In The Princess Bride, Miracle Max, a disgraced royal physician, is commandeered to treat Roberts - a pirate in a dire state. As the mad Max is haggling over a price to try to cure him, he says these words:

It just so happens that your friend is only mostly dead. There's a big difference between mostly dead and totally dead. Now mostly dead is slightly alive, but with all dead, there's only one thing you can do... What's that? ...Go through his clothes and look for small change.

In recent blogs we have been looking at some of the theological issues that people in earlier centuries considered worth fighting about. In his diagnosis of the pirate, Miracle Max unwittingly describes a doctrine that was declared to be a heresy hundreds of years ago, but which is alive and well in much of the evangelical church today. In the old days it was known as "Semi-Pelagianism", but Max's words are easier to remember than ancient theological formulations. He sums up the Semi-Pelagianism that describes the way that most Christians view their non-Christian friends: "It just so happens that your friend is only mostly dead. There's a big difference between mostly dead and totally dead. Now mostly dead is slightly alive."

Paul would have disagreed with Miracle Max's mad diagnosis. He says in Ephesians 2, we were "dead in our trespasses and sins". Not mostly dead; totally dead. Dead to the point where there's nothing left to do but go through the pockets looking for loose change. But the real miracle has nothing to do with Miracle Max, but with a Miracle Gospel. The power of the Gospel is that God made the totally dead totally alive in Christ!

Throughout history, there has been a debate over the diagnosis of the human condition. There are three main positions:

  • One was proposed by a man named Pelagius.  As he looked at the patient he said, "Man is basically healthy." His view was that Adam's sin affected Adam, but that every newborn child starts where Adam started, with the freedom to make his own choices. Pelagius was outlawed as a heretic in the 5th century, but his ideas are at the heart of the humanistic view of the human condition: each person is a clean slate to start all over with, to borrow a phrase from John Locke.
  • Pelagius was opposed by Augustine who argued that man, the patient, was in Miracle Max's words, "totally dead." He saw the story of Adam the same way Paul did: "Therefore just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, death spread to all men because all sinned" (Rom 5:12). Death describes the human condition.
  • But not long after Augustine and Pelagius polarized the debate, another group emerged which, while initially being condemned the same way Pelagius was, they have largely held sway ever since. The Semi-Pelagians came up with what Miracle Max calls "only mostly dead" or "slightly alive". The patient is sick. But leave his pockets intact. If you can persuade him to take his medicine he will make a full recovery. And this has become the premise of most modern evangelism: our task is to persuade the sickly patient to take the medicine of the Gospel.

The same old debate was re-enacted a thousand years later when Arminius took the Semi-Pelagian position. He knew we were in trouble and really needed grace to help us change. But in his view, all men have common grace acting upon them, so, to use the medical analogy, we have the anti-bodies in our system to fight the spiritual infection that threatens to kill us. That grace is insufficient to to the job until man co-operates with grace. We have to take the medicine that is offered - and it is in our response to the Gospel that man engages with that grace and its power starts to work. With help we improve from slightly alive to really alive.

John Calvin, however, countered by saying that the patient is dead. A dead man cannot co-operate with grace. A dead man cannot drink the medicine that is offered to him. Salvation is either all of God or it is of no value to a dead man. Lazarus needed his dead ears to come back to life again before he could hear and respond to Jesus' call. Calvin was convinced that this was Paul's view - he did not view himself as a Calvinist but as a Paulinist.

This is an issue worth fighting over. The future of the patient depends on the accuracy of the physician's diagnosis. In Miracle Max's words, "Is our [non-Christian] friend only mostly dead? There is a big difference between mostly dead and totally dead."

For more on this historic debate, there is an audio on our web site.