Christian living is more than just following God’s will. It’s understanding who you are—a child of God in Christ.
James F. Borgwardt
Monica prayed earnestly for her son. She had raised Augustine in the Christian faith, but he rejected her teaching in his teenage years. He left home for school and took up with a group of boys who loved to brag of their sexual exploits. Soon Augustine was no different than his new friends.
LIVING OUR OLD IDENTITY
His conscience accused him of his immoral lifestyle, but that didn’t stop him. Augustine believed the lie that living a Christian life would destroy all his fun. In his autobiography Confessions, he admitted to this selfish, youthful prayer: “Grant me chastity . . . but not yet.” He figured there was too much “fun” to be had first. Like many people, he gambled that he could get serious about morality later.
He rebelled against all of God’s commands. He recounted when he and his friends once stole pears from an orchard. He was neither hungry nor poor. He didn’t even want the forbidden fruit. So why did he commit the crime? Because he could. The sinful flesh gets a thrill in doing wrong for its own sake.
Augustine was a deep thinker and wanted to find answers to life’s questions. As a young adult, he explored the philosophies of the Manicheans. Compared to the Bible, their teachings seemed more sophisticated and engaging. Their complicated mythology taught, in part, that all human sin comes from outside the human will. This helped to excuse Augustine’s guilt by blaming an outside cause for his sins, especially his sin of living with a woman who wasn’t his wife. Lust was a particularly strong temptation for Augustine, who freely admitted it wasn’t the woman’s companionship that he wanted.
He found a successful career as a teacher, but he did not find peace in his heart. No matter how intelligent he was or how actively he searched for truth and meaning in life, his mind remained clouded and his search frustrating. You could say that Augustine was living in darkness. More accurately, darkness was living in him. Both as a law-breaking youth and as an immoral, yet cultured, young man, Augustine was merely living out his identity: a sinner pursuing his selfish desires.
The apostle Paul described Augustine’s life four centuries earlier when he pointed the Ephesian Christians to the same immoral and empty life they once lived apart from Christ: “So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed” (Ephesians 4:17-19).
Paul used no less than four phrases to underscore the lifeless mindset of the unbeliever: “futility of their thinking,” “darkened in their understanding,” “ignorance,” and “hardening of their hearts.” Those separated from the life of God have the completely wrong view of life and don’t know it. Their deceitful desires promise pleasures, riches, and earthly happiness but lead instead to discontentment and a frustrating emptiness—something Solomon called a “chasing after the wind” (Ecclesiastes 1:17).
SEEING OUT NEW IDENTITY
Augustine’s mother, Monica, continued to pray for her son. She lived just long enough to see how God would answer her prayers.
Augustine moved to Milan to visit the cathedral and learn from Ambrose, the town’s bishop and famously talented preacher. Still a skeptic of Christianity, Augustine had no personal plans to hear the gospel. He planned to grow in his professional skill as a teacher. While the eloquent delivery of Ambrose’s preaching drew Augustine to Milan’s cathedral, the gospel content of Ambrose’s sermons pulled this skeptic all the way to Calvary’s cross. He saw Jesus in the bishop’s messages. He now understood the only way to peace with God. And when God’s Word revealed Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and the Life, it also exposed man-made philosophies for the lies that they were.
The gracious Father welcomed another child home. “This son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (Luke 15:24). Augustine was baptized. He finally knew who he was—a forgiven child of God.
Now that Augustine was at peace with God, the battle lines shifted. His new identity clashed with his old habits. God’s will regarding immorality was clear, but his sexual habits were strong. The conflict wouldn’t be resolved as quickly as a 30-minute sitcom. His mom offered advice. His friends gave examples of saints who supposedly turned from all worldliness. Neither helped much. The one thing that strengthened his new self to conquer his old, sinful habits was the Word of God.
Overwhelmed with this struggle one day, he hurried to his garden, grabbed his Bible, opened to Romans 13:13,14, and read: “Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh.”
LIVING OUR NEW IDENTITY
Christian living is more remembering who we are in Christ than remembering a list of dos and don’ts. Good works are not merely outward. They are not even mostly outward performance. Above all, it’s the new mind-set given to a child of God. As Paul wrote, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2).
Augustine came to understand his new identity and to let his identity guide his actions. In the Word, he found life in Christ and the power to live as one dead to sin and alive to God. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
The church father’s most well-known passage is probably this one: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you” (Confessions by Augustine).
There’s another passage often attributed to Augustine. In reality, it’s more likely a story he heard from the pulpit than one he lived out in life. Told by Ambrose in his book Concerning Repentance, the story illustrates the new identity we have in Christ, who enables us to turn from our old self.
A onetime immoral man was walking down the street when he ran across one of his old mistresses. She called out to him and suggested that he come away with her.
He replied, “No,” and walked away.
Surprised, she looked at him and said, “But don’t you remember who I am? It is I! It is I!”
He looked around and said, “Yes, but it’s no longer I.”
James Borgwardt is pastor at Redeemer, Fond du Lac, Wisconsin.
This is the second article in a six-part series on sanctification and good works.
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Author: James F. Borgwardt
Volume 102, Number 7
Issue: July 2015
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