow. I keep the abiding hope that whatever causes difference among Christians on this doctrine are matters of definition and semantics, and that the heart of each person who seeks to serve the Lord will be to do so in full faith, full hope and full charity toward Him and others.

    Have a blessed holiday weekend, Chris.


  2. Thank you so much for your comments. I have seen several Protestants go RC over the years and I am moved to tears. And many who did so, came to think that the key doctrinal issues of the Protestant Reformation are a non sequitur and that the status of the early church was a given in RC terms, whatever that is supposed to meaningfully express in doctrinal terms. Yes, the whole issue concerning Augustine knowing primarily Latin Bible is perhaps an issue. But what it seems to confirm for me, though these are obviously anachronistic approximations, is that Augustine held to a position that was generally closer to what is now the Protestant doctrinal position, though obviously not perfectly. And what became the significant basis for reform for Luther, Calvin and Peter Martyr, was Protestant reform in light of the Augustine and the Bible. The RC folks I have talked to vigorously object and call this bold twisting, misrepresentation, special pleading but I beg to differ. Yes, the Protestant Reformation did doctrinally advance, but don’t think it is outrageous to say that they could not have done so without Augustine. And the 1,000 year shadow of Augustine starting from roughly 400AD was recovered by the Protestant Reformers and gradually sullied more and more over time in the RCC. I would perhaps go as far to say that the Apostle Paul was Reformed, though he didn’t have the King James Bible. Would you say this scenario is fair or outrageous?

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