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TEXT: John 6:63

SUBJECT: Heresies #4: Pelagianism

This is the third Sunday afternoon of the month and time for another lecture on Heresies. A "heresy" is a serious doctrinal error that occurs in the Church. Buddhism, for example, is a serious doctrinal error, but it's not a heresy because it is not espoused by Christians. Premillennialism, in my opinion, is an error taught in many churches, but it's not a heresy because it does not overturn a primary doctrine or put one's soul in danger.

The study of heresy is not easy and is almost never any fun. Heretics are justly famous for their dishonesty. Most often, they use Bible words but invest them with a meaning that is foreign to the Bible. When a Christian says he believes in the divinity of Christ we know what he means. But what does the Jehovah's Witness mean when he says the same thing?

Although the study of heresy is not enjoyable, it is profitable. If nothing else, it sharpens our thinking, but more than this, it allows us to affirm the sacred teachings of Scripture. If you've read the Creeds, you know they're a storehouse of truth, goodness, and beauty. Every one of them came out of controversy-they were drawn up to expose error and to exclude those who teach it. When read, understood, and stuck to, they're good for the believer's soul and for the happiness and unity of the Church.

Thus far, we've looked at three heresies (in historical order). The first two occurred while the Apostles were still living and were dealt with directly in the New Testament. The first is Judaism or reading the Bible as though Christ has not come. Paul angrily refutes it in Galatians, calling it

"Another Gospel which is not another".

The second heresy we looked at was gnosticism, which denies the goodness of the material world, and therefore, the Incarnation of God (or the full humanity of Christ). John says men who teach that are

"Deceivers and antichrists".

Just in passing, it's worth noting how intolerant the Apostles were of heresy. They were kind and humble men, of course, who overlooked the weakness of their people and counseled patience when it came to secondary matters. But when primary issues were at stake, they were men of iron. They knew that heresy was a cruel and despicable thing. It dishonors God and throws men into the Lake of Fire.

The third heresy didn't develop much until the Apostles were long dead. It's called Arianism and makes the Lord Jesus Christ into something like God, but not quite God. It was answered by Athanasius and condemned by the Whole Church.

Today's heresy bears a name you may not recognize-but don't worry-you know the heresy only too well. It is called Pelagianism.


The name comes from its founder, Pelagius who was born about 355. Depending on whom you believe, he was either a British, an Irish, or a Scottish monk. In any event, he lived his whole life in a monastery and became a man of great learning and deep piety. His worst enemy admired his character and praised his good works.

Some time around the year 400, Pelagius moved to Rome and was horrified at what he saw! Centuries later, Luther made the same trip and said

"There are more devils in Rome

than tiles on the roofs of the city".

Pelagius felt the same way. How had The Eternal City become an open sewer? What would you say to that? Would you blame the crooked politicians or the cops on the take for the mess Rome was in? If so, your thinking is shallower than the old heretic's. He knew that ideas have consequences and that the bad state of Rome must come from a set of bad ideas.

Had he stopped here, Pelagius might have been a hero. But he didn't stop there. He went on to identify the "bad set of ideas" and-boy-did he get it wrong!

The ideas he blamed for the mess Rome was in are summarized in a Confession of St. Augustine.

Speaking to God, Augustine prayed,

"Grant what You command

and command what You desire".

Do you get what he's saying? He's saying we can only keep the commandments of God by God's grace. That's what Augustine believed and what Pelagius denied. He took this sort of thinking as a cop out. B.B. Warfield said

"He was outraged by the universal excuses--
`It is hard, It is difficult, we are not able,

we are men' O blind madness!'"

To Pelagius' way of thinking, there was nothing wrong with man that a little elbow grease could not make right. If you're a liar, quit lying; if you don't pray much, pray more! That was his solution to the plight of man: try harder!


I think all Christians agree we ought to try harder. No one advocated grace better than Paul did, yet he saw no contradiction between Divine grace and human effort. I Corinthians 15:10,

"I labored more abundantly than them all;

yet not I, but the grace of God which

was with me".

If that's all Pelagius meant by "try harder", then he would be a champion of practical Christianity. But that is not what he meant. He believed that man could serve God without special grace!

In other words, he believed in man's free will. The term itself is not always understood. All Christians (nearly all of us at any rate) believe that man's will is free-in a certain way. God does not force us to do things against our own wishes. On this point, both St. Augustine and John Calvin would agree with Pelagius.

But Pelagius meant far more than this. He believed that man's will is neutral or equally free to choose God or Satan, good or bad, heaven or hell.


On this point, I know many fine Christians who believe the same thing. But-thankfully-they're not logical; they haven't worked out what it means to affirm man's free will.

Pelagius did. He and his disciple, Coelestius drew up quite a list of doctrines to support man's free will. Here are the most important ones:

  1. The sin of Adam injured himself alone and not the whole human race.
  2. Newborn children are in the state Adam was before his sin.
  3. We are born with eternal life.
  4. The Law leads to the kingdom of heaven in the same was as the Gospel.
  5. Some men have lived without sin.

Logically, to believe in man's free will requires you to accept the first four doctrines just named, and would likely result in the fifth one.

If man's will is free, then:

    1. Adam's fall affected no one but himself (except by setting a bad example).
    2. Babies are sinless.
    3. We all have eternal life until we lose it.
    4. We can go to heaven by obeying the Law.
    5. If billions of people are born innocent, then at least a few of them have probably lived without sin.

I have never met a Christian who believed these things, but if you affirm free will these things logically follow!


St. Augustine was born about the same time Pelagius was, but unlike the monk, he grew up in the world-a world of degraded lust and wicked ambition. He knew what sin was and-after years of struggling for holiness on his own and failing miserably-he discovered the meaning of Grace.

The study of Scripture-especially the writings of Paul-convinced him that Pelagius was wrong on every point.

    1. The sin of Adam did more than hurt him (and his wife, maybe). It unleashed sin in the world, which like a genetic defect, has been passed along to all mankind.
    2. Thus, we don't become sinners because we sin, but we sin because we are sinners-born sinners.
    3. Because we are born in sin, we also born separated from God and under His just and holy wrath.
    4. Thus, the Law-though good in its own way-can never bring a sinner to God. It takes something more than that, something different, something more potent than a mere command.
    5. Because sin is passed down from Adam no one (but the One born of a virgin) is righteous before God. "All have sinned and come short of the glory of God".

With all this in mind, how can man's will be free? Of course we can choose one thing over another-the worst sinner has a will. But can a sinner-without God's grace-choose against everything he loves and for everything he hates?

That's the sinner's predicament: To be saved, he must choose God and holiness, but he doesn't want either, and there's no way he can want them.

"Can a leopard change his spots

or an Ethiopian change his skin?

Then you also may do good who are

Accustomed to doing evil".

If the sinner is really this bad off, then he becomes totally dependent on grace. Pelagius this, too, but he hollowed out the Bible's meaning of "grace". He said it was nothing more than God's gift of free will to us!

The Bible, though, defines grace as something far stronger and more radical than that. It calls it something like "A new birth, a new creation, and "a resurrection from the dead".

Salvation by grace doesn't mean God endows us with everything necessary to save ourselves (that's what Pelagius said). It means God saves us! Jesus Christ is not our helper, He is our Savior! We are not saved by our good works, but by the Grace of God.


Pelagius and his disciples were condemned by heretics in the Early Church and today, no Orthodox Christian claims to believe what they did.

A hundred years after his death, however, a variation of his teaching came out. It was called Semi-Pelagianism. Thankfully, it denied his worst errors, but it affirmed his big idea.

This, too, was condemned at Council of Orange in 529, but it's easier to denounce something than to get rid of it.


Over the centuries, it became the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. The Church taught that:

    1. Man is born tainted by original sin.
    2. But baptism washes it away.
    3. The sacraments strengthen the believer's faith and resolve for holiness.
    4. Yet, in the end, it's still up to the sinner to decide for or against God. Those who cooperate with the grace of God will be saved; those who resist it will be lost.
    5. There's a name for this kind of thinking: synergism, that is the belief that we cooperate with God in our salvation. We can affirm that we could not be saved without Him (that's true, of course), but also that He could not save without us.


There is a Protestant kind of Semi-Pelagianism too: you've heard of it: Arminianism. Many dear brothers and sisters in Christ believe this and we love them, but that doesn't make their doctrine right.

Arminianism is not nearly as bad as naked Pelagianism or it's more modest form in Catholicism, but there are traces of it in the theology of free will.

Let me give you two illustrations:

I once heard a pastor say, "God has voted for you, the devil has voted against you. Now it's up to you". I suspect Pelagius would amen that. The pastor believed in original sin, and all that, but he doesn't see how that kind of preaching undermines it and takes salvation away from God and gives it to the sinner.

Twenty years ago, I asked a good brother, "How much does a sinner contribute to his own salvation?" I'll never forget what he said: "One percent". I asked him for a verse in the Bible to prove it, and, as far as I know, he's still looking.

On this point, the Bible could not be plainer: we are saved by God's grace alone and not by our own efforts. Romans 11:6,

"And if by grace, then it is no longer of works;

otherwise grace is no longer grace. But if it

is of works, it is no longer of grace; otherwise

work is no longer work".

For all his folly, at least you can say Pelagius was clear-headed: salvation is by works, he said. Augustine was equally clear: salvation is by grace.

But the people who try to combine grace and works become horribly muddled, trying to assign their percentages to God and man, grace and works.


One last thing and we'll be done: the cure for Pelagianism is not reading Calvinistic books. I've got more of them than anyone here-I suspect-maybe more than all of you put together. They can be helpful, in their own way. Yet I've found with many Calvinists that the cure is worse than the sickness. It leads many to pride and an eagerness to criticize others.

The real cure for Pelagianism is much harder than reading Arthur Pink, Lorraine Boettner or R.C. Sproul. It is to stand before the Majesty of God. As you mediate on His greatness and glory and holiness and power and love, there's no way you'll think you can make yourself acceptable to Him!

No, what you'll do is cry out for grace. And He will give it to you.

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