Among the varied heretical views of Christ that have existed since His death, perhaps none has been more prevalent--and dangerous--than that of Pelagianism. Pelagianism denies original sin, assumes man’s free will to choose good, and advocates salvation by good works.
Not much is known about the life of Pelagius. What we mainly know of him is derived from his few writings and those of his followers. However he is also mentioned in writings by Augustine and St. Jerome among others.
Pelagius taught that since the human will was created by God, humans have the ability to live a sinless life. He believed that man could achieve moral perfection, aside from God’s grace, through his own free will. Pelagius wrote, “God wished to bestow on the rational creature the gift of doing good of his own free will and the capacity to exercise free choice, by implanting in man the possibility of choosing either alternative”. He did assert, however, that it is God’s grace which assists in man’s good works.
Regarding sin, Pelagius did not believe that Adam’s sin brought guilt to all mankind, but that it was Adam’s example of sinfulness that had condemned mankind. Christ’s redeeming work on the cross was therefore merely a metaphor for Christian living, serving as a further example for His people.
The Council of Diospolis, finding Pelagius’ teachings to be contrary to the authors of the biblical texts, condemned Pelagianism at the Council of Carthage in 418 AD.
The denial of original sin in humanity is clearly not biblical. The Psalmist-King David wrote in Psalm 51:5, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me”. David believed that sin begins at conception. The Apostle Paul is the most notable New Testament author to argue for original sin. Particularly in his letter to the Romans, Paul lays out the framework for the doctrine. Throughout Romans chapter 3, Paul quotes numerous Old Testament passages to point out the sinfulness of all men, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Romans 3:10-12). Skipping forward to chapter 5, Paul attributes guilt to Adam, “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Romans 5:12). A denial of original sin could have implications in which a person could live their life without sinning, a theory which John says is antithetical to a belief in the Christ of Scripture: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (I John 1:8-10).
Pelagianism assumes that since man is inherently good, man can choose to do good in regards to salvation. But since the Bible states that all men are sinners, they are incapable of choosing to do good (Romans 3:10-12). Man does, in fact, have a will. But that will has been corrupted by sin. Therefore man can only choose evil. Man will never choose the path of righteousness. This is why Christ died for those who would never choose Him.
Salvation by good works is a further example of how the teachings of Pelagianism is contrary to those of the Bible. Paul wrote many times in his epistles that salvation comes only from faith in the finished work of Christ on the cross (Romans 3:28, 4:5, Galatians 2:16). This is what makes man at peace with God (Romans 5:1). God’s people have always been justified by their faith (Genesis 15:16). The Reformers, combatting the heretical teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, which is essentially an extension of modern Pelagianism, affirmed the justification by faith alone and adopted sola fide as one of the five solas of the Reformation.In conclusion, Pelagianism is a doctrine that exalts man over the work of Christ. Many modern churches have elements of Pelagian doctrine in their teachings. Christians must beware of the powerfully negative effect that Pelagianism has on the soul. Pelagianism is popular because it exalts man over the Creator. It comes in many forms and is especially prevalent in Humanist and Roman Catholic theologies. Like Adam, we are seeking any theology that will make us “like God”. We must firmly grasp the reality that man is totally sinful, not just a sick patient in need of treatment. We must realize that we have no power to choose good over evil. We must recognize that salvation can come only through faith alone in the finished work of Christ alone to the Glory of God alone.