What's Tony Thinking

Don’t We Need More Pelagians?


One of my discerning readers responded to my July 3 blog by asking, “If Pelagians are into good works, couldn’t we use more of them?”

I had mentioned Pelagianism in that blog because we reference it in the podcast Crackers and Grape Juice did with Will Willimon and me.

Pelagianism, named after a fourth century British theologian, is the idea that we save ourselves by our good works and the purity of our lives. While we may not use the word, Pelagianism, (though it will no doubt impress people should you drop it in conversation over a beer), is ubiquitous (think meritocracy). It dovetails with liberal theology which has mostly replaced mystery and grace (i.e. God) with morality.

The idea that we are saved by doing good works and leading pure lives (0r in bastardized versions, having the most toys, fame, money, etc.) contrasts with salvation by grace, or as Paul says in Ephesians 2:10 “this is all God’s doing.”

But my discerning reader has a point. Wouldn’t it be great to have more people into doing good in the world?

Here’s my answer. It’s not an either/ or. It’s not either works or grace. It’s a both/ and. “Doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God,” (Micah 6: 8) come with both. The difference is in motivation. What are your motivations?

For Pelagius and his modern followers, good works — charity, justice, service, helping one’s neighbor — are done in order to gain approval — from others, from and for your self, and from God. It’s kind of like Boy Scouts. You accumulate merit badges to move up in the ranks until finally you are an Eagle Scout — which is sort of the Boy Scout’s version of salvation. You become an “Eagle” and fly off, I guess. (For the record: I am an Eagle Scout.)

For those who believe salvation (wholeness, peace, life in the midst of and beyond death) is a gift of God’s grace, good works and love and service are also part of the deal. But rather than being a way to get approval or love, they are  our grateful response to love freely given, a love that loved us first. Calvin put it this way: “Salvation is all about grace; ethics is all about gratitude.” A popularized form of this is heard when people talk about “giving back.”

We try to live ethical and good lives. Sometimes we succeed. Sometimes we fail (not “some fail,” we all fail some of time). But our efforts to do good are not in order to get God to love us, but a response to a love and grace that has loved us from the beginning of all creation. When we fail in our efforts, God’s love and grace are still there. God picks us up, help us to make amends and get on with life.

There’s another element to this: control. The Pelagian system puts us in charge. It’s up to us. It depends on what and how we do. That is a burden, but perhaps a welcome one as most of us (especially modern, western, American people) like to believe we are in charge, that we are in control.

If salvation is God’s gift — grace freely and astonishingly given in Christ’s death and resurrection — then we are not in control. God is. We kind of don’t like that. We would prefer the idea that we are in the driver’s seat.

Along these lines, I remember the first time I heard someone say, “Let go and let God.” I thought that was just BS. “What? God’s going to do it all! That’s ridiculous!” Later I came to appreciate the paradox.

In AA, and other recovery programs, people like to say, “There is a God, (insert your name) — and it’s not you.” God alone is God, there is no other.

Pelagianism and liberal theology, which increasingly boils Christianity down to morality, tend to make us into God, which is — trust me — a very bad idea. People that think they are God — that they have the truth, whole and unimpaired — even if they are determined to do good works or enact justice (maybe especially if they are determined to do “good works” and bring justice) scare the hell out of me.



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