Pelagianism teaches that Adam was merely a bad example whose sin brought injury to himself and no one else. In this view, everyone born after Adam is the same as Adam was before the fall. This heresy is a denial of the doctrine of original sin. It is expressly rebuked in Article Two of A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation: We affirm that, because of the fall of Adam, every person inherits a nature and environment inclined toward sin and that every person who is capable of moral action will sin.
Semi-Pelagianism is a milder form of the heresy admitting that the sin of Adam passed on to his posterity resulting in our propensity to evil. However, it still maintains that (1) salvation begins with man, (2) this inclination on the part of man toward God is a meritorious work, and (3) this results in man cooperating with God in the salvation of his own soul.
Although the kind of decisional regeneration common in most evangelical and Southern Baptist churches may indeed appear quite similar to Semi-Pelagianism, I contend that the view of Traditionalism can be distinguished from it at each of the three points listed above.
- Traditionalists do not believe salvation begins with man. The relevant portion of Article Two states: “While no sinner is remotely capable of achieving salvation through his own effort, we deny that any sinner is saved apart from a free response to the Holy Spirit’s drawing through the Gospel.” Thus, the process begins with the Holy Spirit’s drawing and not at all with man’s seeking.
- Traditionalists do not believe man’s response is a meritorious work. The relevant portion of Article Four states: “We deny that the response of faith is in any way a meritorious work that earns salvation.” When I give my sons birthday gifts, they neither earn the income to buy them, nor go to the store to purchase them, nor put them in gift bags with bows and cards. All they do when I extend my arm holding the free gift is to reach out and receive it from my hand with gratitude. I believe most Southern Baptists can clearly distinguish between performing a work and receiving a gift.
- Traditionalists do not believe they are cooperating with God in salvation. Consider this section of Article Two: “Each person’s sin alone brings the wrath of a holy God, broken fellowship with Him, ever-worsening selfishness and destructiveness, death, and condemnation to an eternity in hell.” Does that really sound like a person capable of lending God a hand in His presumably meager salvific effort? What an absurd claim!
Although Semi-Pelagianism was declared heresy in A.D. 529, I have heard more than one Calvinist Southern Baptist level such charges against the afore-mentioned statement since its publication just a few days ago. It seems embarrassingly humorous that they have laid these charges at the feet of the writers and signers of the statement, for in doing so, they are declaring as heretics six former SBC Presidents, dozens of seminary professors and denominational workers, over a hundred pastors and a growing number of Southern Baptist laypeople. If the only thing worse than being a heretic is being a lonely heretic, then at least Southern Baptists will never suffer that fate, for there is plenty of company on Heretic Row.
Ironically, from the other end of the soteriological spectrum, Dr. Roger Olson, a well known Arminian, has characterized the statement as Semi-Pelagianism, proving that politics is not the only endeavor that makes for strange bedfellows. That both extremes should so quickly agree to equate Traditionalism with the heresy of Semi-Pelagianism is rather compelling evidence that they must feel somewhat threatened by this new and crystal clear soteriological view establishing its place firmly between them.
Perhaps one item confusing those favoring other soteriological systems is this sentence from Article Two: We deny that Adam’s sin resulted in the incapacitation of any person’s free will or rendered any person guilty before he has personally sinned. While the sentence referenced earlier clearly embraced the original sin nature, what is being denied here is more properly understood as original guilt. This sentence admittedly takes a very high view of man’s personal responsibility, leaving no room to blame Adam or God or Satan or even our own sinful nature for the sins we have freely chosen to commit and for which we must personally be held accountable.
Yes, in the view of Traditionalism, man is responsible–able to respond. Thus, unlike the Arminian, he needs no prevenient grace to respond to God because he is already able to do it, and unlike the Calvinist, he needs no unconditional election, since God’s election (or salvation) of his soul is conditioned upon his free and faithful acceptance of God’s grace.
My Calvinist and Arminian friends need to hear me say clearly that I do not believe they are teaching heresy. Although I disagree with their positions, I believe these positions fall within the broad category of orthodox Christianity. I would hope, as they consider the implications of this new soteriological system, that they might respond to my Traditionalism with the very same measure of grace.