This article looks at Augustine, Pelagius, Semi-Pelagians, Evangelicals, and Catholics, discussing what they teach about justification.

2016. 6 pages.

On Augustine, Pelagius, Semi-Pelagians, Evangelicals, Catholics, and Other Sunday School Stuff

I praise God for a lively discussion in our Sunday School this morning, as we watched “Justinian and Gregory” segment of Ligonier Ministries’ Survey of Church History (Medieval Age). In the 4th century, Augustine and Pelagius argued about predestination, original sin, and human “free will.”


Augustine taught God’s sovereignty in man’s salvation, specifically predestination and original sin. In his “On the Spirit and the Letter” addressed to Marcellinus in A.D. 412, he wrote:

How is it then that miserable men dare to be proud, either of their free will, before they are freed, or of their own strength, if they have been freed? They do not observe that in the very mention of free will they pronounce the name of liberty. But “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.” If, therefore, they are the slaves of sin, why do they boast of free will? For by what a man is overcome, to the same is he delivered as a slave. But if they have been freed, why do they vaunt themselves as if it were by their own doing, and boast, as if they had not received?

Pelagius, 4th-5th century British monk🔗

  1. Pelagius taught that Adam’s sin affected only Adam, and not all of humanity. He did not believe in original sin, that man is born neutral without any sinful nature. He is therefore capable of being righteous with God without God’s grace.
  2. He was condemned by various 5th century councils: Council of Carthage, 418 A.D; Council of Ephesus in 431 A.D; and Council of Orange, 529 A.D. He was condemned even by the Roman Catholic Council of Trent in 1546.
  3. Charles Finney, an 18th-19th century pastor considered by many evangelicals to be the father of modern revivalism and altar calls, is an out-and-out Pelagian. Altar calls assume that man is able to come to God on his own “free will.”


  1. This is a mediating view between the diametrically opposed views of Augustinianism and Pelagianism. Semi-Pelagians believe in original sin, and that man is a fallen creature, and that grace is necessary for salvation. However, they believe that man is not radically sinful and still retains a tiny “island of righteousness,” and possesses “free will” that is capable of accepting God. With this free will, he is able and he can be willing to cooperate with God’s grace to be saved.
  2. “God helps those who help themselves” summarizes semi-Pelagianism. This is also the view of 80 percent of evangelicals today.
  3. This view was also condemned by the Council of Orange in 529 A.D.

Roman Catholic Council of Trent on Justification (1545-63)🔗

The Roman Catholic Church opposed the Protestant Reformers, and especially their views on justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. The RCC teaches that man’s salvation is a cooperation between God’s grace and man’s “free will”:

Canon 4: If any one shall affirm, that man’s freewill, moved and excited by God, does not, by consenting, cooperate with God, the mover and exciter, so as to prepare and dispose itself for the attainment of justification; if moreover, anyone shall say, that the human will cannot refuse complying, if it pleases, but that it is inactive, and merely passive; let such an one be accursed.

Canon 9: If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be accursed.


  1.  An evangelical refers to a person or an institution that believes and stands for the evangel or the gospel as defined above. Beginning with the Reformation in the 1520s, Martin Luther and all Reformers were aptly, but derogatorily called evangelicals by Catholics such as Erasmus, Johannes Eck and Thomas More. Luther himself called the churches that broke off from Rome as evangelical churches.
  2.  After 1520 an evangelical was a person who was committed to the sufficiency of scripture, the priesthood of all believers, the total lostness of humans, the sole mediation of Christ, the gracious efficacy and finality of God’s redemptive work in Christ through election, propitiation, calling and keeping. The linchpin for all of this was the doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, because of Christ alone. Thus, the believer, declared righteous by virtue of God’s satisfaction with Christ’s holiness imputed (credited) to us through faith alone, is simul iustus et peculator – simultaneously justified and sinful.”

“Protestant” and “Reformed”🔗

On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther sparked the Reformation with his posting of the “95 Theses.” This caused unrest in Germany, so the Emperor convened the First Diet of Speier (Spires). This council gave religious liberty to all, Catholics and Reformed. But in 1529, the tables were turned again: this time, it was in favor of the Catholics. The action of the First Diet of Speier was overturned by a Catholic-dominated Second Diet of Speier, so that the Emperor now demanded total submission to the Roman pope. Six Lutheran princes and representatives of 14 German cities responded with a “Letter of Protestation.” Thereafter, anyone who opposed the Roman church was labeled a Protestant, a name used by Catholics to demean their opponents.


Gregory the Great became the Pope in 590-604. He was the one who started teaching that a Christian cannot have assurance of salvation in this life. The Roman Catholic Church continued this teaching against the Protestant doctrine of assurance as taught all over Scriptures, especially Romans 8:16, “The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children” (see also John 10:28; Phil 1:6; Heb 11:1-2). The Council of Trent opposed this in two Canons:

CANON XII.-If any one saith, that justifying faith is nothing else but confidence in the divine mercy which remits sins for Christ’s sake; or, that this confidence alone is that whereby we are justified; let him be anathema.

CANON XIV.-If any one saith, that man is truly absolved from his sins and justified, because that he assuredly believed himself absolved and justified; or, that no one is truly justified but he who believes himself justified; and that, by this faith alone, absolution and justification are effected; let him be anathema.

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