Augustine's Concept of Freedom:

The Dynamic of Sin and Grace
By: Gregory S. Neal

Augustine's concept of freedom cannot be addressed without also examining his understanding of sin and grace. These concepts interrelate in such a dynamic way that freedom's very nature is inexorably bound up with them. Freedom is not just a state of free will, it is actually the result of grace delivering individuals from the consequences of sin. Sin is not just that which generates the breach between humanity and God, it is also the penalty for and manifestation of that breach. And, in bridging this gap, grace is not only that which makes the good knowable, it is also that which makes the good capable of being done. Because of the nearly circular structure of Augustine's thought on this subject, we will begin with his concept of freedom, then examine the process and dynamic response of grace to sin, which will eventually return us to the state of actualized freedom.

Freedom can most easily be defined as "free will put to good use." (Kelley: 368) In essence, one is truly free when the bondage to sin and death is lifted and the joy of living as the creator desires is made manifest. This was, for the most part, Adam's original state in the garden. Adam had the ability to know and do God's will; the ability was a gift from God, the "power of perseverance," but it was not a power which was all-encompassing or all-controlling. In other words, Adam had the ability 'to desert the good," which he did when he was tempted by the devil into desiring self-reliance, or "perverse elevation," and thereby initiating the fall (Bettenson: 194-195, 208-209). This was a perversion of free will, for the will is either "'free from righteousness', and then it is bad; or else 'free from sin, because it is a slave of righteousness', and then it is good." (Bettenson:206)

According to Augustine, the evil nature of the fall was not in Adam's sin of pride, but rather in 'the fall itself.

The things which cause our fall are not in their own nature evil; but our fall is evil because it is a reversal of the natural order . . . (Bettenson: 195).

This disruption of the natural order of creation stripped Adam of his ability to both know and do the good. Indeed, because we were "in his loins" (Bettenson: 197) at the time of the fall, every human being now lacks the ability to know and do the will of God. Free will still exists, but the field of decision is limited to only bad choices (Bettenson: 203). It takes grace to know and do the good -- to heal the depraved will of humans and to come to God.

Augustine identified four basic forms of grace: Prevenient, Co-operating, Available, and Effective. "Prevenient Grace" is that grace which must come before it is even possible for a human being to desire to do good. "Co-operating Grace" is then added in order to provide the will with the ability to do that which Prevenient Grace has already made desirable (Bettenson: 204-206). These first two forms of grace are important because: "we have no power to perform the good works of godliness without [God's] operation to make us will, and [God's] co-operation when we will. (Bettenson: 206) The other two forms of grace are "Grace Available (or Sufficient)" and "Grace Effective (or Efficient);" the first refers to the state of grace Adam had in paradise which enabled him to be righteous through his own will, and the second points to a type of grace which is the actualization of freedom (Bettenson: 205-206). In essence, "grace effective" is that which makes the human exercise of free will so perfect as to be indistinguishable from God's will.

It insures that he [humanity] should will, and will so strongly, and love so ardently as to give the spirit the victory over the 'will of the flesh'. Such powerful aid as makes us will (Bettenson 205).

In this state of grace, Adam's mistake is impossible. While Adam had the ability to sin, those in the state of effective grace, which comes through Christ Jesus, are not only capable of knowing and doing good but, unlike Adam, find it impossible to not do good. This is the perfect actualization of free will, the "Perfect Freedom" of Augustine (Bettenson-. 208-209). In this state,

Such men are redeemed for the everlasting freedom of happiness, a condition in which it is impossible for them to be 'slaves of sin' (Bettenson: 209).

A few issues need to be examined more closely before we can say this examination is complete. Augustine's concept of original sin is as complex as his concept of freedom -- and, as should already be clear, both all are inexorably linked. According to Augustine, Adam, through his perverse desire in original sin, bequeathed "concupiscence" on all his descendants. Sin thus becomes not merely an offense that brings a penalty, but part of the penalty itself (Bettenson: 195-196). Concupiscence, for Augustine, is not just sexual desire but any disordered or exaggerated desire or appetite. Even infants -- whose self-centeredness he observed -- have concupiscence, resulting in their need of grace and illustrating the "seminal identity" of all humans in Adam (Bettenson: 198-200). In Augustine's day, infant baptism was on the rise. In order for it to be able to do for babies what it was understood to do for adults -- i.e. forgive their sins -- it was necessary to assume that infants actually have sin. Since babies are incapable of willfully sinning, Augustine held that Adam's sin must also effect them. Hence, one's sinful status was not only determined by the actual sins one was guilty of committing, but also by the very nature of sin inherited from Adam (Bettenson: 199-202). All were a part of a "mass of perdition," from which "no one, no one at all, has been set free..... except by the grace of the Redeemer." (Bettenson: 204)

According to Augustine, the grace which sets one free comes, not by choice, but by election. This is the doctrine of "predestination" as articulated within Augustinian theology, and form which Martin Luther and Jean Calvin drew their understanding. Far different from the Calvinist approach, however, in Augustinian Predestination the question of election is not one of a failure to receive the call, for the call is sent to everyone -- it is universal in scope (Bettenson: 208-209). Instead, "only those follow the call [are] who prove to be capable of receiving it." (Bettenson: 209) In other words, those who failed to follow were not called by God in a way in which they would follow. This is not to be understood as Divine favoritism, for:

We must understand that no one is set apart from the mass of perdition, which results from the first Adam, unless he [or she] has the gift which he can only receive by the grace of the Saviour. The chosen are chosen by grace, not because of their own existing merits; for every merit of theirs is the result of grace (Bettenson: 210).

Hence, grace is incorporated in the very act of predestination as a function of enablement. While Prevenient Grace may well be universal in the Augustinian conception (i.e., the call goes out to all), Co-operating Grace -- grace which enables faith -- is sent only to those predestined to receive it. Indeed, its very application is based upon "God's foreknowledge and preparation of his acts of goodness, by which those who are set free are most surely freed." (Bettenson: 211)

As should by now be clear, for Augustine free will has a place in predestination only to the extent of an individual's ability to receive Co-operating grace and move toward the "perfect freedom" of Available and Effective Grace. It is in this closed cycle of sin-grace-freedom that freedom can find its function. Sin can only be cleared by grace, grace comes only to those whom God elects, and it is only through grace that the perfect actualization of freedom can occur.

Selected Bibliography

Bettenson, Henry, (ed). The Later Christian Fathers. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Kelley, John Norman Davidson. Early Christian Doctrines. London:Adam & Charles Black, 1968.


© 1989 Gregory S. Neal*
All Rights Reserved

*This paper was written in 1989 for a Course in Reformation Church History which Rev. Neal took while in the Masters Degree program at Duke University.

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The Reverend Dr. Gregory S. Neal is the Senior Pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Commerce, Texas, and an ordained Elder in the North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Duke University, and Trinity College, Dr. Neal is a scholar of Systematic Theology, New Testament origins, and Biblical Languages. His areas of specialization include the Theology of the Sacraments, in which he did his doctoral dissertation, and the formation and early transmission of the New Testament. Trained as a Christian educator, he has taught classes in these and related fields while also serving for more than 25 years as the pastor of United Methodist churches in North Texas.

As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including
Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from