Is Pelagianism Today’s Counterfeit Gospel?
- Tim Pietz Contributing Writer
- 2021 16 Jul
Over 1600 years ago, a heretic named Pelagius caused an earthquake of controversy in the church—and the tremors still haven’t stopped. Today, over half of Americans who identify as Christian believes in Pelagianism.
Some doctrines of Pelagianism are blatantly heretical yet have remained a staple in public perceptions of Christianity for centuries. Other doctrines are subtler, worming their way within the church and tainting our understanding of our relationship with God. Both threaten to obscure the truth of the Gospel.
But before we highlight the specific problems Pelagianism creates, let’s explore its founder’s claims—and how he reached them.
Who Was Pelagius and What Is Pelagianism?
Pelagius was a British Christian who moved to Rome in the fifth century A.D. While in Rome, he earned such a good reputation that the famed Augustine of Hippo called him “a saintly man.”
Pelagius was a disciplined man, and he made it his duty to confront the moral laxity so prevalent in Rome. Many Christians were using God’s grace as a license for sin. However, as Pelagius spoke and wrote against this sin, he decided the root of the problem was in theology.
The orthodox belief about sin was that Adam’s sin tainted all of humanity. This concept is referred to as “original sin.” But Pelagius wondered, why would a righteous and just God hold Adam’s sin against all humanity? Was humanity really so corrupt that sin was inevitable? And if every human was doomed to sin, how could God demand perfection of us (Matthew 5:48)? It didn’t seem fair.
Grace didn’t make sense to Pelagius either. It wasn’t fair for sinful people to gain the benefits of Jesus’ sinless life. And even if they could, wouldn’t they become more likely to sin, believing they were free from consequences? That was the attitude Pelagius saw all around him in Rome.
Since God was fair and perfect, Pelagius decided God must give everyone absolute free will and hold each individual accountable for their own actions. So, he outlined a new theology of sin.
According to Pelagius, each of us is born innocent and given the free ability to choose between good and evil. You start with a clean slate, and your choices between good and evil determine your own eternal future. Yes, human culture was corrupted with sin, but individual humans weren’t controlled by it. Though Pelagius knew living a sinless life was incredibly difficult, he believed it was possible for a normal human to achieve.
Pelagius’ reasoning sounded natural, and his moral rigor was a breath of fresh air for many Christians. However, his seemingly straightforward theology left out a few crucial details—such as Jesus’s death on the cross.
Why Is Pelagianism Dangerous?
Problem #1: Jesus Becomes Optional
According to Pelagius, Jesus is our moral example but is not necessary for our salvation. Just as Adam’s original sin set a bad example, but did not change human nature, so Jesus’s life and death set a good example but does not directly change our salvation. This directly contradicts Romans 5, Philippians 3:1-11, 1 Corinthians 15:21, Ephesians 2:1-9, John 14:6, and many other clear passages (not to mention the foreshadowing and prophecy throughout the entire Old Testament).
Ultimately, Pelagius claimed we save ourselves—and he rejected the significance of Jesus’s sacrifice.
Pelagius is not alone in this assumption. Every other major religion in the world is based on good works. Discipline and good works can cause a Buddhist to reach enlightenment, a Hindu to reincarnate into a higher caste, or a Muslim to be accepted into Jannah (heaven). Most people, including most who identify as Christian, assume good works is the path to heaven. Even humanism, the atheistic replacement to religion, is built on the premise that humanity can only accomplish its highest aspirations on its own strength and intellect.
Ironically, it is this same kind of pride—the belief in human ability and human freedom—that led to the first sin. It is this same reliance on human ability that separated us from God. And it is this same pursuit of achievement rather than a relationship that caused many individuals to reject Jesus himself.
Jesus’s sacrifice is what makes our faith different from any other faith on earth. And if sin is insignificant, so is Christ’s sacrifice. Pelagianism doesn’t merely undermine the truth of the Gospel—it throws out the Gospel entirely.
Problem #2: Dismissing the Holy Spirit
Pelagius’s emphasis on free will meant an undermining of the Holy Spirit’s role in calling us to God. Even the most moderate forms of Pelagianism contend that the Holy Spirit is unessential to making the choice to follow Christ. According to Pelagius, Christians don’t need the Holy Spirit’s work in their hearts to become a Christian, and the only factors in that choice are human intellect, wisdom, and determination. This contradicts Jesus’ words in John 3:6-8, where Jesus describes being born again—specifically, being born of the Spirit.
When it comes to sanctification, the process of becoming more like Christ, Pelagius plays a similar tune. He claims human willpower, not the Holy Spirit’s guidance, is the key to overcoming sin. Never mind that virtue is described as the result—the “fruit”—of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-25). To Pelagius, the Holy Spirit was little more than a spiritual steroid, an optional enhancement, not the friend and guide described in verses such as John 14:16-17, John 16:7, and Romans 8:26.
Problem #3: Earning the Father’s Love
To Pelagius, God the Father was a distant judge: good and fair, but not intimately involved in our battle with sin. Instead of turning to God for help with his sin and brokenness, Pelagius tried to clean his sin up on his own to be worthy of God’s approval.
There is great value in examining our hearts and confessing our sins when we approach God in prayer. But when we try to earn God’s love and forgiveness so that he’ll “do what we want,” that’s not based in humility—it’s based in selfishness and pride. And that pride in ourselves intertwines with a lack of trust in God’s love and his promises.
Good works are practical. They’re measurable. And most importantly, they’re something we feel like we can control. But salvation based on God’s love and grace requires trust. It requires admitting that without him, we’re helpless. That’s a terrifying truth to admit.
Pelagianism would rather earn “love” and “grace” through what we accomplish for God. But that’s not why God loves us. God loves us because we are his children, and he does everything he can to redeem us (Romans 5:8, Luke 15:1-31, Ezekiel 18:23, 1 Timothy 2:3-4). While a healthy spiritual life certainly leads to effective prayers, God loves and cares for his children; all we need to do is ask in faith (James 5:16-18, Matthew 6:7-8, Matthew 6:25-34, Luke 11:5-13, James 1:5-8).
How to Keep a Lookout for This Heresy Today: The Rotten Core of Pelagianism
Pelagianism tries to replace our dependency on God’s grace, guidance, and provision with a reliance on our own strength. Its optimism in humanity seems attractive at first, a promise that we have the potential to be like God. But just like in the Garden of Eden, that promise is a lie. It leaves us cold and naked, trying to keep our pride and hide our shame with the flimsy fig leaves of our own good works.
If we deny the depth of sin’s power, we’ll never understand the depth of God’s love and grace towards us. That’s the lie Satan spread from the beginning, it’s the lie that caught Pelagius, and it’s a lie that grips our friends, neighbors, and fellow churchgoers even today.
But the answer to that lie is in God’s love: in Christ’s sacrifice, in the Spirit’s guidance, and in the Father’s faithfulness.
May we always live in that truth.
Photo credit: ©Getty Images/elijah_sad
Tim Pietz is a recent graduate of Taylor University, where he earned degrees in strategic communication and professional writing—in other words, he can talk and write. He currently works as a freelance editor and writer for both nonfiction and fiction. In his free time, Tim enjoys roleplaying games, ultimate frisbee, and cheering on his favorite football team, the perpetually heartbreaking Minnesota Vikings.