For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.
So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. (Romans 7:15-25a)
In 413 a Celtic-British monk sat down to write a letter to a woman named Demetrias who had taken the decision to become a nun. This monk was a popular teacher and many would seek him out in order to gain spiritual wisdom, as Demetrias herself had done. This letter is all that survives of his writings, and in many ways it reads like something which could have been written in the past decade as these excerpts demonstrate:
Most people look at the virtues in others, and imagine that such virtues are far beyond their reach. Yet God has implanted in every person the capacity to attain the very highest level or virtue... It is the combination of free will and rationality which makes human beings superior to all other creatures... All of us have met [non-Christians] who are tolerant, temperate, chaste, generous and kind;... The goodness we see in [non-Christians] is proof of the goodness of God. He has granted every person, regardless of race or religion, the freedom to choose good or evil. The advantage of being a Christian is that through the teaching of Jesus Christ we learn more fully the nature of goodness; and through his example, we are inspired to choose good... The joy of heaven, which is the reward for making good and wise choices on earth, lasts for all eternity.
So it is, this monk asserts, that "what matters is that each person thinks, decides and acts with a pure conscience".
This teaching was popular and, one would think, uncontroversial. Yet in 431 - eighteen years after this letter was written - this theology was discussed in Ephesus by bishops who had gathered from across the known world. It was condemned and the council determined that any clerics who held this view "either publicly or privately" should "stand deposed".
And so Pelagius - this Celtic-British monk - is numbered amongst the heretics.
At the root of the great dispute surrounding Pelagius’ views is the effect that the Fall had on the human race. In other words, what is in dispute is nothing less than human nature itself and the capacity each of us has to freely choose what we do.
For Pelagius, the Fall of Adam was in fact a positive event for the human race, and in this same letter to Demetrias he sets out his argument. In eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge Adam and Eve were indeed being disobedient, but that is not the entire story. Since they had now eaten the fruit, they now had the knowledge of good and evil and that knowledge "enables human beings to exercise freedom of choice". For Pelagius, therefore, "the story of their banishment from Eden is in truth the story of how the human race gained its freedom: by eating fruit from the tree of knowledge, Adam and Eve became mature human beings, responsible to God for their actions". Pelagius taught that Fall has a positive outcome. The human race gained free will and grew up.
When put like this it is difficult to see why that great council of bishops objected to this teaching. Freedom is one of the great cries of the ages, and the pursuit of choice is the foundation of democracies and free markets alike. That we should be responsible for our actions is at the heart of legal and philosophical systems alike. That we should be responsible to God is simply Christian.
There is, though, a flaw in this argument and it lies at its start. Pelagius was well known as an ascetic monk and he asserted that each and every person had the power and will to control their actions. Yet is life really this simple? Surely the words which can be found in Romans 7:18-19 ring true for those of us who strive to follow Pelagius’ advice to choose good: “For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing”. As he urged them to pray against temptation, Jesus commented to his disciples: “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak”. (Mt. 26:41).
None of us like to think that we are weak, or that we are sinners, but I would argue that this knowledge is actually the most liberating knowledge we could possess. We do operate from mixed motives. At times we do not stop ourselves doing things we know are wrong. In the end we do have flaws. If - as Pelagius argued - we have the perfect ability to always do good, and will be judged by God accordingly, that is frankly terrifying. Who could go before God, who knows the contents of our hearts, and say we have lived a life which was perfect in every detail? Remember that - according to Pelagius - any slip you made was a free choice and should be judged accordingly. No mercy, just straight judgment. One strike and you’re out.
In fact there is only one who ever could stand in front of the judgement seat of God and be found guilty of no sin. Jesus leads the perfect life. He alone fulfils the requirements of the Old Testament Law. He alone can say that he has not sinned. He alone has met the standard set by Pelagius.
The joy of the Christian gospel is that it proclaims that we are able to be judged not on the basis of our own life, but on the basis of Jesus’ life. So Paul can write: “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ“ (Galatians 3:27). He can rejoice: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (1 Corinthians 5:12). He can say that we are “in Christ” over 140 times in his letters. He knows that we stand before the judgment seat, we are judged by Jesus’ actions.
Here, finally, is the fulfilment of the centuries old prophecy: “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my soul shall be joyful in my God for He hath clothed me with the garments of salvation, He hath covered me with the robe of righteousness.” Isaiah 61:10.
So the question is simple. Whose life would you rather be judged by: yours or Jesus’s? Are you good enough to rely on your life, hoping it is perfect, or will you seize the opportunity to place all your trust in Jesus’ life?
If you have any inkling that you have ever done anything wrong, there is surely only one answer.