Pelagius was a fifth-century lay (not ordained) monk. He was born somewhere in Britain but eventually made his way to Rome. There he attracted a following due to his piety and virtue, which by all accounts were truly remarkable. Pelagius became an itinerate teacher of morality. He found that the people of Rome were not much interested in piety and morality. He felt that the problem was due to the influence of Augustine and his teachings regarding the grace of God.
Pelagius is best known today for his heretical teaching now known as Pelagianism. Pelagius denied original sin and taught that every person was born morally neutral: we are able to sin but also able not to sin. Pelagius said that human beings fall into sin by choosing to follow Adam’s example. People can be saved by following the example of Christ instead of that of Adam. While grace is helpful, Pelagius taught, it is not necessary for a person to attain eternal life; the exercise of one’s free will is enough. In this way, Pelagius denied the substitutionary atonement of Christ.
In the face of Pelagius’s denial of the necessity of God’s grace, Augustine rose to the challenge and combatted this teaching: Augustine placed an emphasis on man’s sinful nature, the bondage of the will to sin, and God’s gift of grace in Christ.
Pelagius was supported by Nestorius, the heretical bishop of Antioch, but Pelagius was excommunicated by the bishop of Rome (AD 417) and condemned at one of the Councils of Carthage (AD 418). Later, both Pelagius’s and Nestorius’s teachings were condemned at the Council of Ephesus. Not much is known of Pelagius after his excommunication. Some believe he visited Rome again; others think he went to Egypt or to Palestine where he died.
Soon after the condemnation of Pelagianism, a new heresy arose called semi-Pelagianism, which teaches that salvation is a co-operative effort between God’s grace and human free will. Although this position was officially condemned at the Council of Orange, it seems to be a position that fallen humanity gravitates toward. While the Catholic Church as well as Protestant churches all condemn semi-Pelagianism, a frank assessment of the practices of many churches and an analysis of the beliefs of the “people in the pews” would reveal that semi-Pelagianism is alive and well today.