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Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. V:
A Treatise Against Two Letters of the...: Chapter 31

Early Church Fathers  Index     

Chapter 31.—The Testimonies of Ambrose on the Imperfection of Present Righteousness.

But now, since the Pelagians say that there either are or have been righteous men in this life who have lived without any sin, to such an extent that the future life which is to be hoped for as a reward cannot be more advanced or more perfect, let Ambrose here also answer them and refute them. For, expounding Isaiah the Prophet in reference to what is written, “I have begotten and brought up children, and they have despised me,” 2900 he undertook to dispute concerning the generations which are of God, and in that argument he quoted the testimony of John when he says, “He that is born of God sinneth not.” 2901 And, treating the same very difficult question, he says: “Since in this world there is none who is free from sin; since John himself says, ‘If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar.’ 2902 But if ‘they that are born of God sin not,’ and if these words refer to those of them who are in the world, it is necessary that we should regard them as those numberless people who have obtained God’s grace by the regeneration of the laver. But yet, when the prophet says, ‘All things are waiting upon Thee, that Thou mayest give them meat in season. That Thou givest them they gather for themselves; when Thou openest Thine hand, all things shall be filled with goodness. But when Thou turnest away Thy face, they shall be troubled: Thou shall take away their breath, and they shall fail, and shall be turned into their dust. Thou shall send forth Thy Spirit, and they shall be created: and Thou shalt renew the face of the earth,’ 2903 such things as these cannot seem to have been said of any time whatever but of that future time, in which there shall be a new earth and a new heaven. Therefore they shall be disturbed that they may take their beginning. ‘And when Thou openest Thy hand all things shall be filled with goodness,’ which is not easily characteristic of this age. For concerning this age what does Scripture say? ‘There is none that doeth good, no, not one.’ 2904 If, therefore, there are different generations,—and here the very entrance into this life is the receiver of sins to such an extent that even he who begot should be despised; while another generation does not receive sins;—let us consider whether by any means there may not be a regeneration for us after the course of this life,—of which regeneration it is said, ‘In the regeneration when the Son of man shall sit in the throne of His glory.’ 2905 For as that is called the regeneration of washing whereby we are renewed from the filth of sins washed away, so that seems to be called a regeneration by which we are purified from every stain of bodily materiality, and are regenerated in the pure sense of the soul to life eternal; so that every quality of regeneration may be purer than of that washing, so that no suspicion of sins can fall either on a man’s doings, or even on his very thoughts themselves.” Moreover, in another place in the same work he says: “We see it to be impossible that any person created in a body can be absolutely spotless, since even Paul says that he is imperfect. For thus he has it: ‘Not that I have already received, or am already perfect;’ 2906 and yet after a little he says, ‘As many of us, therefore, as are perfect.’ 2907 Unless, perchance, there is one perfection in this world, another after this is completed, of which he says to the Corinthians, ‘When that which is perfect is come;’ 2908 and elsewhere, ‘Till we all p. 433 come into the unity of the faith, and the knowledge of the Son of God, into the perfect man to the measure of the age of the fulness of Christ.’ 2909 As, then, the apostle says that many are placed in this world who are perfect along with him, but who, if you have regard to true perfection, could not be perfect, since he says, ‘We see now through a mirror, enigmatically; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then I shall know even as also I am known:’ 2910 so also there both are those who are ‘spotless’ in this world, and will be those who are ‘spotless’ in the kingdom of God, although certainly, if you consider it accurately, no person can be spotless, because no person is without sin.” Also in the same he says: “We see that, while we live in this life, we ought to purify ourselves and to seek God; and to begin from the purification of our soul, and as it were to establish the foundations of virtue, so that we may deserve to attain the perfection of our purgation after this life.” And again, in the same he says: “But laden and groaning, who does not say, ‘O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?’ 2911 So with the same teacher we give all varieties of interpretation. For if he is unhappy who recognises himself as involved in the evils of the body, certainly everybody is unhappy; for I should not call that man happy who, being confused with any darkness of his mind, does not know his own condition. That, moreover, has not absurdly come to be understood; for if a man who knows himself is unhappy, assuredly all are wretched, because every one either recognises his weakness by wisdom, or by folly is ignorant of it.” Moreover, in the treatise “On the Benefit of Death,” he says: 2912 “Let death work in us, in order that that may work life also, a good life after death,—that is, a good life after victory, a good life after the contest is finished; so that now no longer the law of the flesh may know how to resist the law of the mind, that no longer we may have any contention with the body of death.” Again, in the same treatise he says: “Therefore, because the righteous have this reward, that they see the face of God, and that light which lightens every man, let us henceforth put on the desire of this kind of reward, that our soul may draw near to God, our prayer may draw near to Him, our desire may cleave to Him, that we be not separated from Him. And placed here as we are, let us by meditating, by reading, by seeking, be united with God. Let us know Him as we can. For we know Him in part here; because here all things are imperfect, there all are perfect; here we are infants, there we shall be strong men. ‘We see,’ says he, ‘now through a mirror in an enigma, but then face to face.’ Then, His face being revealed, we shall be allowed to look upon the glory of God, which now our souls, involved in the compacted dregs of this body, and shadowed by some stains and filth of this flesh, cannot clearly see. ‘For who,’ He says, ‘shall see my face and live?’ and rightly. For if our eyes cannot bear the rays of the sun,—and if any one should gaze too long on the region of the sun he is said to be blinded,—if a creature cannot look upon a creature without deceit and offence, how can he without his own peril look upon the glittering face of the eternal Creator, covered as he is with the clothing of this body? For who is justified in God’s sight, when even the infant of one day cannot be pure from sin, and no one can boast of his integrity and pureness of heart?”



Isa. i. 2.


1 John iii. 9.


1 John i. 10.


Ps. civ. 27, etc.


Ps. xiv. 1.


Matt. xix. 28.


Phil. iii. 12.


Phil. iii. 15.


1 Cor. xiii. 10.


Eph. iv. 13.


1 Cor. xiii. 12.


Rom. vii. 24.


Work cited, chs. 9, 49

Next: Chapter 32