Free will, grace, and anti-Pelagianism


Critics of synergism often complain that the view entails Pelagianism (or at least semi-Pelagianism), and so, critics think, monergism looks like the only live (orthodox) option. Critics of monergism often claim that the view entails that the blame for human sin ultimately traces to God. Recently, several philosophers (including Richard Cross, Eleonore Stump, and Kevin Timpe) have attempted to chart a middle path by offering soteriological accounts which are monergistic (and thus avoid Pelagianism) but maintain the resistibility of God’s grace (with the aim of blocking the tracing of sin to God). In this paper, we present a challenge to such accounts of the resistibility of grace, namely that they imply that human beings are praiseworthy for omitting to resist God’s grace. Even if such views escape Pelagianism as it is typically defined, they fail to avoid the worry at the heart of prominent criticisms of Pelagianism concerning the praise for a human being’s salvation. At the end of the paper, we suggest three possible solutions to this problem.

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  1. 1.

    We say more about Pelagianism in the subsequent section, but minimally, as Stump puts it, “What characterizes all forms of Pelagianism is the claim that a human being is capable of some good act without grace” (2003: 401). Since semi-Pelagianism has it that the first steps toward faith (or some other good act) is from us and not God’s grace, we will treat semi-Pelagianism as one form of Pelagianism.

  2. 2.

    As Cross (2005, pp. 199–200) notes (in a passage we discuss below), the Second Council of Orange deems Pelagianism unorthodox, and many think that requiring human cooperation for salvation is tantamount to requiring that a human being do some good act apart from grace. Cross (2005, p. 199) also notes that some (particularly Calvinist theologians) are skeptical that even the doctrine of the resistibility of grace (much less full-fledged synergism) is consistent with rejecting Pelagianism.

  3. 3.

    See, for example, Stump’s (2001) worry for Augustine’s soteriology. Stump recommends an alternative account (which we discuss below), influenced by Aquinas’s moral psychology, which she takes to avoid this worry:

    Augustine’s difficulties would be solved if he could find a way to hold that human beings are able, on their own, to reject grace, without God’s being ultimately responsible for their doing so. Suppose that God offers to every person the grace that produces the will of faith, but that it is open to a person to refuse that grace. Then the will of faith would be a gift of God, but it would be up to a human person whether he had such a will or not. Augustine is kept from such a solution by his conviction that he would then also have to say that human persons have it in their own power to accept grace. (Stump 2001, pp. 139–140)

  4. 4.

    It is worth noting that Cross, Stump, and Timpe might plausibly be construed as synergists, since they believe that some cooperation (or at least some refraining from being uncooperative) of the human being is required for salvation. But we must keep in mind that, even if it means that the human being plays some role in salvation, such cooperation will not come to a causal contribution to salvation (indeed, on these views, human beings contribute nothing positive to their own salvation), since each takes God to be the only causal source of salvation. Nothing we say here hangs on whether or not Cross, Stump, and Timpe are construed as monergists.

  5. 5.

    According to Cross, “The semi-Pelagian view is distinct from the Pelagian since the view that the beginning of our justification is from us does not entail that view that our justification is in any sense caused by ourselves” (2005, p. 200). Still, everything we say about Pelagianism (which we are taking to be the more general category, subsuming semi-Pelagianism) can be applied, mutatis mutandis, to semi-Pelagianism, since what’s at issue in the latter is either whether or not the human beings causes the beginning of (or first steps toward) her justification or whether or not the human being deserves praise for the beginning of (or first steps toward) her justification.

  6. 6.

    Cross goes on to say, “Note that if grace is irresistible, then we have no causal role in the reception of grace, and Pelagianism is thus ipso facto false” (2005, p. 200). But Cross is mistaken here. Even if God’s grace is irresistible, it might nevertheless be the case that the mechanism by which the grace is received involves causes internal to the agent, such as the agent’s exercising faith and repentance.

  7. 7.

    Note that we are concerned only with the “unique” grace involved in salvation, not a more common grace. Our claims are consistent with the view that, for example, Aquinas held, according to which someone who has not received saving grace could nevertheless will “natural law” goods like happiness and survival.

  8. 8.

    It is worth noting that some have recently endorsed this constraint. Consider the claims made recently by Jeremy Evans and Kenneth Keathley, both aiming to show that their own views avoid Pelagianism. Evans says, “If the only contribution humans make in salvation is negative, then this contribution can hardly be considered an act worthy of praise…” (Evans 2010, p. 261, emphasis added). And Keathley says, “If you are saved, it is because of the sovereign, gracious, and monergistic work of God. If you are lost, it is your fault” (Keathley 2010, p. 106). We take it that Keathley’s contrast of our being saved (because of God’s activity) with the fault of rejecting grace implicitly suggests that salvation should not involve any praiseworthiness of the human being. For our purposes, though, it only matters that this concern about praiseworthiness is taken to be a worry by the relevant tradition, and we think the Second Council of Orange and Augustine’s anti-Pelagian works establish at least this much.

  9. 9.

    What we say about behavior applies not only to overt actions like praying to ask God for help, but also to mental behavior such as making choices and decisions. If one thinks that, in the cases of overt action that we will describe, the agent is only really responsible for some mental action or omission, what we say about the overt actions applies, mutatis mutandis, to the mental behavior as well.

  10. 10.

    Clearly the pusher does not merit any praise for this behavior (which is the sense of moral responsibility and praiseworthiness we are assuming), even if it turns out the praising her would likely lead to some desired consequence (such as her saving people from oncoming trains in the future).

  11. 11.

    We are following Timpe in assuming that omissions are precluded from being causal relata. When an agent intentionally decides to omit to make a purchase, this decision does not cause the abstaining from purchasing, for if it did then the omission would be one of the relata in the causal relation. Not everyone agrees that omissions cannot be causal relata—others, such as Clarke (2014), do not take a stand on this—but each of the accounts discussed in the following section require that at least some omissions (related to accepting grace) are not causal relata. Still, nearly everyone who thinks that we can be morally responsible for anything also thinks that omissions are among the things for which we can be morally responsible, whether or not omissions are causal relata. Clarke himself says, “If we’re morally responsible for anything, omitting and refraining are among the things for which we’re responsible. One might be blameworthy for failing to keep a promise, or praiseworthy for holding one’s tongue” (2014, pp. 1–2).

  12. 12.

    Adapted from Isaacs (1997, p. 484).

  13. 13.

    Adapted from Bostyn and Roets (2016, p. 20).

  14. 14.

    Both Evans and Keathley (see note 8) refer to this account as a way to avoid the problems traditionally associated with monergism.

  15. 15.

    On our view, Cross’s characterization of this position is problematic and needs substantive revisions to be viable. Since we think that the problematic features of the position can be addressed, we need not go into the worries for this account here, but we should note one especially important necessary revision. Cross’s strategy needs to be revised in order for the person’s response to God to count as that person’s response. This can be cleared up by allowing the person to act (in a way consistent with a causal theory of action) but by stipulating that God brings it about that the person acts:

    A primary reason R itself is simply brought about by God (either by God causing the relevant belief or desire), which in turn causes an act a without an interior act of will for a on the part of the person. The person may play a causal role in the action (and so will not be a mere puppet), but, in this case, God’s bringing about R is a necessary condition for the person’s a-ing. Before God’s intervention, the created person wills neither a nor not-a; the person’s will is simply indifferent to a.

  16. 16.

    As an anonymous reviewer points out, assuming that the person who wakes up in the ambulance consciously and deliberately decides to omit to get out of the ambulance, it is not odd (contra Cross) to describe this as a case of the person’s going to the hospital. Cross’s point, we take it, is that the person does not causally contribute to the consequence that the person arrives at the hospital, and we will grant this point to Cross.

  17. 17.

    Stump (2001) argues that a problem with Augustine’s view is that he only considered two possible “settings” of the will.

  18. 18.

    Furthermore, according to Stump’s account, quiescence must follow active rejection of grace. She claims that the will becomes inactive because the intellect becomes divided against itself. That is, when the intellect is unable to resolve some conflict or indecision within itself, then it becomes quiescent. The will does not become quiescent because of some kind of inattention. These details of Stump’s account are not important for our project here, but for more on this see Stump (2003, pp. 397–399).

  19. 19.

    For more on this worry see Timpe (2007, p. 288).

  20. 20.

    While Stump does not address the problem of praiseworthiness directly, she does claim that the will’s state when quiescent is not a good state for the will to be in. This suggests a possible response to the problem of praiseworthiness, namely that the human agent is not praiseworthy for her will being quiescent since this is not a good state for the will to be in. We consider this type of reply to the problem of praiseworthiness in the “Punting the praiseworthiness problem” section.

  21. 21.

    We briefly mentioned Timpe’s worry for Stump’s account in the previous sub-section.

  22. 22.

    For an extended discussion of the points made in this paragraph, see Kittle (2015).

  23. 23.

    This was the same problem that Timpe had with Stump’s account; see Timpe (2007, p. 288).

  24. 24.

    Timpe makes it clear that he has a willed omission in mind, but he denies that this is a problem for his account, apparently because he thinks that this state of the will is not a good state: “ceasing to will to resist a good isn’t the same as willing that good. Thus, it doesn’t violate (APC) to say that individuals can, through an act of their will, become quiescent with regard to divinely given grace” (2007, p. 294). For a way of utilizing this point in reply to the praiseworthiness problem, see our first suggestion in the “Punting the praiseworthiness problem” section.

  25. 25.

    There are further reasons one may think it obvious that the omission is good, such as that the omission leads to very much good, or that it involves a great feat, since it may be very difficult for the agent to omit to resist, given the strength of her desires to resist grace.

  26. 26.

    A challenge to this requirement is the possibility of cases in which the best one can do (or fail to do) in a certain situation is not good and yet the person is praiseworthy for doing her best (perhaps because doing so in the situation is very difficult). If there are any such cases, then this suggestion is not viable.

  27. 27.

    The parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:21–35) sets some precedent for thinking that one’s history (such as having been forgiven) can affect one’s moral status in such a way that it would be inappropriate to hold others responsible to a certain degree. By contrast, we’re suggesting here that one’s moral status can affect whether one is in fact praiseworthy, not whether one can appropriately praise others.

  28. 28.

    Of course, if someone who thinks that for an agent to be praiseworthy just is for it to be appropriate for others (or the agent herself) to praise the agent, then such a person will not see a difference in the two ways of understanding this attempt to deal with the praiseworthiness problem.

  29. 29.

    Perhaps passages like Luke 17:10 imply that no human being deserves praise for doing her duty: “So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty’”.

  30. 30.

    A fourth option that has been suggested to us is this: first, adopt as a necessary condition for praiseworthiness that one had the right (or a good) motive; second, deny that one does have the right motive (or perhaps any relevant motive at all) in omitting to resist grace. Thanks to Jim Taylor for suggesting this response.


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For very helpful comments on previous drafts of this paper, we thank Simon Kittle, Dan Miller, Michael Robinson, and the audience at the 2015 Far West Regional Meeting of the Evangelical Philosophical Society.

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Correspondence to Taylor W. Cyr.

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Cyr, T.W., Flummer, M.T. Free will, grace, and anti-Pelagianism. Int J Philos Relig 83, 183–199 (2018).

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  • Free will
  • Moral responsibility
  • Omissions
  • Pelagianism