Are We Pelagians Too? (1)

That word “Pelagian” does not mean much to you and therefore the question is probably unintelligible. It is regrettable that this term “Pelagian” is not more meaningful to us. This term aptly describes the religious convictions of the vast majority of “churchgoers” today. Many informed people in the Reformed community of churches would not like to hear that what they believe is at bottom nothing more the Pelagianism.

Fifty years ago, the Reverends Hoeksema, Danhof and Ophoff flatly told those who were allegedly followers of Augustine and Calvin that their theology, or more specifically their anthropology, was at bottom Pelagianism. That was not the thing to say if one was trying to win the love and friendship of those who sought to give expression to their convictions by officially adopting the doctrines of Common Grace. To say that one’s theology is Pelagian is to place him under the anathema of the Church of Christ. The church fathers and especially the reformers, Calvin and Luther, despised the doctrines of the Pelagians. The church fathers who penned the words of our confession as expressed in the Canons of Dordrecht were considered to be faithful men of the “most flourishing period of Reformed theology” and they too despised the “proud heresy of Pelagius.” (Canons, III, IV; A 10, B 7,9)

You can then readily understand how the charge of “Pelagianism” by Hoeksema rankled his opponents in the controversy of ’24. Deep seated bitterness gripped the hearts of the Common Grace men and that of their spiritual descendants. They were bitter and some are bitter today because Hoeksema in effect was telling these men that they were trampling underfoot the beautiful “Tulip” of Calvinism, the fragrance of which they also claimed to enjoy.

But was the position of Hoeksema and Danhof correct and was their charge of Pelagianism valid? It indeed was. And history confirms the validity of their serious charge against the brethren of the C.R.C.; I only wish to God that believers among them may see their error and flee from it. So very many serious-minded persons in the C.R.C. bemoan publicly the worldly-mindedness of their church; but why is it that they refuse to examine whether or not the worldly-mindedness of their church is rooted in its Pelagian anthropology. Where the C.R.C. is at today is where they were told they would be by Hoeksema fifty years ago. Doctrine and life are inseparable! And on the basis of that truth Hoeksema made his not-too-difficult prediction. But hatred blinds one to the truth which the object of your hatred is speaking.

Well, what is Pelagianism?

Its basic tenet is that man’s nature was not corrupted as punishment for the sin of Adam. Man is not totally depraved and thoroughly corrupt in mind and will. Adam fell to his own hurt, but the punishment of his sin in no way affected his descendants. Man’s nature, according to Pelagianism, is uncorrupted and his will is free to choose to do the good or the evil. Pelagianism denies that Adam stood as the representative head legally of the whole human race and, therefore, his punishment could not be inflicted upon his children. Pelagianism is individualism! The only harm that Adam did his children was that he set for them a bad example which could be imitated. Pelagianism holds that man becomes a sinner through imitation, i.e., by imitating the sins of others. Sin and corruption is not a matter of the heart and nature, but is in the deed. Man is not ethically corrupt; but he does sinful things. Man’s nature is not corrupt, his mind is not darkened, his will is not perverse and in bondage to sin; rather, the man that is wholly capable of doing the good sins by doing the evil. Sin is in the deed not in the heart. This man of Pelagianism does not need the redeeming blood of Christ or the irresistible grace of God, for he is able by the proper exercise of his free will to choose the good, and through consistently and habitually choosing the good can attain unto eternal life.

This system of anthropology gets its name from the British monk who taught this heresy in the ancient Church. Morgan, or Pelagius, for that was his Greek name, taught these errant doctrines in Rome in the year 409 and he was opposed by Saint Augustine, the great church father of the West. The ancient church under the influence of Augustine condemned the views of Pelagius and his disciple Colestius.

Pelaginism is superficial in its assessment of man, it flatters natural pride, it boasts of human dignity and strength; its only need is for a Jesus who is for them a teacher and example…they don’t need His blood. Further, Pelagianism is rationalistic and empirical in its method of establishing its concepts of anthropology.

When I say that Pelagianism is rationalistic in its method, I mean to point out that Pelaguis based his doctrines about man upon the prejudices of the mind. He rejected the revelation of God’s Word…not, of course, explicitly, but in actual fact. He refused to have God tell him who and what man is. For Pelagius, human reason would be his light upon his path, not the Word of God.

By characterizing the method of Pelagius as empirical, I want to stress the fact that Pelagius and all Pelagians teach the theory of the “natural goodness” of man because of what they think they see in the unbeliever and what they think their experience with the unregenerate is. Experience, Pelagians think, tells them that natural man is basically good. Therefore, they reject the plain teaching of the Word of God, who alone can tell us who and what man is.

Now you begin to understand why the opponents of Hoeksema and Danhof were deeply irritated by their charge that Common Grace is at bottom nothing more than Pelagianism. The term “Pelagianism” bears tremendous amount of undesirable freight!

But Hoeksema was well aware of this fact and was careful to qualify his charge of Pelagianism. He pointed out that, when he said that Common Grace doctrine was at bottom nothing more than Pelagianism, he was referring only to Pelagianism’s basic tenet that man is not totally depraved but basically capable of doing the good. He also maintained that the method of those who composed and defended the theory of Common Grace was rationalistic and empirical. But Hoeksema never laid all the unbiblical ideas of Pelagianism at the feet of those who adopted the theory of common grace. Rev. Hoeksema knew and acknowledged that those who believed in common grace did not teach as Pelagianism does, that man does not need redemption and the irresistible grace of God in order to be saved. But he firmly maintained that the C.R.C. by adopting the theory of common grace was also adopting the position that man is not totally depraved.

But they would not listen to him then!

And even now, when the leaven of common grace corruption has worked through to manifest itself as worldly-mindedness in the life of the members of that church, many earnest children of God still refuse to listen to our warnings and to re-examine what was done in ’24. They see on every hand worldly-mindedness in the walk of the members of their church and they witness that the church officially condones most horrible sins. They see themselves, their children and grandchildren being swallowed up by world-conformity, they witness a spiritual synthesis taking place between the church and the godless world that is able to do so much good. They know something is wrong! But they refuse to consider if the problem of world-conformity and worldly-mindedness is rooted in the common grace doctrine of ’24. Sad, but true. And this refusal and impenitence is maintained even though they know that our God “has no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; for why will ye die. I house of Israel.” (Ez. 33:11)

We as Protestant Reformed youth and confessing members of the church may indeed be thankful that God has through our former leader, the late Rev. H. Hoeksema, preserved for us the true doctrine of the total depravity of the fallen sinner who is wholly incapable of doing any good and inclined to all evil. We may be thankful that Hoeksema taught and preached the true doctrine of the antithesis and that he was staunchly opposed to all synthesis with the unbelieving world. He called us to walk as pilgrims and strangers in the world and he instructed us in the truth that there is nothing the natural man does that is ethically good; and, therefore, that we cannot give the wicked our support nor cooperation nor join in their fellowship. (Ps. 1)

We often times as individuals commit sins, which can be characterized as worldly-mindedness and world-conformity, so often, in fact, that it is shameful; but we do not have a ready-made theology by which we can justify our sin or explain it away. We stand naked in our sin and must repent. We have no cloak for our sin! Our preachers can preach and do preach the truth “that ye are not of this world,” “love not the world neither the things of the world;” they can and do call us to a godly walk which expresses itself antithetically. (Ps. 139:20-24, John 17:16, I John 2:15-16)

God preserved these truths for us through the means of faithful servants, for which servants and preservation of the truth we must be thankful to our ever faith God.

(To be continued)