In her devotion to her husband and children, Augustine’s mother, Monica (331–87), was in many ways a typical wife and mother. She holds a place in history largely because of her prayers for her prodigal son.
Monica lived with her husband, Patricius, a minor official of the North African town of Thagaste, in what is now Algeria. Patricius was a sexually passionate (and sometimes unfaithful) fourth-century pagan, and Monica a devout Christian.
She had two sons and probably several daughters. Augustine’s early years were marked by the boy’s ungovernable temper, lies, and thefts. Patricius’s death left her a widow at 40 (though not before he became a convert in his last days), and Monica faced the next 16 years of Augustine’s tumultuous early adulthood without him. Augustine’s lifestyle of unbelief and impurity caused her agonizing distress.
“Lord,” Augustine later confessed, “how loathsome I was in Thy sight. I wandered still farther from Thee, and Thou didst leave me to myself: the torrent of my fornications tossed and swelled and boiled and ran over.”
Monica, however, was determined to see her son become a genuine Christian. She clung to the belief, encouraged by a special dream, that she would see him converted before she died. To that end she prayed persistently, prayers the great bishop and theologian of Hippo would later realize were instrumental in his conversion.
When Augustine left home for a professorship in rhetoric at the University of Milan, Monica followed. There she worshiped in the church of the renowned Bishop Ambrose, often present twice daily to hear the Word and pray.
She entreated God to change her son and empower him to overcome sin in his life. She may have also seen in Ambrose a model of what she wanted Augustine to become—a successful politician-turned-churchman.
On the day of answered prayer, Augustine was staying in a villa with a good friend, Alypius, and Monica. They received a visitor that morning, an official named Pontitian, an African and a Christian. As they sat down to talk, Pontitian opened a book lying on a table, which contained the epistles of Paul. He told the others about his own struggle with the meaning of life and his conversion.
Augustine was moved deeply. When Pontitian was gone, the sensualist’s mind was aflame. Augustine rushed from the house into the garden. Alypius followed him and found him babbling like a child: “How long? Why not now? Why should there not be an end to my impurity now?”
The answer came not from the clouds, but from an unknown child chanting “Tolle, lege” (“Take up and read”). The words came like an angelic message to Augustine. He picked up the epistles of Paul and his eyes fell on the words of Romans 13: “Not in reveling and drunkenness … but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh.”
Suddenly calm, Augustine returned to the house to tell his story to Monica. Her dream had come true. Her prayers were answered. She died soon after, at the age of 56.
In his writings, Augustine lavished praise on his mother. He called her his mother in both the flesh and in the Lord. Christians who knew her, he wrote, “dearly loved her Lord in her, for they felt His presence in her heart.”
In Johann Von Staupitz (1469–1524), the future Reformer Martin Luther had a friend and adviser who stood beside him during a dark night of spiritual crisis, and who taught him that God’s saving grace is never cheap.
As a member of a Saxon family of nobility, Johann studied at Cologne and Leipzig before becoming an Augustinian monk. He received his doctorate in 1500 and soon accepted an invitation from Frederick the Wise in Saxony to help organize a new university in Wittenberg, where he was professor of Bible and the first dean of the theological faculty. A year later he was also elected vicar-general of the German division of the Augustinian order.
On a sultry day in July 1505, Martin Luther was struck to the ground by a lightning bolt and cried in terror, “Saint Anne, help me! I will become a monk.” When Luther became an Augustinian monk, Staupitz soon became the younger man’s spiritual director and counselor.
During these years, Luther’s soul was tossed about like a dinghy in a violent sea, thrust upward by appeals to hope in God, then smashed to depression’s depths by a sense of God’s wrath. “If it had not been for Dr. Staupitz,” Luther later said, “I should have sunk in hell.”
Staupitz taught Luther about grace, and that the condition of the heart is what is crucial to true penance. But Staupitz did more. Casting about for some cure for the young monk’s tormented soul, Staupitz recommended that Luther pursue a doctorate in biblical studies and prepare to succeed Staupitz in the chair of Bible at the university.
Luther gasped, then recovered sufficiently to list 15 reasons why the proposal was unthinkable. How could a young man on the edge of collapse hope to teach the gospel to other sick souls?
Staupitz had prescribed a cure from the ancient kit of spiritual advisers: “Physician, cure thyself by curing others.” He knew that in his study of the Scriptures, Luther would encounter not only the threats of judgment but the promises of grace.
The prescription worked. Luther found in the Psalms and Romans a new image of God and his righteousness. “I grasped,” he later wrote, “that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith.”
This discovery led Luther into his crusade against the prevailing practice of selling indulgences to raise money for the church. When the papal church moved to deflect and silence the popular German, Staupitz tried to protect Luther. His defense of Luther aroused papal suspicions. Had he too fallen under Luther’s spell?
In 1520 Staupitz signed a statement of his submission to the pope, but he relinquished his office as vicar-general of the Augustinians and became a Benedictine. At the time of his death in 1524, he was serving as abbot of Saint Peter’s monastery. In his last letter to Staupitz, in September 1523, Luther disavowed any harsh feelings toward the counselor who had made God’s grace so plain and clear.
William Farel (1489–1565) was the fiery forerunner of John Calvin during the sixteenth-century Reformation of Geneva. Historian John T. McNeill called Farel “the venturesome, big-voiced, red-bearded little evangelist.”
Later, looking back at his career, Calvin noted, “Being by nature a bit shy, I always loved retirement. But God has so whirled me around by various events that He has never let me rest anywhere, but has thrust me into the limelight.” The most dramatic turnaround in Calvin’s career came from Farel.
Farel enlisted in the reform movement in his native France. When persecution of Protestants forced him to flee in 1523, he became a leader of a band of reformers preaching mainly in French-speaking Switzerland, eventually ending up in Geneva in the early 1530s.
In July 1536, when Calvin himself found it necessary to flee France, he headed to Strasbourg for further study. A regional conflict forced him to go through Geneva. “Only one night,” he thought. He knew that the town—notoriously pleasure-loving and politically volatile—was no place for solitude.
Farel’s preaching had brought an end to Catholic masses, but the town’s Protestantism rested on political hostility to the bishop, not doctrinal convictions. Farel knew the city needed a manager. During Calvin’s stopover, Farel made a point of calling on the young scholar. He urged Calvin to stay and help establish the work there.
Calvin protested that he had studies to pursue. “You are only following your own wishes!” Farel responded. “If you do not help us in this work of the Lord, the Lord will punish you for seeing your own interest rather than His.”
Farel had succeeded in getting his friend’s attention. The last thing Calvin wanted was to offend Almighty God. He consented and immediately joined Farel in the reforming cause. Geneva’s city councils offered Calvin a position as “Professor of Sacred Scriptures” and he began his work with vigor.
Calvin stayed for two years, until opposition forces ordered the two to leave. Farel, ready for a new challenge, headed for Neuchatel, while Calvin chose Strasbourg. Farel would not give up, however, and kept in touch with Calvin, soon joining supporters in Geneva in urging Calvin to return. In 1541, after months of indecision, Calvin resumed his work there.
Geneva became a center of international influence. After visiting Geneva to sit at the feet of the master, young reformers from all over Europe returned to their homelands to establish Calvin’s principles there.
Meanwhile, Farel remained in Neuchatel, making it the base for forays into other French towns. Years later, when Calvin lay dying, Farel went to his friend’s bedside to console him, only a year before he, too, died.
In Peter Boehler (1712–75), Methodism’s founder John Wesley had a pastoral friend who taught that salvation by faith is an instantaneous surrender to God that empowers one for Christian ministry.
Wesley met Boehler for the first time in 1738 shortly after his return to England from his disheartening missionary experience in the Georgia colony.
Wesley had gone to the New World in an eventually disastrous attempt to preach to the Indians. On his way home, after only two years, he had a chance to ponder the whole experience. “I went to America, to convert the Indians” he wrote, “but, oh, who shall convert me?”
The one positive experience in the venture was his contact with the Moravians, a group of German believers who seemed to possess what he lacked—a restful trust in God. He determined to learn their secret. Within a matter of days after landing in England, Wesley met Peter Boehler, a Moravian pastor on his way to America for mission work.
During a trip together to Oxford they talked freely about the meaning of faith. Wesley tried unsuccessfully to follow Boehler’s position. Finally, Boehler said to him, “My brother, that philosophy of yours must be purged away.”
Wesley grew desperate. On Sunday, March 5, he almost decided against preaching again. He went to Boehler to explain his dilemma. How could he preach when he was without faith?
“Preach faith till you have it,” the young Moravian responded, “and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.” For weeks after this conversation, Wesley rode from place to place preaching as Boehler had advised him, but experiencing nothing. Then, the day before Boehler sailed for America, he was able to convince John’s brother Charles of the experiential reality of living faith.
Three weeks after Boehler’s departure, Wednesday, May 24, 1738, Wesley found what he had long sought, when he went “very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street” and heard the reading of Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. There Wesley had his storied experience of feeling his “heart strangely warmed.”
Boehler’s prescription had worked: Wesley preached faith till he had it. Boehler continued as an important preacher in his own right. He worked as a missionary of the English Society for the Propagation of the Gospel among the slaves of South Carolina, and pastor of some Moravians in Savannah. Later he led the Moravian emigration to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
Andrew Fuller (1754–1815) was the unsung hero of the great William Carey’s pioneering missionary career in Asia. Fuller overthrew the idea that only the elect can embrace the gospel and that it is therefore useless to invite the unconverted to trust in Christ.
The son of a Cambridgeshire farmer, he was 16 when he joined the Soham (Calvinistic Baptist) church, north of London. Shortly thereafter he had an unforgettable experience. He discovered one of the older members of the church drinking to excess and confronted the man.
“I am unable to keep myself from sin,” the man responded, “and so are you!”
Fuller reported the incident to his pastor, who commended him and agreed that Christians, though without power to do things spiritually good, had the power to obey the will of God and to disobey it in outward acts.
The matter sparked a heated debate within the Calvinist church and resulted in the departure of the pastor, whom Fuller deeply admired. Fuller was left convinced that some kind of power was necessary to render people accountable for their sins—while still reserving all good in them to God.
After the pastor’s departure, Fuller served the church and was ordained in 1774. The people, however, criticized his issuing of a “whosoever will may come” invitation to accept Christ. This disagreement compelled Fuller to write his challenge to hyper-Calvinism, The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation.
For several years, the church at nearby Kettering issued a call to Fuller to become their pastor. He finally accepted in 1783. At his induction, he frankly declared his convictions. While asserting the agency of the Holy Spirit in conversion, he boldly declared: “I believe it the duty of every minister of Christ plainly and faithfully to preach the Gospel to all who will hear it; and I believe it their duty to love the Lord Jesus Christ and trust in him for salvation [even if] they do not.” Calls and warnings, he said, are the means in the hands of the Spirit of God to bring men and women to Christ.
In his new ministry, Fuller met colleagues who were prepared to join him in challenging the prevailing idea that preaching should avoid all appeals to conversion, lest the preacher interfere somehow in God’s election of his chosen people.
“We have sunk into such a compromising way of dealing with the unconverted,” Fuller complained, “as to have well nigh lost the spirit of the primitive preachers, and hence it is the sinners of every description can sit so quietly as they do, year after year, in our places of worship.”
Among his ministerial friends was William Carey, who drew the inescapable inference that, if it is the duty of all people to repent and believe the gospel—as Fuller was arguing—it is also the duty of those entrusted with the gospel to carry it to the whole world.
In 1792 Carey published An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathen, in which he took up major objections against missions to “heathen” lands. It was the catalyst for the beginning of an epoch.
By encouraging each other, Carey and Fuller succeeded in breaking free from the restrictive theology of their time. As a result, in October 1792, Carey, Fuller, and 11 Baptist colleagues formed the Baptist Missionary Society. Within a year, Carey and his family were on their way to India—a move that would open the doors for modern missions. Fuller remained the secretary of the mission from its foundation to the day of his death.
Eugene H. Peterson is pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church, Bel Air, Maryland, and author of A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (InterVarsity) and Answering God (Harper & Row), both of which are about the Psalms.
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