By Robert Truelove
Augustine vs. Pelagius
We will now move in our studies to a doctrinal controversy that occurred during the fifth century between Augustine bishop of Hippo and Pelagius, a British monk. Pelagius was the father of the doctrines now referred to as Pelagianism, which Augustine argued against and considered destructive of the gospel. In this short article, we will give a brief overview of their positions and point out the error of the Pelagian system. This is an issue that strikes at the very heart of the gospel message. I would ask that everyone who reads this would consider the practical importance of a proper understanding of sin and grace.
Pelagius taught that Adam was created neither good nor evil, but was created neutral. His will was completely free to choose to sin or not to sin. He also believed that whether Adam sinned or not he was still mortal and would one day die. He therefore denied that man was created holy and that by Adam’s sin, death entered into the world. As a matter a fact, he went so far as to say that man is born in the same condition as Adam was before the fall; that is, he is born without sin. The only difference, according to Pelagius, between him and Adam is that Adam did not have the example of sin before him whereas his posterity does. Pelagius therefore did not believe that man inherited the sinful nature of Adam.
Since his conclusion was that man is born without sin, he deduced that man need not sin, as a matter a fact, according to Pelagius, it is possible for man not to sin! His reasoning here is that the very fact that God commands men not to sin is proof that he is capable of not sinning. He does, however, correctly say that the only man who has never sinned is Jesus Christ, but according to him that is only because of habit and the awful example of sin before us.
In this system, sinful man is able to choose the good at any time; simply by the exercise of his free-will. He does not require the grace of God to enable him to will to do good, for his nature is neutral, and is therefore able to choose between good and evil. The only work of grace, admitted by Pelagius, was merely external; such as proper education and the example of Christ.
Augustine taught much the opposite and we believe the truth to be on his side. He defended the position we call Original Sin. According to him, man was not created neutral but holy and in fellowship with God (Gen 1:27). Indeed, neutrality is an impossibility, as one is either in obedience to God or disobedience. Adam was created and placed on a conditional footing, and tested. It was a test of his obedience. The test was that he could not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:16,17). The consequence of disobedience was death (Gen 2:17). When Adam failed to obey God and partook of that tree, along with his wife Eve; he disobeyed God and thus failed the test. As a result Adam died spiritually, that is, his nature was corrupted by sin. Whereas before, his nature was holy and desired God, now his nature was corrupted by sin and enslaved to sin. That is why in Genesis 3:8 we see Adam and Eve hiding from God because of their nakedness. Another result of the fall was that now he would die a physical death (Rom 5:12). Before the fall, he could not die because death came about as a result of sin. Therefore, Adam brought not only spiritual death but also physical death upon himself.
Augustine went further to say that the sin of Adam did not only directly effect himself, but also all of mankind. In Adam all mankind was both tested and judged. Adam’s guilt and corruption has been imputed to all who come after him. That is why Romans 5:12 says that by one man sin entered into the world, because all mankind died spiritually in Adam and thus will also eventually die physically. Indeed, David under inspiration writes, “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me,” (Psalm 51:5). Here we see that David was guilty of sin even at conception, when he first became a living being! Why? one may ask. Because all have fallen in Adam; we inherit his nature, and his guilt (sin) is imputed to us.
Moreover, because of the fall, man’s will is enslaved to sin, therefore, he cannot choose the good because it is against his nature. That is why the Scripture says that all man’s righteousnesses are as filthy rags (Isa 64:6). Because of this enslavement to sin, there must be a divine act of grace on God’s part, or no man would be saved. No man would flee to Christ for salvation, for to do so would be against his nature. God must change fallen man’s nature before man can repent and believe the gospel. Faith is not within fallen man, it must be given him by God (Eph 2:8). This act of God, wherein He changes men’s hearts, is that spoken of by Christ to Nicodemus in John chapter three; when He told Nicodemus that he would need to be born again if he was to see the kingdom of God. Yes dear reader, man must be born again by the work of the Spirit of God. He must be made spiritually alive by the effectual working of the Spirit of God if he is to see and flee to the truth. Without this work of God’s spirit, no one would be saved. All mankind would be damned, for no one would ever submit to Christ as Lord and Savior, as that would be completely against their nature.
It is alarming to this author how many people within the confines of modern Christianity outright deny the doctrine of Original Sin. I have heard many say that children are born innocent and actually become sinners when they reach the “age of accountability.” This is an outright denial of Original Sin and also we might add, completely unbiblical. No where in the scriptures do we find any such teaching. Any one with sin is accountable for it whether they be one year old or ninety. We are not saying here that we believe that infants who die go to hell, but simply if those who die in infancy do go to heaven it is because God in his mercy brought them under the blood of Christ.
The notions so prevalent today about man’s free-will are also in error. Augustine was right in his conviction that man’s will was not free, but bound in sin. Martin Luther, whom the Lord used greatly to proclaim the doctrine of justification by faith, also defended the belief that man’s will was not free, but rather bound in sin, in his work “The Bondage of the Will.” No dear reader, God does not save anybody because he sees that they have worked up faith within themselves. God is not motivated to save sinners based on anything he sees in them, including faith! As we have seen, it is God who has given faith to those who are saved. What then has the Christian of to glory of within himself? As Paul said, nothing but the cross of Christ. We see therefore, that salvation begins and ends with God. It does not begin nor end nor anything in between with man, it is all of God.
We have given just a very brief overview here and heartily encourage all of our readers to pursue the subject further. One avenue many may find of interest, is how Augustine’s understanding of sin and grace effected his understanding of predestination. There are many truths in this day that are rejected because of the widespread misunderstanding of sound doctrine. It has recently been said by an well known evangelical author that modern Christianity is semi-pelagian to the core. This statement we must agree with as it is evident to any who are listening to what many are saying. We must wake up and turn from this dumbing down of Christianity we have seen take place in the last century. We must learn the words of Paul where he wrote under inspiration to “Study to show thyself approved.” Doctrine is important, and all doctrine has a practical application. Consider how many things numerous churches do to try to get “decisions”. Instead of simply preaching the word and letting God do the rest (indeed, that is all we can do, and that is all the Scripture tells us to do); many try to play God and manipulate the flesh and the emotions to get more people to make a decision. This all flows partly out of their misunderstanding of man’s will and God’s sovereignty in salvation. They believe man’s will to be free, so they justify any method that will get the right response. Consider if the God of the Bible were preached aright. We would have much less sentimentalism, and manipulation from the pulpits, and the man of God would be free to preach the Scriptures and feed his flock, rather than starve them on watered down sermons designed to get a response by the alter call that is to follow.
Originally appeared here : http://www.sounddoctrine.net/Classic_Sermons/Augustine/augustine_pelagius.html