City of God: Exhortation to Rome

There are many great works written by the early church fathers of Christianity and I have recently endeavored to read one of those works by St. Augustine, City of God.  Many sections of City of God have shed light on the times Christians live in today by explicating similar situations in times gone by and other sections have provided great devotional meditations on God and His ways.  I want to share a few selections from City of God that have impacted me with you in a series of posts.

For this post I want to take a look at Augustine’s exhortation to the Roman people to abandon the worship of their gods in which they think they will find security, happiness, and virtue and turn to the only true God that can provide exactly what the Romans seek.  Augustine endeavored to write City of God to answer the critics of his time that said Christians and Christianity were responsible for all the evils the Romans had faced and were facing.  If we think about this line of reasoning it is not a far leap to see the same types of arguments cropping up more and more in our own times.  They come in the context of, “Religion is responsible for most of the wars, so we should eliminate religion,” or “you can’t hold to a standard of truth that would be contrary to anyone’s pursuit of their own happiness,” or “Christianity is just a bunch of rules that keeps people under control.”

With just a few modifications, Augustine’s words could be an exhortation to America and the wider Western world.  Just insert America for Rome, insert some of our American heroes in place of the Roman heroes listed, and in place of the out-right Roman pagan idol worship insert America’s worship of power, wealth, prestige, and sensuality and you will hear an ancient exhortation to a fallen country eerily live afresh.  Below I have provided the most pertinent parts of Augustine’s’ exhortation proceeded by a little quote for context. Enjoy Augustine’s’ words and my comments that follow.

A little Context:

Men have been rescued, through the name of Christ, from the hellish yoke of those polluted powers and from a share in their condemnation; they have passed from the night of blasphemy and perdition into the daylight of salvation and true godliness.  This fact evokes complaints and murmurs from the malicious and spiteful who are held tight in the close grip of that wicked fiend.  They resent the streams of people who gather in the church in a modest assembly, where there is a decent separation of the sexes, where they can hear how they ought to live a good life on earth for a space, so that they may deserve hereafter to live a life of bliss for ever, and where the words of holy Scripture and of the teaching of righteousness are read aloud from a raised position in sight of all; those who observe the teaching hear it for their profit, and those who do not, for their condemnation.  And though some come there to scoff at these instructions, all their insolence is either abandoned in a sudden change of heart, or at least suppressed by fear or shame.  For nothing degrading or disreputable is set before them for contemplation or imitation; but there the commandments of the true God are made known, his marvelous works are related, thanks are offered for his gifts, and prayers are sent up for his favors.[1]

And now the Exhortation:

All this should be the object of your chief desire, you people of Rome with all your fine natural qualities, your descendents of men like Regulus, Scaevola, the Scipios, and Fabriius.  Observe how different all this is from the degraded folly and malignant imposture of the demons [in referring to demons, Augustine is talking about Rome’s idol worship].  The admirable and excellent qualities which nature has bestowed on you can only come to purity and perfection through true godliness; ungodliness will bring them to ruin and punishment.  Choose now which course to follow, so that you may receive men’s praise without illusion, not for what you are in yourself but in the true God.  In former times you had glory from the peoples, but through the inscrutable decision of divine providence, the true religion was not there for you to choose.  Awake!  The day has come.  You have already awakened in the persons of some of your people, in whose perfect virtue we Christians boast, and even in their sufferings for the true faith; they have wrestled everywhere against hostile powers, have conquered them by the courage of their deaths, and have won this country for us by their blood.

It is to this country that we invite you, and exhort you to add yourself to the number of our citizens.  The refuge we offer is the true remission of sins.  Do no listen to those degenerate sons of yours who disparage Christ and the Christians, and criticize these times as an unhappy age, when the kind of period they would like is one which offers not a life of tranquility but security for their vicious pursuits.  Such satisfactions have never been enough for you, even in respect of you earthly country.  Now take possession of the Heavenly Country, for which you will have to endure but little hardship; and reign there in truth and for ever.[2]

Augustine exhorts the Romans to leave what they consider to be their sensibilities and prudent lifestyle and to embrace Christ and the salvation found in Christ.  Here and only here will they find what they have been looking for and what they think they have already obtained in their organization of government and culture.  Augustine is calling them to renounce their Roman citizenship and become citizens of the only true kingdom that enacts perfect justice, enables complete happiness, provides ultimate security, and lasts forever.

I think we as modern Christians can take away several important points as we think about Augustine’s words above.

1. There will always be scoffers toward Christianity.  2 Peter 3:3-7 reminds us that scoffers will come, they will be following their own sinful desires, and they deliberately reject God by not accepting the evidence for His existence He has laid before them.  This is not a new problem.  Augustine dealt with scoffers and so will we.  The scoffers will reject our assemblies, our godly lifestyles, and the preaching of the Word.  Our job has been and will always be to contend for and proclaim the Gospel to these scoffers, and some of them having their eyes opening by the power of the Holy Spirit will turn to Christ.  Proclaim the Gospel to Scoffers.

2. We must no adopt a ‘sky is falling’ mentality concerning our times.  It has been popular for Christian media and media in general to adopt a ‘sky is falling’ mentality when things go wrong in the economy, the government fails, we see rampant immorality, and Christians loose aspects of the cultural battle that is raging in our country. Instead, Augustine gives us a great pro-active model to emulate in the face of such talk.  His answer to the times is the timeless Christian message of salvation.  It should be no surprise to Christians that the times are bad.  They have always been bad.  What we see over and over again are the affects of the fall as found in Genesis 3.  But instead of decrying the times, Augustine gives a defense for the faith and proclaims the Gospel.  And so should we.  Don’t be sucked into the cultural rabble on the times.  Instead be cling to the Gospel, defend it, and proclaim it just as Augustine has done in the face of the ‘sky is falling’ mentality of the media of his time.

3. As Christians we must see ourselves as exiles and sojourners in this life and in relation to the God-ordained governments we find ourselves living under.  1 Peter 2:9-10 reminds us that we when we were saved we exchanged our citizenship to temporal governments in this life for an eternal citizenship in the kingdom of God becoming the people of God.  The implications of this are that we are first and foremost concerned about our allegiance to God and his people.  And so Augustine urges the Roman citizens to come awake and come out of their country to the eternal kingdom ruled righteously by God alone.  This will bear itself out as we strive for Godly conduct in our lives and in the ways we deal with the world.  Our godliness day to day reflects our new citizenship in heaven.  1 Peter 2:11-12 reminds us that our godly conduct will speak for us in the face of scoffing accusations against us.

4. We will never find total satisfaction or complete fulfillment in the provision of any earthly government.  Romans 13:1-6 reminds us that God has put governments in place and their job is to restrain evil and promote good and we should praise them when they do this well.  But if we look to these governments for satisfaction and fulfillment in life we will be sadly deceived.  Augustine is concerned for the ways the Romans have looked toward their government and culture to provide the satisfaction and fulfillment only God can provide.  Augustine exhortation is to come out of the temporal city and find fulfillment in the eternal city, the City of God.

Let us take a cue from Augustine.  When we are faced with the scoffing of the media and the world towards Christianity, when we are faced with accusations of evil and wrong-doing, when we are faced with a world that is decrying that fact that the ‘sky is falling’, let us give a ready defense for the Gospel and proclaim salvation to those that have ears to hear.

[1] Saint Augustine, City of God. Translated by Henry Bettenson. London: Penguin Books, 2003, 85.
[2] Saint Augustine, City of God. Translated by Henry Bettenson. London: Penguin Books, 2003, 86-87.
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