By Nature We Are Not Ill But Dead

One of the first and greatest differences between the Augustinian understanding of Paul and what became the dominant understanding of Paul. By the 7th century and for most of a millennium following, the parable of the Good Samaritan (Mark 10:29–37) became the way that most of the Western church came to think about sin. Time and again, one finds medieval authors turning to the parable to explain that we are like the man going down from Jerusalem to Jericho who was robbed and beaten (Mark 10:30). They said that we are severely wounded but we are not dead. It became an article of faith that, after the fall, humans are able to cooperate with grace.

The Reformation Recovery Of Augustinian Reading of Paul

We all know that Martin Luther and the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformers recovered the doctrine that Scripture is the sole final authority (sola scriptura), that justification is by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), in Christ alone. It is less well known, however, that one of the most fundamental aspects of the Reformation breakthrough was the recovery of the Augustinian view of sin.

Who was Augustine and why is he so important to this discussion? Augustine of Hippo (c. AD 354–430) was confronted in the late 4th and early 5th centuries by a British monk named Pelagius (fl. C. AD 380–415). Augustine had written in his Confessions (late 4th century), in a prayer, “Give what you command and command what you will.” Pelagius was offended by this. He was convinced that only Adam had fallen originally. He did not believe that we were all sinners in Adam. In other words, he denied original sin. For Pelagius, we only become sinners when we sin. Therefore, for Pelagius, to pray “give what you command” implies that we cannot, of ourselves, do what God commands. He thought that was an outrageous thing to say.

Pelagius (and his colleague Coelestius) pushed Augustine to look at Paul again, which pushed Augustine to grow in his understanding of the fall and its consequences. In his fifth-century writings, particularly in his anti-Pelagian writings, Augustine argued that Scripture teaches that when Adam sinned we all sinned and that when Adam died, we all died. The church of North Africa agreed with her most famous pastor. The ecumenical Council of Ephesus (431) also agreed with Augustine and condemned Pelagius’ view as heresy.

By the 9th century, however, the church was divided between Augustinians and semi-Pelagians. One monk was beaten and put under house arrest merely for saying what Augustine had said. Many of the leading lights of the Western Church (the Eastern Church largely agreed with Pelagius) had adopted a middle view: we are sinful in Adam but not so sinful that we cannot do what we must to be finally justified and saved. What is that “what”? Our job, the semi-Pelagians argued, is to cooperate with grace. God, they said, comes to us first and gives a push but we must do our part too.

By the time of the Reformation, however, not only was most of the Western Church semi-Pelagian but full-blooded Pelagianism had also broken out again provoking an Augustinian reaction. When Martin Luther began lecturing through the Psalms (1512–14) he was also reading Augustine’s lectures on the Psalms. As he did so, he began to realize that he had been taught Pelagian and semi-Pelagian doctrines. He found Augustine’ explanation of the Psalms persuasive and he began to teach Augustine’s view of sin, that, after the fall, we are not merely ill. We are dead and helpless and grace is free and sovereign and it is only by that free and sovereign grace that we ever come to spiritual life.

In short: the Reformation is built on Augustine’s anti-Pelagian doctrines of sin and grace.

The Arminian Shift

In the late 16th and early 17th-centuries a Dutch Reformed minister, Jacob Hermanzoon (c.1560–1609) began to argue for a view of the effects of the fall that essentially agreed with the pre-Reformation semi-Pelagians. Indeed, the Synod of Dort flatly described his theology as Pelgaian. They complained that Arminius and his followers had brought “again out of hell the errors of Pelagius” (RE 2.3).

Arminius and his followers affirmed original sin but they re-defined it and downplayed its effects. The brought back the very sort of medieval theology that the Protestant Reformers had rejected.

This is important to understand because many modern evangelicals are Arminian and some of them are Pelagian. This is an area where there is a sharp difference between the Reformation understanding of the Scriptural account of the fall and its consequences and the modern evangelical understanding.

Many contemporary evangelicals agree with the unbelieving world that humans are “basically good.” To be sure, if we are talking about humans as they were created, then yes, we may say that humans were basically good. If we are talking about creation and opposing the Gnostics, as the early church did, we must affirm the basic goodness of creation. Matter is not evil per se. Indeed, for the Protestant Reformers, the goodness of creation was an important truth. This is why they affirmed the goodness of secular work, marriage, and Christian liberty.

Because of the influence of Pelagius and Arminius, however, many evangelicals do not have a biblical view of sin. They do not understand or they downplay the effects of the fall.

Recovering Augustine And Paul Again

Let us do for a moment what Augustine and the Protestant Reformers did. Let us go back to Paul again to see what he said and why. Look at Ephesians 2:1 where he says, “And you being dead in your transgressions and sins” (Καὶ ὑμᾶς ὄντας νεκροὺς τοῖς παραπτώμασιν καὶ ταῖς ⸀ἁμαρτίαις ὑμῶν…).

The broader context of this verse begins toward the beginning of chapter 1, where he praises God for his marvelous, unconditional favor (something else Arminius and Pelagius rejected):

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved (Eph 1:3–6; ESV).

All who believe were chosen, in Christ, unconditionally before the foundation of the world. In the beginning of chapter 2 he is explaining why that grace is so marvelous: because those to whom God gives new life, are, in themselves, dead in sins and trespasses. God does not help those who help themselves. He helps those who are dead. We do not need to be bandaged. We need to be resurrected.

Paul is quite pointed about our natural state, in Adam:

in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind (Eph 2:2–3; ESV).

Because we are spiritually, apart from God’s sovereign grace, we follow “the course of this world,” we follow the “prince of the power of the air.” We are “sons of disobedience” and we live like it. Paul puts a fine point on it. We were in grave jeopardy: “children of wrath.” That is not a punk band name. That is what, by nature, after the fall, all of us are.

Then come two of the sweetest words you will ever read: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—” (Eph 2:4–5; ESV).

“But God…”. We were dead. We were helpless but God came. God saved. God gave new life. Out of his super abundant mercy (not giving to us what we deserve) and grace (giving to us what Christ earned for us), made us alive with Christ. We who believe do so because God raised us from the dead just as he raised Jesus. “By grace” means “by God’s free favor in Christ.”

This is wonderful news. This is the best news. If you believe it is because of that “but God.” Just as you breathe because you are alive, so you believe because you have been given new life. More than that, you have been loved from all eternity and when you were given new life you were beyond human help and hope but not beyond God’s grace in Christ.

This is why it is so important to get sin right in our theology because when we do not we are not able to appreciate the good news for what it is and we diminish the power of the gospel for the Christian life. Christian, in order to understand what you have in Christ you need to understand what you had (death and wrath) outside of Christ.

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