Letters of Grace Part 13

Letters of Grace Part 13

Part 13

In the last two issues we have explored how imputation influences the doctrine of sanctification as taught by Paul in Romans 5-8. Pelagius (c. 383-410) and Augustine (354-430) debated its meaning in the Fifth Century, and Augustine “won” in that his position became normative for the church.

With modifications, the view of Pelagius re-surfaced again through the Dutch theologian
Arminius (1560-1609) and Wesley (1703-1791). Today it is present in Methodism, in most
of the holiness and Pentecostal denominations and in much of the charismatic movement.
The Keswick movement, the “deeper life,” the “exchanged life,” and speakers like Ian Thomas and Norman Grubb, all have their genesis in Pelagian theology. _

I do not suggest that the above have not modified the views of Pelagius. Just the opposite. Whenever a person proposes a view or system of theology, as many variations evolve as there are people who embrace it. Nevertheless, they all drink out of the same well.


The theme of Romans 6 is: Grace is the essential ingredient to holiness rather than an excuse to indulge in sin. Paul does not argue for the elimination of sin hut against the rulership of sin in the life of the believer.
The issue in the chapter is CHOICE, not POWER. Romans 6 assumes power, and it is discussed in Romans 8. The Holy Spirit ministers to each believer, bringing the believer’s EXPERIENCE into alignment with his POSITION.

Grace is the arch stone of justification and sanctification. When pardoned by Christ’s death, we are freed from the destructive influence of sin. It is a gift of God. But just as the believer is active in justification through faith/believe (Romans 4), so in sanctification through a life of obedience.

We secure sanctification in the same manner as justification. God imputes it to the believer on the basis of Christ’s death and resurrection. Just as we experience justification, so also sanctification. Sanctification results in a cleansed conscience, indwelled by the Holy Spirit. Paul mentions the Holy Spirit in Romans 1:4; 5:5 and discusses His work in detail in Romans 8. The Holy Spirit gives the believer the ability to lead a holy life. Again, Romans 6-7 assumes the Holy Spirit’s presence in the life of the believer, and it is discussed in Romans 8.

In Romans 6:1-11 Paul argues that union with Christ in His death and resurrection makes the believer’s willing participation in sin a contradiction of terms. In this passage Paul presents a case for not abusing the grace of God.

As I noted in an earlier issue, idolatry is man’s endeavor to create a god who will give him what he wants without negative consequences. Many Christians perceive grace as an opportunity to create such a god. All of us have a tendency to abuse God’s grace.

Paul discusses the absurdity of “Let us do evil that good may come” in Romans 3:8. He continues this theme in Romans 5:21-6:11 by arguing that grace rather than sin “reigns” in the life of the believer. Grace results in union with Christ, which in turn precludes the possibility of sin ruling the life of a believer, for union means the ruling of Christ, and Christ is the antithesis of sin.


A couple of verses illustrate the difference between the theology of these two men and its impact on the Christian life. In Romans 6:2 Paul says, “God forbid. How shall we that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?” What does “dead to sin” mean? When did we die?

Augustine argued that our death is a completed fact. We died at salvation. We are dead to sin in the sense that Christ imputed righteousness to us as taught in Romans 5. Just as in Romans 5:12 Paul says, “all sinned,” i.e. God imputed the sin of Adam to us, so also in Romans 6:2 when he says, ‘dead to sin,” it means that God imputed the death of Christ to us.

We died at salvation and are dead in the sense that we are IMPUTED to be dead in Christ. We cannot understand Romans 6 apart from Romans 5:12-21. The question is, should we read verse 2 to mean, “How shall we that are dead on account of sin . . . “ or to mean, “How shall we that have renounced sin live any longer therein?

If the first, then the sinner vicariously participates in the death, burial and resurrection of Christ through imputation (cf. Galatians 2:20). If the second, then, as Pelagius argued, what the believer does produces a life free of sin. We cannot read verse 2 as saying, “How shall we who have renounced sin, live any longer therein?” This would mean that the believer rather than Christ produces sanctification in the believer’s life.

The second verse that illustrates the debate over the meaning of sanctification is Romans 6:6-7: “Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might he destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin. For he that is dead is freed from sin.”

Augustine argued that the “body of sin” is the old man of Ephesians 4:22:24: ‘That ye put off concerning the former conversation the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts; And that ye put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness, and Colossians 3:8-9:
“But now ye also put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy communication out of your mouth. Lie not one to another, seeing that ye have put off the old man with his deeds.”

Serve” in Romans 6:6 is “dulos”, i.e. “slave.” We are no longer slaves to sin. The “body” is not the source of sin, but its vehicle. This verse personifies “sin.” Sin has life and is obeyed. Thus the “body of sin” is not the physical body of the believer which will one day he resurrected, hut it is synonymous with ‘flesh.” This is a legal transaction that takes place when I receive life in Christ.

Paul does not speak of the process of sanctification, but the fact of imputation – an act of God based on Christ’s death for us. ‘Knowing” is experiencing, i.e. we experience the imputed death of Christ.

Pelagius taught that there are no such things as: (1) obligation to God, (2) war between the good and evil/old man and new man, or (3) carnality. Sin is an identity issue; i.e. we are in Christ rather than in Adam. I appropriate Christ rather than feel obligated to do good. When I sin, it is not so much I doing it but a misconception of who I am in Christ. The solution to sin is understanding my identity in Christ.

Pelagius further taught that God imputed moral righteousness to us. I am not a sinner saved by grace, but a child of God. If I think I am a sinner saved by grace, then I will expect to sin. God has already accomplished the work of sanctification. It is an event. Those who agree with Pelagius don’t like the word “position.” They argue that Paul teaches not our “position,” not our “performance.”

Augustine taught that ‘freed from sin” means that justification delivers the believer from sin in two senses: (1) from its penalty via the vicarious death of Christ; (2) from its power as we participate in the death of Jesus experientially. This is sanctification; hut the believer is not freed from the presence of sin. This is the subject of Romans 7.


In Romans 7:14-25, Paul uses the first person pronoun, “I.” Was Paul speaking of the regenerate or unregenerate when he used ‘7”? As you read Romans 7:14-25, you see that the “I” wants to please God but cannot meet its own expectations in its endeavor. Can an unregenerate person, unaided by the Holy Spirit, understand his lostness and seek God?

Augustine answered in the negative. Romans 3:11 says, “There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God.” Again, I Corinthians 2:14 says, “But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” People are totally depraved in that sin has so tainted their reason that they cannot understand their lostness. Nor can they, by their reason unaided by the Holy Spirit, conclude that they are alienated from God.

On the basis of his interpretation of Romans 6 and the fact that God imputed a moral righteousness to the sinner, which returned him to the place of Adam before the Fall, Pelagius argued that the “I” of Romans 7 was the natural, unregenerate man. It could not be the regenerate because he is in fact “dead to sin!”


What did God impute to the human race in the fall of Adam and the cross of Christ? Pelagius argued that as God considered all people dead in Adam, so also He considered all alive in Christ. The whole of the human race benefited from the death of Christ in that we see God’s grace in bringing them to the place where Adam was before the Fall.

In Romans 6, argued Pelagius, Paul teaches that God imputes a moral as well as legal righteousness to the whole of humanity. When the believer, by an act of his will, appropriates the grace of God to his own life, that believer is morally dead to sin and free from its influence. For this reason Pelagius argued that the “I” of Romans 7 cannot be the believer.

Struggles in the Christian life, for Pelagius and his followers, are unnatural. The believer need not be tormented by the presence of sin. Not only so, but just as it was what you did that made you a Christian (i.e. receive Christ), so also you can, by an act of your will, once again be lost. Lost – saved – lost – saved . . . is the likely experience for most who embrace this interpretation. Grace is universal, not individual.

Augustine countered that man’s salvation is a product of the grace of God. Because of his moral depravity, man experiences salvation only when God takes the initiative and touches him. Election and grace are married. Paul argues in Romans 6 that life in Christ means that although sin no longer reigns in the life of the believer, sin is present until the day the believer dies.

Bonded by His grace,