Augustine grappled with many of the same ethical issues that concern us today. In The Enchiridion, basically his version of a “handbook of Christian living,” he tells how we can maintain a balanced outlook on the issues that affect our lives.

Can a mature saint distill the essentials of earthy Christian living into a simple handbook? Augustine certainly tried. At age 66, in the middle of writing The City of God, he wrote a manual on the Christian life called The Enchiridion on Faith, Hope, and Love. Of Augustine’s 93 major written works, this little enchiridion (Greek for “handbook”) displays his most integrated picture of down-to-earth life before God.

The impetus behind this handbook was a man named Laurentius. He had implored Augustine to write a short work on the proper worship of God, the meaning and fulfillment of the chief purpose of our lives, and the proper foundation of Christian faith. He had explicitly asked for a “handbook”: one to be carried in the hand, not left gathering dust on the shelf!

Just a year earlier, Augustine had restrained Laurentius’s brother, a Roman tribune, from being overzealous in fighting the Donatist heresy. In view of the various prevailing heresies and accompanying confusion, Laurentius wanted a brief positive description of Christian living that he could carry with him on his Christian walk.

Though small in size, The Enchiridion certainly deserves its position as a classic in Christian writing. Its basic theme stems from the cardinal Christian virtues of faith, hope and love. In 122 brief chapters, Augustine thoughtfully examines the needs of daily Christian living in the light of biblical truth and the Apostles’ Creed. The threads that bind this manual together are the central themes of Augustine’s own Christian philosophy: the hopelessness of evil, the triumph of good, the necessity of almsgiving, and the essential realism and skepticism of earthy Christian living.

The Hopelessness of Evil

Underlying this work is a consistent Christian optimism based on the sovereignty of God and an understanding of the radical dependency of evil upon the good that it perverts. Evil, writes Augustine, is finally a hopeless parasite: It does not exist in its own right, but only as a corruption of something good. He repeatedly claims that the vices of human life are “nothing but privations of natural good.” In fact, as long as something is in the process of being corrupted, we can be confident that it still has some good “of which it is being deprived.” Consequently, if corruption were complete in destroying all that is good in something, that thing and the corruption itself would disappear. So evil cannot last. In short, “nothing can be evil except something which is good,” in spite of the fact that good and evil are genuine contraries.

The paradox Augustine develops here is the venerable doctrine of Creation and Fall that so defines our lives. The creation is good, and our sovereign God continues to sustain and control it well. Actually, only because God’s creatures are good can sin corrupt and pervert them. This Augustinian claim makes sin especially reprehensible—for it is the corruption of God’s very handiwork—while it makes redemption all the more believable—for God remains sovereign. By God’s grace, we can seek what is good as the satisfaction of our real present needs, and as the restoration of our ultimate human “health.”

Understanding evil as the privation of good was one of the most important steps in Augustine’s conversion to Christ, and it remained a theme in many of his writings. A contemporary reemphasis on this doctrine could probably heighten our own awareness of the practical moral concerns of our own time. And by feeling less alienated from our needy world, we might become more actively involved in restoring what is good.

The Triumph of God

In The Enchiridion, Augustine fully embraces the logical implications of his concept of evil: he asserts that even the life and vital power of wicked angels and wicked people depend on the continuing gifts of God. Obviously, he says, God’s purpose is to bring some great good out of evil; otherwise, he would not bother to sustain evil beings. In fact, God must think it is actually “better to bring good out of evil, than not to permit any evil to exist.” After all, the end result of redemption will be greater than the original creation, for in the next life we will have a “more perfect immortality” free, finally, from the very desire for sin. So by God’s sovereign grace, he concludes, our future is even better than our pristine beginning.

In a state of anticipation—that is how Augustine says the Christian must now experience this triumph of good. He affirms that God does not save us by good works, but that good works are always present in those who believe. Referring to Ephesians 2:8–10, he insists that God is now creating us anew not merely as people, but as good people, so that good works are now necessary. After all, faith in the truth of certain biblical claims is not enough, he says, since the devils also believe and tremble. He says what the devils lack—and we relish—is the hope of God’s saving acts and the love that makes faith work.

Consequently, he says, cultivating good works in our present lives is an essential aspect of the divine triumph of good. We cannot pride ourselves in the good we do, for a good will itself is a gift of God’s grace. Human free will by itself is prone to error, he says; thus it is no surprise that mankind fell. To maintain righteousness, it is necessary for God to impart additionally “a portion of his unchangeable goodness.” After the Fall we needed all the more grace from God to free us from the bondage of sin, and with the additional grace in the future life we will no longer even desire sin.

The Need for Active Faith

Augustine wisely concludes that genuine faith requires good works now, and says this is especially accomplished in the giving of alms. Even though he affirms that salvation comes entirely through God’s grace, he still insists that the evidence of that grace, in the giving of alms, propitiates God for past sins. Of course, continuing sin is not excused by regular almsgiving; almsgiving can never purchase for us a license to sin. Instead, he says, almsgiving is a necessary part of “suitable repentance.” He points out that Jesus himself will decide who will enter the blessed kingdom on the basis of this very virtue (Matthew 25:31–36). The only special merit that Jesus will attribute to those who are eternally blessed, says Augustine, is that they abound in almsgiving—but not almsgiving in the conventional sense.

For Augustine, almsgiving is a multi-faceted virtue. For example, one way he suggests of giving alms to others is to give forgiveness. He interprets the Lord’s Prayer as suggesting that we can ask God’s forgiveness only as we forgive—Only as we “forgive from the heart a sin that has been committed against us.” We may not yet attain to loving our enemies, but when we forgive those who sin against us, we fulfill Jesus’ standard for our own forgiveness. And not only through the Lord’s Prayer does Jesus teach that we should forgive others as we would have God forgive us; he reemphasizes it in his first statement immediately after the prayer:

“If you forgive others their failings, your heavenly Father will forgive you yours; but if you do not forgive others, your Father will not forgive your failings either” (Matthew 6:14, 15; The Jerusalem Bible).

Augustine comments that the “thunder of this warning” is so severe that it should “awaken even the dead” Christian to a life of forgiveness-giving.

Concerning almsgiving, Augustine teaches us that it also means giving alms to ourselves! We, too, are wretched and in great need of help, he suggests. Our greatest need is for the cleansing of our inward parts, which we obtain only if we give the gift of Christ to our own selves. This need is especially shown in the example of the Pharisees, he says. They certainly gave material alms on a regular basis. But their mistake was to give alms only externally. They did not give to themselves what their own inward parts needed most: Christ himself.

Augustine’s Realism

One of the greatest benefits of reading Augustine is catching the fresh realism and honesty of his highly Christian perspective. He does not pretend to be unaffected by sin; he is an earthy theologian. His writing does not smack of excessive self-confidence; he is honest about the doubts and uncertainties that infest the finite and fallible minds even of Christians.

The mercy of God, he insists, is necessary to convince us even of our need for repentance. He points out that before Peter wept bitterly, it was necessary for the Lord to turn and look upon him. Unfortunately, we are not often convinced of the seriousness of our own sins and the sins around us. Even the “great” sins, ones which would exclude someone from entering the kingdom of God, rarely arouse our concern. We tend to be blase Augustine points out, because we have been exposed to these sins for so long. Instead of the familiarity that breeds contempt, “constant familiarity lead to the toleration” of sins, “and habitual toleration leads to the practice of many of them.” Perhaps partly because of his early battles with sin, as well as because of his realistic Christian awareness of a continuing struggle with sin, Augustine is deeply alarmed about how comfortable sin can become.

Quite aware that ambiguous ethical choices often exist, and often because of human ignorance, Augustine is no perfectionist. In particular he suggests that while all lies are wrong, varying intentions make some lies worse than others. In fact, he argues that if a person lies to save another person from injury, that person could be justly commended. This deceit is still wrong, and it needs to be forgiven; Augustine never makes deceit morally right. Nevertheless, while all deceivers must seek God’s forgiveness, a well-intentioned deceiver can also be properly praised as well.

In a similar way, Augustine recognizes the challenging complexities of the problem of abortion. He states that a key question in his own time, as it is now, was “at what time the infant begins to live in the womb; whether life exists in a latent form before it manifests itself in the motions of the living being.”

With his typical candor, Augustine admits that he cannot assuredly say at exactly what point human life begins. He seriously questions whether any human has the power to decisively say. Nevertheless, he asserts that any one who looked at the cut-up remains of an aborted baby would have to recognize that this had been a human life. Although Augustine apparently had a firm belief that a developing fetus participates in human life, he argues equally strongly here that a conclusive proof is outside our human ability.

Augustine’s Skepticism

Such personal awareness of the limits of our knowledge—the effects of the fallibility and finitude of our understanding—permeates Augustine’s writings, including The Enchiridion. We need patience with our ignorance of our world and with the difficulties of discerning correct interpretations of Scripture, he suggests. We must admit that many issues are beyond our understanding, so that even additional study of Scripture might not resolve them. After all, ignorance is not an error in and of itself, but it is a serious mistake for a person to think “he knows what he does not know.” Thus, on many questions it is a valid intellectual exercise to guess at answers, he says, so long as we do not presume “to know what we do not know.”

To sum up Augustine’s thinking here: It is crucial that we know God. We can actively nourish that vital knowledge through the Christian virtues of faith, hope and love, because of the hopelessness of evil, the triumph of good, and the worthiness of almsgiving. Consequently, we should also know our duties. However, on many issues ignorance is perfectly acceptable. More positively, the personal awareness of our own ignorance helps us put our trust where it belongs—not in ourselves, but in God only.

In our own time we seem torn between pessimistic realism and naive positive thinking. In contrast, Augustine gives us an honest picture of the hopelessness of evil, while enlightening our real struggle with sin in terms of the triumph of good.

Also, we often seem driven to define faith in terms of doctrinal knowledge, even to the neglect of good works. In contrast, Augustine humbly points out the severe limits of our knowledge, and he thunderously proclaims the necessity of disseminating alms and forgiveness—both to others and to ourselves.

Paul de Vries is an associate professor of philosophy at Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL