By Nature We Are Not Ill But Dead

The Reformation is built on Augustine’s anti-Pelagian doctrines of sin and grace.

We all know that Martin Luther and the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformers recovered the doctrine that Scripture is the sole final authority (sola scriptura), that justification is by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), in Christ alone. It is less well known, however, that one of the most fundamental aspects of the Reformation breakthrough was the recovery of the Augustinian view of sin.

 

One of the first and greatest differences between the Augustinian understanding of Paul and what became the dominant understanding of Paul. By the 7th century and for most of a millennium following, the parable of the Good Samaritan (Mark 10:29–37) became the way that most of the Western church came to think about sin. Time and again, one finds medieval authors turning to the parable to explain that we are like the man going down from Jerusalem to Jericho who was robbed and beaten (Mark 10:30). They said that we are severely wounded but we are not dead. It became an article of faith that, after the fall, humans are able to cooperate with grace.

The Reformation Recovery of Augustinian Reading of Paul

We all know that Martin Luther and the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformers recovered the doctrine that Scripture is the sole final authority (sola scriptura), that justification is by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), in Christ alone. It is less well known, however, that one of the most fundamental aspects of the Reformation breakthrough was the recovery of the Augustinian view of sin.

Who was Augustine and why is he so important to this discussion? Augustine of Hippo (c. AD 354–430) was confronted in the late 4th and early 5th centuries by a British monk named Pelagius (fl. C. AD 380–415). Augustine had written in his Confessions (late 4th century), in a prayer, “Give what you command and command what you will.” Pelagius was offended by this. He was convinced that only Adam had fallen originally. He did not believe that we were all sinners in Adam. In other words, he denied original sin. For Pelagius, we only become sinners when we sin. Therefore, for Pelagius, to pray “give what you command” implies that we cannot, of ourselves, do what God commands. He thought that was an outrageous thing to say.

Pelagius (and his colleague Coelestius) pushed Augustine to look at Paul again, which pushed Augustine to grow in his understanding of the fall and its consequences. In his fifth-century writings, particularly in his anti-Pelagian writings, Augustine argued that Scripture teaches that when Adam sinned we all sinned and that when Adam died, we all died. The church of North Africa agreed with her most famous pastor. The ecumenical Council of Ephesus (431) also agreed with Augustine and condemned Pelagius’ view as heresy.

By the 9th century, however, the church was divided between Augustinians and semi-Pelagians. One monk was beaten and put under house arrest merely for saying what Augustine had said. Many of the leading lights of the Western Church (the Eastern Church largely agreed with Pelagius) had adopted a middle view: we are sinful in Adam but not so sinful that we cannot do what we must to be finally justified and saved. What is that “what”? Our job, the semi-Pelagians argued, is to cooperate with grace. God, they said, comes to us first and gives a push but we must do our part too.

By the time of the Reformation, however, not only was most of the Western Church semi-Pelagian but full-blooded Pelagianism had also broken out again provoking an Augustinian reaction. When Martin Luther began lecturing through the Psalms (1512–14) he was also reading Augustine’s lectures on the Psalms. As he did so, he began to realize that he had been taught Pelagian and semi-Pelagian doctrines. He found Augustine’ explanation of the Psalms persuasive and he began to teach Augustine’s view of sin, that, after the fall, we are not merely ill. We are dead and helpless and grace is free and sovereign and it is only by that free and sovereign grace that we ever come to spiritual life.

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