Sunday, July 1, 2012

Pelagianism: The Scourge of Modern Evangelicalism

Truth matters and doctrine has consequences. “In His faithfulness God will not stop with prefigurements and foreshadowings, but will provide to those who worship Him, true light, true bread, true life in Jesus Christ, the Savior full of grace and truth, who brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel.”[1] The false dichotomy between relationships and worship, theology and evangelism that so many attempted to establish for so long has collapsed in on itself. Clearly this mindset has proven itself to be a doctrine, and therefore not helpful in attempting to move men away from the idea of “doctrine.”

The word “truth” appears over 100 times in the NT while the word doctrine or teaching appears approximately 90 times. Mind you, these are simple English queries not intended to be exhaustive word studies. My point is really quite simple: to show that the Bible places heavy emphasis on both truth and doctrine.

In evangelicalism, nothing is more critical than a right understanding of the gospel. The gospel is the “truth” that Jesus said makes us free. It is the good news that God has sent a redeemer to hostile sinners so that He might rescue them from their sin and from certain damnation to eternal life. The question for modern evangelical Christians is a question of the content of the gospel. What is the truth content of the gospel? In other words, what else has to be true in order for the gospel to be true? What components of the gospel can one change without actually changing the gospel? What truths do we have to discard in order to be guilty of discarding the gospel? Bound up in an understanding of the gospel are a right understanding of God, Jesus Christ, Man, and Sin. The ripple effect that error has in any of these areas to the gospel has often proven devastating. For all its churches, books, songs, and modern technologies, modern evangelicalism continues to feel the growth and impacts of Pelagianism within its ranks. What is Pelagianism and why is it so deadly to the gospel? How should a church deal with members or attendees who hold to Pelagian theology?

Pelagius was a monk who founded a school of thought that rejected the doctrines of original sin and predestination and that believed in man’s free will and inherent capacity for good.[2] Pelagius was born in Britain or Ireland lived in the fourth century AD. Pelagius was concerned with the laxity he witnessed in Christians living in Rome. After all, he had sold all his possessions to follow Christ. Pelagius blamed this laxity on Augustine’s teaching that man could do nothing to earn his salvation. It is said that Pelagius took an exceptional disliking to Augustine’s pray – Give what thou commandest – and command what thou wilt. Everything was fine until the Goths invaded Rome, forcing Pelagius to migrate to North Africa. This, after all, was Augustine’s territory and Augustine wasted no time in confronting what he considered to be a very dangerous heresy. Pelagius met with two giants in church history in Augustine and Jerome and this led to his excommunication in 417. He vanished into obscurity and was not heard from after this.

How close to Pelagianism are modern evangelical Christians in their theology? To answer that question one should consider how often they hear the doctrine of predestination denied, and how often they here a defense for an absolute free will in fallen man.

The fundamental error of Pelagianism is the denial of original sin. This is the dangerous error that Augustine thought so damning in Pelagius’ system. Unwittingly, many modern evangelicals are adopting full-blown Pelagianism. Recently, a group of educated Southern Baptists leaders drafted and signed a document that, in one particular paragraph was guilty of expressing a view of original sin that was dangerously close to Pelagianism if not actually qualifying as such.

What is original sin? Wayne Grudem says, “Sin is any failure to conform to the moral law of God in act, attitude, or nature.”[3] Culver rightly states, “There is still no agreed formal definition of sin.” Culver sees sin as an attack against God. Perhaps it is an attempt to deny or rob God of that which He is rightly entitled to, perfect and complete submission. If this is the case, sin is the “reach for autonomy.” It is the desire, attitude, or attempt to free oneself from the sovereign rule of God. W.G.T. Shedd writes, “It was a new inclination of her will to self, directly contrary to that inclination to God with which she had been created.”[4] Eve’s desire was a desire for complete autonomy so that she could freely pursue those things she deemed worthy of pursuit without regard for God. This is the essence of sin. This basic understanding of sin has all but vanished among modern evangelicals and the results are a community of biblically inept individuals who claim to be more spiritual than ever without even knowing themselves, or the God who created them. What is no less serious is the number of believers in the church who realize this but show little to no courage to speak the truth and trust God to work in their hearts. We would rather not get involved, risk offense, and end up isolating ourselves by being tagged a hater, bigot, or hyper-critical. How dare we leave people in churches who preach a false gospel based on nothing more than how we feel in our hearts! Just because we like someone and find their demeanor pleasing, that is no witness to the genuiness of their faith. Have we forgot the words Jesus spoke to the church at Thyatira? Jesus rebuked this church because of its ability to tolerate immoral behavior and false doctrine and praxis. (Rev. 2:20) We have no such right to leave people adrift in these kinds of churches where the gospel is not preached. What is worse is that we reduce our standard to the minimum bare requirements. We don't do this to be gracious. We do it to excuse ourselves from having to risk fractured relationships. We do this for our own comfort. Heaven forbid I should have to correct someone I love, or even possibly rebuke them. And then we think we accomplished something because we cleaned a toilet all the while permitting souls to hang over the pit without saying a word, all in the name of love.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism states, The sinfulness of that estate whereinto man fell, consists in the guilt of Adam’ s first sin, the want of original righteousness, and the corruption of his whole nature, which is commonly called Original Sin; together with all actual transgressions which proceed from it. (Rom. 5:12,19, Rom. 5:10–20, Eph. 2:1–3, James 1:14–15, Matt. 15:19)[5]In essence, this is the doctrine of original sin. In Romans 5:12, Paul clearly says that through one man, sin entered into the world, so that after that, death passed upon all. In verse 19 of the very same chapter, Paul says that through one man’s disobedience, many were made sinners. We stand in a guilty stead because of the fall of Adam our father. This is the view of original sin that Pelagian denies and it is the view that most modern evangelicals deny or at best give mere lip service. We say we are all sinners but do we really understand what that means? I suggest most evangelical Christians have no idea what it means to be born into sin, a slave to the sin nature.

Pelagius denies the transmission of sin from Adam to his progeny, saying “[Thus,] declaring it to be unjust that a soul which is born today, not from the lump of Adam, bears so innocent a sin belonging to another, they say that on no account should it be granted that God, who forgives [a person] his own sins, imputes to him anothers.”[6]

Modern evangelicals are unbiblically optimistic about human nature. Rather than the infusion of life into a dead corpse wrought by God’s free choice, regeneration has been reduced to the decision of a rational, inherently good human being capable of evaluating the truth-claims of Christ and making a decision to follow His moral example. In other words, unregenerate men are already fully equipped to adopt Christianity or reject it. They are, by nature, fully capable of choosing the good and rejecting the wicked. All that is left is for the church to discover just the right strategy and effective pitch to convince men to adopt the Christian life. In modern evangelicalism, this is the essence of repentance.

Modern evangelical decisionalism actually requires Pelagian theology in order for it to work. Original sin asserts that man was born in sin as David said, in sin I was conceived. Original sin says that men are dead in their trespasses and sins. It does not say they are sick. Original sin says that men slaves to sin, bound by sin, not free to do as they please. If I can decide not to be bound to sin, then I am already NOT bound to sin. Finally, original sin say that men’s eyes are blinded to the light of the gospel, that they are held captive by Satan to do his will.

In the doctrine of original sin, we understand that guilt from the first sin passed to all, that corruption of nature would also pass to Adams progeny, and that as a result, actual transgressions would transpire from the corruption of our nature. This means that all men stand guilty before God, that all men are born with a sinfully corrupt nature, and as a result all men actually transgress God’s law at their first opportunity. Moreover, the logical order is guilt, corrupt nature, and transgression. Pelagianism would reverse the order to transgression and guilt while denying any corrupting of human nature. Pelagius’ exaltation of free will required that human nature remain capable of doing good regardless of the wicked it actually does. When one considers how modern evangelical Christians talk, one cannot help but conclude that Pelagius is everywhere in their thinking.

Pelagianism reduces the work of Christ flattening it out to nothing more than a moral example for Christians to follow. The denial of a penal substitutionary atonement brings Christianity crashing to the ground and makes it no different than any other works-based religion. If I live a good enough life, I can make it to heaven. And in one form or another, many modern evangelicals have adopted this thinking. The works they concern themselves with are more akin to social causes, feeding the poor, painting rooms on missionary trips, cleaning church carpets, etc. If they do enough of these things, they can earn a place in heaven. Of course we do not state it this way, but our behavior, as it so often does, betrays how we really think about these things.

More to come on the scourge of modern evangelical Christianity.

[1] Nicole, Roger. The Biblical Concept of Truth in ”Scripture and Truth,” ed. D.A. Carson & John Woodbridge, 296.
[2] J.D. Douglas, "Pelagius" In , in Who's Who in Christian History, ed. J.D. Douglas and Philip W. Comfort (Wheaton, IL: Tyneffective House, 1992), 546.
[3] Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology. 490.
[4] Shedd, W.G.T. Dogmatic Theology, V2. 178.
[5] The Westminster Shorter Catechism : With Scripture Proofs., 3rd edition. (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1996).
[6] Theodore De Bruyn, 94.

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