Worse than Pelagians? Why We Need A Savior

Throughout the history of the church, there have been many times and many people who have disparaged and denied the doctrine of original sin. Most famously an ascetic British monk called Pelagius insisted, in a nutshell, that human descendants of Adam do not share in the guilt of Adam’s sin, nor was humanity left morally debilitated through any corruption of its nature. According to Pelagius humans were only negatively affected by the bad example of Adam. With the better example of Jesus and proper instruction in the law of God, Pelagius believed that humans after the fall of Adam are capable of living morally upright lives apart from any special grace from God.

We know of Pelagius’ teachings through the writings of St. Augustine, who challenged him, and by way of Pelagius’ commentary on St. Paul. In countering Pelagius and his followers, Augustine insisted that the fall of Adam had indeed corrupted the nature of all of humanity rendering every individual completely dependent upon the mercy and grace of God to be redeemed. Augustine spent much time exegeting and expounding on Romans 5, among many other passages of scripture, in countering the teachings of Pelagius. Augustine defended and elaborated on the doctrine of original sin, which makes the grace of justification and regeneration necessary.

Pelagius and St. Augustine

There are some who act as if Augustine just made up the doctrine of original sin whole cloth. Pelagianism, the idea that human nature is still basically good and unaffected by original sin, continues to be a challenge for the Church. I was amazed to see that during the last United Methodist General Conference, one seminary professor explicitly stated on social media that he hoped the Pelagian United Methodists (i.e. progressives) would win out over the Augustinians (conservatives). Others have denounced the doctrine of original sin as harmful. Danielle Shroyer says, “As a pastor and now a writer, I want to help people grow into a mature relationship with God. I just don’t think original sin is helpful in doing that; in fact I think it’s very often harmful.”

I do think it is important to understand, as Augustine would agree, that humans were created good in the image of God. When Augustine said humans were sinners by nature he clarified that he meant human nature was corrupted by sin not by God’s design. But human nature corrupted by sin leads to immorality and misery. Throughout history periods of excessive optimism about human goodness have been punctuated by exclamation marks of tremendous human evil. As Proverbs 16:18 says: “Pride goes before destruction,and a haughty spirit before a fall” (ESV). Yet the excessive optimism continues to resurface; the denials of the doctrine of original sin persist.

At a conference last month—a conference sponsored by Duke Divinity school and attended by both bishops in the state of NC with many district superintendents present— another seminary professor gave her spin on the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2-3. For one, she insisted that Adam and Eve and the terms translated man and woman (Hebrew: ish and isha) in the latter half of Gen 2:23 don’t just mean male and female, those terms refer to unity in diversity in all of life’s generic variety. It’s not really a story of God’s design for marriage (pay not attention to Gen 2:24-25 or what Jesus said in Matt 19:4-6 and Mark 10:5-9). The professor went on to say, supposedly on the authority of St. Irenaeus, that these two humanoid units of generic diversity were not mature adults; they were immature and innocent children. Therefore, she said the story in Genesis 3 is not a story about original sin; rather it is a story about “original wounding” as Adam and Eve were children who were abused by the serpent. WOW! Adam and Eve were the original victims not perpetrators of sin!

Irenaeus, a second century Church Father, did say that Adam and Eve were created as children and had to mature into adulthood, but in that same context he also clearly acknowledged the sin of Adam and Eve. In comparing the disobedience of Eve and with the obedience of Mary that led to the virgin conception and birth of Jesus the Messiah and Savior, Irenaeus said:

. . . [Eve] having become disobedient, was made the cause of death, both to herself and to the entire human race; so also did Mary, having a man betrothed [to her], and being nevertheless a virgin, by yielding obedience, become the cause of salvation, both to herself and the whole human race.  ~ Against Heresies 3:22:4

Irenaeus also argued against the claim that Adam was not saved by Christ. He said it is absurd to believe that Adam would not have also been saved by Christ along with his descendants who had been begotten by him in the same captivity (Against Heresies 3:23:2). He is talking about the entire human race who was born into the spiritual captivity of the devil. Ephesians 2:1-4, a key text for Augustine in the 5th century, generations after Irenaeus, puts it this way:

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. Eph 2:1-4

In comparing and contrasting the tree of life in the garden with the new tree of life, the cross of Calvary, and in arguing that Jesus was the Word of the same God the Father who had given the commandment to Adam in the garden, Irenaeus also expressed the complicity of the entire human race in the sin of Adam.

by which things He clearly shows forth God Himself, whom indeed we had offended in the first Adam, when he did not perform His commandment. In the second Adam, however, we are reconciled, being made obedient even unto death. For we were debtors to none other but to Him whose commandment we had transgressed at the beginning. ~ Against Heresies 5:16:3 (emphasis mine)

The professor reads Irenaeus the same way she reads the Bible, selectively and out of context. To buy the assertion that the story in Genesis 2-3 is a story about “original wounding” and not “original sin” (which many have, hook, line, and sinker) you have to ignore so much of what the text actually says. You have to ignore the fact that God gave Adam a commandment with a serious warning of judgment (Gen 2:16-17). Adam and Eve disobeyed the command at the temptation of the serpent (Gen 3:6). As a result of their disobedience they were judged by God as was the serpent, and they were exiled from the garden of Eden to a life of suffering in a world under a curse (Gen 3:14-24). We should also note that this is a pattern that Israel would  fall into also. Israel was adopted into God’s covenant family and given commandments. They were promised blessing in the promised land if they obeyed; they were warned about the cursing that disobedience would bring. Eventually, disobedience led to Israel being exiled from the promised land. Why? Because of sin. Israel along with the rest of the world was still under the power of sin in Adam as Paul argues in Romans (Rom 3:9; Romans 5).

The professor’s spin on Gen 2-3 is far worse than the false teaching of the Pelagians, which the United Methodist Articles of Religion condemn. Article VII says:

Original sin standeth not in the following of Adam (as the Pelagians do vainly talk), but it is the corruption of the nature of every man, that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam, whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and of his own nature inclined to evil, and that continually.

Although Wesley did speculate that Augustine may have overstated the actual views of Pelagius in the heat of debate, he insisted that to deny the doctrine of original sin is to deny biblical Christianity and to remain in paganism (See Sermon 44 “Original Sin” and Wesley’s treatise “On Original Sin”). Pelagius’ view was apparently more influenced by Stoic philosophy than the Bible. The professor mentioned above seems to be more influenced by what Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton called moralistic therapeutic deism, as well as postmodern progressive gender ideology. In both cases the Biblical data is forced into pagan paradigms. The interpretation of the professor, who is also a United Methodist elder, is far worse because she not only denies that Adam’s descendants share in the guilt of Adam’s sin and inherit a corrupted human nature as a result; she denies that Adam and Eve themselves were guilty of any sin at all!

Whereas some apparently feel free to read into scripture just about anything they want, Augustine and Wesley both sought to make their case from and under the authority of scripture. Wesley knew that original sin is the reason we need justification and new birth. The doctrines of justification by faith, the new birth, entire sanctification, and glorification in resurrection all assume the doctrine of original sin.

The Bible reveals our great need for help. We need much more than a good example and sound instruction. A central promise of the new covenant reveals just how serious our need is, namely the promise of a new heart. Around the time of Israel’s exile Jeremiah and Ezekiel both pick up on the promise of God in Deut 30:6. The promise is that after the time of Israel’s exile God would circumcise his people’s heart so they would love him with all their heart and soul. Jeremiah calls this the new covenant when God would write his laws on his people’s heart (Jer 31:31ff). Ezekiel describes it like a heart transplant when God would remove the calloused, hardened hearts of his people and give them a new heart and a new spirit of obedient love along with his very own Spirit  (Ezk 35:26-27). As Christians we believe this promise is fulfilled by Jesus the Messiah and received by faith in him. As Isaiah 53:5 puts it, “But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.”

We need a new heart in Christ because there is something wrong with the one we have in Adam. We need healing because we are sick, sin sick because of a hardened heart and the corrupted desires that go with it. As Jeremiah 17:9 puts it, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” The human heart is deceitful enough to convince us that we are fine just the way we are. As Jesus implied, no one is as spiritually blind as the one who thinks they can see just fine without his healing touch! (John 9:39-40)

Thankfully by the grace of God in Christ Jesus through faith we have hope “because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rom 5:5).

We need more than a good example and instruction. We need more than a great teacher; we need the Great Physician because we need healing! We need more than forgiveness for following bad examples; we need new birth! We need more than a life coach; we need a savior! Thankfully we have one. His name is Jesus, the Son of God, the risen Lord.

Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace,
Hail, the Sun of Righteousness
Light and life to all He brings,
Risen with healing in His Wings.
Now He lays His Glory by,
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth. . . . .

Charles Wesley “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”



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