Distinguishing Spheres Affirms Christ’s Lordship Over All Things (Part 2)

The post-apostolic Christians understood what Jesus and Paul were teaching about the kingdom. They confessed universally, in the Rule of Faith, from the earliest decades of the second century, that God is “almighty” (omnipotens). They did battle with radical dualists, whether Gnostics or Marcionites. Later, by God’s sovereign grace, Augustine would be translated into the kingdom of God. Granted new life, he repented of his Manichaean paganism, embraced Christ, and he sought to learn and teach the faith, and to do all he could to persuade people of the errors of Manichaeism.

It was, in no small measure, because he had been confronting paganism for so long that he wrote his greatest work, On the City of God (AD 416–422). The sacking of Rome in 410 by the Goths was shocking, if not a complete surprise. Americans might take note. Two years after Alaric I (c. 370 – 411 AD) captured Rome (the capital had already been moved), Jerome wrote to a correspondent, “The City which had taken the whole world was itself taken.”1

The pagan critics of Christianity (even though Christianity became the state religion of the empire in AD 380, paganism was still powerful) blamed it and the Christians for the fall of Rome. They carped that the Christian infidelity to the Greco-Roman pantheon had brought about the wrath of the gods. Pagans, Augustine reminded them, had been spared by the barbarian hordes because the churches gave refuge to the pagans, and the barbarians—who had been converted to (Arian) Christianity—respected the churches and did not pursue people into them.2 He turned the pagan argument against them: if the pagan gods are so powerful, where were they when the pagans needed them?3 Indeed, the very things for which the pagans blamed the Christians happened before the Christians could be blamed.4

From the beginning he distinguished between the “earthly city” and “the city of God.”5 In the city of man, he wrote, citing Matthew 5:45, that Christians and pagans live a shared experience.6 We call this the doctrine of common grace.7 The reason the pagans are howling is that they have invested their whole lives in this world.8 By contrast, when Rome was sacked, the Christians lost only temporal goods:

They lost all they had. Their faith? Their godliness? The possessions of the hidden man of the heart, which in the sight of God are of great price? Did they lose these? For these are the wealth of Christians, to whom the wealthy apostle said, “Godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. And having food and raiment, let us be therewith content. But they that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is the root of all evil; which, while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.”9

Some Christians, he noted, had even been taken captive; but, he reminded his critics, Christians have often been in exile in this world (e.g., Daniel).10 He explained that Christians are citizens of the “pilgrim city of King Christ.”11 They are “strangers in the world” but “God has her in communion.”12 We live in two cities simultaneously. “In truth, these two cities are entangled together in this world, and intermixed until the last judgment effects their separation.”13

The pagans are deluded. Things do not happen as they do because of the fates or the gods but because of the “secret providence” of the God worshipped by the Christians.14 He called the pagans to repent and to gain citizenship in the City of God.

Awake, it is now day; as you have already awaked in the persons of some in whose perfect virtue and sufferings for the true faith we glory: for they, contending on all sides with hostile powers, and conquering them all by bravely dying, have purchased for us this country of ours with their blood; to which country we invite you, and exhort you to add yourselves to the number of the citizens of this city, which also has a sanctuary of its own in the true remission of sins.15

Those who, by grace alone, have citizenship in the City of God, have more than temporal blessing.

What number of tongues, shall affirm that they are sufficient to render thanks to him for this, that he hath not wholly departed from us, laden and overwhelmed with sins, averse to the contemplation of his light, and blinded by the love of darkness, that is, of iniquity, but hath sent to us his own Word, who is his only Son, that by his birth and suffering for us in the flesh, which he assumed, we might know how much God valued man, and that by that unique sacrifice we might be purified from all our sins, and that, love being shed abroad in our hearts by his Spirit, we might, having surmounted all difficulties, come into eternal rest, and the ineffable sweetness of the contemplation of himself?16

The City of God alone offers salvation from judgment and peace with God. It transcends the nations of this earth.17 The “citizens of the earthly city prefer their own gods.”18 To those familiar with Paul’s distinction between “this age” and “the age to come” the similarities are evident. The corruption of the city of this world is the result of sin.19 The two cities have two sources of origin, within the mysterious providence of God—there are two seeds, if you will, in the world.20 This race we have distributed into two parts, the one consisting of those who live according to man, the other of those who live according to God. And these we also mystically call the two cities, or the two communities of men, of which the one is predestined to reign eternally with God, and the other to suffer eternal punishment with the devil.21 These two cities co-exist until the judgment.

We must understand in one sense the kingdom of heaven in which exist together both he who breaks what he teaches and he who does it, the one being least, the other great, and in another sense the kingdom of heaven into which only he who does what he teaches shall enter. Consequently, where both classes exist, it is the Church as it now is, but where only the one shall exist, it is the Church as it is destined to be when no wicked person shall be in her. Therefore the Church even now is the kingdom of Christ, and the kingdom of heaven. Accordingly, even now his saints reign with him, though otherwise than as they shall reign hereafter; and yet, though the tares grow in the Church along with the wheat, they do not reign with him.22

The Christian’s war, in this life, during the interregnum, between the ascension of Christ and his return, is a spiritual warfare.23 The city to which the Christian aspires is eternal, unchanging, and glorious.24 “Whoever, therefore, desires to escape eternal punishment, let him not only be baptized, but also justified in Christ, and so let him in truth pass from the devil to Christ. And let him not fancy that there are any purgatorial pains except before that final and dreadful judgment.”25

The point of this footrace through The City of God is to illustrate how fundamental the distinction between two cities was to Augustine’s thinking. He appealed to two cities against Manichaeism and the other pagan philosophies. He appealed to and used two cities in order to explain God’s providential and saving ordering of the world. He distinguished two institutional representatives of these two cities. He treated the visible church as the institutional manifestation of the City of God on this earth.

For Augustine, there was never a question of whether Christ is Lord of all things or not. The question he answered was how Christ administers his sovereign reign: through two cities.

Next time we will consider Calvin’s distinction between the two spheres in God’s kingdom.

notes

  1. Jerome, “The Letters of St. Jerome,” ep. 127, in St. Jerome: Letters and Select Works, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. W. H. Fremantle, G. Lewis, and W. G. Martley, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, 2nd ser., vol. 6 (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1893), 257.
  2. Augustine, The City of God, 1.1. This work exists in multiple editions. I am using that published in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, ed. Philip Schaff, 1st ser., vol. 2 (Peabody MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1995). See also Augustine, The City of God, 1.7.
  3. Augustine, The City of God, 1.3.1.
  4. Augustine, 3.1.
  5. Augustine, 1.1.
  6. Augustine, 1.8.1.
  7. See RSC, “Resources On Common Grace.”
  8. Augustine, 1.10.2.
  9. Augustine, 1.10.1.
  10. Augustine, 1.14.
  11. Augustine, 1.35.
  12. Augustine, 1.35. See also Augustine, 20.2–3.
  13. Augustine, 1.35.
  14. Augustine, 2.23.2; 5.11.
  15. Augustine, 2.29.1.
  16. Augustine, 7.31.
  17. Augustine, 11.1.
  18. Augustine, 11.1.
  19. Augustine, books 13 and 14.
  20. Augustine, 15.1.1.
  21. Augustine, 15.1.1.
  22. Augustine, 20.9.1.
  23. Augustine, 20.9.2.
  24. Augustine, 20.17.
  25. Augustine, 21.16.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

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4 comments

  1. This is exactly what the church needs to hear. Most helpful. We’re on vacation and I’m reading City of God. It just so happens we’re in St. Augustine Florida for vacation. Double inspiration 😉
    Keep writing on this, brother. We need more of this scriptural mindset in the cacophony of 2024 confusion.

  2. Yes! Thank you both-Scott and Jerrold!! I’ve had this great book since August 2012 and have been wanting to read it and seemed to have needed a ‘nudge,’ if ye will. I’m still reading Calvin’s Institutes (halfway thru), as well as other greats, and super appreciate this admonition!
    I’m on page 32 in ‘The City of God’ and wanted to ask you if my ‘version’•produced by Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.-Peabody, Mass , translated by Marcus Dods, is a worthy one. Pastor Jonathon Merica gifted me this book in 2012!✝️📖👍✝️🛐
    Thank you much! Robert Iggy

    • Rob,

      You have a reprint of the version that appeared in the Post-Nicene Fathers series. There are a lot of versions of The City of God including some newer versions that are probably easier to read but it is a responsible version.

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