The Pelagian Captivity of the Church by R.C. Sproul

Shortly after the Reformation began, in the first few years after Martin Luther posted the Ninety-Five Theses on the church door at Wittenberg, he issued some short booklets on a variety of subjects. One of the most provocative was titled The Babylonian Captivity of the Church. In this book Luther was looking back to that period of Old Testament history when Jerusalem was destroyed by the invading armies of Babylon and the elite of the people were carried off into captivity. Luther in the sixteenth century took the image of the historic Babylonian captivity and reapplied it to his era and talked about the new Babylonian captivity of the Church. He was speaking of Rome as the modern Babylon that held the Gospel hostage with its rejection of the biblical understanding of justification. You can understand how fierce the controversy was, how polemical this title would be in that period by saying that the Church had not simply erred or strayed, but had fallen — that it’s actually now Babylonian; it is now in pagan captivity.

I’ve often wondered if Luther were alive today and came to our culture and looked, not at the liberal church community, but at evangelical churches, what would he have to say? Of course I can’t answer that question with any kind of definitive authority, but my guess is this: If Martin Luther lived today and picked up his pen to write, the book he would write in our time would be entitled The Pelagian Captivity of the Evangelical Church. Luther saw the doctrine of justification as fueled by a deeper theological problem. He writes about this extensively in The Bondage of the Will. When we look at the Reformation and we see the solas of the Reformation — sola Scriptura, sola fide, solus Christus, soli Deo gloria, sola gratia — Luther was convinced that the real issue of the Reformation was the issue of grace; and that underlying the doctrine of solo fide, justification by faith alone, was the prior commitment to sola gratia, the concept of justification by grace alone.

In the Fleming Revell edition of The Bondage of the Will, the translators, J. I. Packer and O. R. Johnston, included a somewhat provocative historical and theological introduction to the book itself. This is from the end of that introduction:

“These things need to be pondered by Protestants today. With what right may we call ourselves children of the Reformation? Much modern Protestantism would be neither owned nor even recognised by the pioneer Reformers. The Bondage of the Will fairly sets before us what they believed about the salvation of lost mankind. In the light of it, we are forced to ask whether Protestant Christendom has not tragically sold its birthright between Luther’s day and our own. Has not Protestantism today become more Erasmian than Lutheran? Do we not too often try to minimise and gloss over doctrinal differences for the sake of inter-party peace? Are we innocent of the doctrinal indifferentism with which Luther charged Erasmus? Do we still believe that doctrine matters?” (J. I. Packer and O. R. Johnston, “Introduction” to the The Bondage of the Will (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming Revell, 1957, pp. 59-60).

Historically, it’s a simple matter of fact that Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and all the leading Protestant theologians of the first epoch of the Reformation stood on precisely the same ground here. On other points they had their differences. In asserting the helplessness of man in sin and the sovereignty of God in grace, they were entirely at one. To all of them these doctrines were the very lifeblood of the Christian faith. A modern editor of Luther’s works says this:

Whoever puts this book down without having realized that Evangelical theology stands or falls with the doctrine of the bondage of the will has read it in vain. The doctrine of free justification by faith alone, which became the storm center of so much controversy during the Reformation period, is often regarded as the heart of the Reformers’ theology, but this is not accurate. The truth is that their thinking was really centered upon the contention of Paul, echoed by Augustine and others, that the sinner’s entire salvation is by free and sovereign grace only, and that the doctrine of justification by faith was important to them because it safeguarded the principle of sovereign grace. The sovereignty of grace found expression in their thinking at a more profound level still in the doctrine of monergistic regeneration” (Ibid).

That is to say, that the faith that receives Christ for justification is itself the free gift of a sovereign God. The principle of sola fide is not rightly understood until it is seen as anchored in the broader principle of sola gratia. What is the source of faith? Is it the God-given means whereby the God-given justification is received, or is it a condition of justification which is left to man to fulfill? Do you hear the difference? Let me put it in simple terms. I heard an evangelist recently say, “If God takes a thousand steps to reach out to you for your redemption, still in the final analysis, you must take the decisive step to be saved.” Consider the statement that has been made by America’s most beloved and leading evangelical of the twentieth century, Billy Graham, who says with great passion, “God does ninety-nine percent of it but you still must do that last one percent.”

What Is Pelagianism?

Now, let’s return briefly to my title, “The Pelagian Captivity of the Church.” What are we talking about? Pelagius was a monk who lived in Britain in the fifth century. He was a contemporary of the greatest theologian of the first millennium of Church history if not of all time, Aurelius Augustine, Bishop of Hippo in North Africa. We have heard of St. Augustine, of his great works in theology, of his City of God, of his Confessions, and so on, which remain Christian classics.

Augustine, in addition to being a titanic theologian and a prodigious intellect, was also a man of deep spirituality and prayer. In one of his famous prayers, Augustine made a seemingly harmless and innocuous statement in the prayer to God in which he says: “O God, command what you wouldst, and grant what thou dost command.” Now, would that give you apoplexy — to hear a prayer like that? Well it certainly set Pelagius, this British monk, into orbit. When he heard that, he protested vociferously, even appealing to Rome to have this ghastly prayer censured from the pen of Augustine. Here’s why. He said, “Are you saying, Augustine, that God has the inherent right to command anything that he so desires from his creatures? Nobody is going to dispute that. God inherently, as the creator of heaven and earth, has the right to impose obligations on his creatures and say, ‘Thou shalt do this, and thou shalt not do that.’ ‘Command whatever thou would’ — it’s a perfectly legitimate prayer.”

It’s the second part of the prayer that Pelagius abhorred when Augustine said, “and grant what thou dost command.” He said, “What are you talking about? If God is just, if God is righteous and God is holy, and God commands of the creature to do something, certainly that creature must have the power within himself, the moral ability within himself, to perform it or God would never require it in the first place.” Now that makes sense, doesn’t it? What Pelagius was saying is that moral responsibility always and everywhere implies moral capability or, simply, moral ability. So why would we have to pray, “God grant me, give me the gift of being able to do what you command me to do”? Pelagius saw in this statement a shadow being cast over the integrity of God himself, who would hold people responsible for doing something they cannot do.

So in the ensuing debate, Augustine made it clear that in creation, God commanded nothing from Adam or Eve that they were incapable of performing. But once transgression entered and mankind became fallen, God’s law was not repealed nor did God adjust his holy requirements downward to accommodate the weakened, fallen condition of his creation. God did punish his creation by visiting upon them the judgment of original sin, so that everyone after Adam and Eve who was born into this world was born already dead in sin. Original sin is not the first sin. It’s the result of the first sin; it refers to our inherent corruption, by which we are born in sin, and in sin did our mothers conceive us. We are not born in a neutral state of innocence, but we are born in a sinful, fallen condition. Virtually every church in the historic World Council of Churches at some point in their history and in their creedal development articulates some doctrine of original sin. So clear is that to the biblical revelation that it would take a repudiation of the biblical view of mankind to deny original sin altogether.

This is precisely what was at issue in the battle between Augustine and Pelagius in the fifth century. Pelagius said there is no such thing as original sin. Adam’s sin affected Adam and only Adam. There is no transmission or transfer of guilt or fallenness or corruption to the progeny of Adam and Eve. Everyone is born in the same state of innocence in which Adam was created. And, he said, for a person to live a life of obedience to God, a life of moral perfection, is possible without any help from Jesus or without any help from the grace of God. Pelagius said that grace — and here’s the key distinction — facilitates righteousness. What does “facilitate” mean?

It helps, it makes it more facile, it makes it easier, but you don’t have to have it. You can be perfect without it. Pelagius further stated that it is not only theoretically possible for some folks to live a perfect life without any assistance from divine grace, but there are in fact people who do it. Augustine said, “No, no, no, no . . . we are infected by sin by nature, to the very depths and core of our being — so much so that no human being has the moral power to incline himself to cooperate with the grace of God. The human will, as a result of original sin, still has the power to choose, but it is in bondage to its evil desires and inclinations. The condition of fallen humanity is one that Augustine would describe as the inability to not sin. In simple English, what Augustine was saying is that in the Fall, man loses his moral ability to do the things of God and he is held captive by his own evil inclinations.

In the fifth century the Church condemned Pelagius as a heretic. Pelagianism was condemned at the Council of Orange, and it was condemned again at the Council of Florence, the Council of Carthage, and also, ironically, at the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century in the first three anathemas of the Canons of the Sixth Session. So, consistently throughout Church history, the Church has roundly and soundly condemned Pelagianism  —  because Pelagianism denies the fallenness of our nature; it denies the doctrine of original sin.

Now what is called semi-Pelagianism, as the prefix “semi” suggests, was a somewhat middle ground between full-orbed Augustinianism and full-orbed Pelagianism. Semi-Pelagianism said this: yes, there was a fall; yes, there is such a thing as original sin; yes, the constituent nature of humanity has been changed by this state of corruption and all parts of our humanity have been significantly weakened by the fall, so much so that without the assistance of divine grace nobody can possibly be redeemed, so that grace is not only helpful but it’s absolutely necessary for salvation. While we are so fallen that we can’t be saved without grace, we are not so fallen that we don’t have the ability to accept or reject the grace when it’s offered to us. The will is weakened but is not enslaved. There remains in the core of our being an island of righteousness that remains untouched by the fall. It’s out of that little island of righteousness, that little parcel of goodness that is still intact in the soul or in the will that is the determinative difference between heaven and hell. It’s that little island that must be exercised when God does his thousand steps of reaching out to us, but in the final analysis it’s that one step that we take that determines whether we go to heaven or hell — whether we exercise that little righteousness that is in the core of our being or whether we don’t. That little island Augustine wouldn’t even recognize as an atoll in the South Pacific. He said it’s a mythical island, that the will is enslaved, and that man is dead in his sin and trespasses.

Ironically, the Church condemned semi-Pelagianism as vehemently as it had condemned original Pelagianism. Yet by the time you get to the sixteenth century and you read the Catholic understanding of what happens in salvation the Church basically repudiated what Augustine taught and Aquinas taught as well. The Church concluded that there still remains this freedom that is intact in the human will and that man must cooperate with — and assent to — the prevenient grace that is offered to them by God. If we exercise that will, if we exercise a cooperation with whatever powers we have left, we will be saved. And so in the sixteenth century the Church reembraced semi-Pelagianism.

At the time of the Reformation, all the reformers agreed on one point: the moral inability of fallen human beings to incline themselves to the things of God; that all people, in order to be saved, are totally dependent, not ninety-nine percent, but one hundred percent dependent upon the monergistic work of regeneration in order to come to faith, and that faith itself is a gift of God. It’s not that we are offered salvation and that we will be born again if we choose to believe. But we can’t even believe until God in his grace and in his mercy first changes the disposition of our souls through his sovereign work of regeneration. In other words, what the reformers all agreed with was, unless a man is born again, he can’t even see the kingdom of God, let alone enter it. Like Jesus says in the sixth chapter of John, “No man can come to me unless it is given to him of the Father” — that the necessary condition for anybody’s faith and anybody’s salvation is regeneration.

Evangelicals and Faith

Modern Evangelicalism almost uniformly and universally teaches that in order for a person to be born again, he must first exercise faith. You have to choose to be born again. Isn’t that what you hear? In a George Barna poll, more than seventy percent of “professing evangelical Christians” in America expressed the belief that man is basically good. And more than eighty percent articulated the view that God helps those who help themselves. These positions — or let me say it negatively — neither of these positions is semi-Pelagian. They’re both Pelagian. To say that we’re basically good is the Pelagian view. I would be willing to assume that in at least thirty percent of the people who are reading this issue, and probably more, if we really examine their thinking in depth, we would find hearts that are beating Pelagianism. We’re overwhelmed with it. We’re surrounded by it. We’re immersed in it. We hear it every day. We hear it every day in the secular culture. And not only do we hear it every day in the secular culture, we hear it every day on Christian television and on Christian radio.

In the nineteenth century, there was a preacher who became very popular in America, who wrote a book on theology, coming out of his own training in law, in which he made no bones about his Pelagianism. He rejected not only Augustinianism, but he also rejected semi-Pelagianism and stood clearly on the subject of unvarnished Pelagianism, saying in no uncertain terms, without any ambiguity, that there was no Fall and that there is no such thing as original sin. This man went on to attack viciously the doctrine of the substitutionary atonement of Christ, and in addition to that, to repudiate as clearly and as loudly as he could the doctrine of justification by faith alone by the imputation of the righteousness of Christ. This man’s basic thesis was, we don’t need the imputation of the righteousness of Christ because we have the capacity in and of ourselves to become righteous. His name: Charles Finney, one of America’s most revered evangelists. Now, if Luther was correct in saying that sola fide is the article upon which the Church stands or falls, if what the reformers were saying is that justification by faith alone is an essential truth of Christianity, who also argued that the substitutionary atonement is an essential truth of Christianity; if they’re correct in their assessment that those doctrines are essential truths of Christianity, the only conclusion we can come to is that Charles Finney was not a Christian. I read his writings and I say, “I don’t see how any Christian person could write this.” And yet, he is in the Hall of Fame of Evangelical Christianity in America. He is the patron saint of twentieth-century Evangelicalism. And he is not semi-Pelagian; he is unvarnished in his Pelagianism.

The Island of Righteousness

One thing is clear: that you can be purely Pelagian and be completely welcome in the evangelical movement today. It’s not simply that the camel sticks his nose into the tent; he doesn’t just come in the tent — he kicks the owner of the tent out. Modern Evangelicalism today looks with suspicion at Reformed theology, which has become sort of the third-class citizen of Evangelicalism. Now you say, “Wait a minute, R. C. Let’s not tar everybody with the extreme brush of Pelagianism, because, after all, Billy Graham and the rest of these people are saying there was a Fall; you’ve got to have grace; there is such a thing as original sin; and semi-Pelagians do not agree with Pelagius’ facile and sanguine view of unfallen human nature.” And that’s true. No question about it. But it’s that little island of righteousness where man still has the ability, in and of himself, to turn, to change, to incline, to dispose, to embrace the offer of grace that reveals why historically semi-Pelagianism is not called semi-Augustinianism, but semi-Pelagianism.

I heard an evangelist use two analogies to describe what happens in our redemption. He said sin has such a strong hold on us, a stranglehold, that it’s like a person who can’t swim, who falls overboard in a raging sea, and he’s going under for the third time and only the tops of his fingers are still above the water; and unless someone intervenes to rescue him, he has no hope of survival, his death is certain. And unless God throws him a life preserver, he can’t possibly be rescued. And not only must God throw him a life preserver in the general vicinity of where he is, but that life preserver has to hit him right where his fingers are still extended out of the water, and hit him so that he can grasp hold of it. It has to be perfectly pitched. But still that man will drown unless he takes his fingers and curls them around the life preserver and God will rescue him. But unless that tiny little human action is done, he will surely perish.

The other analogy is this: A man is desperately ill, sick unto death, lying in his hospital bed with a disease that is fatal. There is no way he can be cured unless somebody from outside comes up with a cure, a medicine that will take care of this fatal disease. And God has the cure and walks into the room with the medicine. But the man is so weak he can’t even help himself to the medicine; God has to pour it on the spoon. The man is so sick he’s almost comatose. He can’t even open his mouth, and God has to lean over and open up his mouth for him. God has to bring the spoon to the man’s lips, but the man still has to swallow it.

Now, if we’re going to use analogies, let’s be accurate. The man isn’t going under for the third time; he is stone cold dead at the bottom of the ocean. That’s where you once were when you were dead in sin and trespasses and walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air. And while you were dead hath God quickened you together with Christ. God dove to the bottom of the sea and took that drowned corpse and breathed into it the breath of his life and raised you from the dead. And it’s not that you were dying in a hospital bed of a certain illness, but rather, when you were born you were born D.O.A. That’s what the Bible says: that we are morally stillborn.

Do we have a will? Yes, of course we have a will. Calvin said, if you mean by a free will a faculty of choosing by which you have the power within yourself to choose what you desire, then we all have free will. If you mean by free will the ability for fallen human beings to incline themselves and exercise that will to choose the things of God without the prior monergistic work of regeneration then, said Calvin, free will is far too grandiose a term to apply to a human being.

The semi-Pelagian doctrine of free will prevalent in the evangelical world today is a pagan view that denies the captivity of the human heart to sin. It underestimates the stranglehold that sin has upon us.

None of us wants to see things as bad as they really are. The biblical doctrine of human corruption is grim. We don’t hear the Apostle Paul say, “You know, it’s sad that we have such a thing as sin in the world; nobody’s perfect. But be of good cheer. We’re basically good.” Do you see that even a cursory reading of Scripture denies this?

Now back to Luther. What is the source and status of faith? Is it the God-given means whereby the God-given justification is received? Or is it a condition of justification which is left to us to fulfill? Is your faith a work? Is it the one work that God leaves for you to do? I had a discussion with some folks in Grand Rapids, Michigan, recently. I was speaking on sola gratia, and one fellow was upset.

He said, “Are you trying to tell me that in the final analysis it’s God who either does or doesn’t sovereignly regenerate a heart?”

And I said, “Yes;” and he was very upset about that. I said, “Let me ask you this: are you a Christian?”

He said, “Yes.”

I said, “Do you have friends who aren’t Christians?”

He said, “Well, of course.”

I said, “Why are you a Christian and your friends aren’t? Is it because you’re more righteous than they are?” He wasn’t stupid. He wasn’t going to say, “Of course it’s because I’m more righteous. I did the right thing and my friend didn’t.” He knew where I was going with that question.

And he said, “Oh, no, no, no.”

I said, “Tell me why. Is it because you are smarter than your friend?”

And he said, “No.”

But he would not agree that the final, decisive issue was the grace of God. He wouldn’t come to that. And after we discussed this for fifteen minutes, he said, “OK! I’ll say it. I’m a Christian because I did the right thing, I made the right response, and my friend didn’t.”

What was this person trusting in for his salvation? Not in his works in general, but in the one work that he performed. And he was a Protestant, an evangelical. But his view of salvation was no different from the Roman view.

God’s Sovereignty in Salvation

This is the issue: Is it a part of God’s gift of salvation, or is it in our own contribution to salvation? Is our salvation wholly of God or does it ultimately depend on something that we do for ourselves? Those who say the latter, that it ultimately depends on something we do for ourselves, thereby deny humanity’s utter helplessness in sin and affirm that a form of semi-Pelagianism is true after all. It is no wonder then that later Reformed theology condemned Arminianism as being, in principle, both a return to Rome because, in effect, it turned faith into a meritorious work, and a betrayal of the Reformation because it denied the sovereignty of God in saving sinners, which was the deepest religious and theological principle of the reformers’ thought. Arminianism was indeed, in Reformed eyes, a renunciation of New Testament Christianity in favor of New Testament Judaism. For to rely on oneself for faith is no different in principle than to rely on oneself for works, and the one is as un-Christian and anti-Christian as the other. In the light of what Luther says to Erasmus there is no doubt that he would have endorsed this judgment.

And yet this view is the overwhelming majority report today in professing evangelical circles. And as long as semi-Pelagianism, which is simply a thinly veiled version of real Pelagianism at its core — as long as it prevails in the Church, I don’t know what’s going to happen. But I know, however, what will not happen: there will not be a new Reformation. Until we humble ourselves and understand that no man is an island and that no man has an island of righteousness, that we are utterly dependent upon the unmixed grace of God for our salvation, we will not begin to rest upon grace and rejoice in the greatness of God’s sovereignty, and we will not be rid of the pagan influence of humanism that exalts and puts man at the center of religion. Until that happens there will not be a new Reformation, because at the heart of Reformation teaching is the central place of the worship and gratitude given to God and God alone. Soli Deo gloria, to God alone be the glory.

*Adapted from Modern Reformation, Vol 10, Number 3 (May/June 2001), pp. 22-29.

S. Lewis Johnson, Jr. on Preaching the Grace of the Spirit’s Calling

Lecture #3 Delivered at Toronto Baptist Seminary and Bible College — March 1988

JOHNSON S Lewis imageIntroduction. One of the memorable things uttered by Abraham Booth (1734-1806) in his useful book, The Reign of Grace, is this one, “The indelible motto inscribed by the hand of Jehovah on all the blessings of the unchangeable covenant, is, to the praise of the glory of His grace.”1 The question that is before us in this lecture is, “Preaching the Grace of the Spirit’s Calling,” and it, too, has the indelible motto of to the praise of the glory of His grace inscribed upon it. It has its origin in the absolutely free favour of God.

In simple terms the question is, “How and why do we come to Christ?” There are two sides to the matter, but in this lecture we are concerned only with one. From the human side it is plain to evangelical readers of God’s Word that we come to the Son of God by the instrumentality of faith (cf. Rom. 3:21–26; Eph. 2:8–10).

From the divine side of the matter many and different answers have been given. Pelagians have said, “I came by myself,” denying grace altogether. Semi-Pelagians have said, “I wanted to come, and God helped me,” denying prevenient grace, but admitting cooperative grace, if man first chooses to come. Arminians of evangelical stripe have said, “God gave me sufficient grace to come, because Christ died, and I cooperated, admitting total inability, but claiming sufficient grace becomes efficient when we cooperate.” Lutherans have answered, “God brought me, and I did not resist,” reserving for man only the power of resisting grace. Calvinists, those who believe in sovereign grace, have answered simply, “God brought me to Christ” (cf. Gal. 4:9, “are known”).

It is difficult to understand why the Arminians are attracted to sufficient grace. Sufficient grace of itself enables a sinner, not to believe, but to be morally responsible to believe. Without sufficient grace Arminians believe the sinner, dead in sins, is not responsible for a condition in which he does not have the ability to extricate himself. To free man from his natural inability of will and make him responsible is the reason for the invention of the doctrine. It is, of course, not taught by any text of the Bible.

However, since it does not have the power to save without the exercise of man’s free will, how does this help matters? The individual with sufficient grace is now responsible by the Arminian doctrine, but in himself he is still without the power to turn to God, for evangelical Arminians believe in man’s total inability as Wesley did. If, however, the man who was totally unable to turn to God is not responsible without sufficient grace, but now with sufficient is responsible, although still totally unable of Himself to turn to God, how is this bestowal of sufficient grace an act of divine grace? Would it not be better to not have sufficient grace, for then men would not be responsible and, thus, assured to God’s salvation? God, to be most gracious, ought to give no grace! To illustrate, let us suppose a convicted murderer awaiting execution in jail contracts tuberculosis. His constant coughing convinces his prison doctor that he will cough himself to death before the day of his execution. The doctor comes to him and says, “I am pained that you are suffering so. I am giving you some medicine to take. It will not cure you, but it will strengthen you and keep you alive until you can be hanged”! Sufficient grace is similar. It gives men strength of will sufficient to make them responsible and thus to justify God in sending them to perdition. I fail to see the grace that the doctrine conveys. In fact, it seems clearly to underline the fact that by this system man is only saved by his own free will act. In other words, God can do nothing for a man until that man does something for himself. The ground of God’s salvation is shared by man with God. Is that New Testament teaching?

The teaching of both John and Paul makes distinct contributions to the debate over calling (cf. John 6:37, 43–45, 65; Rom. 8:30; I Cor. 12:3; 2 Thess. 2:13–15), and we turn now to the Scriptures.

I. THE THEOLOGICAL BACKGROUND OF EFFICACIOUS GRACE

External calling and internal calling. External calling, also called General Calling, is the declaration of the plan of salvation, with its command to repent, its appeal to motivations (such as fear, hope, gratitude), and its promise of acceptance through faith.

Internal calling is the effectual work of the Spirit, by which men are savingly influenced to salvation. Grace is the initiation of the work; calling is the result of the action of grace. The calling comes from the Spirit, as distinguished from the Word (cf. John 3:27; 6:37, 45, 64–65; I Thess. 1:5–6)). The Bible teaches the two calls. Of the objects of the one it is said, “Many are called, but few are chosen,” but of the other it is said, “whom he called, them he also justified “ (cf. Prov. 1:24 [1st]; John 6:45 [2nd]; Rom. 8:29–30).

The description of efficacious grace. Efficacious grace, which secures the saving internal call, is a divine influence on the human spirit. The Apostle Peter refers to efficacious grace when he writes of the scattered saints, describing them as “chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, by the sanctifying work of the Spirit, that you may obey Jesus Christ and be sprinkled with His blood” (I Pet. 1:1–2). The sanctifying work of the Spirit that precedes the obedience and sprinkling of the blood, as the order of the words indicates, is the work of the Spirit that sets apart the elect to faith and salvation. Our Lord speaks of this work as the drawing of the Father, who does the work through the Spirit (cf. John 6:44).

The term “draw” in John 6:44 is a key-word in the doctrine, being, in fact, the biblical word for the work of efficacious grace. Bernard’s comments are excellent. “elknein is used in the LXX of Jer. 31:3 of the Divine attraction: ‘With lovingkindness have I drawn thee.’ It is used of the attractive power of Christ Crucified in Jn. 12:32, occurring elsewhere in the N. T. only at Jn. 18:10 (of drawing a sword), Jn. 21:6, 11 (of dragging a net ashore), and Acts 16:19 (of dragging Paul and Silas to the magistrates). It seems generally to connote a certain resistance on the part of that which is ‘dragged’ or ‘drawn,’ and this may be involved in its use in the present verse (but cf. Cant. 1:4).”2 Astoundingly, William Barclay, after giving all of this data from Bernard, comments, “Always there is this idea of resistance. God can and does draw men, but man’s resistance can defeat the pull of God.”3 Not one of the uses of the verb suggests this.4 Calvin’s comment is clarifying, “As far as the manner of the hearing goes, it is not violent so as to compel men by an external force; but yet it is an effectual movement of the Holy Spirit, turning men from being unwilling and reluctant into willing.”5

As Donald Grey Barnhouse used to say, “If you have made a decision of the will that is according to God’s will, it is because God has first jiggled your willer! “

The words, “the Father who sent me,” in verse forty-four should be noted. “The correlation between the subject: He who sent me, and the verb draw should be observed,” Godet says, “the same God who sends Jesus for souls, draws each soul to Jesus.”6 Should He have waited until asked to come? The final clause, “and I will raise him up on the last day,” refers to the consummation of the process that the Father’s drawing began. Between the two events lies the growth and development of the believer’s spiritual experience.

Efficacious grace operates immediately upon the human spirit, although usually in the context of the consideration of the Word of God (cf. I Cor. 2:12–15). It is supernatural, an overcoming of man’s deadness, blindness, deafness, and hardness of heart.

Some years ago when I was giving a series of lectures in Believers Chapel in Dallas, Texas, on soteriology, one of the members of the class, a young woman, came to me after the meeting and asked a number of questions that indicated that she did not understand very well the lesson that evening, which happened to be on efficacious grace. She spoke of “a very good man” she knew, a Roman Catholic, who “had everything going for him.” She went on to tell me how difficult she was finding it to reach him for the Lord. And then she said, “The only thing that will move him is a bolt from the blue.” I replied, “Kris, that is efficacious grace!” I tried to encourage her to wait for God’s necessary “jiggling” of his will.7

The infallibility of efficacious grace. The elect is subject to moral and mediate influences upon the will, common to him and to the unconverted, which he may and does resist because of sin. He is also subject to a special influence from the Spirit within the will, which is neither resistible nor irresistible, according to Hodge, because it acts from within and carries the will spontaneously with it. For this reason Hodge prefers the term, “effectual grace.8

II THE NEW TESTAMENT TEACHING ON EFFICACIOUS GRACE

The Johannine teaching. One of the important sources of the Johannine teaching, to which we have already made reference in discussing the use of the word draw, is found in John six. The Jews were murmuring over the great revelation concerning the Bread of Life who had come down from heaven (cf. John 6:38, 42). The Lord does not answer their objection, based upon His known parentage, but goes right to the heart of the matter. They must be “taught of God” to respond to His teaching on His heavenly origin.9 Whispering will not help; teaching from God will.

The forty-fifth verse spells it all out, it is repeated in verse sixty-five. “Here is a fundamental doctrine of the Fourth Gospel,” Bernard points out, “viz. that the approach of the soul to God or Christ is not initiated by the man himself, but by a movement of Divine grace.”10 The truth is adumbrated in 4:23, where the Father is said to seek His true worshippers (cf. 12:39: the dark side of predestination). The impossibility of anyone coming to Christ without the Father’s drawing was implied in the statement of verse thirty-seven, but it is stated in the forty-fourth verse. We will not go over again the plain statement of the necessity of the Father’s drawing for salvation, except to reiterate that the drawing is an effectual drawing in which the Father turns men from unwillingness to willingness.

The significance of the forty-fifth verse is sometimes overlooked. There a citation from Isaiah 54:13 is found, and it serves to explain that the drawing is scriptural teaching. In context the text refers to the messianic covenant community of Israel, the recipients of the covenantal blessings. They who belong to the Messiah need no instruction from men; they carry within themselves the effects of the divine instruction. The “all” must be understood in the context of the prophet. It is the “all” of the messianic community. The following “everyone who has heard” simply individualizes the specific “all.” Our Lord, then, makes an application of a timeless principle in the divine dealing with men. To be taught of God is to be drawn by God (cf. I Cor. 2:13; Phil. 3:15).

The Father’s drawing involves three steps, the next sentence affirms: (a) hearing; (2) learning; (3) coming. The Father takes the initiative and teaches. Everyone who listens and learns will come. The hymn, “0 Happy Day,” has at least one stanza that I like,

“Tis done: the great transactions’s done, I am my Lord’s, and He is mine; He drew me, and I followed on, Charmed to confess the voice divine”

It is Calvin’s contention that verse forty-five overthrows free will, for he comments, “The whole faculty of free will which the Papists (and Arminians, we might add) dream about is utterly overthrown by these two clauses. For if we begin to come to Christ only when the Father has drawn us, neither the beginning of faith, nor any preparation for it, lies in us. On the other hand, if all come whom the Father has taught, He gives them not only the freedom to believe but faith itself. When therefore we willingly obey the Spirit’s guiding, it is a part, as it were, sealing, of grace. For God would not draw us if He only stretched out His hand and left our will in a state of suspense. But He is properly said to draw us when He extends the power of His Spirit to the full completing of faith. They are said to hear God who willingly submit to God when He speaks within them, because the Spirit reigns in their hearts.”11

The Pauline teaching. In Romans 8:30 two points may be made that apply to the matter in hand. First of all, in the order of the steps in the divine continuing providential purpose it is important to notice that calling is given a place before justification, effectively indicating its place in time as a pre-salvation work.

And second, it should be remembered that the root, kaleo, meaning to call, in the epistles of Paul always refers to an effectual call (cf. I Cor. 1:1, 2, 26; Gal. 1:16; 2 Tim. 1:9–10). The aorist tenses look at the actions as complete and, thus certain, without reference to time.

An important passage for the subject of efficacious grace is 2 Thessalonians 2:13–14, concerning which James Denney has said, “The thirteenth and fourteenth verses of this chapter are a system of theology in miniature.”12 In the main that is correct. The thanksgiving is meant to encourage the Thessalonians, especially those agitated by the reports mentioned in 2:1–2.13 The verb heilato (NASB, “has chosen“) is used nowhere else in the New Testament of the doctrine of election, although it is so used in the Old Testament (cf. Deut. 6:18; 7:6–7; 10:15; cf. Phil. 1:22). Normally in its New Testament uses it refers to man’s choosing, not God’s (cf. Phil. 1:22; Heb. 11:25). If the reading ap’arches is genuine (NASB, “from the beginning”), then it refers clearly to eternal election here.14 The tense and voice of the verb lay stress on the choice as an event (in the past here) in which God has a personal interest. He chose us for Himself.15

The choice is from eternity, not from the time the gospel was preached in Thessalonica, as some would have it. Cf. I John 2:13; Matt. 19:4; Eph. 1:4.

The soterian, the purpose of the choice, is in this context final salvation, inclusive, of course, of the initial salvation from the penalty of sin. The method of accomplishment is important for the subject of efficacious grace, or effectual calling, and here Paul says that the salvation is “through (lit., in) sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth” (NASB). The sanctification is pre-salvation sanctification, or effectual calling, as the order of words suggests. The same order we have seen in I Peter 1:2. The “Spirit” is the Holy Spirit. Paul, then, as John insists on a pre-salvation gracious work of the Spirit before salvation. One does not come to our Lord or to salvation apart from it.

Two passages from I Corinthians complete our brief survey of Pauline teaching. The first is I Corinthians 8:3, where we read, “But if any one loves God, he is known by Him.” The construction of the original text is such that God’s knowing of the one who loves Him precedes the believer’s love of Him.16

The second passage is I Corinthians 12:3, and the important clause for our purposes is the final one, “except by the Holy Spirit.” Lenski comments, “Whoever confesses Jesus as ‘Lord’ has the Holy Spirit in his heart.”17 Calvin follows along the same line, saying that all things pertaining to the knowledge of God are gifts of the Holy Spirit, and then, “Hence, too we perceive how great our weakness is, as we cannot so much as move our tongue for the celebration of God’s praise, unless it be governed by his Spirit.”18 Unless He opens our mouths, we are not fit to be the heralds of His praise (cf. Isa. 6:5, “man of unclean lips”). Cf. Jer. 20:7.

Commenting on John 6:45, Berkouwer says, “This absoluteness of giving, drawing, and learning we meet not only in John, but also in the radical and exclusive testimony of Paul when he says, for instance, that ‘no man can say, Jesus is Lord, but in the Holy Spirit’” (I Cor. 12:3). The message of Scripture repeatedly accentuates that human inability. The impotence of man is not something pessimism has discovered; it is most literally described in Scripture (cf. John 3:27, I Cor. 2:14, Rom. 8:5, 6, 7, 8.”19

There are many illustrations in Scripture of the working of efficacious grace, but two stand out, one in the Gospel of Luke (14:16–23) and the other in the Acts of the Apostles (16:11–15), the latter incident in which the Lord “opened” Lydia’s heart to the things spoken by Paul being an almost perfect illustration of the truth. We do not have space in this paper to expound the texts.

III THE PRACTICAL EFFECTS OF EFFICACIOUS GRACE

The magnification of the divine purpose. Salvation is the work of God. It, therefore, is not hurried along, or effectuated, by stronger appeals, mightier arguments, more sparkling personalities, more telling illustrations, longer invitations, keener psychological insight, better eye-catching pedagogical helps or methods, and we must not forget it. On the other hand, we do not contend that it is helped by insipid thinking, windowless sermons, shunning of aids in teaching that the Spirit lays before our eyes. Salvation is the work of God, and His purpose shall be accomplished in His time (cf. John 6:39–40).

The senselessness of discouragement. The sense of discouragement, so frequently felt when the response is slight, is often a form of self-centeredness ultimately. Our need is faithfulness in our faith in His Word. May the Lord enable us to persevere in it.

Endnotes

  1. Abraham Booth, The Reign of Grace (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1949 [reprint of 16th London ed.]), pp. 47–48. H. Bernard, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to St.John, ed. by A. H. McNeile (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark,1928), I, 204.

  2. William Barclay, The Gospel of John (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1955), I, 226.

  3. Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1971), p. 371.

  4. John Calvin, The Gospel According to St John: 1-10, ed. by David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance, trans. by T. H. L. Parker (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1959), I, 164.

  5. Godet, Commentary on the Gospel of St. John, trans. by M. D. Cusin and S. Taylor (3rd. ed; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1887), II 238. Believers Chapel, Dallas, Texas, March 24, 1970. A. Hodge, Outlines of Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1972 [orig. enlarged ed., 1879]), pp. 449–53. Bernard, I, 203.

  6. Ibid., I, 204.

  7. Calvin, I, 165.

  8. James Denney, “The Epistles to the Thessalonians,” The Expositor’s Bible, p. 342.

  9. James Everett Frame, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistles of St. Paul to the Thessalonians (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1912), p. 276.

  10. George Milligan, St Paul’s Epistle to the Thessalonians (London: Macmillan and Co., Limited, 1908), p. 106. Other recent commentators, such as Marshall and Morris favor “from the beginning,” arguing that, in spite of several things that may be said for “as a firstfruits,” it is difficult to make good sense of it here. The ap_arxhs is probably the correct reading (AV; NASB, “from the beginning”), since Paul never uses it elsewhere, and it has good manuscript support. WH accepts it, but the Aland text has aparxhn, largely because ap_ arxhs occurs nowhere else in the Pauline corpus and, when arxh does, it usually has a different sense, and aparxh occurs six other times in Paul. Cf. Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (London: United Bible Societies, 1971), p–p. 636–67. The decision in this instance is not an easy one.

  11. One would expect the middle voice of the verb to be prominent from the verbal idea of election itself. Cf. Eph. 1:4 (also a verb in the middle voice).

  12. The tense of the verb “loves” is a present tense, while that of the verb “is known” is a perfect passive, clearly showing that the knowing by God precedes our loving of Him. “The sense rather is, If a man loves God, this is a sign that God has taken the initiative,” Barrett says (C. K. Barrett, A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians [New York and Evanston: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1968], p. 190).

  13. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Paul’s First and Second Epistles to the Corinthians (Columbus: Wartburg Press, 1946), p. 494.

  14. John Calvin, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1960), p. Cf. Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987), “As in 2:10–13, only one who has the Spirit can truly make such a confession because only the Spirit can reveal its reality” (p. 582).

  15. C. Berkouwer, Divine Election, trans. by Hugo Bekker (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1960), p. 49.

More About Dr. S. Lewis Johnson – A Tribute to Dr. S. Lewis Johnson

by Fred G. Zaspel
 – January 30, 2004:

On January 28, 2004, Dr. S. Lewis Johnson passed away at age eighty-eight. He was a Biblical scholar and theologian of rare abilities and of international renown, and he was a beloved friend. His influence on my own ministry would be difficult to measure. The hundreds of tapes of his preaching and teaching have gone free of charge to thousands of people all over the world, and it was by means of these tapes that I first became acquainted with him. When he first came to preach for me I asked the congregation if any had previously heard him. No one had, but I was quick to assure them all that they had indeed heard him often! Over the years he came to speak at our church and at our pastors’ conference many times, and even in his latest years it was challenging and blessed to hear him expound the Word of God with such precision and clarity.

Dr. Johnson was born in Birmingham, AL and grew up in Charleston, SC. He was always quick to assure everyone that his smooth, dignified, and pleasant southern accent was actually “English in its pure form.” He graduated from the College of Charleston with an B.A. degree in 1937 and was converted through the teaching of Dr. Donald Grey Barnhouse while in the insurance business in Birmingham. He left the insurance business in 1943 to enter Dallas Theological Seminary, from which he received the Th.M (1946) and Th.D. (1949) degrees. He completed further graduate work at the University of Edinburgh, Southern Methodist University, and in the University of Basel. Remaining at Dallas Seminary Dr. Johnson was Professor of New Testament from 1950 to 1972 and Professor of Systematic Theology from 1972 to 1977. He later served as Professor of Biblical and Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, IL, and as Visiting Professor of Systematic Theology at Tyndale Theological Seminary, Amsterdam, Netherlands. Dr. Johnson preached and lectured in many places, large and small, taught countless home Bible studies, and was involved in starting several churches. In 1963 he and others planted Believers’ Chapel in Dallas, and it is from the Chapel that so many thousands of his tapes have gone to the benefit of countless people.

He was in so many ways a man to emulate. He was a true gentleman. He was always personable and a great delight in conversation. His humor was always good, and his wit was always quick. He was a careful student of the Scriptures with unusually superior abilities as an exegete and theologian. His abilities with the original languages were clearly superior, and when discussion began he would always lead from his Greek and Hebrew text. He was a man of conviction, willing to step down from a noted career rather than surrender his beliefs. He was passionate for the gospel, and his heart was always hot for Christ. He was a humble and godly man. I have said many times that if God would allow me to grow old as gracefully and as saintly as Dr. Johnson I would become proud and ruin it. He was a model scholar, a model teacher, a model preacher, a model friend, and a model Christian. He was that rare combination of so many abilities and virtues. I thank God for him and feel much the poorer without him.

Among his greatest passions was the faithful expounding of the nature of Christ’s atoning work. He clearly cherished any and every opportunity to demonstrate from the Scriptures the success and effectiveness of Christ’s death as a substitute for His people. And when it was his turn to listen, elderly though he was, he would sit right up front with his Greek and Hebrew Bible in hand. And though virtually every speaker he would hear would necessarily be a man of comparatively inferior abilities, he seemed always just to delight in hearing the Word of God preached. And afterwards he was always eager to fellowship with younger preachers and laymen alike and discuss the things of Christ and examine the Word of God together.

The last time I spoke with Dr. Johnson, about a month or so ago, it was evident that he was growing tired and frail. He fell ill earlier this month, but his illness was brief before the Lord took him home to glory. He leaves behind him his wonderful wife Martha whom we love dearly also, and our prayers are now for her. By his tape ministry I came to love Dr. S. Lewis Johnson before I ever knew him, and I count it a great blessing to have known him. Probably no one outside my own father has taught me more, and few could ever be more beloved. I praise the Lord for him.

Dr. R.C. Sproul on the Essence of God’s Sovereignty in Our Salvation

The Pelagian Captivity of the Church

by R.C. Sproul

Shortly after the Reformation began, in the first few years after Martin Luther posted the Ninety-Five Theses on the church door at Wittenberg, he issued some short booklets on a variety of subjects. One of the most provocative was titled The Babylonian Captivity of the Church. In this book Luther was looking back to that period of Old Testament history when Jerusalem was destroyed by the invading armies of Babylon and the elite of the people were carried off into captivity. Luther in the sixteenth century took the image of the historic Babylonian captivity and reapplied it to his era and talked about the new Babylonian captivity of the Church. He was speaking of Rome as the modern Babylon that held the Gospel hostage with its rejection of the biblical understanding of justification. You can understand how fierce the controversy was, how polemical this title would be in that period by saying that the Church had not simply erred or strayed, but had fallen — that it’s actually now Babylonian; it is now in pagan captivity.

I’ve often wondered if Luther were alive today and came to our culture and looked, not at the liberal church community, but at evangelical churches, what would he have to say? Of course I can’t answer that question with any kind of definitive authority, but my guess is this: If Martin Luther lived today and picked up his pen to write, the book he would write in our time would be entitled The Pelagian Captivity of the Evangelical Church. Luther saw the doctrine of justification as fueled by a deeper theological problem. He writes about this extensively in The Bondage of the Will. When we look at the Reformation and we see the solas of the Reformation — sola Scriptura, sola fide, solus Christus, soli Deo gloria, sola gratia — Luther was convinced that the real issue of the Reformation was the issue of grace; and that underlying the doctrine of solo fide, justification by faith alone, was the prior commitment to sola gratia, the concept of justification by grace alone.

In the Fleming Revell edition of The Bondage of the Will, the translators, J. I. Packer and O. R. Johnston, included a somewhat provocative historical and theological introduction to the book itself. This is from the end of that introduction:

These things need to be pondered by Protestants today. With what right may we call ourselves children of the Reformation? Much modern Protestantism would be neither owned nor even recognised by the pioneer Reformers. The Bondage of the Will fairly sets before us what they believed about the salvation of lost mankind. In the light of it, we are forced to ask whether Protestant Christendom has not tragically sold its birthright between Luther’s day and our own. Has not Protestantism today become more Erasmian than Lutheran? Do we not too often try to minimise and gloss over doctrinal differences for the sake of inter-party peace? Are we innocent of the doctrinal indifferentism with which Luther charged Erasmus? Do we still believe that doctrine matters? (J.I. Packer and O.R. Johnston, “Introduction” to the Bondage of the Will. Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming Revell, 1957: pp. 59-60)

Historically, it’s a simple matter of fact that Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and all the leading Protestant theologians of the first epoch of the Reformation stood on precisely the same ground here. On other points they had their differences. In asserting the helplessness of man in sin and the sovereignty of God in grace, they were entirely at one. To all of them these doctrines were the very lifeblood of the Christian faith. A modern editor of Luther’s works says this:

Whoever puts this book down without having realized that Evangelical theology stands or falls with the doctrine of the bondage of the will has read it in vain. The doctrine of free justification by faith alone, which became the storm center of so much controversy during the Reformation period, is often regarded as the heart of the Reformers’ theology, but this is not accurate. The truth is that their thinking was really centered upon the contention of Paul, echoed by Augustine and others, that the sinner’s entire salvation is by free and sovereign grace only, and that the doctrine of justification by faith was important to them because it safeguarded the principle of sovereign grace. The sovereignty of grace found expression in their thinking at a more profound level still in the doctrine of monergistic regeneration (Ibid).

That is to say, that the faith that receives Christ for justification is itself the free gift of a sovereign God. The principle of sola fide is not rightly understood until it is seen as anchored in the broader principle of sola gratia. What is the source of faith? Is it the God-given means whereby the God-given justification is received, or is it a condition of justification which is left to man to fulfill? Do you hear the difference? Let me put it in simple terms. I heard an evangelist recently say, “If God takes a thousand steps to reach out to you for your redemption, still in the final analysis, you must take the decisive step to be saved.” Consider the statement that has been made by America’s most beloved and leading evangelical of the twentieth century, Billy Graham, who says with great passion, “God does ninety-nine percent of it but you still must do that last one percent.”

What Is Pelagianism?

Now, let’s return briefly to my title, “The Pelagian Captivity of the Church.” What are we talking about? Pelagius was a monk who lived in Britain in the fifth century. He was a contemporary of the greatest theologian of the first millennium of Church history if not of all time, Aurelius Augustine, Bishop of Hippo in North Africa. We have heard of St. Augustine, of his great works in theology, of his City of God, of his Confessions, and so on, which remain Christian classics.

Augustine, in addition to being a titanic theologian and a prodigious intellect, was also a man of deep spirituality and prayer. In one of his famous prayers, Augustine made a seemingly harmless and innocuous statement in the prayer to God in which he says: “O God, command what you wouldst, and grant what thou dost command.” Now, would that give you apoplexy — to hear a prayer like that? Well it certainly set Pelagius, this British monk, into orbit. When he heard that, he protested vociferously, even appealing to Rome to have this ghastly prayer censured from the pen of Augustine. Here’s why. He said, “Are you saying, Augustine, that God has the inherent right to command anything that he so desires from his creatures? Nobody is going to dispute that. God inherently, as the creator of heaven and earth, has the right to impose obligations on his creatures and say, ‘Thou shalt do this, and thou shalt not do that.’ ‘Command whatever thou would’ — it’s a perfectly legitimate prayer.”

It’s the second part of the prayer that Pelagius abhorred when Augustine said, “and grant what thou dost command.” He said, “What are you talking about? If God is just, if God is righteous and God is holy, and God commands of the creature to do something, certainly that creature must have the power within himself, the moral ability within himself, to perform it or God would never require it in the first place.” Now that makes sense, doesn’t it? What Pelagius was saying is that moral responsibility always and everywhere implies moral capability or, simply, moral ability. So why would we have to pray, “God grant me, give me the gift of being able to do what you command me to do”? Pelagius saw in this statement a shadow being cast over the integrity of God himself, who would hold people responsible for doing something they cannot do.

So in the ensuing debate, Augustine made it clear that in creation, God commanded nothing from Adam or Eve that they were incapable of performing. But once transgression entered and mankind became fallen, God’s law was not repealed nor did God adjust his holy requirements downward to accommodate the weakened, fallen condition of his creation. God did punish his creation by visiting upon them the judgment of original sin, so that everyone after Adam and Eve who was born into this world was born already dead in sin. Original sin is not the first sin. It’s the result of the first sin; it refers to our inherent corruption, by which we are born in sin, and in sin did our mothers conceive us. We are not born in a neutral state of innocence, but we are born in a sinful, fallen condition. Virtually every church in the historic World Council of Churches at some point in their history and in their creedal development articulates some doctrine of original sin. So clear is that to the biblical revelation that it would take a repudiation of the biblical view of mankind to deny original sin altogether.

This is precisely what was at issue in the battle between Augustine and Pelagius in the fifth century. Pelagius said there is no such thing as original sin. Adam’s sin affected Adam and only Adam. There is no transmission or transfer of guilt or fallenness or corruption to the progeny of Adam and Eve. Everyone is born in the same state of innocence in which Adam was created. And, he said, for a person to live a life of obedience to God, a life of moral perfection, is possible without any help from Jesus or without any help from the grace of God. Pelagius said that grace — and here’s the key distinction — facilitates righteousness. What does “facilitate” mean?

It helps, it makes it more facile, it makes it easier, but you don’t have to have it. You can be perfect without it. Pelagius further stated that it is not only theoretically possible for some folks to live a perfect life without any assistance from divine grace, but there are in fact people who do it. Augustine said, “No, no, no, no . . . we are infected by sin by nature, to the very depths and core of our being — so much so that no human being has the moral power to incline himself to cooperate with the grace of God. The human will, as a result of original sin, still has the power to choose, but it is in bondage to its evil desires and inclinations. The condition of fallen humanity is one that Augustine would describe as the inability to not sin. In simple English, what Augustine was saying is that in the Fall, man loses his moral ability to do the things of God and he is held captive by his own evil inclinations.

In the fifth century the Church condemned Pelagius as a heretic. Pelagianism was condemned at the Council of Orange, and it was condemned again at the Council of Florence, the Council of Carthage, and also, ironically, at the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century in the first three anathemas of the Canons of the Sixth Session. So, consistently throughout Church history, the Church has roundly and soundly condemned Pelagianism  —  because Pelagianism denies the fallenness of our nature; it denies the doctrine of original sin.

Now what is called semi-Pelagianism, as the prefix “semi” suggests, was a somewhat middle ground between full-orbed Augustinianism and full-orbed Pelagianism. Semi-Pelagianism said this: yes, there was a fall; yes, there is such a thing as original sin; yes, the constituent nature of humanity has been changed by this state of corruption and all parts of our humanity have been significantly weakened by the fall, so much so that without the assistance of divine grace nobody can possibly be redeemed, so that grace is not only helpful but it’s absolutely necessary for salvation. While we are so fallen that we can’t be saved without grace, we are not so fallen that we don’t have the ability to accept or reject the grace when it’s offered to us. The will is weakened but is not enslaved. There remains in the core of our being an island of righteousness that remains untouched by the fall. It’s out of that little island of righteousness, that little parcel of goodness that is still intact in the soul or in the will that is the determinative difference between heaven and hell. It’s that little island that must be exercised when God does his thousand steps of reaching out to us, but in the final analysis it’s that one step that we take that determines whether we go to heaven or hell — whether we exercise that little righteousness that is in the core of our being or whether we don’t. That little island Augustine wouldn’t even recognize as an atoll in the South Pacific. He said it’s a mythical island, that the will is enslaved, and that man is dead in his sin and trespasses.

Ironically, the Church condemned semi-Pelagianism as vehemently as it had condemned original Pelagianism. Yet by the time you get to the sixteenth century and you read the Catholic understanding of what happens in salvation the Church basically repudiated what Augustine taught and Aquinas taught as well. The Church concluded that there still remains this freedom that is intact in the human will and that man must cooperate with — and assent to — the prevenient grace that is offered to them by God. If we exercise that will, if we exercise a cooperation with whatever powers we have left, we will be saved. And so in the sixteenth century the Church reembraced semi-Pelagianism.

At the time of the Reformation, all the reformers agreed on one point: the moral inability of fallen human beings to incline themselves to the things of God; that all people, in order to be saved, are totally dependent, not ninety-nine percent, but one hundred percent dependent upon the monergistic work of regeneration in order to come to faith, and that faith itself is a gift of God. It’s not that we are offered salvation and that we will be born again if we choose to believe. But we can’t even believe until God in his grace and in his mercy first changes the disposition of our souls through his sovereign work of regeneration. In other words, what the reformers all agreed with was, unless a man is born again, he can’t even see the kingdom of God, let alone enter it. Like Jesus says in the sixth chapter of John, “No man can come to me unless it is given to him of the Father” — that the necessary condition for anybody’s faith and anybody’s salvation is regeneration.

Evangelicals and Faith

Modern Evangelicalism almost uniformly and universally teaches that in order for a person to be born again, he must first exercise faith. You have to choose to be born again. Isn’t that what you hear? In a George Barna poll, more than seventy percent of “professing evangelical Christians” in America expressed the belief that man is basically good. And more than eighty percent articulated the view that God helps those who help themselves. These positions — or let me say it negatively — neither of these positions is semi-Pelagian. They’re both Pelagian. To say that we’re basically good is the Pelagian view. I would be willing to assume that in at least thirty percent of the people who are reading this issue, and probably more, if we really examine their thinking in depth, we would find hearts that are beating Pelagianism. We’re overwhelmed with it. We’re surrounded by it. We’re immersed in it. We hear it every day. We hear it every day in the secular culture. And not only do we hear it every day in the secular culture, we hear it every day on Christian television and on Christian radio.

In the nineteenth century, there was a preacher who became very popular in America, who wrote a book on theology, coming out of his own training in law, in which he made no bones about his Pelagianism. He rejected not only Augustinianism, but he also rejected semi-Pelagianism and stood clearly on the subject of unvarnished Pelagianism, saying in no uncertain terms, without any ambiguity, that there was no Fall and that there is no such thing as original sin. This man went on to attack viciously the doctrine of the substitutionary atonement of Christ, and in addition to that, to repudiate as clearly and as loudly as he could the doctrine of justification by faith alone by the imputation of the righteousness of Christ. This man’s basic thesis was, we don’t need the imputation of the righteousness of Christ because we have the capacity in and of ourselves to become righteous. His name: Charles Finney, one of America’s most revered evangelists. Now, if Luther was correct in saying that sola fide is the article upon which the Church stands or falls, if what the reformers were saying is that justification by faith alone is an essential truth of Christianity, who also argued that the substitutionary atonement is an essential truth of Christianity; if they’re correct in their assessment that those doctrines are essential truths of Christianity, the only conclusion we can come to is that Charles Finney was not a Christian. I read his writings and I say, “I don’t see how any Christian person could write this.” And yet, he is in the Hall of Fame of Evangelical Christianity in America. He is the patron saint of twentieth-century Evangelicalism. And he is not semi-Pelagian; he is unvarnished in his Pelagianism.

The Island of Righteousness

One thing is clear: that you can be purely Pelagian and be completely welcome in the evangelical movement today. It’s not simply that the camel sticks his nose into the tent; he doesn’t just come in the tent — he kicks the owner of the tent out. Modern Evangelicalism today looks with suspicion at Reformed theology, which has become sort of the third-class citizen of Evangelicalism. Now you say, “Wait a minute, R. C. Let’s not tar everybody with the extreme brush of Pelagianism, because, after all, Billy Graham and the rest of these people are saying there was a Fall; you’ve got to have grace; there is such a thing as original sin; and semi-Pelagians do not agree with Pelagius’ facile and sanguine view of unfallen human nature.” And that’s true. No question about it. But it’s that little island of righteousness where man still has the ability, in and of himself, to turn, to change, to incline, to dispose, to embrace the offer of grace that reveals why historically semi-Pelagianism is not called semi-Augustinianism, but semi-Pelagianism.

I heard an evangelist use two analogies to describe what happens in our redemption. He said sin has such a strong hold on us, a stranglehold, that it’s like a person who can’t swim, who falls overboard in a raging sea, and he’s going under for the third time and only the tops of his fingers are still above the water; and unless someone intervenes to rescue him, he has no hope of survival, his death is certain. And unless God throws him a life preserver, he can’t possibly be rescued. And not only must God throw him a life preserver in the general vicinity of where he is, but that life preserver has to hit him right where his fingers are still extended out of the water, and hit him so that he can grasp hold of it. It has to be perfectly pitched. But still that man will drown unless he takes his fingers and curls them around the life preserver and God will rescue him. But unless that tiny little human action is done, he will surely perish.

The other analogy is this: A man is desperately ill, sick unto death, lying in his hospital bed with a disease that is fatal. There is no way he can be cured unless somebody from outside comes up with a cure, a medicine that will take care of this fatal disease. And God has the cure and walks into the room with the medicine. But the man is so weak he can’t even help himself to the medicine; God has to pour it on the spoon. The man is so sick he’s almost comatose. He can’t even open his mouth, and God has to lean over and open up his mouth for him. God has to bring the spoon to the man’s lips, but the man still has to swallow it.

Now, if we’re going to use analogies, let’s be accurate. The man isn’t going under for the third time; he is stone cold dead at the bottom of the ocean. That’s where you once were when you were dead in sin and trespasses and walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air. And while you were dead hath God quickened you together with Christ. God dove to the bottom of the sea and took that drowned corpse and breathed into it the breath of his life and raised you from the dead. And it’s not that you were dying in a hospital bed of a certain illness, but rather, when you were born you were born D.O.A. That’s what the Bible says: that we are morally stillborn.

Do we have a will? Yes, of course we have a will. Calvin said, if you mean by a free will a faculty of choosing by which you have the power within yourself to choose what you desire, then we all have free will. If you mean by free will the ability for fallen human beings to incline themselves and exercise that will to choose the things of God without the prior monergistic work of regeneration then, said Calvin, free will is far too grandiose a term to apply to a human being.

The semi-Pelagian doctrine of free will prevalent in the evangelical world today is a pagan view that denies the captivity of the human heart to sin. It underestimates the stranglehold that sin has upon us.

None of us wants to see things as bad as they really are. The biblical doctrine of human corruption is grim. We don’t hear the Apostle Paul say, “You know, it’s sad that we have such a thing as sin in the world; nobody’s perfect. But be of good cheer. We’re basically good.” Do you see that even a cursory reading of Scripture denies this?

Now back to Luther. What is the source and status of faith? Is it the God-given means whereby the God-given justification is received? Or is it a condition of justification which is left to us to fulfill? Is your faith a work? Is it the one work that God leaves for you to do? I had a discussion with some folks in Grand Rapids, Michigan, recently. I was speaking on sola gratia, and one fellow was upset.

He said, “Are you trying to tell me that in the final analysis it’s God who either does or doesn’t sovereignly regenerate a heart?”

And I said, “Yes;” and he was very upset about that. I said, “Let me ask you this: are you a Christian?”

He said, “Yes.”

I said, “Do you have friends who aren’t Christians?”

He said, “Well, of course.”

I said, “Why are you a Christian and your friends aren’t? Is it because you’re more righteous than they are?” He wasn’t stupid. He wasn’t going to say, “Of course it’s because I’m more righteous. I did the right thing and my friend didn’t.” He knew where I was going with that question.

And he said, “Oh, no, no, no.”

I said, “Tell me why. Is it because you are smarter than your friend?”

And he said, “No.”

But he would not agree that the final, decisive issue was the grace of God. He wouldn’t come to that. And after we discussed this for fifteen minutes, he said, “OK! I’ll say it. I’m a Christian because I did the right thing, I made the right response, and my friend didn’t.”

What was this person trusting in for his salvation? Not in his works in general, but in the one work that he performed. And he was a Protestant, an evangelical. But his view of salvation was no different from the Roman view.

God’s Sovereignty in Salvation

This is the issue: Is it a part of God’s gift of salvation, or is it in our own contribution to salvation? Is our salvation wholly of God or does it ultimately depend on something that we do for ourselves? Those who say the latter, that it ultimately depends on something we do for ourselves, thereby deny humanity’s utter helplessness in sin and affirm that a form of semi-Pelagianism is true after all. It is no wonder then that later Reformed theology condemned Arminianism as being, in principle, both a return to Rome because, in effect, it turned faith into a meritorious work, and a betrayal of the Reformation because it denied the sovereignty of God in saving sinners, which was the deepest religious and theological principle of the reformers’ thought. Arminianism was indeed, in Reformed eyes, a renunciation of New Testament Christianity in favor of New Testament Judaism. For to rely on oneself for faith is no different in principle than to rely on oneself for works, and the one is as un-Christian and anti-Christian as the other. In the light of what Luther says to Erasmus there is no doubt that he would have endorsed this judgment.

And yet this view is the overwhelming majority report today in professing evangelical circles. And as long as semi-Pelagianism, which is simply a thinly veiled version of real Pelagianism at its core — as long as it prevails in the Church, I don’t know what’s going to happen. But I know, however, what will not happen: there will not be a new Reformation. Until we humble ourselves and understand that no man is an island and that no man has an island of righteousness, that we are utterly dependent upon the unmixed grace of God for our salvation, we will not begin to rest upon grace and rejoice in the greatness of God’s sovereignty, and we will not be rid of the pagan influence of humanism that exalts and puts man at the center of religion. Until that happens there will not be a new Reformation, because at the heart of Reformation teaching is the central place of the worship and gratitude given to God and God alone. Soli Deo gloria, to God alone be the glory.

About the Author: Dr. R.C. Sproul is the founder and chairman of Ligonier Ministries, an international Christian education ministry located near Orlando, Florida. His teaching can be heard on the program Renewing Your Mind, which is broadcast on hundreds of radio outlets in the United States and in 40 countries worldwide. He is the executive editor of Tabletalk magazine and general editor of The Reformation Study Bible, and the author of more than seventy books (including some of my all time favorites: The Work of ChristThe Holiness of God; Chosen By God; Reason to Believe; Knowing Scripture; Willing to Believe; The Intimate Marriage; Pleasing God; If There’s A God, Why Are There Atheists?, and Defending The Faith) and scores of articles for national evangelical publications. Dr. Sproul also serves as president of Ligonier Academy of Biblical and Theological Studies and Reformation Bible College. He currently serves as Senior Minister of preaching and teaching at Saint Andrew’s in Sanford, FL. The article above was adapted from Modern Reformation, Vol 10, Number 3 (May/June 2001), pp. 22-29.