Captive Hearts, Captive Church

R.C. Sproul

During the Protestant Reformation Martin Luther wrote a little book that was highly controversial. It was a massive critique of the Roman Catholic sacramental system, entitled The Babylonian Captivity of the Church. Luther likened the oppressive regime of Rome in the sixteenth century with that of Israel's blight while held captive by the rivers of Babylon.

I have often wondered how Luther would assess our own age and the state of the church today. I suspect if he wrote for our time his book would be entitled The Pelagian Captivity of the Church. I suspect this would be the case because Luther considered the most important book he ever wrote to be his classic magnum opus, The Bondage of the Will (De Servo Arbitrio).

This work focused on the issue of the enslaved will of man as a result of original sin. It was a response to the Diatribe of Desiderius Erasmus, of Rotterdam. In the translator's introduction to this work it is said that Luther "saw Erasmus as an enemy of God and the Christian religion, an Epicurean and a serpent, and he was not afraid to say so."

I think Luther would see the great threat to the church today in terms of Pelagianism because of what transpired after the Reformation. Historians have said that though Luther won the battle with Erasmus in the sixteenth century he lost it in the seventeenth century and was demolished in the eighteenth century by the conquest achieved by the Pelagianism of the Enlightenment. He would see the church today as being in the grasp of Pelagianism with this adversary of the faith having a stranglehold on us.

Pelagianism in its pure form was first articulated by the man for whom it is named, a fourth century British monk. Pelagius engaged in a fierce debate with St. Augustine, a debate provoked by Pelagius' reaction to Augustine's prayer: "Command what thou will, and grant what thou dost command." Pelagius insisted that moral obligation necessarily implies moral ability. If God requires men to live perfect lives then men must have the ability to live perfect lives. This led Pelagius to his wholesale denial of original sin. He insisted that Adam's fall affected Adam alone; there is no such thing as an inherited fallen nature that afflicts humanity. He further claimed grace is not necessary for salvation; that man is able to be saved by his works apart from the assistance of grace. Grace may facilitate obedience, but it is not a necessary condition for it.

Augustine triumphed in his struggle with Pelagius whose views were consequently condemned by the church. In condemning Pelagianism as heresy the church strongly affirmed the doctrine of original sin. In Augustine's view this entailed the notion that though fallen man still has a free will in the sense that he retains the faculty of choosing, the will is fallen and enslaved by sin to such an extent that man does not have moral liberty. He cannot not sin.

After this struggle passed, modified views of Pelagianism returned to haunt the church. These views were called semi-Pelagianism. Semi-Pelagianism admitted to a real Fall and a real transfer of Original Sin to the progeny of Adam. Man is fallen and requires grace in order to be saved. However, this view says we are not so fallen that we are left totally enslaved to sin or totally depraved in our nature. An island of righteousness remains in fallen man by which the fallen person still has the moral power to incline himself, without operative grace, to the things of God.

Though the ancient church condemned semi-Pelagianism as vigorously as it had condemned Pelagianism, it never died out. In the sixteenth century the magisterial reformers were convinced that Rome had degenerated from pure Augustinianism and fallen into semi-Pelagianism. It was not an insignificant detail of history that Luther himself was a monk in the Augustinian Order. Luther saw his debate with Erasmus and Rome as a renewal of the titanic struggle Augustine had with Pelagius.

In the eighteenth century, Reformation thought was challenged by the rise of Arminianism, a new form of semi-Pelagianism. This captured the thinking of such prominent men as John Wesley. The split over doctrine between Wesley and George Whitefield focused on this point. Whitefield sided with Jonathan Edward's defense of classic Augustinianism during the American "Great Awakening."

The nineteenth century witnessed a revival of pure Pelagianism in the teaching and preaching of Finney. Finney made no bones about his unvarnished Pelagianism. He rejected the doctrine of original sin (along with the orthodox view of the atonement and the doctrine of justification by faith alone). But Finney's evangelistic methodology was so successful that he became a revered model for later evangelists and is usually regarded as a titan of Evangelicalism, this despite his wholesale rejection of Evangelical doctrine.

Though American Evangelicalism did not embrace Finney's pristine Pelagianism (that was left for the Liberals to do), it was deeply infected by forms of semi-Pelagianism to the extent that today semi-Pelagianism is far and away the majority report within Evangelicalism. Though most Evangelicals will not hesitate to affirm that man is fallen, few embrace the Reformation doctrine of total depravity.

Thirty years ago I was teaching theology in an Evangelical college that was heavily influenced by semi-Pelagianism. I was working through the five points of Calvinism using the acrostic tulip with a class of about thirty students. After giving a lengthy exposition of the doctrine of total depravity, I asked the class how many of them were convinced of the doctrine. All thirty students raised their hands in the affirmative. I laughed and said, "We'll see." I wrote the number 30 in the upper left hand corner of the blackboard. As we proceeded to the doctrine of unconditional election several of the students balked. I counted their number then went to the board and subtracted that number from the original thirty. By the time we got to Limited Atonement the number was reduced from thirty to about three.

I then tried to get the students to see that if they really embraced the doctrine of total depravity that the other doctrines in the Five Points were but footnotes. The students soon discovered that they didn't really believe in total depravity after all. They believed in depravity, but not in the sense of total. They still wished to retain an island of righteousness unaffected by the Fall whereby fallen sinners still retained the moral ability to incline themselves to God. They believed that in order to be regenerated they must first exercise faith by the exertion of their wills. They did not believe that the divine and supernatural work of regeneration by the Holy Spirit was a necessary precondition for faith.

Erasmus had won. Again the authors of the introductory essay of The Bondage of the Will assert:

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 only, which became the storm- centre of so much controversy during the Reformation period, is often regarded as the heart of the Reformers' theology, but this is hardly accurate. The truth is that their thinking was really centered upon the contention ... that the sinner's entire salvation is by free and sovereign grace only. ... Is our salvation wholly of God, or does it ultimately depend on something that we do for ourselves? Those who say the latter (as the Arminians later did) thereby deny man'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 a return to Rome ... and a betrayal of the Reformation. ... Arminianism was, indeed, in Reformed eyes a renunciation of New Testament Christianity in favour of New Testament Judaism; for to rely on oneself for faith is no different in principle from relying on oneself for works, and the one is as un-Christian and anti-Christian as the other.

These are strong words. Indeed for some they are fighting words. But of one thing I am sure: They mirror and reflect accurately the sentiments of Augustine and the Reformers. The issue of the extent of Original Sin is tied inseparably to our understanding of the doctrine of sola fide. The Reformers understood clearly that there is a necessary link between sola fide and sola gratia. Justification by faith alone means justification by grace alone. Semi-Pelagianism in its Erasmian form breaks this link and erases the sola from sola gratia.


This article originally appeared in TableTalk a publication of Ligonier Ministries. Financing the Kingdom by R. C Sproul © Ligonier Ministries 

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