Romans 8: Election and Augustine

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
November 14, 2021
Romans 8:18-30

Recorded at Bluemont Church on Friday, November 12, 2021

At the beginning of worship

I am continuing to review the theology that makes us Presbyterian and a part of that body within Christ’s church known as Reformed. Today, the topic is election. No, I am not talking about what we did a two Tuesdays ago. I’m talking about the only election that manners in eternity: God voting for us. 

Election

Election is another name for predestination—a belief that God is in control and knows how things are going. As one theologian writes, “In prosperity and in adversity, God is for us, in us, and with us. This conviction is… a mystery to be experienced by the faithful.”[1] Election is a mystery and a source of our comfort. We hear an echo of this when Jesus says: “You did not choose me, but I chose you.”[2]

Augustine of Hippo

As I have done with this series, I am attaching a theologian to this doctrine. Augustine is today’s mystery theologian.[3] He lived in North Africa in the late fourth and early fifth century. He’s considered the most influential theologian from the early church; therefore, it’s important we know something about him. His father was pagan and his mother a Christian. A scholar early in life, he lusted after women and enjoyed parties. Much to his mother’s dismay, he kept a mistress. During his first thirty years, he certainly didn’t appear to be on the road to sainthood. But that changed!

A mother’s prayer

Augustine had a mother who continually prayed for him. Any of you who mothers wonder if your prayers for your children do any good? Draw inspiration from Augustine. Thanks to his mom’s prayers, along with the work of a theologian named Ambrose, and more importantly the work of the Holy Spirit, Augustine discovered Christ. At the age of thirty, he put aside his wild ways and focused his attention on the church.

Encounter with Pelagius

During Augustine’s ministry, the Roman world collapsed. The church found itself attacked by left-over pagans, who blamed this chaos on Rome abandoning the gods of old. The church also found itself attacked internally. Many Romans flooded to North Africa as refugees. Among these refugees was the English theologian Pelagius. His writings have not survived so his teachings can only be reconstructed by the response of his opponents. It appears he questioned the doctrine of Original Sin and held that people could, by our God-given will, accept Christ, make the necessary changes, and be saved. So, Augustine had two battles—one with those outside the church and one with a sect within the church. In his answer to Pelagius, he expands the doctrine of election (or predestination), a doctrine from which he borrows heavily from the Apostle Paul.  

Today’s sermon will be taken from the eighth chapter of Romans. This is a comforting passage. Ultimately, for Augustine and Calvin and Paul, election or predestination is a doctrine of comfort. 

Read Romans 8:18-30                                  

After Scripture Reading

Election and Fate

Two of my favorite theologians are Frank and Ernest (from the comic strips). Ernest asks Frank if he believed in fate. “Sure,” Frank says, “I’d hate to think I turned out like this because of something I had control over!”

In the last 200 years, predestination has taken a bad rap. Some equate predestination to fate, but that misses the point. Predestination is a part of Christian Theology which says that God is all powerful and is in control of the world and because of this, God knows what will happen and is working to bring out good in all things. 

Mortal danger of freedom

Of course, this type of thought doesn’t seem to allow much room for “free will.” And we, especially us Americans, like to think of ourselves as free… We only need to look from a Biblical perspective to see what freedom does for us. (I can take a bit of that apple[4]) It draws us deeper into sin. So, if we are to have any chance at salvation, God must be in control… God, not us, is the author of salvation. The only safe kind of freedom we find comes from us willingly becoming a servant of Christ.

An analogy

One analogy that attempts to explain this imagines the world as one giant supermarket—think of one of the larger stores in Mt. Airy or Christiansburg. We’re all inside shopping and are freed to pick the items that we can reach and place them into our carts. Some of these items are good for us like spinach and celery. We are also able to pick up things that aren’t so good like highly processed foods loaded with sugars and fats. But God is with us and guides us and, when we’re not looking, adds things to our cart from up on the top shelves, where we can’t reach, like salvation. We think we’re in control, but are we really?[5]

We Presbyterians have often been characterized as believing in an elitist form of predestination. I believe this is generally because most people perceive this doctrine on the same level as Frank in the comic strip. They see predestination as fate, as a crutch. If I am predestined to be saved, I don’t have to worry about anything and if I am not predestined, then I cannot do anything to change my fate anyway… This maybe how the average person understands this doctrine, but it’s not totally correct.

Our call to share God’s word of comfort to everyone

Our Confessions challenge such thinking as foolish. We are to teach everyone God’s word in the hope that they might repent.[6] This is part of our calling as a Christian. The doctrine of predestination is a doctrine of comfort for those who are saved, yet still suffer. It is not a doctrine designed to lead people to Christ. To perceive predestination only within salvation is to misunderstand it.

Predestination in Scripture

Before I go too far, I would like to clear up one basic misunderstanding concerning predestination. This is not only a “Presbyterian” doctrine, regardless of what the followers of Wesley might say. The concept was clearly presented by Augustine in the early church. His writings influenced both Calvin and Luther, but all three were deeply inspired by Scripture. Paul writes that we have been “chosen before the foundations of the world”, and that “from the beginning, God has chosen us to be saved.”[7] In the Old Testament, the Lord tells Jeremiah God knew him in his mother’s womb.[8]

Mystery

I do not believe we can have a theology which takes sin and the power and providence of God seriously without having a doctrine of election. However, this is a part of the counsel of God. We will never fully understand it. As with much with God, it’s a mystery.[9] But it’s also a hopeful concept firmly grounded in our belief that God works in the world to bring things around for the best.  

A simplified view of salvation

At the risk of over simplifying, I will summarize our theology into four basic parts: First, we are sinners. Paul makes an extended effort in Romans to emphasize this.[10] Second, God still loves us as shown in the life of Jesus. Third, God’s Spirit gives us the power to respond to this love and frees us from our bondage to sin. And finally, we respond to God’s love with praise and worship, as we dedicate our lives to God.

If you followed this, you see that our salvation is God’s doing. Once we accept God’s love, once we accept Jesus as Lord, we then respond by working to bring God further glory within our lives. For a Christian, our work and ethics grows out of our response to God. They are not an attempt to earn God’s favor, for God has already freely loved us. Predestination then, is not something terrible. Instead, it is a comforting mystery. We know God is working things out for the best.  

What do we make of our suffering?

Paul ties predestination with human suffering and misery. Paul does not diminish the suffering which Christians and all humanity experience in life. We suffer from illness and accidents, from broken hearts and back-stabbing friends, and from other people prejudices and our own missed opportunities. Life can be painful, and Paul does not deny it. Instead, he points out that all of creation is longing for the fulfillment of God’s promise. Creation, which was cursed along with Adam, Eve and the snake, longs for the new day when decay will be no more.[11]

Our hope

All creation and humanity share in the hope. We share together in their quest for a better world, one we cannot conceive but trust that the pain known here will be removed.[12] But we are in a transition period in which sin and hurt still prevail… To comfort us in the interim, God’s Spirit is present. Paul even writes that we cannot pray properly, so the Spirit intercedes on our behalf. Think of this: God even helps us pray, which is kind of like God dropping goodies into our grocery basket!

When you think of predestination, don’t be concerned with loss of freedom. Instead, focus on God’s kingdom and how we glorify God in our lives.[13] We must understand what God has done in our lives; knowing that even when things seem messed up, God is there beside us; and that the future belongs to God, and it will be glorious.

Comfort and Assurance

There are two basic things which come out of our theology. First is a comfort God’s providence. We know that God is in control, and we trust in God’s judgment. We do not have to worry and work ourselves to death trying to prove to God, and to others, that we are good… And once we understand that our salvation is grounded in God as revealed in Jesus Christ, we are freed to praise and worship God out of gratitude rather than fear. And we can reach out and love and serve others, not because we need the extra brownie points to get into heaven, but because God loved us first and has given us the capacity to love others.

Romans 8 teaches us to trust God

What can we take from this passage? If we are in God’s hands, we’re going to be okay, regardless. God has the future under control. Don’t worry about it; instead, accept this gift of grace and strive to live a life pleasing to God, knowing that the Almighty has got your backside covered.  Yes, there will still be suffering, but that, too, one day, will come to an end. Until then, glorify and enjoy God and that which God has given. 

Conclusion

Yes, predestination is a Presbyterian doctrine. But it is not the cornerstone of our beliefs. Instead, our theology is built upon a belief in an all-powerful and loving God who is in control of the world and of our future. God created us and through Jesus Christ, promises us new life. Only such a God can save us. To God be the glory!  Amen.  

Mia on a walk (isn’t that a happy face)

[1] Andrew Purves and Charles Partee, Encountering God: Christian Faith in Turbulent Time (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2000), 

[2] John 15:16.

[3] For a biography of Augustine, see Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967).  Much of the information about Augustine’s life I refreshed my memory with his entry in The Westminster Dictionary of Church History, Jerald C. Brauer, editor (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1971), 72-74.

[4] Tradition holds that fruit that Eve ate in Genesis 3:6 is an apple. The Scriptures doesn’t identity the type of fruit.

[5] Partee and Purvis, 110.

[6] See Presbyterian Church USA, Book of Confession, Second Helvetic Confession, 5.057.

[7] Ephesians 1:4; 2 Thessalonians 2:13

[8] Jeremiah 1:5

[9] Presbyterian Church USA, Book of Confessions, Westminster Confession of Faith, 6.021.

[10] Paul uses the first five chapters in Romans to build the case of our sinfulness.

[11] Genesis 3:14–19

[12] Revelation 21:1-4.

[13] Presbyterian Church USA, Book of Confession, Westminster Shorter Catechism, 7.001.

4 thoughts on “Romans 8: Election and Augustine”

  1. This is an excellent message, Jeff, and I thank you for giving me a clearer understanding of the term “predestination”. I will have to share this with others.

    Reply

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