Of the early Church Fathers it was Saint Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo, who earned the title “Doctor of Grace” for his in-depth study and systematic teaching on the doctrine of grace. The Church’s teaching on grace, like other doctrines, developed slowly and became more fully established during the Patristic era; in large part against Pelagius who erred in his teachings on the original state of man, original sin, and the intercessory work of the Holy Spirit. It was about two years after Pelagius’ arrival in North Africa (Augustine’s back yard) that Augustine began to devote serious time and energy on the issues of grace, especially those espoused by Pelagius.
Pelagius was a monk, possibly from the British Isles, who lived in Rome from 384 to 410 AD before fleeing to Africa during the fall of Rome. According to Pelagius, and his subsequent followers (Julian Bishop of Eclanum and Celestius, a lawyer), the original state of Adam (i.e. sinlessness) would have included death whether he sinned or not, the sin of Adam was personal, and that his sin (and subsequent death by sin) was not transmitted to the whole of humanity. In other words, Adam’s original sin was committed in a vacuum with no future impact on the human race.
Such claims not only distorted the state of original man and results of his fall, but as William A. Jurgens states in his book The Faith of the Early Fathers Volume 3, they subsequently diluted the “Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection of Christ” by wholly marginalizing the graciousness of God’s plan of salvation. Instead of beginning with God and His grace, Pelagius began with man and promoted the power of unaided human nature and sidelined the grace of God to the extent that it is unnecessary for righteousness. These teachings of Pelagius touched Saint Augustine personally as noted in his Confessions where he divulged his own experiences and reasons for asserting the necessity of grace in freeing man from sin (bondage) and giving him true liberty (freedom from bondage). For Augustine the writings of Pelagius and his followers had to be answered.
Augustine published two works against the errors of Pelagius in which he counters Pelagius with a true fall of humanity based upon the original sin of Adam. According to Augustine, Adam had the power (liberty) in his original state to not sin; yet exercised his liberty and chose to sin. Because of this act, man is born in a sinful state (i.e. fallen) and has inherited a nature that is both injured and limited in liberty. After the fall, man’s nature and liberty were imperfect because he is inherently drawn toward sin by concupiscence. In other words, after the fall of Adam, human nature became broken, in bondage, and in need of grace to be healed, liberated, and redeemed.
Augustine envisions the role of grace as liberating fallen man by breaking the bonds of man’s slavery to sin; for without grace man would be in eternal bondage. For Saint Augustine, and Pelagius as well, grace may include external help (e.g. preaching), but such external help is only a prelude to grace, it is an aid not on the level of grace itself. In grace, there is the indispensable work of the Holy Spirit to intervene interiorly to justify and move the sinner to do the good. Fallen humanity needs God’s gracious aid to redeem his injured nature and this aid is undeserved, never merited, and precedes the actions of man. In countering Pelagius, Saint Augustine developed four major themes on the doctrine of grace.
1) Grace is needed as a remedy for original sin. Saint Augustine clearly teaches that grace is compulsory as a remedy for the original sin passed on from our first parents because our inherited sin left us in a wounded state and unable to do good.
2) Grace precedes and accompanies human works. Pelagius linked the gift of grace to merit following man’s action, teaching that “God gives all these graces to the man who has shown himself worthy to receive them.” To which Augustine replied, “I could not help being suspicious upon reading such words. For the very name of grace [gratia] and the thing signified by that name is taken away, if it is not given gratuitously [gratis], but he that is worthy receives it. …For he says expressly; But if by grace, it is no more by works; otherwise grace is grace no more.”
3) Grace heals fallen nature and leads to true liberty. Augustine understood that the fall left mankind broken and without true liberty, ideas Pelagius denied. True liberty without grace, Augustine advocated, is impossible because without grace we would be eternal slaves to our fallen nature. Therefore the remedy for original sin is the healing of the wounded nature by God’s gift of grace, which in turn leads to true liberty.
4) Grace is needed for final perseverance. Contrary to Pelagius, man is born to and remains in a weakened state. Grace is an absolute essential if man is to grow in the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love and persevere to the end.
The grave error of Pelagius was that his ideas revolved around the power of the individual to act - pridefully - without God’s grace. It was the great Bishop of Hippo, however, that contended for the truth and helped define grace as the God-given necessity for healing and redemption we still proclaim today.