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Grace is one of those Christian-ease terms that is spoken with awe and treated with respect, but which sometimes escapes definition. Saint Augustine of Hippo, who struggled through his youth and early adulthood to find truth and ultimately converted to Christianity, considered grace divine aid that directed the human will toward righteousness and imbued the human spirit with delight of and love for the Good – that is, God – by the Holy Spirit.

Augustine penned his definition of God’s grace in response to Pelagius, a British monk who objected to Augustine’s prayer that God “[g]rant what thou commandest and command what thou wilt” in Chapter X of his autobiography Confessions. Augustine believed that only with the assistance of God could man fulfill God’s will.

Pelagius interpreted this conviction as implying that God did not understand the weight of the commands He issued or the endurance of His people. Why would God punish His people for failing to obey what they cannot obey? Did God deal in salvation, or in punishment? Pelagius formulated a new set of doctrines that removed the necessity for God’s grace from the equation for obedience. Two teachings should suffice to summarize his thought: 1) the denial of original sin, and 2) dependence on both the Law and the Gospel to bring man into the Kingdom of God.

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Law and Gospel, by Lucas Cranach the Elder (c. 1529)

Augustine repudiated Pelagianism, for in his view mankind depended entirely on God’s grace. He understood man’s free will as a force that leads him to sin alone, and that his will alone does not suffice to repel evil and pursue good. Unlike God, who possesses an inability to sin, man possesses an inability to not sin because of his fallen nature.

To this state Augustine identifies two “flavors” of God’s grace: prevenient grace and irresistable grace. Regarding the former term, “prevenient” implies not that God prevents something of man’s will, but rather that He sets it going. Only by God’s prevenient grace – by the grace that spurs man on the right path – does man’s will turn to the good.

The doctrine of irresistable grace ties with the doctrine of predestination, God’s foreknowledge of who He would grant belief. To introduce this grace, Augustine begins by defining two types of assistance: adjutorium sine quo non fit and adjutorium sine quo fit. The former assistance claims that without it, some action X cannot happen, while the latter claims that with it X will happen. The difference is between the possibility of something happening and the necessity of it happening.

Augustine explains the quo non fit assistance in terms of starvation. Without food, a man will starve, but the possession of food does not guarantee that the man will not starve. He could, after all, simply refuse to eat it. The quo fit assistance, by contrast, is such that its existence necessitates its result.

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How does this relate to grace? According to Augustine, assistance of the quo non fit variety directed the will of the first man. To Adam God gave the assistance without which he could not persevere in the good, but this assistance did not make it such that Adam actually did persevere in the good; hence, the Fall. To the saints, however, God gives the quo fit assistance, by which they cannot help but persevere, for despite their human weaknesses they will to persevere by God’s working in them. This latter assistance is the essence of irresistable grace. Once man accepts it, God fully aids him in following the holy commands that fallen man cannot fulfill by his own power.

In line with John Calvin centuries later, who wrote, “For our nature is not merely bereft of God, but is so productive of every kind of evil that it cannot be alive,” Augustine posited that without divine assistance human freedom of choice could not lead to truly good works and similarly could not righteously follow God’s commands.

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Several synods through medieval history, including the Council of Carthage in 417 that Augustine attended, the Synod of Arles in 473 in response to the semi-Pelagianism of John Cassian, and the Council of Orange that reaffirmed aspects of Augustine’s doctrine on grace. The primacy he placed on grace immigrated to the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century as one of the five “solas” of Protestant faith, sola gratia, or “grace alone.”

What are your thoughts on prevenient and irresistable grace? Do you agree with Augustine that without grace man is incapable of performing any good? Can we be good without God?


This article from The Daily Beast has a thoughtful discussion on the question above.