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“Take and read.” Augustine records in his Confessions (a.d. 400) that he heard those words come over his garden wall as he sat reading. He picked up a copy of Paul’s letter to the Romans that was near at hand and his eyes fell on this text: “Let us walk properly, as in the day, not in revelry and drunkenness, not in lewdness and lust, not in strife and envy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts” (Rom. 13:13–14).

Augustine had become intellectually convinced of the truth of Christianity before this famous incident in his life. But he found that he lacked self-control over his sexual desires. He knew the kind of Christian that he wanted to be, but he felt that his will did not cooperate. He said that in reading Paul’s words in Romans, he was morally converted and made able to live as a Christian from that time forth.

This much of Augustine’s conversion is well-known. What is not so well-known is the title of the book he was reading when he heard the voice. He was reading The Life of St. Antony (c. 360) by Athanasius. This book illuminates the conception of holiness that Augustine pursued and that came to influence Christianity very widely.

Antony (c. 251–356) was one of the early advocates and exemplars of the ascetic life in Egypt, which was one of the earliest centers of asceticism. Antony embraced the ascetic vision of Christianity about 269. He practiced it rigorously, living as a hermit for about 20 years (285–305) and then forming a loosely organized monastic community.

Antony believed that his ascetic life was the life that Christ and His apostles had lived. His self-denial was a new form of martyrdom for Christ. Athanasius summarizes the advice Antony gave to other ascetics in this way: “For all the monks who came to him he unfailingly had the same message: to have faith in the Lord and love Him; to guard themselves from lewd thoughts and pleasures of the flesh, and, as it is written in Proverbs, not to be ‘deceived by the feeding of the belly’; to flee vanity and to pray constantly; to sing holy songs before sleep and after, and to take to heart the precepts of the Scriptures; to keep in mind the deeds of the saints, so that the soul, ever mindful of the commandments, might be educated by their ardor.”

What was the ascetic vision of Christianity that emerged in Egypt and would come to influence most serious Christians, not only in the late ancient period but through the Middle Ages and into modern times as well? Ascetic Christianity derives its name from the Greek word askeo, meaning “to train” or “to exercise.” Its original meaning referred to the training of athletes. The ascetic vision of Christianity that we find in Antony, Athanasius, and Augustine represents a radical commitment to holiness. They wanted more than the ordinary Christian life. They wanted the disciplined life of the spiritual athlete. They wanted to pursue perfection.

The ascetics spoke of going beyond the commandments of God that applied to all Christians. They sought to fulfill what they called “the counsels of perfection” or “the evangelical counsels.” In other words, they believed that Jesus had given advice that was not binding on all Christians, but which would aid those who wanted to be especially serious in their pursuit of holiness. They came to summarize those counsels in three points: poverty, chastity, and obedience to ecclesiastical superiors. They denied themselves property and family to live a life following the ascetic practices of their communities.

The passionate desire for holiness led many early ascetics to seek the solitary life of the hermit. They lived alone most of the time, often in remote places where they believed that they battled demons. Sometimes their self-denial was so extreme that they damaged their health or went insane. These extremes of the hermitic life led many to believe that ascetics were better off in some kind of community. One vision of community was the kind established by Antony—a community with a great deal of room for individual devotions and discipline. But soon another, much more closely organized form of community began to emerge.

Again, Egypt was a pioneer in the form of monastic life called cenobitic (from a Greek word meaning “living together”). The most influential Egyptian in the establishment of this form of ascetic life was a man named Pachomius (c. 290–346). Pachomius had been a soldier before he embraced the ascetic life, so he brought to monasticism the careful and detailed organization of a military camp. From around 320 he began to establish monasteries on this model, and this kind of monasticism would become dominant in both the Eastern and Western churches. These strictly structured communities left little room for individuality. The day was often divided into times for communal prayer and worship, for work in support of the community, and for sleep. Meals were taken together, and often one monk read from the Bible while the others ate in silence.

The Reformation of the sixteenth century rejected the ascetic vision of Christianity so decisively that many Protestants today find it hard to understand what could have been attractive about it. We tend to dismiss it as legalistic, self-righteous, creation-denying, and un-Biblical. I think those criticisms are accurate. Those who adopted asceticism, however, saw it as the Christian life that was the most devout and disciplined in the pursuit of God and holiness. At times I think that it is our indifference to holiness today that makes the ascetic life so incomprehensible.

Christians have pursued the Christian life with the recognition that they seek to live for Christ in a world where the effects of sin manifest themselves in three distinct ways. First, sin leaves us guilty before God and requires of us a life in which the guilty verdict can be reversed. Second, sin leaves us corrupt in ourselves and requires of us a life renewed for the pursuit of holiness. Third, sin leaves us in a world of misery and requires of us that we seek to ease that burden of misery for others. Sin leads us to seek justification in response to our guilt, sanctification in response to our corruption, and transformation in response to the world’s misery.

The difficulty that Christians have faced is finding a proper balance for these concerns. The danger is that one tends to dominate the others in an unhealthy way. Too much focus on justification can lead to antinomianism. Too much focus on transformation can lead to liberalism. Too much focus on sanctification can lead to legalism. The kind of asceticism that arose in Egypt represents a serious concern for sanctification that goes too far and uses un-Biblical methods. But the ascetics’ desire for holiness should inspire us.

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