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Ask the Pastor

† Theological musings and answers to selected questions by a confessional Lutheran pastor.

12 December 2005

Am I a Pelagian?

Q: One thing I have always been taught is to center my life around Jesus. I understood that by doing so it would transform my heart to desiring to love God and to love others. I was told this is a Pelagian thinking. After I looked it up I took it to be a way of looking at Jesus just as a moral teacher. So this confuses me. I am looking at Christ the Redeemer and transformer of lives. Or am I mistaken?

Jesus Blessing the ChildrenA: For those unfamiliar with the term, Pelagianism (named for Pelagius, an early monk) is a Christ-diminishing heresy. According to Pelagian thinking, people are born with full free will to choose sin or holiness without any divine aid. Adam only provided a bad example or, at the worst, slightly weakened humanity. True Christianity agrees with Pelagius that the full responsibility for our sins rests upon ourselves; it disagrees with his teaching that our salvation is totally dependent upon our own works, attitudes, and beliefs.

Ultimately, in Pelagian thought, Christ was a good example countering Adam’s bad example. He provided no redemption, forgiveness, or atonement. Saint Augustine and others roundly criticized Pelagius while Pelagianism was formally condemned at the Council of Ephesus in AD 431.

It rarely appears in its basest form (often called “crass Pelagianism”). Instead, modified versions continue cropping up throughout Christianity. So-called Semi-pelagianism teaches that in some way, man begins to move toward God of his own volition, then God steps in to assist and complete the process. Whether Pelagian or Semi-pelagian, anything that denies the totality of mankind’s fall in Adam depreciates the saving work of Jesus Christ.

As for this specific accusation made against you, I think that someone may have over-reacted. Pelagian thinking would mean that you believe that, as an unbeliever, you moved yourself into a relationship with God. I don’t see this in what’s quoted above and what else I know about you.

However, Pelagianism isn’t the only error in which we might engage ourselves. Much more common is Synergism. This teaching says that man and God cooperate in our salvation. Sources vary as to how much of each is involved. Like Pelagian thought, however, Synergism still denies the absolute depravity of man by birth and prior to conversion. Weakened forms of synergism allow that we are bad from birth but teach that we’re slowly cleansed and purified; this would enable us to more willingly cooperate the longer we’re in a faith relationship.

Scripture, however, teaches that from beginning to end, we are saved solely by God’s grace through the work of Christ. Faith created by the Holy Spirit allows us to believe that Jesus’ perfect life and innocent suffering and death are our only means of forgiveness and eternal life.

Whoever was talking with you may have been concerned because it sounded like you believed that you were moving toward Christ independent of His working in you through Word and Spirit. This may not have been the case — however, we sometimes speak in “shorthand” and it sounds like we think we’re doing more than we really are.

Come to MeFor instance, Hebrews 12:2 speaks of “looking to Jesus,” which I’d take as similar to your desire to “center” your life on Him. This is exactly what the Christian does: We just need to realize that God is the One who directs our focus. We cannot center ourselves except that Christ causes this to happen and blesses the outcome. Our desire to do good is actually Christ’s desire within us.

This is important because from our own perspective, it often seems that we “come to” or “decide for” Jesus. We think that we choose to follow God’s will because Christ is so much a part of our lives that His “bright ideas” start becoming our own. Yes, we do come to Him, but only in response to His coming to us. We “decide for” Him because He “decided for” us by following His Father’s will, by sending the Holy Spirit, and by dwelling within us. Thus, we “come to” God because Christ comes to His Father and brings us with Him.

In your question, you’ve plainly confessed Christ as “Redeemer and Transformer.” Evidently at some other time, some well-intentioned person misunderstood you or else you mis-spoke your belief. Both of these happen regularly among Christians. We talk at or past each other rather than with and to.

This whole situation can be a blessing as well as a caution. The caution is twofold. First, we must certainly believe that we cannot in any way take responsibility for our own salvation. Even claiming a fraction of a percent of the credit denies Christ. The second caution comes in that we must say what we mean and mean what we say, listening carefully to each other and striving to fully understand the other’s position.

The blessing is that we’ve just had a great opportunity to confess Christ as the “founder and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2),” once again realizing that we are totally dependent upon Him for our salvation and for every good gift which flows from the hand of the Father.

So continue to focus on Jesus and center your life on Him. The apostle Paul beautifully summed up our human perspective of this divine activity: “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12-13)”

Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.

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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.


Anonymous Jamie Arpin-Ricci said...

Interesting perspective. Not sure if I agree with your take.


12 December, 2005 17:14  
Blogger Bob Waters said...

I'd say that synergism- "deciding for Christ," etc- is a form of at least semi-Pelagianism. We're dead in trespasses and sins until the Spirit, operating thorugh the Word- creates faith within us. We can reject His activities, but we can never take even partial credit for them.

God creates faith within us through the Word. We could not even desire to "ask Jesus into our hearts" if He were not already there!

That's not a "take," BTW. It's the biblical Gospel. American Evangelicalism is heretical in its doctrine of converstion. "Decision theology" is simply a subtle form of works righteousness, and its presuppositions about the effects of sin on human nature are at least semi-Pelagian.

18 December, 2005 16:00  
Blogger Steve said...

So what is the eternal fate of the person who believes in "decision theology?"

19 December, 2005 21:01  
Blogger Eric Phillips said...

Actually, Pelagius did NOT deny that Christ won forgiveness for us. He taught explicitly that Baptism conveys the forgiveness of sins, and even mentioned in one of his writings that there is also forgiveness for post-baptismal sin--he just did not think it was a worthy topic to say much about, because Christians shouldn't be sinning in the first place.

What Pelagius denied is that _works of virtue_ are attributable to the working of God within the Christian.

22 December, 2005 11:07  
Blogger L P Cruz said...


Following Eric's comments, perhaps you should comment on the fact that Pelagius also taught justification by faith alone.

RC Apologists use this as a type of guilt by association.

As common occurance Pelagius is inconsistent with himself, a good topic I would like see if you have the time is Pelagius' view of justification in broad terms. He belived I briefly read in JBFA in initial justification. Perhaps that is also where we will differ from him, he was implying after that you can do it yourself.

Hope to hear from you...


21 December, 2008 20:30  

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