Portraits of Conversion: Augustine, the Prodigal Son, and Me


The great Dutch theologian, Herman Bavinck, must have had Augustine in mind when he wrote, “The heart of man was created for God and it cannot find rest until it rests in his Father’s heart. And all men are really seeking after God, but they do not seek him in the right way nor at the right place. They have no interest in a knowledge of his ways, and yet they cannot do without him.”[1]

Augustine was a man on a quest for truth, but he didn’t consider Christianity to be a viable source of it. When he seemed to find truth in philosophy and pursued temporal successes, he always had new questions that couldn’t be answered to his satisfaction, so he pursued yet another philosophical discipline. Thus, without correct thinking grounded in the absolute truth of God, Augustine found himself in a crisis over what would ultimately happen to his soul.

Those who put their souls in philosophies of our current post-modern era are a lot like pre-conversion Augustine: searching and, perhaps, frustrated and angry. But the turning point Augustine experienced, that the philosophers of his time did not, was his coming to grips with the poverty of his spirit and God’s revelation to him. Augustine was like the Prodigal Son in Jesus’s parable: both wandered from God, sought after their own pleasure in sin, and were finally converted and restored to their fathers. Both conversion accounts are timeless because they are raw, personal, and relatable for all readers across the ages. Let us examine the similarities between Augustine and the Prodigal.

Defining Conversion

First, it will be helpful for us to define what conversion is so that we have a better understanding of what happened in Augustine’s and the Prodigal’s experience. The classical Latin words conversio and convertere (used by Augustine) denote “the act of returning or becoming; the effect of a change, whether in a spiritual or material sense.”[2] In NT Greek, metanoeo and metanoia mean “repentance; a change of mind, sorrow, and an about-face in actions of the whole inner nature, intellectual, affectional, and moral.” From these definitions, we can identify four basic elements of repentance as they relate to conversion: Mental awareness of the need for a change; emotional sorrow for the impact on God and others; changed action from the old behavior to the new; and sincere motivation for the change.

The latter part of the well-known parable of The Prodigal Son contains these four qualities in the younger son’s repentance. While they appear to be in a sequential order, the qualities themselves occur more randomly and instantaneously rather than sequentially. Yet they give us a good example of what genuine repentance involves. Notice the qualities in the text in bold and parentheses:

But when he came to himself (Aware), he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go (Action) to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you (Motive/Sorrow). I am no longer worthy (Sorrow) to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants. (Motive) (Luke 15:17–19, ESV). 

At the conclusion of the parable, the father saw the son returning home, ran out to greet him (no doubt hiking up his robe, so he wouldn’t trip), and welcomed him home to take part in a feast to celebrate his return.

Augustine’s Conversion

Augustine’s record of his conversion shares a familiar tone with the Prodigal:

From a hidden depth a profound self-examination (Aware) had dredged up a heap of all my misery and set it ‘in the sight of my heart’ (Ps 18:15). That precipitated a vast storm bearing a massive downpour of tears (Sorrow)…I threw myself down…and let my tears flow freely…and repeatedly said to you: ‘How long, O Lord? (Action) How long, Lord, will you be angry to the uttermost…? For I felt my past to have a grip on me (Aware/Sorrow)…Why not now? Why not an end to my impure life in this very hour? (Motive)’[3]

Here, the reader finds Augustine at the point of being overwhelmed with a sense of loss, frustration, and despair over his inability to understand the God of the Bible. Philosophy failed to help him find the answers he needed in order to have peace. Then, in an act of faith and desperation, Augustine prayed to God, acknowledged his brokenness, and asked desperately to be released from his bondage immediately. He truly desired—no, he needed—to know God rightly and only God’s intervention would fill his need. Indeed, “Without special revelation, the religion of men and the philosophy of thinkers do not have a right knowledge of God, and hence no right knowledge of men in the world and of sin and redemption. Both do indeed seek after God if happily they might seek and find him, but find him they do not.”[4]

God’s Intervention

Augustine recorded what he realized was God’s answer to prayer:

[As] I was seeing this and weeping in the bitter agony of my heart, suddenly I heard a voice from the nearby house chanting as if it might be a boy or a girl, I do not know which, saying and repeating over and over again, ‘Pick up and read, pick up and read.’ At once my countenance changed, and I began to think intently whether there might be some sort of children’s game in which such a chant is used. But I could not remember having heard of one. I checked the flood of tears and stood up (Action). I interpreted it solely as a divine command to me (Motive) to open the book and read the first chapter I might find…[Opening the book], I read (Action) the first passage on which my eyes lit: ‘Not in riots and drunken parties, not in eroticism and indecencies, not in strike and rivalry, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh in its lusts’ (Rom 3:13–15). [5]

In a moment, Augustine was at peace, concluding, “I neither wished nor needed to read further. At once, with the last words of this sentence, it was as if a light of relief from all anxiety flooded into my heart. All the shadows of doubt were dispelled.” At this point, Augustine told his friend, Alypius, about his despair and relief, and they immediately went to tell Augustine’s mother, Monica, of his experience. Monica’s “grief had turned to joy,” and she praised God for the answer to her prayers for her son.[6]

From that point forward, Augustine’s desires moved from earthly successes and positions toward the truth of God of the Bible. Although he still struggled “against the flesh” for the remainder of his life, he realized he had been released from bondage to his former sins.


Augustine’s conversion and the parable of the Prodigal Son surely must rank as two of the most personal and moving pieces of literature due to the use of first-person language in both accounts chronicling thoughts, feelings, and actions that are raw, personal, and relatable. There is obvious visceral desperation after each man tried to find true happiness apart from God. And both speak to the sinful, empty life apart from God. Most importantly, both accounts record God’s call to return to him.

Conversion is Raw

Both Augustine and the Prodigal were met with ruin in a significant measure because of their distance from God. Both experienced gut-wrenching emotions when they realized they were at the end of themselves.

For example, recall that Augustine’s mother was a Christian, but he had spent a large part of his life dedicated to philosophies, sexual escapades, and carousing—in a real sense, he wandered away (fled?) from God. When he was unable to be transformed into being one with God through paganism and empty philosophies, he despaired to the point of being undone.[7] In a similar way, the Prodigal left his father’s house to shape his own happiness but found only misery and a crisis of faith. Likewise, when we seek other fleshly “ways” to find God (i.e., philosophy, good vibe New Age, atheism, etc.), the result will be disappointment, emptiness, and despair.

Conversion is Personal

Wandering away from God has little to do with physical location. Instead, it is a condition of becoming spiritually lost while following something or someone other than God, resulting in an inability to return to God. The only resolution is for God to bring about the wanderer’s return.

Fitzgerald notes that the Prodigal’s return to his senses was initiated by God in that it was “necessary for there to be a call, an inspiration and an admonition from above that sought him.”[8] Augustine also acted on God’s prompt to “take up and read”—an act of faith, really, because he had a sense that the answer to his disintegration would be found by opening the Bible.

In both cases, Augustine and the Prodigal had a deep, personal sense to respond, and this sense was God’s prompting.

Conversion is Relatable

Every conversion is a miracle of God’s doing. Severe suffering and “drama” are not required for salvation, yet each conversion is dramatic. God’s inspiration to return to him happens in mysterious ways for each person he calls; indeed, no one is out of reach of God. However, Christ’s call to come to him is the result of our common broken spiritual condition. Therefore, Christians can all relate to God’s gracious, effectual call. “By grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Eph 2:8). In other words, to “get right” with God doesn’t mean any of us can improve on ourselves, find him through our own effort, or to earn or live up to his favor (though we can strive for habits of mind and heart help us toward holy living). All of us need regeneration, recreation, and transformation.

I think of my own conversion at 26 years old (a mere 34 years ago). My dad’s sudden death a few years prior rocked my world, and I resolved to “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow it may be my turn to die!” I was in bondage to sin even though I had experienced clues of God’s grace at work over the course of my life. Nonetheless, I tried to fill the hole in the heart of my soul with earthly waste that promised much and delivered nothing. In my own emptiness and separation from God, I came to myself, by God’s grace, and tried to pray the Lord’s Prayer for the first time in years but forgot what came after, “Our Father, who art in heaven.” With genuine, deep embarrassment, shame, and desperation before the Lord, I prayed, “How long will this anguish last? I’m not happy with any of this, and I can’t live like this anymore! Help me! I need you!” spilled from my mouth.

A short time later, I understood the gospel for the first time in answer to my prayer, and I realized that God had me in his hand my entire life, even through experiencing the tragic loss of my dad.

At the moment of conversion, I was washed in tears of a mix of relief and joy as God in his grace set me free from bondage, freeing my will to serve him. The shackles had fallen off, and I bore the mark of the freed sinner. Nothing had changed in God, but changes were made in me in my lifetime within eternity while taking up my cross, continuing to persevere, and pressing on toward the prize that awaits.

Augustine, the Prodigal, and I all have the same raw, personal, relatable story of God pursuing and capturing us. How about you?

Jon Hedger, M.Div. ’21
Director of Seminary Discipleship


Prayer Requests:

  1. Pray that we each would recognize the Lord’s work in our lives.
  2. Pray for our students and faculty as they travel back from spring break and press on toward graduation.
  3. Pray for those attending our Evening Program Fall Semester Preview Night and those attending Spring Preview Day, that the Lord would guide their steps.
  4. Pray for the full funding of the Serious Joy Scholarships yet needed to support this year’s students by June 30.









[1] Herman Bavinck, The Wonderful Works of God: Instruction in the Christian Religion according to the Reformed Confession, (Glenside: Westminster Seminary Press, 2019), 246.

[2] Allan D. Fitzgerald, ed. Augustine Through the Ages: An Encyclopedia, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 239.

[3] Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, 8.12.28.

[4] Bavinck, The Wonderful Works of God, 6.

[5] Augustine, Confessions, 8.12.29.

[6] Augustine, Confessions, 8.12.30.

[7] Fitzgerald, ed. Augustine Through the Ages, 239. It is interesting to note that Augustine shows signs of being “disintegrated” or “undone” while he strayed away from God, while the prophet Isaiah was “undone,” “ruined,” or “cut off” in God’s presence (Isa 6:5 KJV).

[8] Fitzgerald, Augustine Through the Ages, 241.