The second major event of the fourth century was the Council of Nicaea in 325. It officially (but not finally) settled a bitter debate in the church on the identity of Christ.
The seeds of this debate can be found in the way early Christian writers answered the question, In what sense is Christ fully divine? The issue came to a head through the teaching of a presbyter (minister) by the name of Arius, who had argued that if the Son was, as the church confessed, “begotten of the Father,” then “there was a time when the Son was not.”
Over against Arius stood the heroic figure of Athanasius. He argued powerfully that if the Son is not Himself fully God, then He cannot reconcile us to God since His death would not have infinite power to save us from sin against an infinite and holy God. Only if Christ is fully divine can He reconcile us to God. Furthermore, Athanasius argued, if Christ is not truly God (and by implication, the same would be true of the Holy Spirit), then Christians are baptized in the name of one God and two of His creatures. In other words, the inaugural Christian rite of baptism into the one name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit requires the full deity of the Son in order to make sense.
For his dogged faithfulness, Athanasius (nicknamed “The Black Dwarf” because of his coloring and height) was exiled on no fewer than five occasions. But even if the whole world was against him, he was determined to uphold the full deity of his Savior (hence the expression Athanasius contra mundum, “Athanasius against the world”). The council that Constantine summoned at Nicaea in 325 confirmed Athanasius’ New Testament conviction about the absolute deity of our Lord Jesus Christ.
A third major event of the fourth century took place in the life of an individual whose writings have made him the single most influential thinker in the church since the days of the Apostles. The event was, of course, the conversion of Augustine.
Aurelius Augustinus was born in 354 in Thagaste, North Africa (Annaba in modern-day Algeria), the son of a pagan father and a Christian mother, Monica (to whose prayers Augustine later partly attributed his conversion). New thinking and envelope-pushing experiences fascinated him. At the age of eighteen, he took a concubine with whom he lived for the next fifteen years. He seems to have tried everything, including new religion and even extraordinary diets (at one time he belonged to a sect that believed that you should eat as many melons as you could).
He found no satisfaction. Writing about his experience in his most famous work, The Confessions, he notes that however much he sought what he thought was the truth, he was really running away from it and from the grace of God in Jesus Christ.
Eventually, Augustine took a prestigious job as a professor of rhetoric in Milan, Italy. He began to listen to the preaching of the great Ambrose, bishop of Milan. One day, as he sat in a garden, he heard a child in a neighboring garden shouting out some words he thought were part of a game—tolle lege (pick up and read). It triggered something in his mind. He picked up a copy of the New Testament that was lying on a table and opened it at Romans 13:14: “But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” He felt that God had spoken to him as directly as he had heard the child’s voice. He did exactly what the text said. He trusted in Christ. The old way of life was now gone. He found the rest in God for which he then knew he had been created. From then on, he would be the devoted servant of Jesus Christ. His thinking and writing in many ways determined the course of the history of Christian theology, right through to the Reformation.
One of the most fascinating statements in The Confessions is a comment Augustine made about Ambrose. He was describing the time in his life when he came to Milan. What was it that impressed him about the bishop? He tells us in his prayer-soliloquy to God: “I began to like him, at first indeed not as a teacher of the truth, for I had absolutely no confidence in your Church, but as a human being who was kind to me. . . . Nevertheless, gradually, though I did not realize it, I was drawing closer.”
Justin Martyr was brought to Christ by an otherwise unknown elderly Christian taking a quiet walk along the shore; Augustine came to faith through an eloquent bishop’s kindness and a mother’s prayers. Justin’s name lives on in the history of the church—but the old man who pointed him to Christ is forgotten. Many Christians are familiar with the name of Augustine. Fewer know the name of his mother or the name of his minister, Ambrose.
There is a pattern and a lesson here. As we read the lives of men and women who have been strategically used by Christ in building His kingdom, we note that the names of those through whom they were brought to faith in Jesus Christ are often forgotten or lost. But their significance is incalculable. God delights to use the hidden and the forgotten.
This is, surely, a tremendous encouragement to people like us who live our Christian lives in relative obscurity. We do not expect to find our names in any church history book. And yet, it may be that someone to whom we are kind because we love Jesus will be taken up and extraordinarily used by God to build the church of Jesus Christ.
Faithfulness is far more significant than fame when Jesus is building His church.
Excerpt adapted from In the Year of Our Lord by Sinclair B. Ferguson, © 2018, pp. 41–46.