A Pelagian Lent?

   abc      “Lent is not an orgy of Pelagian self-improvement!”
          ~ A Fr. Blake of St. Mary in Brighton ~

On Ash Wednesday this year the noon Bible Study that I teach each week just happened to be looking at Romans 10:6-8 –

The righteousness based on faith speaks as follows: “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ (that is, to bring Christ down), or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’ (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).” But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart”—that is, the word of faith which we are preaching…

This is clearly an echo of Deuteronomy 30:11-14 –

For this commandment which I command you today is not too difficult for you, nor is it out of reach. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?’ Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross the sea for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?’ But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may observe it.

In both places what we are being told is that the Word of God is not far away in some remote place inaccessible to us. In Deuteronomy God’s Word is the Law, and in Romans God’s Word is the Gospel. The Protestant Reformer Martin Luther said that God only and always speaks just two words to us – Law or Gospel – and then he added that a true theologian knows the difference between the two!  The point of both of these texts is that we don’t have to go on some long arduous quest like Bilbo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings in order to get to the Word of God, either the Law or the Gospel.  In both cases, they are close by because God has spoken them to us.  As the theologian Carl F.H. Henry (a distant relative of our own Dr. Henry I have been told) put it, God’s revelation was a willing self-disclosure, an expression of His grace. God forfeited His own personal privacy in order that His creatures might know Him. We didn’t have to go looking for God in the darkness; God spoke to us out of the darkness.  We don’t have to pry God out of His hiding place in the heavens; God has shown up in our midst all on His own.  God has taken the initiative.  God has made the effort.  God has overcame the separation.  God has closed the gap. We are just the recipients of His gift, the beneficiaries of His actions.  This is something we really need to keep in mind during Lent.

Because Lent “talk” usually centers on what you are “giving up,” what has sometimes been described as “spiritual subtraction” – the sacrifices that you are prepared to make out of your devotion to God in this season of spiritual preparation for Easter, or on what you are “taking on,” what has been described as “spiritual addition” – the spiritual disciplines that you are exercising to expand your spiritual capacity to receive the fullness of the Easter blessings, it is real easy for Lent to slip into the old heresy of Pelagianism.

Pelagius was British monk who showed up in Rome in the late fourth and early fifth century, the era of St. Augustine, and was immediately distressed by the moral laxity and spiritual immaturity that he witnessed.  He taught a muscular version of Christianity that concluded that our basic problem as human beings is ignorance and a lack of will power.  If we would just be better taught and then get really motivated, we could become better people and thereby create a better world.  Jesus for Pelagius was a moral example of the kind of people we could become with a little bit of effort.  C. FitzSimons Allison, the retired Episcopal Bishop of South Carolina, described this as the “Roger Bannister doctrine of the Atonement.”

Before Roger Bannister no one was able to run a mile in four minutes.  Many even declared it physiologically impossible.  In breaking the four-minute barrier however, he broke the psychological impediment in the minds of athletes the world over and scores soon followed him in that accomplishment. …Jesus broke the mental and psychological barrier in the minds of people who felt that righteousness by the law was impossible to win.  (But) Jesus had now actually done it …The meaning of his life and work was, thus, reduced to an example for us to follow. (The Cruelty of Heresy 31-32)

Do you see how, if we are not careful, Lent can become a thoroughly Pelagian exercise?


The annual invitation that we extend each year on Ash Wednesday to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word” can be heard as a list of requirements that must be met before the grace of this season of the church year can be experienced by us, or as a description of the kinds of faithful responses that we can make to the grace that has already broken into our lives in Jesus Christ. Taken the first way, and what you have is Pelagianism – thinking that it will be by your own heroic efforts at following the example of Jesus Christ that you will work your way into spiritual maturity. Taken the second way, and what you have is the Gospel – a salvation by grace through faith and not by our works that nevertheless issues in good works (Ephesians 2:8-10).  Taken the first way and Lent is something that I would urge you to avoid like the plague.  It is a spiritual dead-end that can do some real damage to your soul.   But taken the second way, and Lent can be just what you need to get some focus in your spiritual life and to better position yourself in the current of God’s grace that is flowing into your life as a Christian through the channels of the means of grace that God has appointed and is actively utilizing to fuel your spiritual growth.

Mark Roberts, the theologian in residence down at Laity Lodge down in the Hill Country, provided this “Pastoral Word” in a resource that he produced a couple of years ago for people who were coming to the tradition of Lent for the very first time –

Let me note, at this point, that if you think of Lent as a season to earn God’s favor by your good intentions or good works, then you’ve got a theological problem. God’s grace has been fully given to us in Christ. We can’t earn it by doing extra things or by giving up certain other things in fasting. If you see Lent as a time to make yourself more worthy for celebrating Good Friday and Easter, then perhaps you shouldn’t keep the season until you’ve grown in your understanding of grace. If, on the contrary, you see Lent as a time to grow more deeply in God’s grace, then you’re approaching Lent from a proper perspective.

As a minister on a college campus put it to her students: “If your Lenten disciplines don’t lead you closer to Christ, ditch them… He understands.”   DBS+

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