Why Augustine’s ‘Come to Jesus’ Moment Tells an Incomplete Story
My parents bought me my first copy of Augustine’s Confessions when I was a young teen. In this classic of the Western literary canon, the church father Augustine describes his sometimes wayward youth, his eventual conversion to Christ, and how God transformed his way of seeing the world. The book has captured the imagination of countless spiritual and intellectual seekers and shaped the ethos of entire literary, theological, and cultural traditions. But I did not take up and read. While most other books my parents recommended made it to my nightstand, this one sat on my shelf and collected dust. It stayed there through high school, through college, and as I took my first full-time job. I knew a little about this fourth- and fifth-century titan of the Christian tradition but not enough to tempt me to read him for myself.
Truth be told, despite now having devoted years of my life to the study of Augustine, I have never enjoyed the easy familiarity with Confessions that so many people talk about. “This could have been the story of my teenage years; I know just how he felt here,” I have heard umpteen times.
To me, Augustine’s specific temptations and preoccupations seem as foreign as the geographical, cultural, and philosophical worlds he inhabited. And the climax of the entire narrative—his dramatic conversion—is something the likes of which I have never experienced myself. Only after years have I come to see Augustine’s story as in some sense “mine,” and this understanding has been hard-won by listening to master interpreters and squinting through the lens of scholarly analysis.
Whereas most people know Augustine through Confessions, I most identify with him through his later ministry. It’s easier for me to connect with Augustine the bishop, the Augustine on the other side of his youthful turmoil, the Augustine who did so much to shape the attitudes, beliefs, and principles assumed in the Christian faith of my own upbringing. Beyond the story of his errant youth and the singular “Road to Damascus” moment, there is another side to the larger-than-life figure of Augustine—one marked by small, routine acts of turning to Christ.
As scholars now widely acknowledge, Augustine experienced other “conversions” besides the strange warming of his heart in Milan: His embrace of the pursuit of wisdom and his turn to certain philosophical ideas both laid the groundwork for his conversion to Christ. But it is less often emphasized that orienting oneself to the Lord, according to Augustine, shouldn’t be restricted to rare occasions. In his view, conversion is a continual necessity. It is the rule of the Christian life, not the exception.
This idea of “conversion as a continual necessity” is reflected clearly only when we look beyond the Confessions to the long haul of Augustine’s ministry.
For over 30 years, Augustine was a bishop, a pastor, someone who led his flock in worship. This is the Augustine who faithfully preached sermon after sermon, week in and week out; the Augustine who carried on a massive correspondence with people of great importance and small; the Augustine who arbitrated property disputes; the Augustine who had to ask people to quiet down because his voice was too weak to speak up; the Augustine who had valuable vessels in his church melted down to ransom prisoners and feed the poor. This is the Augustine who stayed put in a humble place, Hippo of North Africa, and from there—consciously or unconsciously—changed the world.
Among theologians, Augustine is famous for taking on opponents whose theology he refuted. Chief among these were a number of people associated with “Pelagianism,” named for a man whose moral teaching emphasized the capacity of human beings to do what is right. God does help human beings, Pelagius taught, but this help comes primarily in the form of natural ability and knowledge. So if people just try hard enough and get enough information into their heads, they can freely choose to act as they should.
Against this way of thinking, Augustine insisted that God is the one who brings about conversion in people’s lives. Human beings are addicts to sin who cannot recover without help from a higher power. They need God to change their hearts by acting on them directly through an outpouring of the Holy Spirit. As the controversy with Pelagius and his followers progressed, Augustine pushed this line of thinking even further. He came to believe that people need God to redirect them to what is right, not just at one discrete point, but again and again. The Christian life is one of constant reliance on God to take our hearts and turn them back to our Maker.
This need for repeated conversion came to pointed expression in the worship services that Augustine led. Our written records of quite a number of his sermons conclude with a set formula that he used to transition from the sermon into prayer. After preaching, he would pronounce, “Turning to the Lord, let us now…” At this moment, the congregation would turn toward the east as Augustine continued to lead them in prayer. The Latin word for turning (in this case) is conversi, which has the same root as the English word conversion.
For Augustine, turning to God—Christian conversion—was so essential to the Christian life that he enshrined it in the patterns of his congregation’s worship. An explicit exhortation to conversion served as a hinge in the service between hearing God’s Word in the sermon and receiving the Eucharist. This rhetorical and liturgical turning point was then enacted in the bodily postures of the worshipers.
What does Augustine’s ancient rite of conversion mean for us today? The Bishop of Hippo certainly looked back on his conversion to Christ in Milan as a watershed moment. But this did not lessen the urgency of his subsequent need for Christ. We always need Jesus and, not only that, returning to him is what gives our lives joy and meaning. It is a little like embracing a beloved friend, parent, spouse, or child. The strength of the relationship encourages, rather than supersedes, continually turning to each other in love.
Thankfully, God provides for us accordingly. The Lord’s mercies are new every morning. That’s why, according to this church father, conversion isn’t something we leave behind once we enter the glories of Christian worship. It is what worship is supposed to do to us, again and again. Worship isn’t about having it all together or even about guaranteeing certain outcomes by the consistency of our own practices. It’s about being turned, and returned, to God.
The problem of sin makes this all the more urgent. As we consider what Augustine has to say about conversion, we’re reminded that the “bad boy” we read about in the Confessionsis not so radically different from Augustine the bishop. Let’s not forget: Augustine the bishop is not the Augustine featured in the Confessions, but he is the Augustine who wrote the Confessions. The mature Augustine, like his youthful counterpart, was still a sinner in need of grace, a humble human actor in a divine drama of salvation.
Augustine the bishop helps us see just how close we are to his foolish former self. But he also shows us why dramatic, Confessions-like conversions are not the end of the story. Despite the numerous disagreements Augustine surely would have had with Shaker theology, this line of the classic Shaker hymn expresses his view perfectly: “to turn, turn, will be our delight, till by turning, turning we come ’round right.” Conversion is the refrain of the Christian life.
Han-luen Kantzer Komline is an assistant professor of church history and theology at Western Theological Seminary.