God Does His Part and I Do Mine: The Falsehood of Semi-Pelagianism

Hey there glossary fans! This week I wanted to look at a term that sums […]

Sean Norris / 7.27.09

Hey there glossary fans! This week I wanted to look at a term that sums up what may be the prevailing perspective on the human relationship with God in the world today. A term that we throw around a lot on here, and one that, at least in practice, spans almost all religions. I’m talking about Semi-Pelagianism.

Semi-Pelagianism is the mental compromise that we all make with the heresy of Pelagianism, the theological model propounded by Pelagius, a British monk, and condemned as heresy by the Roman Catholic Church in A.D. 416. Pelagius denied the doctrine of original sin, affirming instead the ability of humans to be righteous by the exercise of their (free) will. He essentially believed that we choose God as opposed to Him choosing us. “It’s up to you.”

Semi-Pelagianism constitutes a more mixed view. It understands the sovereignty of God and human free will as working together toward human salvation/justification. You may have heard it, or even said it, like this: “I’m meeting God half-way”, “We are co-laborers with God”, “God knocks at the door, and I have to answer”, “You need to get serious about your faith”, “Let go and let God”, “I get by with a little help from my friends”, etc.

Semi-Pelagianism is particularly seductive because it appeals to our (sinful) desire to stand on our own two feet. We want to have something to offer God. After all, it is a very uncomfortable thing to be told that we are completely helpless. We know that we need to tip our hats to heaven, so we allow for Him to be the one that helps us out, while stalwartly defending the idea that we have free will and therefore a part to play in the justification tango. The problems here should be fairly self-evident. Questions of exactly how much of a role we play – and how we know we’ve done so successfully –  plague the Semi-Pelagian, fostering the sort of anxiety and judgment that eventually drives people away from Christianity altogether. That is to say, in practice, Semi-Pelagianism has a pesky tendency to revert to the non-semi version.

The truth of the matter, both biblically and experientially, is that we are not free. In fact, one of the original aims of this site was to scour the culture and the world in search of examples of just how bound we are, how freedom without the cross is nothing more than an illusion, or the result of mental gymnastics. Thankfully, you don’t have to look very far. Sadly, you don’t have to look far for Semi-Pelagianism either.

So, instead of being a tango between two capable parties, justification is more like Tom Petty’s creepy, but great music video for “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” in which he dances with the dead body of his love, Kim Basinger Mary Jane. We are that dead body, and the good news of the Gospel is that God lifts us up and brings us to life.

Check it out, and watch for the baptism scene at the end. Enjoy!