How hard is enough?

How hard is enough?

Pelagius was the first British theologian that we know about, and although he is little known today he has provided the British church with one of its favourite heresies.

In the late 4th century Pelagius went to Rome and was dismayed at the prevailing view, taught by people like Augustine, that the fall of Adam and Eve affected the whole of humanity to the extent that we are all terminally corrupted by it and unable without the grace of God to turn from evil and accept God.

Pelagius thought that the sin of our forebears affected only them, and that God’s grace had given us the Bible, freewill, and intellect, so that we are perfectly capable of living righteous lives should we so wish.  After all, why would Jesus tell us to be perfect (Matthew 5:48) if it is not possible?  In essence, his message to humanity was “Must try harder”.  Surely he has a point?

Though the views of Pelagius were quickly denounced and eventually condemned as heresy by the followers of Augustine, they persisted, particularly in Britain and Gaul, because they seem so natural.  In fact they have even been referred to as the natural religion of natural man.  But the basic idea is humanity trying to make itself acceptable to God.

Pelagius - hero or heretic?

Pelagius – did he have a point or was he completely misguided?

Pelagius of course missed the whole point.  It is completely impossible for humanity to make itself acceptable to God.  Though we should aim to live out our salvation through a transformed life that is pleasing to God, we achieve this through the grace of God at work in our lives, not by gritting our teeth and trying harder.  If we’re doing that, we haven’t learned from the mistake of the Pharisees.   Living right is not a prerequisite for salvation, it is a response to it.

Yet the attraction of Pelagianism persists.  Over a millennium later it re-emerged in the Arminians, in the teaching of John Wesley, and was embraced by some significant Pentecostal and non-conformist movements.  It still affects many of us today, particularly as many of us refute Augustine’s idea of original sin.  How many Christians believe that human beings are basically good, if somewhat marred?  That’s Pelagianism, or at least semi-Pelagianism.  How many of us believe that humans have a choice in their salvation?  That there is a little kernel of good deep inside of us that can make right choices?  That is Pelagianism.  Because even that ability to make a decision is making a contribution to our own salvation, and denying our total dependence on God’s grace.  Yet this heresy remains popular because we find it so hard to cope with the idea of a free gift of grace that we have done nothing to deserve.

Of course, Pelagius completely ignores some key Bible verses on the sinfulness of humanity such as Psalm 51, Romans 3:10, 3:23, and 5:12.  Yet the opposite error to Pelagianism is to fall into licentiousness, arguing that we cannot help sinning because we are totally depraved.  The correct way is to find a middle path, recognising both our sinfulness and the work of the Holy Spirit transforming our lives into the image of Jesus.

What do you think?  Did Pelagius have a point?  Or all we all completely affected by original sin?  How do you feel about this?  How do your answers affect a) your relationship with God and b) how you live?

R C Sproul wrote a very helpful article on this – read it at http://www.bible-researcher.com/sproul1.html.