A key question as to how we understand the Gospel concerns our doctrine of man. Are we sinners because we sin or do we sin because we are sinners. Think carefully about this. Is it our sinful actions that make us a sinner or is it our sinful nature that causes us to sin. The former requires a gospel that persuades bad men to change their behavior. The latter requires a gospel that is about resurrecting men who are dead in sin. The former sounds very much like Charles Finney's heretical view of humanity:
Moral depravity cannot consist in any attribute of nature or constitution, nor in any lapsed or fallen state of nature. . . . Moral depravity, as I use the term, does not consist in, nor imply a sinful nature, in the sense that the human soul is sinful in itself. It is not a constitutional sinfulness [Finney's Systematic Theology, 245].
Finney's view echoes that put forward by Pelagius in the fourth century AD:
Pelagius was a monk from Britain, whose reputation and theology came into prominence after he went to Rome sometime in the 380's A.D. The historic Pelagian theological controversy involved the nature of man and the doctrine of original sin.
Pelagius believed that the consequences of Adam and Eve’s sin (the Fall) were restricted to themselves only; and thereby denied the belief that original sin was passed on (or transferred) to the children of Adam and thus to the human race. Adam's sin merely "set a bad example" for his progeny and Jesus "set a good example" for mankind (thus counteracting Adam's bad example). Pelagianism teaches that human beings are born in a state of innocence with a nature that is as pure as that which Adam was given at his creation.
As a result of his basic assumption, Pelagius taught that man has an unimpaired moral ability to choose that which is spiritually good and possesses the free will, ability, and capacity to do that which is spiritually good. This resulted in a gospel of salvation based on human works. Man could choose to follow the precepts of God and then follow those precepts because he had the power within himself to do so.
The controversy came to a head when Pelagian teaching came into contact with Augustine. Augustine did not deny that man had a will and that he could make choices. But, Augustine recognized that man did not have a free will in moral issues related to God, asserting that the effects original sin were passed to the children of Adam and Eve and that mankind’s nature was thereby corrupted. Man could choose what he desired, but those desires were influenced by his sinful nature and he was unable to refrain from sinning. (courtesy of Theopedia)
The strongest repudiation of Pelagian theology is reserved for the clear teaching of Scripture itself:
Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous. (Romans 5:18-19)
Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me. (Psalm 51:5)
With this Pelagian view of man considered it is interesting to see that this heresy, defeated by Augustine many centuries ago, still lives on in a variety of forms. I have been reluctant to bring to light the surprising emergence of this doctrine from an unexpected place. I was hopeful it would be internally resolved by the many capable theologians in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). However, it has now been broadcast far and wide so I wanted to take this opportunity to weigh in and comment on a recent document called A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation which had high profile signatories including Paige Patterson (President of Southwestern Seminary and a key figure in driving liberalism out of the SBC) and Jerry Vines (former SBC President and fellow hero of the "conservative resurgence"). Their aim, as staunch Arminians, in this document was to make a critical response to the rise of Calvinism within the SBC. Unfortunately, in their efforts to distance themselves from Calvinism they veered in to the land of Pelagianism. Though I am a Calvinist and disagree with much of what is on this document, I can respectfully disagree and understand why they arrive at some of the conclusions they do. But one conclusion in particular has caused the ire of many, myself included. That there are Calvinists and Arminians alike who are making the same objection to this document, should be cause enough for performing major surgery on such a significant statement. This key contention with the SBC statement on salvation is with article two. Article two, in its entirety, reads:
We affirm that, because of the fall of Adam, every person inherits a nature and environment inclined toward sin and that every person who is capable of moral action will sin. Each person’s sin alone brings the wrath of a holy God, broken fellowship with Him, ever-worsening selfishness and destructiveness, death, and condemnation to an eternity in hell.
We deny that Adam’s sin resulted in the incapacitation of any person’s free will or rendered any person guilty before he has personally sinned. While no sinner is remotely capable of achieving salvation through his own effort, we deny that any sinner is saved apart from a free response to the Holy Spirit’s drawing through the Gospel.
Even Roger Olsen, who is an unabashed high profile Arminian apologist has said:
Leaving the statement as it stands, without a clear affirmation of the bondage of the will to sin apart from supernatural grace, inevitably hands the Calvinists ammunition to use against non-Calvinist Baptists.
It doesn’t matter what “most Baptists” believe or what is the “traditional Southern Baptist understanding.” For a long time I’ve been stating that most American Christians, including most Baptists, are semi-Pelagian, not Arminian and not merely non-Calvinist.
Calvinists and Arminians stand together, with Scripture, against semi-Pelagianism. (Romans 3:11 and 1 Corinthians 4:7 to name just two passages.) (online source)
Both Vines and Patterson have a legacy of destroying liberalism within the SBC for which I owe a deep level of gratitude. Calvinists like Al Mohler would not have taken the Presidency at their flagship seminary (Southern baptist Theological Seminary) without their years of dedication to the cause of conservative biblical Christianity. This makes their latest labor all the more surprising because those who signed this document are either Pelagian (or some might say semi-Pelagian) or ignorant of what they signed. Both possibilities are disturbing and I sincerely hope that such a large and significant Christian movement will move rapidly to rectify errors of this caliber.
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