My dad sent me a link to an article the other day with an inquiry regarding my thoughts on the piece. In the midst of my busy workday, I took the time to read the brief article on an ancient debate between Augustine and Pelagius. The nature of their disagreement was the nature of mankind and specifically the existence or non-existence of original sin. Whether or not humanity exists within original sin has far-reaching implications for our lives and the ways in which we live.
The article cites the similar views of Augustine and Luther (I assume this is partially why my dad sent the link to his Lutheran daughter!). Luther agreed with Augustine that human beings are all tainted by the curse of original sin and therefore are incapable of doing good or achieving any type of righteousness or sanctification without Christ. The article notes that Augustine called humanity a “mess of sin,” incapable of raising itself from spiritual death. “For Augustine man can no more move or incline himself to God than an empty glass can fill itself. For Augustine the initial work of divine grace by which the soul is liberated from the bondage of sin is sovereign and operative. To be sure we cooperate with this grace, but only after the initial divine work of liberation.”
Pelagius, on the other hand, argued that man could do good works that aid in the process of sanctifying oneself. His theory can be summed up as: “Nature, free-will, virtue and law, these strictly defined and made independent of the notion of God – were the catch-words of Pelagianism: self-acquired virtue is the supreme good which is followed by reward. Religion and morality lie in the sphere of the free spirit; they are at any moment by man’s own effort.”
When people believe that their actions, will, and deeds are capable of either bringing them closer to God (through upholding the Law) or distancing themselves from God (through breaking the Law), they are trapped. The only course forward is for the individual to enter a sin management program where they track their sins against their good deeds in a hopeless attempt to measure up before God.
This morning Pastor asked the First Communion catechumens, including our daughter Sienna, “Do you have to be perfect to stand before God?” to which the children quickly answered, “No!” He rephrased the question, “What is the standard for God? Does he demand perfection?” This time their “no” responses were a little more doubtful. His explanation went on to quote Jesus in Matthew, chapter 5: You therefore must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect. The kids replied, “But, we can’t be perfect. No one can do that.”
God, in his divine perfection, requires nothing less than perfect righteousness to enter his holy presence. The Law had to be upheld; our debt of sin had to be repaid. When Jesus, after living a perfect, sinless life, died on the cross he paid the price for our treason against God. It’s only when one is baptized into Christ’s holiness and righteousness that they will be judged as perfect, in Christ, before God.
Back to the article – it argues that the modern church and many current philosophical ideals, including liberalism and humanism, continue to hold to this view – that man’s will is inclined toward and can achieve virtue. What follows is the hyper focus on self-improvement and an unhealthy individualism.
In my experience, there’s a glorious freedom and peace in embracing that I am in need of God’s grace, always. As it says in Romans, chapter 3: None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good; not even one. Romans 3: 10-12.
The glorious good news is that we can do everything through Christ. God works through his people to love, serve, care and provide for one another. Paul writes in Ephesians, chapter 2: For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is a gift from God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. Similarly, by realizing just how little will and inclination I have toward doing good, when God accomplishes good deeds through me, it’s Him working, so I may not boast.
If our works factor into the equation of our salvation, even just marginally as Pelagius claimed, we are hopeless to achieve the perfection God demands. How can we live up to the title of this post: “Be Perfect”? Only through Jesus and his perfect righteousness.