Pelagius was a monk who lived in the late 300s and early 400s AD. His unbiblical doctrine of Pelagianism was condemned by several church councils, and he himself was excommunicated in 418. Pelagianism and the more moderate semi-Pelagianism are still making their rounds today as people, to varying degrees, attempt to take credit for their own salvation and thus mitigate the role of God’s grace.
Pelagius taught that human beings are born innocent, without the stain of original or inherited sin. He believed that God creates every human soul directly, and therefore every human soul comes into the world free from sin. There is no such thing as original sin, and Adam’s transgression did not result in a sinful nature passed down to all humanity. This idea is foundational to Pelagianism.
Pelagius also emphasized the freedom of the human will, as opposed to the sovereign grace of God. He essentially taught that, when we sin, it is the result of our conscious choice of evil over good. We have the ability and freedom to choose good. Following God’s commands is a matter of the will and does not require a supernatural change of heart. Pelagianism is heretical because the Bible clearly teaches that we are sinners by nature as well as by choice (see Romans 7:25) and that salvation is all of grace, apart from works (2 Timothy 1:9–10).
Both Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism deny the biblical doctrine of total depravity, which says that every part of man—his mind, will, emotions, and flesh—has been corrupted by sin. Being totally depraved, mankind is incapable of coming to God on his own. The unregenerate mind is “hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is unable to do so” (Romans 8:7). We are, by nature, enemies of God (Romans 5:10).
Semi-Pelagianism was promulgated in the fifth century AD by John Cassian and some other church leaders in France. It took a middle-of-the-road approach to depravity; we are depraved, but not totally so. Semi-Pelagianism allows that humanity is tainted by sin, but not to the extent that we cannot cooperate with God’s grace on our own. Semi-Pelagianism is, in essence, partial depravity as opposed to total depravity. We are sinful, but we can still recognize the truth, cooperate with God’s grace, and choose to seek Christ. We need God’s grace to be saved, but we can take the first step toward Christ on our own, apart from grace.
The same Scripture passages that refute Pelagianism also refute semi-Pelagianism. Romans 3:10–18 does not describe humanity as only being “partially” tainted by sin. The Bible clearly teaches that, without God’s “drawing” us, we are incapable of coming to Christ: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44). Before we are saved, we are utterly incapable of cooperating with or even recognizing God’s grace, for the simple reason that we are dead in sin: “Even though we were dead in transgressions, [He] made us alive together with Christ—by grace you are saved!” (Ephesians 2:5, NET). When Jesus stood at the tomb of Lazarus, He called him to life and empowered him to come. Jesus did not wait for Lazarus to take the first step toward the exit; Lazarus’s resurrection was completely and undeniably the work of Christ (John 11).
Like Pelagianism, semi-Pelagianism results in a rejection of God’s grace in favor of man’s innate goodness, however small a spark of goodness it is. Semi-Pelagianism downplays God’s supernatural empowerment and enlightenment. It denies that God’s unmerited favor is necessary for us to begin the process of salvation. The Bible says that, from election to glorification, salvation is completely the work of God (Romans 8:29–30). Semi-Pelagianism is unbiblical and should be rejected.