Topic Article #6: The Pelagian Controversy
by Dr. Eugene Clingman, Executive Administrator
Copyright 2006, International Church Council Project
(This article may be freely distributed so long as it is not altered
and this comment and the above information remain intact.)
Can a person come to God on his own, without the special intervention of the Gracious Holy Spirit? Can one live perfectly according to the laws of God without the change of heart brought about by the new birth? Is it possible for a man to be justified before God apart from the sacrifice of Christ? Pelagius said “yes” to these questions; Augustine said, “NO!” Are all of Adam’s descendants (the entire human race) born with sin resident in their nature? Do Adam’s descendants die physically because of Adam’s sin? To these questions Pelagius answers, “NO!”, and Augustine, “YES!” Topic #6 of the International Church Council Project, Concerning the Pelagian Controversy, deals with issues foundational to the Christian faith. Pelagianism challenges our understanding of sin and redemption and, in fact, whether or not we need a savior.
Pelagius lived in the fourth century after Christ. He was a teacher of morality and the Bible, and taught that the sin of Adam affected his descendants only in this way – that by eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, Adam set a bad example. According to Pelagius, Adam’s posterity sin, not because sin is in them from birth, but because they follow Adam’s bad example which they see displayed in the evils of the society they are born into. According to Pelagius, Adam’s descendants have the ability to choose either to follow Adam’s bad example, or to do what Adam did not do, which is to perform perfect, unspotted obedience to God and thus win favor with God and obtain eternal life. In this way, according to Pelagius, men are able to present to God a righteousness of their own based in obedience to God’s law. Augustine, a contemporary of Pelagius, withstood him in his writings and lectures. The fourth century Church as well as the reformational Church (Protestantism) accepted Augustine’s teaching and rejected Pelagius as a heretic.
The historic, “main-line” Church (Body of Christ) has recognized Augustine’s teachings as the biblical position on sin and man’s ability. Sadly, in our day Pelagianism is one of the more devastating and subtle ways that many in the modern Church have slipped away from (or never arrived at) biblical teaching. Some evangelical churches that espouse an orthodox statement of faith are nevertheless Pelagian in philosophy and practice.
What then are some doctrinal implications of Pelagianism? First, Pelagianism negates what the Bible says about the Fall of Man by teaching that Adam lost nothing for the human race except the opportunity to provide a good example to his descendants. However the Bible teaches that Adam’s race inherited both Adam’s fallen nature (Genesis 5:3; Psalm 58:3; Ephesians 2:3), and fallen position (death, condemnation, and separation from God – Romans 5:12-21; Genesis 6:5; 8:12; Psalm 51:5). Secondly, Pelagianism implies that man has ability which the Bible teaches he does not have, namely that man has the ability, apart from a renewed heart, to attain to a perfect righteousness and so merit eternal life. However, the Bible teaches that man is spiritually dead without inherent righteousness (Isaiah 64:6; Jeremiah 13:23; Romans 3:10-18; Ephesians 2:1-3). Since the Fall, man needs a heart change initiated by God in order to fully obey God’s laws (John 3:1-10; Galatians 3:21; Ephesians 2:4-10; Jeremiah 31:31-34). Thirdly, if Pelagius was correct that Adam did not leave us with inherited sin but only with a bad example, then we do not need a savior, but only a good example. Jesus then would be Example, not Savior (Galatians 2:21; 3:21-22; Matthew 1:21; Psalm 130:8). Fourthly, Pelagius’ teaching that man can, of himself, be righteous by obedience to God’s law, flatly contradicts the teaching of the Bible (Philippians 3:9; Romans 3:19-20; 10:3,4).
Can you make yourself right before God by keeping the Law? Can you keep yourself right before God by keeping the Law? If so, the Bible says you don’t need Christ (Luke 5:32), and Christ died for nothing (Galatians 2:21). Paul claimed he was blameless when it came to the righteousness of the Law (Philippians 3:6), yet called himself the sinner “foremost of all” (1Timothy 1:15). Paul kept the outward law (that which Pelagius claimed constitutes righteousness), yet Paul knew himself to be a sinner in desperate need of justification and the righteousness of God which comes through faith in Jesus Christ. Paul’s is the experience of a genuine Christian. Pelagius’ teachings do not conform to either the teachings of the Bible, or to the experience of those who know themselves to be genuinely forgiven and saved from sin.
What implications does Pelagianism have for life in the modern church? Pelagianism leads people to trust in themselves rather than in Christ who is the saint’s only righteousness (2Corinthians 5:21; 1Corinthians 1:30,31; Philippians 3:9). Think with me! What happens when one supposes himself innately (apart from Christ) righteous? Motives and actions, which might otherwise be questioned, are assumed to be good. Self-justification and self-righteousness rule the heart, which in turn feeds a growing conformity to the world since human nature is so inclined and the heart assumes its own inclinations and actions are good. This in turn leads to an increasing spirit of “having a form of godliness while denying the power thereof” (2Timothy 3:5), and slides the Church more and more into the state of the Laodiceans who considered themselves rich, lacking nothing, yet being “wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked” (Revelation 3:17,18). Pelagianism sucks passion for the Savior out of the life-blood of the Church; it weans the Church away from her Husband and makes her vulnerable to a flirtatious relationship with worldly standards and philosophies and spirits.
The Biblical (and Augustinian) position regarding the nature of man and his ability is: 1) Adam was created good yet with the possibility of sinning. Adam had free-will to choose good or evil. 2) Fallen Adam and all his descendants apart from Christ, have no possibility of doing untainted-good (true righteousness). Fallen man retains free-will, but his will which dictates his actions, is controlled by his fallen nature. 3) Redeemed man in Christ has the possibility of not sinning, but because redemption is not complete he struggles with the sinful flesh and its inclination toward sin. The saints have a renewed nature and yet struggle with the old nature, their free-will can choose either sin or righteousness. 4) Man fully redeemed in Heaven no longer has the possibility of sinning, but only of doing righteousness. His will is completely sanctified and made like Christ, the exalted Second Person of the Godhead, who is altogether righteous and not temped by sin or evil (James 1:13).
Blessed be God who has given us such an inheritance in Christ! He will redeem his people from all their iniquities; for this reason he was named Jesus (Matthew 1:21).
The document by the International Church Council Project, titled Concerning the Pelagian Controversy, has been written by our theologians and theological committees to bring to light the fallacies of Pelagianism, and to affirm the truth of God’s Word, the Bible. We invite you to help us by prayer and finances in this effort to restore biblical doctrine in the Church, her seminaries, and her colleges.