Augustine on faith, works, grace, free will and eternal life
Many Protestants and “Bible only” Christians accuse Catholics of believing in salvation by works and insist that Scripture teaches it is by faith alone. This, of course, is a false charge originating from their misunderstanding and/or ignorance of Catholic teaching. Catholics believe we are saved by grace and do reject salvation by faith alone. We look at what Augustine wrote about faith, works, grace and salvation in A Treatise on Grace and Free Will Chapter 18 to 21 (English translation from Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Series I, Vol. 5):
Unintelligent persons, however, with regard to the apostle’s statement: “We conclude that a man is justified by faith without the works of the law,” [Romans 3:28] have thought him to mean that faith suffices to a man, even if he lead a bad life, and has no good works. Impossible is it that such a character should be deemed “a vessel of election” by the apostle, who, after declaring that “in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth anything, nor uncircumcision,” [Galatians 5:6] adds at once, “but faith which worketh by love.” It is such faith which severs God’s faithful from unclean demons,-for even these “believe and tremble,” [James 2:19] as the Apostle James says; but they do not do well. Therefore they possess not the faith by which the just man lives,-the faith which works by love in such wise, that God recompenses it according to its works with eternal life. But inasmuch as we have even our good works from God, from whom likewise comes our faith and our love, therefore the self same great teacher of the Gentiles [apostle Paul] has designated “eternal life” itself as His gracious “gift.” [Romans 6:23]
According to Augustine faith alone does not save – it must be accompanied works of love and that’s what the Catholic Church teaches. Note that some Protestants and “Bible only” Christians would agree with what Augustine wrote. Remember while they still declare salvation is by faith alone they also say “it is not by faith that is alone” or true faith must be accompanied by works. Strictly speaking they no longer adhere to the principle of by faith alone salvation. Augustine also stated our good works are from God who recompenses our works with eternal life and eternal life is a gift from Him. These also agree with what the Catholic Church teaches. Augustine was aware that some will have problem to understand why eternal life is the outcome of our works as well as a free gift (or grace) from God.
And hence there arises no small question, which must be solved by the Lord’s gift. If eternal life is rendered to good works, as the Scripture most openly declares: “Then He shall reward every man according to his works:” [Matthew 16:27] how can eternal life be a matter of grace, seeing that grace is not rendered to works, but is given gratuitously, as the apostle himself tells us: “To him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt;” [Romans 4:4] and again: “There is a remnant saved according to the election of grace;” with these words immediately subjoined: “And if of grace, then is it no more of works; otherwise grace is no more grace”? [Romans 11:5, 6] How, then, is eternal life by grace, when it is received from works? Does the apostle perchance not say that eternal life is a grace? Nay, he has so called it, with a clearness which none can possibly gainsay. It requires no acute intellect, but only an attentive reader, to discover this. For after saying, “The wages of sin is death,” he at once added, “The grace of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” [Romans 6:23]
This question, then, seems to me to be by no means capable of solution, unless we understand that even those good works of ours, which are recompensed with eternal life, belong to the grace of God, because of what is said by the Lord Jesus: “Without me ye can do nothing.” [John 15:5] And the apostle himself, after saying, “By grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast;” [Ephesians 2:8, 9] saw, of course, the possibility that men would think from this statement that good works are not necessary to those who believe, but that faith alone suffices for them; and again, the possibility of men’s boasting of their good works, as if they were of themselves capable of performing them. To meet, therefore, these opinions on both sides, he immediately added, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” [Ephesians 2:10] What is the purport of his saying, “Not of works, lest any man should boast,” while commending the grace of God? And then why does he afterwards, when giving a reason for using such words, say, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works”? Why, therefore, does it run, “Not of works, lest any man should boast”? Now, hear and understand. “Not of works” is spoken of the works which you suppose have their origin in yourself alone; but you have to think of works for which God has moulded (that is, has formed and created) you. For of these he says, “We are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works.” Now he does not here speak of that creation which made us human beings, but of that in reference to which one said who was already in fullmanhood, “Create in me a clean heart, O God;” [Psalms 51:10] concerning which also the apostle says, “Therefore, if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. And all things are of God.” [2 Corinthians 5:17, 18] We are framed, therefore, that is, formed and created, “in the good works which” we have not ourselves prepared, but “God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” It follows, then, dearly beloved, beyond all doubt, that as your good life is nothing else than God’s grace, so also the eternal life which is the recompense of a good life is the grace of God; moreover it is given gratuitously, even as that is given gratuitously to which it is given. But that to which it is given is solely and simply grace; this therefore is also that which is given to it, because it is its reward;-grace is for grace, as if remuneration for righteousness; in order that it may be true, because it is true, that God “shall reward every man according to his works.” [Matthew 16:27, Psalms 62:12, Revelation 22:12]
Augustine used the phrase “grace for grace” to explain how good works, which he considered to belong to grace of God, produces another grace, i.e. eternal life. We may compare his statement to Catechism of the Catholic Church # 2027. Furthermore he stated that while God works through us to do good works He does not take away our free will.
Perhaps you ask whether we ever read in the Sacred Scriptures of “grace for grace.” Well you possess the Gospel according to John, which is perfectly clear in its very great light. Here John the Baptist says of Christ: “Of His fullness have we all received, even grace for grace.” [John 1:16] So that out of His fullness we have received, according to our humble measure, our particles of ability as it were for leading good lives-“according as God hath dealt to every man his measure of faith;” [Romans 12:3] because “every man hath his proper gift of God; one after this manner, and another after that.” [1 Corinthians 7:7] And this is grace. But, over and above this, we shall also receive “grace for grace,” when we shall have awarded to us eternal life, of which the apostle said: “The grace of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord,” [Romans 6:23] having just said that “the wages of sin is death.” Deservedly did he call it “wages,” because everlasting death is awarded as its proper due to diabolical service. Now, when it was in his power to say, and rightly to say: “But the wages of righteousness is eternal life,” he yet preferred to say: “The grace of God is eternal life;” in order that we may hence understand that God does not, for any merits of our own, but from His own divine compassion, prolong our existence to everlasting life. Even as the Psalmist says to his soul, “Who crowneth thee with mercy and compassion.” [Psalms 103:4] Well, now, is not a crown given as the reward of good deeds? It is, however, only because He works good works in good men, of whom it is said, “It is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure,” [Philippians 2:13] that the Psalm has it, as just now quoted: “He crowneth thee with mercy and compassion,” since it is through His mercy that we perform the good deeds to which the crown is awarded. It is not, however, to be for a moment supposed, because he said, “It is God that worketh in you both to will and to do of his own good pleasure,” that free will is taken away. If this, indeed, had been his meaning, he would not have said just before, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” [Philippians 2:12] For when the command is given “to work,” their free will is addressed; and when it is added, “with fear and trembling,” they are warned against boasting of their good deeds as if they were their own, by attributing to themselves the performance of anything good. It is pretty much as if the apostle had this question put to him: “Why did you use the phrase, ‘with fear and trembling’?” And as if he answered the inquiry of his examiners by telling them, “For it is God which worketh in you.” Because if you fear and tremble, you do not boast of your good works-as if they were your own, since it is God who works within you.
My related post: My second post on: Was Augustine a monergist?