A Jagged Contention: Semi-Pelagians

The law, the stress of life driving you to a breakdown, reduces you to a walking question mark. The question is answered, amazingly, by God’s one-way love. Grace changes everything. You then enter some form of church or community. At this point, the iron curtain of the law comes down. You are told you need to be “disciple” or “mentored” or “coached”: held “accountable.” Sermons contain lists of things to do, “disciplines” to take up, a “Christian worldview” to embrace. The law is reimposed.

No wonder the hymn writer complained, “Where is the blessedness I knew/When first I saw the Lord?” People become semi-Pelagians the day (after) they become Christians.

– Paul FM Zahl, Grace in Practice: A Theology for Everyday Life, pg. 91


Why is the church so prone to reduce grace for the Christian? Is there a place for discipleship/mentoring/coaching/disciplines? Or, does all such preaching result in semi-Pelagianism?

Share your thoughts in the comments below


6 thoughts on “A Jagged Contention: Semi-Pelagians

  1. Love this excerpt, thanks!

    I think the church is prone to reduce grace out of fear and denial of our low anthropology (Romans 3:10-12). If the pastor or teacher doesn’t truly understand grace then how can they preach it without fear that their congregation will dive into debauchery? If they don’t understand the complete wreckage of their souls then they won’t be able to see how much they need grace. After all, the rescue doesn’t seem very important until you understand what you are being rescued from.

    So in efforts to preach the gospel they end up with glawspel instead… “Let’s give them enough gospel so that we can say we are preaching the gospel but we have to be sure that the law is mixed in there so that we can keep them under control.” Totally fear driven. I see this all the time. They really do think they are preaching grace. But it’s only the tip of it because they are holding onto the notion that they really can’t be as bad as the Bible says they are, that Oprah is right and there really is something good deep down inside of them. So they give a list of rules to corpses and expect them come alive when only Christ can raise the dead.

    Also, I do think there is a place for discipleship/mentoring etc but always within a close relationship. If someone is being loved and guided by a more mature Christian these things will happen naturally. As I look back on different times of my life I can see that I was being mentored and discipled within the confines of love even though I didn’t know it and not intentionally by the other people. Preaching this from the pulpit only lays more onto our overburdened backs and creates obnoxious, anxious Christians who can’t make one move without taking their spiritual temperature and comparing themselves to the person next to them leading them to pride or despair. It’s exhausting.

    Just give us Christ and him crucified.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Excellent question & reply. One thing I noticed by having a view as an outsider is the incongruous nature of grace and the church model. I have noticed that God deals with us one heart at a time, and that Christ mentored 12 men and told them to go and make disciples. I’m not saying to tear it down for there is value in corporate worship, but discipling from the pulpit is tough. I would suggest voluntary small groups where the Word can be delved into more deeply, relationships could grow and ultimately those being discipled could become leaders of a group. Not that any of this is easy, it’s nearly impossible, but with God all things are possible.


  3. Great question this week.

    I have noticed the problem you mention in mega-church/non-denom congregations (Rick Warren), but I’m sure this happens in denominations grounded in the Reformers as well.

    The meaning of ‘gospel’ is fundamentally different in many churches. According to the Rick Warren or Cloud n Townsend, the gospel is the power to change your life (or they think the gospel is the power to save sinners and power to change your life). Little or nothing is mentioned that Christ died in place of sinners, that a Christian is declared holy by the Word and sacraments (the Christian is made holy by the power of the holy spirit guiding to righteousness). The key thing is “have you made him Lord and Savior of your life?”

    In many churches, a formula like this is taught: law + my own effort = condemnation (the person is fallen on their own and can’t save himself). Formula for belief or regeneration: law + asking for God’s help= a faithful Christian. Since the law is still a key part of the equation, it is still a focal point of preaching. This is why the personal testimony is highlight: it is proof that it works (and quite dramatic at that). Consequently, the other people start to practice spiritual disciplines and life improves. They stop drinking or fix their marriage or quit gambling, or stop fornicaboodling, or whatever. Improvement means it works.

    This is terrible because it does work… sort of. If someone who has never prayed and obviously rejected God like a reformed drug dealer (it is not as easy to see how your charitable unbelieving friend from the Rotary Club rejects God) suddenly becomes a “good guy” then something must have happened. And not merely something, but a true miracle. God has worked here.

    Maybe improvement has happened, but sin remains nonetheless. They seem to forget that the flesh and the spirit will battle each other throughout life. Romans 7 is mistakenly understood as describing an unbeliever (unbelievers don’t wrestle with “should” or “aught”).

    Regarding the last part of the original question, there is certainly a place for mentoring/discipleship. The practice of these things within a context of the Theology of the Cross is that we pray, make offerings, follow what God would have me do, but not in order to earn salvation. We do these things in gratitude for the grace so freely given to us, but we also do these things to help other people. The business of salvation is already finished, once and for all. We don’t ever need to worry about that. We do need to help those around us, and we need to look to our family, friends,and pastors when we find ourselves in a jam.

    Do Lutheran churches help those with pressing and immediate needs? Sometimes, but not always. Many congregations I’ve attended are mostly social clubs for several local families who’ve known each other for 50 years.


  4. “Although I am an unworthy and condemned man, my God has given me in Christ all the riches of righteousness and salvation without any merit on my part, out of pure, free mercy, so that from now on I need nothing except faith which believes that this is true. Why should I not therefore freely, joyfully, with all my heart, and with an eager will do all things which I know are pleasing and acceptable to such a Father who has overwhelmed me with his inestimable riches? I will therefore give myself as a Christ to my neighbor, just as Christ offered himself to me; I will do nothing in this life except what I see is necessary, profitable, and salutary to my neighbor, since through faith I have an abundance of all good things in Christ.” (On Christian Liberty, Luther)

    We need to take care that we attend to the bodily needs of our neighbors as well as their spiritual needs. The world needs these good works from us. The works flow from our having received grace. Grace comes down and we go out. This is our life in Christ. I don’t find that people run from grace so much as they run sanctification. God has made salvation fairly simple and abundantly available. He forgives as we shrink from the lives He wishes us to live. There is nothing we have to fear. But our sinful natures push back against the Christlikeness He desires us to have along with the grace He has given.

    “Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing. We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil. Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.” (1 Thess 5:11-24)

    Sounds like we do need discipling, encouragement, mentoring, and examples to follow not toward salvation but toward the life that God would have us live in the world.


    1. Good points, HLEWIS!

      In my experience, discipleship, mentoring, accountability is all about “here’s how I became victorious over sin in my life, and here is how you can do the same.” Otherwise, it’s “here are all the great theology books that I read to make my brain really big, don’t you want to be discipled by me so you can be this smart and show off when we play stump-the-pastor?!” In some cases, it’s even about “here’s how knowing God has made me a successful businessmen, lobbyist, bureaucrat, etc.”

      We ought to shift that focus to, “here’s how the Bible teaches us to love our children, spouse, coworkers and neighbors, and here’s how we share the good news with them.”


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