Grant what You command, and command what you desire: Pelagius, the Jew and Augustine.

My subtitle may be understood either as 1. Pelagius (the Jew) and Augustine or as 2. referring to three people: Pelagius, the Jew, and Augustine. As will become clear, it means both of these.

Augustine of Hippo is regarded by Protestants of the Reformation as the greatest theologian, while for Catholics, Thomas Aquinas pips Augustine at the post. Thus both hold Augustine in very high regard.

Two of Augustine’s most popular sayings are (the more frequent) “our hearts are restless until they rest in you,” and “Grant what You command, and command what You desire” (from his “Confessions”). The first is straightforward and so does not require analysis. The second, in contrast, is a different theological fish. For most Christians and all Jews, “Grant what You command…,” evokes dismay, outrage and total contempt. That was Pelagius’ reaction, the famous rival of Augustine, in their dispute of the role of God’s grace and human will in salvation. For Pelagius, as for Judaism, the role of grace was highly exaggerated.

With regard to obedience to God’s commands, the connection between Pelagianism and Judaism is an interesting one. I am not concerned here with the theory that Pelagius might have been a closet Jew. He was a Celt from Britain, and the theory is that many Celts belonged to the lost tribes of Israel. What is of interest here is that he lay great emphasis on the Mosaic code and that man was fully able to fulfill it. He had, like a Jew, no time for grace, and therefore no time for Augustine of Hippo, who taught that man becomes reconciled to God not only with the help of God’s saving grace, but with nothing else but God’s saving grace – and the faith that it provides. As we read in Romans 3:21-31:

21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
[27 Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. [28] For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. [29] Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, [30] since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith.”

Well, Pelagius asks the Apostle Paul, “do we then overthrow the law by this faith?” (I’m putting Paul’s words into Pelagius’ mouth). “By no means, responds Paul; On the contrary, we uphold the law.”

(Romans 3:31 – ”Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law”).

It is very important to understand that by “law” Paul does not only mean the ceremonial Mosaic law, he means all laws including the higher laws of the ten commandments. I ask you, do you think that if a Jew is not able to fulfill the ceremonial law that he, or you, will be able to fulfill a higher law such as loving God with all your might, heart and soul or Thou shalt have no other gods before me, or Thou shall not bear false witness against your neighbour? Of course not.

What Paul means is that although the law cannot save, it is the evidence that your faith is genuine. James (2:17) says the same thing: “faith, if it hath not works (not accompanied by action), is dead, being alone.” Faith, by its very nature, expresses itself in good works. This does not mean, though, that there is anything in the works that save you. In other words, works are a natural expression of faith. If you don’t do good works, you don’t have faith, and if you don’t have faith, you are not saved. This, of course, is nonsense to Judaism, which is Pelagian to the core.

Why would a person need grace, asks the Pelagian? Grace is only necessary for those who believe that everyone died spiritually through Adam’s sin. Pelagius (with Judaism and an increasing cohort of Christians in tow), rejects the doctrine of Original Sin, and thus believed that every person is responsible for his own sin. (Paul doesn’t teach that Original Sin excludes responsibility). After all, Pelagius would have argued, doesn’t it say in Leviticus 6:1-7:

1 And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, 2 If a soul sin, and commit a trespass against the Lord, and lie unto his neighbour in that which was delivered him to keep, or in fellowship, or in a thing taken away by violence, or hath deceived his neighbour; 3 Or have found that which was lost, and lieth concerning it, and sweareth falsely; in any of all these that a man doeth, sinning therein…?

An Augustinian would counter that the doctrine of Original Sin Is distinct from personal sin, that is, distinct from the sins one commits during one’s life. The Dutch theologian, Wilhelmus à Brakel (1635-1711) answers the following objection

Objection: It is contrary to God‟s will that earthly judges should punish the son for the crime of the father. God even declares that He Himself does not do so. “The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers: every man shall be put to death for his own sin” (Deut 24:16); “The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son” (Ezek 18:20). Thus, the sin of Adam cannot be imputed to his descendants.

Answer: Deut 24:16 is a law which God has given to man. From this we may not draw a conclusion as far as divine justice is concerned. The text refers to violations of the law and not to a breach of covenant. The one is not a necessary consequence of the other. The text refers to the sins of specific individuals. Adam, however, was the head of the covenant which was established in him with the entire human race. This sin was the sin of the entire human race, for outside of Adam and Eve there were no other human beings. The entire human race was comprehended in Adam, and thus that same human race bears the punishment of their own sin. Ezek 18:20 also speaks of specific sins of specific people, and is therefore not applicable to Adam and his descendants who are in covenant relationship with him. The text refers to adult children who do not follow the footsteps of their parents. God convinced them that they themselves were committing these sins, and thus would be punished for their own sins with the same manner of punishment. It is incontrovertible that God punishes children for the sins of their parents, as is to be observed in the flood, in the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and in the children of Eli. God very expressly states the following about Himself: “… visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation” (Exod 20:5).” (W. à Brakel, “The Christian’s reasonable service,” Vol 1, p.389).

I return to Augustine’s “Command what You desire, and grant what You command.”

Another way of saying this is:

Grant what You command, and command what You desire.” I explain:

A person says to God that he will obey what He commands. The person knows/discovers that he is unable to follow through, so he asks God to give him the ability to do so. Doesn’t that fit better than Augustine’s scenario of first asking, ”Grant what you command” followed by “and command what you desire?” If you ask God to give you the ability to obey His commands, doesn’t this presuppose that you accept that he can command what he pleases? Undoubtedly it does presuppose this; but context, Raphy, context; go read Augustine and you’ll see he meant it exactly as he said it. Ok, I’ll do that now. He says in Book 10, the two very short Chapters 28 and Chapter 29:

Chapter 28. On the Misery of Human Life.

When I shall cleave unto You1 with all my being, then shall I in nothing have pain and labour; and my life shall be a real life, being wholly full of You. But now since he whom Thou fillest is the one Thou liftest up, I am a burden to myself, as not being full of You. Joys of sorrow contend with sorrows of joy; and on which side the victory may be I know not. Woe is me! Lord, have pity on me. My evil sorrows contend with my good joys; and on which side the victory may be I know not. Woe is me! Lord, have pity on me. Woe is me! Lo, I hide not my wounds; You are the Physician, I the sick; Thou merciful, I miserable. Is not the life of man upon earth a temptation? Who is he that wishes for vexations and difficulties? You command them to be endured, not to be loved. For no man loves what he endures, though he may love to endure. For notwithstanding he rejoices to endure, he would rather there were naught for him to endure. In adversity, I desire prosperity; in prosperity, I fear adversity. What middle place, then, is there between these, where human life is not a temptation? Woe unto the prosperity of this world, once and again, from fear of misfortune and a corruption of joy! Woe unto the adversities of this world, once and again, and for the third time, from the desire of prosperity; and because adversity itself is a hard thing, and makes shipwreck of endurance! Is not the life of man upon earth a temptation, and that without intermission?

Chapter 29. All Hope is in the Mercy of God.

And my whole hope is only in Your exceeding great mercy. Give what You command, and command what You will. Thou imposest continency upon us, nevertheless, when I perceived, says one, that I could not otherwise obtain her, except God gave her me; . . . that was a point of wisdom also to know whose gift she was. Wisdom 8:21 For by continency are we bound up and brought into one, whence we were scattered abroad into many. For he loves You too little who loves anything with You, which he loves not for You, O love, who ever burnest, and art never quenched! O charity, my God, kindle me! You command continency; give what You command, and command what You will.

So, we see that Augustine is not writing a systematic theology on the radical corruption (total depravity) of the will, where “Command what You desire, and grant what You command” might be the more appropriate order of ideas than Augustine’s “Grant what You command, and command what You desire.” What was he doing then? He was struggling with the idea that a person couldn’t fulfill any of the law, be it the ceremonial Mosaic law or – it logically follows – the higher laws of the ten commandments. So, uppermost in his mind was the thought: If You don’t raise me from the dead, I’m undone.

1Judaism would say that the way to cleave to God is not to His person, but through the traditions of the Sages; the Oral Law. Here is Rashi’s commentary on Deut 11:22. “For if you keep all these commandments which I command you to do them, to love the Lord, your God, to walk in all His ways, and to cleave to Him…” Rash says, “and to cleave to Him”: Is it possible to say this? Is God not “a consuming fire” (Deut. 4:24)? Rather, it means: Cleave to the disciples and the Sages, and I will consider it as though you cleave to Me. — [Sifrei]

You win some you lose some. No; be winsome

Christians should always be conscious of their and others’ eternal destiny; living with Christ or living death with Satan. Before I think, witness, preach, admonish, write anything about the Gospel my attitude should not be “you win some, you lose some,” but compassion for all – for those i love or love me as well as for those who hate me. Let our prayer always be, as one preacher said, “make me a winsome exponent of the Gospel.”


An exponent of the Gospel should indeed have the winsome quality of “always be[ing] prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect (2 Peter 3:15b).” There are occasions, though, where “winsome” may be inappropriate as we see in Jesus’ frequent warnings of the wrath to come.