See the sidebar for links to other lessons.
§3.2 Pelagianism Today
In Pelagius’ teaching that man is basically good we see aspects of the modern humanist movement. But has Pelagianism been eradicated from the church? Consider:
- The general idea that babies are innocent and man is “basically good.” (Of course babies are innocent of committing “real” sins, meaning one in which one makes a free-will choice for evil over good—but they are not free of being born in corruption, of being unable to please God.)
- American evangelism is rooted in the 19th century Pelagianism of Charles Finney.
- In arguments like the nature/nurture debate over homosexuality, the most conservative of Christians side with Pelagius over Augustine.
A recent Gallup poll of professing evangelicals showed that a majority agreed with the statement that “man is basically good.” Many Christians today are inclined to agree with Pelagius that babies are “innocent” and, if they are baptized, it is not a cleansing but a “lifting up.”
Gerstner tells a story of a small Presbyterian church he visited. Upon arrival he as asked by an elder to preside over an infant baptism. He agreed. The elder asked him to pin a white rose on the baby before commencing with the baptism. “Why?” he asked. “It signifies the baby’s innocence,” the elder told him. Gerstner looked at him for a moment and asked: “And what does the water signify?”
Please note: we do have ample reason for hope, in God’s mercy, that babies are saved—but it is the non-Pelagian salvation by grace that makes that possible. David certainly expected to see his dead son in heaven, yet David surely knew babies were not born holy. (Ps. 51:5). He knew that God will have mercy upon whom God will have mercy.
Considered one of the two greatest evangelists of the 19th century (along with Dwight L. Moody) Finney is credited with for the second great awakening.
Aside: From wikipedia: The Second Great Awakening (1800–1830s) was the second great religious revival in United States history and consisted of renewed personal salvation experienced in revival meetings. Major leaders included Charles Finney, Lyman Beecher, Barton Stone, Peter Cartwright and James B. Finley. In New England, the renewed interest in religion inspired a wave of social activism. In New York, the spirit of revival encouraged the emergence of new denominations. In the west especially the revival strengthened the Methodists and the Baptists. The Congregationalists in Florida, Kansas, and Hawaii set up missionary societies, to evangelize the West. Members of these societies acted as apostles for the faith and as educators, exponents of Eastern urban culture. Publication and education societies promoted Christian education; most notable among them was the American Bible Society, founded in 1816. Social activism inspired by the revival gave rise to abolition groups as well as the Society for the Promotion of Temperance, and began efforts to reform prisons and care for the handicapped and mentally ill. They believed in the perfectibility of people and were highly moralistic in their endeavors.
Though he was from a Calvinist background, Finney denied the doctrine of original sin. He was Pelagian to the core. He taught that men are sinners because they sin, and that all it takes for man to be saved is a decision, of the free will of man, to repent, embrace Christ, and to change. That sounds fine, until you realize that Finney, like Pelagius, did not require grace for salvation. Like Pelagius he acknowledged that it would help, but also like Pelagius, he insisted it wasn’t necessary. And that way of thinking influenced and still influences American evangelical thinking. The idea persists that any inherited moral inability is inconsequential. Lip service might be paid to original sin, but the thrust of American evangelism is a mix of Pelagianism and “easy belief-ism.”
Lastly, we look at a more subtle form of Pelagianism in the church, a tacit agreement with the Pelagian view that God would not demand obedience of a people who are born without the ability to obey. To paraphrase the debate:
Pelagius: God would not punish people for how they were born.
Augustine: Yes He would.
Now consider the modern debate over homosexuality:
Homosexual apologist: I was born this way.
Christian: No you weren’t, you chose to be gay.
Both sides in this debate tacitly accept the Pelagian position: God would not punish someone for how they were born. Both sides effectively deny original sin. The proper Christian response, in my opinion, is:
Maybe you were born that way, but that changes nothing. We’re all born sinners.