Not long after the apostles died, there arose a conflict in the church over the doctrine of salvation. Nestled in the midst of the conflict was a disagreement over the eternal security of a Christian. One side claimed that a Christian could never lose their salvation while the other side claimed that a Christian could most certainly lose their salvation. Augustine argued the former, and Pelagius argued the latter. Pelagius was eventually condemned by the church as a heretic, but his teaching continues in part to this day.
Both arguments revived around the 16th century. Augustine's argument revived with Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, and William Tyndale while Pelagius' argument revived not long after with Jacobus Arminius, John Wesley, and Charles Wesley.
Pelagius’ arguments had to be softened when they were revived which created a kind of semi-Pelagian philosophy. The reason they adopted only part of Pelagius' argument was so they wouldn’t be labeled heretics, all the while still making the point Pelagius was trying to make. Pelagius' reason for opposition was his disagreement with a short prayer of Augustine's: "Do what thou commandest, and command what thou wilt." To Pelagius, this sounded like Augustine was taking the responsibility of his actions and placing it on God. Augustine most certainly was not; he was simply acknowledging his need for God's mercy and grace.
Pelagius had the idea that if salvation was not up to us, we could not be held responsible for neglecting it. Contributing to this idea was the idea of free-will which the philosophers of the day were teaching. Like many other early church fathers, he adopted some of the ideas of the leading philosophers to appear relevant to the world. Free-will was one of them. This philosophy stated that if man was determined by anything, he was not free, and if he was not free, he was not responsible. So, his argument went something like this: God is unjust in giving His people a law and commandments they cannot keep; such is a cruel and unloving God.
Furthermore, Pelagius completely denied sin as being a factor in human choices. This led him to argue that man did not need grace to be saved but could save himself. Where was the atonement of Christ in this picture? Why do we need Christ’s righteousness? Where was Paul's teaching on being saved by grace through faith? It was nowhere to be found.
The semi-Pelagians saw this problem and adjusted the argument to include Christ's sacrifice and God's work of grace. However, they kept as much of the free-will and authoritative choice of man they could. This created a salvation wherein both God and man were active and decisive in salvation. With this as their foundation, they again posed the argument: How can God be just in giving people a law He knows they cannot keep? What purpose is the law if we cannot keep it? And finally, why do Christians need rebukes, exhortations, and commands if they can never lose their salvation?
Answering The Question
In reality, those questions had already been addressed by Augustine when he stated, "The commandment will tell thee, O man, what thou oughtest to have, reproof will show thee wherein thou art wanting, and praying will teach thee from whom thou musts receive the supplies which thou wantest.” We need commandments not to tell us what we are to strive for, but to use as a mirror for our souls. They will drive us to Christ, not to further exertion of energy to accomplish them. They are the straight edge of the ruler placed upon our crooked lives.
Our entire life of faith is one that is carried out entirely by the grace of God. We act, but we don’t provide the power. We act only because of the gracious work of God. Our life is in His hands, not our own. We are not the captain of our ship.
Paul is quick to correct the Galatians who foolishly thought they must carry out certain works to make themselves more saveable.
"I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ." (Galatians 1:6-7)
"O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?" (Galatians 3:1-3)
"Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith." (Galatians 3:23-26)
The law and commandments are only to point us to our need for Christ and to show us whether or not we are in Christ. They act as a mirror, displaying our lack and shortcomings. We need the law, not to achieve righteousness by it, but to be propelled to the One who is righteous. The law of God stops us from trusting in ourselves for salvation. It reminds us again and again that we fall incredibly short. It reminds us that we will never be accepted by God on the basis of our works. The law is a U-turn sign for the Christian who begins to think that he is pleasing God by his works.
To answer the question, the law is not null and void for the Christian. It is most helpful and needed. For the unbeliever, the law only condemns, but for the Christian, it points us to Jesus. The law is a means by which God preserves the Christian in Christ.
The Christian lives only by grace, nothing more. For if we are to add anything to our salvation, we push out Christ. How can we be Christians without Christ? If Christ is ours, He must be ours in His entirety. We need the commands, we need the law, and we need rebukes and exhortations, but only to bring us to trust in Christ completely.