Is it arrogant to claim that Pelagians (definition) misunderstand the Gospel? Yes, it is as arrogant as claiming that Catholics distort the Gospel, that the Jews missed their Messiah, and that Muslims do not serve the God of Abraham. It is arrogant in a day of post-modern tolerance, where truth is relative to the individual and where truth thereby is non-existent.
And how have Pelagians misunderstood the Gospel? They have done it by misunderstanding the bad news of humanity’s condition. For if good news is going to exist, bad news must go before it, and if extremely Good News is going to exist, extremely bad news must go before it.
It is for this reason that the apostle Paul, after he declares that he is not ashamed of the Gospel for in the Gospel the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith (Rm. 1:16, 17), immediately expounds upon the terrible state of humanity (vv. 1:18-3:20). This terrible state is summarized in that all men are by nature unrighteous and that all men actively and willfully suppress the truth of God in their unrighteousness, and therefore God’s wrath is being stored up for them (cf. v. 1:18). And because of this terrible state in which all men are, the apostle, at the climax of this section upon the bad news of men’s condition, declares, “None is righteous, no, not one. No one understands, no one seeks for God. All have turned aside, together they have become worthless. No one does good, not even one” (vv. 3:10-13).
Therefore, the bad news of man’s condition is this, namely that God is righteous, and men are unrighteous. And in order for men to stand before a pleased God, they must be righteous, they must understand, they must seek for God, they must repent, they must have worth, and they must do good. However, no man does these things. In his natural state, he is the opposite of what he must be, and he perpetuates his condition by his own will and works. Therefore, by himself, no man can stand righteous before God.
Therefore, after the apostle finishes his discourse on the terrible news of man’s condition, he reintroduces the Gospel using the same language by which he introduced it prior to his discourse, namely, “The righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith” (v. 1:17). He writes:
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law … [namely] the righteousness of God through the faith of Jesus Christ for all who have faith (or believe). For there is no distinction, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God and are justified by his grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as propitiation by his blood to be received by faith” (vv. 3:21-25).
In other words, the extremely Good News of Jesus Christ is that despite man’s terrible condition, men can now be made righteous through the gracious gift of Christ’s redemption by faith. But how are we to understand this faith by which we are made righteous? Is it an active seeking out and an active trusting in God by our own free volition? By no means! For by himself, no one understands and no one seeks for God (cf. v. 3:11). What is this faith then? This faith is the gift of Christ’s faith to us who could never have faith. It is imputed faith. How do we know this? We know this because the apostle expresses the Gospel in this way: “The righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith” (v. 1:17), expressly, “Through the faith of Jesus Christ for all who have faith” (v. 3:22). In other words, the faith that we have in Christ is not a meritorious work that we by our own choosing choose to have, but it is a gift granted by Jesus Christ to us–Jesus who is the author and finisher of our faith (Heb. 12:2). Therefore, it is no surprise that since the apostle is teaching in Rm. 3:21-26 the same thing that he teaches in Eph. 2:8-10, namely that faith is a gift of God not a work of man, he then makes the exact same conclusion in each passage, namely, “What then becomes of our boasting? It is excluded” (v. 3:27). For no man can boast in a salvation that is not his doing given to him through a faith that is not his own.
The Pelagian therefore misunderstands the Gospel in that he believes that all men are able in their natural condition to believe upon Jesus Christ despite the testimony of the apostle that no one can understand and no one can seek for God in his natural state. Therefore, for the Pelagian, the bad news of man’s condition is not as bad as Scripture declares, and the Good News of Jesus Christ is not as good as Scripture declares. In this way, the Pelagian misunderstands the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.