This is part of a series of posts looking at your questions about theology.
Question: Are people born inherently good or inherently bad? What do we do with the idea of original sin?
Jeremy Jernigan – Executive Pastor
Instead of quoting verses for this answer, I’d like to go back to two early church fathers who saw various ways of understanding this question and who arrived at different answers. The first is a guy named Augustine (354-430 AD) and you may have heard of him before. Contrasting his views was a man named Pelagius (354-420 AD). They were born the same year and followed the same Jesus yet they arrived at Him with radically different understandings. Here’s a bit of church history which sheds light on this question.
In comparing both Augustine’s and Pelagius’ views on nature and grace, one might recall the proverbial illustration of whether a glass is half empty or half full. Both men could be looking at the same glass, but they each draw radically different conclusions which lead to various applications. Augustine emphasizes the brokenness of humanity while Pelagius emphasizes the goodness. Both attribute sovereignty and goodness to God. It is beneficial for a Christian to choose between the two arguments based on one’s personality and journey with God toward the ultimate goal of obedience and discipleship in Christ. Christians will find different ways of understanding life in Jesus in both Augustine’s and Pelagius’ views and should, therefore, adopt whichever one aids them the most in this pursuit.
Pelagius assumes people start with a “natural integrity which presides in the depths of the soul and passes judgments of good and evil.” For people to choose that which is right or moral, there must be some inherent ability endowed by God if the individual’s goodness is not a direct result of God’s activity. Because of this ability, Pelagius affirms people can choose goodness out of their free will and apart from God’s direct involvement. “No one knows the extent of our power better than the one who gave us our strength. No one understands what we can do better than the one who endowed us with the capacity for virtue.” Pelagius argues that the strength which allows us a capacity for virtue comes from God Himself. God therefore expects or at least hopes for us to choose the moral path.
Pelagius does not establish his point on theory alone but provides numerous Biblical people who serve as examples of his argument. One of his more detailed examples is Job. After showing various behaviors Job modeled which would only later become prescriptions for faith, Pelagius concludes, “Job was a man of the gospel even before the gospel, an apostolic man before the apostolic teaching.” Pelagius wonders how Job could have behaved as he did without much of the instruction that would only come years after him. It must result from Job’s capacity for goodness. Pelagius concludes his multiple Biblical examples by explaining that “If even before the law and long before the coming of our Lord and Savior, some people lived upright and holy lives… we should believe all the more that we can do the same after his coming.” Here Pelagius’ arguments take an interesting turn as he then applies it to modern Christians who have seen the life and example of Jesus. If someone like Job could use his capacity for good in the exemplary way he did, how much more so could a Christian use their “natural integrity” in response to Jesus Christ?
In contrast, Augustine begins with the idea of a person’s fallen nature and inability to choose otherwise. He says succinctly that “no one will be good who was not first of all wicked.” Because of this brokenness of humanity, God must intervene on behalf of His creation for there to be union. This is completely apart from what each person can do for themselves. “What greater gift, or even what similar gift, could grace itself bestow upon any man, if he has already without grace been able to make himself one spirit with the Lord by no other power than that of his own free will?” Augustine sees that grace is powerless, perhaps even useless, if a person can choose it for themselves. He sees this grace as the agent which allows a person to experience the virtuous life apart from their initiative.
One might wonder how Pelagius and Augustine could both assert free will with their radically different explanations for it. One similarity between them is that both men affirm that the point of free will is to choose God. Augustine says, “Now when God punishes a sinner what else do you suppose he will say to him than “Why did you not use your free will for the purpose for which I gave it to you, that is, in order to do right?” Similarly, Pelagius argues that “We do either good or evil only by our own will; since we always remain capable of both, we are always free to do either.”
The debate between Pelagius and Augustine falls into the nonessential category of the faith, in that both can be considered Christians despite their different understandings of how God works and how we come to Him. This does not mean the nature of this debate is unimportant, however. The way we approach God will largely be affected by whether we more easily relate with Pelagius or Augustine.
From a personality point of view, those who desire and do better with more certainty in their faith will likely connect better with Augustine. In describing his own journey, he tells about how “I wanted to read no further, nor did I need to. For instantly, as the sentence ended, there was infused in my heart something like the light of full certainty and all the gloom of doubt vanished away.” Many Christians will find this stance comforting, although people who are more inclined toward doubt will likely find issue with it. Therefore, from a pastoral perspective, I can see how both men offer something of value for a modern Christian today. I would encourage you to use whichever framework best allows you to experience the Spirit of God and live accordingly. For hundreds of years there have been Christians who have followed God faithfully yet answered this question from radically different viewpoints.
Disclaimer: I’m providing you with my answer to these questions and what makes the most sense to me Biblically. There are numerous other Christians who would provide different answers. If you disagree with me, there’s no need to email me or any other staff member. I’m not making sweeping statements that define all views of Central and its leadership. The point is to create an environment where we go deeper in our understanding and experience with God. At the very least I invite you to consider thoughtfully the answers I give, even if they differ from your views. If you would like to talk through this post with someone, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.