While we’re studying the book of Romans, we should take special note of exactly what Paul says about salvation. This is because there are two popular heresies that have cropped up over and over in the history of the Church, and these heresies detract from the grace of God and the glory of the gospel. These three heresies are Pelagianism, Semi-Pelagianism, and Arminianism, and the three are of a kind.
Pelagius was an Irish monk of the 4th and 5th centuries and father to a particular kind of heresy. Pelagius believed that man’s free will gave him the power to choose salvation or not, entirely without the work of God. He believed that there was no inherited sin from Adam (what we call “original sin”) that imparted on men a sinful nature, and so any man could live a sin-free life and so earn salvation.
This works-based salvation stands in stark contrast to the writings of the Apostle Paul, who teaches that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) and “there is none righteous – no, not one” (Romans 3:10). Pelagius taught that death was already a part of the world, but God said that death came from the fruit in Eden (Genesis 2:17) and Paul emphasized that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).
Most commonly, this heresy is observed in the question of those who have not heard the gospel. “Surely,” they say, “if one has not heard of Christ one cannot be saved by faith, and so they must be saved by good works.” However, Paul says that the Gentiles (who lacked the Law) still possessed a Law written on their hearts, so that they were without excuse (Romans 2:15). Had Christ not been preached to the Gentiles, most of us would remain damned, but because God is rich in mercy he has made his word to spread to the world, that all peoples might be saved.
We have seen that Pelagianism stands in stark contrast to the teachings of the Apostles and Christ. However, there is a milder form of this heresy that remains popular, and it is espoused by many pastors in the West. This heresy says that God has made the way for salvation in Christ, but it is for each man to choose whether to accept this gift of grace and mercy.
This, too, is in conflict with the Apostles’ teachings. Jesus said, “No one can come to me unless the Father draws him [as water is drawn from a well]” (John 6:44), and also “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). This means that, apart from the working of the Father through the Holy Spirit, no one can come to be saved. This is echoed by Paul, when he writes:
And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.
29For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren.
30Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified.
– Romans 8:28-30
So it is that, while we might perceive ourselves to come to Christ, it is in fact the Father who has called us to Christ and we who have had no choice but to obey. As the Scriptures say, we were “dead in our transgressions and sins” (Ephesians 2:1) – not dying, not in need of help for fear of death, but dead and gone. What can a dead man do to save his life? We who were dead in sin are alive in Christ – this is a resurrection of the spirit, to be followed by a resurrection of the body on the Last Day.
Arminianism is very closely related to semi-Pelagianism, but they are distinct in a few points. Arminius taught that God has called everyone (whether they have heard the word or not), but man has the ability to resist this call. In addition, Arminius taught that grace and salvation were conditional – you had to not waver in faith in order to be assured of your future salvation.
The first point ties Arminianism directly to semi-Pelagianism. While the semi-Pelagian belief tends to be that there is no call or drawing from God, the belief easily translates to “all are called, but not all respond.” If all are called and not all respond, or if you can resist the call, it is no different from having no call at all (for the call could be seen to simply be the work of preachers). However, as we have seen from Paul and Christ’s teachings, “Of those whom God has given Christ he has not lost one” (John 18:9, echoing Jesus’ promise in John 6:39).
With regards to the second point, we have only to look at the conclusion of Romans 8 to provide counterpoint. Paul wrote:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?
36As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.
37Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us.
38For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come,
39Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
– Romans 8:35-39
What does this mean? If there is no power that can separate us from the love of Christ, then how can we say that we have such a power in ourselves? The believer is assured of salvation in Christ’s promises in the Gospel of John and again in Paul’s exaltation in Romans 8. The elect shall be called, they shall come to Christ, and they shall be raised up on the Last Day, every one.
The Importance of Discernment
We hear all manner of teachings these days, as we have heard them since the time of Christ. Paul warned us to reject any that come preaching a gospel other than that the Apostles preached, even if that new gospel came from an Apostle himself (which was a great warning – many false gospels were written by the Gnostics that were proclaimed to be “lost gospels” from various apostles). Jesus warned that many would come after him claiming to be a Christ, or to know something about Christ that he had not revealed to his followers.
What can we do to protect ourselves from unsound doctrines? First and foremost, we must pray always that we shall be given discernment to know these things for the falsehoods they are (for discernment is a gift of the Holy Spirit). In addition, we can always do as the Bereans and go to the Scriptures to test whether what anyone says is true.
Be wary, for our enemy prowls like a hungry lion seeking those he might devour. Gird yourselves with the whole Armor of God, that you might be able to withstand the wiles of the devil.