One day in 405 CE or so, a group of Christians gathered in Rome for a public reading of part of Augustine’s Confessions. The passage selected for the reading group that day seems to have come from Book 10 and included Augustine’s now-famous prayer, “Give what you command, and command what you will” (see conf. 10.29.40, 10.31.45, and 10.37.60). When those words were read aloud, one member of the group lost it: that prayer infuriated him. It probably seemed to represent all that was wrong with a certain sort of “comfortable Christianity” that had crept into the Church in the century since Constantine’s unexpected adoption and promotion of the Christian faith. These comfortable Christians were content to rest on their laurels—they had been baptized, what else need they do?—and they were more than happy to make excuses for their failure to live up to the full demands of the Gospel: “Ah, our human nature is weak, too weak to avoid sin!” Augustine’s prayer seemed to feed right into this problematic excuse: we cannot achieve virtue on our own; God needs to give it to us. The man who balked at Augustine’s prayer was none other than Pelagius, a popular spiritual guru in Rome, who would a few years later come into direct conflict with Augustine in the course of the doctrinal battle over issues of grace, free will, and original sin now known as the Pelagian Controversy.

While Pelagius is at times accused of denying the necessity of grace, this charge is not quite accurate: he did indeed emphasize (at least after being accused of heresy) that we need grace for each and every one of our actions. The real difference between Pelagius and Augustine lies in their respective understandings of what grace is and what it does. For Pelagius, the term “grace” can refer to several things: the fact that we were created with free choice; the gifts of the law, Gospel, and Christ’s example; the revelation of the rewards that await the righteous in heaven; the gift of the forgiveness of sins received at baptism; the gift of various charismatic gifts (e.g., prophecy); etc. It is certainly true for Pelagius that we need grace for each of our actions—because in each of our actions we need to keep in mind the moral law and the example of Christ in order to act uprightly; we need to keep our eyes on the prize, on the rewards that God will bestow upon us in heaven, in order to motivate ourselves to keep at the hard work of moral progress in this life. In this sense, for Pelagius, grace, when considered as an aid to human acts, targeted the intellect: if we just know what good and evil are, if we truly realize what awaits those who live a life of holiness, we would be able, on the basis of those gifts from God, to live without sin.

But for Augustine, Pelagius’s account of grace fell short of the mark: while the law, the Gospel, and the example of Christ are certainly aids to our moral progress, they are not enough on their own. We not only need to know the good, but we also need to desire it and love it, too. And that desiring and loving is not something we can produce on our own: we need God’s healing presence, we need the Holy Spirit poured out into our hearts (Rom. 5:5) so that we may not only know that we ought to love God and neighbor as Jesus did, but also want to do so.

As he reflected on his own (ongoing) process of conversion in Book 10 of the Confessions, Augustine recognized the insufficiency of his own powers and of the wealth of knowledge he had already gained about the Christian life. Even after his dramatic conversion and baptism, Augustine realized that he could not live the life to which he was called without God’s continued aid. So he prayed, “Give what you command!” Far from abandoning himself to a passive quietism, or a comfortable Christianity, Augustine was calling for the help he needed to act, to continue to cooperate with God in the working out of his salvation.