In the fifth century, there was a monk whose teachings have had an impact on the history of the church to this day. He was concerned with our righteousness: how can we be counted righteous before God? The question caused him to rethink the relationship between us and Adam. His thinking on the matter led him to conclude that being righteous before God is completely up to us.
The monk’s name was Pelagius. He was from Ireland, and an ascetic, at a time in church history was asceticism was very popular. He was known as a great teacher, and his reputation spread throughout the Roman Empire. In the second decade of the fifth century, he had taken up residence in Jerusalem, and from there he continued to exert great influence.
In thinking about our righteousness, Pelagius looked at the sin of Adam. He began to believe that Adam’s sin did not have a direct impact on us. In fact, a better way to think of Adam, according to Pelagius, is in terms of an example to us.
That means that you and I are not born in sin or born with a sinful nature. Instead, we are born neutral. In fact, Pelagius went a step further and said that we have the moral ability to do what is right and to live a holy life. We have a free will. We can choose to serve God, following the example of Jesus rather than Adam. We can love God. We can choose to turn to God. Ultimately, Pelagius denied the teaching of predestination and denied the teaching of original sin.
If you remember your dates in church history, in the 410s, we’re in the time of Augustine, and the teachings of Pelagius were not going to escape his attention. Through much of the 410s, Augustine focused his writings on repudiating these ideas of Pelagius, because he saw them as going to the very core of the gospel—who we are, whether we are sinful by nature, whether we have innate moral ability, whether God predestines us. These are all questions that Augustine saw as getting right at the heart of the gospel, so he set out to defend the biblical truth.
The controversy over Pelagius’ teachings came to a head in 418 at the Council of Carthage. There, the members of the council, under the direction of Augustine and following his writings, condemned Pelagius and his followers, asserted the doctrine of original sin, and stressed the necessity of God’s grace in bringing us to Himself and enabling us to live a holy life and a life that is righteous and acceptable to Him.
While Pelagius was condemned, his teachings lived on. And so, again, at the Council of Ephesus in 431, Pelagius and his teachings were condemned. But that wasn’t enough—through the end of the 400s and early 500s there were many in the church who tried to pick up and resuscitate Pelagius’ teachings. And so at the Council of Orange in 529, Pelagius was again condemned. But that did not stop Pelagianism, as it continues in various forms right up to our day.
Augustine was right—the gospel was at stake. And a text that speaks right to this is Romans 5:12–21, which speaks of death in Adam and life in Christ. It is impossible to fit Pelagius’ view with the plain reading of this passage. The truth is that we are born in sin and unable to make ourselves righteous. We cannot save ourselves; we need a Savior. And by God’s grace, have one: Jesus Christ, who paid the penalty that we deserved, and whose righteousness is imputed to us by faith alone, to the glory of God. May His church continue to reject the false teachings of Pelagius.