On Pelagius’ Front Door

John Lennox & Unbelievable?

Unbelievable? is doing a U.S. tour, and audio from a Q & A session was posted online. In this audio, much time is spent by the panel members teeing off on Calvinism. For an more thorough discussion, follow this link. I would like to focus only on one comment from the panel which was made by John Lennox. I believe the philosophical objection he espouses serves to expose a fatal flaw in non-Calvinistic thought. But first, some (very) brief history.


Pelagius is one of the most famous heretics in all of church history, and one of the earliest to boot. Pelagius was a British monk who became the antagonist to Augustine’s life. Augustine identified Pelagius as a heretic, and interacted with Pelagius’ theology, which eventually became known as Pelagianism. (Although, Pelagianism was developed far more by Pelagius’ followers than by Pelagius himself.)


While there are plenty of in-depth historical resources to better explain Pelagianism, allow for a brief summary of the theological foundations of Pelagianism.


  1. denies original sin.
  2. denies that grace is needed for man to perform good works. 
  3. affirmed libertarian free will.

Pelagius himself was concerned by his perception of the loose morality practiced by Christians in his day. It suddenly becomes clear how Pelagius stumbled into patently unbiblical notions while attempting to protect God and encourage men into holines. In Pelaginiasm after all, God can never be blamed for sin. Man cannot, for example, ask God for grace to repent, for that implies that any lack of repentance on man’s part is ultimately due to God’s failure to provide the necessary grace. Sin cannot be blamed on sinful nature, since we do not have a sinful nature! Pelagius created a system that heaped accountability onto man, and released God from any hook.


It didn’t take long for Pelagius to be condemned as a heretic by the church at large, but it also didn’t take long for the religion named after him to spring back to life in a new, less toxic form. This new but similar form came to be known as “semi-Pelagianism” and was condemned by the council of Orange in AD 529.

Often times today, Arminians (or any Christian who rejects Calvinism) are accused of being semi-Pelagians. Obviously they don’t take well to this accusation. It really boils down to the very specific way in which one defines semi-Palagianism (SP). If the Britannica definition is correct, certainly Arminians fit the bill, with infant baptism being an exception in most cases.

Generally speaking, SP differed from its predecessor in that it affirmed original sin, and it affirmed the need for God’s grace to live a good life. Nonetheless,

“[Semi-Pelagians] taught that the innate corruption of humankind was not so great that the initiative toward Christian commitment was beyond the powers of a person’s native will.”

That sounds a lot like Arminian’s prevenient grace as juxtaposed to irresistible grace. It sounds a lot like the Arminian anthropology as juxtaposed to Total Depravity.

Arminians typically affirm the native will is unable to repsond, but that God at some point makes it able. That distinction seems to be without much difference to me, but I digress. For the purpose of this post is not to prove that non-Calvinists are semi-Pelagians. Rather, I would like to point out how the philosophical arguments which are catapulted over Calvinism’s castle walls often lead directly to, not only SP, but right to Pelagius’ himself.

Back to Lennox

What did Lennox say that I found so objectionable? What did he say that inspired this mini-history lesson? In the audio, Lennox criticizes Calvinism by saying,

“And if we are going to be judged for not believing, we must have the capacity to believe.”

There are numerous problems with this objection. For starters, this is a philosophical presupposition; it is not the outcome of exegesis. I wonder if Lennox-like Pelagius-believes in sinless perfectionism. After all, God would never command something of us we do not have the capacity to do,

You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48).

Secondarily, “not believing in Christ” is a sin for which one will be judged, but that is not the basis upon which one is judged. We are judged for our sin against the God we know exists (Romans 1). All our sin merits judgment, not merely our disbelief.

It is also too simplistic. There is truth in it. It is true that we Calvinists believe every person is called to repent, but not every person is enabled by God to repent. Nonetheless, discussions of human will, whether we like it or not, require a great depth and nuance. A brief statement like this hardly does the Calvinistic understanding of anthropology, human will, and regeneration justice.

But I would like to focus on a different problem with this argument altogether.  This argument, when played out, logically takes one back to a time long before Calvin. This argument does not bring one from Calvinism to Arminianism. It does not even bring one from Calvinism to semi-Palagianism. No, this logic brings one all the way back to Pelagius himself. It takes us right to his front door, right to the welcome mat. This is Pelagian logic. Lennox did not make Pelagian turn in his grave; rather, he nearly resurrected him in the middle of a happy dance.

Federal Headship

Pelagius’ system of free-will and accountability rested first and foremost upon denying federal headship. Federal Headship is the basis of original sin, that which Pelagius denied. Original sin comes through our federal headship with Adam. Since Adam is our covenant head, all those in Adam inherit his transgression and corrupt nature. This is original sin, that all men are sinfully corrupt from the moment they come into existence. This is clearly taught in Romans 5 and is what David meant when he confessed,

Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:5).

Christ then becomes the new federal head for the believer, and all those in Christ no longer inherit what only Adam can give them, but now inherit what Christ gives. Salvation is a covenantal process. 

Most people who are first exposed to the doctrine of Original Sin are immediately taken back by the apparent injustice of it all. For the doctrine essentially states that we are worthy of being judged for sin before we had any chance to willfully commit sin. It states that God judges men for something they had no control over. Men are judged in Adam.

Sound familiar?

Lennox’s objection to Calvinism, at its core, is the very objection that Pelagius took with Augustine. If God cannot judge a person for not responding to Christ when they had no capacity to respond, how does God have the right to judge a person in Adam? What control do men have there? How is original sin any more “fair” than the Calvinistic understanding of free-will and regeneration? The philosophy employed by Lennox is a back road to Pelagianism. If God must be fair in this way, according to these demands, He cannot hold anyone accountable for Adam’s sin other than Adam. You cannot be a sinner if in fact you had no capacity to do otherwise.

If Lennox is on to something here, we must not only abandon Calvin, but we must also abandon Arminius, Luther, Augustine, and all of western Christendom.

Update: A solid review of Lennox’s book on this very subject can be found here

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