Saint Augustine on Sin, Fear and Love

Saint_Augustine_Portrait

 

Continuing on with our Lenten series in which Saint Augustine is our guide, go here  , here  and here to read the first three posts in the series, we come to Augustine’s discussion of why we should avoid sin.  Augustine thought that refraining from sin due to fear of Hell did not involve the rejection of sin but rather fear of burning.  The true reason for avoiding sin is love of God and therefore rejection of sin as a result of that love.  Our Act of Contrition mentions both motivations but is clear what should be the most important:

O my God,
I am heartily sorry for
having offended Thee,
and I detest all my sins,
because I dread the loss of heaven,
and the pains of hell;
but most of all because
they offend Thee, my God,
Who are all good and
deserving of all my love.

As the saying goes, fear of God is the beginning of wisdom, and no doubt the fear of Hell for many a sinner is the beginning of repentance, but that is only the beginning, and not the end, of our struggle against sin.  Christ taught us to call God Father and that He is a loving Father.  Anything that turns us from the God who loves us with such an eternal love, we reject, not out of fear but out of love:

In vain, however, does any one think himself to have gained the victory over sin, if, through nothing but fear of punishment, he refrains from sin; because, although the outward action to which an evil desire prompts him is not performed, the evil desire itself within the man is an enemy unsubdued. And who is found innocent in God’s sight who is willing to do the sin which is forbidden if you only remove the punishment which is feared? And consequently, even in the volition itself, he is guilty of sin who wishes to do what is unlawful, but refrains from doing it because it cannot be done with impunity; for, so far as he is concerned, he would prefer that there were no righteousness forbidding and punishing sins. And assuredly, if he would prefer that there should be no righteousness, who can doubt that he would if he could abolish it altogether? How, then, can that man be called righteous who is such an enemy to righteousness that, if he had the power, he would abolish its authority, that he might not be subject to its threatenings or its penalties? He, then, is an enemy to righteousness who refrains from sin only through fear of punishment; but he will become the friend of righteousness if through love of it he sin not, for then he will be really afraid to sin. For the man who only fears the flames of hell is afraid not of sinning, but of being burned; but the man who hates sin as much as he hates hell is afraid to sin. This is the “fear of the Lord,” which “is pure, enduring for ever.” For the fear of punishment has torment, and is not in love; and love, when it is perfect, casts it out.

11 Responses to Saint Augustine on Sin, Fear and Love

  • This Letter CXLV of St Augustine was a crucial text in the great debate between the Jesuits and their opponents (particularly the Jansenists) over attrition and contrition and whether the former was sufficient for the sacrament of penance.

    Thus, we have the Jesuit in Lettre X of Les Provinciales: “Our fathers, Fagundez, Granados, and Escobar, have decided, ‘that contrition is not necessary even at death; because,’ say they, ‘if attrition with the sacrament did not suffice at death, it would follow that attrition would not be sufficient with the sacrament. And the learned Hurtado, cited by Diana and Escobar, goes still further; for he asks: ‘Is that sorrow for sin which flows solely from apprehension of its temporal consequences, such as having lost health or money, sufficient? We must distinguish. If the evil is not regarded as sent by the hand of God, such a sorrow does not suffice; but if the evil is viewed as sent by God, as, in fact, all evil, says Diana, except sin, comes from him, that kind of sorrow is sufficient.’ Our Father Lamy holds the same doctrine.”

    “You surprise me, father; for I see nothing in all that attrition of which you speak but what is natural; and in this way a sinner may render himself worthy of absolution without supernatural grace at all. Now everybody knows that this is a heresy condemned by the Council.”

    “I should have thought with you,” he replied; “and yet it seems this must not be the case, for the fathers of our College of Clermont have maintained (in their Theses of the 23rd May and 6th June 1644) ‘that attrition may be holy and sufficient for the sacrament, although it may not be supernatural’; and (in that of August 1643) ‘that attrition, though merely natural, is sufficient for the sacrament, provided it is honest.’”

  • “‘that attrition may be holy and sufficient for the sacrament, although it may not be supernatural’; and (in that of August 1643) ‘that attrition, though merely natural, is sufficient for the sacrament, provided it is honest.’””
    .
    Imperfect contrition, although imperfect, is an act of the will to be contrite, to accept penance and forgiveness, to accept grace.

  • The contrition I learned about in parochial school also contained a resolve to sin no more with the help of His grace. This whole topic should merit all Catholics to study what our Church teaches on “justification”. Sometimes, I feel Catholics get mixed up with our justification beliefs and protestants justification beliefs. The Act of contrition, I learned, didn’t have the fear of burning part; i.e. “Oh my God I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee and I detest all my sins because of Thy just punishment, but most of all because they have offended Thee my God, who art All Good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve with the help of Thy grace to sin no more and avoid the near occasion of sin, Amen! This contrition never refers to fearing hell. What you refer to regarding this fear of hell was taught to me as an imperfect act of contrition. Being sorry because we have offended God is the ultimate repentance. Great topic for an article, thanks.

  • The contrition I learned about in parochial school also contained a resolve to sin no more with the help of His grace. This whole topic should merit all Catholics to study what our Church teaches on “justification”.
    This is right. I’ve seen good, smart Protestants struggle with the question about why we should avoid sin, and I think their aversion to Catholic Church as an institution causes them to miss out on this teaching. Creflo Dollar, for example someone I was watching recently, a good preacher on many topics, is so devoted to his (abhorent) ‘prosperity gospel’ that he has a blindspot when it comes to the topic of sin. If godly behavior brings many earthly blessings, he argues, then sinful conduct leads to earthly consequences. His doctrine would allow no consequences in the afterlife.
    Other Protestants have differing views obviously, but none I’ve heard seem satisfying compared with Catholic doctrine. I think Ray and Donald have it right that studying St. Augustine and justification and sanctification are the way to find satisfying answers.
    .
    Imperfect contrition, although imperfect, is an act of the will to be contrite, to accept penance and forgiveness, to accept grace.
    Amen.
    .

  • God does not want us to sin because it hurts ourselves and others. God teaches us what is sinful and what is good. This is one of the reasons we love God. When I sin I have contrition because I have hurt myself or someone else, not because I have offended God who cannot be offended.

    Is the above an heretical idea?

    Appreciate your comments.

  • Is the above an heretical idea?
    Michael, a good place to start (as always) is with the Catechism. This section in particular seems to to pertain to your point:
    http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p3s1c1a8.htm
    .
    Section 1849, for example, says that sin is a “failure in genuine love for God and neighbor”. And at 1850 quotes Psalm 51, “Sin is an offense against God: ‘Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done that which is evil in your sight.’”
    .
    There is more to it than that, but perhaps a starting point.

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