I Once Heard a Preacher Say, “Augustine Said, ‘Love God and Do As You Please'”

(When I first started this blog a couple of months ago, I mentioned that a regular feature would be a series under the rubric “I once heard a preacher say.”  Here’s the first contribution to that series.)

Well, it happened again.  And I promised myself that the next time I heard it, I would blog about it.  So here it is.  This morning, I heard a preacher quote Augustine as saying, “Love God, and do as you please.”  Now, to the preacher’s credit, he was careful to guard against one erroneous interpretation of this quotation, the kind that would say that as long as you love God, you can go ahead and do pretty much anything you want to, even something sinful, and it’s perfectly okay.  The preacher said that this was not what the quotation is saying.  And the preacher was certainly right.  However, the preacher then went on to give another interpretation that was also erroneous.  He said that Augustine’s meaning was that if you love God, then automatically you will do what is ethically correct as you live the Christian life.  If you love God, and if you have God’s Holy Spirit dwelling inside of you, then whatever it pleases you to do will be the correct thing to do.  You don’t have to consult Old Testament law, or the words of the prophets, or the Sermon on the Mount, or the ethical prescriptions in the New Testament, in order to find out what is ethically right; rather, you will automatically know what is right because you love God and because you have the Holy Spirit living inside of you.  Additionally, appeal was made to Galatians 5 as teaching the same thing.

I will illustrate the error of this way of understanding what Augustine said by describing two situations.

Situation one. A man approaches a boy on the street.  He tells him what a fine looking lad he is, puts him arm around him, hugs him, gives him a piece of candy, speaks tenderly to him, smiles at him and draws a smile from the boy in return.

Situation two. A father is very displeased with his son for having disobeyed him.  He speaks to him sternly in a loud voice, punishes him by beating him, and then sends him to bed without any supper.

Now, in which one of these two situations was true love expressed toward the boy?  Who wouldn’t prefer to be hugged, complimented, smiled at, and given candy, rather than being sternly spoken to, beaten, and sent to bed without supper?

Yet, it is only in situation two that the boy has been truly loved.  He was loved by a father who, in order to correctly shape his son’s character, spoke to him sternly and punished him in an act of loving discipline.  In situation one, the man treated the boy kindly, only in order to win the boy’s confidence, so that he could eventually kidnap the boy and sell him into slavery.

It is exactly these two situations that Augustine is addressing and using to illustrate the principle he lays out in his homily on 1 John 4:4-12 (Ten Homilies on the First Epistle of John, Homily 7 on 1 John 4:4-12).  He says:

. . . we find a man by charity made fierce; and [another] by iniquity made winningly gentle. A father beats a boy, and a boy-stealer caresses. If thou name the two things, blows and caresses, who would not choose the caresses, and decline the blows? If thou mark the persons, it is charity that beats, iniquity that caresses. See what we are insisting upon; that the deeds of men are only discerned by the root of charity. For many things may be done that have a good appearance, and yet proceed not from the root of charity. For thorns also have flowers: some actions truly seem rough, seem savage; howbeit they are done for discipline at the bidding of charity. Once for all, then, a short precept is given thee: Love, and do what thou wilt: whether thou hold thy peace, through love hold thy peace; whether thou cry out, through love cry out; whether thou correct, through love correct; whether thou spare, through love do thou spare: let the root of love be within, of this root can nothing spring but what is good.

There are two things in particular to note here.

First, note that the quotation, “Love God and do as you please,” is, in fact, a misquotation.  What Augustine wrote was, in updated English, “Love, and do what you will.”  The original does not have the word, “God.”  And the Augustine scholars whom I have consulted agree that “do what you will,” better captures Augustine’s thought here than “do as you please.”  The words “please” and “will” do overlap, but there is, nevertheless, a distinction to be recognized here.

Second, note that Augustine is addressing two particular issues.  The first one is that of appearances.  What appear to be loving acts may, in fact, be unloving acts, as illustrated by the would-be kidnapper’s actions.  What appear to be unloving acts may, in fact, be loving acts, as illustrated by the father’s actions.  The second issue is that of motivation.  Augustine says that a person’s actions need to be motivated by love.  When such a love-motivated person faces a decision where it could be argued that either of two choices could be seen as being ethically correct, the person’s responsibility in that case is primarily to make sure that the choice eventually made has its underlying motivation in love.  Here is my paraphrase of that last part of the citation I gave from Augustine’s homily:

If, in a particular situation, you decide to hold your peace, then make sure that love was the motive for holding your peace. If, on the other hand, you decide that crying out is the best thing to do, then make sure that love was the motive for your crying out. If, in a particular situation, you decide that you need to correct someone with harsh discipline, then make sure love is your motive for correcting. If, on the other hand, you decide that in this particular situation, you should withhold the correction, then make sure you are doing so out of love.

Note also that Augustine argues that the right conduct in a particular situation may often go against what appears to be loving, and that it may not be what a person would normally be “pleased” to do.

Do not imagine that thou then lovest thy servant when thou dost not beat him, or that thou then lovest thy son when thou givest him not discipline, or that thou then lovest thy neighbor when thou dost not rebuke him: this is not charity, but mere feebleness.

Sometimes the right thing will be to go against what you would prefer to choose.  So, Augustine is saying something very different from “Love, and do as you please.”  Rather, he is providing support here for the idea that sometimes, love is precisely not a matter of doing “as you please.”

So, Augustine’s point is not that love for God puts a Christian on auto-pilot so that one does not need to consult the Ten Commandments, Old Testament law, the writings of the prophets, the Sermon on the Mount, other discourses of Jesus, and the ethical prescriptions of the epistles, as a guide to right conduct.  In fact, he is not talking here about love for God, as such.  Rather, his point is that in those situations where two or more ethically equal viable alternatives present themselves to a person, any of those alternatives may be chosen, provided that the motivating factor is love toward the person in the particular situation.

Often, preachers who interpret Augustine erroneously in the way I have described, also repeat the following mantras:

The Bible is not a book of laws.
Jesus did not come to give us a book of rules.
The Bible is not a book of do’s and don’ts.

To be sure, there is a certain amount of truth in these statements.  Nevertheless, the Bible does contain laws.  Jesus does give his followers rules.  There are dos and don’ts in the Bible.  And if the confession that Christ is Lord means anything at all, it means that there are times when a Christian cannot simply follow their own heart in living the Christian life and ignore the ethical prescriptions laid down in Holy Scripture by the author of Scripture himself, Jesus Christ.  We arrogantly flatter ourselves when we think that we can assume that we always know what loving God actually looks like, or that we can assume that we know for sure when we are in a state of loving God, or that our professed love for God will automatically result in our knowing what the right thing to do is.  As Augustine further comments in his homily,

If any of you perchance wish to keep charity, brethren, above all things do not imagine it to be an abject and sluggish thing; nor that charity is to be preserved by a sort of gentleness, nay not gentleness, but tameness and listlessness.

Loving God is hard work, and it may involve making decisions that are not necessarily in line with what we consider to be pleasant.  Sometimes, loving God means that we do not do “as we please.”

To teach that Christians can simply assume that their love for God will assure right ethical conduct without consulting the ethical teaching of the Bible is simply perverse.  To suggest anything like this is to be diametrically opposed to the tenor of the teaching in both testaments of Scripture.  It assumes that Jesus was simply engaging in a grand display of overblown rhetoric when he declared,

Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:19)

It assumes that Paul’s and the other Apostles’ many statements as to how Christians “ought” to behave are irrelevant.  It assumes that Paul was wrong when he supported particular ethical prescriptions with  passages of Scripture from the Old Testament.  It assumes that there is really no such thing as “training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).  It fails to perform a responsible biblical-theological reading of Scripture.

Part of our submission to the lordship of Jesus Christ entails the possibility that we may have to act against our own sensitivities.  We are growing in grace.  We are being trained in righteousness.  We are moving toward maturity in Christ.  It is a process; it is a long process, and it is a process that will not be completed this side of the resurrection.

We do have love in our hearts for God.  We do have the Holy Spirit living within us.  But neither one of these facts insures right action.  And it definitely does not mean that the ethical prescriptions of Scripture are irrelevant.  Hence, we see the vital of importance of that Reformed phrase, “the Spirit, working with the word.”  Not the Spirit alone, not the word alone, but the Spirit, working with the word.  It must always be with the word, lest we confuse God’s Holy Spirit with our spirit.

To be sure, it is the goal of the Christian life to be more and more conformed to the person of Jesus Christ.  But, if that is indeed the goal, then that means that we have not yet achieved it.  We have not yet achieved complete conformity.  In spite of the love for God we have in our hearts, and in spite of the indwelling presence of the Spirit, we cannot assume that our opinions as to what is ethically right are correct.  So, we actually need a number of things to determine what is ethically correct.  Here is a short list: (1) love of God, (2) the indwelling Holy Spirit (3) the word of God (4) engagement with other Christians, listening to their wisdom, receiving their encouragement, and (5) prayer for discernment and wisdom.

So, the next time you hear someone say, “Augustine said, ‘Love God, and do as you please,'” you have a decision to make.  Will you confront them with what you discovered in this blog post?  Or will you refrain and just let it go.  Depending on the situation, either response could be the correct one.  But, as much as it is in your power, make sure that, whichever one you choose, your motivation toward that person is one of love.

Jerry Shepherd
October 20, 2013

15 thoughts on “I Once Heard a Preacher Say, “Augustine Said, ‘Love God and Do As You Please'”

    • Thanks, Cheryl. Every time someone remarks that something was “thought provoking,” it reminds me of what was once wittily said of the philosopher, Mortimer Adler: that he was “A Socratic traveling salesman who has moved up and down the country, talking to the young and causing acute attacks of thought in thousands of college students who scarcely ever thought of thinking before.”

  1. Thanks for this great blog post. I appreciate both your clarifying of Augustine’s quote in its context and the challenge to embrace the process of “training in righteousness.”

  2. An excellent explanation, and a timely one for me as a teacher who has quoted and taught Augustine’s words out of context and incorrectly. Thank you, Dr. Shepherd.

  3. I just quoted St Augustine to my friend and was curious to know if I hadn’t actually left things unsaid that might give her the freedom to misunderstand the quote. Thought i would check the net for interpretations and came across your absolutely wonderful explanation of what it meant. Feel so blessed to have touched your enlightened mind and received your thoughts. Thank you so much Dr. Jerry Shepherd.

  4. Interestingly I had someone say to me today, “Did you know that Augustine said, ‘Pray and do what you love.?'” I told her that I had not heard that, which led to this 4AM search! Thank you for your explanation.

  5. -After reading the 3rd chapter of Romans in Peterson’s “The Message,” I would change the quote to “Love God and he will set you on the right path of righteousness.”

  6. As a latecomer to this blog, my soul is well satisfied by the pivotal and foundational use of “love” as being the “why.” Simplistic quotes can be rich with wisdom. Misused or misunderstood, they can be very misleading. Thank you. Thank you.

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