Why Pelagianism matters (including for the Church of England)

Pelagius CofE

At last week’s C of E General Synod, Synod member Jayne Ozanne presented an argument for her motion for the C of E to ban ‘gay conversion therapy’ which began with these remarkable words:

‘The Bible teaches us that we are each fearfully and wonderfully made (Ps.139.14), and that we should praise God’s gift of our creation. Thus, our diversity as human beings is a reflection of God’s creativity and something to celebrate. The biblical concern is not with what we are but how we choose to live our lives, meaning that differing sexual orientations and gender identities are not inherently sinful, nor mental health disorders to be “cured”.’

What is remarkable about these words is that they identify her position openly and unequivocally as Pelagianism, an ancient heresy of the church. What is even more remarkable is not that the motion at General Synod carried (with some significant amendments), but that the bishops of the Church of England – which still claims to be part of the church catholic – ever allowed it to be presented at all. But it was presented, and it did carry, so all who are concerned for Christian Orthodoxy in England need to be aware of what happened here. And to understand that, it is necessary to understand what Pelagianism is and why it matters.

In many ways the Pelagian controversy of the 5th century AD is the defining controversy of the Western church. The church’s condemnation of Pelagius and his doctrine set the course for the entire understanding of salvation for Latin Christianity, and furthermore the Reformation 1000 years later was in large measure reacting against a resurgence in Pelagianism in the mediaeval church. For 1500 years then, Christian orthodoxy has seen the teaching of Pelagius to be entirely antithetical to the gospel. It is not too much to say that it is in the contrast with Pelagianism that the true nature of the Christian gospel is most clearly seen.

What was the controversy about?

The controversy started because Pelagius, a British monk, read the ‘Confessions’ of Augustine, Bishop of Hippo in North Africa, and was alarmed. He was alarmed because Augustine taught that God not only gives moral commands to us, but he gives us the ability to keep those commands, which we could not have done otherwise. And, reasoned Pelagius, that would mean that by nature we are unable to keep God’s commands; in which case why bother? And so, he began to teach, we are born entirely able to keep God’s commands. The issue is whether we decide to do so or not.

In other words, the controversy was about human nature. It boiled down to, what is the status of human nature at birth? Pelagius taught that we are born innocent, entirely capable of keeping God’s laws. Augustine, in contrast, insisted that we are born with ‘original sin’. That is, sin is at birth already hard-wired into us, because we have inherited the corruption of nature that Adam brought upon us. So Pelagius said that we are born with nothing wrong with us; Augustine that we already desire to sin at birth. Pelagius said men become condemned through their free choices, because we are only condemned for what we do; Augustine said that we are born condemned, because we are condemned for what we are. Pelagius’ position was neatly summarised by his phrase ‘Evil is not born with us, and we are procreated without fault; and the only thing in men at their birth is what God has formed.’[1]. Augustine’s position is that ‘the fault of our nature remains in our offspring so deeply impressed as to make it guilty.’[2]

Why did this matter?

Because Augustine saw what Pelagius did not: that Pelagius’ teaching utterly changes the nature of Christianity. For Pelagius, Christianity is a religion of moral self-improvement. Since there is nothing wrong with our nature, the gospel is merely a message about how to improve our behaviour. To that end God provides a law in the Bible and a wonderful example in Christ. And that is all he provides, because it is all we need. With some solid encouragement, some moral direction, and a model to follow, we can all get on with being good as God requires. And of course God will reward us if we do.

But the problem with this is, as Augustine laboured to point out, is that this is not the gospel found in the Bible at all. The Biblical gospel from beginning to end is not about self-improvement of what we do but redemption of what we are. The law kills, says Paul, precisely because moral self-improvement is entirely beyond us. We are corrupt creatures in need of rescue. God’s grace does not consist in calling for us to run faster from the side of the track, for we are prone on the ground with crippled legs, entirely incapable of leaving the blocks. God’s grace consists of lifting us to our feet, remaking our useless muscles and sinews, and causing us to run a race we never could have run left to ourselves.

So Augustine says things like,

‘For that which God promises we do not ourselves bring about by our own choice or natural power, but he himself effects it by grace.’[3]

‘In order, indeed, that we might receive that love whereby we might love, we were loved while as yet we had no love ourselves.’[4]

‘By such grace it is effected, not only that we discover what ought to be done, but also that we do what we have discovered, – not only that we believe what ought to be loved, but also that we love what we have believed.’

Before we can do any good, we must want to do good. And since only deeds done out of love for God are genuinely good, we must love God before we can do any good. But we do not naturally love God. We are born loving self and that self-love expresses itself in any number of godless lusts. What we naturally are is incapable of good.

And so God by his grace, through the redeeming work of Christ applied to us by the Holy Spirit, transforms our hearts so that we love him and so are able to begin to do the things that he commands. In the words of the Confessions that offended Pelagius so much, Augustine prayed ‘You command continence; grant what you command, and command what you will.’[5] The gospel of Christ is that he transforms the hopeless mass of corrupt desires which is the human heart so that not only is the guilt of our nature and our deeds forgiven through our faith in Christ, but our very nature is changed. This message is so much at the heart of the entire Apostolic witness to Christ’s gospel that it is hard to find anywhere in the New Testament where it is not either right at or only just below the surface. But John 3, Romans 6-8, Galatians 5, Ephesians 2, 1 Peter 1-2, 1 John 4 would be good starting points.

And that, of course, is a gloriously better gospel than Pelagius’. Because the heart of man is very corrupt. All sorts of dark desires lurk within me. I sin because I want to, and as long as I want to I will keep on sinning. That is the problem with mankind from beginning to end. That is why we are born and live under the condemnation of God. And Pelagius’ gospel offers no help with this situation at all. Being told that I’m capable of good is no help at all if I know that, deep down, I am not. If you do have a natural desire for a particular evil thing – say, drunkenness, or riches at the expense of others, or popular admiration, or illicit sexual pleasure, or revenge or anything else  – then heaven help you. Except that heaven will not help you. You’re on your own.

And of course, nor is it any help if my love for evil is such that I don’t even realise how evil I am. We have all met people who see nothing at all wrong with the utterly odious attitudes, habits and appetites they live by. Pelagianism can do no more than advertise to them a product that they will never in a lifetime have any desire to buy. What is more, every true Christian knows that that is exactly what we once were. If it weren’t for the grace of Christ I would never have seen myself for what I really am. I was a slave to the world, the flesh and the devil, until God in Christ made me alive (Eph 2:1-5).

Pelagianism, the C of E, and LGBT

Now, back to the Church of England General Synod. Consider Jayne Ozanne’s statement that ‘The biblical concern is not with what we are but how we choose to live our lives’. That sums up Pelagius’ position perfectly. Then consider Ozanne’s claim that because we are fearfully and wonderfully made (which we are) therefore ‘our diversity as human beings is a reflection of God’s creativity and something to celebrate… meaning that differing sexual orientations and gender identities are not inherently sinful.’ She might as well have quoted Pelagius: ‘Evil is not born with us, and we are procreated without fault; and the only thing in men at their birth is what God has formed.’  She assumes, along with the whole LGBT movement, that the natural desires of our hearts are pure and good. That nothing found in human nature can be wrong. God must have put it there. So it must be good.

But the Biblical concern absolutely is with what we are. And the biblical diagnosis of the human condition – the problem that God sent his Son to save us from – is exactly the corruption of human nature which we are born with. If being born again, as Jesus says we must be, is not about what we are, then what is? If it is not a description of the hopeless condition in which we are born naturally, then what could be? So all Jesus’ apostles bear witness to the same thing.  ‘O wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?’, cries Paul (Romans 7:24). ‘According to his great mercy he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead’, says Peter (1 Peter 1:3). ‘If anyone is in Christ’, says Paul, ‘he is a new creation. Behold, the old has gone, the new has come’ (2 Corinthians 5:17). The gospel from beginning to end is about resurrection: God raised Christ from the dead so that he would raise all those who are his from the dead to. So that what we are would be made new, both on the inside (now) and on the outside (when Christ returns) (2 Corinthians 4:14-16).

Being a thoroughly Pelagian argument, those LGBT campaigners who claim to be Christians must therefore assume a Pelagian gospel. They assume we are capable of moral self-improvement. They believe the function of Christianity is to help us see what is good so that we can get on and do it. That is why Church of England liberals see what they are doing as a moral crusade; they are implementing their version of the gospel. Of course Theological liberalism has always been Pelagian since its 19th Century inception. What we are seeing now is the fruit of that.

It’s worth seeing that today’s Liberals are working out Pelagius’ principle in a way neither he nor the older Liberals did. Pelagius looked at God’s laws and said that we must be born capable of doing them. Today’s neo-Pelagians argue that because certain desires are present in people naturally, therefore they can’t be against God’s law. It is a logically demanded consequence of Pelagius’ views.

Some Conclusions

  1. The issue before the Church of England – and all denominations deciding where to stand on LGBT issues – is not a matter of ‘how to interpret a small number of specific texts’, as the Anglican Bishop of Manchester wrote last week. It is a matter that goes to the heart of what the gospel is. Thankfully that decision and its implications was pretty well mapped out in the controversy of 1500 years ago. If the C of E wishes to decide, after 1500 years of church condemnation, that Pelagius was right after all, then it both needs to say so honestly and it needs to recognise that it is adopting a fundamentally different gospel to that which it has subscribed to up till now.
  2. The Pelagian controversy shows us that a gospel which denies Original Sin is a gospel that offers absolutely zero help from God with the desires of our hearts. So we must see that, for all its talk of love, tolerance and inclusion, those who advocate for acceptance of LGBT lifestyles in the church hold to a gospel that has no power to save sinners. It would have left David a slave of his lusts, Zaccheus a slave of his money, and Paul still breathing murderous threats against the church. It is a gospel that has nothing to offer the man addicted to pornography, the married couple who cannot stop arguing, the alcoholic who cannot make himself sober, the proud man who loves attention, the broken teenager who just wants to hurt herself.
  3. Orthodox Christians engaging with this issue in their denominations need to make quite explicit that this is what it is all about. It is not merely about failing to call sins sins, nor simply about ignoring parts of Scripture, serious though those things are. It is about replacing the gospel of salvation from the guilt and power of sin with another, miserably inferior one. That needs to be stated and spelt out at every opportunity.
  4. The neo-Pelagian move is one which has some frightening consequences. If the discovery that a desire is naturally present in some human beings means that it cannot be sinful, then an awful lot of other evil things are going to have to be declared not to be sinful as well. Sexual immorality, theft, murder are only the first three of the list of things Jesus said come out of the heart of man (Mark 7:20-23). They originate inside us; which means that they were there are our birth. If the neo-Pelagians are right, they are ‘a reflection of God’s creativity and something to celebrate’. It’s not hard to see where that will lead. There is no perversion of human desire – sexual or otherwise – that is not ultimately justified by this argument.
  5. British Evangelicals need to examine our own history for how deeply Pelagian we have often been ourselves. Far too often we have assumed that the gospel is merely about forgiveness of our guilt and forgotten that it is also about redemption from slavery to our sinful desires. This is shown most clearly in how easily we accepted the idea that somehow those who are tempted by homosexual lusts have a different identity to the rest of us; that the category of ‘sexual orientation’ is in itself a valid one. But at root this corrupt desire is no different to any other. Sin is a natural condition of our hearts, and it merely manifests itself in different sorts of desires; greed in some of us, sexual lusts in most of us, pride in all of us. We have proudly assumed that others are slaves to sins while we ourselves never were.
  6. And British Evangelicals need urgently to re-acquaint ourselves with the past engagement of godly theologians with Pelagianism. What we are facing here is nothing new. The church confronted fundamentally the same error before. Augustine is clearly the most important figure here, although the Reformed writers of the 17th Century (John Owen’s Mortification of Sin would be a classic example) deal with many of the same issues in a more pastoral vein. We will see our way much more clearly if we stand on the shoulders of our forefathers.

We were dead in our transgressions and sins. God raised us up with Christ made us alive in him. He has delivered us both from the guilt of sin and from its power. That is the Christian gospel. Let us see the Pelagian alternative for what it is, and oppose it with all our might.




[1] Augustine, On Original Sin, ch. 14

[2] On Original Sin, ch. 44

[3] On the Grace of Christ, ch. 31

[4] On the Grace of Christ, ch. 27

[5] Confessions 10.29


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