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§3.1 The Intrusion of Sin
At the turn of the fourth century, one of the most important controversies in the history of the church erupted. It was a debate between St. Augustine (354-430) and a British monk by the name of Pelagius (ca. 354 - ca. 420/440). Such a big controversy—such an innocent catalyst. The event that launched the brouhaha was a modest sounding prayer penned from Augustine:
God, Command what you desire, and grant what you command.This prayer encapsulates what we now call the doctrine of Original Sin. We believe it to be biblical, but in human terms it is said to have been first formulated by Augustine.
Augustine’s prayer acknowledges that man does not have the power, without God’s help, to obey God’s commands. Augustine’s prayer is this: God, I recognize that you are sovereign and can command of me whatever you want. I also recognize that I am unable to do what you command, apart from divine assistance—i.e., apart from grace. Help me.
It is important to recognize what original sin means and what it doesn't mean. Original sin means, quite simply, that we are born to sin. We sin because we are sinners; we are not sinners because we sin.
Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me. (Ps. 51:5, NIV)Original sin does not mean we stand charged with Adam's sin. Lead a sinless life and God will not keep you out of heaven on a technicality: True you committed no sin, but you forgot that Adam's sin was in your debit column. Gotcha! Such a concept impugns God's justice. No, original sin means something much worse, something that Augustine recognized. It means that we are such a corrupted race that in our natural state we have no choice but to sin. That is the dire consequence of the fall. Whatever we do as natural men, no matter what its outward appearance, is but filthy rags in God's eyes. Adam, as we will see, was our representative. He sinned, and the race suffered for it.
Augustine (and Reformed theology) teaches this: you have moral responsibility but, in your natural state, you lack the moral ability. In other words, apart from grace, you cannot choose not to sin. The fall did not change the requirement of obedience, but it changed us radically. So, apart from grace, we are doomed.
Jonathan Edwards wrote a treatise on Original Sin. At one point he argued that even if the bible never taught the doctrine of original sin, human experience common sense would demand it. Why? Because if we are born innocent, then occasionally we would expect to find someone, be it one in a thousand or one in a million, who remained pure—but we never encounter such a person.
Pelagius denied the doctrine of original sin, arguing that Adam’s sin affected Adam alone. He believed that, at birth, infants are in a state identical to Adam and Eve’s before the fall. Consistent with this view, he looked at baptism of infants as not in a cleansing them from sin but in imparting a higher sanctification through union with Christ. He didn’t really have a developed theology of baptism—it was a simple matter that it did not cleanse you of original sin because original sin did not exist. Augustine, in contrast, taught that infants are baptized to purge them of the sinful nature inherited from Adam.
According to Pelagius, there was no imputation of Adam’s sin onto his descendants. But scripture makes the symmetry plain: We are made righteous through imputation: Christ, as our representative, has abounding righteousness which is credited to us through imputation. It is not a fiction, and it is not a meaningless legal technicality: we are changed as a result. Likewise Adam’s sin, as he was our representative, is imputed to us. (Only later to be imputed from us to Christ on the cross.) It is not that we are charged with Adam’s sin, but that we are deeply affected by it. The physical result of the imputation is that we incapable of seeking or desiring or obeying God. We are dead in out trespasses.
So Pelagius argued that it is unnecessary for God to “grant” what he commands of us. Instead, according to Pelagius, it is possible for man, on his own, to fulfill God’s commandments. Pelagius believed that moral responsibility implied moral ability; it would be unjust for God to demand that we obey and yet arrange it so that we are born with the inability to do so. He argued that we must be born morally neutral—or innocent.
Pelagius had a role for grace: it facilitates our quest for moral perfection, but it is not required. In principle, at least, we can make do without grace. And, in fact, Pelagius argued that some people do, in fact, live a perfect life. Augustine, on the other hand, argued that grace is not only helpful but required.
Attacking Augustine and his doctrine on original sin, Pelagius argued that human nature was created good. In fact, we stay good. Sin does not change our essential human nature—we always will be “basically good.”
At the heart of the debate between Pelagius and Augustine is the thorny issue of free-will. Pelagius argued that Adam was given a free will, and his free will was not corrupted by the fall, nor was man’s moral character affected by the fall. Everyone, according to Pelagius, is born free of a predisposition to sin. Augustine agreed than man had a free will, but that man, on his own, was unable to use his will to choose God. Augustine believed that sin is universal and that man is a “mass of sin.” Man cannot, according to Augustine, elevate himself to doing good without benefiting from God’s grace.
Harnack (German theologian, 1851-1930) summarizes Pelagian taught:
Nature, free-will, virtue and law, these strictly defined and made independent of the notion of God - were the catch-words of Pelagianism: self-acquired virtue is the supreme good which is followed by reward. Religion and morality lie in the sphere of the free spirit; they are at any moment by man's own effort.R.C. Sproul writes:
Augustine did not deny that fallen man still has a will and that the will is capable of making choices. He argued that fallen man still has a free will (liberium arbitrium) but has lost his moral liberty (libertas). The state of original sin leaves us in the wretched condition of being unable to refrain from sinning. We still are able to choose what we desire, but our desires remain chained by our evil impulses. He argued that the freedom that remains in the will always leads to sin. Thus in the flesh we are free only to sin, a hollow freedom indeed. It is freedom without liberty, a real moral bondage. True liberty can only come from without, from the work of God on the soul. Therefore we are not only partly dependent upon grace for our conversion but totally dependent upon grace.Pelagius was condemned at the synod of Carthage in 418. Subsequent councils affirmed the condemnation of the Pelagian heresy and reaffirmed the doctrine of original sin.
So Augustine won the battle, but Pelagius won the war. Because we are a race of beings that doesn’t like grace, but with a religion that is only grace with no way to work your way to heaven. Strangely we have a natural affinity for the idea of salvation by works, so we try to sneak it in at every opportunity. And so the church, from the time the battle was won by Augustine, has faced a constant assault of Pelagian thought.
Humanism, in all its subtle forms, recapitulates the unvarnished Pelagianism against which Augustine struggled. Though Pelagius was condemned as a heretic by Rome, and its modified form, Semi-Pelagianism was likewise condemned by the Council of Orange in 529, the basic assumptions of this view persisted throughout church history to reappear in Medieval Catholicism, Renaissance Humanism, Arminianism, and modern Liberalism. The seminal thought of Pelagius survives today not as a trace or tangential influence but is pervasive in the modern church. Indeed, the modern church is held captive by it.