Four Views of Salvation, Part 1: Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism

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I. Introduction

In Christianity, there are few doctrines more important than personal salvation, particularly in the Wesleyan tradition. John Wesley’s oft repeated statement, “I only want to know one thing…the way to heaven” still reverberates among many Christians and seekers of God. Of course, the idea of personal salvation raises two intimately related questions: (1) what is personal salvation and (2) how is a person saved?

The content of personal salvation entails a number of ideas: forgiveness of sin, reconciliation with God and humanity, deliverance from the power of sin, freedom to be fully human, bodily resurrection from the dead, and a ticket to heaven, to name a view. These are the fundamental ideas behind Wesley’s theology of what salvation entails. However, Wesley’s statement fundamentally addresses the second question — the means or way to salvation. Early in his ministry, more than a decade before his Aldersgate experience, Wesley recognized the end of Christianity, but it would take him years before he recognized the means to that end.

Like Wesley, many people recognize the end of salvation, if only vaguely. With the Early Wesley, they struggle in apprehending and appropriating the means to that end. They wrestle with the question, “How is a person saved?” In the history of Christianity, there have been four primary ways in which the achievement of salvation has been articulated. The purpose of this article is to explore the Pelagian, Semi-Pelagian, Semi-Augustinian, and Augustinian views of achieving Christian salvation. In this post, I will explore the Pelagian and Semi-Pelagian views. In another article, I will develop the Semi-Augustinian and Augustinian views.

II. The Four Major Views of Salvation

To begin, while there are four major views on the means of achieving salvation, these views are not monolithic. Each perspective can be nuanced and taught in slightly different ways. For example, while there are certain defining characteristics of the Semi-Pelagian doctrine, there can be many different ways in which this view can be nuanced and taught; there can be disagreements among Semi-Pelagians about specific aspects of their teaching, while still remaining solidly Semi-Pelagian.

Perhaps, the best way to look at the different teachings on salvation is to see them as a spectrum of thought, placed on that spectrum based on how they handle two fundamental and intimately related Christian doctrines: (1) human depravity or original sin and (2) the work of salvation. The first doctrine addresses the degree to which humanity has been affected by original sin. To what extent has humanity been impaired by the Fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden? The second doctrine addresses the relationship of human effort to the work of salvation. Is salvation the work of God, the work of humanity, or some divine-human synergism?

On one end of the spectrum is the view that sees salvation as a human monergism; there is no original sin and salvation is entirely the work of humanity. On the other end of the spectrum is a divine monergism; humanity is completely dead spiritually, possessing no internal resources to contribute to personal salvation. Therefore, if humanity is to be saved, God must do all of the work. In the middle are different synergisms; humanity and God working in cooperation with one another. Those synergisms closer to the human monergism side of the spectrum will place greater emphasis on what human beings contribute to salvation, while those closer to the divine monergism side will place their focus on divine action.

A. Pelagianism

Pelagianism, which is to be distinguished from the actual teachings of Pelagius, expresses the strongest form of human monergism. As such, it exists at one end of the salvation spectrum. Pelagianism is a view of salvation that rejects the idea of original sin. Each person brought into life exists in the same state that Adam and Eve existed before their sin. Human beings have the same freedom that humanity enjoyed in the Garden. There is no inherited tendency, bent, proclivity, or enslavement to sin. The human will is completely free to choose to follow God’s law or not. There is no temptation that can not be overcome through human will power; all divine commands can be fulfilled by a human being. Every human being possesses the necessary internal resource to be an obedient follower of Jesus Christ.

Pelagianism is a view of salvation that rejects the idea of original sin.

From this perspective, salvation is brought about by following the example and teaching of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the perfect model of how a person should live, and his moral teachings provide humanity with the necessary instructions to live as His followers. As such, individuals earn or merit their salvation through their discipleship — imitating the life of Jesus and following his moral commands. Ultimately, a person will stand before God in final judgment, and God will decide whether or not that individual’s discipleship merits the reward of heaven or the punishment of hell. Human action is the means by which salvation is achieved.

Pelagianism can take a variety of forms in Christianity. For example, there are many church members, people who attend worship services, and self-described Christians who believe that their good works (their church attendance, church membership, financial contributions to the church, their charitable giving, their acts of obedience in doing good, etc.) will earn them a place in heaven. Similarly, there are people who believe that their good deeds and their bad deeds will be evaluated in final judgment, and if their good works outweigh their bad, they will earn a place in heaven.

While Pelagianism has been thoroughly rejected as heresy and while no legitimate denomination or Christian body officially holds to this view, nevertheless it still finds expression in Christianity. Pelagianism can be found in many “rank and file” members of liberal mainline denominations, peripheral religious groups like the Unitarian-Universalist Churches, pseudo-religious organizations like Freemasonry, and popular thought in American life.

B. Semi-Pelagianism

Semi-Pelagianism is a synergistic understanding of salvation with priority given to human effort. As such, this perspective is placed on the spectrum closer to the Pelagian end. Semi-Pelagianism recognizes original sin. All of humanity has been affected by the sin of Adam and Eve. Every human being is born with a propensity or proclivity to rebellion and disobedience to God. Every human being has sinned because by Adamic nature they are sinners. Obedience to God and holy love do not come easily to humanity. However, the moral image of God, the ability to choose the good and do the right, has not been completely extinguished in humanity. Humanity still has some internal resources to offer in the work of salvation.

Because of personal sin, human beings stand in need of divine forgiveness and redemption. Human beings can not save themselves. They can not do enough good works and deeds to atone for their sins. If they are going to find redemption, then they must find it in the saving work of Christ in his life, death, and resurrection. To appropriate this work, a person must repent of sin and exercise faith in Jesus Christ. The ability to repent and exercise faith is something a person can do. People have the power within themselves to repent and believe any time they choose. When they do this, God responds by forgiving and redeeming people through Jesus Christ.

This is a human-divine synergism. The work of humanity is to repent and believe. The work of God is to forgive and redeem. Priority is given to human beings, not because they do the most important work in salvation, but because salvation begins with the human initiative. God responds when human beings take this initiative. Perhaps the defining mark of the semi-Pelagian perspective is the belief that every human being, though impaired by original sin, has the power to move toward God, repent, and believe the Gospel at any moment they decide.

Perhaps the defining mark of the semi-Pelagian perspective is the belief that every human being, though impaired by original sin, has the power to move toward God, repent, and believe the Gospel at any moment they decide.

Semi-Pelagianism can take a variety of forms in Christianity. For example, in some expressions of Christianity, salvation is achieved through belief in Christ and good works. Good works alone can not save a person, but they do contribute to earning the justifying work of God in Christ. The merits of godly actions by humans is supplemented by faith in the merits of Christ. As such, both good works and divine work bring about the work of salvation.

While Pelagianism has been rejected by Christianity, Semi-Pelagianism has had a favorable reception in many Christian circles. Historically, the two most dominant expressions of this perspective are found in Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. However, this is the view of most generic evangelicals, or this is how most evangelicals function pragmatically.

Next article in this series: Four Views of Salvation, Part 2: Semi-Augustinianism and Augustinianism.

Chris Bounds
Chris Bounds is Professor of Christian Doctrine at IWU and former Scholar in Residence/Professor of Theology/Gardner Professor for the Promotion of Holiness at Asbury University. He was awarded his M. Phil. in 1994 and Ph. D. in 1997 from Drew University with a focus in systematic theology.