Radical Discipleship – Cyprian

A challenging example of radical discipleship is the life of Cyprian.  Cyprian was a wealthy Roman who lived in the third century A.D.  He became a Christian in 246 at the age of 40.  As a new convert, he was so overjoyed to have found Christ and receive the new birth that he liquidated his entire estate, gave the money to the poor, and rejoiced because he was free from material possessions.  Cyprian became an overseer in the church and also wrote some valuable works, including some remarkable passages on Christian rebirth.  Because of persecution, most of his ministry was conducted underground.  He worked tirelessly for the church and proved faithful unto death – he was beheaded by the Romans in 258.

(Source: David Bercot, Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up, p. 13)

The Birth of Anabaptism

The Anabaptist movement began in 1525 and was an offshoot of the Protestant Reformation.  The Protestant Reformation is recognized as starting in October 1517, when an Augustinian monk nailed a document to the door of a castle church in Wittenberg, Germany.  The document on that church door challenged the mighty fortress that the Roman Catholic Church had become.  Within days that document, which became known as the Ninety-Five Theses, had ignited the fire of reformation across Europe, perhaps to an even greater extent than Martin Luther himself had anticipated.

It was also in 1517 that another German-speaking priest was beginning to apply himself to a serious study of the New Testament.  He was serving as people’s priest at Einsiedeln during that period of extreme wrestling with Biblical truth.  By the time he accepted the call to serve at the Grossmünster in Zurich, Switzerland, Ulrich Zwingli was determined to preach nothing but the Gospel.

Zwingli used preaching, teaching, and disputation to guide the progress of the Reformation in Zurich.  His personality attracted a number of gifted young intellectuals who were interested in studying the Greek classics.  In November 1521 a young scholar named Conrad Grebel joined Zwingli’s group of students.  Grebel’s father was a member of the Zurich city council.  The students were incredibly zealous for learning, which prompted Zwingli to introduce them to the Greek New Testament.

Zwingli’s students quickly became zealous for reform.  However, a group of those students, including Grebel, went beyond Zwingli in their understanding of what Scripture teaches, particularly in regards to baptism.  Zwingli and his former disciples engaged in a public dispute in January 1525.  The city council declared Zwingli the victor and denounced the young radicals.  The small band of radicals had three options.  They could conform to Zwingli’s teaching, leave Zurich, or face imprisonment.  Which would you have chosen?

Several days after the debate between Zwingli and his students, approximately a dozen men traveled through the snow to the home of Felix Manz, located near Zwingli’s Grossmünster.  History was in the making as those men considered their next step.  The events of that momentous night have been preserved in The Large Chronicle of the Hutterian Brethren (A. J. F. Zieglschmid, Die älteste Chronik der Hutterischen Brüder, p. 47).  These words seem to be from an eyewitness, generally thought to be Jörg Cajakob, who came to be known as George Blaurock.

“And it came to pass that they were together until anxiety came upon them, yes, they were so pressed within their hearts. Thereupon they began to bow their knees to the Most High God in heaven and called upon him as the Informer of Hearts, and they prayed that he would give to them his divine will and that he would show his mercy unto them. For flesh and blood and human forwardness did not drive them, since they well knew what they would have to suffer on account of it.

After the prayer, George of the House of Jacob stood up and besought Conrad Grebel for God’s sake to baptize him with the true Christian baptism upon his faith and knowledge. And when he knelt down with such a request and desire, Conrad baptized him, since at that time there was no ordained minister to perform such work.”

After his own baptism, Blaurock proceeded to baptize the rest of those present.  The newly baptized believers pledged themselves to be true disciples of Jesus Christ, to be separate from the world, to teach the Gospel, and to maintain the faith.  The Anabaptist movement had been born.  This group, which came to be known as the Swiss Brethren, broke with the Roman Catholic Church to an extent that not even Luther and Zwingli had dared to approach.  The Swiss Brethren sought to form a church according to the pattern they saw in the New Testament.  This meeting was arguably the most revolutionary act of the Reformation.

The Swiss Brethren emphasized a personal commitment to Jesus Christ as being both essential for salvation and a prerequisite for baptism.  This conviction about baptism being only for adult believers had not been arrived at recklessly or hastily.  Rather, it was the result of an intense and earnest study of the Scriptures.  Even though they were not able to convince Zwingli about the need for further reform, this small group of committed Christ-followers acted on their convictions by withholding their children from the infant baptism that continued to be administered by Zwingli and other Reformed preachers.  In so doing, they risked imprisonment and death for the sake of Christ and the Scriptures.

The meeting on January 21, 1525 was the beginning of a movement.  The worldwide Anabaptist church (which includes Amish, Mennonites, Hutterites, Brethren, and related churches) now counts 1.77 million baptized believers in over 80 countries.



Estep, William R. The Anabaptist Story: An Introduction to Sixteenth-Century Anabaptism. 3rd ed., revised and enlarged.  Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996.  Pages 9-15.



Early Christian Worship

This description of early Christian worship was written by Justin Martyr (100-165).  It comes from chapter 67 of “The First Apology of Justin.”   

And the wealthy among us help the needy; and we always keep together; and for all things wherewith we are supplied, we bless the Maker of all through His Son Jesus Christ, and through the Holy Ghost.

And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things.

Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons.

And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succours the orphans and widows, and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds, and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need. But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Saviour on the same day rose from the dead.

For He was crucified on the day before that of Saturn (Saturday); and on the day after that of Saturn, which is the day of the Sun, having appeared to His apostles and disciples, He taught them these things, which we have submitted to you also for your consideration.



The Augustine-Pelagius Debate

In the words of R.C. Sproul, “We have not broken free from the Pelagian captivity of the church.”[i]  He is declaring that the controversy between Augustine and Pelagius is still asserting itself upon our modern world.  That influence can particularly be felt in the debates between Calvinists and Arminians.  We must remember that the basic tenets of that discussion go back much further than John Calvin and James Arminius.  Augustine and Pelagius are in some ways the forerunners of a contemporary issue.[ii]

In discussing the historical significance of this topic Sproul quotes Adolph Harnack, who said:
There has never, perhaps, been another crisis of equal importance in church history in which the opponents have expressed the principles at issue so clearly and abstractly.  The Arian dispute before the Nicene Council can alone be compared with it.[iii]

In light of the historical and contemporary significance of this topic, we do well to inquire about the fundamental issue in this famous debate.  The controversy began in approximately 410, when Pelagius and his disciple Celestius moved from Rome to Carthage.[iv]  Celestius was hoping to be ordained as a priest in Carthage, but because of Augustine’s influence in that area he found little support.  Both Pelagius and Celestius moved east, where they found more receptivity to Pelagius’ teaching.  However, their encounter with Augustine had prompted him to begin an extensive literary attack against Pelagianism.  What was it about Pelagianism that brought on the fury of Augustine?[v]

Pelagius (c. 354–415[vi]) was likely a British monk who was a teacher in Rome before his move to Carthage.  Millard Erickson describes Pelagius as a moralist whose “primary concern was for people to live good and decent lives.”  In Pelagius’ thinking, an overly pessimistic view of human nature was not expedient toward that end.  When the sinfulness of mankind was overemphasized, there was no longer any motivation to lead a decent life.  He responded to that by stressing the idea of free will.  From his perspective, humans were completely free from external influences, including the effects of Adam’s sin.  The human soul was not tainted by sin.  Adam’s influence upon mankind was limited to his having been a bad example.[vii]

Pelagius also reasoned that, because Adam’s sin had no direct impact on the rest of mankind, there was no special work of God’s grace within the human heart.  He instead considered grace to be present everywhere at every moment.  In his view the grace of God is available to all people in the same way, which led him to reject any notion of predestination.  The primary implication of Pelagius’ theology is that man can, through his own strength and determination, live in complete obedience to God.  Man is not born with a propensity to sin; man’s desire to sin is only developed as bad habits are formed.  That thinking makes salvation by works a legitimate possibility.  However, strictly speaking, because man is not born with a sin nature, he does not so much need to be saved as he needs to be preserved in his original sinless state.  Such preservation is humanly possible apart from God’s intervention.[viii]

Augustine (354-430) is best known for his service as bishop of Hippo Regius in Northern Africa.  The theology of Augustine has exerted tremendous influence upon Western Christianity.  When the term “Augustinianism” is used it is typically in reference to Augustine’s perspective on the human condition.  In contrast to Pelagius, Augustine’s view was not at all complimentary to mankind.  Augustine considered sin to have resulted from man’s misuse of his free rational choice.  Adam deliberately exerted his will against God’s, and through that sin the rest of mankind joined Adam in his sinful state.  Mankind is still free, but only free to sin.  Mankind has both a tendency toward sin and an inability to choose God.  In that condition, asserted Augustine, salvation can only be achieved through God’s grace.  And that grace is not available to all mankind – through God’s act of predestination grace is given to some and withheld from others.[ix]

There is a positive aspect to Augustine’s depressing view of man, and that is his confidence in God’s ability to save whomever he (God, not man) wills.  Augustine viewed salvation as being completely the work of God, performed at the initiative of God, and that gave him assurance that the salvation of God’s elect would ultimately be accomplished.  It can be helpful to recognize that Augustine’s view of salvation was focused on power.  That means that although fallen humans are free, they can only choose sin because they do not have the power to choose otherwise.  Because of that lack of power, it is only through the work of God that anyone believes in him.  Augustine’s view can be summarized by saying that salvation is God’s gracious and unmerited gift.[x]

This discussion of these two theological perspectives has no doubt alerted you to where the conflict between these men lay.  Vincent of Lérins, a contemporary of Augustine and Pelagius, expressed himself on this topic by writing, “For who ever before that profane Pelagius attributed so much antecedent strength to Free-will, as to deny the necessity of God’s grace to aid it towards good in every single act?”  Vincent followed that statement by denouncing Pelagius’ “monstrous” disciple Celestius, who denied the involvement of all of mankind in the sin of Adam.[xi]  The fundamental issue in the debate between Augustine and Pelagius was the impact of Adam’s sin on the human race.

According to Pelagius, Adam’s sin belonged only to him.  Therefore, each person is free to make their own decision to follow either Christ or Adam.  According to Augustine, Adam’s sin placed all of mankind in bondage to sin.  To Pelagius, death was a natural event; to Augustine, death is a painful consequence and reminder of original sin.  These men had radically divergent views of God’s grace.  Pelagius understood grace to be God’s provision for moral advancement, which he made available at creation; Augustine understood grace to be an internal action of Holy Spirit in baptism and conversion.[xii]

Augustine thought that Pelagius was downplaying the seriousness of sin, to which Pelagius responded that Augustine was downplaying the saving work accomplished by Christ’s death.[xiii]  But according to Augustine, Pelagius had turned the doctrine of salvation into a system in which God rewarded human merit.  It was critical to Augustine to emphasize that man is so sinful that any form of reconciliation with God is impossible apart from the work of Christ.[xiv]  Colin Gunton makes the point that Augustine’s objections were based on evangelical grounds, because “if Pelagius was correct, then it was not necessary for Christ to have died.”[xv]  That is because Pelagius did not see sin as a condition from which man needs to be set free, but rather as evil actions.  In contrast, Augustine saw sin as the evil nature inherited from Adam.  That evil nature, with which all men are born, produces evil actions.  However, that evil nature can be removed through the work of God’s grace.  Without grace man cannot believe in or live in obedience to God.  Through grace man can believe in and obey God.[xvi]

The two sides of the debate are summarized well in this statement: “The soul of the Pelagian system is human freedom; the soul of the Augustinian is divine grace.”[xvii]  After this analysis of the debate between Augustine and Pelagius, we can affirm with Sproul that “The heart of the debate centered on the doctrine of original sin, particularly with respect to the question of the extent to which the will of fallen man is free.”[xviii]  This debate has continued for 1600 years; we must not think we will be able to escape the implications of this discussion in our own lives and ministries.  May God find us faithful in handling his truth.

 Works Cited

Bloesch, Donald G. Jesus Christ: Savior & Lord. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997.

Boer, Harry R. A Short History of the Early Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1976.

Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013.

González, Justo L., and Catherine Gunsalus González. Heretics for Armchair Theologians. First edition. Armchair Theologians Series. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008.

Grenz, Stanley, David Guretzki, and Cherith Fee Nordling. Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999.

Gundlach, B.J. “Augustine of Hippo.”  Edited by Elwell, Walter A. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology: Second Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001.

Gunton, Colin E. Theology through the Theologians: Selected Essays, 1972-1995. London; New York: T&T Clark, 2003.

Holze, Heinrich. “Pelagianism.” Edited by Erwin Fahlbusch, Jan Milič Lochman, John Mbiti, Jaroslav Pelikan, and Lukas Vischer. The Encyclopedia of Christianity. Volume 4. Grand Rapids, Mich.;  Leiden, Netherlands: Wm. B. Eerdmans;  Brill, 2005.

McWilliam, Joanne. “Augustine of Hippo (354–430).”  Edited by Trevor A. Hart. The Dictionary of Historical Theology. Carlisle, Cumbria, U.K.: Paternoster Press, 2000.

Schaff, Philip, and David Schley Schaff. History of the Christian Church. Volume 3. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1910.

Shelley, Bruce L. Church History in Plain Language. Updated 2nd ed. Dallas, TX: Word Pub., 1995.

Sproul, R. C. “Right Now Counts Forever: Augustíne and Pelagius.” Edited by R. C. Sproul Jr. Tabletalk Magazine, June 1996: Augustine of Hippo. Lake Mary, FL: Ligonier Ministries, 1996.

Steele, David N., Curtis C. Thomas, and Roger Nicole. The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Defended and Documented. Philadelphia, PA: The Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Co., 1963.

Vincent of Lérins. “The Commonitory of Vincent of Lérins.” In Sulpitius Severus, Vincent of Lérins, John Cassian, edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, translated by C. A. Heurtley. Vol. 11. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series. New York: Christian Literature Company, 1894.

Whitford, David M., ed. T&T Clark Companion to Reformation Theology. T&T Clark Companion. London; New York: T&T Clark, 2012.


[i] R. C. Sproul, “Right Now Counts Forever: Augustíne and Pelagius,” ed. R. C. Sproul Jr., Tabletalk Magazine, June 1996: Augustine of Hippo (Lake Mary, FL: Ligonier Ministries, 1996), 13.

[ii] David N. Steele, Curtis C. Thomas, and Roger Nicole, The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Defended and Documented (Philadelphia, PA: The Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Co., 1963), 19.

[iii] Sproul, 12.

[iv] Heinrich Holze, “Pelagianism,” ed. Erwin Fahlbusch et al., The Encyclopedia of Christianity, Volume 4 (Grand Rapids, MI.; Leiden, Netherlands: Wm. B. Eerdmans;  Brill, 2005), 124.

[v] Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, Updated 2nd ed. (Dallas, TX: Word Pub., 1995), 129.

[vi] Stanley Grenz, David Guretzki, and Cherith Fee Nordling, Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 89.

[vii] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 575–76.

[viii] Ibid., 576.

[ix] B.J. Gundlach, “Augustine of Hippo”, Walter A. Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology: Second Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 121–23.

[x] Ibid., 123.

[xi] Vincent of Lérins, “The Commonitory of Vincent of Lérins,” in Sulpitius Severus, Vincent of Lérins, John Cassian, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. C. A. Heurtley, vol. 11, A Select Library of the Nicene   and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1894), 149–50.

[xii] Donald G. Bloesch, Jesus Christ: Savior & Lord (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 33.

[xiii] Joanne McWilliam, “Augustine of Hippo (354–430),” ed. Trevor A. Hart, The Dictionary of Historical Theology (Carlisle, Cumbria, U.K.: Paternoster Press, 2000), 445.

[xiv] David M. Whitford, ed., T&T Clark Companion to Reformation Theology, T&T Clark Companion (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2012), 400.

[xv] Colin E. Gunton, Theology through the Theologians: Selected Essays, 1972-1995 (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2003), 212.

[xvi] Harry R. Boer, A Short History of the Early Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1976), 161–62.

[xvii] Philip Schaff and David Schley Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. 3 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1910), 787.

[xviii] Sproul, 12.