What is Pelagianism and how is it similar to what the Church of Christ teaches


SOURCE: What was the 5th Century Pelagian Controversy? How was this controversy similar to what is taught in the Churches of Christ today?

During the early part of the 5th century there was a religious controversy which occurred that placed at odds a very earnest, moral, and zealous monk by the name of Pelagius, against the Bishop of Hippo we know today at St. Augustine. This controversy became known at the Pelagian Controversy and came to a crisis point at the council of Carthage in 418 AD.

Now to understand this controversy, we need to know something about the background of Pelagius.

Pelagius was born on the British Isles. And sometime later in life when he traveled to Rome, he became alarmed about the godlessness he saw in the clergy and other professing Christians. It was while in Rome that Pelagius had the reputation for the calling of Christians ‘to the attaining of virtue and righteousness.’

In this way he and his followers had much in common with the Puritans in that they loved the law and the precepts of God, and were also very concerned about the moral laxity they saw in their own day.

The crisis point came, however, when Pelagius read a famous prayer written by St. Augustine, and in this prayer there was a statement that troubled him greatly. The statement was, “Oh God, grant unto us what thou dost command…”.

It was this very statement in that prayer which set into motion the controversy that was to ensue.

The question on Pelagius’ mind was, why would anyone need to pray such a prayer? For what Augustine was asking God for was that He grant unto them the moral and religious power and ability to do the very things that He had commanded.

For Augustine believed that, unless God grants the necessary grace, man by himself is inherently unable to live in perfect obedience to God, and that in our fallen humanity we lack the moral power and religious ability to do the things that God commands.

This teaching deeply concerned Pelagius.

How can it be that a Just and Holy God could render a law or command that in our own humanity we do not have the moral power and ability to obey? For God to be just and at the same time issue a law or command that we cannot possibly obey…(and then punish us?)…would not only be unthinkable but monstrous.

It was here that Pelagius rejected the teaching that man requires any kind of grace, or divine assistance outside of himself in order to live in obedience to the commands and laws of God.

No, Pelagius argued, God saves us by providing us with His laws and commands, by giving us the excellent moral examples of Christ and the saints, and by the cleansing waters of baptism.

For according to Pelagius, salvation can and is received by our own cooperation and obedience to the necessary commands and laws of God as found within the pages of the New Testament.

St. Augustine’s Response

Augustine’s response, however, was that Pelagius’ doctrine was a spiritual impossibility. In light of Adam’s fall and what that meant to all of humanity, the idea that man can somehow decide to live and be saved by being obedient to all of the necessary commands and laws of God is simply an ability we do not have.

Adam had it, but when he sinned he lost it, not only for himself but also for all of his descendants as well.

It would be like an illustration of a long column of paper cups where, should a pin or needle be run completely through, not only would the integrity of the first cup be compromised, but also the character of all the succeeding cups would be ruined as well.

So it is with all of humanity, because of Adam’s sin, we have a flawed character or sinful nature.

And it is because of this sinful nature, we have a predisposition that makes us ever inclined to sin and thus makes it impossible for us to be saved through our own moral and religious “law-keeping”.

This is why we are in such great need of a Savior.

An Argument for Augustine

In Romans Chapter 5:10-21, the Apostle Paul contrasts how that through Adam we were made sinners but through Jesus Christ we can be made righteous. In verse 19 he says, “For just as through the disobedience of the one man (Adam) the many were (past tense) made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man (Jesus Christ) the many will be (future tense) made righteous.”

Paul continues this thought in the context Romans Chapter 7 and says, ‘I agree that God’s law is good. But I see another law (the sinful nature) at work within the members of my body. For the very things I want to do, I do not do. And the things I do not want to do are the very things that I do. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of sin and death?’

Historically Christianity has said, ‘We did not become sinners because we sinned; Rather, we sin because we are sinners.’ In other words, we sin and fall short of God’s holiness and righteous standard because that is what sinners do.

And this is why in our fallen humanity we need of the grace and mercy of God.

Comparing Church of Christ theology

For anyone familiar with the Stone/ Campbell Churches of Christ, it is their view of the fall that makes them very similar to that of Pelagian theology.

This is due to the fact that they also believe that humanity is basically “good” or morally neutral, and that man has the moral power within himself to save himself through his own cooperation and obedience to all the necessary moral and religious requirements of God.

In other words, they deny (or minimize) the effects of the fall, and do not believe that Adam’s sin adversely affected man’s moral and religious abilities to follow commands and laws in order to be saved. Thus, it is the Church of Christ view of the fall (that the effects of the fall were negligible) that is the enabler of their theology of salvation by works.

By contrast, evangelical Christianity begins with the view that man is fallen, that his heart is inclined towards evil, and that he has an inherit inability through ‘New Testament law-keeping’ to be declared righteous in the sight of God, and in this way save his own soul.

This is why evangelical Christianity believes that man is in desperate need of a Savior and the perfect righteousness that God provides as a gift ‘to all and upon all’ who will place faith and trust in Jesus Christ.

So what is this ‘gift of righteousness’ that God provides to believers as a gift? What does it mean to “trust in Jesus Christ” for what we could not do and could not attain in our own sinful selves?

Other Bible references to the effects of the fall and how it adversely affected humanity:

Genesis 3; Isaiah 64:6; Jeremiah 17:9

Romans 3:11-20; 5:10-21; 7:14-25; 8:3-4

Ephesians 2:1-10


About Damon Whitsell

Hello, my name is Damon. I have been studying Christian Cults since 1985 and doing Cult Apologetics online since 1998 because I grew up with Mormons, Oneness Pentecostals and Bible Missionaries in my family. All three of these groups (or Cults) think they are the One True Church and the Only True Christians and to be Saved you must join their Church. So as a result I started studying the Bible for myself to try to determine which of these groups had the truth. After much praying, reading and studying I decided the Mormon, Oneness Pentecostal and Bible Missionarie churches are not real Christian Churches at all, rather they are Christian Cults because they do not line up with what the bible really teaches about Salvation and they are not in agreement with other Essential Christian Doctrines. I found that according to what the Word of God teaches, and Historic/Orthodox Christian Teaching, Salvation cannot be earned by any form of human works or efforts I found that Salvation is ALL by the Grace and Work of God and that Salvation and Eternal Life are a Free Gift from God (Ephesians 2:8, Romans 6:23, John 3:16) to all who will Trust in Jesus Christ and the atoning sacrifice He made for us by dying on the Cross for the sins of the world (1 John 2:2). The Word of God is clear and plainly says “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). Because I know what it is like to be targeted by Cult Groups and to suffer from the spirtual confusion and frustration brought on by their false teachings, I have endeavored to help others find True Eternal Life in Jesus Christ and to break free from the clutches of, and to be healed from the damage done by, Cult Groups who claim to be the One True Church. So it is my hope and prayer that the Lord will use my Websites to help those that need help and that some who use my websites will be helped by them to find the Free Gift of God’s Salvation, that is only found in His only begotten son Jesus Christ.

Posted on September 26, 2015, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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