Bad PR dies hard. Somehow, the word got out that Christianity is about moral reform and our inner 2nd-grade, grumpy-pants teacher has been looking over our shoulders ever since. Despite the insistence of St. Paul, Luther, Calvin and a host of other Reformers, faithful laymen and preachers that we’re free in Christ, we’ve had a 2,000 year battle on our hands. Just think of the many bumper-sticker falsehoods floating around. You know, “Do your best, and God does the rest. “Just follow your heart”. Or America’s favorite (non) verse “God helps those who help themselves.” The sentiment is always the same, that our problem can somehow be remedied by some combination of moral exertion, discipline and devotion. But the human problem isn’t solved by barking at people to get to work climbing a ladder, religious or otherwise. We don’t need to take spiritual vitamins, we need a death and resurrection! Here’s another Gerhard Forde:
Pelagius was a moral reformer and like all moral reformers he didn’t want a theology that allowed people to relax. So he said that man must use his God-given strength to climb the ladder. Sin is not original, it is only a bad habit that humans have gotten into. It is passed on by imitation not by heredity. What we must do is bend every effort to better ourselves and reverse the course of immorality and corruption the world has taken. To arms against evil!
That was Pelagius’ call. But the church from the beginning has resisted this call-at least in the precise form in which Pelagius put it. Why? Because, as St. Augustine–with St. Paul–said, it makes the cross of no effect. It is a call to man’s pride and pride is the deadliest of sins-especially when it thinks itself to be busy with religious affairs. It is a call which completely disregards the fact that it was man’s moral pride and religious fervor that killed God’s Son. It sets men climbing the heavenly ladder indeed, but it has no grace. It only grinds real humanity in the dust. In other words, it does not take the Grace of God as revealed in the cross at it’s word. There is no room left for mercy and love. If the cross is only an example of moral striving. It is a complete misreading both of divine action and the human condition.