What Is Pelagianism?

Pelagianism, named after the heretic Pelagius, is the belief that Adam’s sin was his alone and his descendants are born into the world innocent as Adam was before his fall in contrast to Augustine’s doctrine of original sin. Because we are not by nature fallen or depraved, we have the ability to merit salvation. God’s saving grace and the cross of Christ are not absolutely necessary for salvation. Pelagius argued that it would be unjust for God to give commands that we are unable to carry out. Since God demands of us perfection, we must be able to live without sin in this life. What lawgiver gives laws that are impossible to keep? Therefore, he argued that we have the natural ability to live in sinless perfection and be admitted into God’s presence on the basis of our obedience to the law.

It is true that we are called to be holy as God is holy because God demands of us perfection (Lev 19:2). Because he does not change, the righteous standard we are held to cannot change. But it does not logically follow that because God demands of us something we are able to carry it out. God calls upon us to circumcise our heart, yet he alone can bring about regeneration (Deut 10:6; 30:6; Jer 4:4; Col 2:11). God commands people to make for themselves a new heart, yet he alone can take out the heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh (Ezek 18:31; 36:26). He tells us to be sinlessly perfect as he is perfect, yet the Bible knows nothing of sinless perfection in this life (Matt 5:48; Jas 3:2). We are called to love God with all our heart, yet our heart often condemns us (Matt 22:37; 1 John 3:20). He calls us to repent, yet he must grant repentance (Acts 17:30; 2 Tim 2:25). We are called to believe in Christ, yet our faith must be granted as well (Acts 16:31; Phil 1:29). Unbelievers are rebuked for their hard and impenitent hearts, yet God must open their heart (Acts 16:14; Rom 2:5). Jesus called upon the man with a withered hand to stretch it out even though he had no natural ability to do so (Matt 12:13). The power from God to stretch it out came with the command. So likewise, the power to repent and believe comes from the Holy Spirit in the call to salvation.

Pelagianism errs in not recognizing that our fallen state does not change God’s righteous character. Because God is perfectly righteous and holy, he demands of us the same thing. Our inability to not sin does not negate our responsibility and guilt toward God as his creatures. Pelagianism wrongly assumes that responsibility implies ability and constructs a theology based around libertarian free will that is not affected by the fall. But the Bible teaches that God supplies the ability for his people to believe during the preaching of the gospel and gives them the Holy Spirit to cause them to follow him and not turn away from him (Deut 30:6; Jer 31:31-34; 32:39-40; Ezek 36:26-27; John 6:44; 8:36; Acts 16:14; 1 Cor 12:3; Phil 1:29; 2 Thess 2:13-14; Jas 1:18; 1 Pet 1:3, 23; 2 Pet 1:3; 1 John 5:1). God supplies what he demands. We work because God works in us (Phil 2:13). For those who do not believe, God holds them responsible for their sin on the basis of the evil intentions of their heart. They have no desire to please or honor God and are rebels against him (Rom 3:10-19). They are willing slaves to sin who need to be rescued by Christ (John 8:34).

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Sunday Meditation – The Goodness of God

“Another ground upon which to trust in God is upon his infinite, free goodness, mercy, and bounty. His heart is as tender as his arm is strong. He is no less willing than able to relieve. ‘As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him’ (Psa. 103:13). A father who sees his child in need and does not help, forfeits the name of father. He is not a man, but a beast. The Lord is all compassion to his people, yes, and infinitely more than this. God alone is ‘the best’. Goodness is his darling attribute and his glory. Moses asked for God’s glory and was shown his goodness (Exod. 33:18). Though we have nothing to plead or to prevail with God from within ourselves, there is an intercessor in God’s own bosom – his own goodness. This will certainly and effectually intercede for our relief.”

Thomas Lye

What Is Montanism?

Montanism is a sect which broke away from the church in the second century following the teachings of Montanus and his prophetess followers Priscilla and Maximilla. They claimed to have new prophetic revelation from God and drew a large number in the church to themselves. They spoke against the distinction between the clergy and the congregation because all Christians are equal to each other. Women were allowed to speak prophetically in church just as the men were. The Christian apologist Tertullian at first opposed them, but later became a Montanist himself.

Some of the followers of Montanus claimed that he was the incarnation of the Holy Spirit. The church father Eusebius of Caesarea writes concerning them:

“For some persons, like venomous reptiles, crawled over Asia and Phrygia, boasting that Montanus was the Paraclete, and that the women that followed him, Priscilla and Maximilla, were prophetesses of Montanus” (Church History, 5.14).

Epiphanius gives us some of Montanus’ prophetic words as he claims to be speaking the words of God:

“Behold, man is like a lyre; and I flit about like a plectron; man sleeps, and I awaken him; behold it is the Lord who changes the hearts of men and gives man a heart” (Medicine 48.4.1).

“Neither angel nor envoy, but I the Lord God the Father have come” (Medicine 48.11.1).

“I am the Lord God, the Almighty dwelling in man” (Medicine 48.11.9).

Eusebius quotes Apolinarius of Hierapolis who describes these prophetic utterances as ecstatic in nature and lacking in self-control:

“There first, they say, when Gratus was proconsul of Asia, a recent convert, Montanus by name, through his unquenchable desire for leadership, gave the adversary opportunity against him. And he became beside himself, and being suddenly in a sort of frenzy and ecstasy, he raved, and began to babble and utter strange things, prophesying in a manner contrary to the constant custom of the Church handed down by tradition from the beginning. Some of those who heard his spurious utterances at that time were indignant, and they rebuked him as one that was possessed, and that was under the control of a demon, and was led by a deceitful spirit, and was distracting the multitude; and they forbade him to talk, remembering the distinction drawn by the Lord and his warning to guard watchfully against the coming of false prophets. . . . And he stirred up besides two women, and filled them with the false spirit, so that they talked wildly and unreasonably and strangely, like the person already mentioned. And the spirit pronounced them blessed as they rejoiced and gloried in him, and puffed them up by the magnitude of his promises” (Church History, 5.16).

They were all later excommunicated from the church:

“And the arrogant spirit taught them to revile the entire universal Church under heaven, because the spirit of false prophecy received neither honor from it nor entrance into it. For the faithful in Asia met often in many places throughout Asia to consider this matter, and examined the novel utterances and pronounced them profane, and rejected the heresy, and thus these persons were expelled from the Church and debarred from communion” (Church History, 5.16).

Maximilla was reported to have prophesied that war was shortly to break out which never came to pass:

“And has not this been shown clearly to be false? For it is today more than thirteen years since the woman died, and there has been neither a partial nor general war in the world; but rather, through the mercy of God, continued peace even to the Christians” (Church History, 5.16).

According to Epiphanius, she also claimed that she would be the last prophet before Christ comes: “After me there will no longer be a prophet but the end” (Medicine 48.2.4).

Apollonius, another writer not to be confused with Apolinarius, wrote that Montanus taught that the institution of marriage was now dissolved. The prophetesses abandoned their husbands in light of this belief:

“His actions and his teaching show who this new teacher is. This is he who taught the dissolution of marriage; who made laws for fasting; who named Pepuza and Tymion, small towns in Phrygia, Jerusalem, wishing to gather people to them from all directions; who appointed collectors of money; who contrived the receiving of gifts under the name of offerings; who provided salaries for those who preached his doctrine, that its teaching might prevail through gluttony. . . . We show that these first prophetesses themselves, as soon as they were filled with the Spirit, abandoned their husbands. How falsely therefore they speak who call Prisca a virgin” (Church History, 5.18).

According to Tertullian, Priscilla believed that abstaining from sex resulted in prophetic visions: “Purification produces harmony and they see visions” (Exhortation to Charity 10.5).

For serious offenses, they believed there could be no forgiveness from God. Tertullian, as a Montanist, quotes from one of their prophets claiming to be speaking by the Spirit: “The Church can pardon sin, but I will not do it, lest they also commit other offences” (On Modesty 21.7).

According to Epiphanius, they forbade Christians from marrying a second time after their spouse had died (Medicine 48.9.7).

Apollonius records that they accepted expensive gifts and were motivated by greed:

“Does not all Scripture seem to you to forbid a prophet to receive gifts and money? When therefore I see the prophetess receiving gold and silver and costly garments, how can I avoid reproving her? . . . . For we will show that those whom they call prophets and martyrs gather their gain not only from rich men, but also from the poor, and orphans, and widows” (Church History, 5.18).

From these testimonies, we can see several problems with this movement:

  1. The lack of self-control in their prophecies is contrary to Paul’s description of prophecy in 1 Corinthians 14:32: “And the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets.” A true prophet is in control of his own spirit describing the orderly nature of New Testament prophecy.
  1. Their desire for wealth and taking money from the poor parallels the greed of the Word of Faith movement today. The health and wealth gospel preys upon the poor and needy by giving them empty promises (2 Pet 2:3).
  1. The teaching that marriage is dissolved is contrary to Paul’s teaching in 1 Timothy 4:1-3. Forbidding others from marrying is a doctrine of demons.
  1. Not allowing Christians to marry after their spouse has died is contrary to 1 Corinthians 7:39.
  1. The abolition of the clergy goes against Paul’s instructions to the church in 1 Timothy 3 that each church is to have elders who instruct the people. This is similar to the later belief of the Quakers.
  1. Their imposed fasting and asceticism is legalistic and goes beyond the warrant of Scripture (1 Cor 4:6).
  1. They share in common with the charismatic movement that the gift of prophecy is still given in contrast to the rest of the church at that time which apparently did not have prophets of its own.
  1. Some of them gave false prophecies concerning the future (Deut 18:22).
  1. The egalitarianism of the movement is contrary to Paul’s instructions in 1 Timothy 2:11-15 concerning women in the church.
  1. Refusing to forgive some sinners is contrary to 2 Corinthians 2:10. God will forgive all who repent of their sins (1 John 1:7).

In other words, they were greedy legalistic egalitarian ecstatic charismatics who gave false prophecies. I can’t think of anyone like that today.

Sunday Meditation – Holy Trust

“Holy trust is an act of worship proper and peculiar to a holy God. Nothing in creation can share in it, for it would become our idol. Trust in God takes us off the hinges of all other confidences. We cannot trust God and mammon. There must be but one string to the bow of our trust, and that is the Lord. More particularly, we must not repose a holy trust in anything besides God, whether within us, or without us. We cannot lean on our own understanding, it will lead us into a bog (Prov 3:5). We cannot trust in our own heart, it is too deceitful (Jer 17:9). We cannot trust in our bodily strength. The most brawny arm will utterly fail the assaults of death and sickness. Legs that now stand like pillars of brass will shortly appear what they really are, sinking pillars of moulding clay. We cannot trust in our natural, acquired excellencies, they are altogether vanity. There is nothing outside of us that we might trust either. Trusting in any part of creation is to feed on gravel. We must not trust in the abundance of riches; even in their fullest flow they are most uncertain and will not profit in the day of wrath. Those trusting in riches can never expect a portion in heaven. Sooner the camel will pass through the eye of a needle than the rich through the gate of glory. Also, trusting man is but a broken reed. Man is dust and with death our hopes perish. Ah, but saints can upon stable ground built their trust in God! All that we discover in God will teach us to place the arms of our trust in him alone. Our God is a safe place on which to lean.”

Thomas Lye

What Is Donatism?

Donatism is the belief that the sacraments given by clergy who had abandoned the faith under persecution and then came back are invalid. During the persecution of Diocletian, many priests renounced the faith to save their lives. After they returned to the church, the party of the Donatists, named after Donatus Magnus who served as Bishop of Carthage, argued that they could no longer serve as priests and that the baptisms they administered were invalid. Those who had been baptized by them needed to be rebaptized since only a true minister of Christ can perform valid baptisms. Because they had renounced the faith, the Donatists argued that they were unqualified for office and therefore their sacraments were invalid as well.

The Donatists also argued that those who abandoned the faith needed to be rebaptized in order for them to be readmitted to the church. This distinguished them from the Novatians who had previously taught that no apostate can ever be restored to the church. Whether or not a person’s baptism was valid was seen as a matter of salvation or damnation because the church at that time generally believed that the act of baptism brought about regeneration. That means if your baptism was invalid, then you still needed to be baptized in order to be born again. Therefore, according to the Donatists, those who were baptized by priests who previously abandoned their profession of the faith still needed to be baptized by a valid priest in order to be born again.

On the other hand, the Roman church believed that a person’s baptism was valid regardless of the character of the priest who performed it. Baptism is valid ex opere operato “from the work worked” or by the action of the thing performed meaning that baptism is valid by the action itself regardless of who performs it. In contrast, the Donatists believed baptism was only valid ex opere operantis “from the work of the worker” meaning that only certain people can perform valid baptisms. Serious sin excludes a person from giving valid baptism. The Donatist view of ex opere operantis appears to have been the belief of Cyprian before he was beheaded for his faith. This disagreement created a schism in the church that lasted until the Muslims wiped out Christianity in North Africa in the eighth century. The Council of Arles in 314 declared that the ordinations made by priests who had previously renounced their faith were still valid contrary to Donatist belief.

Today, Baptists are accused of being Donatists because they rebaptize those who were already baptized as infants. But the reason why Baptists view infant baptism as invalid is very different from why the Donatists viewed the baptisms done by priests who had apostatized as being invalid. Baptists actually disagree with both sides in this debate. The Donatists were wrong to say that a baptism is invalid because the person giving it had been immoral in the past while the proto-Catholics were wrong to believe that the act of baptism itself brings about regeneration. Both sides were wrong to view baptism as regenerative.

If your pastor is a hypocrite and later abandons his profession of the faith after you were baptized by him, you do not need to be rebaptized. Your baptism is valid by virtue of the fact that it is true Christian baptism: the baptism of a believer by immersion in water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in the context of the true church. A person does not have to be morally perfect or even a pastor to give valid baptism (Acts 6:5; 8:38). The New Testament does not explicitly indicate who is allowed to baptize and who is not. So how do we determine whether or not a baptism is valid? A baptism is invalid if:

  1. It is not done by immersion in water since baptisma means immersion (the correct mode).
  1. It is not done to a true Christian who has placed his or her faith in Christ since Christian baptism is a baptism of disciples alone (the correct subject).
  1. It is done by an apostate church that teaches heresy since only the true church can give true sacraments (the correct church).
  1. It is done without the name of the Triune God since there is no other God (the correct God).

Sunday Meditation – Indispensable Duty

“It is the indispensable duty of believers at all times to trust in the Lord alone. This holy confidence can be tuned to the highest notes on the musical scale. A confident soul moves in a higher orbit than other saints and leads the band of heaven’s militia. Patience is hope lengthened and confidence is faith strengthened. The elixir of faith carries with it courage and fortitude, and is the opposite of carnal fear and despondency of spirit. Blessed is that man, though attacked on all sides, that has maintained his ground with firmness. He has exhausted the devil’s quiver of all its arrows and yet exhibits no symptoms of surrendering. On the contrary, he does not recede a single footstep from the favourable position that he has previously occupied (Isa. 12:2). Thus, David undaunted said, ‘The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? (Psa. 27:1). His confidence in God quietly extinguished in his heart the base, sneaking fear of man. Holy confidence stole the heart of Joseph of Arimathea to go in boldly and beg the body of Jesus (Mark 15:43). David encountered Goliath, and took the bear by the teeth and the lion by the beard. Let a believer make God his trust and, but once know his duty, it is enough; he will with a courageous and undaunted mind cheerfully undertake it and commit both himself and his success to God. What are the effects of a holy trust? A fervent, effectual, constant prayer to God; a sincere, universal, spiritual, cheerful, constant obedience to God. They that expect to enjoy what God promises will be sure to perform what God commands; and even now will experience a soul-ravishing joy. If the Lord is our trust and strength, he will surely be our joy and song.”

Thomas Lye

What Is Novatianism?

Novatianism is the belief that Christians who commit apostasy can never be readmitted back into membership in the church. The historical background which led to Novatianism is the Decian persecution of 250 in which Emperor Decius ordered that all Roman citizens make a sacrifice to the Roman gods on his behalf. Because Christians cannot engage in idolatry, many of them chose to die for their faith rather than comply with the emperor’s orders. But many professing Christians did apostatize from the faith by offering sacrifices to the gods so they could procure a libellus or document which would ensure their safety. Those who denied the faith by this act were called lapsi or those who lapsed in their commitment to Christ.

But what should the church do when those who are among the lapsi want to return to the church after engaging in idolatry? Some in the church, such as Bishop Cornelius of Rome, allowed the lapsi to return to the church after a period of penance while Novatian opposed all attempts to allow repentant apostates to return to the church. Those who followed Novatian were known as katharoi or “pure ones” who advocated for a pure church in which those who left could not return. The later followers of Novatian expanded the list of sins which permanently excluded one from the church to include murder and sexual immorality. The Novatians were in general agreement with Tertullian that God could forgive all sin, but that there were some sins the church could not forgive.

Now why would anyone believe that apostasy cannot be forgiven by the church? The Novatians came to this conclusion based on their understanding of Hebrews 6:4: “For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened.” Because it is impossible to restore to repentance those who had apostatized in the Book of Hebrews, restoration is impossible for apostates. They also argued that we should not restore those who commit mortal sins that lead to a loss of salvation based on 1 John 5:16: “If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life – to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that.”

I have written elsewhere on Hebrews 6 explaining why it is impossible to restore these people to repentance. The mistake Novatian made with regards to Hebrews 6 is that he misunderstands why it is that repentance is impossible for them. The reason it is impossible is because such people will never desire to return to the church again because they will never be given the gift of regeneration by the Holy Spirit. But if a person believes that the act of baptism results in regeneration rather than it coming about by the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of his elect through the gospel, then he will badly misunderstand the apostasy passages of Scripture.

Novatian’s interpretation of the passage is the only consistent way to interpret it if one believes that a Christian can lose his salvation because baptism brings about regeneration and not everyone who is baptized endures to the end. Those who use Hebrews 6 to argue that a Christian can lose his salvation are not being consistent because they believe that a person can be saved and lost many times during his life. If Hebrews 6 and 1 John 5 are describing mortal sins that cause a Christian to lose his salvation, then salvation cannot be restored and we should not pray for that person. But because those who believe in a category of mortal sins believe that salvation can be restored and that we should pray for apostates demonstrates that they really don’t believe what the text says. The Novatian controversy exposed the inconsistency of baptismal regeneration and the belief that salvation can be lost when the very texts used to support such beliefs taken literally in the sense in which they were interpreted resulted in the absurd conclusion that truly repentant people cannot be restored to repentance. But the fact that they are repentant demonstrates that they have not committed the sin of Hebrews 6 or 1 John 5.