Anti-pelagian Writings by St. Augustine
Chapter 5.--He Shows that Ignorance Affords No Such Excuse as Shall Free the Offender from Punishment; But that to Sin with Knowledge is a Graver Thing Than to Sin in Ignorance.
The excuse such as men are in the habit of alleging from ignorance is taken away from those persons who know God's commandments. But neither will those be without punishment who know not the law of God. |For as many as have sinned without law shall also perish without law; and as many as have sinned in the law shall be judged by the law.| Now the apostle does not appear to me to have said this as if he meant that they would have to suffer something worse who in their sins are ignorant of the law than they who know it. [III.] It is seemingly worse, no doubt, |to perish| than |to be judged;| but inasmuch as he was speaking of the Gentiles and of the Jews when he used these words, because the former were without the law, but the latter had received the law, who can venture to say that the Jews who sin in the law will not perish, since they refused to believe in Christ, when it was of them that the apostle said, |They shall be judged by the law|? For without faith in Christ no man can be delivered; and therefore they will be so judged that they perish. If, indeed, the condition of those who are ignorant of the law of God is worse than the condition of those who know it, how can that be true which the Lord says in the gospel: |The servant who knows not his lord's will, and commits things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes; whereas the servant who knows his lord's will, and commits things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with many stripes|? Observe how clearly He here shows that it is a graver matter for a man to sin with knowledge than in ignorance. And yet we must not on this account betake ourselves for refuge to the shades of ignorance, with the view of finding our excuse therein. It is one thing to be ignorant, and another thing to be unwilling to know. For the will is at fault in the case of the man of whom it is said, |He is not inclined to understand, so as to do good.| But even the ignorance, which is not theirs who refuse to know, but theirs who are, as it were, simply ignorant, does not so far excuse any one as to exempt him from the punishment of eternal fire, though his failure to believe has been the result of his not having at all heard what he should believe; but probably only so far as to mitigate his punishment. For it was not said without reason: |Pour out Thy wrath upon the heathen that have not known Thee;| nor again according to what the apostle says: |When He shall come from heaven in a flame of fire to take vengeance on them that know not God.| But yet in order that we may have that knowledge that will prevent our saying, each one of us, |I did not know,| |I did not hear,| |I did not understand;| the human will is summoned, in such words as these: |Wish not to be as the horse or as the mule, which have no understanding;| although it may show itself even worse, of which it is written, |A stubborn servant will not be reproved by words; for even if he understand, yet he will not obey.| But when a man says, |I cannot do what I am commanded, because I am mastered by my concupiscence,| he has no longer any excuse to plead from ignorance, nor reason to blame God in his heart, but he recognises and laments his own evil in himself; and still to such an one the apostle says: |Be not overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good;| and of course the very fact that the injunction, |Consent not to be overcome,| is addressed to him, undoubtedly summons the determination of his will. For to consent and to refuse are functions proper to will.