In this case—what matters most?
It's been said, and I'm going to accept it as essentially true (though these days I'm less trustful of reports of what the ancients believed unless I can see for myself their own words in context), that the heart of Pelagius' teaching was: "I can be good if I will. God rewards me when I'm good but does not make me good; His reward is an incentive to good but it's no more than that." I confess I don't trust the obviously brilliant Augustine of Hippo as a complete guide to the teaching and convictions of Pelagius.
But if that is what he taught he was dead wrong. The little we know for sure about Pelagius tells us that he was a truly upright man whose attitude and behaviour was such that most of us would wish it were our own. But my suspicion is that people of genuine moral maturity are severely tempted to think that we all can be and should be as morally upright as they are. [I think this is part of the explanation for the hardness we find in so many of them. They think the rest of us aren't trying. "If I can be morally upright to this degree everyone can be too if they truly wish it," seems to be the way they think.]
There is real appeal in that kind of thinking but I'm sure in my bones that it underestimates the difficulties of working against sin; it underestimates the differences between sinners and their life situations and it misses this truth that the Bible (and the NT in particular) stresses: "The ultimate question about a person is not how morally mature and rich he/she is but what is her/his relation to God."
Christians don't (shouldn't!) profess that they alone are morally fine. It's demonstrably true that some non-Christians have been at least as morally upright and fine as some Christians! I judge all talk to the contrary is Christian imperialism at its worst and a misuse of the Bible.
What Christians do (and should!) insist on is, that in Jesus alone sin is truly assessed and righteousness is truly exalted. This is where repentant faith enters the Christian life and message. Christians are sinners like the rest of humanity but unlike the rest of humanity by God's grace they have come to believe in Jesus in a commitment of faith, to welcome his mind as their own about sin and righteousness and God as the fountain and meaning of all that.
The difference between the Christian and the non-Christian, at this point, is a profound difference of faith. It is not that one has gained a better record than the other of moral excellence, of fine attitudes and upright behavior; the difference is one of faith! Jesus makes God to be all in all and the Christian makes everything of Jesus who is God being a man. Anything less than Jesus is less that the complete truth! One of the essential truths Jesus has brought to us is this: In humans there is not only the loathing of sin, the terror of sin, the tyranny of sin—there is also the love of it!
Sin is not adequately dealt with until by faith we look to God who is beyond ourselves and who brings us to faith and into loving someone greater than we love our sin.
On the matter of success and growth in moral excellence—does God help Christians in their pursuit of these? If, yes, how should we unpack that truth? You might think there's something useful in a brief series I've begun here.
©2004 Jim McGuiggan. All materials are free to be copied and used as long as money is not being made.
Many thanks to brother Ed Healy, for allowing me to post from his website, theabidingword.com.