As a little lad I had the joy from time to time of sitting on a farm cart or wagon driving the horse in front of me. In other words, I have vivid memories from early in life of looking down on the broad back of a horse pulling and hence preceding its cart. Over the years I have frequently commented in my writings that Augustinian theology in particular reverses the process and figuratively puts the cart in front of the horse. It is worthwhile looking at instances of this.
First, on the false assumption that all that our perfect God creates is perfect, Augustine inferred from the references to “good” in Genesis 1 that Adam was created perfect, immortal, incorruptible, righteous and holy. Though some rabbinic theology apparently lent support to this idea, Scripture nowhere even vaguely suggests that this is true. In fact, Paul, who almost alone deals with Adam (e.g. Rom. 5 and 1 Cor. 15), looks askance at him as flesh, as a product of the corruptible earth which itself is always contrasted pejoratively with its Creator (Heb. 1:10-12, etc.). Thus, in the apostle’s estimation Adam was, in contrast with his Creator (1 Tim. 1:17), mortal and corruptible by nature (Rom. 1:23; 1 Cor. 15:50). In the event, far from inheriting the eternal life that he was promised if he kept the commandment (Gen. 2:17), Adam, along with Eve, transgressed and earned his wages in death. For Paul then man is naturally mortal in strong contrast with his immortal Creator (1 Tim. 6:16) and can only gain eternal life by becoming righteous (Rom. 5:21).
The notion that Adam was originally righteous as opposed to innocent contradicts practically all that we know about human moral development. The book of Genesis teaches that fleshly Adam, like a baby (cf. Dt. 1:39; 1 Cor. 15:46), was created knowing neither good nor evil on the one hand and without knowledge of the law (commandment) on the other. And since righteousness is gained by keeping the law (Dt. 6:25; Rom. 2:13; 1 John 3:7, etc.), his putative initial righteousness must be dismissed as mythical. Only God himself is righteous by nature, and he always does what is right (Gen. 18:25; Job 34:10-12, etc.). Even Jesus as man was born innocent (Isa. 7:15f.) and, in violent contrast with the rest of mankind, only attained to righteousness and life by keeping the law in accordance with the original promise to Adam (Mt. 3:17). So the Augustinian assumption that Adam “fell” from a state of righteousness into sin is fundamentally unbiblical. What he did was fail to honour God as God and as a consequence came short of his glory (cf. Rom. 3:23).
Then, on the basis of his faulty reasoning regarding the “fall” of Adam into sin Augustine attributed that sin to all his posterity. The Bible holds a different view. It teaches not sin “in Adam” but man’s perennial susceptibility as flesh to sin (Rom. 7:14; 8:7, etc.). In other words, it teaches repetition or imitation (cf. Dt. 1:39; Lev. 26:39, etc., pace Art 9 of the C of E). Just as Adam sinned, so do we (cf. Ps. 106:6, etc.) admittedly under his influence to some degree (Rom. 5:12). Paul insists that apart from law sin does not exist (Rom. 4:15; 5:13; 7:8). Thus when church dogma following Augustine attributes sin to babies and regards them as sinful even from conception (!), it puts the cart before the horse. It regards them as sinners before they have actually sinned, in spite of the fact that this is itself considered a sin elsewhere in the Bible (Dt. 24:16; Ezek. 18; Mt. 12:7, etc.). As in many modern societies, we are all considered innocent until proven guilty. According to apostolic teaching, while on the one hand righteousness is gained by keeping the law (Dt. 6:25; Rom. 2:13; 1 John 3:7), unrighteousness or sin is gained by breaking it. This is clearly the teaching of John (1 John 3:4; 5:17) and James (2:9-11).
At this point it may be complained that even babies die and the conclusion drawn that they must therefore be sinners since death is the wages of sin (Rom. 6:23). In reply it must be insisted that since they have not broken the law, sin cannot be the cause of their death. After all, animals die apart from the law, so why not babies who are also naturally born flesh (John 1:13). It is an obvious inference that animals that lack both law and understanding die because they are naturally corruptible like the creation from which they stem (cf. Ps. 49; Eccl. 3:19f.). This Paul implies in Romans 8:18-25 where on the one hand he fails to mention sin and on the other he contrasts the present temporal age with the glory of the age to come (cf. 1 Cor. 15:50). In any case, the apostle clearly indicates that flesh is by nature corruptible (Rom. 8:13; Gal. 6:8, cf. Heb. 1:10-12, etc.). And that is why we need to escape from it by gaining eternal life (cf. 2 Pet. 1:4, etc.).
Our conclusion therefore must be that like Adam and Eve before them babies that lack the law and knowledge of good and evil are born innocent (cf. Dt. 1:39; Num. 14:3,29-33, etc.) and acquire their moral nature when they fail to keep the commandment(s) (cf. John 8:34; Eph. 2:1-3, etc.). In other words, as true sons and daughters of our original parents we all imitate or repeat their sins as children, who are made in their image (Gen. 5:1-3) usually do. So when Augustinians try to convince us that babies are born sinful, that is, before they have broken the law in some sense, they are putting the cart before the horse. Denial of this forces us to reach the logical but unacceptable conclusion that even Jesus who was also a son of Adam (Luke 3:38) was born sinful “in him”.
Next, Augustinians teach that on account of Adam’s sin even creation is fallen or has become subject to a cosmic curse. Evidence of this is entirely lacking. Indeed, the very idea is subverted by Genesis 1, to go no further, where mention is made, first, of a beginning implying an end, then of reproduction and food both of which imply death (cf. Heb. 7:23; Isa. 40:6-8). Furthermore, Paul maintains that creation is still good (1 Cor. 10:26,30f.; 1 Tim. 4:3f., cf. Acts 14:17) and is performing its proper function of providing a suitable habitat for the nurture of man and beast alike (cf. Gen. 8:21f.; Acts 14:17). Admittedly, it is said that the ground was cursed or defiled on account of Adam’s sin and failure to exercise proper dominion (cf. Cain in Gen. 4:12 and note Prov. 24:30f.), but later in the Bible it is made clear that God is angry not with inanimate creation but with sinful people who fail to exercise proper dominion (Dt. 20:19; Hab. 3:8). The Bible insists many times that all land that is uninhabited (and hence uncultivated and no longer under man’s dominion) becomes desolate (Isa. 6:11f., etc.). As at the time of the exile even the Promised Land enjoyed its sabbath. While it may be conceded that the flood was regarded as a curse, it was not permanent (Gen. 8:21f.). It was only a precursor or, like the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, a paradigm of the final curse which will engulf the whole creation when history comes to an end (2 Pet. 3:7,10-12, cf. Luke 17:26-30). But by that time the earth will be largely confined to the production of (human) thorns and thistles instead of a harvest of godly people (Heb. 6:7f.; 2 Tim. 3:1ff., cf. 1 Thes. 4:15-17; 2 Thes. 1:7-10; 2:7-12; Rev. 14:14-20). When that occurs it will have lost its raison d’etre or reason for existence (cf. Col. 1:16).
The tragedy of traditional belief is that it has placed the universal curse at the beginning instead of at the end and turned theology on its head.
It is impossible for any alert reader of the Bible not to notice that Jesus was baptized in his maturity. Indeed, the human agent of his baptism was John the Baptist whose normal function was to baptize people, presumably adults, who repented of the sins they had committed. Though he had no sins to repent of and though John was reluctant to baptize him (Mt. 3:14), Jesus nonetheless asked to be baptised. When he was, he was endowed with the Spirit as the Son with whom his Father was well pleased. The inference we draw from this is that, in contrast with Adam who sinned and died, he had kept the law, attained to righteousness and received the life it promised (Gen. 2:17; Lev. 18:5, etc.). If this is so, then to baptize babies before they have even received the law and exercised faith is once more to subvert the order of salvation or put the cart before the horse. It is like circumcising Abraham before he was justified by faith. In the event, Abraham’s circumcision, though not that of his descendants under the law (Lev. 12:3), served as the seal of the faith and righteousness he already had before he was circumcised (Rom. 4:11). Christian baptism also seals faith and repentance. And when it does, it also serves to signify the reception of the Spirit or eternal life promised to the righteous (by faith). In other words, Jesus’ baptism, as we ought to expect, is the paradigm or archetype of all Christian baptism, and its imposition on unconscious babies is a travesty of its real intention. Little wonder that the church has been plagued by legalism, sacramentalism and sacerdotalism through much of its history. But there is more to say.
One of the principal historical motivations for infant baptism has been the idea that babies are born sinners, the victims of Adam’s sin. Had Augustine and others not taught original sin, it would surely have been assumed that babies, who like Adam and Eve at first had no knowledge of good or evil and were without the law in any form, were innocent (cf. Dt. 1:39, etc.). But since they were regarded as sinful, it seemed necessary to counteract their sin by imposing baptism and thereby conveying regeneration or eternal life! (It goes without saying that Augustine concluded that babies that were not baptized went to hell!) So we have a situation where Jesus the very Son of God had to keep the law to perfection in order to inherit life while innocent children still lacking self- consciousness inherit it merely by being presented for baptism. The very least that can be said about this is that Christian baptism has lost its meaning. It has sealed the flesh (cf. John 1:13) as circumcision came to seal the law, and inevitably produced “Christians” who have no idea of what Christianity is.
The Priority of Faith and Repentance
Yet another instance of putting the cart before the horse is the notion widespread especially in Reformed theology, where original sin is strongly asserted (Art. 9; WCF, 6), that regeneration precedes repentance, faith and justification. There could hardly be a more radically erroneous idea and, needless to say, it is repeatedly denied in the Bible. Any plausibility it has is based on Augustinian theology. For Augustine who taught that babies were born in sin and as a result of fleshly concupiscence, which he considered evil, regeneration was the necessary cure. However, a careful examination of biblical teaching makes it indisputably clear that the new birth or eternal life is granted only if the law is kept or faith is exercised (Gen. 2:17; Lev. 18:5; Rom. 10:5, etc.). In a word, it is given exclusively to the righteous (Hab. 2:4; Gal. 3:11, cf. Rom. 5:21, etc.). To express the issue alternatively, while breaking the law leads to condemnation and death as it did in Adam’s case, keeping it leads to righteousness and life as it did in Jesus’ case. And since all Adam and Eve’s posterity, Jesus apart (Luke 3:38), follow them in sin (Rom. 3:9,12,23, etc.) and earn its wages (Rom. 5:12; 6:23), all need the righteousness of Christ apart from which they cannot be born again and enter the kingdom of our holy God (cf. 2 Cor. 5:17,21). It is precisely because the new birth, which is exclusively a work of God, is absolutely necessary that repentance and faith are commanded throughout the Bible. In other words, faith and not regeneration, even in the OT (cf. Heb. 11), is the absolutely indispensable means of achieving the righteousness (Rom. 3:19f.; Gal. 2:16) and subsequent life (Rom. 5:21; 6:22f.) apart from which we cannot be saved. That is why faith, which is the instrumental means of appropriating the righteousness of Christ, is said to save (Luke 7:50; John 3:16; Eph. 2:8). For sinners, there is no other way.
The notion that God grants us eternal life before we have been justified has horrendous implications. For instance, it implies that we can be eternally cemented in our sin. The fact is that since righteousness is the indispensable prerequisite of eternal life (Lev. 18:5; Ezek. 20:11,13,21; Rom. 10:5) and it can only be gained through faith in Christ, who alone of all men who have ever lived was righteous (cf. Acts 3:14; 22:14; 1 John 2:1), faith and righteousness necessarily precede regeneration. While it may be true that God can and does justify the ungodly by faith (Rom. 4:5), he cannot and does not regenerate them. To argue that he can renders faith and righteousness redundant. For what man of flesh racked with temptation and desire (cf. Heb. 2:18; 4:15) wants to be bothered with righteousness and holiness if he can get to heaven without them? Why should he not enjoy the pleasures of sin while he can (cf. Heb. 11:25)?
Justification and Sanctification
One of the hallmarks of the theology of the Reformation was the belief that justification precedes sanctification. It has to be said with regret that this belief was never followed to its logical conclusion and properly implemented. As a result, even today in the twenty-first century many still believe that we must become good by doing good works before we can be saved or justified. This is a categorical denial of the biblical position which teaches the justification by faith not of the godly but of the ungodly. The truth is that like Abraham (Rom. 4:5) we are saved as sinners (Rom. 5:6,10). And once we are justified by faith in the death of Christ, we are sanctified by his life (Rom. 5:10; 6:3f.). Justification is a once-for-all legal pronouncement; sanctification is an on-going process which terminates only in heaven. It occurs when the Spirit is poured out on forgiven sinners. So, to place sanctification or moral goodness before justification, or to fuse them in such a way as to blur their distinctiveness, is yet again to put the cart before the horse. If salvation is by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8), then it has nothing to do with personal achievement. To insist that it has is to deny that grace is grace (Rom. 11:6). Justification and sanctification certainly belong together, but only as the former precedes the latter.
Resurrection, Ascension and Glorification
Yet another example of putting the cart before the horse is the notion popular at the time of writing that Jesus was glorified at his resurrection. While it needs to be recognized that Jesus was glorified or honoured by his Father at his baptism and transfiguration, the idea that he was exalted in the sense that he entered the kingdom of heaven when he rose again from the dead is surely going beyond the evidence. (The fact that he committed his spirit to his Father is beside the point. Like that of the little girl he raised it returned to his dead body, Luke 8:55; James 2:26.) Various things can be said in reaction to this. I submit the following: first, if Jesus was glorified in the sense that he was changed in such a way as to be fitted for heaven, then he was no longer flesh (cf. 1 Cor. 15:50); second, if this is so, his resurrection was not physical at all, it was a spiritual transformation; third, if his resurrection constituted his transformation, it makes nonsense of the NT references to his non-corruption for only if he was still earthly flesh could corruption be an issue. Paul, along with the author of Hebrews, makes it crystal clear that after he had died once for the sins of his people Jesus, having risen, never needed to die again (Rom. 6:9). After all, he already had eternal life as a result of keeping the law and could not legitimately remain a victim of death (Acts 2:23f.). But if he was still flesh (Luke 24:39, etc.), his ascension was a paramount necessity (cf. John 20:17) since he could not live forever on this temporal earth, least of all inherit the eternal blessings of David (Isa. 55:3; Luke 1:32f.; Acts 13:34). Furthermore, according to the apostle the transformation of those who are still alive in the flesh at his coming occurs at their ascension (1 Cor. 15:50f.). This being so, we have no alternative but to believe that it follows the pattern established by Jesus himself. As so much of the post-resurrection narrative implies, transformation/glorification occurs at the end of earthly life which in Jesus’ case was at his ascension (cf. Luke 9:51; 24:51, cf. 2 K. 2:11; Acts 1:2; 1 Tim. 3:16; Rev. 12:5).
It is not by accident that biblical teaching regarding perfection (1 Cor. 13:10; 14:20; Phil. 3:12-14; Heb. 5:9; 6:1, etc.) has been largely hidden from view in the West. Since the eclipse of Irenaeus by Augustine, the notion of perfection has been clearly in conflict with received cart-before-the-horse topsy-turvy theology which begins where it should end, that is, with human perfection in Adam. By contrast, as noted above, the biblical view posits initial innocence (infant-like immaturity or imperfection) followed by its loss when the (transgenerational) commandment (Gen. 2:17) which promises life is broken (Rom. 7:9f.). This pattern is followed throughout Scripture (Dt. 1:39; Heb. 5:12-14, cf. 1 K. 3:7,9; Rom. 7:9f.; 9:11, etc.) not to mention experience. While the Bible frequently tells us that we all sin in our youth, it never suggests that we sin as unself-conscious babies. Rather on receiving the commandment, we all follow first Eve then Adam in their sin. Only Jesus the second Adam remained unsullied. He too started morally from scratch (cf. Isa. 7:15f.; Heb. 2:17) but succeeded in achieving the sinless perfection of spiritual maturity and completeness that his Father required (Lev. 11:44f.; Mt. 5:48; Heb. 2:10; 7:28). To express the issue differently, he recovered as man the glory that he shared with his Father before the world began (John 17:5,24) attaining to his exact moral and generic likeness (Heb. 1:3). By so doing he paved the way for those who put their trust in him to share his glory (Rom. 5:2; Heb. 2:10). He thus laid the foundation of the plan of salvation for his fellows by becoming its pioneer and perfecter (cf. Heb. 12:2).
Most of the criticisms of traditional theology dealt with above involve extrapolations from the erroneous speculations and preconceptions of Augustine. Of course, more could be said. For example, current convictions regarding the restoration of creation, premillennialism and the idea that Jesus will return to reign on earth though totally alien to the NT arise ultimately from the same sin-obsessed source. So far as the order of salvation (ordo salutis) is concerned, while it is generally assumed and dogmatically asserted in some places, it is not much discussed nowadays. It has been said that it is redundant – perhaps because it is an embarrassment. For all that, as I have indicated above, it is still very much with us, and, if Christians want reformation, revival and a significant impact on society at large including the world religions, the subject will have to be revisited with a vengeance. When it is, it will be of fundamental importance for us to understand that the Augustinian scheme of salvation, apart from its emphasis on grace, is a travesty of biblical teaching. The notion that creation began with perfection (completeness, maturity) and was succeeded by a “Fall” is so fundamentally at odds with biblical teaching, science, history and personal experience that it has distorted Christian perception of the truth for 1,600 years. What may reasonably be termed the evolutionary ascent of man or the progressive movement from flesh to spirit (1 Cor. 15:46, cf. v.23) is basic to the Christian worldview which is inherently teleological. For, from the beginning, the goal of man who was uniquely made in the image of God was to be conformed to both his moral and generic likeness (Rom. 8:29, cf. Heb. 1:3) as his children (1 John 3:1-3, etc.).
So, since the Bible from Genesis to Revelation is thoroughly teleological, it is vital for Christians to see themselves as pilgrims heading for the celestial city that in contrast with transient earthly ones abides forever (Heb. 12:22-24; 13:14, cf. 11:10,16). In other words, escape from the mortality and corruption that characterize this material world is paramount.