It is unfortunate that it is still necessary to argue the case that the recent Statement of Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of Godâ€™s Plan of Salvation is semi-Pelagian. I believe the arguments already provided show beyond any reasonable doubt that the language of the Statement is semi-Pelagian. Nonetheless, objections continue to be raised against this observation and in the process many are attempting to redefine semi-Pelagianism. Recently, Brad Reynolds appealed to the Canons of the Second Council of Orange to argue that the Statement is not semi-Pelagian. I appreciate his appeal to those Canons but I am afraid they do not bear out his conclusions. To the contrary, the Canons make it clear beyond reasonable contestation that the Statement is semi-Pelagian.
Semi-Pelagianism is a belief that came out of the early controversy between Augustine and Pelagius. A monk named John Cassian disagreed with both Pelagius and Augustine and proposed another option. While Pelagius believed that man was capable of living righteous under his own power and Augustine believed that man was completely unable to do or desire anything of Godâ€™s righteousness, Cassian proposed that man retains some ability to seek the grace of God. Grace is essential for the life and salvation of a believer, but sin has not completely destroyed human ability to desire that which is good. We must have grace, but man remains able to seek and pursue Godâ€™s grace. For Augustine, God must first change the heart before any person would ever desire Godâ€™s grace. For Cassian, people are able to desire grace through natural ability, without God first changing the heart.
Semi-Pelagianism was condemned at the Second Council of Orange in 529 BC. You can find the Canons of this council at the Historic Church Documents site. Of these canons, some are clearly directed at Pelagianism, others at semi-Pelagianism, and others touch on general issues of Godâ€™s grace to mankind. The canons close with a concluding statement summarizing the position taken by that council. I believe these canons and the conclusion make the definition of semi-Pelagianism clear, and make it clear that the Statement fits. Read the Canons for yourself, read the Statement (neither are long), then come back for my discussion.
The Statement and the picture of salvation
Throughout the Statementâ€™s ten articles of affirmation and denial, a fairly clear picture emerges about manâ€™s natural condition and the obligation that God has placed on man. All of the following portions in quotation marks come from the Statement.
In the Statement, we are told that â€œevery person inherits a nature and environment inclined toward sinâ€. We are not born in a neutral condition, we are born corrupted by sinâ€™s effects. Because of our condition, we can be sure that â€œevery person who is capable of moral action will sin.â€ The Statement recognizes and affirms that all people will sin and as such stand in need of salvation.
Despite sinâ€™s corrupting influence, it has not completely destroyed manâ€™s ability to will that which is good. The Statement denies that â€œAdamâ€™s sin resulted in the incapacitation of any personâ€™s free willâ€. The Statement defines free will as â€œthe ability to choose between two optionsâ€ and says that God â€œendows each person with actual free willâ€. We are corrupt, but our free will is not destroyed. We retain the ability to choose between two options. Set before us one choice for evil and another choice for good, and fallen man has the natural ability to choose either one. Sinâ€™s corrosive influence has not rendered him incapable of choosing that which is good.
Because we retain the free will ability to choose between two options, we thereby retain the ability to choose or reject Godâ€™s offer of salvation. God has offered us saving grace in Jesus Christ, and because God has created us with a will that is not incapacitated by the fall, that will â€œmust be exercised in accepting or rejecting Godâ€™s gracious call to salvationâ€. When the Statement denies that â€œonly a select few are capable of responding to the Gospelâ€, I take it to mean that the Statement affirms that all people retain the natural ability to respond to the Gospel.
Salvation is granted to individuals in response to their exercise of the will. God makes an offer, but it remains only an offer until each individual exercises his will to accept or reject that offer. Thus the Statement denies that â€œGod imposes or withholds this atonement without respect to an act of the personâ€™s free will.â€
Godâ€™s role in salvation is one of calling or drawing. By grace, God made the â€œgenerous decision to provide salvationâ€. The Statement says that God takes the initiative in salvation in three areas: 1. â€œin providing the atonementâ€ – God took the initiative by sending Christ to die for us; 2. â€œin freely offering the Gospel in the power of the Holy Spiritâ€ – God took the initiative by offering salvation to all people; and 3. â€œin uniting the believer to Christ through the Holy Spirit by faithâ€ – God will take a new believer and unite him to Christ not on the basis of works but on the basis of faith (in truth Iâ€™m not sure how this item reflects Godâ€™s initiative in salvation since it refers to something following salvation; hence, it is what God does to a believer, not what God does to one who is not yet a believer).
Furthermore, salvation does not come apart from â€œthe Holy Spiritâ€™s drawing through the Gospelâ€. The Statement does not explain the nature of the Holy Spiritâ€™s drawing, though it does deny â€œthat there is an â€˜effectual callâ€™ for certain people that is different from a â€˜general callâ€™ to any personâ€. In other words, the Spiritâ€™s work is essentially the same in all people. Though he may work in different ways, he is doing the same thing for all, providing the same sort of drawing in all people. Based on other conversations with those who defend the Statement, I believe they see the Holy Spiritâ€™s drawing as being his calling, his wooing, his summoning people to come and be saved. They do not believe that the Spirit must first change a person to enable a response; we retain the natural ability to turn and be saved. The Spiritâ€™s drawing is extended to all people and it summons but the drawing itself does not save.
Finally, the Statement denies that â€œthe decision of faith is an act of God rather than a response of the person.â€ Faith comes from within, not from without. Faith is something that comes from us through our free will, it is not something God implants within us, gives us, creates in us, etc, faith comes through our will and is shown in our response to God.
The picture of salvation that emerges is that God holds out his hand with the gospel, calling us and beckoning us and wooing us but not taking hold of us or changing us. It remains for us to respond â€œin faith to the Gospelâ€ after which â€œGod promises to complete the process of salvationâ€. God extends the offer of the gospel, we reach out in response, he takes hold of us and saves us. As the preacher man says, â€œGod is pleading with you to come to him. He is beckoning for you, he is calling you over, he wants you to be with him, and if you will take the first step in response to God, Jesus will take the other 99 steps to take hold of you and save you.â€
The initiative belongs to God in that God provides the gospel in Christ then extends the gospel to all, yet the actual accomplishment of our individual salvation begins with us as we must move toward Christ, exercising faith by our own will and choosing to receive for ourselves that which God has offered to all.
Even though the Statement denies that â€œthe response of faith is a meritorious work that earns salvationâ€, it still leaves the response of faith as a necessary work for our salvation. If we do not choose, if we do not respond, if we do not reach out, if we do not create faith in ourselves by the working of our wills, then we will not be saved. This is the classic synergistic position in which man cooperates with God in accomplishing our salvation. There is a part for God to do by his power, and there is a part for man to do by his power, and if either part is missing, we will not be saved. Based on the Statement, one cannot escape the conclusion that salvation is not all of God but is a lot of God and a little of man.
Semi-Pelagianism and the Canons of the Second Council of Orange
This summary, drawing directly from the Statement, doubles as a picture-perfect presentation of the semi-Pelagian position. It would be difficult to make it more overtly semi-Pelagian than by, perhaps, adding semi-Pelagian somewhere in the title. Adding to all that I have said in previous posts about the semi-Pelagian nature of the Statement, let me summarize what the Canons of the Second Council of Orange have to say, showing just what it was that they were opposing. Along the way, I will contrast the Canons with portions of the Statement.
First, a quick run-down of the canons: there are twenty-five canons (or articles) and a concluding statement. Each of the Canons addresses a particular issue brought before the council. The first two canons seem specifically aimed at the original Pelagian controversy while canons 3-8 address the semi-Pelagian controversy (Iâ€™m not sure what canon 3 is in response to, though part of it has a clear implication for semi-Pelagianism). Canons 9-25 touch on a variety of issues relevant to the controversy. Canons 1-8 condemn specific views and arguments while canons 9-25 present the position of the council.
What the Council condemned
In the first eight canons, the Council made clear their belief that humans are completely unable to â€œbelieve, will, desire, strive, labor, pray, watch, study, seek, ask, or knockâ€ apart from â€œthe infusion and inspiration of the Holy Spirit within usâ€ (Canon 5). We retain absolutely no natural ability to respond in any way to Godâ€™s work of salvation. We will not seek, desire, or reach out for the gospel. Grace is given to us by Godâ€™s free and sovereign work and does not depend on human seeking: â€œif anyone makes the assistance of grace depend on the humility or obedience of man and does not agree that it is a gift of grace itself that we are obedient and humble, he contradicts the Apostleâ€¦â€ (Canon 6) God does not wait for us to reach out. The Statement claims that â€œwhen a person responds in faith to the Gospel, God promises to complete the process of salvation in the believerâ€¦â€ This directly opposes the teaching of Canon 6 that our obedience of faith is itself a gift of Godâ€™s grace.
Of faith itself, the Statement denies that â€œthe decision of faith is an act of God rather than a response of the personâ€, a view condemned in the Canons when it says that â€œif anyone says that not only the increase of faith but also its beginnings and the very desire for faithâ€¦ belongs to us by nature and not by a gift of grace, that is, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit amending our will and turning it from unbelief to faith and from godlessness to godliness, it is proof that he is opposed to the teaching of the Apostlesâ€ (Canon 5). The Council clearly believed that no man can have faith in God unless God first changes our wills by â€œturning it from unbelief to faith and from godlessness to godliness.â€ Whereas the Statement claims that â€œGodâ€¦ endows each person with actual free willâ€¦ which must be exercised in accepting or rejectingâ€¦ salvationâ€, canon 5 says that our natural will must be changed before it will ever seek God. We do not retain the natural ability to exercise our wills in Godâ€™s direction. What we need is not simply a drawing or wooing, our wills must be changed.
In the Statement, salvation comes down to the natural, unchanged free will choice of the believer responding to the drawing and wooing of God. In canon 7 the Council condemned the view that â€œwe can form any right opinion or make any right choice which relates to the salvation of eternal lifeâ€¦ through our natural powers without the illumination and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who makes all men gladly assent to and believe in the truthâ€¦â€ The signers of the Statement would certainly affirm that God must be active in â€œillumination and inspirationâ€ so that we can receive knowledge of the gospel, but that this illumination and inspiration take place by the Holy Spiritâ€™s inspiring the Word of God. They do not believe that God must first open manâ€™s eyes to make him able to see. Contrary to that, the Council said that the illumination and inspiration of the Holy Spirit is his work to make â€œall men gladly assent to and believe in the truthâ€. It is the Spirit, not our natural will, who makes men assent and believe.
Canon 8 presents a clear denial of the ability of free will. Over and over again the Statement upholds the ability of manâ€™s will to come to God with saving faith, yet the canon says that â€œif anyone maintains that some are able to come to the grace of baptism by mercy but others through free will, which has manifestly been corrupted in all those who have been born after the transgression of the first man, it is proof that he has no place in the true faith. For heâ€¦ holds that [the will] has been affected in such a way that they still have the ability to seek the mystery of eternal salvation by themselves without the revelation of God.â€ Understand what the Council means by â€œwithout the revelation of Godâ€ â€“ they mean what they meant by the work of the Spirit in â€œillumination and inspirationâ€ in canon7 and the Spiritâ€™s work in canon 5, namely, that the Spirit must be â€œamending our will and turning it from unbelief to faith and from godlessness to godlinessâ€. By our own free will, no one will be saved. Only if the Spirit changes our hearts and wills can we be changed. The Statementâ€™s claims about the role of our will in salvation is clearly and strongly denied by these Canons.
Because â€œthe freedom of the willâ€¦ was destroyed in the first manâ€ (Canon 13), because â€œthe sin of the first man has so impaired and weakened free will that no one thereafter can either love God as he ought or believe in God or do good for Godâ€™s sakeâ€, because â€œgrace is not to be found in the free will of all who desire to be baptized, but is bestowed by the kindness of Christ,â€ salvation is from end to end a matter of Godâ€™s grace. God does not wait for our response, he does not â€œawait our will to be cleansed from sin,â€ but he gives us the will, the desire to be clean â€œthrough the infusion and working of the Holy Spiritâ€ (Canon 4). Contrary to the Statement, Godâ€™s work is not simply a drawing, a calling, an offering, he must turn us and change us and give us faith and a will to seek him or we will never be saved.
For the sake of time, I did not present much from Canons 9-25 which do not oppose error so much as affirm what the Council believed to be true. Had I more time I would look closer at statements like â€œNone would make any true prayer to the Lord had he not received from him the object of his prayerâ€; â€œAdam was changed for the worse, through his own iniquity from what God made him. Through the grace of God the believer is changed, but for the better, from what his iniquity has done for himâ€; â€œthe love of God which â€˜has been poured into our heartsâ€™ not by freedom of the will from our own side but â€˜through the Holy Spirit which has been given to usâ€™â€.
There are a few that I want to point out specifically: â€œâ€¦grace is not preceded by merit. Recompense is due to good works if they are performed; but grace, to which we have no claim, precedes them, to enable them to be doneâ€ (Canon 18) This one is particularly important since it shows what they mean when they speak of grace preceding our response: the grace they speak of is Godâ€™s grace which enables our response, not simply grace to draw us or woo us or offer us the gospel. This is grace which changes us and brings us to salvation. In all of this discussion on semi-Pelagianism, many people have pointed to the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church which says that semi-Pelagians believed that â€œthe first steps towards the Christian life were ordinarily taken by the human will and that grace supervened only laterâ€. Semi-Pelagians did not deny that God must first offer the gospel, nor did they deny that God wooed, drew, called, etc. But when the Council speaks of grace in salvation, they mean grace which changes us and enables us to believe. Semi-Pelagians did not deny that there must be grace before we believe. Of course they believed that Jesus first had to come and die, and that his death must be proclaimed to all and that God is calling sinners everywhere to repent. But they did not believe that enabling or transforming grace must precede manâ€™s response. Since they believed man retained the natural ability to choose God, enabling grace was not necessary. The Canons make it clear that the Council disagreed and condemned the view that did not believe that God must first turn the will â€œfrom unbelief to faithâ€, etc, etc.
â€œâ€¦a man can do no good without God. God does much that is good in a man that the man does not do; but a man does nothing good for which God is not responsible, so as to let him do itâ€ (Canon 20) This one clearly states that God is responsible for any good we perform. It is good for people to call out for salvation. It is good for people to have faith. It is good for people to realize they are sinners and to turn to God in repentance. And this good comes not from themselves but from God.
â€œMen do their own will and not the will of God when they do what displeases him; but when they follow their own will and comply with the will of God, however willingly they do so, yet it is his will by which what they will is both prepared and instructed.â€ (Canon 23) This is the clincher. Whenever we disobey God, we are following our own wills. But any time we do that which is pleasing to God, we are doing what he has caused us to do. It does not matter how much we believe ourselves in control over our willful actions (â€œhowever willingly they do soâ€), anything we do that conforms with the will of God â€œis his willâ€. When a person calls out for salvation, he does it not by the power of his will but by the will of God.
In the closing lines of the Councilâ€™s conclusions, they state that â€œwe must therefore most evidently believe that the praiseworthy faith of the thief whom the Lord called to his home in paradiseâ€¦ was not a natural endowment but a gift of Godâ€™s kindness.â€ Faith is a gift of God, not a work of our will.
The Canons were written to oppose semi-Pelagianism and on point after point we find that it opposes the Statement. It does so because the Statement is semi-Pelagian. It is time for the signers of the Statement to stop trying to redefine semi-Pelagianism, stop denying that the Statement is what it is, and recognize that their position has already been defined in history by John Cassian and his followers.