(Update) I just noticed that I defined Pelagianim as, “insisting that the sin problem is one of imitation and inheritance.” That should read, “insisting that the sin problem is one of imitation and NOT inheritance.” It is now corrected.
In the history of theology, the debate between what have come to be called Calvinism and Arminianism, originally Augustinianism and Pelagianism, has been one of the most controversial among confessing Christians.
At times the debate has caused some on both sides to question the salvation of those on the other side. To be sure, all true Pelagians are not Christian. True Pelagians deny original sin, insisting that the sin problem is one of imitation and not inheritance.
Modern-day Arminians are not Pelagians, and most modern-day ‘free-will’ proponents are not Arminian. But all three positions, Pelagianism, Arminianism, and ‘free-will theology’, do have a common root. This root is found when we look back in history to the original debate between Augustine and Pelagius.
“Oh Lord, give what you command, and command whatever you will.”-St. Augustine
This prayer by Augustine puts the British monk, Pelagius, on edge. How dare this bishop teach his people that they cannot obey God! After all, if we are unable to obey God on our own, then why has God commanded anything?
Such logic is perfectly reasonable in a world without God. In a world where there is no need for the cross, the logic is impeccable. But in a world that is created and sustained by the God of Scripture, a world that is fallen and in rebellion against it’s Creator, the logic of Pelagius makes absolutely no sense.
But, even for Christians today, who understand the need for a cross, for a substitutionary sacrifice, the logic seems perfectly reasonable. After all, we have free will, don’t we? I can do good when I want, and, I can be bad when I feel like it. Relatively speaking, yes. Objectively speaking, absolutely not. Objectively speaking, in a world where God is the standard of ‘good’, no one can be ‘good’. We can only, of ourselves, be bad.
Looking at God’s standard we find that He is perfect, holy, just, righteous, pure, and without the slightest discoloration of sin. And then He commands us to be holy. He commands us to be perfect. We can’t do it. It is impossible.
Here is where Augustine and Pelagius part ways. Pelagius insists that it must be possible to attain to perfection by ourselves, otherwise, God would not have commanded us to be perfect. Augustine insists that this perfection can only be granted to us by God’s grace. Pelagius insists that the command to believe the Gospel is a natural possibility, but Augustine believes that it is impossible for men, but with God, all things are possible.
So, we see the heart of Pelagianism, the belief that man by himself can do what God has commanded. Modern free-willers have softened this position by the addition of a ‘prevenient grace’, the belief that God has given to everyone grace enough to believe the Gospel, not so much as to effect belief in the Gospel, but not so little that man could not accept the Gospel if he were so inclined. At it’s core it is exactly what Pelagius argued for, a humanity able to effect it’s own salvation.
But Scripture teaches us differently. Scripture teaches us that Christ commands all to come to Him for rest (Matthew 11:28-30), but Scripture also teaches us that no one can come to the Christ unless the Father draws him (John 6:44). We are commanded to be perfect (Matthew 5:48), and yet we are told that keeping these commands cannot make us perfect (Romans 3;10-20). But we are also told that God righteousness is displayed apart from the law and that we are justified (declared to be as righteous as Christ is righteous) by faith (Romans 3:21-25), which itself is a gift from God (Ephesians 2:8-10). This is the heart of Calvinism. The heart of Calvinism is the Gospel. The heart of Pelgianism is man’s ability to save himself. The heart of ‘free-will theology’ is man’s ability to save himself with God’s help. The heart of Calvinism is that man is saved by God alone.
That’s the heart of the matter.