Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism
As has been previously discussed, the UPC and OP holds a very diminished view on the sinfulness of man and how this translates into his inability to do good as defined by God. In other words, the UPC holds man up with a much higher regard than scripture would otherwise seem to permit. Let’s take a look at the UPCI and OP view of man in light of the controversies with respect to Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism.
Pelagius was a monk who lived during the late 4th century and early 5th century. He taught that man was born innocent and free from the original sin of Adam. His view, known as Pelagianism, taught that man had the ability on his own to fulfill the commandments of God. Thus, man through his own free-will has the ability to choose between good and evil without the assistance of the Holy Spirit and that man has the free-will ability to choose God. The grace of God aids individuals in coming to God. Pelagianism was thoroughly condemned by councils throughout church history as not representing faithfully the scriptures.
While Pelagianism was condemned, a weaker form of this view continues and is referred to as Semi-Pelagianism. Semi-Pelagianism affirmed the idea of original sin and its harmful effects on man and his will but it continues to hold that essentially man is not really all that bad. Man has the ability on his own to initiate belief in God and the view holds that God’s grace is a response to man’s taking the first step towards God. Man makes the first move towards God by seeking God out of his own free-will and then God responds by extending grace to man. Further, man must cooperate with God’s grace through maintaining his own faith through his own human efforts.
Along this continuum we also find Arminianism. Arminianism is closer to Calvinism than the Semi-Pelagian perspective and Arminianism will hold that the first steps of grace are taken by God and not as a result of God responding to man’s steps toward him.
Yet, when Bernard makes statements such as, “When we submit to water baptism according to God’s plan, God honors our obedient faith and remits our sin.” (Emphasis mine. The New Birth, pg. 131) this sounds quite a bit more like man taking obedient steps towards God and then God extending grace to man in remitting his sins.
As has been previously discussed, the scripture is rather abundant in its assertions with respect to the state of unregenerate man without God and the means by which man finds himself in relationship with God.
Ephesians 2:1-3 teaches us that man’s natural state is dead in trespasses and sin.
The wrath of God is presently being revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. Sinful man is currently under the wrath of God. Sinful man is actively involved in suppressing the truth. They know God but refuse honor God or give him thanks. God has given man over to the lusts of his heart and to impurities. He gave man over to his dishonorable passions. As man refuses to even acknowledge God, God has given them over to a debased mind. Not only do they know that their acts are wrong, they continue in them and take pleasure in those who practice such evil things. (Romans 1). Man is free and he is free to do as he will – but his will is only to do evil. He is constrained by his sinful nature.
Quoting a series of passage from Psalms, Paul reiterates that all are under sin:
“None is righteous, no, not one;
No one understands;
No one seeks for God.
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
No one does good,
Not even one.”
“Their throat is an open grave;
They use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of asps is under their lips.”
“Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
“Their feet are swift to shed blood
In their paths are ruin and misery,
And the way of peace they have not known.”
“There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
There is none that is righteous, no one understands and no one seeks God. No one does good. There is no fear of God.
Romans 7:18 – For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. Even as Christian, Paul understood that in his flesh he completely lacks the ability to carry out good works.
Romans 8:7 teaches that those who are in the flesh are hostile to God and not only don’t but are incapable of submitting to God.
Yet, the UPC holds a view of salvation in which man in this state of spiritual deadness must act in a manner that appears completely contrary to his abilities and be obedient to the faith in order for God to extend his grace him.
Matthew 12:34 – You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.
John 6:44, 65 – No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him on the last day. … And he said, this is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted to him by the Father.
This view that creates dependence on man to bring about his own salvation through his conjuring up sufficient faith and obedience to God is a view that is dangerous on many fronts. The UPCI view seems closer to that of Semi-Pelagianism than simple Arminianism as it stresses man’s obedience in bringing about his salvation. Any view that emphasizes man’s performance in justifying his position with God is a dangerous and tenuous one.
When man’s actions are the basis for our judging our status with God, man will typically fall into one of two positions. First, the man, lacking a proper understanding of grace and recognizing his inability on his own to measure up to the standard of God will continually live in a state of being subject to condemnation and feeling that his salvation is tenuous at best. Second, the man who feels that he is performing pretty good may well be deluded into thinking he has something to offer God – he will be presenting a self-righteousness and not the standing before God with the righteousness of Christ.
The UPCI makes salvation a very performance based process – it is dependent on your repentance, your baptism and your receiving the Holy Spirit as evidence by the physical/spiritual performance of speaking in unknown tongues. This performance based mentality continues throughout the life of the Christian and is then marked by adherence to holiness standards, dress codes, refraining from any and all activities deemed worldly by the church and an emphasis on spiritually based activities. While the Christian should put off the works of the flesh and produce the fruit of the Spirit in their lives, the UPCI emphasis tends to focus heavily on performance of or refraining from certain activities and conformity to the standards of the organization. Outward manifestations do not always reflect inward changes – sometimes they are actions reflecting a desire to be acceptable to God or simply obedience to the local ministry.
Rather the scripture provides a liberating and freeing message reflecting my utter need and dependence on God. God has provided everything to bring about my salvation and to keep me through until the end. I have confidence in God and what he has done for me and he creates within me the desire to good and obedient works. It is not out of a sense of needing to appease my God but of thankfulness and the changed nature that he has brought about in me. I appreciate that many in the UPCI share this sense but it would be in spite of the teaching that they receive.