Often remarked upon, little acted against, evangelicalism’s continuous love affair with pelagianism is a sordid tale, filled with mischief, mystery and mayhem. One which paradoxically illustrates the very doctrinal notion that it seeks to deny or, at least, forget.
Indeed, evangelicalism has never quite been able to shake off pelagianism. The understanding that human nature is essentially good, born morally neutral and, perfectly able to constantly do good without the need of divine grace. Despite the condemnation of the teachings of the fourth-to-fifth century monk, Pelagius, by his contemporaries in the Council of Diospolis (415), the Council of Carthage (418), the Third Ecumenical Council of Ephesus (431) and by later theologians of both Catholic and Protestant varieties, the theological framework named after him keeps returning to the church as would a jilted lover.It should be noted that the error of pelagianism has been condemned by more church councils then any other heresy in the history of the church.
It’s attraction seemingly being its denial of the church’s long-held doctrine of Original Sin, specifically that we, being all humans, have inherited a sinful disposition in our nature from our first father, Adam. Yet this is not a doctrine without a firm biblical basis. Romans 5:12 informs us that through Adam, all humanity sinned. All humanity, therefore, are sinners. This being why the just punishment of death is inflicted upon as all, because we are all sinners earning our keep (Romans 6:23). Since the fall, mankind has become “by nature children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3), which is why David can reflect in Psalm 51:5 that “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.“. Inevitably, the doctrine reminds us that it is not that man becomes sinful because he sins, but that he sins because he is already sinful. This serves to help us to not only understand why there is no one who is righteous and seeks God of their own accord (Romans 3:10-12), (i.e. because humanity is ensnared to and engrossed in their sins) but also why Christ came in the first place — to save sinners (1 Timothy 1:15).
Yet the allure to elevate the ability and ‘worth’ of man, whilst denying the inherent and intrinsic ‘wrongness’ of fallen man, has always seemed to be too overwhelming for some. With pelagianism, and its semi-pelagian offshoot, having had its advocates over the years, albeit none being quite as influential to modern evangelicalism as the 19th century revivalist preacher, Charles Finney, who rejected the imputation, or inheritance, of sin from Adam and saw moral depravity as the effects of sin, as opposed to being the cause.“Moral depravity is sin itself, and not the cause of sin,” Charles Finney,
Lectures on Systematic Theology (Bethany House, 1976) p. 378. He flatly denied that man was depraved and unable to repent and follow God without God’s regenerating grace.
Following the controversially pelagian pattern, Finney emphasised his own feelings and logic in forming his conclusions on matter of doctrine rather than letting it be informed through the faithful unpacking of what Scripture itself said. Finney’s example was to leave a prominent and long-lasting imprint in evangelicalism. Influencing how evangelism was done (i.e. appealing to the senses and feelings), the perception that humans have the moral capability for good, the tendency to reject penal substitutionary atonement and justification, and an idea that salvation could be summed succinctly up as ‘God helps those who help themselves’.
Indeed, this affirmation of an exceptionally high-view of man and his own salvific ability and its, subsequent, denial of man’s own wickedness has permeated into what passes as mainstream evangelicalism. Take for instance, a recent devotional email sent last week from a popular Sydney Christian radio station, which sought to address Psalm 51:5:
5 Surely I was sinful at birth,
sinful from the time my mother conceived me. (NIV)
“Any of us who have looked upon a newborn baby will recall the delight and wonder of it. We admire the intricacy of its creation, and even more basically its sheer ‘cuteness’. One thing we don’t usually think about is that this cute baby is a sinner.
So what is this text about? The newborn baby, even the foetus in the womb, has not actually committed any sin, which we understand to be a falling short of God’s standards. The baby wouldn’t know what sin is let alone wilfully commit it.
Perhaps the truth lies elsewhere. That cute and adorable newborn baby will one day inevitably go his or her own way, asserting their independence from God. It is ingrained into the human condition. No human being is free from the taint of self-assertion no matter how well they are raised or how decently they live.
The little baby is not a sinner as yet but will turn out to be. That doesn’t render the individual valueless or unloved or even desperately wicked. It just means that he or she will not automatically follow the way of Jesus. For that to happen, a rebirth is required.
If we are to get all theological around newborn babies, perhaps it is best to see them as much loved recipients of the grace of God rather than miserable sinners.”
Through appealing to the outward characteristics of the baby, note the language of ‘cuteness’ and ‘cute and adorable’, the notion of a baby’s sinfulness seems to have been readily discarded. The author rejecting the idea that this passage could imply the doctrine of original sin. Instead, there is an emphasis that there will be a time when the baby becomes a sinner as opposed to already being a sinner. Intentionally or not, this ends up being a clear rejection of the doctrine of original sin, with sin being relegated as something external, or foreign, that eventually takes root due to the environment, life, or company that the infant will eventually keep. Whilst it is true that the author above uses the terminology of a “taint of self-assertion“, they consequently frame it as being more of a character defect whereby the desire for independence from our creator will eventually blossom as opposed to being so deeply rooted that it, to borrow from the Pauline language above, is part of our ‘very nature‘ as a consequence of the inherited sin within.
Poignantly, the pelagian approach evident in this devotion not only ends up painting a distortion of humanity’s ontological state, by emphasising that it is better than it actually is, but it also fundamentally erodes the very understanding of salvation being through Christ alone. As not only is the concluding dichotomy of a baby being either a recipient of grace or a miserable sinner false, as a baby is both (i.e. both a recipient of grace and a miserable sinner!), but it minimises, if not outright denies, the ontological reality of all unregenerate men’s heart being, to quote Jeremiah 17:9 as it is aptly put in the KJV, “deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked“. This raises the unfortunate question — if babies are not considered sinful until they eventually commit sin, then is the atonement of Christ actually needed for infants who perish before they actually commit sin? Is there a point where all infants are indeed ontologically sinless and able to merit salvation on their own account?
Pelagianism today, Pelagianism tomorrow, Pelagianism forever?
Needless to say, pelagianism has crept into the evangelicalism of today. We’ve got a pelegian obsession and it’s not going to disappear anytime soon. It’s high depiction of man’s ability appeals to many people’s modern day sensibilities. No one, after all, wants to be told that they are far from good, and most would be easily offended at the idea that they are both wicked and totally sinful. To state something to this effect would be so averse to the world’s message, which grandises and encourages therapeutic narcissism — comfort in self.
Yet, people understanding who they rightly are in front of God (i.e. a sinner requiring reconciliation), so that they can, subsequently, understand why Christ needed to come (i.e. to bring reconciliation between man and God through his death, made effectual through the instrument of faith), is instrumental to the procedural premise of the gospel, and should be determinative to the fact that the former needs to be taught in order to rightly understand the latter.
However, the question is — do we believe this ourselves? That we are so fundamentally wicked that without God’s regenerating grace, we would be condemned, rightly, to damnation? And if we do believe this to be reality, are we acting like it is? Are we framing our gospel approach with this important truth? Does this understanding of both original sin and total depravity permeate our theological framework?
These are questions that those of us who are in teaching and ministry positions must particularly ask ourselves. If we are to combat the effects of theological pelegianism, often packaged as therapeutic deism, in our own pews than we must be intentional in teaching these vital doctrines. They must inform and guide our sermons, our teaching, and our lives. The moral and able ability of man must be downplayed, the ability and sovereignty of God must emphatically be emphasised. A God-centered approach demands nothing less.
People must be brought to a realisation of who they actually are, so that they can be brought to a equal realisation of how merciful, how gracious, and how glorious God truly is. It is only through this, that they can come to a greater appreciation of what was achieved on the cross. After all, Christ came not for the righteous, but for sinners. Those who are acutely aware of their predicament (Mark 2:17). Only then can that obsession with Pelegianism be quenched.