The Pelagian Captivity of the Church.

One of the books Martin Luther wrote during this period of time was entitled The Babylonian Captivity of the Church. The thesis of this book was to show that the sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church were not the exclusive means of grace unto salvation as ministered to by the priests.

Martin Luther wrote that the sole instrumental means of God’s grace to the sinner for salvation was God-given faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Luther was committed to the doctrine of Sola Fide (Faith Alone), or the biblical teaching that salvation was received from God through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone by the sovereign grace of God alone.

Pastor Erwin Lutzer explains, “The title for the Babylonian Captivity of the Church was derived from the experience of the Jews in the Old Testament when they were held as captives in Babylon for seventy years (2 Chronicles 36:17-21). In Luther’s view, the pope actually chained people to the church as captives by using the sacraments to control the populace and withhold salvation from whomever the priests wished. Hence, the people were in perpetual slavery.”

Dr. R. C. Sproul has an interesting perspective on this subject. “Shortly after the Reformation began, in the first few years after Martin Luther posted the Ninety-Five Theses on the church door at Wittenberg, he issued some short booklets on a variety of subjects. One of the most provocative was titled The Babylonian Captivity of the Church.”

Dr. Sproul continues by saying, I’ve often wondered if Luther were alive today and came to our culture and looked, not at the liberal church community, but at evangelical churches, what would he have to say? Of course I can’t answer that question with any kind of definitive authority, but my guess is this: If Martin Luther lived today and picked up his pen to write, the book he would write in our time would be entitled The Pelagian Captivity of the Evangelical Church. Luther saw the doctrine of justification as fueled by a deeper theological problem. He writes about this extensively in The Bondage of the Will. When we look at the Reformation and we see the solas of the Reformation — sola Scriptura, sola fide, solus Christus, soli Deo gloria, sola gratia — Luther was convinced that the real issue of the Reformation was the issue of grace; and that underlying the doctrine of solo fide, justification by faith alone, was the prior commitment to sola gratia, the concept of justification by grace alone.”

What exactly is Pelagianism? Pelagianism is a theological title given to those who follow the teachings of a 5th century British monk by the name of Pelagius. The basic teaching of Pelagius was that the fall of Adam and Eve into sin (Genesis 3) only affected Adam and Eve. Pelagius believed that when people are conceived and eventual born, they are correspondingly conceived and born sinless in their nature and behavior. Pelagius was convinced that people could live sinless lives, and believed many already had. Pelagius in effect was teaching that there was no original sin.

Augustine disagreed with Pelagius as did the Church. In the fifth century, the Church condemned Pelagius as a heretic. Pelagianism was condemned at the Council of Carthage (418-419), and also condemned at the Council of Orange (529), at the Council of Florence (1431-1439), and also at the Council of Trent (1545-1563). The Church has consistently condemned Pelagiansism because Pelagianism denies the fallenness of our nature; it denies the doctrine of original sin.

Today, so-called liberal churches have embraced Pelagianism. Unfortunately, there is still a movement in the evangelical church which also embraces the teachings of Pelagius. It is often referred to as semi-Pelagianism. It seeks to establish a middle ground between the biblical teaching of original sin and historical Pelagianism.

Semi-Pelagianism teaches that while man is fallen and is in need of grace, man still possesses within himself the ability to come to God in and of his own free will. There remains, therefore, a so-called “tiny island of righteousness” by which fallen man can endear himself to God. In effect, God may take a thousand steps towards the sinner, but in the final analysis the sinner must take that one decisive step to God to determine his eternal destiny of either heaven or hell. How often have you heard this teaching?

Ironically, the early Church condemned semi-Pelagianism as passionately as it had condemned original Pelagianism. Yet by the sixteenth century, the Church basically rejected what Augustine and Thomas Aquinas taught. The Church concluded that there still was this freedom that remained intact in the human will and that man must independently cooperate with the grace that is offered to them by God. If we exercise that free will, with whatever ability we have, we will be saved.

While semi-Pelagianism teaches that fallen sinful person is like a man deathly ill, or a man desperately drowning, the Bible teaches that fallen, sinful man is spiritually dead (Ephesians 2:1-3), his will is in bondage (John 1:12-13) and he is helpless before God as an object of God’s righteous wrath (Romans 1:18).

Martin Luther taught the biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone in the person and work of Jesus Christ alone. However, Martin also understood that underneath the doctrine of faith alone, was the foundational doctrine of grace alone meaning that the ability to believe the gospel was also a sovereign gracious gift by God enabling the dead and fallen sinner to come to Christ (Ephesians 2:8-9; Philippians 1:29; 2 Peter 1:1). Therefore, the Bible teaches that even our faith is a gracious gift from God. A gracious gift God decided to give to those He chose. He made this decision before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:1-5). Therefore, the conclusion is “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.” (Romans 11:36).

Unfortunately, people have left churches when the pastor preaches the biblical doctrine of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone. They are offended that the Bible teaches, and their pastor preaches, that every part of their salvation is of God and that He determines our ultimate destiny and not we ourselves. They would rather believe the lie of fallen man’s free will or liberty to come to Christ then embrace the truth of God’s sovereign will which brings fallen man to Christ.

Only when the church re-embraces the doctrines of grace alone, through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone, to the glory of God alone will the 21st century church experience a true reformation as did the 16th century church. May it come Lord, may it come!

Soli deo Gloria!

3 Replies to “The Pelagian Captivity of the Church.”

  1. It struck me that following the belief of Pelagianism or Semi-Pelagianism in believing that we have a small bit of control in our being saved is Lucifer at his finest. Are we not deceiving ourselves thinking we have a small bit of control but in reality that small bit is the largest bit in being saved because we are saying our will decides our salvation and we are playing God.


  2. Yes, it is unfortunate there are those who believe that their will could trump God’s will…that their walk with the Lord is because they made “the decision” to walk with Him. The Lord is either 100% in control or….the order of this universe, and in turn the earth would not support fallen mans very existence, let alone his salvation.


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