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12-Step Theology

I was once told by a secular authority that AA's 12 steps were based upon St. Augustine's Confessions. Being totally unfamiliar with AA, I believed him and, in my mind, this gave AA credibility. If Augustine didn't know about God's grace, who did? And, if they were basing their program upon his description of his bondage to and then liberation from sexual sin, shouldn't it be sound? I foolishly repeated this "fact" to others, as well.

As it happens, immediately before finding The Way of Purity course, I had been reading the Confessions and wondering how I could be set as completely free as Augustine had been. So, when I started the course I had his experience very much in mind and everything finally made sense to me. At the time, I knew of little that might be different between this course and a 12-step program.

But now that I have seen what the 12 steps look like, it is obvious that this authority, who told me they were modeled after Augustine’s teaching, was wrong. The 12 steps leave out the most crucial thing that Augustine talks about. The first three steps are the biggest problem, since they are the foundation. These foundational steps are different from Augustine's liberation and his theology and are even contrary and opposed to what you would conclude if you study what Augustine said about how God saved him. The 12 steps provide a mirror image which is deceptive in its likeness, while being ultimately the opposite of what they imitate.

The FIrst Step: We admitted we were powerless...

The first step is "We admitted we were powerless over our addictions and compulsive behaviors." There is something right about this, since we are powerless to free ourselves from sin. We need a savior. Augustine, who was enslaved to sexually immoral practices and couldn't give them up on his own, could perhaps be relied upon as providing support for this step - except for the fact that in the 12-step program this recognition is based upon seeing that the "addiction" is a "disease." Well, Augustine never excused his behavior by blaming it upon something so blameless as a disease. No; what Augustine said is this:

I sighed after such freedom, but was bound not by an iron imposed by anyone else but by the iron of my own choice" (Confessions VIII, 10).

Augustine didn't admit to a powerlessness born of some disease that he just happened to have. Original sin makes the whole human race "sick and sore" from "Adam to the end of the world" (Against Faustus, XXXII, 14) but, nonetheless, the problem was not a disease but the perversion of his own will. He was bound to sexual immorality because he himself had willed this slavery and because he was bound to that which he loved. He was also bound because the just punishments of sin are moral blindness and depravity. The more he chose to ignore what he knew was true, the harder it was for him to see the truth, and the more he chose lust, the less he was able to choose against it. So the problem for a fallen human being has two sides: He cannot see what is true and he cannot do what is right.

This leads to a second difference with the AA step: the first step that Augustine identifies is not our recognition of our powerlessness. Augustine uses Genesis as the model of the work of redemption:

2 The earth was formless and empty, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. 3 And God said, "Let there be light," and there was light. Gen 1:2-3

Augustine said that, until we are saved, we are (1) formless - original sin and our own sinful actions have destroyed our original form; (2) empty - when we sin, we destroy ourselves, and so become "empty;" (3) in darkness - "we were covered by the darkness of ignorance" (Confessions XIII, 13), an ignorance produced by our own sinful acts; (4) fluid and insubstantial, like the waters - we dwell in a sea of bitterness at the bottom of the abyss (cf. XIII, 37), and our hearts are "dark and fluid" (XIII, 15). The Spirit of God, however, is far from us - we are submerged in the abyss beneath the waters, whereas God is far above us and above the waters we dwell within.

How are we rescued from this? It isn’t just by recognizing that we are powerless. No - we must see that God is desirable, that holiness is desirable, and that sin is despicable. We recognize we are sinners who cannot stop sinning; that sin is awful in itself and not just in its effects; that God can save us and is what we need!

We must see our despicableness and God’s holiness and desire to be like him.

How does this happen? By God's act: God said, "Let there be light" and there was light. Augustine locates the first step of liberation from sin here: in God's revelation to us of the truth. It follows, then, that no program based on anything but God's revelation could save us and, really, that no program could ever save us, since only a special act of God, a bestowal of his sovereign grace, could open the eyes of our minds to see our true condition and the truth of His Way. God reveals himself to us by giving us his Word and his Spirit; "Your Word, eternal truth...raises those submissive to [Jesus] to himself" (VII, 24), and "By your gift [of the Spirit] we are set on fire and carried upwards: we grow red hot and ascend" (XIII, 10).

Returning to the issue of what this powerlessness is all about - what does Augustine teach about this? He said that he was so wretched that he thought that "[if] we were immortal and lived in unending bodily pleasure, with no fear of losing it" (VI, 26) then this would be blessedness (heaven with 72 virgins, right?). No one who conceives of blessedness in this way is ever going to be free, because they think all there is to life is these types of pleasures. If you love God for the sake of the flesh, you don't really love God. The problem for Augustine was that he loved sex more than he loved God, and was totally attached to it; thus the well-known prayer attributed to him, that God would make him chaste - but not yet. The 12 steps do not teach that the acts to which we are in bondage are inherently sinful; the focus seems to be on their consequences, not on their nature. Again, this is because the idea is not that we are bound by sinful wills, but bound by a "disease." We do bad things because we are bound by these things. What isn’t recognized is that we are bound by these things because we have substituted them for God, and have been handed over to these idols as a consequence.

This is why the first step must be, not the recognition of our own powerlessness, but the grace of God which allows us to finally see things clearly. We need to see that God is more desirable than sin, and we need to see sin for what it is - something rank and disgusting and awful. We must see God for what he is - beautiful and awesome and above all HOLY, and to be worshipped. We need to see that God has made us for Himself.

I would like people to take away from this is that the first AA step is incompatible with what Augustine taught because, although we do need to recognize that we are powerless (1) this recognition must be based upon a recognition of our own sinfulness, not a recognition that we have a disease; (2) we need a special act of God in our lives by which he enlightens our minds and shows us just how sinful we are and how desirable he is, a revelation usually though the Word and the Spirit. Simply recognizing your powerlessness is not enough to move forward; Augustine had recognized his powerlessness for a long time - he said he was "twisting and turning in my chain" (VIII, 25), but it wasn't until God's light came to him that he was able to be free from his sin. If a Christian version of the 12 steps were made, the first step would be this: God revealed to us his overwhelming holiness and our despicable sinfulness. "But Lord what glory is there which is not in you?" (VI, 10). The first step belongs to God, and this is why no program can set people free, why no advice can liberate people from sins, but only the grace of God can achieve this.

The Second Step: We came to believe...

"We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity" - We are led to believe that merely reaching out for "a" higher power will save us.

Certainly, someone examining Augustine's transformation would say that he was freed after coming to believe that a higher power could restore him. But first he converted to Manichaeism, founded by a Persian known to us merely as Mani. Wikipedia gives the following information about Manicaeism:

"Mani was likely influenced by Mandaeanism and began preaching at an early age. According to biographical accounts...Mani received a revelation as a youth from a spirit, whom he would later call his Twin, his Syzygos, his Double, his Protective Angel or 'Divine' Self. This 'spirit' allegedly taught him 'divine' truths which developed into the Manichaean religion. (This Syzygos resembles greatly the ibril of Mohammed). His 'divine' Twin or true Self brought Mani to Self-realisation and as such he becomes a 'gnosticus', someone with divine knowledge and a liberating insight into things. He claimed to be the 'Paraclete of the Truth', as promised in the New Testament: the Last Prophet and Seal of the Prophets that finalized a succession of men guided by God and included figures such as Zoroaster, Hermes, Plato, Buddha, and Jesus."

Yes, men were diluting God's truth by combining different religions as they pleased even way back then. Mani taught that matter was evil and that spirit was good, and God seems to be some kind of spiritual body in an eternal war with the powers of darkness. Augustine joined this religion, discovered many problems with it, and was promised that a man named Faustus could answer all his problems. When he finally met this man, he found that he could teach him nothing, and he gave up on this foolish religion.

You might think that Augustine was saved after this; but no, next he followed after the Neo-Platonists. The Neo-Platonists at least had a good idea of what the attributes of God were. They were examples, Augustine later thought, of men who did recognize what could be learned about God from general revelation, from the world, but did not worship him as he should be:

19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools... Romans 1:19-22

The Neo-Platonists did not accept God's revelation of himself in Christ. And Augustine followed this path for some time, without ever being freed from his bondage.

The lessons of this are two: first, it isn't enough to seek "a" higher power; it matters that it be the right one; second, that even if you have a good idea of Who God is, that isn't enough, either. You might know to which God to pray but, if you don't accept his revelation of how to seek and worship him, you will not be freed.

Augustine had been searching for a "higher power" for some time, and had been involved in both the Manichean heresy, which has a very low view of God, and in Neo-Platonism, which has a very high view of God. The Neo-Platonists were like men on a hill divided from a city by a great forest, who could see a city but couldn't see how to enter it. They could not enter the city because they would not accept Christ and were puffed up with pride in themselves and thought they could come to God by themselves. Now if AA were right, either of these would be enough, since both of them proclaim a "higher power." But Augustine was never set free by either of these worldly philosophies.

The Third Step: We made a decision...

"We made a decision to turn our life and our will over to the care of God as we understood him." Again, this was what Augustine did as a Manichee and then as a Neo-Platonist, to no avail whatsoever. Augustine was turning his life over to "God as he understood him" but it wasn't until he turned his life over to God as He revealed himself in Christ that he found freedom. When he did this, it did not take him "12-16 months" to "recover" from sinful sexual practices, but a single day. As it mentions in one of The Way of Purity lessons, he was so completely transformed that when a prostitute well-known to him approached him, and said, "Augustine, it is I," he replied, "Yes, but it is not I." He didn't live as a "recovered" fornicator but saw his behavior and desires completely transformed by God's grace.

Basically, Augustine's experience is an example of God's grace completely liberating a sinner through his Word and Spirit in order to enjoy Him alone, but the 12 steps hardly teach these things: not that we need the Word, not that we need the Spirit, not that God's grace is totally sufficient to set us free, and not that God is the one thing needful for our hearts.

I write this because I find it very shocking that this kind of thing is being so dressed up and is deceiving people. I find it disturbing that not only secular authorities, who might be excused since they are ignorant of what Christianity is, but even Christians, such as Rick Warren and Chuck Colson, don't see how incompatible this program is with Christianity.

The Fourth through the Twelfth Steps

In almost every way, this program echoes Christian teaching - but distorts it. By removing the root, it removes the hope we have of being totally freed in Christ. By not explaining with what we must replace our idols, it leaves us to seek a new idol to worship.

It is entirely correct to instruct us to confess, to ask God to remove our defects, to make amends, to be vigilant, and to seek God’s will - but this is nothing but "good advice" if the liberation is not based upon Christ’s death on the cross and the total, amazing, eternal freedom bought at Calvary for all of the elect.

A worldly program may teach radical amputation and radical accountability. The 12 steps do not include anything about amputation although, I imagine that when it comes down to it, they may require something along these lines. They do teach accountability.

But where is appropriation? And where is adoration? It is these two principles that connect most closely with worship. Men fill themselves with and adore what they worship. When we were lost in sexual sin, we filled ourselves with depraved images and adored these idols. Where will men learn that they must fill their hearts with Christ and adore him only? And what will their fate be if they are never taught this?

43 When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, but finds none. 44 Then it says, "I will return to my house from which I came." And when it comes, it finds the house empty, swept, and put in order. 45 Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there, and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So also will it be with this evil generation. Matthew 12:43-45

Augustine said that "our hearts are restless until they rest in You" (I, 1). He could not escape the power of the idol of sexual immorality until he came to desire God instead; "a man is necessarily a slave to the things by means of which he seeks to be happy. He follows them wherever they lead..." (On True Religion, XXXVIII). We are slaves of sexual immorality, of smoking, of drinking, or of another idol because we cannot believe that Christ will satisfy us. We believe that we need this idol in order to be happy.

According to Augustine, we therefore necessarily seek after whatever we believe we must have to be happy. Freedom is found when God shows us that we can trust him to satisfy our every need. The heart which does not seek God will necessarily seek after some other thing to give it happiness, and it will be a slave to that thing. So unless we learn that Christ must be our fountain, we cannot be freed.

My people have committed two sins: they have forsaken me, the spring of living waters, and dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water. Jeremiah 2:13
31 So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, "If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." 33 They answered him, "We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, 'You will become free'?" 34 Jesus answered them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35 The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. 36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. John 3:31-36
1 As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. 2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before him? Psalm 42:1-2
Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD. Deut. 8:3
Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. John 6:35

We need to learn to seek our happiness in God and to feast upon the Word of God. Otherwise, when once we are freed from our Egypt, we will only be slaves to some new power. That is what Augustine taught. And that is what the 12 steps completely ignore. You may spend years going to a 12-step program in order to manage your "disease." But, because they do not give you the one thing needful for freedom, that is, Christ, only the fortunate few who already have Christ on their minds can find real freedom there.

Programs such as Celebrate Recovery attempt to integrate the two, but the result is incoherent and muddled, effective more in spite of the format than because of it, more because they are taught in Bible-preaching churches than because of the soundness of the program, itself. A look at Rick Warren's attempt to show that the beatitudes, which apply to the whole Christian life, teach the "eight principles" (i.e., eight of the twelve steps), should convince you of how difficult it is to fit the two sides of this program together. The connection between a given beatitude and a given step is often so weak that you cannot see why Warren is so confident in the "match." Christ can set you free forever and fill that void in your heart that the 12 steps do not tell you how to fill.

Alexander Jech, mentor in The Way of Purity

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