Standing up to Heresy
The older I get, the more astounded I am to see how many of the early heresies in the church are being reborn. But I should not be surprised—there is nothing new! “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun” (Eccles.1:9).
Among the many resurgent heresies floating in our midst today, none concerns me more than Pelagianism—the idea that people are not sinners by nature. This teaching has a twofold effect.
First, it has a profound and eternal impact on the gospel, for it keeps people from recognizing their own sinful nature—and their need to repent of their sin in order to be saved. Many believe that they are saved simply because God loves them and not because they have acknowledged and turned from their sins. Thus they are deceived.
Second, Pelagianism affects believers, blinding them to sin’s ongoing pull within them in the form of the flesh and causing them to live under its sway, thus keeping them from the victory God intends His people to have. Pelagianism seeks to place the people of Christ once again under bondage to the flesh—a bondage from which they have been freed by the finished work of Christ. This affects millions of believers in our day, including many in leadership.
Pelagius was a heretic who came into direct contention with Augustine of Hippo in about AD 410. His ideas found traction because, as a writer, they were carried upon the winds of paper. According to Pelagius,
"Adam was not created holy. He was not constitutionally inclined either toward good or evil. He was morally indifferent or neutral. In this state of moral equilibrium, Adam was no more disposed to good than to evil. . . ."
In Pelagius’s thinking, there was nothing in Adam’s nature, either for good or ill, that inclined him in the decision he made. Furthermore, Adam’s sin in no way affected his posterity except insofar as it set a bad example for them. Referring to Paul’s statement in Romans 5:12, Pelagius insisted that “It is said we sinned in Adam, not because sin is innate, but because it comes from imitation.”1
In other words, Pelagius taught that man is not born into sin but is rather amoral and can freely choose either for good or evil. Sadly, this idea has become commonplace among many Christ followers today:
In a George Barna poll, more than seventy percent of “professing evangelical Christians” in America expressed the belief that man is basically good. And more than eighty percent articulated the view that God helps those who help themselves. . . . To say that we’re basically good is the Pelagian view.2
This idea that man is basically good undermines people’s understanding of their need for God. In seeking to present a palatable gospel message, too many Christian leaders are leaving out the unsavory reality that people are utterly depraved sinners in need of a Savior. Not only that, but it also keeps Christians from realizing their need to wage war against the flesh within them even after they come to salvation through Christ.
In commenting on the nature of the gospel message abounding today in too many churches, D. A. Carson warns,
If the love of God is exclusively portrayed as an inviting, yearning, sinner-seeking, rather lovesick passion, we may strengthen the hands of Arminians, semi-Pelagians, Pelagians, and those more interested in God’s inner emotional life than in his justice and glory, but the cost will be massive. There is some truth in this picture of God, as we shall see, some glorious truth. Made absolute, however, it not only treats complementary texts as if they were not there, but it steals God’s sovereignty from him and our security from us. It espouses a theology of grace rather different from Paul’s theology of grace, and at its worst ends up with a God so insipid he can neither intervene to save us nor deploy his chastening rod against us. His love is too “unconditional” for that. This is a world far removed from the pages of Scripture.3
As Carson says in his book The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God, we are confused about the love of God. Since God loves us, we think, we are probably not quite as bad as Romans 3:9–20 says we are. After all, as one contemporary chorus intimates, God is lonely in heaven without us. We are the apple of His eye. Even if we were the only people in the world, Jesus would still have died for us.
Yes, God loves us, and yes, He extends His grace to us. But these truths do not water down God’s holiness or His just anger against sin. Because of Adam’s fall and the extension of its consequences to us, we are sinful through and through. If we fail to grasp this reality, we can be deceived into thinking that we are saved when we are not, or, if we are truly saved, we can fail to recognize the sinful nature still at work in our members that needs to be fought against and gained victory over.
In the first several centuries after the death of the last apostle, the cauldron of thought about what it meant to be a Christian resembled the “wild west” of contradictory theological thought. Seeing this, the early church fathers identified, rebuked, and clarified teachings coming from church leaders who were wandering from the most obvious meanings of Scripture. Issue by issue, the early fathers defined over time the nuances of what we today call orthodoxy, crafting biblically birthed statements in order to bring clear definition to scriptural truth. These statements were intended to expose errors and refute them to the end that the people of God would “no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Eph. 4:14).
Church leaders today, however, are not pushing back hard enough on these repackaged heresies. Under guises that sound reasonable to too many, the heresies that once threatened the early church are finding their way into our midst again, all too often with great geographical spread,as the gospel has reached across the globe over the last century.
Many leaders now embrace a mushy idea about the love of God that puts man at the center of the created universe and fails to address man’s sinful nature. This watered-down gospel distorts the reality of God’s self-revelation in the Bible. God is sovereign, holy, pure, just,and judging. He does not ignore the sin of His human creation. In fact, our sin is so terrible that it required the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. Jesus’ sacrifice does not diminish our sinfulness; rather, it enhances it and shows it for exactly what it is: rebellion giving birth to evil that came to reside within us, yielding death in all aspects. When we fully understand that man has yielded to evil and that it is passed on in the DNA of every person who has come after Adam and Eve, it accentuates the miracle of God’s mercy.
Any intimation that sin and its destructiveness are any less than what Scripture clearly says about them distorts the gospel message, builds an apparent salvation not found in the Bible, and deceives whole generations of people who believe that they are followers of Christ.
For those who are indeed followers of Christ, ignorance of our ongoing sin nature diminishes the battle we now must fight against the flesh. Before we came toJesus, we had no struggle with sin; but once the knowledge of righteousness and the righteous One came to us, a new way of life became apparent to us. The new person born in each of us through our death, burial, and resurrection with Jesus longs for this righteousness, but the flesh still resident in our bodies wants nothing to do with it. As the apostle Paul so eloquently says,
We know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. (Rom. 7:14–20)
There is only one answer to the believer’s struggle against the flesh: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom. 7:24–25).
R. C. Sproul writes of Pelagianism, “We’re overwhelmed with it. We’re surrounded by it. We’re immersed in it. We hear it every day. We hear it every day in the secular culture. And not only do we hear it every day in the secular culture, we hear it every day on Christian television and on Christian radio.”4 This should not be. All forms of resurgent Pelagianism in the church today must be rejected—or we run the risk of attempting to live the righteous life into which we were reborn in Jesus Christ ignorant of the rebel still living in our bodies. That is a prescription for disaster! 11
Excerpted from: Freedom from Bondage to the Flesh: Recognizing and Rejecting the Sin That Keeps us from Victory in Christ. https://www.dwightpaulsmith.com/books