On January 18, 2017 Dr. James White (Reformed Baptist) and Trent Horn (Roman Catholic) debated the topic of whether a believer can lose his salvation. The debate can be found on YouTube here.
I hope to post at least one other post about Mr. Horn’s usage of Martin Luther, but I would like to devote a few words here to his initial usage of Augustine. This came rather quickly at only 3:38 seconds into his opening remarks. You can view it at this direct link to the timestamp of 23:38. I have listened to the debate once through in its entirety and will be going through it again.
In this post, I would like to make the case that Mr. Horn took a single sentence of Augustine out of the context of the specific Treatise that Augustine wrote late in his life about rebuking those who we would see in the visible church. Augustine, in that same Treatise, would proceed to demonstrate that a person who never returned to the fold in the course of his lifetime was never one of the elect to begin with and was never actually called by God.
This citation is from Chapter 9 of Augustine’s Treatise on Rebuke and Grace, which may be found here. It consists of only 49 “chapters” (each of which is only a paragraph or two). Here is the slide that Mr. Horn used in his presentation:
That pretty much puts the nail in the coffin, right? Augustine clearly said that a “regenerate and justified” person who falls “into an evil life…has lost the grace of God, that he had received.” We who would consider ourselves to hold to the doctrine that a true believer cannot lose his salvation should now have our pens silenced. Would that this were as open as shut as Mr. Horn would like for it to be in his opening remarks. But, as we will see, this is not the case.
Certainly the “easy” way out would be for me to just use the broad context of much of early Christianity’s doctrine of baptism being the “laver of regeneration” (this is even how Augustine refers to it in this very document from which Mr. Horn cites this lone sentence) that washes the person clean of original sin. This gives the grace of God to such a person, according to Catholic theology. Upon falling into sin, this would mean that “he has lost the grace of God” received at his baptism.
But such a broad context would take all of the fun out of reading more of Augustine. I have skimmed much of his Treatise and have fully read up through around Chapter 23. It quickly becomes obvious that Augustine either (a) was slightly imprecise in his statement in Chapter 9, or (b) had something else in mind altogether which is framed in a well thought-out treatise to a friend. After seeing that Augustine did not mean what Mr. Horn wished him to mean, I decided to formulate some of Augustine’s other statements from that treatise into a blog post. In this document that Mr. Horn chose to use for his primary refutation of Reformed Christians for citing Augustine so frequently, it turns out that we can see why Augustine is considered a stalwart forerunner to Reformation thinking.
Before I do that, allow me to make the following initial observation.
Dr. White’s opening statement and assertion was that “God will not fail to save each and every one of His elect people. None shall be lost.” In Mr. Horn’s opening statement, he stated “I challenge my opponent to present a prominent Christian writer who believed the doctrine he’s defending before John Calvin.”
In Chapter 14 of this specific treatise of Augustine which Mr. Horn used, we read the following: “Those, then, are elected, as has often been said, who are called according to the purpose, who also are predestinated and foreknown. If any one of these perishes, God is mistaken; but none of them perishes, because God is not mistaken. If any one of these perish, God is overcome by human sin; but none of them perishes, because God is overcome by nothing.”
Now I will present some further citations from this Treatise. In order to keep this more succinct I will not be quoting full paragraphs but only relevant sentences. Please feel free to interact with anything that Augustine said which you believe may dispute what I’m stating. Of course, all bold is added by me.
Here is the larger context of the quote from Chapter 9 that Mr. Horn used. As you can see, Augustine first places a condition on the person receiving the rebuke that if he “is a child of promise” that God will work that rebuke to fruition as it “depends only upon God.”:
Let, then, the damnable source be rebuked, that from the mortification of rebuke may spring the will of regeneration,–if, indeed, he who is rebuked is a child of promise,–in order that, by the noise of the rebuke sounding and lashing from without, God may by His hidden inspiration work in him from within to will also. If, however, being already regenerate and justified, he relapses of his own will into an evil life, assuredly he cannot say, “I have not received,” because of his own free choice to evil he has lost the grace of God, that he had received. And if, stung with compunction by rebuke, he wholesomely bewails, and returns to similar good works, or even better, certainly here most manifestly appears the advantage of rebuke. But yet for rebuke by the agency of man to avail, whether it be of love or not, depends only upon God.
In Chapter 10, Augustine would assert (as he does continually), that perseverance is only from God and is not from anything in man.
To this, indeed, we are not able to deny, that perseverance in good, progressing even to the end, is also a great gift of God; and that it exists not save it come from Him of whom it is written, “Every best gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights.”
And, regarding Acts 13:48, “Who could be ordained to eternal life save by the gift of perseverance?” Which was a gift given them at their joyful reception of the Gospel.
In Chapter 14, Augustine breaks off into a discussion of the “golden chain of redemption”. Augustine sees that it would be tantamount to calling God a liar due to His being mistaken that one who was called could actually perish. “God is overcome by nothing.”
Of these no one perishes, because all are elected. And they are elected because they were called according to the purpose–the purpose, however, not their own, but God’s
For whoever are elected are without doubt also called; but not whosoever are called are as a consequence elected. Those, then, are elected, as has often been said, who are called according to the purpose, who also are predestinated and foreknown. If any one of these perishes, God is mistaken; but none of them perishes, because God is not mistaken. If any one of these perish, God is overcome by human sin; but none of them perishes, because God is overcome by nothing.
Since Mr. Horn would later bring up the fact that Judas was one of “the chosen”, I will cite Augustine’s brief statement on the way in which Judas was chosen being different from the purpose for which the elect are chosen.
Moreover, they are elected to reign with Christ, not as Judas was elected, to a work for which he was fitted. Because he was chosen by Him who well knew how to make use even of wicked men, so that even by his damnable deed that venerable work, for the sake of which He Himself had come, might be accomplished.
Lest we think that the gift of perseverance (as both Augustine and Horn refer to it) is something that is not eternal and by abandonment could possibly separate one from Christ, we read this in Chapter 15:
And of how stedfast a perseverance even to the end they have received the gift, let them follow on to say: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?…”
In Chapter 23, we read the following, just to reiterate the above:
From Him, therefore, is given also perseverance in good even to the end; for it is not given save (except) to those who shall not perish, since they who do not persevere shall perish.
Up to this point, we might be able to say that Augustine really has not dealt with the Biblical support of the possibility that some can fall away and the admonitions in Scripture that we should remain faithful, forgive others, continue in our doing good, etc… However, in Chapter 16 Augustine does tackle such a scenario and instead of Augustine stating that “these people were truly Christians and they have abandoned the faith – take care lest you do likewise”, he doubles down on the classical Reformed doctrine of the Perseverance of the Saints as expounded by Dr. White in the debate. Let us end the discussion of Augustine’s treatise by looking further into his statements there. I will cite that chapter in full.
Such as these were they who were signified to Timothy, where, when it had been said that Hymenæus and Philetus had subverted the faith of some, it is presently added, “Nevertheless the foundation of God standeth sure, having this seal, The Lord has known them that are His.” The faith of these, which worketh by love, either actually does not fail at all, or, if there are any whose faith fails, it is restored before their life is ended, and the iniquity which had intervened is done away, and perseverance even to the end is allotted to them. But they who are not to persevere, and who shall so fall away from Christian faith and conduct that the end of this life shall find them in that case, beyond all doubt are not to be reckoned in the number of these, even in that season wherein they are living well and piously. For they are not made to differ from that mass of perdition by the foreknowledge and predestination of God, and therefore are not called according to God’s purpose, and thus are not elected; but are called among those of whom it was said, “Many are called,” not among those of whom it was said, “But few are elected.” And yet who can deny that they are elect, since they believe and are baptized, and live according to God? Manifestly, they are called elect by those who are ignorant of what they shall be, but not by Him who knew that they would not have the perseverance which leads the elect forward into the blessed life, and knows that they so stand, as that He has foreknown that they will fall.
Paul stated that Hymenaeus and Philetus’ words were spreading like gangrene and that they have gone astray from the truth in misleading people about the resurrection. Augustine lets us know that at the time of Paul’s writing to Timothy that we don’t know whether their faith did fail or if it was eventually restored. But Augustine makes it clear that if they do not persevere that they can’t be actually reckoned in the number of the called – much less of the elect. They are who we would refer to as “many are called but few are chosen.” Furthermore, those who call them of the elect truly do not know what they shall be – God knows whether He has given them the perseverance in which they walk.
I hope that it has been clear in this brief discussion of only about half of this treatise by Augustine that it should not have been used with the force and importance that Mr. Horn felt it needed. That being said, I do not believe that one could produce a much better rebuttal against using this quote from Augustine better than Augustine did in the same document. The citations of Augustine by various Reformers appears to be quite justified. Context matters, and late in his life Augustine wrote this treatise which gives an excellent presentation of the truths upon which the Reformers would later expound.