Though no one may recognize it, and those who may would be loath to admit it, we are in the throes of a Pelagian revival in the American church. (No shundai blankets needed.)
For the uninitiated or the unfamiliar, Pelagius was a British monk in the 5th century who argued, contrary to his rival Augustine, that we were not born with original sin, and that it was possible to maintain that state of grace throughout life. A popular mutation of this line of thinking is what is referred to as ‘works-based salvation’, that one’s deeds can earn Christian salvation. As mentioned, this is a mutation: Pelagius’ point wasn’t that sin could be counteracted with deeds, but that humanity has the ability to maintain its good standing with a Creator God. Augustine’s view in time won out, of course, and Pelagius was condemned as a heretic at the Council of Carthage.
Incidentally, Pelagius was a champion of free will. He called it ‘grace’.
Such an equivocal problem (or problems, in this case: Pelagianism proper and its mutated offspring, as well as ‘grace’) is exactly what we are dealing with today. While I do not believe sin is an act but a state of being–attitude precedes action, as an old friend and journalist/ethics instructor once put it–at the same time, there seems to be, within ecclesiastical circles, a line of thinking like this: If works are not enough to maintain or earn salvation, and a relationship with God through Christ is sufficient to be ‘saved’ (whatever that means), then what we do is ultimately arbitrary. If our actions cannot help, then they necessarily cannot hurt, either.
It’s material implication, but it’s deeply problematic, both logically and theologically.
I would think that most orthodox [note the case] Christians would agree with the statement that what we do cannot raise our standing with God. Christian salvation [fully recognizing the lack of a proper word here; I really am not particularly fond of ‘salvation’] is not reliant on a meritocratic fulfilling a quota of good deeds or engaging the requisite number of acts of Christian service (even Catholics can agree that the sacraments are inherently insufficient.) We recognize grace as, essentially, getting what we don’t deserve, and can recognize Pelagius’ equivocation for what it is.
Or do we?
While we generally object to Pelagius, we seem to be very fond of assuming the converse to be true: that if what we do can’t help, then it can’t hurt, either. And then we run into the un-Pelagian problem. What is the point of the Christ-event if the law has been circumvented by a gospel that says we may do what we please? What is the point of religious experience and participation if it does not demand of us some form of negotiation?
Unfortunately, I need to issue a caveat here: I am not advocating for legalism or some sort of harsh fundamentalist asceticism. But let’s be honest: what separates us from that mutant cult known as Calvinists if their TULIP (Perseverance of the saints should just be replaced with Pelagianism) and sense of eternal security and our progressive (and unintentionally Pelagian) sense of grace? Live by the law, die by the law. Or, in this case, live by the absence of the law, die by the absence of the law.
For being so hostile toward fundamentalism and strict legalism, the modern church has done a fine job of becoming so harsh and oppressive in their un-legalism. And last I checked, free beings are not free if we don’t have a choice with regard to relationship with the divine. Universalism violates our agency in the same way that strict Reformed theology precludes it. To be sure, the absence of regulation is at least as restrictive and probably more so than having a set of parameters within which a person could operate. Liberty is the tension between freedom and self-restraint, a tension within which theology and the community of faith is supposed to operate. Without the need for self-restraint–or, in this case, the work of Christ developing a person’s heart–there is no legitimate need for acceptance of Christ, or a relationship to God.
Which brings me to my main point: what we do may not save us, but that does not mean our actions don’t matter at all. Quite the opposite, our actions betray what matters most to us. They won’t help, but they certainly can hurt. A Christian doesn’t do things to demonstrate her faith, she does them because she is at liberty to precisely because there is nothing gained by it. The selfish person will do whatever he pleases, or will check as many things off the soteriological bucket list as possible because both poles are about the self and nothing else: they are one and the same. Relying on grace alone and a nebulous sense of relationship with God is no less legalistic as the churches many disgruntled adherents have left in the first place.
Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. Instead of focusing on the same Bible characters over and over, we would probably be better off learning from the heretics for a while. In our pursuit of truth here, like just about everywhere else, we’ve forgotten that that pursuit also means being watchful for falsehood. The heretics are just as important to our story as the holy.
And, like Pelagius’ or Calvin’s ideas, notions, even and especially well-intended ones, can have severe and deleterious consequences.