Augustine, Pelagius, and Questions of Grace

One of the theological conundrums in Christianity concerns the relationship between God’s grace and human freedom. What role does God play in the process of salvation, and what do humans contribute? Views ranges from one extreme in which everything is done by God, with humans only playing a passive role, and another extreme in which salvation is entirely merit-based, a reward for our works.

The classic debate on this subject is the fifth century argument between Augustine, who was at this point a bishop in northern Africa, and a monk by the name of Pelagius, who was an advocate of Christian reform. Augustine won the argument in terms of church endorsement; Pelagianism was officially declared a heresy. However, the underlying questions emerged again and again in theological discussions in the following centuries. I find this debate fascinating, and I think the issues it raises continue to be relevant, for Mormons as well as for other Christians.

One central disputed point between Augustine and Pelagius is the question of human goodness. Pelagius is a strong believer in human ability; to disparage it, he argues, is to criticize the work of the Creator. We have an innate ability to do good; in fact, our ability to resist sin is such that perfection is not out of human reach. God would not give us commandments which we do not have the power to follow. Pelagius understands original sin as something transmitted through imitation. Adam’s sin did not harm the human race by damaging human nature; rather, he was a bad example. Human freedom remains intact after the fall. Sin can be found in the environment, in social mechanisms which influence us. The reason why it is difficult for us to do good is that we have been corrupted by long habits of sinning.

Augustine, by contrast, emphasizes the disastrous consequences of the fall on human nature itself. Sin is not simply external to us; it is in our wills, which have become disordered. Without grace, humans are incapable of doing anything toward our own salvation; we are slaves to sin. We do not have the ability to follow God’s commands. Human nature therefore stands in need of Christ the physician to heal it.

Pelagius sees humans as existing in a kind of morally neutral condition in which we can choose to do good or to do evil. God has given us the choices of life and death, and left the decision up to us. Free will thus means the ability to choose in either direction. Humans do not require extra grace to choose good; both good and evil are within our reach.

For Augustine, freedom is closely connected to love. We are free in that we can follow our desires. In our fallen state, we freely choose to sin; if by the aid of grace our will is turned to God, we freely choose righteousness. The reason we are not free to choose good after the fall is not therefore because we have lost the power to choose, but because our love is not oriented toward God above all else. It is only grace which can transform this inclination, and cause us to delight in the good. The will is not neutral; it is always oriented in one direction or the other.

Pelagius finds grace in a number of places: it is the original gift of free will in the first place, by which humans can avoid sin; it is in the law of Moses; it is in the forgiveness of sin enabled by the death of Christ; and it is in the example and teaching of Christ. Since Pelagius understands sin as an external problem, he also sees grace as an external aid; it has no need to transform human nature. Grace frees us from ignorance and tells us what we must do. This grace appeals to freedom, and humans can choose to follow. It points the direction which one must go, but it does not play any role in enabling the person to travel.

In Augustine’s view, there exist both exterior and interior forms of grace. He agrees with Pelagius about the law and gospel being instances of grace. However, he does not think such grace is sufficient, and believes that grace works internally as well. Preaching and knowledge of the law cannot alone bring us to justification; we require God to move our wills to respond to them. Grace is absolutely vital because without it, all we do is sinful.

Charity is key to Augustine’s understanding of grace. Nothing is good unless it is done with charity, and this charity can only be the gift of God. We would be unable to love God without God first loving us. Knowledge of the law cannot be sufficient to follow it, because to truly do so one must not only know it but also delight in it, and this delight is a gift of God. God therefore gives what he commands, as it is charity that moves us to love of neighbor and to good works. Grace is thus the ground of our freedom. The more charity we have, the greater liberty we have to do good. Grace transforms our loves, ordering them correctly so that we love God above all and we love all else in relation to God.

Mormons are at times–and, I think, not without reason–accused of being Pelagian. In my experience, we are well aware of the problems with some of Augustine’s ideas. And certainly, there are troubling elements in his thought–Augustine ends up arguing for a predestination based entirely in the hidden will of God, for the damnation of unbaptized infants, for extreme human depravity, for original sin as something which gets transmitted through sexual relations.

However, the Pelagian framework is not without its disturbing aspects, either. I find rather questionable his belief that humans have the ability to, at least in theory, achieve perfection on their own. And while Pelagius argues that emphasizing human ability is the best way to motivate people, I think his approach runs the real risk of having the opposite effect, of leaving people drowning in despair when they fail to be “good enough” despite repeated efforts.

I’m also not persuaded by the Pelagian assertion that we have the ability to choose to be good. I think Augustine is on to something in his argument that we can only be truly righteous if motivated by charity, and charity is something which we are unable to acquire on our own. I see this resonating with human experience as well; is it possible to love others without first having the experience of being loved? It makes sense that the same would hold true of our relationship to God.

Additionally, I think Pelagius does not give enough scope to the power of the grace of Christ, which he believes allows us to be forgiven of past sins, but does not see as playing a transformative role in our lives. Here again I find myself in agreement with Augustine: we need grace not just to heal the past, but also to enable us to do good in the future. And while I am still untangling my thoughts on freedom, I am quite compelled by the way in which Augustine links it to charity, and to integration.

As with so many theological questions, the challenge here seems to be not to find the one definitive answer, but to hold apparently opposing principles in a productive tension without slipping too too far in the direction of either extreme, be it a radical Augustinianism in which God calls all the shots and human choice avails nothing, or a radical Pelagianism in which humans can perfect themselves without grace. But I have to admit that I have found myself becoming more and more Augustinian in my thinking–perhaps simply because the more I’ve seen where my own free choices have led me, the more I’ve felt desperately in need of the power of grace.


  1. Lynette, I really like your conclusion. The more I live (read: the more I mess up) the more I realize how much grace I need. Even on my best days I realize there is a huge amount of grace getting me through. One interpretation of the well known scripture “it is by grace that we are saved after all we can do,” interpreted by my father-in-law is that it is more that we are saved by grace in spite of all we can do. That it’s not so much we put all we can on the scale and God evens it out, but God is continually giving us grace to even help us get on the scale. I don’t think a Mormon needs help in knowing good works are important, but it is widely misconceived that Mormons don’t believe in grace and that sure bothers me.

  2. What a beautiful and thoughtful post, thank you.
    I am glad to be distracted from other confusing and often upsetting discussions about feminism to dwell on the subject of grace.
    While I was reading your post, Book of Mormon scriptures came into my mind, “The natural man is an enemy to God. . .” or Moroni 7:48 where we are told to “pray with all the energy of heart that [we] may be filled with this love (charity)which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ.” When I rediscovered this verse a few years ago I was struck with the idea that we don’t just practice charity like we practice other virtues, honesty, patience, etc. As Lynette explained, charity is a gift from God. That’s pretty remarkable to me.

  3. Thanks for the comments, cmac and jessawhy. cmac, I completely agree with the interpretation you mention of “after all we can do.” In kind of a tie-in to the subject of this post, the way it sometimes gets read–that you do all that you can, and then and only then does grace come into play–is, I think, strikingly similar to what was known as “semi-Pelagianism” in the late Middle Ages. The famous saying of that era was something along the lines of, “God will not deny grace to those who do what is within them,” which got interpreted by many to mean that people should do what they could, and then God would respond with grace. The problem with that framework, of course, is that how do you ever know when you’ve done “enough” for grace to kick in? That’s the question that haunted Luther, and it’s a question that resonates a lot with me as well. People will say, just do your best, but I’m always left wondering what “my best” is, and painfully aware that there’s no way I’m doing it.

    Okay, I’m rambling a little. But I also agree with your observation that Mormons aren’t generally in danger of focusing too much on grace to the exclusion of works.

    Jessawhy, I also find it a pleasure to come back to the subject of grace; it’s something that quite fascinates me. I’ve thought a lot about that scripture in Mosiah you mention about the natural man being an enemy to God, which I see as taking a rather Augustinian view in its assertion that we’re in need of some kind of fundamental transformation. I really like the idea that what is required is that we yield to the enticings of the Spirit; I like the sense it conveys that God is calling to us, and what is required of us is that we respond.

  4. I find it oddly comforting that the some of the same questions I struggle with have engaged the minds of people much smarter than I for centuries. If the internet had been around then, I wonder what the back and forth between Augustine and Pelagius and their partisans would have looked like? PELAGIUS, YOU HERETIC!!! REPENT OR DIE!!!

    Re: grace. It is interesting that everybody participating in this thread so far (Lynnette, cmac, Jessawhy, and now me) has spoken of grace as something that is discovered or appreciated through the process of living. I got the new biography of Spencer W. Kimball from Santa and just finished reading it. Later in his life, SWK expressed concern that he hadn’t included more teaching about grace and mercy in The Miracle of Forgiveness. He feared that the book’s strong and repetitive message about the seriousness of sin was out of balance, and that people may have become discouraged and given up on repentance because they had not understood God’s grace. I guess even prophets can have regrets.

    A quick question, Lynnette. Is what you have written in this post part of your coursework? I envy your ability to write and think clearly. If this is for a class you deserve an A, and if you just did this for fun, I admire it even more.

  5. Mark, I love that image of Pelagius and Augustine arguing on the internet. I can just imagine reading their blogs. (Now there’s a paper topic: what would the Confessions have looked like if they’d first appeared in blog form?)

    And yes, you’ve guessed correctly that this is part of my studies. I took my comprehensive exams back in November, and the first one was on the topic of grace and freedom. Though I read a number of thinkers on the subject, the Augustine/Pelagius debate is still pretty much the baseline for the discussion, so I spent a lot of time with it–and in writing this post, I made use of the slacker method and went back and pulled stuff from what I’d written in the past. I find the issue so fascinating–those questions of whether we can be good, of how change happens (if it even does; sometimes looking at the repetitive patterns in my life, I start to wonder!), of where grace can be found, are ones that I keep coming back to.

  6. As I am currently taking a seminary course on Augustine and His Times, I ran across this blog and it is an interesting blog to say the least. But … Pelagius was only an “an advocate of Christian reform” inasmuch as he was looking for the ‘best’ way to live out the Christian faith. Much of what he espoused, at least initially, was in line with the Church’s teachings. It was not until one of his cohorts, Caelestus laid out a very crass form of Pelagian views that perked the interest of the Church which eventually asked Augustine to write an answer. Hence, his great work, “Answer to the Pelagians …” Pelagius’ problem was that he made living piously the way one gets into the kingdom of heaven. Man, for Pelagius, was basically good and could make the choice to be a Christian or not (to use more modern parlance.) Hence, infants were not baptized for the forgiveness of sin as they were basically good. (So much for the Biblical view that ‘all’ fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3) But, Augustine, was prescient and could see that the outcome of Pelagius’ ideas would vitiate any need for Christ as a Redeemer. Some of Pelagius’ ideas were actually in line with the Church at that time. Augustine, however, shed new light on the interpretation of Paul’s letters. This was a monumental shift for the church. It eventually came to a head in the Reformation when a now well-known Augustinian monk – Martin Luther – challenged the Church’s penitential system. Augustine was dead on about human nature and the fact that all – all – infant and adult – need Christ to save them. It then, can only be by grace as Paul so clearly says (Eph 2:8-10). Interesting blog … but I am curious … I can see how this debate would be interesting for Christians or even historians interested in Christian history … but I never thought that Mormons would find this interesting … hmm interesting …

  7. Thanks for your comment, Frank. Regarding whether Mormons would find questions about Pelagianism interesting, I suspect Lynnette is somewhat of an outlier here. Most Mormons probably wouldn’t. But then, most Christians in general probably wouldn’t either; is that fair to say?


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