Augustine and the Bible: The Right Verse At The Right Time

Time: 10 Minutes

Timing is everything. Just watch a professional baseball player try to hit a fastball, or a pianist string together a series of notes.

The timing of an event can determine how important it is. 

One reason the Bible is so powerful is the way that God the Holy Spirit works to make us read just the right thing at just the right time. Hebrews 4:12 tells us that this is how God’s Word works:For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12 ESV).

Have you ever read a particular verse from the Bible—perhaps at a time in your life when you were experiencing deep anxiety, grief, joy, depression, or loneliness—and the words spoke straight to your concerns at just the right time? 

This experience often makes that passage very important to you. You may even remember the exact location of when and where you first laid eyes on it. 

A man named Augustine had this experience. That is, he read a passage of the Bible at just the right time. By the power of the Holy Spirit, it made a lasting impression on him. 

Who Is Saint Augustine?

We want to hear about that passage, but first, who is Saint Augustine? 

If there was a Mount Rushmore of Western Church Fathers, Augustine is arguably the first image to chisel into the rock. Augustine was born in 354 AD to a Christian mother, Monica, and a pagan father, Patricius. Augustine would not adopt the religion of his mother until much later in his life. He passed through religious groups and philosophical schools, all while pursuing an academic career as a professor and rhetorician.

Eventually, Augustine converted to Christianity (more on that in a bit!). Augustine’s influence and legacy is practically inestimable. He was an African bishop and philosopher who enriched the Western Christian tradition with his thoughtful theology, pastoral philosophy, and rich reflections. 

Today, we’d like to zoom in on the most important moment in Augustine’s life. In his Confessions, a memoir he painted as a prayer, Augustine recounted a time when he discovered a passage that whispered loudly into his heart. 

Augustine’s Encounter with the Bible

It was around 386 AD, and Augustine was in his early thirties. He found himself settled under a fig tree in the northern Italian town of Milan. While desperately sobbing, Augustine implored God to perform a sort of spiritual cardiac surgery to mend his broken and benighted heart.

Augustine’s sadness sprung from his inability to find satisfaction in the world. He tried other religions, a lustful lifestyle, an impressive professional career, but none of these things satisfied him. If they ever fulfilled him, their pleasure was fleeting, like a breeze of wind on a hot day.

As Augustine cried that day, suddenly a voice, perhaps of a child, captured and redirected his attention. It sang a lovely chorus: “Pick it up and read, pick it up and read.” 

At once, like a kind of resuscitation, this sorrowful sinner’s soul breathed living air. He thought the song was a divine summons to read the first passage he came upon as he opened the Bible. So he did just that.

Augustine writes, 

. . . I had put down there the book of [Romans]. I snatched it up, opened it and read in silence the passage on which my eyes first lighted: Not in dissipation and drunkenness, nor in debauchery and lewdness, nor in arguing and jealously; but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh or the gratification of your desires. I had no wish to read further, nor was there need. No sooner had I reached the end of the verse than the light of certainty flooded my heart and all dark shades of doubt fled away. (207)

What Did this Passage of the Bible Mean?

Augustine had stumbled upon Romans 13:13-14. At this moment, God used this passage to change Augustine’s life. Simply put, for Augustine, these verses sparked his conversion from paganism as their light chased his spiritual shadows away. 

Maybe this passage resonated with Augustine so profoundly because it affirmed his feeling that everything he chased before—religion, illicit relationships, and unlawful acts—could not satisfy him.

The surest satisfaction in life was only possible through a loving relationship with Jesus Christ. 

You see, the apostle Paul describes “the flesh” in another passage from Romans: “For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death” (Romans 7:5 ESV). 

In other words, “living in the flesh” means living by the impulses of our fallen nature, or selfish desires. Think of the “flesh” not as the body in and of itself, but instead, as the many weaknesses we inherited from Adam (1 Corinthians 15:21-22).

The Bible teaches that because of Adam’s sin we’re unable to obey God’s commands on our own, have darkened minds, and are inclined toward sin (Romans 8:5-8).  

Augustine knew how corrupt his flesh was—he knew that he was a sinner. In fact, in the chapters of his Confessions, Augustine outlines his battles with the flesh, such as stealing fruit from a neighbor’s tree and indulging in sexual pleasures.   

But, at this moment in the garden, his heart was shipwrecked in his tumultuous storm of sin. Yet God’s offer of forgiveness through Christ’s sacrifice healed Augustine’s heart. The sun pierced through the clouds. God was telling Augustine through his Word that sin doesn’t have to have the last word in his life. 

How God Changed Augustine Through this Passage

This passage was important for Augustine because, by the power of the Holy Spirit, it greeted him when he needed it most. 

God, through Paul’s words in Romans 13, told Augustine that there was another way—there was something more powerful than his own impulses: the Lord Jesus Christ. He could follow the Word of Christ rather than the impulses of his wicked heart.

The verse that comes before the passage Augustine read says, “The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light” (13:11). 

Augustine realized that he no longer had to live in the filthy garment of his flesh, but Christ was offering him new clothing—Jesus’ own righteousness. 

Now draped by God in this regal garment, Augustine experienced a change of heart. No longer did he love the things of the flesh. For him to be adorned in Christ meant to love Christ above all else. God, in an instant, reordered Augustine’s affections. 

What Can We Learn From Augustine’s Experience?

Augustine’s experience with this passage extends through time as it rings true across centuries.

His story encourages us to continue to read the Bible because, as God says, the Bible is living and active—able to pierce straight through our hearts at just the right moment.

His experience also presents us with a clothing choice. He inspires us to believe in Christ so as to be suited in Christ’s righteousness and not the filthy garments of our flesh, which will never truly satisfy our heart’s desires. So which do you want to wear?

Consider reading the book of Romans. It will take you about one hour. Ask God to speak to your heart directly through his Word, just like he did for Augustine.

Who knows? You might open it up at just the right time.

1. Saint Augustine, The Confessions, trans. Maria Boulding (New York: New City Press, 2008), 207. 
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