As a pastor, I am occasionally asked to explain the difference between two denominations, synods, religious organizations, or the like. Such requests are perhaps parallel to accountants and attorneys fielding the inevitable dinner-party query about a legal interpretation or investment option.
I tend to wince at these requests because they are never easy to address. Churches and denominations are finely layered, ever-changing works of art. It is not always easy to understand, let alone to articulate, the differences between religious groups.
But I have discovered a helpful tool by which to distinguish the foundational moorings of various Christian movements (with implications extending beyond Christendom). This measuring rod is provided to us by two fifth-century theologians who engaged in a classic debate which distinguishes the beliefs and practices of various Christian traditions to this day. Whether perceived or not, churches gravitate toward either the Augustinian pole, or toward the Pelagian pole, with most landing somewhere between these two opposing positions.
Augustine served as the bishop of Hippo Regius in northern Africa from AD 395-430. In his youth he had struggled notoriously with depraved passions. But at age thirty-three Augustine was dramatically converted to Christ and began to experience a profound power over the sins that had long controlled him. His experience provided him an ideal context from which to interpret the Bible’s teaching regarding human nature.
Augustine’s study of the Scriptures led him to conclude that Adam was created “posse non peccare” (able not to sin), but that we are born in Adam’s fallen state and are therefore “non posse non peccare” (not able not to sin; Isaiah 64:6; Romans 3:10-12; 5:12). People are thus incapable in themselves of choosing divine salvation, incapable of pleasing God in their own strength, and destined to die for their sin (Romans 6:23a). But in his mercy God chooses to open spiritually blinded eyes so that some are enabled to embrace the truth that Christ died to provide redemption from their sinful condition and to empower them to live righteously (Romans 8:28-9:24; Ephesians 2:1-10). Apart from Christ’s salvation, then, mankind is absolutely lost and without hope.
A Celtic monk named Pelagius did not at all appreciate Augustine’s position. Migrating from the British Isles to Rome around AD 400, Pelagius became the chief opponent of Augustine’s interpretation of Scripture.
Pelagius argued that Adam’s sin affected only Adam and had no direct bearing upon his offspring. People are born with an inherent capacity to do good and are fully capable of choosing not to sin. No one is spiritually blinded to the truth and power of God, and all have the native power to respond to him. Death, claimed Pelagius, is the mere consequence of finiteness, not the penalty for sin.
These two positions form two opposite poles of understanding and every church or religious organization gravitates toward one of them. Two defining questions clarify where a particular group stands. First, are all human beings sinful by nature or do human beings merely have the capacity to become sinful? Second, to what extent must God involve himself to rescue sinners from their sin?
If you believe people are basically good and God needs to do little (or nothing) to save us from evil, you are essentially Pelagian in your perspective. If you believe people are born morally corrupt and must be rescued from their sin by the unmerited grace of God, you are essentially Augustinian in your orientation. Mediating positions abound, of course, and partake of the corresponding implications of the pole to which they most gravitate.
The import of these distinctions must not be underestimated. This matter is not akin to choosing a political party or a favorite restaurant. Ephesians chapter 2 declares that God’s divine purpose for the ages (vs. 7), the eternal destinies of individual souls (vss. 8-9), and the relationship between salvation and righteous living (vs. 10) all rest on these distinctions. In other words, the Pelagian position denigrates the glory of God (vs. 7), jeopardizes the salvation of souls (vss. 8-9), and confuses the relationship between good works and salvation (vss. 8-10).
That is my opinion based on my understanding of Scripture. I stand with Augustine on these matters, and thus flows the course of my “spiritual reflections” in this book, my choice of church affiliation, my worldview, and on it goes.
But if this discussion provides any clarity, perhaps it also opens the door to fruitful dialogue. In this spirit consider the following illustration as an apologetic for my position.
Imagine that the two questions at issue represent the left and right sides of a double door. One’s view of the sinfulness of mankind is the left door, one’s view of God’s sovereign power and grace in saving people from sin is the right door. How far open you swing the doors determines the size of the opening through which the light of God’s glory shines.
Pelagians leave the doors closed, sing the glories of man in the dark, and strain to see the light of God’s glory through the narrow crack between the two doors. Semi-Pelagians crack open the doors a bit, permitting a little of God’s glory to shine through the gap between the doors.
Augustinians throw the doors wide open. People are spiritually dead and incapable of pleasing God on their own (the left door is flung open). God must, in consequence, act in sovereign grace to enliven the spiritually dead and rescue lost sinners (the right door is flung open). And rescued sinners may then stand in that broad opening and bask in the streaming light of the unequaled splendor of God’s glory displayed in his unmitigated mercy. Ask Augustine!
To which pole does your church gravitate? To which position does your personal understanding conform? First, it is important that your church’s position match your own. Second, if I may be so bold, it is important that your experience approximates Augustine’s on this point. If it does, you have the privilege to stand in the glorious light of God’s grace and to worship with those who see the same light. If it does not, I pray the doors will be opened to you soon as they were one memorable day for Augustine and for all those who have seen the same light.