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Previous article in this series: October 1, 2015, p. 19.

The Universality of War against God

The universality of sin (and death, for that matter) is undeniable. Wherever man is, moral evil abounds. The Bible declares it (I Kings 8:46; Ps. 14:1-3; Prov. 20:9; Eccl. 7:20; Rom. 3:1-20; Gal. 3:22; I John 1:8, 10). Experience confirms it. Even those who desperately cling to the dream of the essential goodness of man find their own experiences and relationships darkened by sin and sin’s consequences.

Sin is wicked war against God and His law. Natural man is not merely separated from God. Man is against God. Romans 8:7 teaches, “Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be.” Man does not merely rebel against God (an activity), but man is a rebel against God (an identity on account of his nature). Man cannot be subject to the law, but can only rebel against it.

Because sin is universal, and sin is war against God, war against God is universal. Wherever man is, from pole to pole, there you find him actively opposed to his Maker.

The ten events that follow were gleaned from the Los Angeles Times over a period of one week during the middle of this past November, and are representative of events commonly reported in the news. Whether these events were portrayed by the journalists reporting them as good or bad, whether they were deemed by the reader to be good or bad, whether they occurred in the world at large, in the country, or locally in southern California, they are all clear expressions of man’s spirited warfare against God. Reading the daily newspaper with the spectacles of Scripture, one reads the annals of war:

  • Multiple “R” rated movies containing nudity, strong sexuality, language and/or violence debuted and grossed millions of dollars in days.
  • The Sabbath of the Lord was observed by 22 NFL football teams performing on the sacred courts of the stadium’s turf to the delight of hundreds of thousands of people sanctified unto the NFL.
  • A group of university students unhappy with the performance of their university president revolted by “occupying” their campus until their president was ousted.
  • An untold number of children across the world are exploited sexually and forced into prostitution.
  • An estimated 96,000 “gay weddings” have taken place nationwide in the four months since the U.S. Supreme Court’s highly-celebrated decision legalizing “gay marriage.”
  • A man was sentenced for “revenge pornography” in which he stole and sold nude photos from a woman’s email account.
  • ISIS terrorists bragged about their bomb that brought down a Russian airplane over Egypt, killing all 224 people onboard.
  • ISIS terrorists claimed responsibility for killing at least 129 people in Paris in one night.
  • A judge convicted a man for murdering his boyfriend by chopping off his boyfriend’s head and leaving it in a grocery bag along a trail—an act so barbaric, even the judge called it “so depraved.”
  • A woman was convicted for killing her one-month old daughter whom she had put in a microwave oven for approximately two to five minutes. That was only a week’s worth. “There is no fear of God before their eyes” (Rom. 3:18).

What if there was a newspaper with an editorial staff that could see what God can see, peering into the inmost recesses of man’s heart? What if that staff selected some of these “heart” events for the daily news? The L.A. Times reports, for example, that a woman microwaved her infant daughter—a heinous and public sin that vexes your righteous soul. But this same newspaper also reports, for example, what happened in the heart of a toddler in nursery at church on Sunday when his toy was swiped by another child, and how immediately his heart glowed red with the desire for revenge—a private and typically undetectable sin. A mother murdering her baby and a child’s desire for revenge, although sins differing in severity on account of their nature, are nonetheless both acts of warfare against God and His law.

If there were a newspaper that could report such “heart” events, the daily news would show us the universality of sin at a whole new level. Any man could make the news. I could. So could you. The whole earth teems with human rebels defying the living God. Even from the sinful flesh that cleaves to the regenerated Christian springs attitudes and actions of hostility toward God. If we could read such a newspaper, then the enmity of which the Bible speaks, and the enmity that God be holds from on high day after day would be more plainly revealed to us. War against God is universal.

Raising the Question

What explains the universality of sin (war against God)?

In laying very carefully the broad theological foundation for a proper understanding of our ongoing spiritual warfare, we have been examining the origin of war in God (studying His determinative counsel and essential holiness), in the angelic realm (sin’s first entrance into the creation), and now in man. Before we can examine the origin of holy war in us as regenerated believers and the explanation for our battle against sin and for the kingdom of God, we need to understand the origin of unholy war in natural man.

Last time we considered the biblical truth of the fall of man. By sinning against God, Adam declared war against God. The last verse of Genesis 3 confirms Adam’s fall was war, for we read “And he [God] drove out the man, and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.” God drove man from Eden. Turning around, man saw that God had sent a detachment of angelic soldiers called cherubim and a flaming sword to prevent any re-entry. Those soldiers said it all. This was war.

Now we have two important biblical concepts and realities before us: the fall of man and the universality of sin. Is there any connection between the two? Is there any connection between the sin of Adam and you, between the sin of Adam and your neighbor, between the sin of Adam and the human race?

The Pelagian Doctrine of Imitation

Pelagius said, “No. Adam’s fall injured himself alone, not the human race.”

The issues involved in the doctrinal question we have posed occasioned a major controversy between Pelagius and Augustine in the early fifth century of the church. You might remember hearing these two names in a catechism or church history class. Pelagius was a monk of heretical doctrine who likely hailed from Britain. Augustine was a monk earnestly contending for the faith in Hippo, Africa.

Pelagius travelled to Rome and evidently was struck by the prevalence of moral corruption. He explained the abounding iniquity in Rome and throughout the world with his doctrine of imitation. In Article 15, our Belgic Confession closes with these words, “Wherefore we reject the error of the Pelagians, who assert that sin proceeds only from imitation.”

Pelagius (with his disciple Coelestius) denied the sovereign grace of God that originates in eternal predestination, is accomplished in the substitutionary atonement of the crucified Christ for the elect, and is efficaciously worked by the Holy Spirit in the heart of the totally depraved, elect sinner. Instead of teaching an unworthy dead sinner and a sovereign God of grace, Pelagius taught that every human being is born into this world without any inherent sinfulness and grows up with the ability freely to choose evil or good. The more the child wills in a certain direction (toward evil or good), the more the will settles in that direction. Willing good or willing evil can become a habit. What might the child will? What might the child do? Might the child keep or break God’s law? Invariably, the child sins because he is surrounded by so many bad examples—the sins of father and mother, the sins of other boys and girls, the sins he sees on the streets, and so on. He wills to do what they do. Sin is not an inner principle that proceeds from his nature, but an outward act of the will performed in imitation of other people’s morally evil outward acts.

In order to understand a world of iniquity, taught Pelagius, you have to go back to Adam. Adam sinned. He chose to do evil. Then his children freely chose to imitate some of his bad examples, and the grandchildren imitated some of the bad examples they saw, and the great-grandchildren imitated what they saw. As history unfolds, therefore, sin abounds, not because there are bad people doing bad things, but because there are basically good people choosing to follow bad examples.

Pelagius’ explanation of sins such as those of the mother who microwaved her infant daughter or the man who beheaded his male lover would find almost universal acceptance today. People judge that there is nothing morally wrong with those who committed these deeds. Blame is not to be placed at their feet. They were conditioned by their environment. They were surrounded by so many negative influences and bad examples. They are helpless victims pressured into such unfortunate and even despicable acts by undesirable external circumstances beyond their control.

We ought to point out that as dishonorable as Pelagius and his wicked doctrine were, at least he acknowledged there was a man Adam and that the man Adam sinned. In that respect Pelagius is more honorable than many theologians today. With the widespread acceptance of evolutionary theory as the explanation of origins and with the acceptance of that theory’s theological implications, a modern Pelagian-Augustinian controversy would, pitifully, have to commence by establishing some basic ground rules. Do we agree the opening chapters of Genesis are inspired and record literal history? Do we agree Adam was a historical figure? Do we agree this Adam ate forbidden fruit and fell?

In summary, Pelagius did not ascribe the universality of sin to the fall of Adam and what we know as original sin, but to imitation, teaching that Adam’s sin has no essential effect upon any of his children—Cain, Abel, you or me. Adam was merely a bad example. The devastating consequence of this doctrine of imitation is that it reduces the redemptive work of Jesus Christ to nothing more than the provision of a good example. As man sins by following Adam’s or another’s bad example, so man saves himself by following Christ’s good example. The gospel of Pelagian salvation is “For by works are ye saved through following the example of Jesus, the gift of God to you.”

The explanation for the universality of sin (war against God), including my sin and your sin, cannot be found merely in imitation. The answer must be found in the biblical doctrine of original sin, an explanation of which is forthcoming. For now, we conclude with a few words from the pen of Augustine in the year 412, at the very dawn of the Pelagian controversy:

No doubt all they imitate Adam who by disobedience transgress the commandment of God; but he is one thing as an example to those who sin because they choose; and another thing as the progenitor of all who are born with sin. All His saints, also, imitate Christ in the pursuit of righteousness; whence the same apostle, whom we have already quoted, says, “Be ye imitators of me, as I am also of Christ.” But besides this imitation, His grace works within us our illumination and justification.