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Fathers of the Church

Sermon LXV


The content of Augustine’s sermons is rich and varied, embraces all the themes of Scripture and the liturgy and serves as a valuable commentary on the great dogmatic and exegetical works. They are a model of popular eloquence which is at the same time clear yet profound, lively and incisive, direct and effective. (Agostino Trapè) Sermon 65, delivered on a feastday of martyrs, is on Matthew 10:28: “Do not fear those who kill the body.”


Augustine’s Sermons are the fruit of a career of preaching which continued without interruption for almost forty years. The library at Hippo must have contained very many sermons, perhaps three or four thousand, the greater part of which were probably never revised and published by Augustine, and have perished. Around five hundred are now extant, of which those numbered 51 ff. are on the New Testament.

by Augustine of Hippo in Uncertain | translated by R. G. Macmullen; Ed. Philip Schaff

I. The Divine oracles which have just been read teach us in fearing not to fear, and in not fearing to fear. Ye observed when the Holy Gospel was being read, that our Lord God before He died for us, would have us to be firm; and this by admonishing us "not" to fear, and withal to fear. For he said, "Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul." See where He advised us not to fear. See now where He advised us to fear. "But," saith he, "fear Him who hath power to destroy both body and soul in hell." Let us fear therefore, that we may not fear. Fear seems to be allied to cowardice: seems to be the character of the weak, not the strong. But see what saith the Scripture, "The fear of the Lord is the hope of strength." Let us then fear, that we may not fear; that is, let us fear prudently, that we may not fear vainly. The holy Martyrs on the occasion of whose solemnity this lesson was read out of the Gospel, in fearing, feared not; because in fearing God, they did not regard men.

2. For what need a man fear from man? And what is that whereby one man should cause another fear, since both of them are men? One threatens and says, "I will kill thee;" and does not fear, lest after his threat he die before he have fulfilled it. "I will kill thee," he says. Who says it, and to whom? I hear two men, the one threatening, and the other alarmed: of whom the one is powerful, and the other weak, yet both are mortal. Why then does he so stretch out himself, he, in honour, a somewhat more inflated power, in body, equal weakness? Let him securely threaten death who does not fear death. But if he fear that whereby he causes fear; let him think of himself, and compare himself with him whom he is threatening. Let him see in him whom he threateneth a likeness of condition, and so together with him let him seek like pity from the Lord. For he is but a man, and he threatens another man, a creature, another creature; only the one puffed up under his Creator's eye, and the other fleeing for refuge to the same Creator.

3. Let the stout Martyr then, as he stands a man before another man, say; "I do not fear, because I fear." Thou canst not do what thou art threatening, unless He will; but what He threateneth, none can hinder Him from doing.

And then again, what dost thou threaten, and what canst thou do, if thou art permitted? 'Thy violence extends but to the flesh, the soul is safe from thee. Thou canst not kill what thou dost not see: visible thyself, thou threatenest that which is visible in me. But we have both an invisible Creator, whom we ought both to fear; who of that which was both visible and invisible created man. He made Him visible out of the earth, and with His Breath He breathed into Him an invisible Spirit. Therefore the invisible substance, that is, the soul, which has raised from the earth the earth as it lay, does not fear, when thou assaultest the earth. Thou canst strike the habitation, but canst thou strike him who dwells there? When the chain is broken, he escapes who before was bound, and he will now be crowned in secret. Why then dost thou threaten me, who canst do nothing to my soul? Through the desert of that to which thou canst do nothing, will that to which thy power extends rise again. For through the soul's desert, will the flesh also rise again; and will be restored to its inhabitant, now no more to fail, but to endure for ever. Behold (I am using the words of a Martyr), behold, I say, not even on account of my body do I fear thy threats. My body indeed is subject to thy power; but even the hairs of my head are numbered by my Creator. Why should I fear lest I lose my body, who cannot even lose a hair? How shall he not have a care of my body, to whom my meanest things are so well known? This body which may be wounded and slain will for a time be ashes, but it will be for ever immortal. But to whom shall this be? To whom shall the body be restored for life eternal, even though it have been slain, destroyed, and scattered to the winds? to whom shall it be so restored? To him who has not been afraid to lay down his own life, since he does not fear, lest his body should be slain.

4. For, Brethren, the soul is said to be immortal, and immortal it is according to a certain manner of its own: for it is a kind of life which is able to give life to the body by its presence. For by the soul doth the body live. This life cannot die, and therefore is the soul immortal. Why then said I according to a certain manner of its own? Hear why. Because there is a true immortality, an immortality which is an on-tire unchangeableness; of which the Apostle saith, speaking of God, "Who only hath immortality, dwelling in that light which no man may approach unto, whom no man hath seen, nor can see, to whom be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen." If then God only hath immortality, the soul must needs be mortal. See then why it was that I said that the soul is immortal after a certain manner of its own. For in fact it may also die. Understand this, Beloved, and there will remain no difficulty. I venture to say then that the soul can die, can be slain also. Yet it is undoubtedly immortal. See, I venture to say, it is at once immortal, and it may be slain; and therefore I said that there is a kind of immortality, an entire unchangeableness, that is, which God Only hath, of whom it is said, "Who Only hath immortality;" for if the soul cannot be slain, how did the Lord Himself say, when He would make us fear, "Fear Him who hath power to slay both body and soul in hell"?

5. Hitherto I have confirmed, not solved, the difficulty. I have proved that the soul can be slain. The Gospel cannot he gainsaid but by the ungodly soul. Lo, something occurs to me here, and comes into my mind to speak. Life cannot be gainsaid, but by a dead soul. The Gospel is life, impiety and infidelity are the death of the soul. See then, it can die, and yet it is immortal. How then is it immortal? Because there is always a sort of life which is never extinguished in it. And how does it die? Not in ceasing to be life, but by losing its life. For the soul is both life to something else, and it has its own proper life. Consider the order of the creatures. The soul is the life of the body: God is the life of the soul. As the life, that is the soul, is present with the body, that the body die not; so ought the life of the soul, that is God, to be with it that the soul die not. How does the body die? By the soul's leaving it. I say, by the soul's leaving it the body dies; and it lies along a mere carcass, what was a little before a desirable, now a contemptible, object. There are in it still its several members, the eyes, and ears; but these are but the windows of the house, its inhabitant is gone. They who bewail the dead, cry in vain at the windows of the house; there is none within to hear. How many things does the fond affection of the mourner give utterance to, how many enumerate and call to mind; and with what a madness of sorrow, so to say, does he speak, as with one who was sensible of what was doing, when he is really speaking with one who is no longer there? He recounts his good qualities, and the tokens of his goodness towards himself. It was thou that didst give me this; and did his and that for me; it was thou who didst thus and thus dearly love me. But if thou wouldest only consider and understand, and restrain the madness of thy grief, he who once loved thee, is gone; in vain does the house receive thy knockings, in which thou canst not find a dweller.

6. Let us return to the subject I was speaking of a little while since. The body is dead.

Why? Because its life, that is the soul, is gone Again, the body is alive, and the man is impious, unbelieving, hard of belief, incorrigible; in this case whilst the body is alive, the soul by which the body lives is dead. For the soul is so excellent a thing, that it has power even though dead to give life to the body. So excellent a thing, I say, is the soul, so excellent a creature, that even though dead itself, it has power to quicken the body. For the soul of the impious, unbelieving, unregulated man is dead, and yet by it though dead the body lives. And therefore is it in the body; it sets on the hands to work, and the feet to walk; it directs the eye to see, it disposes the ears to hear, it discriminates tastes, avoids pains, seeks after pleasures. All these are tokens of the life of the body; but they are from the presence of the soul. If I were to ask a body whether it were alive; it would answer me, You see me walking, you see me working, you hear me talking, you perceive that I have certain aims and aversions, and do you not understand that the body is alive? By these works then of the soul which is placed within, I understand that the body is alive. I ask the soul also whether it is alive? It also has its proper works, by which it manifests its life. The feet walk. I understand by this that the body lives, but by the presence of the soul. I ask now, does the soul live? These feet walk. (To speak only of this one movement.) I am questioning both body and soul, as touching their life. The feet walk, I understand that the body lives. But whither do they walk? To adultery, it is said. Then is the soul dead. For so hath unerring Scripture said, "The widow who liveth in pleasure is dead." Now since the difference is great between "pleasure" and adultery, how can the soul which is said to be dead in pleasure, live in adultery? It is surely dead. But it is dead even though it be not in this case. I hear a man speaking; the body then lives. For the tongue could not move itself in the mouth, and by its several motions give utterance to articulate sounds, were there not an inhabitant within; and a musician as it were to this instrument, to make use of his tongue. I understand it perfectly. Thus the body speaks; the body then lives. But I ask, is the soul alive also? Lo, the body speaks, and so is alive. But what does it speak? As I said concerning the feet; they walk, and so the body is alive, and I then asked, whither do they walk? that I might understand whether the soul was alive also. So also when I hear a man speak, I understand that the body is alive; I ask what does he speak, that I may know whether the soul is alive also. He speaks a lie. If so, then is the soul dead. How do we prove this? Let us ask the truth itself, which saith, "The mouth that lieth, slayeth the soul." I ask, why is the soul dead? I ask as I did just now, why is the body dead? Because the soul, its life, was gone. Why is the soul dead? Be cause God, its life, hath forsaken it.

7. After this brief examination then, know and hold for certain that the body is dead without the soul, and that the soul is dead without God. Every man without God hath a dead t soul. Thou dost bewail the dead: bewail the sinner rather, bewail rather the ungodly man, bewail the unbeliever. It is written, "The mourning for the dead is seven days; for a fool and an ungodly man all the days of his life." What! are there no bowels of Christian compassion in thee; that thou mournest for a body from which the soul is gone, and mournest not for the soul, from which God is departed? Let the Martyr remembering this make answer to him that threatens him, "Why dost thou force me to deny Christ?" Wouldest thou then force me to deny the truth? And if I will not, what wilt thou do? Thou wilt assault my body, that my soul shall depart from it; but this same soul of mine has its body only for the soul's sake. It is not so foolish or unwise. Thou wouldest wound my body; but wouldest thou, that through fear lest thou shouldest wound my body, and my, soul should depart from it, I should wound mine own soul, and my God should depart from it? Fear not then, O Martyr, the sword of thy executioner; fear only thine own tongue, lest thou do execution upon thine own self, and slay, not thy body, but thy soul. Fear for thy soul, lest it die in hell-fire.

8. Therefore said the Lord, "Who hath power to slay both body and soul in hell-fire." How? when the ungodly shall be cast into hell-fire, will his body and his soul burn there? Everlasting punishment will be the death of the body; the absence of God will be the death of the soul. Wouldest thou know what the death of the soul is? Understand the Prophet who saith, "Let the ungodly be taken away, that he may not see the glory of the Lord." Let the soul then fear its proper death, and not fear the death of its body. Because if it fear its own death, and so live in its God, by not offending and thrusting Him away from him, it will be found worthy s to receive its body again at the end; not unto everlasting punishment, as the ungodly, but unto life eternal, as the righteous. By fearing this death, and loving that life, did the Martyrs, in hope of the promises of God, and in contempt of the threats of persecutors, attain themselves to be crowned with God, and have left to us the celebration of these solemnities.

Taken from "The Early Church Fathers and Other Works" originally published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co. in English in Edinburgh, Scotland, beginning in 1867. (NPNF I/VI, Schaff). The digital version is by The Electronic Bible Society, P.O. Box 701356, Dallas, TX 75370, 214-407-WORD.