Friday, October 8, 2010

Don't live your spiritual life alone? (What is semi-Pelagianism?)

I have been reading through Romans lately for personal study and pleasure. My professor, Doug Oss, stirred my mental pot a little on what is commonly called semi-Pelagianism. I did a quick refresher on the 1660 year old argument and decided to pass on the fruit for the one follower I have on this miserable blog (it's miserable because I rarely write).

Pelagius was a British monk who came to North Africa from Rome. Augustine (properly pronounced Au-gust-tin) launched a strenuous literary attack on Pelagianism around the middle of the 4th century. By 419 the Pelagians were banished by the Emperor Honorius, and in 431 they were condemned by the General Council of the Church meeting at Ephesus.

Why? What did Pelagius teach to arouse Augustine’s vigorous opposition? The monk denied that human sin is inherited from Adam. Man, he said, is free to act righteously or sinfully. Moreover, death is not a consequence of Adam’s disobedience. Adam, indeed, introduced sin into the world, but only by his corrupting example. There is no direct connection between his sin and the moral condition of mankind. Almost all the human race have sinned; but it is possible not to sin and some people have in fact lived without sin.

Pelagian also taught that forgiveness comes to all who exercise “faith alone”; but, once forgiven, man has power of himself to live pleasing to God. Thus, Pelagius found no real need for the special enabling power of the Holy Spirit. Many evangelicals, including Pentecostals, consider this semi-Pelagianism. Semi-Pelagianism is the idea that Christian life is practically self-control.

All this was in sharp contrast to Augustine’s own experience. He sensed profoundly the depth of his sin and therefore the greatness of God’s salvation. He felt that nothing less than irresistible divine power (grace) could have saved him from his sin and only constantly inflowing divine grace could keep him in the Christian life. His Christian ideal was no self-control but love for righteousness infused by the Spirit of God.

This is how Bruce Shelley sums up Augustine’s anthropology: “In Augustine’s view, Adam’s sin had enormous consequences. His power to do right was gone. In a word, he died, spiritually — and soon, physically. But he was not alone in his ruin. Augustine taught that the whole human race was ‘in Adam’ and shared his fall. Mankind became a ‘mass of corruption,’ incapable of any good [saving] act. Every individual, from earliest infancy to old age, deserves nothing but damnation.”

Romans 8:2 says, For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.

We can never satisfy God’s righteous requirements by human effort. Our spiritual life requires a transformation born of the Spirit, by the Spirit, and through the Spirit to truly reconcile us with God. Don't try to live your spiritual life alone. You can't do it. It is the Spirit's fruit working in us that produces the character of Jesus in us (Gal. 5).


Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, Updated 2nd ed. (Dallas, Tex.: Word Pub., 1995), 129-30.