Lord Reith, the first Director-General of the BBC, once overheard some of his staff discussing what they believed to be the inevitable demise of the church in the modern age. One employee announced, ‘We are preparing a programme to discuss how we may give the church a decent burial.’ Lord Reith replied, ‘Young man, the church of Jesus Christ will stand at the grave of the BBC!’
More than 2000 years ago Jesus told his disciples that he would build his church and the gates of Hades would not prevail against it (Matt. 16:18). Since then, despite Satan’s best efforts to destroy the church, it has not only survived but flourished. The extent to which it has grown and the influence it has exercised is truly remarkable. However, the church has often had to sail through very choppy waters which could easily have shipwrecked it were it not for the protective hand of God upon it.
During the fourth and fifth centuries the church was battered by a storm of false teaching which took various forms. Few, if any, were more dangerous than that which came to be known as Pelagianism.
By grace you have been saved?
Pelagius was a British monk who, upon arriving in Rome in 383, was disturbed by the ungodliness he saw all around him. He was filled with a burning and thoroughly commendable desire to promote holiness and righteousness amongst his fellow-citizens but sadly the means by which he thought this could be achieved were unbiblical. He believed that human beings are not sinful by nature and have within themselves the ability to live a life that is pleasing to God if they so wish.
Pelagius readily acknowledged that, apart from what he believed to be a few notable exceptions such as Abel and Daniel, men, women and children had chosen to live in rebellion against God. Yet he insisted that they could, under their own steam, decide to repent of their sin and walk a new path of obedience to God’s will for which God would grant them a place in heaven. According to Pelagius, God’s role in a person’s conversion is limited to making his requirements of us clear in Scripture and sending Jesus to model for us a life that meets those requirements. It’s then over to us to summon up the strength to copy Jesus and keep God’s commandments.
- F. Bruce summarises Pelagius’ teaching thus: ‘there is no need of divine grace to enable a man to do the will of God – what he needs is simply to make up his mind to do it.’ In Pelagius’ scheme, a person was, to all intents and purposes, perfectly capable of saving himself. His sermons reflected this and consisted primarily of moral exhortations through which he pleaded with sinners to turn over a new leaf.
Fearless in the defence of the truth
To refute this teaching, God raised up a man who, whilst by no means perfect, was, in the words of S. M. Houghton, ‘the greatest of all the church fathers’. His name was Augustine and in 391 he was consecrated Bishop of Hippo in present-day Algeria. Augustine recognised that Pelagianism, which was steadily gaining ground in both the Western and Eastern parts of the Empire, represented a serious threat to the spiritual health of the church, as it completely undermined the biblical gospel of God’s sovereign grace extended to helpless sinners.
At the beginning of the fifth century Augustine wrote a number of seminal works refuting Pelagius’ teaching. He demonstrated ably from the Scriptures that because of the disobedience of Adam, humanity’s federal head, everybody is born with a sinful nature, that is to say an inbuilt propensity and inclination to sin against God. This renders us utterly incapable of living a life that pleases God. Furthermore, so thorough is the corruption of our nature as a consequence of Adam’s sin that we have no desire to live a life that pleases God and we never will if left to ourselves. We cannot obey God nor do we want to obey God. We are slaves to sin.
If this is ever going to change, we need God to transform us from within. We need God to give us a new heart which hates sin and loves him, replacing our present heart which loves sin and hates God. We need to become new creations in Christ Jesus (2 Cor. 5:17) filled with a longing and a power to walk in God’s ways with repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. This is what God gives to his people in the new birth that Jesus spoke of in John chapter 3, without which we cannot enter the kingdom of God. For Pelagius, entrance into God’s kingdom was the reward for human effort; for Augustine it was the gift of God’s grace. Pelagius’ teaching elevated man; Augustine’s exalted God.
Thanks to the labours of Augustine, Pelagianism was declared to be heretical at the Council of Ephesus in 431. Whilst this teaching by no means disappeared, Augustine ensured that the gospel of God’s grace was not abandoned as it might have been, and his teaching did much to shape the understanding of Martin Luther and John Calvin. Indeed it could be argued that Augustine laid the foundation on which the Protestant Reformation would later be built.
Lessons to learn
What relevance does a theological controversy from 1600 years ago have for us? Firstly, it reminds us of the incalculable debt we owe to Christians like Augustine who have fought to protect the gospel of God’s grace from satanic attack for the sake of future generations and of the responsibility we have to do likewise. Secondly, it shows us that the answer to the tidal wave of sin which is engulfing our nation is not moralistic sermons from the church but heartfelt prayers for God to grant new life to sinners. Thirdly, it brings into sharp focus the astounding generosity of God towards his people in setting them free from the bondage of sin so that they may know and love him.
Surely the hymn writer speaks for us all when he cries:
O how the grace of God
It loosed me from my bonds
and set me free.
What made it happen so?
‘Twas his will, this much I know,
set me, as now I show,
(E. T. Sibomana, translated by Rosemary Guillebaud)