Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Series I/Volume V/On Grace and Free Will/Abstract/Chapter 32

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Chapter 32 [XVI.]—In What Sense It is Rightly Said That, If We Like, We May Keep God’s Commandments.

The Pelagians think that they know something great when they assert that “God would not command what He knew could not be done by man.” Who can be ignorant of this? But God commands some things which we cannot do, in order that we may know what we ought to ask of Him. For this is faith itself, which obtains by prayer what the law commands. He, indeed, who said, “If thou wilt, thou shalt keep the commandments,” did in the same book of Ecclesiasticus afterwards say, “Who shall give a watch before my mouth, and a seal of wisdom upon my lips, that I fall not suddenly thereby, and that my tongue destroy me not.”[1] Now he had certainly heard and received these commandments: “Keep thy tongue from evil, and thy lips from speaking guile.”[2] Forasmuch, then, as what he said is true: “If thou wilt, thou shalt keep the commandments,” why does he want a watch to be given before his mouth, like him who says in the Psalm, “Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth”?[3] Why is he not satisfied with God’s commandment and his own will; since, if he has the will, he shall keep the commandments? How many of God’s commandments are directed against pride! He is quite aware of them; if he will, he may keep them. Why, therefore, does he shortly afterwards say, “O God, Father and God of my life, give me not a proud look”?[4] The law had long ago said to him, “Thou shalt not covet;”[5] let him then only will, and do what he is bidden, because, if he has the will, he shall keep the commandments. Why, therefore, does he afterwards say, “Turn away from me concupiscence”?[6] Against luxury, too, how many commandments has God enjoined! Let a man observe them; because, if he will, he may keep the commandments. But what means that cry to God, “Let not the greediness of the belly nor lust of the flesh take hold on me!”?[7] Now, if we were to put this question to him personally, he would very rightly answer us and say, From that prayer of mine, in which I offer this particular petition to God, you may understand in what sense I said, “If thou wilt, thou mayest keep the commandments.” For it is certain that we keep the commandments if we will; but because the will is prepared by the Lord, we must ask of Him for such a force of will as suffices to make us act by the willing. It is certain that it is we that will when we will, but it is He who makes us will what is good, of whom it is said (as he has just now expressed it), “The will is prepared by the Lord.”[8] Of the same Lord it is said, “The steps of a man are ordered by the Lord, and his way doth He will.”[9] Of the same Lord again it is said, “It is God who worketh in you, even to will!”[10] It is certain that it is we that act when we act; but it is He who makes us act, by applying efficacious powers to our will, who has said, “I will make you to walk in my statutes, and to observe my judgments, and to do them.”[11] When he says, “I will make you . . . to do them,” what else does He say in fact than, “I will take away from you your heart of stone,”[12] from which used to arise your inability to act, “and I will give you a heart of flesh,”[13] in order that you may act? And what does this promise amount to but this: I will remove your hard heart, out of which you did not act, and I will give you an obedient heart, out of which you shall act? It is He who causes us to act, to whom the human suppliant says, “Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth.”[14] That is to say: Make or enable me, O Lord, to set a watch before my mouth,—a benefit which he had already obtained from God who thus described its influence: “I set a watch upon my mouth.”[15]


  1. Ecclus. xxii. 27.
  2. Ps. xxxiv. 13.
  3. Ps. cxli. 3.
  4. Ecclus. xxiii. 4.
  5. Ex. xx. 17.
  6. Ecclus. xxiii. 5.
  7. Ecclus. xxiii. 6.
  8. Prov. viii. 35.
  9. Ps. xxxvii. 23.
  10. Phil. ii. 13.
  11. Ezek. xxxvi. 27.
  12. Ezek. xi. 19, and xxxvi. 26.
  13. Ezek. xxxvi. 26.
  14. Ps. cxli. 3.
  15. Ps. xxxix. 1.