What Is Pelagianism?
Pelagianism is a heretical teaching that centers on its denial of the doctrine of original sin. Original sin is the far-reaching consequence of Adam’s sin upon the human race—inherited sinfulness and God’s resulting judgment. Pelagianism teaches that we’re all born righteous, capable of living a life free of sin without the necessity of God’s grace.
The youngest of children across the world debunk this idea every day.
Suppose you were to bring a child into the world, never exhibit anything but kindness and love, without even a hint of anger or displeasure, and then gently take the child’s favorite toy away. What would happen? Every parent knows. The child will disprove Pelagianism and confirm original sin.
Pelagianism took off in the early 400s but was deemed heretical shortly after. Yet it remains vibrant in Christianity today. If you’re not familiar with all it encompasses, you may wonder, “What does Pelagianism teach and how do I avoid accidentally committing it?”
What Is the History of Pelagianism?
Pelagianism is named after the British monk Pelagius who lived from the late 300s to the early 400s. He embraced the monastic life of asceticism in pursuit of godliness at a young age. (This likely fostered a shallow understanding of his true state of sinfulness.) When he moved to Rome and found that few in society shared his commitment to an ascetic lifestyle, he increased his enthusiasm for moralism and formed his theology around it.
About the time the Visigoths attacked Rome in 410, Pelagius fled to safety in Carthage in North Africa not far from where Augustine served as the bishop of Hippo.
Contrary to Pelagius, Augustine supported the doctrine of original sin and grace. His earlier years of wild living had affirmed the effects of Adam’s sin—the human race inherited a depraved nature. That our wills are in bondage to sin.
Augustine supported the Bible’s teaching that Adam’s sin cut mankind off from God and resulted in our being born spiritually dead, unable to save ourselves or seek after God. Apart from God’s grace giving us new life in Christ, we’ll remain forever enslaved to sin and its penalty. Man is free to choose, but in our sinful state, we’ll choose sin. Salvation from sin and its power is a work of God’s grace alone.
Pelagius objected to Augustine’s teachings. He argued that the doctrine of original sin enabled—perhaps even encouraged—society to sin with immunity since they could simply declare their sin nature made them do it. Despite Paul’s assertion that grace isn’t a license to sin, Christians would take Paul’s teachings in Romans 3:9-19 too far and sin with abandon and blame God. They’d accuse Him of not giving them enough grace to overcome sin. Pelagius’ moralistic fervor led him, therefore, to oppose Augustine’s teachings.
Augustine replied with equal zeal. In 416 a council of bishops in Carthage, led by Augustine, condemned Pelagius as a heretic—someone who teaches contrary to Scripture. By then, Pelagius had moved to Palestine where he’d spread his beliefs and caught the attention of the Latin Vulgate Bible translator Jerome. Pelagius’ exaltation of man’s will over God’s concerned Jerome.
A formal synod at Diospolis declared Pelagius’s teaching orthodox because he’d acknowledged (using vague language) that man could live without sin by God’s help and grace. This was a terrible blow to Jerome and Augustine, and it countered what he’d been widely teaching. The African churches appealed to Innocent I, who excommunicated Pelagius.
After Innocent I died in 417, his successor, Zosimus, overturned the ex-communication orders, but Augustine appealed to the emperor. Zosimus then changed his decision and declared Pelagius excommunicated and a heretic.
After Zosimus died in 418, his successor dropped the matter altogether. Pelagius moved to Egypt and nothing more is known about him. But his influence remained.
Pelagianism grew as did the spin-off belief of Semi-Pelagianism. Pelagianism’s condemnation didn’t stop either. In 431, the Council of Ephesus condemned Pelagius as a heretic, as did the Council of Orange in 529, the Council of Trent in 1546, and at least six protestant councils. Pelagianism was condemned by more church councils than any other heresy.
What Is Semi-Pelagianism?
Semi-Pelagianism attempts to strike a balance between Pelagianism and Augustinianism. It teaches that Adam’s sin did damage mankind’s nature, but not utterly. Therefore, mankind initiates salvation, but he needs God’s grace to help him proceed. God assists man toward salvation but never to the point that man loses his free will. God works with mankind in salvation, but salvation is still a work of man. The Council of Orange maintained that salvation is a work of God alone and condemned this spin-off as heresy in 529.
Around this time a new view emerged—prevenient grace. It teaches that God’s grace must initiate salvation, but mankind retains the freedom to choose or reject Christ. God’s grace releases them from their bondage to sin, which enables them to choose Christ. Whether they will is up to man, not God.
Is Pelagianism in the Church Today?
Pelagianism made large strides in the 19th century at the hands of Charles Grandison Finney, an American revivalist and a leader of the Second Great Awakening. Some consider him the father of modern revivalism. He believed man was born innocent, but he’d inevitably choose sin. Man was unwilling, but not unable, to obey God in everything. That mankind is morally capable of changing their own hearts, seeking God, and believing in Christ without God’s grace.
As a revivalist, Finney sought to pack in the crowds to gain the large numbers of conversions by which he measured God’s activity in his ministry. He believed if many people professed faith in Christ, then God was clearly in it. He didn’t view success as faithfully preaching God’s Word or adhering to sound doctrine. It was all about the numbers.
Finney helped develop the unbiblical concept of a seeker-sensitive service. He altered his theology to make it more attractive to his target audience. Rather than depending on the Word of God to do the work of God in the hearts of people for salvation, Finney employed clever techniques to draw men in. He trusted in methods and preachers to do what the Bible says only God’s grace can do.
Churches around the world have continued to adopt and expand upon Finney’s mindset. The use of loud music, flashing lights, and man-centered messages followed by emotional altar calls to “Choose Jesus so He can give you a better life” have replaced worshipful hymns filled with rich doctrine and the clear preaching of God’s Word. Churches have adopted corporate branding techniques to be “relevant” and draw in those who “would never enter a church.” This mindset puts the responsibility and power to draw people to Christ on man, not on the grace and power of God.
Why Is Pelagianism Heresy?
Pelagianism is heresy because it opposes the clear teaching of the Bible.
We’re all born like Adam and Eve—free of sin. We’re morally neutral and capable of righteous living and thus obliged to live without sin.
Adam’s sin only impacted the world because he set a bad example. It denies his sin led to mankind being born in bondage to sin.
We choose to sin not because we have a sin nature that’s bent toward sin, but because we’re influenced by those around us.
We possess the power in ourselves to live free of sin.
We only become sinners when we choose to sin.
Ultimately, mankind will choose to sin, but theoretically, we have it in ourselves to live sinlessly—like Christ.
We can achieve salvation and God’s acceptance simply by ceasing to sin, which means Christ’s death on the cross was unnecessary.
Christ didn’t come to atone for our sin but to be an example for us of righteous living.
God’s grace helps us make good choices, but grace isn’t necessary for salvation.
God gives us the grace to grow in holiness, not by inward empowerment, but by external laws and examples. We achieve salvation by following the law and Christ’s example of obedience to God.
Salvation proceeds from ourselves rather than from God alone. It depends on something within us.
The Bible teaches:
Out of our hearts come every kind of evil (Matthew 15:18-19).
The law was never intended to save anyone, but to be our guardian and teacher, revealing to us our desperate need for a savior (Galatians 3:23-25).
Salvation is a gift of God, by His grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone. It’s not our own doing (Ephesians 2:5, 8-9).
Salvation doesn’t depend on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy (Romans 9:16).
Upon salvation, God sets the believer apart for Himself (sanctifies him positionally), seals Him for eternity by the Holy Spirit, and does the work of molding the believer into Christ’s image. He does it all. We obey by His Spirit as worship, not for salvation (Acts 13:39, Romans 8:29, 1 Corinthians 1:30, Ephesians 1:13; Philippians 2:13, Hebrews 10:10).
Apart from Christ, we can do nothing (John 15:5).
3 Ways to Avoid Committing This Heresy
1. Develop a High View of God and a Low View of Man
Embracing these views causes man to depend on God’s Spirit alone to empower us to walk in holiness (Philippians 2:13, Hebrews 13:20-21). The opposite view of both leads to more evil because sin corrupts and is never satisfied (Proverbs 27:20).
2. Form Your Beliefs on the Bible’s Doctrines Rather than Your Preferences
Pelagianism didn’t form from Scripture, but from Pelagius’ fear that people would abuse the doctrine of grace and use it as a license to sin.
Carefully consider your beliefs. Are you supporting your beliefs with a verse studied in context or ripped out of context? If you don’t have a verse (in its proper context), you only have an opinion—and perhaps a heresy.
Our sin nature wants to run loose. As we pray, His Spirit convicts and encourages us (John 16:7-15). Prayer that’s in alignment with God’s Word keeps us grounded in truth. A person who prays little winds up trusting in themselves or others more than God. Pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). Apart from Christ, we can do nothing (John 15:5).
We’re Helpless Sinners in Need of God’s Saving Grace
If raising toddlers has taught me anything, I’ve learned that, apart from Christ, we’re helpless sinners—slaves to our passions and strong will from birth. As Pastor Voddie Baucham says, that baby you think is a little angel is really a viper in a diaper. It’s a mystery how a parent could believe the teachings of Pelagianism. The biblical position declares the sovereignty of God over all of creation. It places Him on His throne and moves us to bow before Him in grateful submission, trust, and worship. There’s no better—or rightful—place to be.
Photo credit: ©GettyImages/fizkes
Jean Wilund is a former frustrated Bible reader turned geeky Bible lover. She’s passionate about helping women discover the fun in serious Bible study and a deeper love for God.
She’s a member of the Revive Our Hearts ministry writing team and enjoys answering your questions about the Bible and the Christian life on her YouTube channel and website JeanWilund.com. Connect with her also on Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest.