The Origin of Compassion

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Augustine’s first literary work as bishop was a two-book reply to certain questions about biblical interpretation sent to him by Ambrose’s successor, Simplician, who had previously mentored Augustine during a time of spiritual distress.

This selection is part of Augustine’s answer to Simplician’s question concerning Romans 9:10-29 and the relation of grace and free will. In this particular portion, Augustine explains that any compassion that a believer might exercise is traced back to God’s calling. A believer should never boast about compassion because compassion within a believer is produced by Christ’s regenerative work.

If God will have mercy on a man so as to call him, he will also have mercy on him so that he may believe; and on him on whom he in mercy bestows faith he will show compassion, i.e., will make him compassionate, so that he may also perform good works. So we are admonished that no one ought to glory or exult in his works of mercy as if he had propitiated God by meritorious works of his own. God gave him the power to be merciful when he showed compassion on whom he would show compassion. If anyone boasts that he has merited compassion by his faith, let him know that God gave him faith. God shows compassion by inspiring faith in one on whom he had compassion in giving to one who was still an unbeliever a share in his calling. For already the believer is distinguished from the ungodly. “What hast thou that thou didst not receive? But if thou didst receive it, why dost thou glory, as if thou hadst not received it (1 Cor. 4:7)?1

Footnotes:

1 Augustine, “To Simplician—On Various Questions,” in Augustine: Earlier Writings, ed. J. H. S. Burleigh (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2006), 392-393.

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