The Question of Guilt
Reluctance to accept the transmission of sin from one generation to another was compounded by the question of guilt. Some people accepted that the weakness of the flesh was such that every human being would fall into sin sooner or later, but they could not agree that we are individually responsible for that weakness and therefore guilty in the sight of God. Pelagians believed that responsibility and guilt are meaningful only in the context of actual sins committed. They had no concept of innate sinfulness as distinct from sinful acts and therefore rejected the idea of “original sin.”
Augustine himself wrestled with these questions in his early days as a Christian, and it was only slowly that he came to understand sinfulness as something distinct from sinful acts voluntarily committed by people who were exercising their free will. Augustine did not deny that human beings have the freedom to choose between good and evil, but following the teaching of Paul in Romans 7, he came to see that even if we choose what is good, we are incapable of doing it. We may not want to sin, but we have no alternative because our will is in bondage to the power of evil.
Like Augustine, Pelagius believed in the need for divine grace, but he interpreted this differently. Where Augustine believed that God’s grace is needed to deliver us from a spiritual condition that we can do nothing about, Pelagius thought of it as the power given to us so that we can choose what is good. In his view, God helps us achieve spiritual perfection by enlightening our souls in baptism and by giving us the Holy Spirit to guide us along the way to perfection.
The Way of Salvation
Pelagius did not believe that the sinlessness of Christ is easily obtainable by anyone who desires it. He knew that the lure of temptation is too great to resist other than by the grace of God. The gulf that separated Augustine from Pelagius was hard for many people to appreciate because by stressing the need for divine grace to help us overcome our weakness, Pelagius appeared to give God the credit for human salvation.
Augustine retorted that although human nature retains the goodness of its creation, human beings are cut off from God, with the result that everything good in our created nature is perverted and abused. Sinfulness is a universal spiritual condition, not a voluntary choice that can be mitigated or reversed, so that every human being, including the newly born infant, stands in the same broken relationship with God. In Augustine’s view, no amount of moral training can deliver a person from his inherited sinfulness. That can only be achieved by spiritual death and resurrection to a new life, which is not ours but Christ’s. The role of the Holy Spirit is not to enlighten our minds and strengthen our wills to follow Christ but to impart His new life to us by coming to dwell in our hearts and uniting us to Him. Our “righteousness” is not ours at all—it is the righteousness of Christ at work in us.
Augustine maintained and developed his opposition to Pelagianism until his death in AD 430, but by then most of the church had been won over to his views. Pelagius and his followers were condemned several times, but that is not the whole story, because the beliefs that lie behind Pelagianism are more than the heresy of one man and his followers. The desire to find some good in fallen humanity and to exempt small children (in particular) from the consequences of original sin remains very strong, as does the feeling that punishment should be meted out only to those who commit actual sins. The idea that there is a universal human sinfulness for which we are all responsible is hard for many people to accept, even if they are officially committed to Augustinian principles. As a result, Pelagian beliefs are still common today, even though Pelagius himself has largely been forgotten.