Pelagianism - Wrong as Ever
The recent spate of self-help books has spilled over into self-help theology. We are exhorted to "have faith." We are invited to "make a decision for Christ." We are encouraged to "accept Jesus Christ as Lord and savior." We are asked if we have "found Christ."
Such self-help theology is Pelagianism redivivus. Pelagius was a fifth-century monk who taught that you could will belief. His teaching was branded a heresy. Why? Because belief cannot be willed. If it could, then God would not be God. If we can self-help our way to God, then we do not need God.
"You must be born again," Jesus said (Jn. 3:3). Faith is something done for us rather than by us. It is a gift, not a choice. "By grace you have been saved through faith," St. Paul writes, "and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God" (Eph. 2:8). If faith were a choice, the religious game would be up. Faith cannot be one more achievement of the heroic ego.
The bumper stickers of 15 years ago trumpeting "I found it!" were classic Pelagianism. The believer had not found a thing. He or she had been found, "I would not seek thee," Pascal said, "hadst thou not already found me."
Churches all across America are rife with Pelagianism. They have taken faith into their own hands. "We can do it. We can build a bigger church. We can raise a bigger budget. We can attract a bigger membership." But it may be that God doesn’t want a bigger church. God may want a smaller church, in which all members are active, instead of the typical church in which one-third are committed, one-third are peripheral and one-third are invisible.
Church boards everywhere convene without praying, leap immediately into parliamentary procedure and spend no time at all trying to discern the mind of Christ. It is virtually inconceivable that a church board in America would spend as much time in prayer as it spends on "church business." Such a thought would never enter a board member’s head. And if it ever entered a pastor’s head, the pastor would be too timid to voice it. The secular invasion of the church with its can-do corporate mind-set is rank Pelagianism.
Not a Choice
To think of faith as a gift and not a choice amounts to a Copernican revolution in the theology of most Americans. We even cite Scripture against it. "Ask...seek...knock," Jesus said (Mt. 7:7). "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling," writes Paul (Phil. 2:12). It is a verse dear to the hearts of modern-day Pelagians. It clearly implies that we can will our way to faith.
But there is more to Paul’s sentence, which today’s Pelagians neglect: "for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure" (Phil. 2:13). That is why you are working out your own salvation with fear and tremblingbecause God is at work in you enabling you to work it out. It is God who moves us to ask, seek, knock, work.
It has to be all God and no us when it comes to faith. Otherwise we remain in the secular realm of good old American rugged can-do individualism. If rugged individualism works in hewing a wilderness, creating a nation, winning wars, making money and raising families, why not in theology as well?
The current Pelagians are heirs of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s cult of self-reliance. His essay "Self-Reliance" captivated 19th-century Americans. It was no accident that Emerson resigned from the ministry and abandoned his Unitarianism. He needed a more American God, one he could choose rather than one that could choose him. The Calvinist Thomas Carlyle derided what he called Emerson’s "chirpy optimism," replete with its "positive thinking" and frontier machismo.
Exit From Pelagianism
Fortunately, there is an exit from Pelagianism. It is to return to good old Christian can’t-do rugged pietism. We are called; God is the caller. We are saved; God is the savior. We are faithful; God is the giver of faith.
It is the events of life that move us to make such assertions. We do not move ourselves. An event can be anything as significant as Paul’s guarding the coats while a mob dropped rocks on a man’s head (Acts 7:58), or as insignificant as the voices of children playing a game, which was the final event moving St. Augustine from doubt to faith.
Time and events work together to bring us to listening points, where, from time to time, we are given the gift of faith. Paul was on a business trip when his guilt over persecuting Christians finally caught up with him. On the road to Damascus he found himself becoming the very thing he once despised. Events had brought him to a listening point.
None of Paul’s obedience to the 613 rules of his religion had brought him to God. His work had not worked. He could not save himself. Only God could do that, by definition. And God could do it only when the events of Paul’s life had finally added up and brought him to a point where the gift of faith could be his. "It depends not on human will or exertion," Paul would write later, "but on God who shows mercy" (Rom. 9:16).
"No one can come to me," Jesus said, "unless drawn by the Father who sent me" (Jn. 6:44). We do not come to Christ, we are drawn to Christ. The initiative is God’s, not ours. We do not "give our lives to Christ." Christ gives his life to us. That draws us to him. We do not "make a decision for Christ." Christ makes a decision for us.
Then why is everyone not drawn to Christ? Everyone is! But why do some not have faith? Because events have not added up. But what if events never add up and they die without ever having faith? There is always the chance that events will add up. Even at the moment of death events can add up; we have all heard of deathbed conversions. You cannot limit grace.
So is faith a matter of what happens to us? Precisely, just as it was for Paul and everyone else in the Bible. And what if the events of my life do not add up? They are adding up. If they were not adding up, you would not be reading this. The Good News of the Gospel is that events are always adding up.
Yes, we are responsible for many of these events. We make choices. But faith is one choice we do not make. "You did not choose me," Jesus says to the disciples, "but I chose you" (Jn. 15:16). "The Lord has chosen you," the Deuteronomist wrote (Dt. 14:2). "A new heart I will give you," God says (Ezek. 36:26). That kind of talk, however, is alarming to American Pelagians nourished on Emerson’s self-reliance.
Like Falling in Love
Having faith is like falling in love. Events have added up and brought you to this person at this place and this time. You have no control over what is happening to you. It is simply that the way you have lived out your life has brought the two of you together. Your love, like your faith, is beyond your control. That is why it is called "falling" in love. There isn’t an ounce of will in it.
You do not choose to fall in love. You find yourself in love, just as you find yourself in faith. Love is beyond choice, like faith. It is beyond decision. You cannot make a decision to fall in love any more than you can make a decision for Christ. You fall in love and you fall in faith. Faith is not a "leap." It is a fall.
Paul spoke repeatedly of being "in Christ" (e.g., Rom. 8:1; 2 Cor. 5:17, 12:2). It was his way of describing faith. You are in Christ the way you are in love. Your faith happens just as your love happenswhen events have brought you to your loved one, Jesus. Your faith is a gift just as your loved one is a gift. And there is nothing you need to do to get faith other than live out your life.
But do I not have to accept the gift? No. You do not "accept" the other person’s love. You are in love! You do not "accept Christ." You are in love with Christ! You find yourself loving him. Events have accumulated to the point where you find yourself believing, just as events had accumulated to the point where you found yourself loving. And what did you do to find your loved one? Nothing! You just went about your life! Eventually, events brought the two of you together.
No Need to Anything
We do not have to do anything to "accept Christ"? Exactly. We do not even have to "accept the fact that we are accepted," as Paul Tillich put it. Jesus put it better. "No one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father" (Jn. 6:65). "No one can say Jesus is Lord,’" Paul echoed, "except by the Holy Spirit" (1 Cor. 12:3).
Once the Spirit had been revealed, St. Paul could no longer live a "Pelagian" life. "Christ Jesus has made me his own," he wrote. "I do not consider that I have made it my own" (Phil. 3:12-13). The accomplice to murder was to become a saint. But not by choice. By being chosen. We don’t have to do anything to find God. It is so un-American.
Jesus is God’s "free gift," says Paul, and, to emphasize his point, he uses the phrase five times in five sentences (Rom. 5:15-19). We are also free to reject the free gift. That is our sin. But we are not free to accept it; that is the one thing we cannot do. We are free to sin, but we are not free not to sin. All credit has to be God’s for not sinning. All credit has to be God’s for faith. Otherwise it is not faith; it is success.
William Penn, a member of the English aristocracy, lived at a time when it was customary for male aristocrats to wear swords. "When should I remove my sword?" the newly converted Penn asked the Quaker founder, George Fox. "When you are ready," Fox replied. Penn was being readied by everything that was happening to him. At the right time, he would remove his sword. "At the right time Christ died for [us]," Paul wrote (Rom. 5:6).
Faith Comes in Crisis
When events finally add up, we are in a crisis. The word crisis comes from the Greek for "turning point." But a crisis can be either positive or negative. It can come in something as inconsequential as Paul’s business trip or as devastating as Ruth’s loss of her husband. Such events are listening points. They then become turning points. "It was a turning point in my life," we find ourselves saying about a crisis.
"What have you that you did not receive?" Paul asked the rugged, individualistic, can-do Corinthians (1 Cor. 4:7). In that one sentence, we are told, St. Augustine saw the whole doctrine of grace. Even his dissolute early life could lead to God. If that was what it took to make a believer of him, then that is what it took. A life of bad choices finally led to a life of being chosen.
If Paul had to work his way to God, then that is what it took for Paul. His frenetic activism was the way he would discover that his work would not work.
It takes whatever it takes in the epistemology of faith. That is why whatever is going on in your life is so hopeful. It is the way it has to be for you to find yourself found. It is also the way Pelagius will no longer be alive and well and will still be as wrong as ever.