The Confessions of Augustine’s Life

Series | Repentance

*Augustine wrote the Confessions when he turned 43, covering the first 33 years of life leading up to his conversion. He intended it to be much more than an autobiography. He explained in his Retractions (written near the end of his life around AD 426/427 to correct or annotate his previous works),

The thirteen books of my Confessions whether they refer to my evil or good, praise the just and good God, and stimulate the heart and mind of man to approach unto Him.

The entire book is a prayer to God, and contains, as we would suspect based on the title, confessions of his sin. But unlike so many modern self-absorbed testimonies, Augustine is not the hero, or even the main character of the story. He portrayed himself as wicked and in need of help. When he found himself doing well, he directed the credit away from himself. For example, he encouraged his friend Darious in a letter (AD 429),

Accept the books of my Confessions which you have asked for. Behold me therein, that you may not praise me above what I am….If there is anything in me that pleases you, praise with me there Him whom I wish to be praised for me–for that One is not myself. Because it is He that made us and not we ourselves; nay, we have destroyed ourselves, but He that made us has remade us.

The Confessions were, therefore, primarily about God, not Augustine.

[It is the very purpose of this book] to give the impression that Augustine himself was a weak and erring sinner, and that all of the good that came into his life was of God…this whole account of his life history…up to its crisis in his conversion is written…not that we may know Augustine, but that we may know God: and it shows us Augustine only that we may see God. (BB. Warfield, Studies in Tertullian and Augustine, vol. 4 in The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1920; reprint, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991) 267).

Not only does Augustine’s depravity unfold, but also his intimate love for God emerges in little phrases like, “God of my heart,” “God my sweetness,” “[God] my late joy.” (Brown, 167) The Confessions narrate the change in Augustine’s heart (Brown, 169), and exhibit the enormous difference between confessions that focus on God and confessions that focus on self.

On the first page of Confessions, he swiftly and succinctly summarized man’s greatest joy, and the reason why men so often fail to experience that joy.

You stir man to take pleasure in praising You, because You have made us for Yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in You. (I. i.)

Men are made by God to worship Him, not out of duty, but for their delight. The Confessions are Augustine’s personal testimony of his restless heart’s journey to that delight in God. It is the story of empty, yet enslaving sinful pleasures that kept him from the greatest pleasure, God. It recounts the increasing misery and unhappiness of his soul with “ferocious honesty” (Brown, 171).

As he grew from infancy into boyhood, he noted:

I myself was meanwhile dying by my alienation from You, and my miserable condition in that respect brought no tear to my eyes. (I. xii.)

He had heard the truth, but he preferred “seductive delights” (I. xv.). He understood that it was part of God’s judgment to let men remain in blindness: “By Your inexhaustible law You assign penal blindness to illicit desires” (I. xviii.). Yet the Lord disciplines those He loves. “There can be no surprise that an unhappy sheep wandering from Your flock and impatient of Your protection was infected by a disgusting sore” (III. iii.).

But he still could not escape his lust. “The single desire that dominated my search for delight was simply to love and to be loved” (II. ii.).

I was in love with love, and hated safety and a path free of snares….I was without any desire for incorruptible nourishment not because I was replete with it, but the emptier I was, the more unappetizing such food became. So my soul was in rotten health. (III. i.)

*

Sin makes a man stupid. Even though the further one moves away from God, the more miserable he becomes, he also becomes less interested in returning to God. God gave Augustine what he (thought he) wanted in order to make him more miserable.

I aspired to honors, money, marriage, and You laughed at me. I those ambitions I suffered the bitterest difficulties; that was by Your mercy–so much the greater in that You gave me the less occasion to find sweet pleasure in what was not You. (VI. vi.)

I was full of my punishment, but I shed no tears of penitence. (VII. xx.)

God was systematically showing him what sin really looks like.

You took me up from behind my own back where I had placed myself because I did not wish to observe myself, and You set me before my face so that I should see how vile I was, how twisted and filthy, covered in sores and ulcers. And I looked and was appalled, but there was no way of escaping myself. If I and You once again placed me in front of myself; You thrust me before my own eyes so that I should discover my iniquity and hate it. I had known it, but deceived myself, refused to admit it, and pushed it out of my mind. (VIII. vii.)

*He was a slave to his sin until God delivered him in Milan. At the end of August, 386, he and a small group of friends hosted a Christian man, Ponticanus, who told Augustine and his friend Alypius about the monks in Egypt and of their founder, Saint Anthony. While Augustine listened, his heart burned with guilt and he withdrew into a garden beside the house. The following is one of the most memorable testimonies in church history.

I threw myself down somehow under a certain fig tree, and let my tears flow freely. Rivers streamed from my eyes, a sacrifice acceptable to You, and (though not in these words, yet in this sense) I repeatedly said to You: ‘How long, O Lord? How long, Lord, will You be angry to the uttermost? Do not be mindful of our old iniquities.’ For I felt my past to have a grip on me. It uttered wretched cries: ‘How long, how long is it to be?’ ‘Tomorrow, tomorrow.’ ‘Why not now? Why not an end to my impure life in this very hour?’

As I was saying this and weeping in the bitter agony of my heart, suddenly I heard a voice from the nearby house chanting as if it might be a boy or a girl (I do not know which), saying and repeating over and over again, (Tolle lege, tolle lege) ‘Pick up and read, pick up and read.’ At once my countenance changed, and I began to think intently whether there might be some sort of children’s game in which such a chant is used. But I could not remember having heard of one. I checked the flood of tears and stood up. I interpreted it solely as a divine command to me to open the book and read the first chapter I might find….So I hurried back to the place where Alypius was sitting. There I had put down the book of the apostle when I got up. I seized it, opened it and in silence read the first passage on which my eyes lit: ‘Not in riots and drunken parties, not in eroticism and indecencies, not in strife and rivalry, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh in its lusts’ (Romans 13:13-14).

I neither wished nor needed to read further. At once, with the last words of this sentence, it was as if a light of relief from all anxiety flooded into my heart. All the shadows of doubt were dispelled. (VIII. xii.)

God can even use the “bulls’-eye” approach to Scripture reading. God granted him repentance and faith brought peace to his previously restless heart.

You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness. You were radiant and resplendent, You put to flight my blindness. You were fragrant, and I drew in my breath and now pant after You. I tasted you, and I feel but hunger and thirst for You. You touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is Yours. (X. xxvi.)

A Biographical Jet Tour of Augustine

Series | Repentance

Augustine’s testimony is typical. He was born, lived in sin until God saved him at age 32, soon after was called to the ministry, and shepherded the same flock until he died. That said, he was no ordinary sinner, nor was he an ordinary pastor. The following provides a jet tour of his 75 years. As is the case for every Christian, God’s work in his life through people and providence is a cause for praising God’s grace.

*The Roman Empire, c. AD 395

The Chronology of Augustine’s Life

354 – Thagaste

Augustine was born November 13, 354, in Thagaste, a small city in northern Africa. His father, Patricius, was a poor, unbelieving farmer, though his mother, Monica, was a devoted Christian in the Catholic church (which was the only orthodox church). Augustine was 16 when his father professed faith; he died a year later. Augustine later lamented that his father

did not care what character before You I was developing, or how chaste I was so long as I possessed a cultured tongue–though my culture really meant a desert uncultivated by You, God. (Confessions, II. iii.)

366 – Madera

From 366 to 369, between the ages of 11 and 15, Augustine went to school in Madera, about 20 miles from Thagaste. His father desired that his son to have the best education possible; education was the only way out of poverty for a young man like Augustine. He was “acutely anxious to be accepted, to compete successfully, to avoid being shamed, terrified of the humiliation of being beaten at school” (Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo, 35). After those three years, he spent a year at home (370) before leaving for additional schooling.

371 – Carthage

Carthage was the big city. Boys from small towns all over northern Africa came to study, and to play, in Carthage. Augustine came to Carthage as a 17 year-old full of lust.

I went to Carthage, where I found myself in the midst of a hissing cauldron of lust….My real need was for You, my God, who are the food of the soul. I was not aware of this hunger. (from his Confessions, quoted in Piper, 47)

Augustine discovered the theatre in Carthage, and wrote “it was a world ‘full of reflections of my own unhappiness, fuel to my raging fire'” (Brown, 39). His only shame was that he wasn’t as bad as his friends.

I went on my way headlong with such blindness that among my peer group I was ashamed not to be equally guilty of shameful behavior when I heard them boasting of their sexual exploits….I went deeper into vice to avoid being despised, and when there was no act by admitting to which I could rival my depraved companions, I used to pretend I had done things I had not done at all, so that my innocence should not lead my companions to scorn my lack of courage, and lest my chastity be taken as a mark of inferiority. (Confessions, II. iii.)

He took a concubine, who we might call a live-in girlfriend, or more palatably, a mistress, and lived with her for 15 years. It was socially acceptable but never acceptable to his mother. In five million words of published works, and even though she bore him his only son, Adeodatus, he never mentions her name.

Augustine was a slave to the praise of men and the love of women. For all his external success and advancement, dissatisfaction grew within him.

373 – Thagaste/Carthage

He went home to Thagaste for a couple years to teach grammar, then returned to Carthage for nine years (374-383) to teach rhetoric. During this time Augustine became part of a religious cult, the Manichaees. Along with other heretical beliefs, these followers of Mani were dualists, teaching an eternal battle between the good spirit and the evil flesh. This temporarily soothed Augustine’s guilty conscience, because Manichaeism claimed that sin wasn’t really the fault of a person, it was the fault of the person’s body. Manichaeism was so dishonorable that Augustine’s mother didn’t even let him back in the house.

Ironically, he grew tired of the apathetic, out of control, rebellious students in Carthage.

383 – Rome

He moved to Rome when he was 29, believing that he would find better students there. He did not. The students often skipped out on the teacher before the final class when their tuition was due.

384 – Milan

Desperate to get away, burnt out by pathetic students and the politics of Rome, he moved to Milan. Most significantly in Milan he met the bishop Ambrose. Augustine enjoyed Ambrose’s teaching style as well as his explanation of parts of the Bible Augustine had misunderstood. Now 30 years old, Augustine realized many of his previous objections to Christianity were based on untrue things.

While living in Milan, his mother arranged a wife for him. Marriage would make Augustine proper in her eyes. In his eyes, it was merely a way to advance his career. He sent his concubine back to Africa though he said, “this was a blow which crushed my heart to bleeding. I loved her dearly” (quoted in Brown, 88). He never married and took another mistress. He was unwilling to let loose of, and unable to escape, his lusts.

That is until 386. His conversion deserves more attention later, but after getting saved, Augustine returned to Thagaste in 388. His mom died in 387, and soon after, his son died.

391 – Hippo (Regius)

Augustine aspired to start an monastery now that he was a Christian. Hippo was a fairly large city, and more importantly, the church already had a bishop, so Augustine figured he would be free from broad, public, ministry responsibility. Much like John Calvin, however, others soon pressed him into the role of assistant bishop (396), and five years later he became the primary bishop. Augustine served the church in Hippo for almost 40 years until his death in 430.

For a number of years he spent his mornings arbitrating legal cases. I can’t imagine how much I would hate that; Augustine hated it too.

Augustine would visit jails to protect prisoners from ill-treatment; he would intervene, tactfully, but firmly, to save criminals from judicial torture and execution; above all, he was expected to keep peace within his ‘family’ by arbitrating in their lawsuits. … Augustine would listen for hours while families of farmers argued passionately about every detail of their father’s will. (Brown, 195, 226)

He spent much time writing against the Manichaean heresy, and during the last few years of his life, he debated Pelagius over the issue of man’s depravity and the place of God’s grace in salvation. Augustine himself listed over eighty heresies he had fought against (Brown, 35-56).

Possidius, a friend of Augustine, wrote about him as a “man who ate sparingly, worked tirelessly, despised gossip, shunned the temptations of the flesh, and exercised prudence in the financial stewardship of his see” (“Augustine,” Wikepedia, accessed January 3, 2009.)

Based on the frequency and tone of his references to Monica, I personally tend to think he was a bit of a momma’s boy. I also suspect that after salvation he swung a little too far toward the “fasting” side and missed out on the “feasting” side of enjoying God’s gifts to His people. Yet I have come to love Augustine as a tenacious pastor and a prolific author, who wielded a worldview always ready to magnify God, and who had remarkably great optimism regarding God’s work in and through the church. He was constantly trying to resolve tensions that were within himself, learning and making progress till his death.

In [Augustine] we discover heart and mind married in an intimate union where deep, thoughtful theology, rooted in Scripture and never afraid of condemning error, nonetheless burns and sings with a spiritual vibrancy that makes most modern piety seem pale and sickly by contrast. (Needham, 43)

But the reason I find him so compelling, the reason I think God graciously chose to use him as an instrument to change the world, is because he saw sin for what it really is. He loathed his sin and lauded God’s grace.

Portrait of a World-Changer

Series | Repentance

Augustine Sandro Botticelli’s first major fresco commissioned in 1480: Saint Augustine

Augustine of Hippo may be the most important man in church history. German historian, Adolf Harnack, called him the greatest man “between Paul the apostle and Luther the Reformer, the Christian church has possessed” (quoted in Piper, The Legacy of Sovereign Joy, 24).1 Of course, Martin Luther was an Augustinian monk for many years, and my personal hero, John Calvin, quoted Augustine no less than 342 times in the fifth and final edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion. B.B. Warfield summarized Augustine’s impact as follows:

His direct work as a reformer of Church life was done in a corner, and its results were immediately swept away by the flood of the Vandal invasion…[but] it was through his voluminous writings, by which his wider influence was excited, that he entered both the church and the world as a revolutionary force, and not merely created an epoch in the history of the Church, but has determined the course of its history in the West up to the present day. (quoted in Piper, 24-25)

We owe much of our thinking and theology to Augustine, in particular, “our developed anthropology and soteriology, [and] our understanding of the Bible’s teaching on the relations between human sin and divine grace” (Nick Needham, “Augustine of Hippo: The Relevance of His Life and Thought Today”, SBJT 12/2 SUMMER 2008, 39). We stand downstream in the torrent of his teaching on original sin and the sovereignty of God.

There are a few reasons, however, that understanding his life and thought is difficult for us. First, Augustine lived from AD 354-430, so we are removed almost 1600 years from his culture, language, and experience.

Not only is the time gap difficult to jump, but also the mountain of his writings makes for a grueling climb. Few can claim to have read everything written by him, and none can claim to have read everything written about him. There are more than five million words in his recorded works (especially remarkable considering he had no electricity, let alone a computer). There are almost 600 words in this post, so it would take over 8,333 posts pasted together to reach five million words. Benedict Groeschel, a Catholic historian, wrote an introduction to Augustine’s life and said,

I felt like a man beginning to write a guidebook of the Swiss Alps….After forty years I can still meditate on one book of the Confessions…during a week-long retreat and come back feeling frustrated that there is still so much more gold to mind in those few pages. I, for one, know that I shall never in this life escape from the Augustinian Alps. (quoted in Piper, 45).

The other difficulty is that, among those five million words, we find numerous contradictions, including some teachings that we would say are clearly unbiblical. I hate, for example, Augustine’s allegorical interpretation of numerous Old Testament passages (his approach to Genesis narrative is atrocious). Worse than his hermeneutic, Augustine seems to have attributed special, or sadly, even saving power to baptism. We do not agree with him here at all.

But for all that, I am convinced, now more than ever, that we need Augustine for our souls and for our churches, which in turn would change our world. I’ll explain why I think he’s so helpful and try to make my case as we follow two lines of thought in the following posts: the chronology of his life and the confessions of his life.


  1. A free PDF download of this book is available here. The book also includes chapters on Luther and Calvin. It is currently #8 on my list of books that influenced me the most. The original manuscript and audio of Piper’s biography on Augustine is available here.

Buy Biography

Good afternoon blogreaders! I haven’t much time to dilly-dally around writing a blog, but since Mo and I are off to the elders’ retreat tomorrow through Friday, I thought I’d get at least one in before departure.

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably been to the one28 home page. And if you’ve been to the one28 home page, you’ve probably noticed that the 05SR Session 2 mp3 on Sola Scriptura/William Tyndale is uploaded for your downloading pleasure. Of course, if you were in big church this morning you also heard that sermon live and in person – maybe for the second time.

But whether you’ve been to the one28 page or downloaded the mp3 or heard my message in big church today or not, the suggestion I’m about ready to make is still for you.

*You should buy the book, God’s Outlaw, by Brian Edwards, a biography of William Tyndale. While I don’t necessarily love history, I had trouble putting this book down. Sure, there were parts that I had to sludge through, but most of it was simply captivating. Here is an excerpt from the back cover:

God’s Outlaw has every ingredient of a thrilling story – a king, a cardinal, secret agents, a betrayer and a fugitive.

William Tyndale lived in the colourful and cruel days of Henry VIII, when men were burned, racked and maimed for lesser crimes than that of smuggling the Bible into England. When Tyndale set out to provide the first printed New Testament in English he was forced to do so in defiance of the king, the pope and almost every person in authority. Compelled to flee from his homeland, he continued with his work of translating the Scriptures whilst slipping from city to city in Germany, Holland and Belgium in an attempt to avoid the agents who were sent from England to arrest him. His story is one of poverty, danger and ceaseless labor.

This fugitive and outlaw gave the English-speaking people their most priceless heritage: the Scriptures in their mother tongue.

And here’s the thing: it’s all true! Tyndale was a stud. By God’s grace, he was the Reformation in England. He has moved up the ladder in my own mind due to his indefatigable effort in the face of ridiculous odds. Get this book, read it, and imitate Tyndale in his love for and submission to the authority of Scripture.