Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Pelagianism & Righteousness

This past Sunday I was preaching on Matthew 5:6 where Jesus blesses those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. As an illustration, and a theological analysis of Pelagianism I suggested that the problem with Pelagianism is not it's hunger for righteousness but that it's hunger does not go deep enough.

What is Pelagianism?
By Pelagianism I generally mean view of salvation that believes we can earn our salvation. Pelagius, a 4th Century monk from England, believed that if God gave a command we should invariably be able to keep it. This means that whatever God's standard is for us we are able to keep it. Rather than having fallen short of the glory of God, we can attain to the glory of God.

Pelagius had a huge passion for ethical behavior. He was zealous for seeing people obey and for moral reform. He reacted strongly to Augustine's axiom in the Confessions: "Command what you will and grant what you command." 'Certainly,' Pelagius thought, 'this removes all motivation for upright and moral behavior.'

He wanted the ethical life. He believed that if God gave us a command we could obey it. He believed that all we need before God was to obey Him. We could have salvation based upon our obedience to God’s Law. He believed we had the power to fulfill all righteousness—we could arrive on our own strength.

His desire to obey God was good. He goal: obey God, fulfill righteousness—and he would be blessed. He had high ethical standards he placed upon God. The problem was not that he hungered for righteousness—the problem was he didn’t have enough hunger.

The problem with Pelagius was not his desire for righteousness but that his desire was too weak.

The Problem Unraveled.
See-if we assume righteousness is something we can achieve, we lose sight that it is the work of God in us which satisfies us. God changes our character to be more like Him. Pelagius in a sense forgot the first three beatitudes—He denied total depravity, that we are desperate spiritually apart from God.

If you think you can achieve righteousness on your own power—you get complacent. Your hunger dulls. You think you are getting closer—I have 50%, 60%, 70% of what I need. BUT THE CHRISTIAN GETS MORE HUNGRY AS WE GET CLOSER. It is like approaching a distant mountain… we go over a peak and see a valley in between. “One more” we think… we make progress in our sanctification…but upon mounting the peak it is one more away.

Our hunger grows as righteousness grows. In the physical world hunger and food is inversely proportional. When food in our belly goes up, our hunger goes down. Not so with righteousness. When our character changes to be more like God’s, our hunger goes up even more. It is like cleaning out a room only to move the furniture or brighten the lights--suddenly we discover the room is dirty than we first thought. This is character transformation in the Biblical perspective.

What is my hunger?
"Righteousness" in Matthew 5:6 clearly refers to ethical character not justification by faith. Matthew's usage of righteousness is not the Pauline usage. We are to hunger for an ethical righteousness.

But notice that first the beatitudes are not entrance requirements to the kingdom--rather they are marks of the disciples, those who have come under the reign of God. There is an eschatological element to these blessings. They are bestowed by God.

The problem with Pelagianism is that it misses the blessing. God satisfies the hunger for righteousness. Pelagianism says, based upon my good works I can satisfy my hunger. It is the ethical life reversed.

Our longing for “righteousness” should be ever increasing in this like. It is like a tiny comet being pulled into the gravity of a massive planet—the closer it gets the faster it increases. The more we draw near to God, the more he works in us to transform us into some whose character is righteous—the more we have a longing for deeper righteousness.

The focus in Matthew is the ethical transformation. The believer hungers for a personal righteousness in his conduct. He hungers to see righteousness in all of God's creation ("thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven"). He also knows that in according with the 'righteousness' expected in the OT, where God sets things right--our hunger alludes full satisfaction in this life.

Conclusion
The problem with Pelagianism is that it sets goals. It offers a real fulfillment in this life. It offers a fulfillment that is not God-centered, Christ-centered, or kingdom-centered. In short, it's hunger for righteousness is not strong enough since it posits man-centered, short term fulfillment.

Is your hunger for righteousness a kingdom hunger or is it like Pelagius and the Pharisees, fully attainable apart from the activity of God?

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