By the beginning of the fifth century, the rate of growth for Christianity was increasing exponentially. However, there was a negative result of this rapid growth. What might have simply been a different interpretation of one person, spawned into indifference among the entire population of Christian followers. The Church wished for elimination of these indifferences to maintain the strength of true worship. However, they saw it essential to put down the beliefs of one man in particular, Pelagius. His views were observed as a true threat to Christianity’s entire existence . With the very foundation of Christianity in jeopardy, Saint Augustine aggressively disputed, with the support of his own past religious struggles, the arguments of Pelagius concerning God’s grace and human free will.
The dispute between Augustine and Pelagius regarding God’s grace and free will stemmed from their differentiating views of the original sin of Adam and Eve. Pelagius believed that human nature was left unaffected by original sin . He could not see how infant children, generations later, would be burdened with a sin that they had no part in. Instead, according to Pelagius, children were born into life with total purity and innocence.
The birth of a child is seen as the miraculous beginning of a new life. Because there is no evil attached to this new life, Pelagius saw it as perfectly reasonable for a person to continue life free of sin. Referring to sin, Pelagius quoted, “Whether we will or whether we will not, we have the capacity of not sinning.” Pelagius recognizes the fact that not everyone will be psychologically strong enough to avoid the temptation of sin. Because sin surrounds us everyday, surrendering actually becomes easier than eluding. Pelagius argued that when faced with a confrontation between evil and virtue, if a man should choose sin opposed to righteousness, his own free will is what allowed him to make that decision .
Pelagius’ entire concept of free will is man’s ability to do as he pleases because he is in absolute control of his own actions. However, with this freedom of choice comes the sole responsibility for the corresponding repercussions. Whether man chooses evil opposed to virtue or vice versa, the according fault or praise would lie within himself and none other.
Though, man does not always think of these consequences or commendations beforehand. With every moment, people unconsciously act out of habit instead of calculated thinking because they have become so accustomed to these actions. Pelagius explains that performing a good deed became so difficult for some because “the long custom of sin which begins from childhood and gradually brings us more and more under its power until it seems to have in some degree the force of nature.” This quote explains Pelagius’ notion of how sin can become a habit which is done unconsciously without a second thought.
Not surprisingly, many of those who knowingly commit sin are quick to develop excuses for their actions. Pelagius eventually became irate of the assortment of excuses he would hear: “It is hard!” “It is difficult!” “I am not able!” In particular, the excuse, “I am not able!” created outrage within Pelagius. He took this as a criticism of God, as the Creator, to beget men who were “insufficient for the keeping of His law.” He felt that “God could teach us the true way; God could set us a holy example; but God could not touch us to enable us to will the good.” Pelagius saw these conscious sinners as being insufficient within themselves; as they were expecting more from God than what was needed.
The basis of Augustine’s rebuttal to Pelagius’ views began with his opposing beliefs of original sin. Augustine argued that if children were born free of any sin, why were newborn infants baptized? He concluded that this common practice was to purge the child of what must have been the original sin inherited from birth. This conclusion would, according to Augustine, eliminate any possibility for man to live an entire lifetime in the absence of sin. With the quote, “No one is not sick, no one is not healed without God’s grace” , Augustine conveys the effect of original sin upon human nature; and thus, the necessity it creates for God’s intervention. Augustine viewed this intervention of God to be essential throughout man’s entire lifetime and not just the cleansing of original sin.
Augustine experienced first hand, the need for God’s grace as he struggled with his own conversion to Christianity. From personal experiences, Augustine felt “man needed something more than to know the right way: which can do nothing more than bring us knowledge of what we ought to do.” For nearly two decades, Augustine knew the correct path and realized his own wrongdoings but felt unable to progress any further, on his own, towards God. His free will had allowed him to want and believe in the Christian life but it could take him no farther in putting his desires into action. In a sense, Augustine was now able to see the top of the mountain because of his free will. However, he was unable to climb the trail leading up to the mountaintop without God’s grace.
With God’s intervention being such an essential force in his own life, Augustine was disturbed, most of all, with Pelagius’ denial and opposition of God’s grace. It was God’s grace that Augustine credited for helping him finally convert to God. Augustine believed God’s grace to be the inner force within, which puts man into motion for seeking the good and virtuous. Thus, Augustine believed God’s grace ultimately controlled man’s actions as he seeks the good and virtuous. Living in a world surrounded with sin entails a never ceasing temptation to stray from righteousness and instead, towards evil. Augustine believed resistance against this temptation required a force stronger than that of human free will. According to Augustine, free will could allow man to desire against sin but what actually controlled his actions to stay righteous was God’s grace. Thus, for man to believe he is capable of a righteous life by his free will alone, was to deny the need for God.
In a country of free speech, it is difficult to imagine how a person could be condemned on the basis of his beliefs. A natural question would be: What was it about Pelagius’ beliefs in regards to human free will and God’s grace that made Christianity condemn this man? Pelagius’ views were not mere inconsistencies with the teachings of the Church. In essence, Pelagius’ beliefs can be concluded as a denial for the necessity of God’s grace because he felt a man’s free will enabled him to be in total and absolute control of his own actions. Augustine’s rebuttal emphasized the importance of God’s grace throughout a man’s life. Augustine felt human free will was limiting, in respect to putting the desire for virtue into action, because what actually allowed man to reach virtue was God’s grace. Therefore, as Pelagius denied the need for God’s assistance, he ultimately denied the need for Christianity.