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The errors of Pelagianism

For some time now, our politics and culture have been dominated by a particular philosophy of freedom. It is a philosophy of liberation from family and tradition, of escape from God and community, a philosophy of self-creation and unrestricted, unfettered free choice. But in searching for freedom, modern mankind has again opened itself up to some very old heresies.

Pelagius was born sometime between AD 350 and 360 in Britain, possibly Wales. Highly educated, unusually gifted, a scholar of both Latin and Greek, he made his way to Italy and then to Rome. There he became famous for his teaching on Paul’s letters.

Pelagius held that the individual possessed a powerful capacity for achievement. In fact, Pelagius believed individuals could achieve their own salvation: it was just a matter of them living up to the perfection of which they were inherently capable. As Pelagius himself put it, “Since perfection is possible for man, it is obligatory.” In his view, the key was will and effort. If individuals worked hard enough and deployed their talents wisely enough, they could indeed be perfect. As you might expect with people who say things like that, Pelagius was condemned as a heretic by the Council of Ephesus in AD 431. Despite this, the philosophy lives on today. If you listen closely, you can hear it almost everything – in books, in film, in school curricula. In even features prominently in law.

One of the more contemporary statements aligned by Pelagianism was from a 1992 Supreme Court case in the US called Casey v Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote: At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe and of the mystery of human life.

This statement sums up the Pelagian vision in modern language. Liberty is the right to choose your own meaning, define your own values, emancipate yourself from God by creating your own self. Indeed, this notion of freedom says you can emancipate yourself not just from God but from society, family and tradition. The Pelagian view says that the individual is most free when he is most alone, able to choose his own way without interference. Family and tradition, neighbourhood and church – these things get in the way of uninhibited free choice. And this Pelagian idea of freedom is one our cultural leaders have embraced for decades now.

Pelagius’ view of sin was even more concerning. He denied that sin was passed down from Adam and taught that every person was born morally neutral: we are able to sin but also able not to sin. Pelagius said that human beings fall into sin by choosing to follow Adam’s example. He believed people can be saved by following the example of Christ instead of that of Adam. While grace is helpful, Pelagius taught, it is not necessary for a person to attain eternal life; the exercise of one’s free will is enough. In this way, Pelagius denied the substitutionary atonement of Christ.

Pelagianism is the unbiblical teaching that Adam’s sin did not affect future generations of humanity. According to Pelagianism, Adam’s sin was solely his own and Adam’s descendants did not inherit a sin nature. In essence, they believe that God creates every human soul directly, and therefore every human soul starts out in innocence, free from sin. We are not basically bad, says the Pelagian heresy; we are basically good.

Pelagius basically taught that since we have free will, all we need to do is “make better choices” and all will be well. But Jesus said nothing about just solely making better choices. He told Nicodemus that he was corrupt from birth and had to be born again. As we are born in the image of Adam, so we must be born again through faith in Jesus Christ. To suggest that we can overcome sin by ourselves, by making better choices, is false teaching. Sin may only be dealt with by being cleansed through the blood of Jesus.

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