Sovereign Joy in God Triumphs Over Joy in Sin!

Pelagius was a British monk who lived in Rome in Augustine’s day and taught that “though grace may facilitate the achieving of righteousness, it is not necessary to that end.” He denied the doctrine of original sin, and asserted that human nature at its core is good and able to do all it is commanded to do. Therefore Pelagius was shocked when he read in Augustine’s Confessions,

“Give me the grace [O Lord] to do as you command, and command me to do what you will! . . . O holy God . . . when your commands are obeyed, it is from you that we receive the power to obey them.”

Pelagius saw this as an assault on human goodness and freedom and responsibility – if God has to give what he commands, then we are not able to do what he commands and are not responsible to do what he commands and the moral law unravels.

Augustine had not come to his position quickly. In his book On the Freedom of the Will, written between 388 and 391, he defended the freedom of the will in a way that caused Pelagius to quote Augustine’s own book against him in later life. But by the time Augustine wrote the Confessions ten years later the issue was settled. Here is what he wrote. I think it is one of the most important paragraphs for understanding the heart of Augustinianism:

During all those years [of rebellion], where was my free will?

What was the hidden, secret place from which it was summoned in a moment, so that I might bend my neck to your easy yoke . . .?

How sweet all at once it was for me to be rid of those fruitless joys which I had once feared to lose . . !

You drove them from me, you who are the true, the sovereign joy.i

You drove them from me and took their place,

you who are sweeter than all pleasure, though not to flesh and blood,

you who outshine all light, yet are hidden deeper than any secret in our hearts,

you who surpass all honor, though not in the eyes of men who see all honor in themselves. . . .

O Lord my God, my Light, my Wealth, and my Salvation.

This is Augustine’s understanding of grace.

Grace is God’s giving us sovereign joy in God that triumphs over joy in sin.

In other words, God works deep in the human heart to transform the springs of joy so that we love God more than sex or anything else. Loving God, in Augustine’s mind, is never reduced to deeds of obedience or acts of willpower. It is always a delighting in God, and in other things only for God’s sake.

He defines it clearly in On Christian Doctrineii,

I call ‘charity’ [i.e., love for God] the motion of the soul toward the enjoyment of God for His own sake, and the enjoyment of one’s self and of one’s neighbor for the sake of God.”

Loving God is always conceived of essentially as delighting in God and in anything else for his sake.

Augustine analyzed his own motives down to this root. Everything springs from delight. He saw this as a universal: “Every man, whatsoever his condition, desires to be happy. There is no man who does not desire this, and each one desires it with such earnestness that he prefers it to all other things; whoever, in fact, desires other things, desires them for this end alone.” This is what guides and governs the will, namely, what we consider to be our delight.

But here’s the catch that made Pelagius so angry. For Augustine, it is not in our power to determine what this delight will be.

Who has it in his power to have such a motive present to his mind that his will shall be influenced to believe? Who can welcome in his mind something which does not give him delight? But who has it in his power to ensure that something that will delight him will turn up. Or that he will take delight in what turns up?

If those things delight us which serve our advancement towards God, that is due not to our own whim or industry or meritorious works, but to the inspiration of God and to the grace which he bestows.

So saving grace, converting grace, for Augustine, is God’s giving us a sovereign joy in God that triumphs over all other joys and therefore sways the will. The will is free to move toward whatever it delights in most fully, but it is not within the power of our will to determine what that sovereign joy will be. Therefore Augustine concludes,

A man’s free-will, indeed, avails for nothing except to sin, if he knows not the way of truth; and even after his duty and his proper aim shall begin to become known to him, unless he also take delight in and feel a love for it, he neither does his duty, nor sets about it, nor lives rightly. Now, in order that such a course may engage our affections, God’s “love is shed abroad in our hearts” not through the free-will which arises from ourselves, but “through the Holy Ghost, which is given to us” (Romans 5:5).

Near the end of his life in 427, he looked back over a lifetime of thought on this issue and wrote to Simplician,

“In answering this question I have tried hard to maintain the free choice of the human will, but the grace of God prevailed.”

When he was asked by his friend Paulinus why he kept on investing so much energy in this dispute with Pelagius even as a man in his seventies, he answered,

“First and foremost because no subject gives me greater pleasure.

For what ought to be more attractive to us sick men, than grace, grace by which we are healed;

for us lazy men, than grace, grace by which we are stirred up;

for us men longing to act, than grace, by which we are helped?”

And this answer has all the more power when you keep in mind that all this healing, stirring, helping, enabling grace that Augustine revels in is the giving of a compelling, triumphant joy. Grace governs life by giving a supreme joy in the supremacy of God.

—The Swan is Not Silent, Sovereign Joy in the Life and Thought of St. Augustine, a sermon delivered on February 3, 1998 by John Piper at the 1998 Bethlehem Conference for Pastors.

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Read the rest of this zeal kindling message on a greater manifestation of the joy in God and battle against lust, here, for mp3, here. I personally found much spiritual help in this message on the life of Augustine of Hippo. O, that we all may be ravished by the surpassing beauty of the God that loved and saved us! O, that we may grasp a greater conception of the wonders of His sovereign grace! May we be crushed by such a vision of the deadness of our own souls and cling to him in all our might that He may be our only purpose and joy!


  1. There’s the key phrase and the key reality for understanding the heart of Augustinianism. []
  2. III, x, 16 []


  1. miss_hedgehog

    This website is a great blessing to me. Such life-changing and God glorifying quotations. And you are doing a great job in introducing us to writings of those godly men. Thank you again and I pray the site will remain an encouragement and a refreshment to our souls for a long time. God bless you

  2. Pingback: Weekly Fire (8/10/09) « Reforming with Fire

  3. Pingback: Grace Transcends Choice « The Seas Within

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