The struggle within the church now is between the Augustinian view and various forms of semi-Pelagianism, which seeks a middle ground between the views of Pelagius and Augustine. Semi-Pelagianism teaches that grace is necessary to achieve righteousness, but that this grace is not imparted to the sinner unilaterally or sovereignly as is maintained by Reformed theology. Rather, the semi-Pelagian argues that the individual makes the initial step of faith before that saving grace is given. Thus, God imparts the grace of faith in conjunction with the sinner’s work in seeking God. It seems a little mixing of grace and works doesn’t worry the semi-Pelagian.
“Grant what Thou commandest, and command what Thou dost desire.” This passage from the pen of Saint Augustine of Hippo was the teaching of the great theologian that provoked one of the most important controversies in the history of the church, and one that was roused to fury in the early years of the fifth century.
The provocation of this prayer stimulated a British monk by the name of Pelagius to react strenuously against its contents. When Pelagius came to Rome sometime in the first decade of the fifth century, he was appalled by the moral laxity he observed among professing Christians and even among the clergy. He attributed much of this malaise to the implications of the teaching of Saint Augustine, namely that righteousness could only be achieved by Christians with the special help of divine grace.
With respect to Augustine’s prayer, “Oh God, grant what Thou commandest, and command what Thou dost desire,” Pelagius had no problems with the second part. He believed that God’s highest attribute was indeed His righteousness, and from that righteousness He had the perfect right Himself to obligate His creatures to obey Him according to His law. It was the first part of the prayer that exercised Pelagius, in which Augustine asked God to grant what He commands. Pelagius reacted by saying that whatever God commands implies the ability of the one who receives the command to obey it. Man should not have to ask for grace in order to be obedient.
Now, this discussion broadened into further debates concerning the nature of Adam’s fall, the extent of corruption in our humanity that we describe under the rubric “original sin,” and the doctrine of baptism.
It was the position of Pelagius that Adam’s sin affected Adam and only Adam. That is to say, as a result of Adam’s transgression there was no change wrought in the constituent nature of the human race. Man was born in a state of righteousness, and as one created in the image of God, he was created immutably so. Even though it was possible for him to sin, it was not possible for him to lose his basic human nature, which was capable always and everywhere to be obedient. Pelagius went on to say that it is, even after the sin of Adam, possible for every human being to live a life of perfect righteousness and that, indeed, some have achieved such status.
Pelagius was not opposed to grace, only to the idea that grace was necessary for obedience. He maintained that grace facilitates obedience but is not a necessary prerequisite for obedience.