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The Pelagian Controversy

The Pelagian Controversy took place during the early part of the 5th century and it placed at odds a man by the name of Pelagius against the Bishop of Hippo who we may know today as St. Augustine. The controversy came to a focal point at the Council of Carthage where the church declared Pelagius a heretic in 418 AD.

Now to understand this controversy, we need to look into the background of Pelagius.

Pelagius is known as a moral, earnest, and zealous monk who was born on the British Isles. Sometime later in life when he traveled to Rome, he became alarmed about the godlessness he saw in the clergy and other professing Christians. It was while in Rome that he earned a reputation for the calling of Christians to the ‘attaining of virtue and righteousness’. In this way he and his followers had much in common with the Puritans in that they loved the precepts and laws of God and who were also very concerned about the moral laxity they saw in their own day.

The crisis point came, however, when Pelagius read a famous prayer written by St. Augustine and it was a statement in this prayer that troubled him greatly. The statement was, “Oh God, grant what thou dost command…” and it was this statement in that prayer which set into motion the controversy that was to ensue.

The question on Pelagius’ mind was -why would anyone need to pray such a prayer? For what Augustine was asking was ‘God help us. God grant unto us the moral ability to do the things you have commanded.’ Because Augustine believed that, unless God grants the necessary Grace, man is inherently unable to live in obedience to God and in our fallen humanity we lack the moral power and ability in our own selves to always do the things God commands.

This teaching deeply concerned Pelagius. How can it be that a Just and Holy God would render a law or command that in our own humanity we do not have the moral power and ability to obey? For God to be just and at the same time issue a law or command that we can not possibly obey…( and then punish us? )…would not only be unthinkable but monstrous.

It was here that Pelagius rejected this teaching that man requires grace or some kind of divine assistance outside of himself in order to live in obedience to God. No, Pelagius argued, God does indeed save us by providing us with His laws and commands, by giving us the excellent moral examples of Christ and the Saints, by the cleansing waters of baptism and by the redeeming blood of Christ.

For according to Pelagius, our salvation can be obtained by our obedience to the moral and religious commands of God as found in the pages of the New Testament.

St. Augustine’s Response

Augustine’s response, however, was that Pelagius’ doctrine was a spiritual impossibility. In light of Adam’s fall, the idea that man can somehow decide to live and be saved by being obedient to the moral and religious commands and laws of God is simply an ability we do not have. Adam had it, but when he sinned he lost it, not only for himself but for all of his descendants as well.

It would be like an illustration of a long column of paper cups where, should a pin or needle be run completely through, not only would the integrity of the first cup be compromised but also the character of all the succeeding cups would be ruined as well. So it is with all of humanity in that we also, because of Adam’s sin, have a flawed character or ‘sinful nature.’ And it is this sinful nature we have that makes us ever inclined to sin and thus makes it impossible for us to continually live in perfect obedience to God.

In Romans Chapter 5:10-21, the Apostle Paul contrasts how that through Adam we were made sinners but through Jesus Christ we can now be made righteous. In verse 19 he says, “For just as through the disobedience of the one man (Adam) the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man (Jesus Christ) the many will be made righteous.”

In struggling with his own sinful nature Paul continues this thought in Romans Chapter 7 and says, ‘I agree that God’s law is good. But I see another law at work within the members of my body. For the very things I want to do -I do not do. And the things I do not want to do are the very things that I do.’ Concluding his own sinful moral condition he laments in verse24, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”

Here you can roughly translate this as ” Who will save me from me ?!

Historically Christianity has said ‘We are not sinners because we sin. We sin because we are (inherently) sinners.’ In other words, we sin and fall short of God’s standard of perfection because that is what sinners and people who fall short do.

Church of Christ theology compared

For anyone familiar with the Stone/ Campbell movement, the similarities between it and Pelagian theology are rather striking. I would suggest this primarily because both believe that humanity is basically good or morally neutral, that man has within himself the moral power and ability to live and worship in obedience to God’s commands and laws, and that by doing so we can in this way be saved by God’s “provided means of salvation.”

In other words, they directly or indirectly deny the effects of the fall or that Adam’s sin adversely affected man’s moral and religious abilities to keep commands and laws in order to be saved.

For, according to the Churches of Christ, if the believer will just obey the “five steps of salvation” (hear, believe, repent, confess, and be “water” baptized), live and worship in accordance to the pattern given to us in the New Testament, we can in this way be saved.

By contrast, evangelical Christianity starts from the understanding that, because of the fall of Adam, man’s heart is inclined towards evil, that humanity has an inherit inability to keep the commands and laws of God perfectly, and that humanity is completely lost and has no power or ability through “N.T. law keeping” to be declared just or holy in the sight of God.

But if evangelical Christianity believes that we cannot be saved through our own moral and religious abilities of keeping the commands and laws of God, how then do they believe we can be saved?





  1. As a preacher of the churches of Christ, I believe your presentation to be very accurate. I must add that we do not believe that we can live perfectly according to God’s law and we do believe that we need His grace. You are right that we do believe that we have the ability to “observe all things” as congregations. We do believe that salvation is conditional, but we do not believe that we are saved by our own works. We believe that we are saved by the working of God’s grace through Christ, and that this is conditional upon our faithful obedience (James 2:24). First John 1:7, “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” By this, we believe that if we live right, then we will have all sins cleansed by Christ.

  2. TY for your comments Scott. I will comment later after I finish my chores.

    I have to say that I like your response. Most COC people I know just throw around semantics of circular reasoning to try and justify their doctrine.

    In my study of the COC I have always read others that say not all COC churches or members have bad doctrine and bad methodology in debating them. But with me being from Texas, I have not met one COC member that did not teach what some call ultra conservative COC doctrine and their insidious methods.

    As I don’t sense this and that I might be able to learn more about the COC from you,,, please keep an eye on this thread and lets dialogue a bit.

    BTW the article is not mine. Thanks Damon Whitsell

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