Augustine: What’s the point of saying “don’t do that!”?

Posted: August 27, 2009 by limabean03 in Christian Theology, Christianity, Church Fathers, Discipleship, The Christian Life

Not much, apparently. I remember the first time I read Augustine’s “The Spirit and the Letter” in the spring of 2004. It started a trajectory in my life and in my thinking that was nothing short of life changing as it was a reintroduction to the Gospel. The excerpt below is from the introductory bits of Augustine’s “Spirit and the Letter”. I’ve lifted it off of the NewAdvent website so that I wouldn’t have to type it out of my church father’s edition. The NewAdvent translation is at times a bit dissapointing, but you’ll still get the gist either way. Below Augustine is combating the Pelagian heresy by exploring what is called “the use of the law.” By the law, Augustine means the commands of God, that is “do this,” or “don’t do that.” In our fallen human nature, Augustine believes that unless we are assisted by divine grace no good can come from us. So what’s the point of saying “don’t do this,” or “do that?” This is the “letter that kills,” that is, the law only brings guilt and shame for those who can’t accomplish it. Augustine contrasts this (as St. Paul does!) with “the Spirit which gives life.” For Augustine, the Spirit is God’s power freely given to transform dead, sinful hearts into new living hearts. The Spirit is received when the Gospel (“Christ died for sinners”) is proclaimed and believed in. You can read his whole work here. Don’t worry, it’s short 🙂

For that teaching which brings to us the command to live in chastity and righteousness is the letter that kills, unless accompanied with the spirit that gives life. For that is not the sole meaning of the passage, The letter kills, but the spirit gives life, 2 Corinthians 3:6 which merely prescribes that we should not take in the literal sense any figurative phrase which in the proper meaning of its words would produce only nonsense, but should consider what else it signifies, nourishing the inner man by our spiritual intelligence, since being carnally-minded is death, while to be spiritually-minded is life and peace. Romans 8:6 If, for instance, a man were to take in a literal and carnal sense much that is written in the Song of Solomon, he would minister not to the fruit of a luminous charity, but to the feeling of a libidinous desire. Therefore, the apostle is not to be confined to the limited application just mentioned, when he says, The letter kills, but the spirit gives life; 2 Corinthians 3:6 but this is also (and indeed especially) equivalent to what he says elsewhere in the plainest words: I had not known lust, except the law had said, You shall not covet; Romans 7:7 and again, immediately after: Sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it slew me. Romans 7:11 Now from this you may see what is meant by the letter that kills. There is, of course, nothing said figuratively which is not to be accepted in its plain sense, when it is said, You shall not covet; but this is a very plain and salutary precept, and any man who shall fulfil it will have no sin at all. The apostle, indeed, purposely selected this general precept, in which he embraced everything, as if this were the voice of the law, prohibiting us from all sin, when he says, You shall not covet; for there is no sin committed except by evil concupiscence; so that the law which prohibits this is a good and praiseworthy law. But, when the Holy Ghost withholds His help, which inspires us with a good desire instead of this evil desire (in other words, diffuses love in our hearts), that law, however good in itself, only augments the evil desire by forbidding it. Just as the rush of water which flows incessantly in a particular direction, becomes more violent when it meets with any impediment, and when it has overcome the stoppage, falls in a greater bulk, and with increased impetuosity hurries forward in its downward course. In some strange way the very object which we covet becomes all the more pleasant when it is forbidden. And this is the sin which by the commandment deceives and by it slays, whenever transgression is actually added, which occurs not where there is no law. Romans 4:15

-Augustine, “On the Spirit and the Letter” ch. VI

  1. Mark Wilson says:

    I get on here from time to time and really enjoy it. I saw this today and it comes at a perfect time as I am taking classes at RTS and writing a paper right now for Church History I on Augustine. Thanks for posting this. Hope all is well and would love to catch up next time you are in Fairhope!

  2. limabean03 says:

    sure thing! enjoy RTS, great place.

  3. limabean03 says:


    I am coming to Fairhope in one week. Maybe get some coffee?

  4. Mark Wilson says:

    absolutely. i would love that. just let me know when you get in town and have some time. 251.455.9412.

  5. Mark Wilson says:

    absolutely. i would love that. just let me know when you get in town and have some time.

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