How St Augustine was Evangelized

This paper was given at the annual conference of the Academy for Evangelism in Theological Education, and later published in the Toronto Journal of Theology.

What I hope to do in this lecture is look at how Augustine in the Confessions describes his own experience of being evangelized, and to see how it might help us in our own definition and practice of evangelism.  I will consider the topic from the points-of-view of the three agents involved: Augustine himself, what I suppose you could call a “God’s eye” view, and the church’s view.

Augustine’s point-of-view

Augustine’s story illustrates what has almost become a cliché in contemporary thinking about evangelism–that evangelism is a process[1]—in the case of Augustine, a process that took over eleven years. Several factors were involved in the process, beginning with his turning away from his childhood faith. [2] This was similar to the experience of many people from a church background: a combination of growing up and experimenting with new things in life on the one hand, and, on the other hand, not finding adequate intellectual and spiritual nurture in his “faith of origin.”

Thus, at the age of seventeen, he left home and went to Carthage. There, he says, he left “the safe path” and discovered the “pitfalls” of love and the theatre. To a casual observer, this might just look like a young man sowing his wild oats.[3] With the benefit of hindsight, however, Augustine reads this period differently, arguing that what he was doing was in fact what all sinful human beings do: putting the creature in place of the Creator:

[M]y sin was this, that I looked for pleasure, beauty and truth not in [God] but in myself and his other creatures, and the search led me instead to pain, confusion, and error. (1:20, 40)

Because the essence of his leaving the faith was the desire to be his own God, the heart of the return will be a reversal of this, in other words, allowing God God’s rightful place in his life.

However far Augustine drifted, however, spiritual hunger was never far below the surface. When he said, “Our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you” (1:1, 21), he was speaking from personal experience. His first attempt to assuage that hunger was with the Manichees, but, before long, he found he had doubts about their claims, and his spiritual hunger remained unsatisfied:

I gulped down this [the Manichees’] food because I thought that it was you. . . . And it did not nourish me, but starved me all the more. (3:6, 61)

Two things undermined his faith in Manicheism. Firstly, Firminus warned him that Manichean astrology was irrational:

In a kind and fatherly way he advised me to throw [the books of astrology] away and waste no further pains upon such rubbish, because there were other more valuable things to be done. (4:3, 74)

Then, secondly, he met Faustus, reputedly a great authority on Manicheism, whom he had hoped would answer all his questions, but Augustine was disappointed with Faustus’ superficiality  (5:10, 104). In terms of the parable of the sower (perhaps the source of all understanding of evangelism as process), Augustine’s disillusionment with Manicheism broke up the ground in which the seed of the Gospel could be sown, or rather revived.

The next step was that Augustine heard the Gospel in a different form from that in which he had heard it in his youth. In Milan, under Ambrose’s preaching, Augustine “discovered how different Christian faith is from what he had supposed.” (Chadwick xx) Some of this was the unlearning of certain misconceptions–for instance, that God has a physical body.[1] On the positive side, he also heard better explanations of scripture than those he had encountered in Africa:

As for the passages which had previously struck me as absurd, now that I had heard reasonable explanations of many of them, I regarded them as of the nature of profound mysteries. (6:5, 117)

Thus the good seed of “the word” was sown into ground that had been well-prepared.

The turning point itself took place through the reading of a verse from Romans 13:

“Not in reveling and drunkenness, not in lust and wantonness, not in quarrels and rivalries. Rather, arm yourself with the Lord Jesus Christ; spend no more thought on nature or nature’s appetites.” (Romans 13:13-14) (8:12, 178)

Although this is hardly what most of us would consider a classic evangelistic text, for Augustine it focused the need to choose between two ways of living, one in self-indulgence, the other in relationship to Christ: he chose the latter. Later, he will describe these events in terms of giving up his freedom and yielding control of his life to his Creator:

You know how great a change you have worked in me, for first of all you have cured me of the desire to assert my claim of liberty . . . [Y]ou have curbed my pride by teaching me to fear you and have tamed my neck to your yoke. (10:36, 244)

For Augustine, if the essence of sin is putting ourselves in the place of God, then the heart of conversion is acknowledging the rightful place of God in our lives: this is the point to which the evangelistic process leads him.

Augustine, perhaps surprisingly, does not pick up Jesus’ agricultural imagery in the Confessions, but prefers instead a different process image, that of the journey. At various points he interprets his life as “the road to conversion” (6:4, 115).[4] Twice he casts himself in the role of prodigal, traveling away and then journeying back:

The path that leads us away from you and brings us back again is not measured by footsteps or milestones. . . . [The prodigal’s] blindness was the measure of the distance he travelled away from you, so that he could not see your face. (1:18, 38)

And later:

I was wandering far from you and I was not even allowed to eat the husks on which I fed the swine. (3:6, 62)

He further understands that if he becomes a Christian, it will be like a road on which he will follow Jesus. Thus when he goes for advice of Simplicianus, he asks “how best a man in my state of mind might walk upon your way.” (8:1, 157) Picking up Jesus’ own language of “the narrow way,” he adds:

[I]n my worldly life all was confusion. . . . I should have been glad to follow the right road, to follow our Saviour himself, but I could not make up my mind to venture along the narrow path. (8:1, 157)

The second approach to the story is:

A theocentric point-of-view

Augustine is deeply convinced that the work of drawing people into the Kingdom is the work of God., and that God’s grace must therefore precede any human activity: “My God, you had mercy on me before I had confessed to you.” (3:7, 62) So how, from Augustine’s point-of-view, does God bring evangelism about? How does God bring people into the Kingdom? Augustine offers several clues.

One is that God works through circumstances. As Augustine looks back, he sees God at work, creating situations that would help to move him towards faith. So, for instance, when Augustine moved from Carthage to Rome because he had heard that the students were quieter:

You applied the spur[5] that would drive me away from Carthage and offered me enticements that would draw me to Rome . . . In secret you were using my own perversity . . . to set my feet upon the right course. (5:8, 100)

Augustine uses the metaphor of a ship unable to steer itself to illustrate this sense of being moved against his will:

In my pride I was running adrift, at the mercy of every wind. You were guiding me as a helmsman steers a ship, but the course you steered was beyond my understanding. (4:14, 84)[6] 

Henry Chadwick comments:

Decisions made with no element of Christian motive, without any questing for God or truth, brought him to where his Maker wanted him to be.[7]

One aspect of this is that God allows difficulties in order to draw people to faith. Thus Augustine found that the road of independence was strewn with obstacles, and interprets these as a spur or goad to drive him back onto the right road. Even in his relationship to his concubine, which appears to have been loving and relatively stable, he observes that God “mixed much bitterness in that cup of pleasure.” (3:1, 55) His mother was praying for him, and, he says, “Her prayers reached your presence, and yet you still left me to twist and turn in the dark.” (3:11, 68) Maybe the answer to her prayers was that he should twist and turn in the dark he had chosen for a time. God’s love, as Augustine experienced, is not soft!

The nearer he approaches to the truth, the more intense his suffering becomes. Although by the time he reaches Milan he is beginning to “prefer the Catholic teaching” (6:5, 116), he is still miserable, finding he has less joy in life than a poor beggar. As on other occasions, he turns to the Psalms to interpret his experience:

My soul was in a state of misery and you probed its wound to the quick, pricking it on to leave all else and turn to you to be healed. . . . [Y]ou broke my bones with the rod of your discipline. (6:6, 118)

Augustine observes also that God moved him towards faith through people who were not themselves believers.[8] Thus, in retrospect, his discovery at the age of 19 of Cicero, “altered my outlook on life. It changed my prayers to you, O Lord, and provided me with new hopes and aspirations” (3:4, 58). Then, much later, when he was relearning Christian faith, he discovered Plotinus, the neo-Platonist, and was amazed to find much that was compatible and indeed fulfilled in Christianity. As Simplicianus explained to him, “In the Platonists . . . God and his Word are constantly implied.” (8:2, 159) The difference is that while Platonism sees the goal, it does not see how to get there:

It is one thing to descry the land of peace from a wooded hilltop and, unable to find the way to it, struggle on through trackless waters . . . It is another thing to follow the high road to that land of peace, the way that is defended by the heavenly Commander. (7:21, 156)

Plotinus, like Cicero, serves to point Augustine in the right direction, and thus serves as a proto-evangelium.[9]

As Augustine later realized, this was why the Paul adopted the evangelistic strategy he did at Athens (Acts 17):

Through your apostle you told the Athenians that it is in you that we live and move and have our being . . . And, of course, the books that I was reading were written in Athens. (7:9, 146)

God, then, works through unbelievers, sometimes those who are seeking truth, sometimes those who are indifferent, and even those “whose hearts were set upon this life of death.” (5:8, 100)

Yet Augustine knows that his conversion is not just a private thing between him and God. The way he tells the story makes clear that others are involved in the process. Thus he also sheds light on what we might call

The Church’s point-of-view

C.S.Lewis suggests, perhaps whimsically, that God does not do anything alone that God is able to delegate to human beings[10], and it is clear that Augustine encountered many believers  who helped him along his path. Monica provides the earliest instance of this. Thus, when he reached adolescence and relative independence, she:

earnestly warned me not to commit fornication and above all not to seduce any man’s wife. . . . the words were yours, though I did not know it. I thought that you were silent and that she was speaking, but all the while you were speaking to me through her, and, when I disregarded her . . . I was disregarding you (2:3, 46)[11]

Not surprisingly, when Augustine later moved from Carthage to Rome, he tricked Monica into not coming with him. Yet the Hound of Heaven will not be put off the scent. Thus, when Firminus sowed seeds of disillusionment with Manicheism, Augustine recognizes that once again God was speaking to him:

This answer [of Firminus] which he gave me, or rather, which I heard from his lips, must surely have come from you, my God. (4:3, 74)

God also speaks through the testimony of converts. As Augustine’s story moves towards its climax, there is a flurry of people whose experience finally catalyzes his conversion. First, Simplicianus tells him the story of the conversion of Victorinus, also “a professor of rhetoric, an admirer of the pagan Platonists, at best, merely tolerant of Catholicism.” (Brown 103)  Augustine is no fool, and he knows exactly what is happening:

I began to glow with fervour to imitate him. This, of course, was why Simplicianus had told [the story] to me. (8:5, 164)

Shortly afterwards, Ponticianus tells Augustine and Alypius the story of Antony; then of two other converts who became Christians through reading the story of Antony. (8:6) Through these stories, his heavenly pursuer closes in:

[W]hile he was speaking, O Lord, you were turning me around to look at myself. . . . I saw it all and was aghast, but there was no place where I could escape from myself. (8:7, 169)

It is not only the words Christians speak, however, which have an effect. Witness is normally by life as well as by words.[12] Thus Augustine first experiences the love of God through God’s servants. Monica, of course, is the outstanding example for Augustine of one who lives out the teaching of Christ:

[T]he virtues with which you had adorned her, and for which [I] respected, loved and admired her, were like so many voices constantly speaking to [me] of you. (9:9, 194)

But Monica is the not the only one whose quality of life struck Augustine. On arriving in Milan, he met Ambrose, who:

received me like a father and, as bishop, told me how glad he was that I had come. My heart warmed to him, not at first as a teacher of the truth . . . but simply as a man who showed me kindness. (5:13, 107)

As Chadwick comments, Ambrose was “was everything a bishop ought to be.” (Chadwick xxv) As for so many people, it was not only the ideas of Christianity which attracted Augustine, but also those truths incarnated in the lives of real human beings.

Apart from words and action, God works too through the prayers of the church. In particular, Monica is a woman who prays. When Augustine moved away from the practice of his faith, he says:

[M]y mother . . . wept to you for me, shedding more tears for my spiritual death than other mothers shed for the bodily death of a son. (3:11, 68)[13]

Augustine was impressed by the elderly bishop who assured her, “It cannot be that the son of these tears should be lost.” (3:12, 69)


Augustine’s experience of coming to faith suggests that while the popular definition which says “evangelism is preaching the Gospel”[14] is not untrue (Augustine did hear Ambrose preach the Gospel, after all), it is actually quite unhelpful in that it masks the complexity of the process.

A broader definition which comes closer to encompassing the many facets of Augustine’s experience, is that of William Abraham. He suggests that evangelism is:

that set of intentional activities which is governed by the goal of initiating people into the kingdom of God for the first time. . . . [Thus] evangelism is . . . more like farming or educating than like raising one’s arm or blowing a kiss.[15]

The evangelizing of Augustine is certainly not a single thing “like raising one’s arm or blowing a kiss”: it is spread over many years, and involves friendships, difficulties, conversations, prayers, encounters, readings, arguments, self-examinations, mentors, and scripture. “Farming” and “education” might indeed be suitable metaphors for Augustine’s experience.

Even now, however, there are problems with the definition. One could hardly call Augustine’s experience “a set of intentional activities”? Certainly Monica is clear about her intentions for her son; Simplicianus is intentional in pointing Augustine towards Christ (even Augustine could see that); and we may be sure that Ambrose was aware in his sermon preparation of who was going to be listening. They all have, as it were, evangelistic intentions. But if there is an overarching intention, linking all these influences, it can only be in the mind of God, who oversees this process from beginning to end. It is true that the resources of the church are brought to bear on him—prayer, counsel, witness, and preaching, for example—but the human evangelists cannot claim more than that they are co-workers together with God in God’s work of evangelism.

In light of Augustine’s experience and his reflection on that experience, then, we might expand Abraham’s definition to suggest that:

Evangelism is the work of God through people, specially the church, and circumstances, whose goal is the initiation of people into the Kingdom of God. Evangelism is like farming or educating, a process taking place over time and through countless and varied influences, whose effect is cumulative, and all of which point to faith in Christ. Evangelism is therefore the work of the church as it co-operates with God the supreme evangelist.

Augustine’s Confessions thus provides a helpful corrective for our theology and praxis of evangelism. In particular, it point us away from any sense that evangelism is a matter between the individual and God alone, or that the only thing that matters is a “decision”, or that the church’s activism will bring it about.  In fact, what the Confessions offers is a pre-modern corrective to a modernistic distortion of evangelism—an understanding that will, ironically enough, equip the church for evangelism in a postmodern world.

[1] A superficial survey reveals that this is a theme for a wide range of writers including William J. Abraham, The Logic of Evangelism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 1989), Becky Manley Pippert Out of the Saltshaker (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2nd edition, 1999), George G. Hunter, The Celtic Way of Evangelism (Nashville: Abingdon 1999), Richard V. Peace Conversion in the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 1999) and John P. Bowen, Evangelism for ‘Normal’ People (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress 2002).

[2] David Lodge, using the language of semiotician A.J.Greimas, would have us describe Augustine’s process of moving away from Christian faith and then returning to it, as a “disjunctive journey,” which he defines as “a story of departure and return . . . In this kind of story, the hero and his companions venture out, away from secure home ground, into foreign and hostile territory . . . then return home, exalted or chastened by the experience.” David Lodge Write On  (London: Secker and Warburg, 1986), 157.

[3] Actually, as Peter Brown points out, in spite of his description of Carthage as a “hissing cauldron of lust” (3:1, 55), within a year he had settled down with a mistress to whom he was faithful for fifteen years. Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1968), 39.

[4] So, step by step, my thoughts moved on from the consideration of material things to the soul.” (7:17, 151) This imagery of “steps” does not sit well with Karl Barth, who demands: “Is the function of the revelation of God merely that of leading us from one step to the next within the all-embracing reality of divine revelation?” Emil Brunner, Natural Theology: Comprising “Nature and Grace” by Professor Emil Brunner and the reply “No!” by Dr. Karl Barth (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1946), 82.

[5] He uses the image of the spur or goad twice more: “[Y]our goad was thrusting at my heart, giving me no peace . . .” (7:8, 144); “[Y]ou tamed me by pricking my heart with your goad.” (9:4, 185) In all three instances, his word stimulus is the same as that used in the Vulgate of Acts 26:14, Paul’s account of his conversion: “it hurts . . . to kick against the goads.”

[6] Cf. “You were my helmsman when I ran adrift” (6:6, 118)

[7] Augustine, Confessions, ed. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1998), xxi.

[8] This is consistent with the theology of such biblical writers as Isaiah, who has Yahweh refer to the pagan King Cyrus as “my servant” (Isaiah 45:1), and makes use of him to accomplish God’s purposes.

[9] Augustine is at this point somewhat like C.S.Lewis, who, having been convinced by J.R.R.Tolkien that pagan myth merely foreshadowed Christian truth, described himself as “a man of snow at long last beginning to melt.” C.S.Lewis, Surprised by Joy (London: Fontana Books 1959), 179. He explains elsewhere that what Tolkien showed him was that “the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of the poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call ‘real things’.” Walter Hooper, ed. The Letters of C.S.Lewis to Arthur Greaves (New York: Collier Books 1979), 427.

[10] “Creation seems to be delegation through and through. He will do nothing simply of Himself which can be done by creatures.” C.S.Lewis, Prayer: Letters to Malcolm (London: Geoffrey Bles 1964; London: Fontana Books 1988), 73.

[11] Jesus seems actually to have foreseen this kind of connection: “Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me.” (Luke 10:16)

[12] “Words interpret deeds and deeds validate words” David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll: Orbis 1991), 420,  cf. Bowen, chapter 4.

[13] cf. “[A]ll the time this chaste, devout and prudent woman . . . never ceased to pray at all hours and to offer you the tears she shed for me. . . . Her prayers reached your presence.” (3:11, 68). Cf “Why God has established prayer.1. To communicate to His creatures the dignity of causality.”Blaise Pascal, Pensees  in The Harvard Classics, volume XLVIII, ed. Charles W. Eliot (New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909–1917).

[14] John R.W.Stott, Christian Mission in the Modern World (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1975), 39.

[15] William Abraham, The Logic of Evangelism ( Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 1989), 95, 104.