Works vs. Grace: Pelagius vs. Augustine

Approach a typical church-going Christian and ask her about, “works vs. grace” and chances are, she will have a position on this debate. Ask her about “original sin” or “the fall” or the “sin nature” and she will have more to say. But ask her about Pelagianism or how Augustine argued against it, and she will probably just shrug her shoulders. The works vs. grace argument started with Paul and James’ writings, but a hotter argument was kindled some 1,600 years ago by a man named Pelagius and his student, Coelestius.

Pelagius, believed to be a devout and pious British monk, left his home, traveling to Rome in our around AD 400, eventually coming to Carthage, North Africa, in AD 409. Through his travels, he grew discouraged with how people were living their lives. “It seemed to him,” writes Erickson, “that an unduly negative view of human nature was having an unfortunate effect upon human behavior. Coupled with an emphasis upon God’s sovereignty, the estimation of human sinfulness seemed to remove all motivation to attempt to live a good life.”[1] His observations led to Pelagius’ position now known as Pelagianism.

Although most of Pelagius’ teachings were actually advanced by his student, Coelestius, Pelagius seems to have believed that Adam, a mortal, would have died had he sinned or not. He also believed that Adam’s sin was only for Adam and has no effect on the human race; salvation can be obtained by following the Law; there were sin-free people before Christ’s incarnation; newborn babies are as Adam was before his first sin; and it is not through Adam that the world has a sin-nature, nor it is through Jesus Christ that we have resurrection.[2] In the simplest summary, Pelagius believed that man can choose to be without sin.[3]
“It was, however, against the Pelagians,” writes Gonzalez, “that Augustine wrote his most important theological works.”[4] Augustine had much to say on this issue, but maybe his simplest statement is found in Confessions. He writes, “I have no hope at all but in thy great mercy.”[5] Augustine wrote on irresistible grace, the sin nature, the effects of the fall on all humanity, predestination, and Adam’s death. Much of what we understand as right theology today comes from the corner of Augustine. (It should however be noted, that Augustine argued for infant baptism as a sacrament while Pelagius said infant baptism is meaningless.)

Summarizing the driving element of Augustine's position encourages us to look at children and their sin (or lack there of). First, Augustine claimed (as most of us would) that he didn't remember feeling like he had a choice to sin as a small child because he (like most of us) couldn't remember the earliest parts of his life. However, when he observed children, he could clearly identify what could be described as sin. His observation was that of the jealousy of a mother's baby when the mother held another baby (although his illustration was slightly more graphic). If we were to follow Augustine's observations today, we could probably observe similar behaviors in small children. To test this, put two toddlers in the same room with one very exciting toy. If they sin, which they likely will, the question that should be asked is if either of these children had the capacity to first recognize a specific behavior as a sin against God, and second, to what extent they could or would choose (throughout their entire lives) not to sin.

Pelagius argued that a person could choose not to sin; however, in order to be perfect under the Law, a person would have to be sinless from the first day of his creation. Psalm 51:5 seems to suggest that David was a sinner from conception. A number of arguments exists today--one very good one made by Dr. Wayne Grudem--is that sin is not something we do, but instead, it is something we are. Although I would only be speculating, I find it reasonable to think that Augustine would agree.

Eventually the Council of Carthage (417) condemned Pelagianism. Sadly, this was not the end of it. A concept of semi-Pelagianism surfaced and was addressed in the Synod of Arles (around 473) and the Council of Orange in 529. On occasion, the ideas of the Pelagians and Semi-Pelagians still surface today.

[1] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Book House, 1998), 649.
[2] Henry Scowcroft Bettenson and Chris Maunder, editors, Documents of the Christian Church (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 58-59.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Justo L. González, The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984), 214.
[5] Bettenson and Maunder, 59.

*This post was, in its entirety or in part, originally written in seminary in partial fulfillment of a M.Div. It may have been redacted or modified for this website.  
** The photo/painting is in the public domain.