The Pelagian Captivity of the Church

The Pelagian Captivity of the Church
By Chuck Collins

The church is in Pelagian captivity! Pelagianism is the favourite heresy of evangelicals, from the moralism of the do-more and try-harder religion, to the Lordship Salvation movement (you need obedience to prop up your waining salvation). Moral improvement is the pulpit proclamation of the day, and what God did for us in his Son is on the back burner, or not served at all. 

On May 1, 418 over two hundred bishops meeting in Carthage declared Pelagius a heretic and refused to ordain Caelestius, Pelagius’ disciple, when he would not renounce the teaching. Pelagius was a 5th century British monk, a Joel-Osteen-like rockstar who was a good man who taught good people that they need to be better. He challenged Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo, by teaching a sunnier picture of human nature. He taught that Adam’s sin affected Adam only and that men and women are free to sin or to not sin. Pelagius opposed the idea of original sin: that, after the Fall, we are not able to not sin – until such time as God brings us from death to life and gives us the Holy Spirit and a “right willing.” Pelagians then and today have a high anthropology (an omni-confident view of “free will”) which always results in a low christology (we don’t need a Savior, we need a coach to cheer us on).

At the “Council of Africa” (as Augustine called it), the catholic and apostolic church restated what the Bible teaches about human nature and God’s gracious provision in sending his Son. Christianity is not first about moral living or about our performance, but about a God who resurrects human beings who are spiritually dead in sin. The idea that God is kind to the ungrateful and wicked (Luke 6:35) seriously upsets the equilibrium of pelagians and semi-pelagians, even though this is exactly the gospel of God’s love for sinners like you and me.

Anglicans and Episcopalians are very clear that human nature after Adam and Eve’s disobedience in the garden is in bondage to sin – that we are spiritually dead in our trespasses and sins and by nature children of wrath (Eph 2). We can’t talk about God’s grace – I mean we can’t even fathom what it means – until we understand our human condition that requires such grace. Pelagianism gets specific mention in our Anglican confession, the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion: ”Original sin standeth not in the following of Adam, (as the Pelagians do vainly talk) but it is the fault and corruption of the Nature of every man” (Article 9). The Articles go on to say: “The condition of Man after the fall of Adam, is such, the he cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and good works, to faith, and calling upon God” (Article 10).

Pelagian works-righteousness has always been around. It is our go-to view of God and human nature until God shows us the freedom of Christ’s finished work on the Cross. Traditional Reformation Anglicans in the early 17th century spoke of the takeover of the church by free-will Arminianism, and the accompanying high church movement, as pelagian or semi-pelagian: “In our church what cockatoo eggs be now a hatching, what errors of pelagianism. . . and other like damnable errors. . . by contentious men, which cannot abide to agree with the Church in the received truth” (Sermon by Henry Airay, Oxford University, 1618). Arminianism has its clutches on the church today to the detriment of the gospel of God’s one-way-love for sinners.

Anglicans are reminded of the sweet fact of our sinfulness and God’s remarkable grace every Sunday when we pray: “We do not presume to come to this thy table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table, but thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy…” (Prayer of Humble Access).

The Revd Canon Chuck Collins is the Executive Director of the Center for Reformation Anglicanism.