He was a zealous evangelist who preached with urgency and compassion, exhorting his hearers to believe the gospel. He believed hell was at stake and all who died in their sins would go there.
This doesn’t sound like Augustine as we typically think of him, does it? It sounds more like Jonathan Edwards or George Whitefield or Charles Spurgeon. The Augustine we know is a philosophical theologian and church official in North Africa.
The image of Augustine as a pastor delivering evangelistic sermons doesn’t fit our mold. But the mountain of sermons he left shows the centrality of his preaching ministry. He preached four to five times every week. Imagine the energy this practice required. And his sermons reveal the kind of preacher he was, too—a passionate herald of the gospel of Christ.
Without this side of his ministry, we will miss the authentic Augustine.
On the Sawdust Trail
Even the most studious Christians know relatively little about Augustine beyond his Confessions or The City of God. But these works represent just a fraction of the material we have. Augustine’s sermons fill 11 volumes, and give a full picture of his pastorate. There we discover a man who labored for decades in Hippo as a minister—a different image than the austere lecturer we sometimes envision.
Augustine was a pastor who preached the gospel with urgency. Certainly, he was brilliant; he penned works of literature that are now Western classics. But he was first and foremost a shepherd calling sinners to believe in Christ. Examining two of his sermons might bring to life Augustine as pastor-evangelist.
In AD 397, Augustine preached his first sermon, from Mark 1:15: “The times are fulfilled and the kingdom of God has drawn near: repent and believe the gospel.” Here Jesus declares the coming kingdom and the universal need for salvation. Augustine emphasized Christ’s mercy, but clarified that such kindness extends only to those who repent and believe. He thus urged his hearers to repent “while the world is still echoing to these words of mercy, before he comes to set up the tribunal of justice.”
Augustine is clear that Christ came to offer mercy, but judgment is pending for the obstinate. But what does “repentance” mean? It means to “renounce [sin] and be converted.” Our only hope is to “believe in the living God” and to renounce “dead works.” Indeed, no one attains salvation through works: “It is not, indeed, the merit of good works that brought you to faith; but faith begins, so that good works may follow.”
His words ring with evangelistic urgency. For example, he dramatizes a scenario in which a person delays, saying “What’s the hurry? I will mend my ways tomorrow.” To them Augustine declares: “Today is not standing still for you.” God’s grace doesn’t give men latitude to sin; those who think otherwise will perish “out of hope.” The only solution, Augustine insists, is immediate repentance. So he exhorts his hearers: “Do not delay being converted to the Lord.”
That said, Augustine didn’t encourage his hearers to despair. God’s mercy is great and his arms are open. No one has gone too far to repent:
What more can I say? Repent. You’re a catechumen; repent and you will be renewed. You’re a bad, baptized person . . . repent and you will be healed.
Augustine is unambiguous. He preached an urgent gospel, for eternal life and death hung in the balance.
Ark Still Being Built
In his second sermon, Augustine focused on two related passages: Luke 17:20–27 and Genesis 6:11–7:23. Luke references Genesis: “Just as it was in the days of Noah, so will it be in the days of the Son of Man.” God’s wrath will fall unexpectedly. As Augustine put it, “They were all enjoying, you see, a spurious and pernicious sense of security, amusing themselves with every secular pastime imaginable, until Noah entered the ark, and the flood found them stripped and without any resources.” All is not lost, however; time for repentance remains:
We have time to wake up; it is not yet the day of judgment, not yet the flood. Beams of wood that cannot rot are still being cut from the forest, the ark is still being built.
Opportunity for salvation still exists, but Augustine wanted people to know the situation was urgent.
People missed the warnings Noah’s boat represented. “Be converted to God,” the ark symbolically declared. And surely repentance would have spared them from disaster: “God, after all, showed mercy on Nineveh, so he would hardly be cruel to the whole human race if it had turned back to him.”
Yet they didn’t, and so God flooded the earth in judgment. In Luke, Jesus’s coming represents a far greater warning. And more time has passed since Christ’s death and resurrection. In Augustine’s words: “Noah is still crying out; the structure itself is still crying out.” Hope remains, but time is running short.
Model for Us
Augustine wasn’t a mere orator, public figure, or scholar. He was a pastor-evangelist summoning people to repentance and faith. Urgency and compassion marked his preaching, as did his own sense of pastoral accountability. As he once confessed to his people, “I am driven by the dread I feel, knowing that I am going to have to give an account to the Lord himself for you all.” Augustine sensed the weight of his stewardship before God, and his calling demanded urgency.
Augustine spoke with conviction, compassion, and urgency. Christians need these traits today. The caricature of the fire-and-brimstone evangelist lingers, but Augustine represents an ancient model for us today. His message was clear and uncompromising: For a time, God’s offer of grace exists. But this offer will expire, and everyone without Jesus will perish.
Augustine sounded the alarm as loudly as he could. Will you?