The Heresies of American Evangelicalism, Part IV: Soteriology
Part IV: A Pelagian Soteriology
Pelagius may be a famous heretic, but he is also one of the very best and most pious. Pelagius was a "good heretic," along with Arius. He had the best intentions, but his intentions got in the way of proper theology. He was focused on one particular issue to the exclusion of seeing how that one issue might affect the other areas of belief and practice. That being said, this is perhaps the most prevalent heresy among contemporary Christians. (NB: When I say "Pelagian," I generally mean a kind of semi-Pelagianism which was circulated in the 5th century by those trying to find a middle way between Augustine and Pelagius. However, elements in both camps—pelagianism and semipelagianism—are evident in the contours of contemporary evangelicalism.)
I shall now do my best to summarize the two positions in single sentences. Pelagianism is the teaching that each person, by an act of his or her own free will, can reach spiritual perfection through the moral imitation of the example of Christ. Semi-Pelagianism is the teaching that each person, by an act of his or her own free will, must approach God in faith and works, to which God will respond with divine grace for salvation. Of course, the two positions are much more complex than that, but the general idea should be clear. Pelagianism, broadly understood, is a doctrine that emphasizes the need for humans to do something for their salvation. When put in those terms, most evangelicals would be quick to deny that they are Pelagian in their soteriology. However, one only needs to ask how a person is saved to see that faith, for the average evangelical, is a human work that somehow merits God's grace and salvation.
Before addressing how evangelicalism ought to think about salvation, I wish to quote from the lectures given by Bruce McCormack at Princeton Seminary on the doctrine of election from last fall. Early in those lectures, he spoke about Augustine and Pelagius and the importance of the Pelagian controversy for future theological reflections on sin, grace, and predestination. I shall quote from the section in which he writes about Pelagius. McCormack states clearly, however, that the historical evidence is far from clear as to whether Pelagius the man actually held the views which Augustine ascribed to his name, so that "it is at least an open historical question as to whether Pelagius himself was a Pelagian."
What then were Pelagius' theological views? At the heart of Pelagius' concerns was the desire to set forth a view of sin and grace which would not act as a disincentive to moral effort. His starting-point was the proposition which we have already seen in Justin: viz. that God cannot justly demand of a human being anything which that human being is unable to give. Therefore, since God does indeed make demands, human beings must be capable of obeying God's laws. Every Christian is capable of living a holy life and if she does not, she alone is responsible before God for her failure. Pelagius did not exclude the possibility that some might even live completely sinless lives through the constancy of their efforts. His message was simple and, as Peter Brown says, "terrifying": "since perfection is possible for a man or woman, it is obligatory" [Brown, Augustine of Hippo, p.342]. This was true for all Christians and not just for a select few who [sic] God had appointed for the monastic way of life. ... The individual remains free to respond positively to instruction with regard to the negative consequences of his sinful pattern of living. Thus, education in the demands of the law is the God-given way to overcoming sin.McCormack goes on to discuss the semi-Pelagian movement, which arose very shortly after Pelagius left the scene. Augustine even called these theologians "erring brethren," rather than actual heretics. In my more circumspect moments, I would say the same of American evangelicals. Concerning semi-Pelagianism, McCormack says:
What then of grace? Is it unnecessary? Pelagius would have answered no. Grace is indeed necessary. But the grace in question is the grace of creation, not the grace of redemption (as in Augustine). "Grace," according to Pelagius, is the original endowment of human nature with reason and the revelation of the law so that men and women might know what God expects of them. "Grace" is also the forgiveness of sins which God grants to the one who genuinely repents of his sins - "genuineness" being defined here as the willingness to cease and desist from one's sinful habits. The role of Christ in bringing forgiveness was understood by Pelagius in terms of the good example provided by Christ's sinless life. Christ opened the way to forgiveness in the sense that He laid down the pattern of a virtuous life. We receive forgiveness through our imitation of His example.
The center of this opposition was to be found in southern Gaul (France) in the persons of John Cassian (d. between 430 and 435) and Vincent of Lerins (d. sometime before 450). In modern literature, this new movement has been known as "semi-Pelagianism" (the term was first used in 1577 in the Lutheran Formula of Concord). But those involved in this movement would have preferred to define their position not in relation to Pelagius but rather in relation to Augustine. They were (in the phrase coined by James Bethune-Baker) "semi-Augustinians." Against Pelagius, they affirmed the doctrine of original sin. What they objected to in Augustine was the insistence upon the total bondage of the will, the irresistibility of grace, and the idea of predestination. According to John Cassian, original sin is like a disease which weakens the will but does not destroy it. Instruction in righteousness is by no means sufficient for salvation as Pelagius had taught; grace must be infused. But infused grace works with the will and indeed, the will (however weakened) remains capable of initiating a movements towards God. Cassian also held to the universality of God's saving intentions; double predestination was rejected. Predestination for the so-called "semi-Pelagians" was nothing more than God's predetermination to save those who merit salvation through their right use of grace. In other words, predestination is simply foreknowledge.Of course, the question of predestination is not our concern here, nor are the natures of grace and original sin central to our discussion (although they would be important if we were going to address the issue systematically; for now we will settle for seeing the general outlines of what is at stake). What is important for us to consider is the way in which both forms of Pelagianism place a certain level of emphasis upon the individual human as the one who, in a sense, accomplishes salvation. In traditional Pelagianism, a person accomplishes salvation virtually on her own, so that eternal life is given to the one who works the hardest and achieves moral perfection. In semi-Pelagianism, the person accomplishes salvation by meeting God half-way, i.e., God makes salvation possible while we make salvation actual. Salvation is still by grace, but it is not by grace alone.
American evangelicalism is Pelagian for a number of reasons, but I think the central culprit is our own national and historical identity. The United States is a country of "doers," of those who "realize themselves" and try to "be all they can be." The American Way stresses that we must find our own path in life, we must be a true individual without anything holding us back, and we must make ourselves great, whether through fame or riches or personal legacy. The United States is a Pelagian nation which believes perfection is possible if you just try hard enough. Is it any surprise that some of this would seep into and contaminate the Christian faith? Is it any wonder that we have "health-and-wealth" pseudo-gospels that tell people money and riches indicate our spiritual standing with God? Is it any wonder that books like the Prayer of Jabez are the biggest pseudo-Christian bestsellers?
American evangelicalism, along with the semi-Pelagians, also rejects the bondage of the will and the irresistibility of grace, and correspondingly emphasizes the individual's free will to choose or reject God. The evangelical model of freedom is the pagan one: a choice between two roads, between right and wrong, good and evil, God and the devil. True freedom, as Barth makes clear, is obedience—it is freedom-for God and others, not freedom-from. Evangelicalism rejects double predestination (as it should), but then it moves the locus of salvation from God's divine decision to the individual human's decision for God. According to evangelicals, salvation is something we merit through our free choice of belief; we earn salvation through our act of faith.
In case the link between Pelagianism and evangelicalism is not clear enough, I wish to quote from The Semi-Pelagian Narrower Catechism, a satirical work of genius that makes some of the major problems in evangelicalism all too clear. (Wheaton College grads will want to check out Question 20.)
1. Q: What is the chief end of each individual Christian?
A: Each individual Christian's chief end is to get saved. This is the first and great commandment.
2. Q: And what is the second great commandment?
A: The second, which is like unto it, is to get as many others saved as he can.
3. Q: What one work is required of thee for thy salvation?
A: It is required of me for my salvation that I make a Decision for Christ, which meaneth to accept Him into my heart to be my personal lord'n'saviour
4. Q: At what time must thou perform this work?
A: I must perform this work at such time as I have reached the Age of Accountability.
5. Q: At what time wilt thou have reached this Age?
A: That is a trick question. In order to determine this time, my mind must needs be sharper than any two-edged sword, able to pierce even to the division of bone and marrow; for, alas, the Age of Accountability is different for each individual, and is thus unknowable.
6. Q: By what means is a Decision for Christ made?
A: A Decision for Christ is made, not according to His own purpose and grace which was given to me in Christ Jesus before the world began, but according to the exercise of my own Free Will in saying the Sinner's Prayer in my own words.
7. Q: If it be true then that man is responsible for this Decision, how then can God be sovereign?
A: He cannot be. God sovereignly chose not to be sovereign, and is therefore dependent upon me to come to Him for salvation. He standeth outside the door of my heart, forlornly knocking, until such time as I Decide to let Him in.
8. Q: How then can we make such a Decision, seeing that the Scripture saith, we are dead in our trespasses and sins?
A: By this the Scripture meaneth, not that we are dead, but only that we are sick or injured in them.
9. Q: What is the assurance of thy salvation?
A: The assurance of thy salvation is, that I know the date on which I prayed the Sinner's Prayer, and have duly written this date on an official Decision card.
15. Q: What witness aid hath been given us as a technique by which we may win souls?
A: The tract known commonly as the Four Spiritual Laws, is the chief aid whereby we may win souls.
16. Q: What doth this tract principally teach?
A: The Four Spiritual Laws principally teach, that God's entire plan for history and the universe centereth on me, and that I am powerful enough to thwart His divine purpose if I refuse to let Him pursue His Wonderful Plan for my life.
17. Q: What supplementary technique is given by which we may win souls?23. Q: What is sanctification?
A: The technique of giving our own Personal Testimony, in the which we must always be ready to give an answer concerning the years we spent in vanity and pride, and the wretched vices in which we wallowed all our lives until the day we got saved.
A: Sanctification is the work of my free Will, whereby I am renewed by having my Daily Quiet Time.
I would just quote the entire "catechism," because there are so many great questions-answers (including 25, 28, 31, 32, 33, 35, 38, 39). The ones quoted above, however, make one very clear point: evangelicalism practices a salvation by works, or perhaps more accurately, salvation by a work—the faithful decision for Christ. American evangelicalism is thus propagating a great heresy, that Jesus Christ did not accomplish salvation for us but that we must realize our own salvation. This heresy is most clear in the doctrine of the atonement, in which Jesus makes salvation possible for all people, but only individuals can actualize this salvation. Reconciliation is made available to all (contra double predestination), but God waits for each individual to pray to receive Jesus. Salvation is mostly in our own hands. We have to meet God half-way, according to a semi-Pelagian evangelicalism. "God helps those who help themselves" is the motto of the moralistic evangelical with good intentions. All of this is heretical, and yet it dominates the literature produced by American Christians. We need to make a drastic change.
Faith is not simply a power proper to human nature as created which - however weakened - was still sufficent to obtain salvation through its reception and use of the gifts of grace. Faith does not precede grace; rather, grace precedes faith.What must we do? We must preach more effectively the gospel of salvation in Christ alone, by grace alone, by the word alone, and by faith alone. Salvation, identity, new personhood are all found in God alone (solus Deus). We must die to ourselves before we can find ourselves. But "dying to ourselves" is not a human act to merit salvation; it is rather the recognition that all that we are is found outside of ourselves in God. When we die to ourselves in faith, we allow God to say No to every moral or immoral act in our lives. But we also allow God to say Yes to us just as we are—not because of anything in us, but because of Jesus Christ alone.
For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. ... All this is from God reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. (2 Cor. 5:14-15, 18-19)