[NOTE: I first posted this in August 2009. Today I spotted Brother Jed again on the A&M campus, so I'm reposting it for students who might have missed it the first time around. Hope it's helpful...I'll return on Monday to my series on College Ministry]
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
For the past couple of weeks, “Brother Jed” has been preaching to students near the MSC on the Texas A&M campus. Most days he has spoken to crowds of forty or fifty at a time, some of whom listen quietly and others who argue and debate theology with him.
When I heard him last Wednesday, I was struck by some odd comments he was making regarding the nature of mankind, particular man’s sinfulness (or lack thereof). I took it upon myself to visit his website — yes, this open-air preacher has a well-developed website — to learn a bit more about his theology. While scrolling through the FAQ’s, I ran across the following statement: “I consider it an honor to be considered a modern day Pelagius.” Suddenly I understood the theological background of his preaching about sin and salvation. Allow me to explain.
Pelagius (c. 354 – 420 A.D.) was a British monk who came to Rome in 380 A.D. preaching a brand of theology that quickly attracted a following. Most notably, Pelagius denied that mankind was inherently sinful; he instead insisted that humanity was born with the innate capacity in his unredeemed state to please God through acts of righteousness. Consequently, the “grace of God,” according to Pelagius was nothing more than God’s assistance of men and women to earn his approval through good works. In a very real sense, he believed that we could earn our salvation if we tried hard enough.
Needless to say, this casts doubt on the absolute necessity of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for salvation. Most Pelagians believe that the death of Christ was simply an example for us to follow, and not a substitution of God’s Son on our behalf to satisfy the Father’s wrath for our sin. Some, however, hold that the atonement removes our individual acts of sin, but that our works cooperate with the cross of Christ to provide salvation. Christian perfection is possible and expected in their system because we are inherently righteous; sin is generally redefined to mean only voluntary or willful transgressions against the revealed Law.
The problem, of course, with Pelagius’s system is that it is incompatible with numerous passages of Scripture. Romans 5:12-17 makes it clear that we are inherently sinful as a result of the sin of Adam; he represented us in his sin, and because of it we are condemned. Ephesians 2:1-3 states that we are “by nature children of wrath,” not merely as a result of evil deeds but as a consequence of a broken and sinful nature. The ONLY solution is complete reliance on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for eternal life (Ephesians 2:8-9). Good works will never be meritorius, because they cannot overcome our inherent sinfulness (Romans 3:9-20).
Ultimately, the Church rejected the views of Pelagius at the Council of Ephesus in 431 A.D. and embraced the views of Augustine, who held a more biblical position on grace and original sin.
As you walk by and hear Brother Jed this week, I would encourage you not to engage him in debates or arguments about his theology. Instead, use his presence as an opportunity to share with your friends the true message of Jesus Christ: Sinful and depraved men and women have the opportunity for salvation only because of what He has done on our behalf. He transforms broken men and women into conformity with Christ, rather than expecting that we transform ourselves for sake of earning salvation. Hallelujah, what a Savior indeed!