Resistance to Grace:The Challenge of Pelagius in the 21st century

“It is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness.”Leo Tolstoy


In the great capital city of the Western half of Rome’s Empire, Pelagius stood at the forefront of a sort of moral and spiritual reform movement, aimed at getting Roman Christians to live up to their professions of faith rather more credibly.[i] [N.R.Needham; The Triumph of Grace]

The question I will be addressing in this short paper is: If Pelagius was a ‘moral reformer’, what was the raison detré  behind his quest for reformation?

In the letter to the Roman church the Apostle Paul presents us with a clear picture of our standing, outside of Christ, before God. It is clear and unequivocal.

All Have Sinned[1] [Romans 3:9-12]

“9 What then? Are we better than they? Not at all. For we have previously charged both Jews and Greeks that they are all under sin.10 As it is written: “There is none righteous, no, not one;11            There is none who understands; There is none who seeks after God.12 They have all turned aside; They have together become unprofitable; There is none who does good, no, not one.”

Boasting Excluded [Romans 3:27-31]

“27 Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? Of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28 Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law. 29 Or is He the God of the Jews only? Is He not also the God of the Gentiles? Yes, of the Gentiles also, 30 since there is one God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. 31

Do we then make void the law through faith? Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish the law.”

We have established then that the Scripture we have referred to is clear and, indeed, unequivocal with regards to a) the status of the humanist who would seek to justify himself before the throne of God. b) That there is clearly no room for boasting – moreover nothing to boast about.

According to Pelagius’ disciple Celestius: “ (i) Adam was created mortal, and he would have died whether he sinned or not. (ii) Adam’s sin injured himself alone, not the human race. (iii) The law as well as the gospel leads to the kingdom [of heaven]. (iv) There were people without sin before Christ’s coming. (v) New-born infants are in the same condition as Adam before the fall. (vi) It is not through the death or the fall of Adam that the whole human race dies, nor through the resurrection of Christ that the whole human race rises again.”[ii]

Clearly there are, if Celestius’ views are indicative of the ideas of Pelagius, major differences between what Scripture says and what Pelagians believe.  We will now turn to the doctrine that Pelagius espoused and critique it in the light of its effects in the age in which we live – the 21st Century. The heresy that is Pelagianism has, I believe, blinded the eyes of so may ‘well meaning people’.

“That modernist dream, translated into theology, sustains a sort of Pelagianism: pull yourself up by your moral bootstraps, save yourself by your own efforts. And since that was what Martin Luther attacked with his doctrine of justification by faith, we have preached a message of grace and faith to a world of eager Pelagians.”[iii] [N.T. Wright] Wright goes on to give a caution; he suggests that, because we are no longer under the influence of modernity, we will not meet many Pelagians , subconscious or otherwise. His is, I suggest, a matter of opinion. I maintain that human nature per se is not likely to change in that mankind will always be looking for self-justification.

Regarding what we could call ‘D.I.Y justification’ Augustine had this to say: “For man has been so constituted, that if he looked to God for help, man’s goodness would defeat the angel’s [Satan in Eden] wickedness. But if by proud self-pleasing man abandoned God, his creator and sustainer, he would be conquered.” [iv] Celestius said, “If humanity cannot be sinless, whose fault is it – humanity’s, or someone else’s?”[v] One can almost feel the animosity toward God. Isn’t it so that in ‘natural man’ there is this proclivity toward ‘blame shifting’ – ‘It cannot possibly be anything to do with me – whatever it is, so it must be someone else’s fault’.

We find a denial of guilt first of all in Genesis chapter three, “The man said, ‘The women you put here with me – she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” (Genesis 3:12 NIV). Here we have it: Firstly it’s God’s fault then it’s also the women’s fault. Even in the final sub-clause there is no real hint of culpability – “…and I ate it.”. In other words I am innocent because I only ate it! Yet God had already warned them both that if they ate from the tree they would indeed be punished (Genesis 2:17).

Well, you may ask, What has this got to do with Pelagius and the 21st century? The simple answer is everything. Mankind is still in denial. Unfortunately men such as Pelagius, in their efforts to deny their guilt, are even more guilty in that they challenge God as to His form of justice and indeed His right to redeem His creatures from ‘this body of death’ (Romans 7:24 NIV). Paul puts it succinctly in Romans 8:6-8, “The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the spirit is life and peace, because the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God.”

In the next  section I will give examples from various sources that Pelagius et el’s doctrine  was clearly in dispute with the truth claims of Scripture, and that in the 21st Century Pelagianism still has its adherents and victims. It’s not just that Pelagius et al were ‘dead in their sins’(Colossians 2:13 & Ephesians 2:1) – no they openly opposed the grace of God by denying the need of it. Moreover, they were proselytisers of a false gospel. Now, we need to note that Pelagius, like many after him started out, as far as I am aware, with ‘honourable’ intentions. Nick Needham:

Pelagius was a British monk of cultured mind and blameless character. The worldliness he found among the Roman Christians shocked him to the core of his being; most of them, Pelagius felt, viewed Christianity as a set of rituals which offered bliss in the future life, without the slightest hint that it should also influence their moral behaviour.[vi]

On the face of it one has to comment favourably on behalf of poor Pelagius. It is highly likely that some of these Roman ‘Christians’ were looking for the best of both worlds. The fact is that not a lot seems to have changed since the fifth century. However, in spite of that which he saw as an abomination, we are left asking ourselves a simple question. Was he coming as judge or as a fellow believer wishing to see the reality of Christian profession worked out in the lives of those who clamed the ‘re-birth?’[2]. In Needham’s words, “…he [Pelagius] was to be an apostle of sanctity to his fellow Christians.”[vii]

[1] I have purposely left in the headings in order to denote some of the essential statements written in Scripture –  that challenge the views of the doctrine Pelagius and of  subsequent followers of this heresy.

[2] I use this word guardedly as I have no way of knowing where the people Pelagius observed were with their relationship with God, or indeed who they were.

[i] Needham N.R. The Triumph of Grace  (2000), p15

[ii] Needham N.R. The Triumph of Grace [On the Proceedings of Pelagius, 23]  (2000), p18

[iii] Wright N.T. The Challenge of Jesus (2000), p. 116

[iv] Needham N.R. The Triumph of Grace [City of God, 14:27  (2000), p43

[v] Needham N.R. The Triumph of Grace[ On Human Perfection, 2:13]  (2000), p54 -55

[vi] Needham N.R, 2000 Years of Christ’s Power (1997 – volume one), p.247

[vii] ibid p.247

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