On this day in 354 AD, one of the most influential men in the history of the church was born. St. Augustine contributed much to the church and shaped Christian theology like no one since the time of the the apostles. I feel it fitting today to reflect on this theological giant’s greatest work.
In one of the most influential works on Christendom, The Confessions of Saint Augustine, the author seeks to demonstrate two primary points that perfectly coincide with one another. Firstly, man is inherently sinful. Secondly, God is entirely glorious. These points could in fact be seen as one overarching theme expressed in two ways. Throughout The Confessions, Augustine autobiographically juxtaposes man’s sin against God’s holiness and glory.
The very construct of the work gives heed to this two-fold point. Augustine structures his Confessions as a long conversation with God. The style is very humble, as Augustine is aware of his sin from boyhood and even takes great effort to expose his sin as an infant, which he could not recall. Instead of covering up his sin in ways many of us tend to do, Augustine goes to great lengths to bring his sin into the light. This is because of his high view of God and his glory. He frequently uses language such as, “Listen to me, O God” and “Hear me, O God.” His appeal to God’s majesty and glory throughout the book demonstrates his recognition of his unworthiness to even approach God in this conversational manner. Augustine clearly demonstrated his understanding of God as being supremely glorious and gracious. The observation could be made that Augustine’s low view of man led to his high view of God, and vice-versa.
Another aspect that emphasizes Augustine’s view of man and his view of God is the great length he takes to describe his conversion. For a time, the reader begins to wonder if he will ever get around to describing his conversion. Augustine painstakingly describes his journey from the dark despair of his sin to the glorious point of conversion into the light of God’s glory in Christ. It is quite refreshing to see a detailed account of one’s life in sin, as it reveals a total understanding of where one stands in relation to God. The reader sees the utter hopelessness of man outside of God’s grace. Because of this, and Augustine’s overall attitude toward God, God is displayed in the pages of The Confessions as a beautiful lover who fulfills all of our deepest longings.
An example of similar awareness of sin can be found in Victor Hugo’s classic work, Les Miserables. In this classic, the main character, Jean Valjean was a convicted criminal released on parole. As a felon, it became difficult for Valjean to find any work. He nearly approached the point of starvation when he fell upon the kindness of a priest. This priest took Valjean in, gave him warmth, food, and a place to sleep. This grace was abused by Valjean, though, because during the night he stole some of the precious silver from the church and attempted to escape. Valjean was caught by police and dragged back to the church to be confronted by the priest he had taken advantage of. Rather than having Valjean sent back to prison, the priest showed him mercy by telling the police the silver was a gift. After being confronted with this tremendous act of mercy, Valjean becomes acutely aware of his sin. He is forever changed and is transformed from a criminal who was hardened to the world into a man of mercy seeking to glorify God.
Like Augustine, Valjean’s conversion was due to his realization of his great sin. Augustine’s awareness of his sin is what led to his attractive love and desire for God. The Confessions is an inspiring work that leads all readers to grasp a similar desire for the God who calls even the worst of sinners into the eternally glorious delight of his presence.
Mathew Gilbert is a student at Boyce College (B.A. Biblical and Theological Studies). He is the author of the forthcoming book Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God (CrossBooks). Mathew lives in London, KY with his wife, Erica, and their dog, Simba. You can follow him on Twitter @Mat_Gilbert.