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Reckoned Righteous: Pelagius & Romans 4

Updated: Jun 6, 2022

Sermon #222 St. James the Less #129 2/28/21

For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation. For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”) —in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become “the father of many nations,” according to what was said, “So numerous shall your descendants be.” He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. Therefore his faith “was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Now the words, “it was reckoned to him,” were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.

Romans 4:13-25

Pelagius Comes to Town

Travel with me for a moment back some 1600 years ago to the ancient coastal city of Hippo in North Africa, in modern-day Algeria. The city is abuzz with a new teaching from a British monk. Around every street corner, you’ll hear the name Pelagius being talked about. His ideas are intriguing, and they are beginning to grow in popularity not only in Hippo but also in Carthage and the other major cities around the Mediterranean.

Essentially Pelagius was challenging the long-held assumption that that sin was just part and parcel of being human. If you’re human, the Church taught, you are plagued by sin whether you like it or not. Even precious little babies and the holiest of saints are inherently sinful because of Adam and Eve’s fall from grace.

But Pelagius was teaching something new. He made the claim that Adam’s sin did not affect each and every person. Instead, Adam just set a bad example for all of us. Pelagius had a high view of human potential. He said that each person was free to act righteously or sinfully—nothing was compelling people to habitually sin.

It was all about self-control. You have the ability to live your whole life and not sin if you choose to do the right thing and keep your emotions in check. He claimed that some people had actually accomplished this and had never sinned in their entire life. To put icing on the cake he even said that death was not a consequence of Adam and Eve’s original sin.

You can now imagine why these ideas were being wildly discussed in every corner café and dining room in the coastal city. It put humanity in a pretty good light: it showed how with a little hard work and some determination anyone could live a sinless life. You just need to learn the art of self-control and you’d be on your way to a life of purity and holiness.

But there was one man who heard all this chatter in the streets below while he sat beside his second-story window, and instead of being excited, it worried him, I mean really worried him.

He was convinced this British monk had it all wrong, and he wasn’t happy that an outsider had come into the city and stirred up the people with these ideas.

Thankfully he was literate, not something to be taken for granted back then. But he was also a gifted writer and had access to many books, again, not to be taken for granted. And he was determined to prove that Pelagius was wrong. Now, I will say it did help he was the bishop of the city.

And as Bishop of Hippo, Augustine was concerned that Pelagius was not only a radical teacher but a heretic—meaning that what he taught was not in line with Scripture.

Augustine would end up writing pages upon pages, almost to the point of obsession, trying to prove to the churches in North Africa (and anyone else who would listen) why Pelagianism was not only wrong but an insidious belief system that cheapened God’s grace.

In his writings, he would reference some of the passages we just read, specifically Abraham and Paul’s letter to the Romans.

Romans: Abraham Reckoned

In our reading from Romans this morning we are reminded of the Old Testament story of Abraham when God promised to make him a great nation. The irony of this divine announcement was that Abraham and Sarah had no children, no heirs to become a great nation, and Abraham was close to 100 years old and Sarah wasn’t far behind.

Abraham had no potential, nothing going for him. He wasn’t known for his piety or his faithfulness; he was just a regular man, and one at the tail end of his life—he even admits that he was a death’s door.

AND YET God chose him to be the father of a great nation.

If you think this is ridiculous then you’ve hit the nail on the head. This story isn’t supposed to show how Abraham earned God’s favor, but just how wonderfully ridiculous God pours out his grace and favor.

From Abraham’s perspective, this unknown God had come to him and made him a wonderful promise, but that’s all it was, a promise. Up to this point God had done nothing for Abraham.

AND YET Abraham believed. He took God at his word because it was the Almighty God doing the promising. And that’s really the only thing Abraham could bring to the table— faith.

The great theologian Karl Barth said this about faith, “Faith brings the known condition and status of human life into relation with the unknown God” (140). Meaning that Abraham believed that God could make him the father of a great nation, though every indication from his age, health, and social status said otherwise.

That’s why we talk about a leap of faith—we are leaping into something that is not fully known and so we have to take a risk and trust what is not fully known.

Barth says that faith is a form of knowledge, but one that is hard for us to grasp. “Faith beholds life and existence where the man of the world sees nothing but death and non-existence” (141). And it’s true the other way round, where the world normally sees life, we know those actions usually bring about death and destruction. And so, faith leads us not towards the comforts and certainties of this world but towards the invisible and unknown.

Abraham was at this crucial nexus point between the realities of this world and the promises of the invisible and unknown. Where human reason told him the end was near, God was promising life and a future despite all the facts that said otherwise. Abraham decided to have faith in God’s promise, and we are told because of that act of faith, God reckoned him righteous.

God makes him righteous not because of anything he’s accomplished, not because of his grand potential, but because of his willingness to trust. Abraham had no way of becoming righteous on his own. Only God had the power to reckon him righteous.

We Are Like Abraham

Now, this is not only good news for Abraham, but Paul says this is great news for all of us. We are reckoned righteous by God not because of what we’ve accomplished nor anything we’ve done, but simply through faith.

This is the exact opposite of Pelagianism. Throw human merit out the window. No matter how hard we try, we cannot attain purity and holiness on our own. We must accept we are finite beings who are sinful and broken in need of God’s reckoning and grace.

If you follow Pelagius’ argument, some people wouldn’t need to be reckoned because they had not sinned. If so, we are not in any serious need for God and what he offers us because we can do it ourselves.

But I think we know that’s wrong—Augustine knew it was wrong, and so did the early Church Fathers who met in Ephesus to condemn Pelagius’ teachings.

But culturally we are Pelagians, even in the Church we can’t help but be lured by the accomplishments of humans—the power and influence some wield—even the purity and holiness with which some carry themselves. That’s nice and all but everyone is broken and marred by sin.

A healthy view of humanity isn’t to put us on a pedestal, but rather to recognize that we are lost without God—all of human corruption, violence, and selfishness make a lot more sense if we drop our admiration for Pelagius and accept that Paul was right, that the biblical understanding of humanity is correct.

To be honest, we’ve got a little Pelagianism in all of us—even clergy have the tendency to unwittingly follow Pelagius.

And this is how we know: if we’re afraid to talk about sin and brokenness if it makes us uncomfortable, or we’d rather just hear how following Jesus will make us happier or more fulfilled in life, then we very well may be a Pelagian.

I tell you all this because I think we modern, Western folks need to hear it—I need to hear it. Every time I’m afraid to preach a heavy topic, or hesitant to seriously dig into the human predicament then I am falling back into my Pelagian comforts.

Lent’s Gift

But thank God for Lent. This season will not allow us to stay comfortable for long. In fact, it keeps us uncomfortable—it forces us to take off the rose color glasses and see reality; to read the 10 Commandments week after week and say, “Incline our hearts to keep this law” because we know there are many times when we have not kept his law.

Lent is a reality check for each believer, and I think this is a good thing. It’s better to be in reality than fantasy, right?

Because Lent shows us the reality of humans’ sinfulness, we are then able to see the extraordinary graciousness of God in light of our condition. Even as broken as we are, God reckons us righteous through faith.

We have not earned it through our own merit. An Olympian has earned their gold medal—they have put in the hours and sacrificed everything to be the best of the best, and all that hard work is rewarded when that medal is placed around their neck.

But in the theological sense, none of us are Olympians, no amount of time or work would be enough to earn this gift of being reckoned righteous—only God can bestow that on us and he does it freely and abundantly: all we must do is believe—to trust that he is good and his promises for us are good.

As heavy as the season of Lent is, it’s truly a gift. Especially to all of us who don’t feel good enough, who feel like we must earn our place in the world. That we aren’t religious enough, we don’t pray enough, we aren’t generous enough, or caring enough. That we’ll never be good enough for our spouse or family or our job or ultimately God.

Lent reminds us that we really aren’t good enough, we’ll never do enough or be enough to earn God’s favor, AND YET, through the simple, yet profound act of faith we are reckoned righteous by our Heavenly Father.

The rest of the world may think this is foolish, but you and I know, this is the way towards true and abundant life.

It’s the way it was always meant to be.

2nd Sunday of Lent. Year B. Romans 4:13-25. Barth’s Romans Commentary. Church History in Plain Language by Bruce Shelley. Photo by Rui Silva sj on Unsplash.

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