This year, for Lent, I’m giving up one of my most destructive habits. I imagine you are eager to know what it is. It’s actually not very exciting or interesting. But it is the something that harms my soul. It is my tendency toward Pelagianism. Pelagianism refers to the teachings of Pelagius, the 4th century opponent of St. Augustine who taught that we become righteous through the exercise of our free wills, a popular teaching condemned by the Church, though it never quite left.
My Pelagianism is a more subtle version than Pelagius’ teaching. It is a narrative that goes something like this: “Yes, God-in-Christ has done the work of salvation, and you are saved by grace alone, however, in order to access this gracious work of salvation you must ______________.” The blank can be filled in, in my case, by countless things: read the Bible, pray, go to church, and most important of all—not sin.
I know in my head that this narrative is false. I can cite verses in the Bible to refute it, and quote theologians who speak eloquently against it. The problem for me is that in a deep place in my elusive mind I actually believe that narrative. It makes sense in the world I live in, where everything is earned. I hear restrained versions of it in preaching and teaching I hear, so I know I am not alone. The effect of this Pelagian narrative is that I am left with the distinct feeing that in the last analysis I am responsible for my own salvation, not Jesus.
I find it appealing because it allows me a measure of control. I, not God, am the one who determines forgiveness, acceptance, and love. I suspect that is why I secretly cherish this habit. Life affords little control, and this gives me the feeling—albeit uneasy—that I am actually in command of something. But there are problems with this habit.
First of all, it is built on an un-reality. And as Dallas Willard always said, “Reality is what you bump into when you are wrong.” My little habit keeps me bumping into reality a lot, and it hurts.
There are secondary problems as well. It keeps me from loving God through surrender, which is the primary way we love God. So I want to give this up. For me, that will mean unlearning this narrative. It will mean spending Lent thinking differently. Here are the kinds of things I am planning to set my mind on:
- I bring absolutely nothing to the equation of salvation—even my repentance needs repentance
- My sin—instead of separating me from God—actually binds me to Christ. As Thomas Torrance wrote of the disciples who abandoned Jesus in the end, “It was their very sin . . . which became in the inexplicable love of God the very material he laid hold of . . . making the shameful things that divide us from into the very things that bind us to him.”
- Our faith, as Calvin said, is an empty vessel. I cannot rely on my faith, only on the vicarious faith of Jesus. He believes for me. Even my faith needs faith.
- My best religious efforts have not only merited nothing, they too often stood in the way of real surrender. My most sincere moments in prayer or worship were tainted with self-interest, and need the cleansing power of God.
- My entire self—the good and the bad—fall under the judgment of the Cross, and that is why my entire self must surrender.
- Prayer is not a duty, but a joyful response of love to my Abba, Father.
- My relationship with God is not an “if-then” contract of fear, but a “because-therefore” covenant of love
- I did nothing to earn God’s forgiveness and love; I can do nothing to lose it.
Do you find some of these thoughts a bit radical? Uncomfortable? Harsh? I know I do. I have come to believe they are uncomfortable to me because they destroy my Pelagianism, like water upon the Wicked Witch of the West.
Moved to Surrender
Lent is a perfect time for me to do this, because Lent, for me and I suspect others, is a time my Pelagianism takes over. I tend to choose to give up something I am sure God will be pleased about, and grit my teeth and try impress the Almighty with my efforts. That is precisely why this is a perfect Lenten practice for me.
During Lent this year I am going to keep thinking on those bullet points because I believe they are pure, excellent, good, beautiful and true. I know they are true and good because when I think on these things I am moved to doxology, and ultimately, to surrender, which, as I wrote above, is the truest expression of love. So each morning I am going to muse on these thoughts, and others like them, and I will do so until I overflow with thanksgiving, and a natural desire to abandon myself to God.
When I reach that point, I will pray the prayer of Charles de Foucald:
Father, I abandon myself into your hands:
Do with me what you will.
Whatever you will do, I will thank you.
Let only your will be done in me,
As in all your creatures.
And I’ll ask nothing else, my Lord.
Into your hands I commend my spirit:
I give it to you with all the love of my heart
For I love you Lord, and so need to give myself,
To surrender myself into your hands
With a trust beyond all measure,
Because you are my Father.
I invite any recovering pelagians to join me.
James Bryan Smith