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!


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30 responses to “God Does His Part and I Do Mine: The Falsehood of Semi-Pelagianism”

  1. Michael says:

    I love this post, Sean. It reminds me of the aphorism that I hate above all others: "Work like it all depends on you, and pray like it all depends on God."

  2. Sean Norris says:

    Here, here Michael!

  3. Daniel says:

    How about, "God helps those who help themselves." My grandmother was always big on that one.

  4. David Roseberry says:

    Yes, God helps those who helps themselves. Isn't that in the bible? In the First Book of Hezekiah I think. 🙂

  5. Matthew B. Arbo says:

    This post on semi-pelagianism, which ambitiously sums up the metaphysical problem of freedom in just four paragraphs, contains a logical slip. The first sentence of the last paragraph, and the last paragraph in general seems to argue against freedom CATEGORICALLY, whereas the preceding paragraphs speak only toward the role of the will in (supposed) salvific moment. Its not worth having an argument about a very tired soteriological question, but to say that (1) we are not free to choose God and (2) that we are not free beings, makes (1) meaningless. I simply want to ensure that a hard determinism isn't being advanced here, as determinism is a supremely pagan doctrine (stoic) and not Christian in the slightest.

  6. Sean Norris says:

    That's hilarious! That's like one of my other favorite books in the Bible, 1st Opinions:)

    Thank you for your comment. The point of the last paragraph is that we are only free because of the work of Jesus Christ on the cross. Without His righteousness given to us, we are bound by our sin under the Law.

  7. Sean Norris says:

    Just to be completely accurate, I'd like to clarify my previous comment:) I should say, "Without His righteousness declared as ours (because of the cross), we are bound by our sin under the Law."

  8. StampDawg says:

    Hey Sean! Great post.

    You mention that Pelagianism was condemned as heresy in 416 AD. It's worth observing that Semi-Pelagianism was also condemned, about a century later, at the Council of Orange (529 AD).

    That didn't prevent it from growing back in the following 1000 years — and your post helps us understand why it is the perenial theology of virtually all religious people at all times and at all places.

  9. simeon zahl says:

    Loving the Tom Petty video! Reminds me of another secretly great video with a baptism at the end, Ana's Song by Silverchair:


  10. StampDawg says:

    By the way, I can't urge every reader at Mockingbird to take a listen to a sermon called "Semi-Pelagianism" by Paul Zahl.

    The sermon is NOT academic at all, but deeply heartfelt and moving. It blew me out of me out of the water and I still weep when I hear it.

    I would like it very much if Sean and Dave would consider adding to the MB sermon archives. In the meantime anyone can find it at:


    The sermon is dated 1/12/2003 and is located at roughly page 40 of the sermon archives.

  11. Sean Norris says:

    Thanks John!

  12. Joshua Corrigan says:

    Great post and video Sean! Thanks for sharing!

  13. Colton says:

    Just wanted to chime in and affirm Matthew's thoughts. I think I can safely say that those who run and post on this blog do make the distinction to which you refer. Although we are free to make choices, the bondage of the will means we are not able to choose anything other than sin. In other words, our choices are always immoral. Out and out determinism is not the same thing.

    Sean, great post. You explained semi-pelagianism succinctly and effectively!

  14. John Zahl says:

    For those wanting to read a helpful critique of "The New Perspective On Paul" (NPP) that relates directly to the issue of semi-Pelagianism (see 3/4 of the way down, the heading: "The Historical-Contentual Errors of the NPP") check out this piece from J. Ligon Duncan:


  15. StampDawg says:

    I can't emphasize how much I agree with John Zahl's suggestion about the J. Ligon Duncan piece.

    It is the best thing I have read on the NPP. The name of the piece is called "The Attractions of the New Perspective(s) on Paul." And I really love the fact that it is written from a pastoral angle. He's interested in what it is about the human heart that makes the NPP attractive.

    You may find it hard to "click" on the link John provided, which is a problem sometimes when someone at MB tries to share a long link.

    Here's a way to find the piece quickly. First, go to this link:


    Then go to the SEARCH menu at the top and choose ARTICLES. You'll find the NPP piece right away.

    I would love to hear what people at MB thinks of it. It also contains a long extended quote from our friend PZ.

  16. Jeff Hual says:

    Sean, outstanding post!

  17. Dozie says:

    This may be an interesting post to some, but really it has no substance. You mock concepts and direct teachings from the bible, rendering them meaningless, useless or mistaken.

    “We are co-laborers with God – 1 Corinthians 3:9

    'Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me – Rev 3:20

    If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me – Lk 9:28

    You seem to deny these biblical commands and principles without offering cogent explanations for your contrary ideas. Ignoring or explaining them away will not be enough.

    One would like to be reminded again of the Protestant answer to the question of “salvation”.

  18. Fr. Ernesto Obregon says:

    I would also like to point out that it is St. Paul that calls us to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling. For those who cited the two Western councils, I would also point out that they were not Ecumenical Councils and that the East has held to the concept of synergy during its history, which is not the same thing as Pelagianism.

  19. Joanie D. says:

    Father Ernesto…can you point me to a place online to read more about synergy? I THINK that must be what I believe too, but I would like more information. Thanks.

  20. JDK says:

    Dear Dozie and Fr. Ernesto. .

    It's great to "see" you on here! While synergism is definitely a concept held by the Eastern churches (and many Western ones, de facto if not de jure)we would be firmly and unequivocally affirm a more monergistic view of salvation. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monergism)

    While the intricacies of this position do not really lend themselves to explanation via blog comments, I would recommend Luther's "Bondage of the Will," as a good starting place for a clear articulation.

    Naturally, all arguments for (and against, as you've pointed out, Dozie!:) are based in scripture, but here is a perfect example where systematic theology and one's anthropological presuppostions come into play. The best way to understand what we're doing here would be to browse some of the other posts–we may be wrong, but you'll see that, at least, we're consistent!

    At any rate, we're glad you guys have joined our merry band of bloggers (and commenters) and always welcome your insights and thoughts. .

    Many blessings!

  21. Fr. Ernesto Obregon says:

    You might wish to look at the Confession of Dositheus, particularly Decrees XIII and XIV, found http://catholicity.elcore.net/ConfessionOfDositheus.html In passing it is a widely accepted creed, but not mandatory. Some of us would word what he said slightly differently.

    Please say hello to Fr. Paul Zahl for me. GRIN.

  22. Dozie says:

    "I would recommend Luther's "Bondage of the Will," as a good starting place for a clear articulation."

    I have no time for Luther. I am dialoguing with you and a good starting point will be for you to explain, according to your theology, some of the biblical passages already cited. Do you think they were uttered in error? What system of theology or magic are you going to use to make the verses already cited to say or mean things contrary to ordinary sense of convey to us?

    I suspect that long before there was any thing called Protestant, there already was Christian theology; there was systematic theology. And the originators of this discipline would not have problems with the biblical verses and concepts you seem to dislike.

    It is very interesting to me that in the judgment narrative in Matthew 25:

    "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the king will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me…” Jesus makes no mention of justification or even of belief in him as requirement for entry into the Kingdom of God. He clearly had other criteria for determining trust-worthiness for the Kingdom. Is Jesus an unreliable teacher?

    I find it equally intriguing that many Protestants place Paul in opposition to Jesus. Paul, for them is the ultimate authority and often Jesus is regarded as not-so-smart follower of Paul. The God-man came down from heaven and gave us a body of teachings, yet, in matters of salvation he is ignored or relegated to the background while Paul is anointed as the only authentic oracle of God.

  23. Howard says:

    I think the important thing to mention in the Matthew 25 example is the response of the 'sheep' to Jesus' words – "Lord, when".
    A key aspect here, I think, is that this wasn't just 'their' works – they were 'sheep', why?
    Well the Gospels make that pretty clear – not because we chose Him, but because He chooses us – that is the only reason why there are 'sheep' and not just goats.

    His Word, His Life, His enabling care, is what makes any of the things we do meaningful and of value. Apart from Him, we can do nothing, so Jesus' message here is an affirmation of His work – that men, to their own astonishment, will pass without condemnation on that day, because a greater righteousness than our own has prevailed, even amidst our sin-sick world.

  24. Dozie says:

    “I think the important thing to mention in the Matthew 25 example is the response of the 'sheep' to Jesus' words – "Lord, when".”

    I am glad you classified the above as your thinking; I think it carries as much weight as it should. What is interesting is that you have to jump outside the text and its immediate context to provide very convoluted response to the question. In deed, Jesus provides the answer to the question:

    “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” Just as when Paul was persecuting the people of the Way, he did not know he was persecuting Christ. Paul did not have to plead: “the devil made me do it”. He was responsible.

    There is no need for the gymnastics being employed. Jesus does not judge himself in the Matthew narrative (the claim being that Jesus is responsible for what people do or not do); instead he holds the people responsible for what they do or fail to do.

  25. Howard says:

    "What is interesting is that you have to jump outside the text and its immediate context to provide very convoluted response to the question".

    The aim here (in my comment) was to explore the use of one of the key terms of the parable – 'sheep'.

    The deeds which appear relevant are those done by this group to 'the least' of Christ's brothers (hence not expressing a teaching of salvation based purely upon general acts of kindness but care to a particular group – the least of His brethren), connecting such works to the Kingdom of Heaven – those that the Kingdom have been prepared for.

    "instead he holds the people responsible for what they do or fail to do".

    No doubt, but the crux here is responsibility towards a particular group of people – his brethren, and His 'sheep' alone clearly fulfill that role, much to their own astonishment.

    Whilst this passage speaks of one of the criteria of division between the righteous and the lost, the other illustrations used by Christ here speak of others – watchfulness, investing significance and value into the life we have been given (thereby using it well), and being faithful all are touched upon here.

    The question is how is it possible to live such a life? Only if He calls and keeps us as His own.

  26. Dozie says:

    "The question is how is it possible to live such a life? Only if He calls and keeps us as His own."

    This is a question you are importing from a place only known to you. Jesus did not anticipate the question you are asking and therefore did not address it. The people, although they asked all sorts of questions, the Calvin based question was not one of them.

    I think your question was formulated not by a careful reading of the text, but comes from a zealousness that attempts to hold hostage the entire teachings of Christ with a certain theological system. Simply, the question you are asking is not prompted by the texts in Matthew 25.

  27. Howard says:

    "I think your question was formulated not by a careful reading of the text, but comes from a zealousness that attempts to hold hostage the entire teachings of Christ with a certain theological system".

    Or perhaps my question is raised in relation to the context of the teaching of Jesus Himself – that provided not just within these verses, but in the manner of His address (as referred to in my last note) in the entire discourse (the collection of parables in this chapter) and the wider context of the teaching of the Gospel of Matthew itself. What manner of righteousness is actually required to truly aid His brethren and thereby to be ready for the Kingdom of heaven? There is much in these examples, and in Matthews gospel to consider on that matter.

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