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How are you saved? Ask any number of random Christians in America this question and you more than likely get an answer based, at least in part, on the heresy of Pelagianism: “I’ve been a good person, I asked the Lord Jesus into my heart, I made a commitment to Christ. I decided to follow Jesus.”

These sort of answers are often called things like decision theology, works-righteousness, or self-justification. Well catechized Lutherans are keen to these ideas and would do well to avoid them, but even Lutherans of good intent fall for these ideas because, let’s face it, Pelagianism is everywhere in the United States. The USA revitalized this heresy because of our deep love for individualism, individual responsibility, and individual freedom.

Regardless, Pelagianism is still a heresy in the Christian church, and was formally condemned a heresy a very long time ago.

Contrary to the teaching of the Scripture, Pelagius (354-418) taught that God had created Adam mortal, so that whether Adam had sinned or not, he would have died anyway by natural processes of biology. Because he believed this, Pelagius also denied the doctrine of original sin, also called inherited sin, and the need for infant Baptism. In his teaching, people could be good and do good apart from being justified or saved by God for the sake of Christ, and because of an essential good in each person, one could choose or decide to believe by his own will or effort. For Pelagius, this act/work of the will was absolutely necessary.

Pelagius was denounced by the Christian church at the Council of Carthage in A.D. 418 and all his teaching was condemned. His teaching was further condemned at the Council of Ephesus in A.D. 431.

However, Pelagianism kept creeping back up in the church. A form of Pelagianism, semi-Pelagianism, was widely accepted in the Roman Catholic church during the time of the Reformation. During the Medieval period, the Roman church marginalized the reality of original sin in humans, stating that original sin was completely removed in Baptism, that only concupiscence remained, the urges to sin that a person is “free to resist or obey.” The urge itself was not considered sin, contrary to Jesus’ own teaching in Matthew 5:27-28. According to semi-Pelagianism, sin was only when a person gave into the urge, thus the duty and work of the baptized was to fight against the urge and remain free from sin. If he gave in, he could make satisfaction for his sin through penance.

In the Reformation, Martin Luther confronted semi-Pelagianism, and he and the reformers worked to restore, not only the full weight of sin and the sinful human nature, but also the glorious redemption given freely in Christ, the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Even so, today we continue to struggle with the draw of Pelagianism or semi-Pelagianism because human nature desires to take at least some credit in its own salvation. But God calls us to trust in Him alone for all things, to boast only in Him, and to take no credit for the work Christ Jesus has done for us on the cross. We are saved solely by God’s grace through faith in Christ, and faith is merely the instrument which receives the gifts. The human heart and mind and will cannot do any work toward earning, retrieving, or choosing. The human being can reject the gift of God, can shew it away, trample on it and spit it out, but the human being/heart/will/mind cannot accept it/choose it/or decide it.

The question that follows, of course, is: “Why are some people saved and not others?” Next week we will consider the other heresy: Calvinistic Double-Predestination.

There is more to say about this heresy, and this only scratches the surface. You can read the full article in the August 2023 edition of Lutheran Witness. You can subscribe online or order the printed subscription. If you already get Lutheran Witness, you’ll find this article on page 20.