Sanctifying Grace and Sovereign Joy

“How sweet all at once it was for me to be rid of those fruitless joys which I had once feared to lose and was now glad to reject! You drove them from me, you who are the true, the sovereign joy.  You drove them from me and took their place, you who are sweeter than all pleasure, though not to flesh and blood, you who outshine all light yet are hidden deeper than any secret in our hearts, you who surpass all honour though not in the eyes of men who see all honour in themselves.  At last my mind was free from the gnawing anxieties of ambition and gain, from wallowing in filth and scratching the itching sore of lust.  I began to talk to you freely, O Lord my God, my Light, my Wealth, and my Salvation.”  (Confessions, 181)


What is grace?  According to the Lexico Dictionary, grace is “the free and unmerited favor of God as manifest in the salvation of sinners or in the bestowal of blessing”.  Yes, that sounds familiar.  All believers in Christ have experienced this saving grace, but beyond this grace there is another deeper reality of how God’s grace impacts the human soul.  Many Christians have never experienced this deeper meaning of grace.  Most live their lives going about their days – never knowing there even is a deeper reality of grace.  According to Augustine, the ultimate reality of grace is the realignment of the heart to only desire the One who can provide sovereign (supreme, utmost) joy.  One can only experience this grace when God replaces the fruitless longings of his corrupted soul with a passionate longing for the presence of God.

In the beginning, God created man.  Man was created with a void in his heart, a hollow space that can be filled and satisfied only with the presence of his Creator.  When God created man, he was designed to have a personal relationship with Him – as enjoyed by Adam and Eve in the garden.  Before the Fall, God looked upon His creation and declared it was “very good”.  Though “very good”, man was vulnerable to the appeal of competing desires.   Satan played upon this vulnerability, enticing them to want something more than the child-like relationship they shared with their Creator.  They were deceived into thinking they wanted to be “like” God.   Their rebellion introduced the curse of sin.  From this point on, sin would wreak destruction and death on all of Creation – including the body and soul of man.  Man still has a God-shaped void in his heart, but now it is dented by the sin of the folly nature of man.  Without the intervention of God’s grace, man would forever be in constant battle, trying to fill this empty place with vain substitutes.   In Augustine’s words, “The thought of you stirs him [man] so deeply that he cannot be content unless he praises you, because you made us for yourself and our hearts find no peace until they rest in you” (Confessions, 21).

God created man to be in a personal relationship with Him.  Sin forced a chasm in place of this relationship.  The effect of sin on man was devastating.  But, the difference between the effect of man’s failure on God and the effect it bares on man is that it simply does not affect God.  He is God, He created man.  God does not “need” man to survive.  God without man is still God, but man without God is nothing, helplessly awaiting eternal death.  John 15:4-5 reads, “Remain in me, and I also will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (New International Version, John 15:4-5).

The scar of Adam’s sin has marred every person since.  According to R.C. Sproul, “Augustine referred to mankind after the Fall as a massa peccati, meaning a ‘mess of sin,’ incapable of raising itself from spiritual death.  For Augustine, man can no more move or incline himself to God than an empty glass can fill itself… The state of original sin leaves us in the wretched condition of being unable to refrain from sinning” (Sproul).  According to Sproul, Augustine also argued that man, in the fallen state, still possesses a free will (liberium arbitrium) but no longer has the freedom (libertas) to act morally.  Man is able to choose what he desires, but his desires are corrupted by the evil within him.   Augustine recognized this dependence on God’s power when he said, “Give me the grace to do as you command, and command me to do what you will!” (Confessions, 245).   “O Holy God, when your commands are obeyed, it is from you that we receive the power to obey them” (Confessions, 236).  This concept of total depravity is what distinguished Augustine and later Church Fathers from the erroneous philosophy of Pelagius.  Pelagius asserted that man could choose on his own to act rightly (Guthrie).  Sproul goes on to say 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…  True liberty can only come from without, from the work of God on the soul” (Sproul).  The freedom to sin is hollow because it reflects the soul’s emptiness after pursuing “those fruitless joys which [Augustine] had once feared to lose! (Confessions, 181)

What is this this work of God on the soul?  This work is grace.  Several Church Fathers, including John Wesley, recognized that this grace comes to man in three consecutive stages: prevenient grace, justifying grace, and sanctifying grace.  “Prevenient” comes from the Latin terms meaning ‘that which comes before”.  Prevenient grace is the work of God preparing the heart of a man to receive the Gospel (DiPaolo).  Justifying grace is God’s work of imputation: counting Christ’s righteousness as man’s and man’s sinful debt as Christ’s.  At this stage of salvation, the Holy Spirit comes to live within the heart of man.  Sanctifying grace is the work of the Holy Spirit within man’s soul to change his will and desires to more resemble the will and desires of Christ.  In other words, sanctifying grace is re-making man to be more like God – bearing the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (New International Version, Galatians 5:22-23).

Most Christians recognize that justifying grace was at work in their salvation.  Probably not all recognize the role of prevenient grace in preparing them.  Fewer still go on to experience the “sovereign joy” of sanctifying grace – as illustrated in this quote by Augustine.  Augustine admits that previously he had relied on other substitutes to fill the God-shaped void in his heart – “those fruitless joys which I had once feared to lose!”  But through the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit, God drove them out and took their place.  God was the only One who could perfectly fill the void.  God was the only One who could bring true, sovereign (supreme) joy – because He is “sweeter than all other pleasure though not to the flesh and blood.”  He outshines “all light yet are hidden deeper than any secret in our hearts.”  And He surpasses “all honor though not in the eyes of men who see all honor in themselves.”

According to John Piper, this passage conveys Augustine’s understanding of grace.  “Grace is God’s giving us a sovereign joy in God that triumphs over the joy in sin.  In other words, God works deep in the human heart to transform the springs of joy so that we love God more than we love sex or anything else” (Piper).  Augustine might not have labeled this as “sanctifying grace” but that is exactly what it is.  The Holy Spirit changed Augustine’s will and desires to more resemble God’s will and desires.

The sovereign joy Augustine experienced is brought only through sanctifying grace.  In the same way, Augustine only experienced the most supreme and real joy once he no longer desired the insufficient, hollow substitutes of the flesh.  God realigned Augustine’s heart to desire only the presence of his Creator.  In this way, God preformed sanctifying grace to re-mold the sin dented void in Augustine’s heart, returning it to its original state.  This is grace.

*This piece was submitted as the final assignment for ninth grade Latin I. Students spent the year studying St. Augustine’s Confessions in its historical, philosophical and theological contexts.

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