Why is understanding Church history important?

It is important to know and to learn from church history, as there will always be old heresies cropping up, appearing as new teachings.  We must always be on guard against such things.  One case in point on why this is important, is that the theology of the heretical cult of the Jehovah's Witnesses could have been wiped out if the Church had taken a stand against it.

One reason why the theology of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is heresy is that the Jesus of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is a far different one than the Jesus revealed in Scripture.  The Jesus of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is not God, but is Jehovah’s first created being (according to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, before coming to this Earth, Jesus was known as “Michael the Archangel”).  Jesus, according to Jehovah’s Witnesses theology, is not an eternal being.

That Jesus was created (and is therefore not eternal) is a heresy, and that belief has lead to further theological errors.  This false view of who Christ is stems from a heresy called Arianism, which is attributed to Arius (250-336), and deals with Christology (the study of just exactly who Jesus is).1  Arius also taught that the relationship of the Persons of the Trinity (God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit) was unequal, and the precise nature of the Son of God was that of Him being a subordinate being to God the Father.

This Arian concept that Jesus did not always exist, but was created by (and therefore distinct from and lesser than) God the Father, came from an incorrect and incomplete understanding of John 14:28, “You have heard Me say to you, ‘I am going away and coming back to you.’ If you loved Me, you would rejoice because I said, ‘I am going to the Father,’ for My Father is greater than I.”

The conflict between Arianism and Biblical beliefs was the first major doctrinal confrontation in the Church.  Arius’s teaching that God the Son did not exist eternally, that Jesus was a divine being created by (and therefore inferior to) God the Father, means that there was a time in which Jesus did not exist.  Arius and his followers (“Arians”) believed that Jesus was a “creature,” in the sense of a “created being.”  This, of course, is in direct contradiction of John 1:1-3 (a section titled “The Eternal Word”):  1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made.

Because of this heretical teaching, Arius was deemed a heretic by the First Council of Nicaea in 325.  His primary opponent in the debate at this Church Council was Athanasius (296-373).  Once this heresy was confronted by men of faith such as Athanasius, it was defeated within a generation and didn’t surface again for many centuries.  Up until the Reformation, Athanasius is probably the man to whom we chiefly owe the preservation of Biblical faith.

The Augustinian/Pelagian Controversy Over Free-Will

Pelagius (354-440) taught that Adam was created neither good nor evil, but was created neutral.  He believed that whether Adam sinned or not, he was still mortal and would one day die, regardless of whether he sinned or not. 

Pelagius taught that Adam only hurt himself when he fell, and all of his descendents were not affected by his sin.  He denied that by Adam’s sin, death entered into the world (which went against Romans 5:12, "Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned.").  He also went so far as to say that everyone is born in the same condition as Adam was before the Fall -- that people are born without sin, and with the same moral abilities as Adam was when he was first made by God.2  He thus did not believe in Original Sin, that man inherits the sinful nature of Adam.

Since his conclusion was that man is born without sin, Pelagius deduced that man need not sin.  In fact, he believed it was possible for man not to sin, even without God’s help.  His reasoning was that since God commands men not to sin, they are capable of not sinning.  But this is an errant view of Scripture.  Pelagius’s problem was an error in exegesis and exposition, in that he didn’t take into account all of what Scripture says on the matter.

Because of this, Pelagianism is a heretical teaching, as it has an incorrect view of the nature of man.  It fails to understand man’s nature and weaknesses.  In the Pelagian system, the Biblical doctrines of Original Sin and man’s depravity are completely unaccounted for, as it states that sinful man is able to choose the good at any time simply by the exercise of his free will.  In the Pelagian view, man does not require the grace of God to enable him to will to do good, for his nature is neutral and is able by himself to choose between good and evil.  But by our very nature we are sinners.  We were indeed affected by the Fall, contrary to what Pelagius taught.

Augustine (354-430) believed in the doctrine of Original Sin, and taught much the opposite of what Pelagius taught.  He taught that Adam was not created neutral, but godly and in fellowship with God.  Adam had true free will prior to his Fall.

Augustine also taught that another result of the Fall was that now everyone would die a physical death (Romans 5:12).  Before the Fall, man could not die because sin and its consequences were not in the world.  So Adam brought not only spiritual death, but also physical death upon himself. 

Moreover, because of the Fall, man’s will is now enslaved to sin (Romans 6:18, "And having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness."), and therefore we cannot choose the good because it is against our nature.  That is why Scripture says that even the best we do is as filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6a, "But we are all like an unclean thing, And all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags."). 

Because of this enslavement to sin and the resultant inability to save ourselves, there must be a divine act of grace on God’s part in order for a person to be saved.  No man would come to Christ for salvation by his own will, for to do so would be against his nature.  God must change a fallen man’s nature before he can repent and believe the Gospel.  Faith is not naturally within anyone -- it must be gifted to a person by God (Ephesians 2:8, "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God.").  This act of God, wherein He changes people’s hearts, is that spoken of by Christ to Nicodemus in John 3:1-3, in a section titled “The New Birth”:

1 There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews.
2 This man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.”
3 Jesus answered and said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

This idea that “one must be born again” is not a fad or a new religious thought, but something that is in God’s Word.  A person must be made spiritually alive by the working of God if he is to see the truth -- there is no other way.  Without this work of God, no one would be saved, for no one would ever seek after God by his own natural will, as that would be completely against human nature (Romans 3:11, "There is none who understands; There is none who seeks after God.").  In order to seek after God, a person’s nature must be changed, and it must be changed by God.

In opposition to Pelagius, Augustine went on further to say that the sin of Adam did not only directly affect himself, but all of mankind.  In all mankind, Adam’s guilt and corruption was imputed to every single person who came after him.  This is seen in Psalm 51:5 where David writes, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, And in sin my mother conceived me.”  David was guilty of sin even at conception, when he first became a living being -- and this is because all have fallen in Adam.  We inherit Adam’s nature, and his guilt (sin) is imputed to us.

According to his contemporary Jerome, Augustine “established anew the ancient Faith.”  He believed that the grace of Christ was indispensable to true human freedom, and he also framed the concepts of original sin and just war.  Although Reformed theology came out of the Reformation, and in particular through the theological teaching of John Calvin (1509-1564), its roots go back to Augustine (345-430).  That is Augustine’s legacy.

The legacy of Pelagiuis is quiet different.  The Council of Carthage, in 418, took action concerning the errors of Caelestius, a disciple of Pelagius, and denounced the Pelagian doctrines on human nature, original sin, grace, and perfectibility.  It also fully approved the views of Augustine.  The Church also spoke out against Pelagius at the Council of Carthage, where he was condemned as a heretic and Pelagianism condemned as heresy.  Yet this heresy still finds itself in today’s Church, in the form of Semi-Pelagianism.

Semi-Pelagianism is a lesser form of Pelagianism.  While Semi-Pelagianism denies the Biblical doctrines of predestination and election, it does not deny original sin and its effects upon the will of the human heart, mind, and body.  But it does teach that God and man cooperate to achieve man’s salvation.  This cooperation is not by human effort as in keeping the law, but rather in the ability of an unregenerated person to make a free will choice, to choose God without God first changing his heart.

Semi-Pelagianism teaches that man can make the first move toward God by seeking God out of his own free will (which goes against John 6:44, "No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day." Also, John 6:65 says, "And He said, 'Therefore I have said to you that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted to him by My Father.'”), and that man can cooperate with God’s grace even to the keeping of his faith through human effort.  This would mean that God responds to the initial effort of a person, and that God’s grace is not absolutely necessary to maintain faith (which is the opposite of the Reformed view that God preserves His people).

Semi-Pelagianism was condemned at the Council of Orange in 529.
In summary of the Pelagian/Augustinian debate:
Pelagianism:  man is born well, and only needs a teacher for guidance
Semi-Pelagianism:  man is born sick, and needs to cooperate with a physician
Augustinianism:  man is born dead, and needs a Savior to be resurrected

The Reformation: Erasmus Vs. Luther

The notions so prevalent today about the freedom of man’s will are not found in God’s Word.  Augustine was correct in his conviction that man’s will was not free, but bound in sin.  Martin Luther (1483-1546) also defended the belief that man’s will was not free, but rather bound in sin.  God does not save anybody because they have made themselves “born from again” (the Greek is “born from above”), or that He sees that they have worked up faith within themselves.  God is not motivated to save sinners based on anything he sees in them, including faith -- as it is God who gives faith to those who are saved.  Salvation begins and ends with God.  It does not begin or end with man, it is all of God (Hebrews 12:2, "looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.").

Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) wrote On Free Will in 1524 as an attack on the writings of Luther.  Erasmus wrote his work for the Catholic Church, who had seen the teachings of Luther gaining inroads with the people and wanted to defeat him.  In answer to this, Luther responded in 1525 with The Bondage of the Will.  At issue was whether human beings, after the Fall, are free to choose good or evil.  The debate between Luther and Erasmus is one of the earliest of the Reformation over the issue of free will and predestination.

Erasmus held the Semi-Pelagian position, while Luther held the Augustinian (and Biblical) position on the state of man’s will.  Luther’s work is one of the most important documents, as it drew a line in the sand with Biblical faith and the Catholic Church.

Erasmus’s Argument

Erasmus asserted that all humans possessed free will, and that the doctrine of predestination was not in accord with the teachings contained in the Bible (even though it’s in the Bible).  He argued against the belief that God’s foreknowledge of events was the cause of events, and held that the doctrines of repentance, baptism, and conversion depended on the existence of free will.  He likewise contended that grace simply helped humans come to a knowledge of God and supported them as they used their free will to choose between good and evil -- choices which could lead to saving faith in Christ.

Luther’s Response

Luther maintained that sin incapacitates human beings from working out their own salvation, and that they are completely incapable of bringing themselves to God (Romans 3:10-12, "10As it is written: 'There is none righteous, no, not one; 11There is none who understands; There is none who seeks after God. 12They have all turned aside; They have together become unprofitable; There is none who does good, no, not one.”).  As such, there is no true or completely free will for unregenerate man, because any will we have is overwhelmed by the influence of sin.  Central to his analysis are Luther’s Biblically-based beliefs concerning the power and complete sovereignty of God and natural man’s enslavement to sin.

Luther concluded that unredeemed human beings are dominated by, and a slave to, sin.  When God regenerates a person, He changes the entire person, including the will, which is then liberated to choose God.  No one can find or achieve salvation or redemption through his own choices.  It is only when God draws us to Him and changes us (regeneration) that we are able to freely choose Him of our own (new) volition.  We are new creatures with new hearts, and are able to choose God.

The Arminian/Calvinist Controversy

James Arminius (1560-1609), a Dutch pastor and professor, rejected the teachings of the Reformation and turned to a Semi-Pelagian belief system.  This heresy caught on, and shortly after Arminius’s death, his followers (called “Remonstrants,” from the word remonstrate which means to make a forcefully reproachful protest; a reproof, to remonstrate is to reprove or correct) systematized what they believed into five articles called “The Arminian Articles of Remonstrance,” and approached the Church in 1618 to challenge their beliefs at the Council or Synod of Dort (Dordrecht).  The result, in 1619, was an overwhelming rejection of “The Five Points of Arminianism.”  The Arminians were expelled from the Church, with over three hundred ministers being expelled from the Dutch Church.

To stem the tide of any further remonstration, the Synod of Dort put together their own defense of Biblcal faith, articulated as “The Five Points of Calvinism” (which became better known as “TULIP”), named after John Calvin (1509-1564).

These five theological points were formulated to answer the Remonstrants in a document known as the Canon of Dort, which declared:

  • That fallen man was totally unable to save himself (Total Depravity)
  • That God’s electing purpose was not conditioned by anything in man (Unconditional Election)
  • That Christ’s atoning death was sufficient to save all men, but efficient only for the elect (Limited Atonement)
  • That the gift of faith, sovereignly given by God’s Holy Spirit, cannot be resisted by the elect (Irresistible Grace)
  • That those who are regenerated and justified will persevere in the faith (Perseverance or Preservation of the Saints)

The Fundamental Differences between Calvinism and Arminianism

Arminians believe that the reason people repent and believe is down to their natural free will.  Calvinists believe that human beings repent and believe because God regenerates them, which frees their will from its bondage to sin (John 8:34-36, "34 Jesus answered them, 'Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave of sin. 35 And a slave does not abide in the house forever, but a son abides forever. 36Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed.'”).

Arminians believe people are affected by sin, but still have the ability to choose to be saved.  Calvinists believe in total depravity.  It is the teaching that a person is completely touched by sin in all areas: heart, mind, and body.  It does not mean that people are as evil as they can possibly be.  However, it does mean that since all of a person is tainted by sin, the sinner is a slave of sin and cannot choose by his own natural will to be saved (Isaiah 64:6 "But we are all like an unclean thing, And all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags...").

Armininans believe God looks into the future and sees who will believe in Him and then chooses those whom He foresees will have faith.  Calvinists believe in unconditional election, where God from eternity past chooses from His own good pleasure who will be saved (Ephesians 1:4-6, "4just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, 5having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will, 6 to the praise of the glory of His grace, by which He made us accepted in the Beloved." Also, Romans 9:10-16 says, "10 And not only this, but when Rebecca also had conceived by one man, even by our father Isaac 11[for the children not yet being born, nor having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works but of Him who calls], 12 it was said to her, 'The older shall serve the younger.' 13As it is written, 'Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated.' 14What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? Certainly not! 15For He says to Moses, 'I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whomever I will have compassion.' 16So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy.").

Arminians believe in unlimited atonement, which means that Christ died for all people, and those who trust in Christ will be saved.  Calvinists believe in limited atonement, or what is better described as particular redemption.  This means that Christ’s death is particular or specific, that He did not die for everyone, nor was His sacrifice even intended to do so (Hebrews 9:28a, "so Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many").

Arminians believe that God’s grace is not effectual and can be successfully resisted.  Calvinists believe in irresistible grace, that those who are His will come to faith (John 6:37,44 "All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out...44 No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day.").

Arminians teach that believers can lose their salvation.  Calvinists believe in the perseverance or preservation of the saints (John 10:26-30, "26 But you do not believe, because you are not of My sheep, as I said to you. 27 My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. 28 And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of My Father’s hand."  Romans 8:28-30, "28And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. 29 For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. 30Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified.").  All those who are God’s will never fall away from the faith.
Wounded or Dead?

Historically, whenever a Church Council was called, it was convened to address a new teaching to decide if that new teaching was heresy or not.  The Synod (or Court) of Dort convened in 1618-1619 to discuss the Arminian challenge.  The question at hand:  How does Fallen Man come to salvation? 

The Arminians and Calvinists disagreed on the extent of the Fall.  The Arminians said man was just wounded by it.  The Calvinists believed that the Fall corrupted all of man -- in his heart, mind, and body -- and that men in their natural state will not seek after God.  The initiative for salvation, therefore, must come from God, not man -- as a dead man can do nothing for himself.

The result was that the Synod decided in favor of the “Dead Man” theory, stating that man, as seen throughout the entirety of Scripture, is born dead in sin and is a slave to sin.  Without God’s intervention and grace, Fallen Man will remain in that state.  That is the clear testimony of Scripture.

Unfortunately, however, what was once deemed as heresy (Arminianism) is now the prevalent view in the Church today.

The Church Today

The same question of “Wounded or Dead?” can be asked of the state of the Church today.  Heresy and false teachings have infiltrated the Church to such an extent that in many places it has become virtually dead.  Examples of this are found in the many churches and entire denominations that are now ordaining gay and lesbian ministers, and in places where homosexual marriage is not only being promoted, but performed and given the blessing of individuals, churches, and denominations.  It is the influx of a liberal, man-centered theology that is at the heart of this decay.

What it all boils down to is the Church not standing up for the truths of God’s Word when heresy and false teachings rear their ugly heads; and in doing so, it has slowly but surely allowed error to not only enter the Church, but also to glory in it.  This is what happens when “tolerance,” and not truth, is the order of the day.

In the past, however, as seen in various historic Councils, the Church has come together as official bodies and has denounced these heresies and false teachings.  In doing so, these stands have only strengthened the Church. 

But in places like the Netherlands today, where the Dutch Church once stood strong in its opposition against error, Klaas Hendrikse, “pastor” of the Exodus Church in Gorinchem, has written a book about his unbelief called Believing in a Non-Existent God.

Hendrikse’s church is part of the mainstream Protestant Church in the Netherlands (PKN).  He preaches to his congregation to make the most of life here on Earth as there is no such thing as the afterlife, and that the Biblical account of Jesus’ life should be regarded as a mythological story about a man who may never have existed.  As he spouts this from his pulpit, his flock take it all in approvingly.

Yet when calls were made for him to be removed from his post, a specially convened assembly decided his views were too widely shared within the denomination for him to be singled out and dismissed.  A study by the Free University of Amsterdam bore this out, finding that one in six pastors in the PKN and six other smaller denominations were either agnostic or atheist.

Whereas the Council of Dort once stood up against such things, now the Dutch Church is unable to do anything about it.  How things have changed. 

But the testimony of the Church is that it has stood up against heresy and false teachings.  So when these errors have elsewhere tried to ease their way into mainstream Christian thought, the Church has responded in different ways, and that gives us hope.  For example, though the Church did not come together as an organized body to refute the universalistic teachings of Rob Bell, a wide variety of denominations, churches, para-church organizations, and, above all, individual Christians stood up against his error.

So although the ways and means in which erroneous doctrine is now countered differently, there is hope in that God’s people, enlightened and emboldened by the Holy Spirit, will confront heresy and false teaching whenever it seeks to infiltrate the Church.  As Jesus admonishes us in Matthew 7:15, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves...”  Scripture warns us, and the history bears it out, that there will be false prophets and teachers in the Church, who will bring in destructive heresies, and many will follow their destructive ways (2 Peter 2:1-2).  Let us stand firm against them.




1 Arianism is not to be confused with “Aryanism” which was the basis of Nazi racial ideology.  The two are also completely unrelated.

2 There are only four conditions in which Man can find himself.  Before the Fall, Man was posse peccare, posse non peccare (able to sin, able not to sin).  After the Fall, natural Man was non posse non peccare (not able not to sin).  The regenerate person is posse non peccare (with God’s help, able not to sin).  A person in glory is non posse peccare (unable to sin).

When Adam and Eve partook of the Tree, they disobeyed God and as a result died spiritually.  Their nature was thus corrupted by sin, and they would one day also die physically.  Whereas Adam’s nature was originally created godly, now his nature was corrupted.  It was no longer truly free.

Adam had true free will prior to the Fall, “libertas Adami” (“freedom of Adam”).  Believers today have what is called “libertas fidelium” (“freedom of the faithful”).  This is the volitional freedom of the regenerate who have been redeemed from slavery to sin, with the regenerate not having to sin (regeneration is “re-generation”--  a return to Adam’s pre-lapsarian condition). 

We do still sin though.  Thus, we’re simul iustus et peccator (“simultaneously just and a sinner”) while on this Earth, which is the Scriptural concept that a person can be a sinner yet still viewed as just by God.  On this Earth, we are to pursue holiness (Hebrews 12v 14: Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord:), we are to seek after righteousness (II Timothy 2v22: Flee also youthful lusts; but pursue righteousness, faith, love, peace with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart.).  Only after death do Christians have the inability to sin. 

Before the Fall, Adam was able to not sin and able to sin.  After the Fall, Adam was unable to not sin and able to sin.  It is the same with natural Man today.  Pre-regeneration, we are as post-Fall Adam.  Post-regeneration, Christians are as pre-Fall Adam.  That is, after regeneration, we are as pre-lapsarian Adam, possibilitas boni et male (“possible to do good or evil”), an ability to sin or not to sin.  This is Adam’s pre-Fall volitional state, the volitional state of all Christians.  The unregenerate, on the other hand, are non posse non peccare, the inability not to sin, which is the post-lapsarian state of Adam, and the condition of all those who are not regenerate.