Two Subtle Enemies of Holiness

On any journey there is bound to be points of challenge and difficulty, storms and threats to our safety. The spiritual life is no different. There can be attack’s from outside of us, but what is most dangerous is what comes from within. The perceptions we have concerning our role and God’s role in our holiness will determine a lot. Sanctity should be our one and true motive. However, that motive must be constantly and strenuously purified. Holiness is not just a word or an understanding, it is an intimate and delicate relationship that must always be guarded. In order to guard it well we must know what the real threats are.

Pope Francis continues in chapter 2 of Gaudete et exsultate (On the Call to Holiness) with a focus on some threats to our holiness in the contemporary world as well as instructions from the lips of our Savior on how to gain a “blessed” (holy) life. First, we must confront our enemies, and then we will become examples to all of how God is always victorious. To start, we must take a good look at our enemies.

There are two ancient and false teachings from our history that have never vanished since they first came on the scene. These heresies are called gnosticism and pelagianism. The Holy Father does a phenomenal job explaining these lengthy and seemingly extinct theories.


Gnosticism comes from the greek word for knowledge (gnosis). Men and women under this title believe they hold a secret knowledge that places them in an elite position among the human race. Their elitism allows them to judge others based on their advanced knowledge in regards to certain doctrines of the faith. According to the pope these ones are, “locked up in an encyclopedia of abstractions,” (#37).

Gnostics of today’s world often view themselves as learned theologians and philosophers who are merely carrying out what Christ demands. Their most egregious downfall is their inability to see, touch and give aid to the suffering face of Christ in the people they judge from their distant thrones. Followers of the gnostic way believe they grasp the entirety of the faith which gives them the authority to tell others how they are falling short.

In the life of the holy ones, comprehension and spiritual intelligence should never give rise to a “greater than thou” mentality. When we think we are in possession of all truth, we believe that everyone should be just like us. Contemporary gnostics become so involved in the “knowledge” that they “possess” that they have a short memory. They forget that Christ came into the world to show that faith is not about intellectual exercises; it is concerned with the divine made flesh. The freshness of the Gospel will grow stale if members of the faithful do not see the Christian message as, first and foremost, and encounter with a living person who reveals to us who God is and who we are (#44-46).


The second false teaching that strips us from our holy perspective and goal is called pelagianism which states that we can attain holiness of life through our own power and strength to do good things and devote our life to God. Christians under this category forget that humanity is still full of weaknesses that have yet to be overcome (#49). Since they are strong enough to follow all the commands of the Lord, then everyone should be capable of reaching their level. They may claim that grace is responsible for any good deeds, but deep down they think the power to do so comes from within themselves.

Contemporary pelagians refuse to give credit to the utter fact that humanity can never come within sight of the divine life without consistent and continuous assistance from above. In him is our holiness: our might and will does not have the power to attain the divine. We must receive it as a gracious gift that we can never deserve (#51). Holiness is not only dependence, but a dwelling within the divine nature itself. Our choices and strength can never obtain residence with God through our effort, we need him to bring us to himself (#54).

Looking Further

When gnosticism and pelagianism take over, it is played out in one’s life through obsession, vanity, and an excessive concern for laws, liturgies, or one’s own strength (#57). Too avoid these false paths to holiness we must view God’s offer to us as a personal call: holiness is meant to bring us in contact with the face of God (#61). Face-to-face we will meet the one who calls us to look into the eyes of our fellow brothers and sisters and see another version of the incarnation. Holiness is not the escape from the flesh; holiness is a call to immerse ourselves in the mission of Christ, who stepped down to earth so he could bring heaven along with him.

Grace always surpasses the human powers of intellect and will. Humanity cannot simply sit around and wait for God to do the rest. We must act, and we must run to meet him, but we can’t even take the first step without a divine spark to set us in motion and give us direction.

Like any good father, Pope Francis challenges all of the faithful to not just understand the teachings of the gnostics and pelagians, but to ask, do we occasionally fall under their membership? Our role is simple: pray, understand what threatens our sanctity, and never settle for a Christianity that keeps us in the shadows. We are called to live in the daytime; in the light reflected from the face of Christ, our savior, teacher and master.

Editor’s note: This article is the second in the series “Focus on Holiness,” which is an exploration of Gaudete et exsultate and how we can apply its lessons to grow in holiness.

Photo by Jace & Afsoon on Unsplash

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Thomas Griffin teaches in the Religion Department at a Catholic high school, and lives on Long Island with his wife and son. He has a master’s degree in theology and is currently a masters candidate in philosophy. Follow his latest content at 

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