Creeping Pelagianism

Of late, I’ve begun to notice a dangerous trend in certain segments of “the visible church” toward something approaching the Pelagian heresy, which St. Augustine dealt (we had thought decisively) with in the fifth century. Each case in and of itself amounts to little more than one comparatively-minor (though wince-worthy) error, but taken together they seem to stem from the same root misunderstanding and show a real danger of falling into the heresy as a whole.

The first items have to do with the administration, and the explanation of the administration, of the sacraments (which are a topic I’ve discussed here before at some length).


First is the insistence, in the circles with which I am now most familiar, on “believer’s baptism.” I used to believe that the debate here was of little real importance—especially since such churches often baptize children essentially as soon as they can talk sensibly (and, I now realize, can be induced to have a crisis of faith). But I’ve come to the conclusion that instead of being a minor detail, this disagreement is an inevitable consequence of a difference in our true answer to the fundamental question: Is baptism primarily something that we do, or something that God does?

In a “credo-baptist” church, baptism is described as “a step of faith,” “following Christ’s example,” and a symbol of our trust in Christ alone for our salvation. But while mostly true, this is not the essential part of what’s going on: baptism isn’t primarily about our trust in Christ (that he is ours), but rather it is the public declaration by his designated ambassadors that we are his. The very symbol that “believer’s baptism” inevitably refers to—dying with Christ, and being made alive with him—clearly contradicts the notion that it is something that we do: Christ took his life up again of his own accord after he laid it down, but we cannot and live only because he has given us life.

Baptism, I am convinced, is the sign of our participation in the new covenant—the symbol that we belong to God. It is, of course, not an infallible indicator; just as under the old covenant there were some (David’s first son with Bathsheba, for example) who were never circumcised but were included, and many who bore the symbol in their flesh but were repeatedly implored to “circumcise your hearts” were in the end denied, baptism does not guarantee salvation and death without baptism does not prevent it. But just like the old covenant, it is the “outward and visible sign” of God’s claim on and ownership of us.

(As an aside: any insistence that “believer’s baptism” is valid and “infant baptism” is not is begging the question, assuming what it’s trying to prove: if a baptism is valid i.e. sacramental, it is by definition the baptism of a believer.)


Like with baptism, I’d long thought that the disagreement between the “mere memorial” and other (consubstantiation, etc.) interpretations of the Lord’s Supper were mere differences of opinion. But like baptism, this too stems from different assumptions of who the actor in the sacrament is: us or God?

If we are the ones doing something here, then all we can do is obey, “go through the motions,” remember, and proclaim. But why would Paul tie abuses of the ritual to the death of some Christians—when more egregious problems with the celebration of the Passover centuries earlier had been corrected merely as part of trying to resume full obedience to the whole Law? And why do we call it a “sacrament” or “mystery” anyway, if it has no significance beyond what we give it?

But if, as I believe, the Lord’s Supper is something that God does for us, everything falls into place: we are commanded to “keep the feast” because, as the hymn says, “Christ has given to all the faithful his own flesh for heavenly food”—the elements are spiritual nourishment for those who are spiritually alive, but either worthless or dangerous for the unregenerate, just as “the message of the cross is … the power of God” “to us who are being saved” but “foolishness” at best to the spiritually dead.


If we, once justified, can produce good works—if sinful man, once invited, can freely choose or not to believe the gospel and turn to Christ—then it makes sense to end every service with “the gospel,” hold “revivals,” and do anything to get people in the door and phrase the invitation any way we can to seem “relevant.”

But if the grace and the call of God are irresistible, we can trust that the results of evangelism and preaching do not depend on us let alone on any gimmick; God will arrange for those he has chosen and will call to hear at an appropriate time. As I mentioned above, the letter to the Corinthians makes quite clear that the unregenerate mind cannot accept the gospel without God’s intervention.

Between the gimmicks and the anthropocentric—egocentric—understanding of the sacraments (and of “salvation” itself), I fear our churches may stand in as grave danger of falling away as those they now deplore did decades or centuries ago.

But—thanks be to God!—it’s not in our hands. If we are truly God’s elect, not even we can take us out of his hand; “from the beginning the fight we [are] winning.” It but remains to us to, God helping us, do the duty he has alloted us.


10 thoughts on “Creeping Pelagianism

  1. Thank you for addressing these issues, Jonathan! They are crucial, and we have been thinking about them.

    About Baptism and Communion (the Lord’s Supper):
    It grieves me to see infants/children ‘left out’ when it comes to the first of these ordinances.
    Communion: I don’t pretend to understand its full significance but do embrace its importance: not only did the Lord command us to do this in memory of Him until He returns, but He declared that we have life by participating (if possible) in it, that is, by eating His flesh and drinking His blood. What exactly does this mean? It is a spiritual thing; spiritual things are real as well as emblematic.
    It grieves me to hear a constant repetition that “This is only a memorial service; it has no power.” Every Communion Sunday I must listen to this, and experience sadness, some anger, and uncertainty. How does anyone know ALL that it means?
    Thank you! My husband and I were literally sitting here a moment ago, discussing some of this, when I came to your post.

    About God’s sovereign work in respect to salvation: yes, though this is difficult, it is true, and it teaches us to approach all of God things as HIS.

    Good work!

    • I’m glad you found this timely, Maria; it’s been tumbling over in my mind for weeks and weeks now, and posted it when I found sufficient extended time to distill those thoughts into the few brief remarks above.

      I think part of what I was trying to get at—that I didn’t crystallize into so many words until well after I posted this essay—is that liturgy and practice influence theology. When I was growing up, especially after we switched (when I was in eighth grade) from a Free Methodist church to the independent Baptist church I now attend, the issue of baptism was one I rarely thought about, and then only because I myself had been baptized as an infant The haphazard liturgy (as I noted before, every church has a liturgy, whether it calls it that or not) led to thinking that was unsettled at best. The clarification of my understanding came when I went off to college, partly from my reading (of relevant articles, of the catechism, and of a bit of the Institutes, more than course-work) and partly from finding a church where I felt “at home” in the community and the liturgy (though I find myself strongly at odds with the prevailing opinions there on several major issues). It is at least sometimes the case that the church becomes what it habitually does—just as a young adult follows rules willingly that had been laid down “because I said so,” I think.

      I wouldn’t keep harping on the issue of the “mere memorial” interpretation of the Lord’s Supper if it were, in my church here, phrased as a matter of interpretation or given only in the prefatory explanation—I’m no Martin Luther willing to perpetuate schism solely because of the issue. The real problem (since, like I said, liturgy influences theology) is that in what liturgical churches call “the Institution,” when the Scripture that is being read reaches the words “this is my body,” inevitably (under our current pastor) he switches from reading to paraphrase: “the Bible says that the bread symbolizes Christ’s body.” Like with baptism (and eschatology, as it happens) there seems to be a deliberate ignorance of the mere existence of alternative interpretations.

      And, of course, it’s all of a piece: thinking about fundamentals, thinking about more peripheral matters, and liturgy and practice all influence each other: we must pray for the Spirit to “lead us into all truth”—as one of my favorite hymns says:

      Thou holy Light, Guide divine,
      Oh, cause the Word of Life to shine!
      Teach us to know our God aright
      And call Him Father with delight.
      From every error keep us free;
      Let none but Christ our Master be
      That we in living faith abide,
      In Him, our Lord, with all our might confide.

      • Jonathan, thank you! A happy discussion despite the difficulties it poses.

        It is our essential happiness to have the mind of Christ; to seek to know His mind; to slow down and take a deep breath, and determine what is important. You are living that, aren’t you? By His grace! Thank you for the helpful words and beautiful hymn!

        Some future reading for both of us, in which pilgrims may discover (if they don’t know already) the source of a well known quote about how to live with differencecs:

        Bless you!


        • After living in community and under excellent liturgy, I (feel that I) know these things, “what I must know to live … in the joy of this comfort”—practically living it out is much more difficult.

          I’ve quoted that phrase (“unity in essentials, &c.”) often enough in the past (though I’m not sure I was certain or correct as to the source), and it’s a good one; the unity of the Body is to be maintained despite (to follow that metaphor) minor infections of false doctrine or sinful practice, since (thanks be to God!) our salvation depends on Christ and his righteousness rather than on our perfect understanding or meticulous assent to orthodox doctrine or on our blameless practice. The difficulty lies in what matters are essentials, and which may be appropriately left to the liberty of each believer’s conscience, especially since the points of disagreement so often cut to questions of identity—we are instructed to have fellowship and communion with others who have fellowship with God, but (as, for example, the “do not be unequally yoked …” takes as the axiom from which Paul derives his argument) not with those estranged from God, so we have the difficult task of discerning which of those who call themselves Christians, but differ in one respect or another from our understanding of true Christian faith and conduct, are our brothers and sisters and which are false pretenders (not to judge them, but for our own spiritual health and that of younger believers). Schism is a terrible thing, but so is accepting or even assenting to false and dangerous doctrine or practice for the sake of unity. On this issue, perhaps more than any other, we have to pray for the Spirit’s help and preface just about every statement with “God willing, …”

  2. Jonathan,
    You have obviously prayerfully considered what things are crucial to authentic fellowship, and have discerned when this can’t exist between yourself and others. I try to do this, too. I try not to quibble about mere sectarian differences, but I do try to defend my convictions when they are significant doctrinally, and others would be misled, if I wasn’t straightforward, into thinking unBiblically. Discernment, right judgment, prudence, love, etc., is given us by the Lord as He grows us, sanctifies us. Being ‘correct’ doesn’t guarantee that we will pass some test, but that we will be kept safe and be able to guard others.

    • Like I said, knowledge of the teaching is one thing, and comparatively easy; practical application is much more difficult—I wouldn’t say that I “have discerned” the proper (particular) course on this most crucial and challenging of issues, but rather that I “am attempting to discern.”

      Personally, I rather like to “quibble” about sectarian differences (as I like thinking deeply about these issues, and I like debate), but I take your meaning: on minor issues, and on questions that today appear to be ones of preference or individual conscience, the cost of making a stand may be more than the potential gain, while on more central issues, where younger believers are being misled, making a stand may be worth any cost. I am grateful that I do not yet (as far as I know) have any younger believers looking to me whose faith might (speaking temporally) be endangered by my error or wayward conduct.

      It’s well worth remembering that discernment, a renewed mind, love, and so on are God’s gifts to us—I would have said that we “develop” them as the Spirit works in us and causes us to grow, but God certainly deserves the credit and praise.

      I would say that correctness of doctrine and thinking are important not, as you say, because our salvation depends on passing some test, but because Christ is the Truth, and remaining in error in doctrine or in practice wears at our fellowship with him—which is our life, because he is our life—because truth and error are, like light and darkness, in fundamental conflict. (In our society, every four years if not more frequently we see repeatedly how difficult it is for our human relationships to weather the strain of irreconcilable opinions on much lesser matters than our own life and death!)

      • Jonathan, yes, practical application is much more difficult. Yes, “attempting to discern” is where we are in this life, when all of our faculties are imperfect
        I think I’ve noticed that you like to debate… For a while I thought that I was simply saying something wrong a lot. Now, I understand – you enjoy polemics.
        Yes, God deserves all the credit and praise for our growth in discernment, as He does in all things. Yes, because Christ is the Truth, to remain in error is
        the ANTITHESIS of life Him.

        About the every four years, pray, pray, pray!


  3. Another tack on the question of unity, that perhaps may shed a little more light (if indirectly) on practical application. (I think I’ve heard this basic point made in some form by a pastor whose blog I follow, but it didn’t occur to me in reference to this discussion until my family sang “The Church’s One Foundation” as our hymn tonight.)

    Where we are commanded or entreated to unity, this is not unity in the abstract: it is unity with one another as the body of Christ, or unity with Christ. And the disciples were warned of many who would come and falsely claim to be the Christ. So what I really need to discern is not whether someone who may or may not be my brother is a type of the Platonic Form of “Christian” or “Pagan,” but whether he is united to the true Christ, to an antichrist, or to the world—and the best (and in many cases the only) way to be sure of that is to make sure that I am holding fast to and ever seeking to grow in the knowledge of the true Christ of the true God. Oh, that I could entirely truthfully say that “all I want is to know Jesus Christ!”

    • Jonathan, I believe that in 1 John, a treasure of discernment, we’re told how to do what you spoke of here:
      “So what I really need to discern is not whether someone who may or may not be my brother is a type of the Platonic Form of “Christian” or “Pagan,” but whether he is united to the true Christ, to an antichrist, or to the world…”
      Thank you for your incisive words, which offered us much – the fruit of your desire to have the mind of Christ!

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