Augustine's Doctrine of the Bondage of the Will

Augustine argued that there are four states, which are derived from the Scripture, that correspond to the four states of man in relation to sin: (a) able to sin, able not to sin (posse peccare, posse non peccare); (b) not able not to sin (non posse non peccare); (c) able not to sin (posse non peccare); and (d) unable to sin (non posse peccare). The first state corresponds to the state of man in innocency, before the Fall; the second the state of the natural man after the Fall; the third the state of the regenerate man; and the fourth the glorified man.

Augustine's description of the person after the fall "not able not to sin (non posse non peccare)" is what it means for humanity to have lost the liberty of the will. Fallen man's will is free from coercion yes, but not free from necessity... ie. he sins of necessity due to a corruption of nature.

With this in mind we better understand the following statements of Augustine:

"Without the Spirit man's will is not free, since it has been laid under by shackling and conquering desires." - Augustine, Letters cxlv 2 (MPL 33. 593; tr FC 20. 163f.)

"When the will was conquered by the vice into which it had fallen, human nature began to lose its freedom." - Augustine, On Man's Perfection in Righteousness iv 9 (MLP 44. 296; tr. NPNF V. 161)

"Through freedom man came to be in sin, but the corruption which followed as punishment turned freedom into necessity." - Augustine On Man's Perfection In Righteousness

"Man, using free will badly, has lost both himself and his will"

"The free will has been so enslaved that is can have no power for righteousness."

"What God's grace has not freed will not be free."

"Nature is commong to all, but not grace."

"The justice of God is not fulfilled when the law so commands, and man acts as if by his own strength; but when the Spirit helps, and man's will, not free, but freed by God, obeys."

"Man when he was created received great powers of free will, but lost them by sinning."

"We know that God's grace is not given to all men. To those to whom it is given it is given neither according to the merits of works, nor according to the merits of the will, but by free grace. To those to whom it is not given we know that it is because of God's righteous judgment that it is not given."
Augustine - On Rebuke and Grace

"How have you come? By believing. Fear lest while you are claiming for yourself that you have found the just way, you perish from the just way. I have come, you say, of my own free choice; I have come of my own will. Why are you puffed up? Do you wish to know that this also has been given you? Hear Him calling, 'No one comes to me unless my Father draws him' [John 6:44 p.]." - Augustine, Sermons xxvi. 3, 12, 4, 7 (MPL 28.172, 177, 172f., 174)

"Why then, do miserable men either dare to boast of free will before they have been freed, or of their powers, if they have already been freed? And they do not heed the fact that in the term 'free will" freedom seems to be implied. 'Now where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.' [II Cor 3:17]. If therefore, they are slaves of sin, why do they boast of free will? For a man becomes the slave of him who has overcome him. Now if they have been freed, why do they boast as if it had come about through their own effort? Of are they so free as not to wish to be slaves of him who says: 'Without me you can do nothing'" [John 15:5]

"...the human will does not obtain grace by freedom, but obtains freedom by grace; when the feeling of delight has been imparted through. the same grace, the human will is formed to endure; it is strengthened with unconquerable fortitude; controlled by grace, it never will perish, but, if grace forsake it, it will straightway fall; by the Lord's free mercy it is converted to good, and once converted it perseveres in good; the direction of the human will toward good, and after direction its continuation in good, depend solely upon God's will, not upon any merit of man. Thus there is left to man such free will, if we please so to call it, as he elsewhere describes: that except through grace the will can neither be converted to God nor abide in God; and whatever it can do it is able to do only through grace. "

Augustin explains that at some point he changed his view from synergism to divine monergism in salvation. He argues that due to our fallen state, we are not only partly dependent upon Christ for our conversion but totally dependent upon Christ.

"It was not thus that pious and humble teacher thought--I speak of the most blessed Cyprian--when he said "that we must boast in nothing, since nothing is our own." And in order to show the, he appealed to the apostle as a witness, where he said, "For what hast thou that thou hast not received ? And if thou hast received it, why boastest thou as if thou hadst not received it?" And it was chiefly by this testimony that I myself also was convinced when I was in a similar error, thinking that faith whereby we believe on God is not God's gift, but that it is in us from ourselves, and that by it we obtain the gifts of God, whereby we may live temperately and righteously and piously in this world. For I did not think that faith was preceded by God's grace, so that by its means would be given to us what we might profitably ask, except that we could not believe if the proclamation of the truth did not precede; but that we should consent when the gospel was preached to us I thought was our own doing, and came to us from ourselves. And this my error is sufficiently indicated in some small works of mine written before my episcopate. Among these is that which you have mentioned in your letters wherein is an exposition of certain propositions from the Epistle to the Romans. Eventually, when I was retracting all my small works, and was committing that retractation to writing, of which task I had already completed two books before I had taken up your more lengthy letters,--when in the first volume I had reached the retractation of this book, I then spoke thus:--"Also discussing, I say, 'what God could have chosen in him who was as yet unborn, whom He said that the elder should serve; and what in the same elder, equally as yet unborn, He could have rejected; concerning whom, on this account, the prophetic testimony is recorded, although declared long subsequently, "Jacob have I loved, and Esau have I hated,"' I carried out my reasoning to the point of saying: ' God did not therefore choose the works of any one in foreknowledge of what He Himself would give them, but he chose the faith, in the foreknowledge that He would choose that very person whom He foreknew would believe on Him,--to whom He would give the Holy Spirit, so that by doing good works he might obtain eternal life also.' I had not yet very carefully sought, nor had I as yet found, what is the nature of the election of grace, of which the apostle says, ' A remnant are saved according to the election of grace.' Which assuredly is not grace if any merits precede it; lest what is now given, not according to grace, but according to debt, be rather paid to merits than freely given. And what I next subjoined: ' For the same apostle says, "The same God which worketh all in all;" but it was never said, God believeth all in all ;' and then added, ' Therefore what we believe is our own, but what good thing we do is of Him who giveth the Holy Spirit to them that believe: ' I certainly could not have said, had I already known that faith itself also is found among those gifts of God which are given by the same Spirit. Both, therefore, are ours on account of the choice of the will, and yet both are given by the spirit of faith and love, For faith is not alone but as it is written, ' Love with faith, from God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ.' And what I said a little after, ' For it is ours to believe and to will, but it is His to give to those who believe and will, the power of doing good works through the Holy Spirit, by whom love is shed abroad in our hearts,'--is true indeed; but by the same rule both are also God's, because God prepares the will; and both are ours too, because they are only brought about with our good wills. And thus what I subsequently said also: ' Because we are not able to Will unless we are called; and when, after our calling, we would will, our willing is not sufficiently nor our running, unless God gives strength to us that run, and leads us whither He calls us;' and thereupon added: ' It is plain, therefore, that it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy, that we do good works'--this is absolutely most true. But I discovered little concerning the calling itself, which is according to God's purpose; for not such is the calling of all that are called, but only of the elect. Therefore what I said a little afterwards: ' For as in those whom God elects it is not works but faith that begins the merit so as to do good works by the gift of God, so in those whom He condemns, unbelief and impiety begin the merit of punishment, so that even by way of punishment itself they do evil works'--I spoke most truly. But that even the merit itself of faith was God's gift, I neither thought of inquiring into, nor did I say. And in another place I say: 'For whom He has mercy upon, He makes to do good works, and whom He hardeneth He leaves to do evil works; but that mercy is bestowed upon the preceding merit of faith, and that hardening is applied to preceding iniquity.' And this indeed is true; but it should further have been asked, whether even the merit of faith does not come from God's mercy,--that is, whether that mercy is manifested in man only because he is a believer, or whether it is also manifested that he may be a believer? For we read in the apostles words: ' I obtained mercy to be a believer.' He does not say, ' Because I was a believer.' Therefore although it is given to the believer, yet it has been given also that he may be a believer. Therefore also, in another place in the same book I most truly said: ' Because, if it is of God's mercy, and not of works, that we are even called that we may believe and it is granted to us who believe to do good works, that mercy must not be grudged to the heathen;'--although I there discoursed less carefully about that calling which is given according to God's purpose." - Augustine, A TREATISE ON THE PREDESTINATION OF THE SAINTS chapter 7 [III.]

Man's original capacities included both the power not to sin and the power to sin ( posse non peccare et posse peccare ). In Adam's original sin, man lost the posse non peccare (the power not to sin) and retained the posse peccare (the power to sin)--which he continues to exercise. In the fulfillment of grace, man will have the posse peccare taken away and receive the highest of all, the power not to be able to sin, non posse peccare . Cf. On Correction and Grace XXXIII.


When, sunk in the darkest depths of ignorance, man lives according to the flesh undisturbed by any struggle of reason or conscience, this is his first state. Afterwards, when through the law has come the knowledge of sin, and the Spirit of God has not yet interposed His aid, man, striving to live according to the law, is thwarted in his efforts and falls into conscious sin, and so, being overcome of sin, becomes its slave ("for of whom a man is overcome, of the same is he brought in bondage"(4)); and thus the effect produced by the knowledge of the commandment is this, that sin worketh in man all manner of concupiscence, and he is involved in the additional guilt of willful transgression, and that is fulfilled which is written: "The, law entered that the Offense might abound."(5) This is man's second state. But if God has regard to him, and inspires him with faith in God's help, and the Spirit of God begins to work in him, then the mightier power of love strives against the power of the flesh; and although there is still in the man's own nature a power that fights against him (for his disease is not completely cured), yet he lives the life of the just by faith, and lives in righteousness so far as he does not yield to evil lust, but conquers it by the love of holiness. This is the third state of a man of good hope; and he who by steadfast piety advances in this course, shall attain at last to peace, that peace which, after this life is over, shall be perfected in the repose of the spirit, and finally in the resurrection of the body. Of these four different stages the first is before the law, the second is under the law, the third is under grace, and the fourth is in full and perfect peace. Thus, too, has the history of God's people been ordered according to His pleasure who disposeth all things in number, and measure, and weight.(6) For the church existed at first before the law; then under the law, which was given by Moses; then under grace, which was first made manifest in the coming of the Mediator. Not, indeed, that this grace was absent previously, but, in harmony with the arrangements of the time, it was veiled and hidden. For none, even of the just men of old, could find salvation apart from the faith of Christ; nor unless He had been known to them could their ministry have been used to convey prophecies concerning Him to us, some more plain, and some more obscure.

From this we conclude, again with Augustine, that:

- the children of God are actuated by His Spirit to do whatever is to be done
- they are drawn by Him, out of an unwilling state to be made willing
- since the fall it is owing only to the grace of God that man draws near to Him
- it is owing only to the same grace that God does not withdraw or recede from him
- we know that no good thing which is our own can be found in our will
- by the magnitude of the first sin, we lost the freedom of the will to believe in God and live holy lives
- therefore “it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs”—not because we ought not to will and to run, but because God effects both the willing and the running (Reisinger)

Note: There are times when Augustine uses the term 'free will' in a positive sense, As R. C. Sproul explains, "Augustine did not deny that fallen man still has a will and that the will is capable of making choices. He argued that fallen man still has a free will (liberium arbitrium) but has lost his moral liberty (libertas). The state of original sin leaves us in the wretched condition of being unable to refrain from sinning. We still are able to choose what we desire, but our desires remain chained by our evil impulses. He argued that the freedom that remains in the will always leads to sin. Thus in the flesh we are free only to sin, a hollow freedom indeed. It is freedom without liberty, a real moral bondage. True liberty can only come from without, from the work of God on the soul. Therefore we are not only partly dependent upon grace for our conversion but totally dependent upon grace."


The additional passages form Augustine quoted in the above sentences are Enchirdion ix. 30 (MPL 40. 246; tr LCC VII. 356 f.); Against Two Letters of the Pelagians III. viii. 24 (MPL 44. 607; tr. NPNF V. 414); I. iii. 6 (MPL 44. 553; tr. NPNF V. 379); III. vii. 20: "Hominis libera, sed Dei gratia liberata, voluntas" (MPL 44. 607 tr. NPNF V. 412); Sermonscxxxi. 6 (MPL 38. 732).

Also see Augustine, On the Spirit and the Letter xxx. 52 (MPL 44. 234; CSEL 60. 208 f.; tr. LCC VIII. 236 f.); On Rebuke and Grace xiii. 42 (MPL 44. 942; tr. NPNF V. 489); Against Two Letters of the Pelagians I. ii. 5 (MPL 44. 552; tr NPNF V 378).