St Augustine on 1 John 3:7-10
Posted by Dim Bulb on December 3, 2016
This post is compiled from two sermons. Paragraphs 9-12 of the first homily deal with 1 John 3:7-8. Paragraphs 1-7 of the second homily deal with 1 Jn 3:9-10.
9. “Little children, let no man seduce you. He that doeth righteousness is righteous, as He is righteous.” What, on hearing that we are “righteous as He is righteous,” are we to think ourselves equal with God? Ye must know what means that “as:” thus he said a while ago, “Purifieth himself even as He is pure.” Then is our purity like and equal to the purity of God, and our righteousness to God’s righteousness? Who can say this? But the word “as,” is not always wont to be used in the sense of equality. As, for example, if, having seen this large church, a person should wish to build a smaller church, but with the same relative dimensions: as, for example, if this be one measure in width and two measures in length, he too should build his church one measure in width and two measures in length: in that case one sees that he has built it “as” this is built. But this church has, say, a hundred cubits in length, the other thirty: it is at once “as” this, and yet unequal. Ye see that this “as” is not always referred to parity and equality. For example, see what a difference there is between the face of a man and its image from a mirror: there is a face in the image, a face in the body: the image exists in imitation, the body in reality. And what do we say? Why, “as” there are eyes here, so also there; “as” ears here, so ears also there. The thing is different, but the “as” is said of the resemblance. Well then, we also have in us the image of God; but not that which the Son equal with the Father hath: yet except we also, according to our measure, were “as” He, we should in no respect be said to be like Him. “He purifieth us,” then, “even as He is pure:” but He is pure from eternity, we pure by faith. We are “righteous even as He is righteous;” but He is so in His immutable perpetuity, we righteous by believing on One we do not see, that so we may one day see Him. Even when our righteousness shall be perfect, when we shall be equal to the angels, not even then shall it be equalled with Him. How far then is it from Him now, when not even then it shall be equal!
10. “He that doeth sin, is of the devil, because the devil sinneth from the beginning.” “Is of the devil:” ye know what he means: by imitating the devil. For the devil made no man, begat no man, created no man: but whoso imitates the devil, that person, as if begotten of him, becomes a child of the devil; by imitating him, not literally by being begotten of him. In what sense art thou a child of Abraham? not that Abraham begat thee? In the same sense as the Jews, the children of Abraham? not imitating the faith of Abraham, are become children of the devil: of the flesh of Abraham they were begotten, and the faith of Abraham they have not imitated. If then those who were thence begotten were put out of the inheritance, because they did not imitate, thou, who art not begotten of him, art made a child, and in this way shall be a child of him by imitating him. And if thou imitate the devil, in such wise as he became proud and impious against God, thou wilt be a child of the devil: by imitating, not that he created thee or begat thee.
11. “Unto this end was the Son of God manifested.” Now then, brethren, mark! All sinners are begotten of the devil, as sinners. Adam was made by God: but when he consented to the devil, he was begotten of the devil; and he begat all men such as he was himself. With lust itself we were born; even before we add our sins, from that condemnation we have our birth. For if we are born without any sin, wherefore this running with infants to baptism that they may be released? Then mark well, brethren, the two birth-stocks, Adam and Christ: two men are; but one of them, a man that is man; the other, a Man that is God. By the man that is man we are sinners; by the Man that is God we are justified. That birth hath cast down unto death; this birth hath raised up unto life: that birth brings with it sin; this birth setteth free from sin. For to this end came Christ as Man, to undo the sins of men. “Unto this end was the Son of God manifested, that He may undo the works of the devil.”
12. The rest I commend to your thoughts, my beloved, that I may not burden you. For the question we labor to solve is even this—that we call ourselves sinners: for if any man shall say that he is without sin, he is a liar. And in the Epistle of this same John we have found it written, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves.”1 For ye should remember what went before: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” And yet, on the other hand, in what follows thou art told, “He that is begotten of God sinneth not: he that doeth sin hath not seen Him, neither known Him.—Every one that doeth sin is of the devil:” sin is not of God: this affrights us again. In what sense are we begotten of God, and in what sense do we confess ourselves sinners? Shall we say, because we are not begotten of God? And what do these Sacraments in regard to infants? What hath John said? “He that is begotten of God, sinneth not.” And yet again the same John hath said, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us!” A great question it is, and an embarrassing one; and may I have made you intent upon having it solved, my beloved. Tomorrow, in the name of the Lord, what He will give, we will discourse thereof. Here ends the first sermon.
1. Hear intently, I do beseech you, because it is no small matter that we have to cope withal: and I doubt not, because ye were intent upon it yesterday, that ye have with even greater intentness of purpose come together to-day. For it is no slight question, how he saith in this Epistle, “Whosoever is born of God, sinneth not,” and how in the same Epistle he hath said above, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” What shall the man do, who is pressed by both sayings out of the same Epistle? If he shall confess himself a sinner, he fears lest it be said to him, Then art thou not born of God; because it is written, “Whosoever is born of God, sinneth not.” But if he shall say that he is just and that he hath no sin, he receives on the other side a blow from the same Epistle, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” Placed then as he is in the midst, what he can say and what confess, or what profess, he cannot find. To profess himself to be without sin, is full of peril; and not only full of peril, but also full of error: “We deceive ourselves,” saith he, “and the truth is not in us, if we say that we have no sin.” But oh that thou hadst none, and saidst this! for then wouldest thou say truly, and in uttering the truth wouldest have not so much as a vestige of wrong to be afraid of. But, that thou doest ill if thou say so, is because it is a lie that thou sayest. “The truth,” saith he, “is not in us, if we say that we have no sin.” He saith not, “Have not had;” lest haply it should seem to be spoken of the past life. For the man here hath had sins: but from the time that he was born of God, he has begun not to have sins. If it were so, there would be no question to embarrass us. For we should say, We have been sinners, but now we are justified: we have had sin, but now we have none. He saith not this: but what saith he? “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” And then after a while he says on the other hand, “Whosoever is born of God sinneth not.” Was John himself not born of God? If John was not born of God, John, of whom ye have heard that he lay in the Lord’s bosom; does any man dare engage for himself that in him has taken place that regeneration which it was not granted to that man to have, to whom it was granted to lie in the bosom of the Lord? The man whom the Lord loved more than the rest, him alone had He not begotten of the Spirit?
2. Mark now these words. As yet, I am urging it upon you, what straits we are put to, that by putting your minds on the stretch, that is, by your praying for us and for yourselves, God may make enlargement, and give us an outlet: lest some man find in His word an occasion of his own perdition, that word which was preached and put in writing only for healing and salvation. “Every man,” saith he, “that doeth sin, doeth also iniquity.” Lest haply thou make a distinction, “Sin is iniquity.” Lest thou say, A sinner I am, but not a doer of iniquity, “Sin is iniquity. And ye know that to this end was He manifested, that He should take away sin; and there is no sin in Him.” And what doth it profit us, that He came without sin? “Every one that sinneth not, abideth in Him: and every one that sinneth, hath not seen Him, neither known Him. Little children, let no man seduce you. He that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as He is righteous.” This we have already said, that the word “as” is wont to be used of a certain resemblance, not of equality. “He that doeth sin is of the devil, because the devil sinneth from the beginning.” This too we have already said, that the devil created no man, nor begat any, but his imitators are, as it were, born of him. “To this end was the Son of God manifested, that He should undo the works of the devil.” Consequently, to undo (or loose) sins, He that hath no sin. And then follows: “Every one that is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God:” he has drawn the cord tight!—Belike, it is in regard of some one sin that he hath said, “Doth not sin,” not in regard of all sin: that in this that he saith, “Whoso is born of God, doth not sin,” thou mayest understand some one particular sin, which that man who is born of God cannot commit: and such is that sin that, if one commit it, it confirms the rest. What is this sin? To do contrary to the commandment. What is the commandment? “A new commandment give I unto you, that ye love one another.” Mark well! This commandment of Christ is called, “love.” By this love sins are loosed. If this love be not kept, the not holding it is at once a grievous sin, and the root of all sins.
3. Mark well, brethren; we have brought forward somewhat in which, to them that have good understanding, the question is solved. But do we only walk in the way with them that run more swiftly? Those that walk more slowly must not be left behind. Let us turn the matter every way, in such words as we can, in order that it may be brought within reach of all. For I suppose, brethren, that every man is concerned for his own soul, who does not come to Church without cause, who does not seek temporal things in the Church, who does not come here to transact secular business; but comes here in order that he may lay hold upon some eternal thing, promised unto him, whereunto he may attain: he must needs consider how he shall walk in the way, lest he be left behind, lest he go back, lest he go astray, lest by halting he do not attain. Whoever therefore is in earnest, let him be slow, let him be swift, yet let him not leave the way. This then I have said, that in saying, “Whosoever is born of God sinneth not,” it is probable he meant it of some particular sin: for else it will be contrary to that place: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” In this way then the question may be solved. There is a certain sin, which he that is born of God cannot commit; a sin, which not being committed, other sins are loosed, and being committed, other sins are confirmed. What is this sin? To do contrary to the commandment of Christ, contrary to the New Testament. What is the new commandment? “A new commandment give I unto you, that ye love one another.” Whoso doeth contrary to charity and contrary to brotherly love, let him not dare to glory and say that he is born of God: but whoso is in brotherly love, there are certain sins which he cannot commit, and this above all, that he should hate his brother. And how fares it with him concerning his other sins, of which it is said, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us?” Let him hear that which shall set his mind at rest from another place of Scripture; “Charity covereth a multitude of sins.”
4. Charity therefore we commend; charity this Epistle commendeth. The Lord, after His resurrection, what question put He to Peter, but, “Lovest thou me?” And it was not enough to ask it once; a second time also He put none other question, a third time also none other. Although when it came to the third time, Peter, as one who knew not what was the drift of this, was grieved because it seemed as if the Lord did not believe him; nevertheless both a first time and a second, and a third He put this question. Thrice fear denied, thrice love confessed. Behold Peter loveth the Lord. What is he to do for the Lord? For think not that he in the Psalm did not feel himself at a loss what to do: “What shall I render unto the Lord for all the benefits He hath done unto me?” He that said this in the Psalm, marked what great things had been done for him by God; and sought what he should render to God, and could find nothing. For whatever thou wouldest render, from Him didst thou receive it to render. And what did he find to offer in return? That which, as we said, my brethren, he had received from Him, that only found he to offer in return. “I will receive the cup of salvation, and will call upon the name of the Lord.” For who had given him the cup of salvation, but He to whom he wished to offer in return? Now to receive the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the Lord, is to be filled with charity; and so filled, that not only thou shalt not hate thy brother, but shalt be prepared to die for thy brother. This is perfect charity, that thou be prepared to die for thy brother. This the Lord exhibited in Himself, who died for all, praying for them by whom He was crucified, and saying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” But if He alone hath done this, He was not a Master, if He had no disciples. Disciples who came after Him have done this. Men were stoning Stephen, and he knelt down and said, “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.” He loved them that were killing him; since for them also he was dying. Hear also the Apostle Paul: “And I myself,” saith he, “will be spent for your souls.” For he was among those for whom Stephen, when by their hands he was dying, besought forgiveness. This then is perfect charity. If any man shall have so great charity that he is prepared even to die for his brethren, in that man is perfect charity. But as soon as it is born, is it already quite perfect? That it may be made perfect, it is born; when born, it is nourished; when nourished, it is strengthened; when strengthened, it is perfected; when it has come to perfection, what saith it? “To me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. I wished to be dissolved, and to be with Christ; which is far better: nevertheless to abide in the flesh is needful for you.” For their sakes he was willing to live, for whose sakes he was prepared to die.
5. And that ye may know that it is this perfect charity which that man violates not, and against which that man sins not, who is born of God; this is what the Lord saith to Peter; “Peter lovest thou me?” And he answers, “I love.” He saith not, If thou love me, shew kindness to me. For when the Lord was in mortal flesh, He hungered, He thirsted: at that time when He hungered and thirsted, He was taken in as a guest; those who had the means, ministered unto Him of their substance, as we read in the Gospel. Zacchæus entertained Him as his guest: he was saved from his disease by entertaining the Physician. From what disease? The disease of avarice. For he was very rich, and the chief of the publicans. Mark the man made whole from the disease of avarice: “The half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken any thing from any man, I will restore him fourfold.” That he kept the other half, was not to enjoy it, but to pay his debts. Well, he at that time entertained the Physician as his guest, because there was infirmity of the flesh in the Lord, to which men might show this kindness; and this, because it was His will to grant this very thing to them that did Him kind service; for the benefit was to them that did the service, not to Him. For, could He to whom angels ministered require these men’s kindness? Not even His servant Elias, to whom He sent bread and flesh by the ravens upon a certain occasion, had need of this; and yet that a religious widow might be blessed, the servant of God is sent, and he whom God in secret did feed, is fed by the widow. But still, although by the means of these servants of God, those who consider their need get good to themselves, in respect of that reward most manifestly set forth by the Lord in the Gospel: “He that receiveth a righteous man in the name of a righteous man shall receive a righteous man’s reward: and he that receiveth a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet’s reward: and whosoever shall give to drink unto one of these little ones a cup of cold water only in the name of a disciple, verily I say unto you, He shall in no wise lose his reward:” although, then, they that do this, do it to their own good: yet neither could this kind office be done to Him when about to ascend into Heaven. What could Peter, who loved Him, render unto Him? Hear what. “Feed my sheep:” i.e. do for the brethren, that which I have done for thee. I redeemed all with my blood: hesitate not to die for confession of the truth, that the rest may imitate you.
6. But this, as we have said, brethren, is perfect charity. He that is born of God hath it. Mark, my beloved, see what I say. Behold, a man has received the Sacrament of that birth, being baptized; he hath the Sacrament, and a great Sacrament, divine, holy, ineffable. Consider what a Sacrament! To make him a new man by remission of all sins! Nevertheless, let him look well to the heart, whether that be thoroughly done there, which is done in the body; let him see whether he have charity, and then say, I am born of God. If however he have it not, he has indeed the soldier’s mark upon him, but he roams as a deserter. Let him have charity; otherwise let him not say that he is born of God. But he says, I have the Sacrament. Hear the Apostle: “If I know all mysteries, and have all faith, so that I can remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.”
7. This, if ye remember, we gave you to understand in beginning to read this Epistle, that nothing in it is so commended as charity. Even if it seems to speak of various other things, to this it makes its way back, and whatever it says, it will needs bring all to bear upon charity. Let us see whether it does so here. Mark: “Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin.” We ask, what sin? because if thou understand all sin, it will be contrary to that place, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” Then let him say what sin; let him teach us; lest haply I may have rashly said that the sin here is the violation of charity, because he said above, “He that hateth his brother is in darkness, and walketh in darkness, and knoweth not whither he goeth, because the darkness hath blinded his eyes.” But perhaps he has said something in what comes afterwards, and has mentioned charity by name? See that this circuit of words hath this end, hath this issue. “Whosoever is born of God, sinneth not, because His seed remaineth in him.” The “seed” of God, i.e. the word of God: whence the apostle saith, “I have begotten you through the Gospel. And he cannot sin, because he is born of God.” Let him tell us this, let us see in what we cannot sin. “In this are manifested the children of God and the children of the devil. Whosoever is not righteous is not of God, neither he that loveth not his brother.” Aye, now indeed it is manifest of what he speaks: “Neither he that loveth not his brother.” Therefore, love alone puts the difference between the children of God and the children of the devil. Let them all sign themselves with the sign of the cross of Christ; let them all respond, Amen; let all sing Alleluia; let all be baptized, let all come to church, let all build the walls of churches: there is no discerning of the children of God from the children of the devil, but only by charity. They that have charity are born of God: they that have it not, are not born of God. A mighty token, a mighty distinction! Have what thou wilt; if this alone thou have not, it profiteth thee nothing: other things if thou have not, have this, and thou hast fulfilled the law. “For he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law,” saith the apostle: and, “Charity is the fulfilling of the law.” I take this to be the pearl which the merchant man in the Gospel is described to have been seeking, who “found one pearl, and sold all that he had, and bought it.” This is the pearl of price, Charity, without which whatever thou mayest have, profiteth thee nothing: which if alone thou have, it sufficeth thee. Now, with faith thou seest, then with actual beholding thou shalt see. For if we love when we see not, how shall we embrace it when we see! But wherein must we exercise ourselves? In brotherly love. Thou mayest say to me, I have not seen God: canst thou say to me, I have not seen man? Love thy brother. For if thou love thy brother whom thou seest, at the same time thou shalt see God also; because thou shalt see Charity itself, and within dwelleth God.