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  • Writer's pictureScott Carr, Jr.

Augustine 2020: What to Expect of the Earthly City

Updated: Sep 26, 2022

As we continue into Book II of The City of God, Augustine begins to address the declining morals of the city of Rome in his own day. While Christians were accused of contributing to that moral decline, Augustine argued that, in fact, the stories of the Roman gods themselves betrayed a lack of morals and Rome’s decline began long before Christianity came on the scene. On the other hand, Christianity had a strong moral code. The God of Christianity expected His people to follow the pattern of Jesus who lived a life of love and sacrifice on our behalf [1]. Citizens of the city of God are called to live certain kinds of lives, in accord with their citizenship.


Augustine argues that if all who lived in Rome obeyed these commands from Scripture, the world would be a better place, but since not all do, Christians are to endure the evils of this age to be better citizens of the city of God. He says, “If they would hear and obey the precepts of the Christian religion concerning just and upright morals, then the republic would embellish the domain of the present life with its own happiness and would ascend to eternal life to reign in supreme happiness….However, because…many are better friends with the evil allurements of the vices than with the advantageous austerity of the virtues, the servants of Christ…are commanded to endure even ‘the worst and most disgraceful’ republic, if it is necessary, and through that endurance to prepare an illustrious place for themselves in that most holy and majestic assembly of angels, in that heavenly republic where the will of God is law” [2].

Christians do not expect the earthly city to be the city of God. Instead, they live for the good of the earthly city while preparing for the day they take their place in the true city. Augustine draws on the works of earlier philosophers such as Cicero to argue that Rome, in fact, was never a true republic. A true republic can only exist if it is administered with true justice and its people united around what is right [3]. Such will never truly exist in the earthly city. True justice will only ever be found in the city of God. “True justice does not exist except in that republic whose founder and ruler is Christ” [4]. That city is described in Revelation 21: “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life” [5].

In thinking through this portion of Augustine, we need to seriously and critically reflect on Christian calls to “take back” the culture. Much recent Christian political discourse has focused on returning the country to our Judeo-Christian roots [6]. While the religious roots of America are historically more complicated, mixed with a lot of other philosophies and ideals [7], I, for one, am not going to argue against a more moral society, just as Augustine didn’t. I would love to see a more just, loving, and peaceful society. However, I believe this language has a problem in that it overestimates the ability the earthly city has of being the city of God. Christians can never expect the earthly city, whether it is Rome or Washington D.C. to be a city of true justice. Christians are not called to “take back” the culture or establish a society of true Judeo-Christian values. The earthly city will always, by definition, fall short of the city of God. But we are called to live within the earthly city as members of that city where true justice is found, to be good neighbors, to live lives of holiness, justice, and love within our earthly cities.


In this discussion, I believe we learn two additional principles we can add to those from last week. First, while we use our vote to contribute good and justice to the earthly city, we hold that vote lightly, recognizing that our vote will never bring the earthly city to true and complete justice. Second, we are also reminded that part of being a Christian is not winning politically, but in being good neighbors and representing the values of the city of God as we interact with others in the earthly city, treating them with love while waiting for the city of God to come in its fullness. Next week, we will look more closely at one it means for America to be an earthly city.


[1] Augustine, Augustine: Political Writings, trans. Michael W. Tkacz and Douglas Kries (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1994), p. 13-17.

[2] Ibid. p. 17

[3] Ibid. pp. 19-21.

[4] Ibid. p. 21.

[5] Revelation 21:22-26 NRSV.

[6] Katherine Weber, “Franklin Graham Warns Christians Will 'Lose This Country' If They Don't Vote,” February 10, 2016, https://www.christianpost.com/news/franklin-graham-warns-christians-will-lose-this-country-if-they-dont-vote.html.

[7] Justin Taylor, “America as a Christian Nation: A Conversation with Mark Noll and George Marsden,” The Gospel Coalition, July 6, 2016, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/evangelical-history/america-as-a-christian-nation-a-conversation-with-mark-noll-and-george-marsden/.

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