The Pelagian Captivity Of Evangelicalism: What The Reformers Would Think Of Modern Evangelicalism

Confession time!  I've had more and more of a difficult time applying the label of "Evangelical" to myself as of late.  Even though the Lutherans of the 1500's embraced the label and could be considered some of the first Evangelicals, I have come to wonder if they would associate with Modern Evangelicalism if they were alive today? If alive today, could the Reformers even identify any remnants of the 16th century Reformation in Evangelicalism today?  Mark Noll in his book, America's God, states that if the Reformers were alive today they would find themselves further removed from modern day Evangelicalism than they were removed from the Catholic Church of the 1500's.  Take a moment and listen below to Michael Horton commenting on Mark Noll's amazing assessment on Issues, Etc.:

J.I. Packer and O.R. Johnston, in their introduction to Martin Luther's book, "The Bondage of the Will," make a similar assessment and observation, 
"With what right may we call ourselves children of the Reformation?  Much modern Protestantism would be neither owned nor even recognized by the pioneer Reformers. The Bondage of the Will fairly sets before us what they believed about salvation of lost mankind.  In the light of it, we are forced to ask whether Protestant Christendom has not tragically sold its birthright between Luther's day and our own.  Has not Protestantism today become more Erasmian than Lutheran?  Do we not too often try to minimize and gloss over doctrinal differences for the sake of inter-party peace?  Are we innocent of the doctrinal indifferentism with which Luther charged Erasmus?  Do we still believe that doctrine matters?"  (The Bondage of the Will [Revell, 1957], 59-60.)
So an obvious question in response to these two assessments above would be, "Where did things drift off course?"  According to R.C. Sproul in his article, The Pelagian Captivity of the Church, he states,
"In the nineteenth century, there was a preacher who became very popular in America, who wrote a book on theology, coming out of his own training in law, in which he made no bones about his Pelagianism.  He rejected not only Augustinianism, but he also rejected semi-Pelagianism and stood clearly on the subject of unvarnished Pelagianism, saying in no uncertain terms, without any ambiguity, that there was no Fall and that there is no such thing as original sin.  This man went on to attack viciously the doctrine of the substitutionary atonement of Christ, and in addition to that, to repudiate as clearly and as loudly as he could the doctrine of justification by faith alone by the imputation of the righteousness of Christ.  This man's basic thesis was, we don't need the imputation of the righteousness of Christ because we have the capacity in and of ourselves to become righteous.  His name: Charles Finney, one of America's most revered evangelists.       
R.C. Sproul goes on to state that Charles Finney, could be classified as the patron saint of 20th century Evangelicalism; a Hall of Famer for Evangelical Christianity in America.  While the precise derailment of the Reformation's theology within American Evangelicalism could be debated, one thing is for sure and that is American Evangelicalism as a whole has taken on the theological flavor of Pelagianism.  Simply put, this Pelagian theology teaches that: man is basically good, man can move toward God by his own power without the grace of the Holy Spirit, man can convert himself to God, man can believe the Gospel whole-heartedly, man can obey God's Law thus meriting forgiveness of sins and eternal life. (Tim Ysteboe, We Believe [Faith and Fellowship, 2010], 55-56)  Quite obviously Charles Finney's theology of Pelagianismconditioned faith, elevated the spiritual condition of mankind, downplayed sin, undercut the Holy Spirit and robbed the narrative from God in placing mankind in the starring role.  The Evangelical Church is now captive to a man-centered Gospel, which is no Gospel at all and plagued by sermons of good advice meant to motivate and inspire the potential 'self.'  

In response to this captivity, there has been movement in the North American Church.  Several years back The Cambridge Declaration was released addressing the erosion of the 16th century Reformation Solas in today's Evangelical Churches.  The popular radio program The White Horse Inn has taken on a five year project in drafting 95 Theses for this modern generation.  There has even been the joining of pastors in loosely knit organization such as "The Gospel Coalition."  This is an organization that is deeply concerned about the Gospel and also the condition of Evangelicalism today.  

I once heard that during the days of Charles Spurgeon, that the Gospel became the "in thing" among the Christians of the day.  It became the "in thing" not because of a special marketing campaign but because it had been absent from the church for so long.  While the current condition of Evangelicalism today is something to be drastically concerned about,  I believe we can be cautiously optimistic that there is a rekindling of the Gospel present in Evangelicalism.  The Gospel seems to be gaining momentum in becoming the "in thing."  Tullian Tchividjian, a grandson of Billy Graham, is hosting a convention this February in Florida called, "Liberate."  He states in the conference invitation
"I'm ecstatic about the resurgence of interest in the gospel that's taking place inside the Evangelical church today.  The idea that once God saves us his plan isn't to steer us beyond the gospel, but to move us deeply into the gospel, is gaining traction in the churches of all stripes and denominations.  And that's a great thing."   
My hope and prayer for Evangelicalism is that the Gospel would be rediscovered, that the Gospel would once again become the "in thing" and that the church would be liberated from the captivity of Pelagianism.  For this we pray... Amen.

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Anonymous said… certainly are not the only one reluctant to accept th label evangelical as it is understood in the U S today. I thorough appreciate the sources you call to our attention. Thanks for all your work on this blog!
Ken Narvesen
Anonymous said…
I have been following your blog for a while now and was excited to find that I was not the only one who thought differently from my local mega churches (I thought there was something wrong with my brain that I was going against the group). Anyway, I am almost half way through Michael Horton's Christless Christianity book and am amazed that I had many of the same thoughts that he shared. I am very interested in what you talked about here with the White Horse Inn and the 95 Theses- it is all well overdue! Most recently the local mega churches in my area have been peddling Dave Ramsey and "The Great Recovery" from the pulpit for the past 3 months. I have been staying home from those services after listening to a few weeks of the sermons, I heard very little Gospel and a whole lot of how I need to fix myself and the economy, and if I don't God can't use me. I knew this was a lie because God has used me most when I have been at my weakest. I was curious as to your thoughts about this and if it falls in line with the concept of Pelagianism, I think it does but wasn't sure. My biggest issue right now is trying to find a church that isn't caught up in this. I'm thinking about just doing home church. I am a serious Bible geek and "devour" the Scriptures daily, which I previously figured might be part of my frustration with church, that is, until I learned about this movement.
Dear Anonymous,

I am appreciative of your comments and also empathize with you in your predicament. If possible, please drop me an email to visit more in person:

As far as your local church, I have very little to go off of. However, from the sound of it, your church's anthropology sounds inflated. In other words, mankind is responsible for reforming the sinful nature/problem. If this is the case, yes this is Pelagianism or Semi-Pelagianism.

To maybe take a more careful look at what you are being fed at your church... consider the following Sermon Diagnosis Post.

As far as churches? I would caution you from choosing to worship by yourself. The body of Christ is truly a gift and we need to study the scriptures in community and you also need a pastor to declare to you the objective Gospel. As far as finding a church that proclaims Christ rather than the Christian may be hard though, but they are out there! Like I mentioned before... drop me an email and we can discuss this more.

terriergal said…
Ah, but we are seeing more and more the backlash against this focus on the gospel too. It's been pretty astonishing, but then I suppose we should not be surprised!