Several times in Augustine’s Confessions we find the following prayer: “Give me the grace to do as you command, and command me to do what you will.” In this prayer, Augustine admits that he needs God’s grace in a radical way—not only to know what God commands, but also to do what God commands. Augustine was saying that he could not obey God without divine assistance.
This well-known prayer of Augustine bothered his contemporary and fellow teacher of the faith, Pelagius. Though he was originally from Britain, Pelagius taught in Rome, North Africa and Jerusalem, and was respected for his exemplary life marked by austerity and self-denial.
Pelagius disagreed with Augustine’s assertion that human beings were incapable of obeying God in their own strength. He thought this idea might lead people to avoid personal moral responsibility. So Pelagius denied the doctrine of original sin and taught that human beings have complete freedom of the will. Therefore, he said, we do not need divine grace to overcome sin. For Pelagius, we are all inherently capable of pleasing God.
The mainstream orthodox Christian tradition rejected Pelagianism and sided with Augustine on this issue. While Pelagius was right in stressing that we are each responsible for our moral actions and choices, he made the mistake of underestimating the severity of sin’s grip on the human race. As a result of the Fall, all human beings are in bondage to sin and have become totally depraved. This does not mean that we are completely evil, but rather that every aspect of our lives has been affected by sin, including our will, our understanding and our desires.
In terms of the human will, the Fall means that we do freely choose what we want, but because of our depravity, what we want is idolatry and rebellion from God. We need God’s grace to intervene in a radical way, rescuing us from our bondage, changing our hearts and freeing us to love and serve God and our neighbour.
It might seem overly harsh or negative to talk about our bondage to sin, but if we short-change sin, like Pelagius did, we limit God’s grace. The wondrous truth of the gospel is that we have been “made alive” in Christ, “even when we were dead in transgressions” (Ephesians 2:5). God’s grace is not merely a “boost” for good people, but new life for people who were dead in sin.
Some Calvinists accuse Wesleyans of Pelagianism or semi-Pelagianism, but this is a misrepresentation of our doctrines. Wesleyans (and Salvationists) believe that God, through the atonement of Christ and by the power of the Spirit, is at work in all people, attempting to draw them to himself through his “prevenient” or “preceeding” grace—the grace that preceeds any act of faith on our part. God’s preceeding grace restores a measure of freedom to human beings, enabling us to respond to him in faith. Faith, therefore, is not a human work that we can produce in ourselves, but a gift of grace, without which we would be completely helpless. So, Wesley writes (clearly distinguishing himself from any form of Pelagianism), “That ye believe, is one instance of his grace; that believing ye are saved, another.”
Even though all the major Christian traditions have officially rejected Pelagianism, there are still traces of it running through popular Christian culture today.
A common example is found in the phrase, “God helps those who help themselves.” This clearly does not reflect the biblical perspective. The reason we need a Saviour is because we can’t help ourselves! If God only helps those who help themselves, we’re all lost.
We also veer towards Pelagianism when we call people to salvation by saying, “God has done his part, now you have to do yours.” Statements like this are designed with the good intention of trying to get a response out of the hearer. But, in the push for a “decision,” we can end up giving the impression that, in the end, it is we who save ourselves by “doing our part.”
In the struggle with Pelagius, the Early Church reaffirmed that salvation is fully and completely the gift of God. True life and freedom are not qualities we possess from birth, but gifts we receive by grace through faith in Christ Jesus.
James Pedlar is a doctoral student at Wycliffe College, in the Toronto School of Theology. He works part-time as assistant co-ordinator of faith and witness at the Canadian Council of Churches. Visit his blog at jamespedlar.wordpress.com. During this series, he will be reviewing five major heresies from the Early Church, and showing how the rejection of these heresies shaped Christianity’s central beliefs about creation, the Trinity, Jesus and human sinfulness. He will also explore potential “shadow heresies” that may crop up in contemporary Christian thinking. Cultivating this awareness can help us to faithfully proclaim the gospel today.