In this series we take a look back at some of the most notorious errors and
heresies that have threatened the church over the centuries, as well as the subtle (and not so subtle) ways in
which those false teachings continue to haunt 21st century thought and theology.
If you start with a wrong premise, you’ll wind up with a wrong conclusion. That is true of false doctrine in general. It is especially true of Pelagianism in particular.
Pelagius was a priest who lived and worked in the late 4th and early 5th centuries. Appalled by the lack of piety that he saw among professing Christians in Rome, he assumed that this was due to too much grace and not enough Law.
Pelagius taught that people, by nature, can freely choose to obey or disobey the Commandments. After all, if God commands something, it has to be doable, right? How could a just God require what none of us are able to fulfill? This was his premise. A cascade of errors inevitably followed.
One error was his denial of original sin. The Bible teaches that Adam’s sin and its consequences are passed downstream to each succeeding generation. The proof? Death. “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned.” (Romans 5:12) We begin life spiritually blind, dead, and enemies of God. We do not become sinners because of sin, or when we sin. We sin because we are sinners already from the womb. Augustine, who was a contemporary of Pelagius, correctly stated that, by nature, “I cannot not sin.”
David confessed, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me.” (Psalm 51:5) Paul struggled with “this body of death” (Romans 7:24) until the moment when God delivered him from this life. These truths, as clear as they are, did not fit with the premise that Pelagius had already adopted.
Pelagius taught that Adam was merely an example of someone who made the wrong choice back then, just as people may make the wrong choice today. He used Deuteronomy 24:16 to argue that Adam’s sin was not passed down to his descendants, “Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor shall children be put to death for their fathers; a person shall be put to death for his own sin.” His flawed understanding of our sinful nature led to a flawed understanding, and ultimate rejection, of God’s grace.
To Pelagius, grace meant the gift of a free will, plus the Law that tells us what to do, plus the example of Jesus for us to imitate. Is that grace? Hardly. Grace does not mean that God rewards those who do good and punishes those who choose evil. Grace is not about us getting what we deserve. It is always about God giving us what we don’t deserve: the complete forgiveness of our sins and the perfect life of Jesus credited to us by faith.
In A.D. 418, the Council of Carthage branded Pelagius a heretic and removed him from the church. Though he had been a prolific writer, few of his materials remain. The little we know about him comes from the theologians who used Scripture to refute his false conclusions.
Sadly, Pelagianism and “semi-Pelagianism” (the idea that we contribute to our salvation in some way) live on. But grace is never about us and what we do. It is always about Jesus and what He did in our stead. The piety that Pelagius hoped to produce does not flow from the rules and requirements of the Law. It comes from the message of God’s undeserved love for us in Christ.
Watch out for false doctrinal premises. They always result in faulty conclusions. Often, they change the Gospel into Law and God’s grace into man’s works.
James Albrecht is pastor of St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Okabena, Minnesota.