Why Christians are not Pelagians

by pjamesbeardsley

There is a word that gets thrown around by Calvinists to describe Christians who do believe as they do: Pelagian.  They use it so loosely and to describe so many different things (Classical Arminianism, Neoarminianism, The Church of Christ / Christian Church, Pentecostals, many Baptists, and several others) that they clearly either have a few distinct (and inconsistent) definitions or believe this one: that the free will of human beings is sufficient to choose faith in Jesus Christ and be saved without external aid (or forcing) by God.  Put another way: that original sin, irrespective of its existence or mechanism, does not make a person so depraved as to be unable to choose saving faith.

Indeed, this is what Pelagius taught and seemingly believed, and he even went further: to believe passages like Ezekiel 18 and deny original sin altogether.  This is also what Clement of Alexandria, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Origen, Irenaeus, and the other pre-Augustine Church leaders believed and taught as well.  Yet Christians aren’t described by any of these names, just the name of Pelagius, who came after all of these people.

And indeed, this is the belief of the Church of Christ / Christian Church and some of the others mentioned above.

The irony is that the truth of what Pelagius taught and believed, while admittedly being quite distant from either, has more in common with Calvinism than Christianity.  Pelagius believed that a person’s free will was sufficient, even though it would never happen, to live a life free of sin and therefore deserve to go to Heaven.  Calvinists believe that if your sins have been atoned for, God is unjust to keep you out of Heaven, and therefore you will go to Heaven.

In this way, both adhere to what I call “clean slate” soteriology: that God is some sort of cosmic accountant who, so long as you have a balance sheet that isn’t in the red, will let you in to Heaven.  You won’t find that notion anywhere in the Bible, and I would argue that 1 Timothy 3:16 proves that notion untrue.  However, it was the belief of Pelagius and is the belief of Calvinists.  In spite of their adherence to clean slate soteriology, we don’t call Calvinists “Pelagians.”

Pelagius also believed that Jesus was an anti-type of Adam.  Indeed, Romans chapter 5 makes this abundantly clear.  The problem is that both Pelagianism and Calvinism don’t seem to understand the type: the contrast between the person by whom sin and the person by whom salvation entered the world.  Calvinism makes the type independent of choices: Adam’s sin actually made you a sinner independent of your choices (always); Jesus’ salvation actually makes you saved independent of your choices (maybe).  Pelagianism makes the type completely dependent upon your choices through “moral example:” choose the way of Adam and get death, choose to be sinless and get eternal life.

Neither is totally right or wrong.  The message of Romans chapter 5 is that through Adam, sin entered the world, and death through sin, because sin became available for all and all sinned by choice.  Through Jesus, salvation entered the world, and eternal life through salvation, because eternal life became available for all, and many chose union with Christ.  Again, even though they take an extreme-yet-anti-Biblical view of Romans 5, we don’t call Calvinists “Pelagians.”

Maybe we should.  Well not really, but it would be more accurate for a Christian to call a Calvinist a Pelagian than vice versa.  Sorta like a libertarian calling a Communist a Nazi; it’s not true, but has far more in common with the truth than the more common opposite.

So why are Christians called this name by Calvinists? Because Pelagius was marginalized as a heretic (correctly, for the reasons noted above and others), and his teachings run contrary to Augustinianism, which, although clearly contrary to Ezekiel 18, became Catholic dogma.  It was a holdover by Martin Luther (who was an Augustinian monk) at the dawn of the Protestant Reformation, and has been clung to as ‘orthodoxy’ ever since.

When they say this, they are calling you a heretic.  Don’t stand for it.  Correct their error in truth and love, and if they don’t accept it, well, just remember that they believe God needs people to go to hell to manifest His glory.  We’re not dealing with the best or brightest.