Pelagianism

by Matt Slick

Pelagianism derives its name from Pelagius who lived in the 5th century A.D. and was a teacher in Rome though he was British by birth. It is a heresy dealing with the nature of man. Pelagius, whose family name was Morgan, taught that people had the ability to fulfill the commands of God by exercising the freedom of human will apart from the grace of God. In other words, a person's free will is totally capable of choosing God and/or to do good or bad without the aid of Divine intervention. Pelagianism teaches that man's nature is basically good. Thus it denies original sin, the doctrine that we have inherited a sinful nature from Adam. He said that Adam only hurt himself when he fell, and all of his descendants were not affected by Adam's sin. Pelagius taught that a person is born with the same purity and moral abilities as Adam was when he was first made by God. He taught that people can choose God by the exercise of their free will and rational thought. God's grace, then, is merely an aid to help individuals come to Him.

  • "Theologically, Pelagianism is the heresy which holds that man can take the initial and fundamental steps towards salvation by his own efforts, apart from Divine grace. Historically, it was an ascetic movement composed of disparate elements united under the name of the British theologian and exegete Pelagius, who taught in Rome in the late 4th and early 5th cents."1
  • "Pelagianism taught that people are capable of avoiding sin and choosing to live righteous lives even apart from God’s grace. Pelagius rejected the ideas of original sin and predestination. He believed that people were not inherently sinful and that they were able to live holy lives in accordance with God’s will and merit salvation by good works."2

Pelagianism fails to understand man's nature and weakness. We are by nature sinners (Eph. 2:3, Psalm 51:5). We all have sinned because sin entered the world through Adam: "Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned," (Rom. 5:12, NIV). Furthermore, Romans 3:10-12 says, “There is none righteous, not even one; 11 There is none who understands, There is none who seeks for God; 12 All have turned aside, together they have become useless; There is none who does good, There is not even one." Therefore, we are unable to do God's will (Rom. 6:16, 7:14). We were affected by the fall of Adam--contrary to what Pelagius taught.

See also Semi-Pelagianism.

Condemned as a heresy

Pelagius has been condemned by many councils throughout church history including the following:

  • Councils of Carthage (412, 416, and 418)
  • Council of Ephesus (431)
  • The Council of Orange (529)
  • Council of Trent (1546) Roman Catholic
  • 2nd Helvetic (1561/66) 8-9. (Swiss-German Reformed)
  • Augsburg Confession (1530) Art. 9, 18 (Lutheran)
  • Gallican Confession (1559) Art. 10 (French Reformed)
  • Belgic Confession (1561) Art. 15 (Lowlands, French/Dutch/German Reformed)
  • The Anglican Articles (1571), 9. (English)
  • Canons of Dort (1618-9), 3/4.2 (Dutch/German/French Reformed).3

 

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  • 1. Cross, F. L., and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Oxford;  New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
  • 2. Barry, John D., David Bomar, Derek R. Brown, Rachel Klippenstein, Douglas Mangum, Carrie Sinclair Wolcott, Lazarus Wentz, Elliot Ritzema, and Wendy Widder, eds. The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015.
  • 3. The list of councils was taken from http://public.csusm.edu/guests/rsclark/Pelagius.htm.