Pelagianism is the unbiblical teaching that Adam’s sin did not affect future generations of humanity. According to Pelagianism, Adam’s sin was solely his own, and Adam’s descendants did not inherit a sinful nature passed down to them. God creates every human soul directly, and therefore every human soul starts out in innocence, free from sin. We are not basically bad, says the Pelagian heresy; we are basically good.
Pelagianism is named after Pelagius, a monk who lived in the late 300s and early 400s AD. Pelagius began teaching the doctrine associated with his name in an effort to promote holy living among Christians. When people sinned, Pelagius grew weary of hearing the excuse of “I can’t help it. It’s in my nature to do wrong.” To counter that excuse, Pelagius stressed the freedom of the human will, essentially teaching that all sin is the result of a conscious choice of evil over good; everyone has the ability to freely choose to do good all the time. And, since there is no such thing as original sin or an inherited sin nature, then we cannot blame Adam. God created us good, so no one ever has an excuse for sinning. If you’re not living a holy life, it’s because you’re not trying hard enough.
Pelagianism contradicts the Bible in many places. Romans 5 solidly refutes the notion that Adam’s sin had no effect on us:
• “Sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned” (verse 12).
• “Many died by the trespass of the one man” (verse 15).
• “The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation” (verse 16).
• “By the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man” (verse 17).
• “One trespass resulted in condemnation for all people” (verse 18).
• “Through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners” (verse 19).
Further, the Bible tells us that we are sinful from the moment of conception (Psalm 51:5). All human beings die as a result of sin (Ezekiel 18:20; Romans 6:23).
While Pelagianism says that human beings are not born with a natural inclination toward sin, the Bible says the opposite (Romans 3:10–18). Anyone who has raised children can attest to the fact that infants do not have to be taught how to sin; on the contrary, they must be carefully and consistently taught how to avoid sin and behave wisely, prudently, and righteously.
Pelagianism’s underlying fault is its reliance on human freedom and willpower instead of the grace of God. In saying that we all possess an inherent power to choose holiness for ourselves, Pelagius made the grace of God of no effect. The Bible says that, before the grace of God saves us, we are “dead” in our sins (Ephesians 2:1); Pelagianism says it’s not so bad as all that. We can choose to obey God’s commands, and, if we only knew our true nature, we could please God and save ourselves.
Pelagius and his false doctrine were fought by Augustine and condemned by the Council of Carthage in AD 418, the same year that Pelagius was excommunicated. The doctrine did not disappear, however, and had to be condemned again by the Council of Ephesus (431) and later church councils. Pelagianism survives to this day and shows up in any teaching that says following Christ is primarily a choice we make apart from any supernatural intervention of God’s grace. In any age and in any form, Pelagianism is unscriptural and should be rejected.