The Texas Inkling


Grace and Justification Part I:  The Nature of Sin by Nathan Anthony Kennedy

This is part one of a three-part series of reflections on the nature and process of justification through grace. These reflections are intended to inform, clarify, and lead to discussion on matters that both divide and unite Christians historically and presently. In this part, I explore the nature of sin, its effect on human nature, and its devastating consequences to the purposes for which man was made.


The greatest and most practical question any man could ever ask is, "How can I be saved?" This is because man's purpose is to love God, to serve God, and to be happy with God in Heaven for all eternity. Salvation is the heart of man's purpose, for without it, man would rightly come to find that he has no purpose. The fulfillment of this purpose is such a crucial component to the happiness and joy of man that of it St. Paul can only say, "What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him." [1]

Thus, in order to answer the question "How can I be saved?", there first has to be a recognition that there is something to be saved from. The beginning of working out salvation is to come face-to-face with the reality of sin.

Sin and the Fall

By sin, we refer to two thing: the ontological separation of man from God, and each and every act that contradicts God's moral law. These two forms of sin fall into the headings of "Original Sin" (Macula Peccati: "The Stain of Sin") and "Actual Sin" (Ex parte actus: "The Part Out of the Act") [2] Original sin is the result of the Fall of Man in the garden, whereupon our ancestral parents, Adam and Eve, committed the first act of disobedience to God's moral law that separated each and every human being from union with God. Our first parents found that their wills were weakened, their bodies made corruptible, and their intellects darkened. Man was doomed to toil about the earth to sustain himself; woman was warned about the broken relationship she would have with man. This stain, these effects, haunt us still: not one single human being—save Jesus Christ and His mother—have ever been born without these effects, without the cravings and appetites for evils. This disordinate desire of man toward bad and away from God is called concupiscience.

Yet, human beings are the heirs to a privilege not even available to the angels: that of full, complete, and total redemption through Christ Jesus, who is God made flesh. By the misuse of free will, man damned himself and his offspring. By the proper use of his free will, man can accept the grace of God in order to bring about his redemption (which we will discuss in Part II).

Now, we see that through the Fall, human beings were made imperfect. The original image of God that marked man's soul is still present, but through sin, marred. The Divine Image never truly left man, even through the atrocities and barbarities committed by him. Man was created Good, but through the misuse of his freewill, made himself prone to evil. This does not mean that man is essentially evil, only that he is a good being who is prone to evil. The goodness of man only serves to make the evil he does more grave. Only moral creatures are capable of evil; the greater the good the creature is capable of, the greater the evil. This is why Satan, being the most luminous of the angels as Lucifer, has become the most evil of all creatures.

This is important to remember, for if it was not the free will of man, it would have been impossible for God to reveal a moral law to Israel. Much less would it have been possible to establish a covenant with Israel. Without free will, there can be no sin; without sin, there would be no need of a law. It necessarily follows that without free will, there could be no law. A law must be followed deliberately and with full knowledge of that law. A law must be capable of forming and affecting the wills of its subjects; its subjects must therefore be capable of willingly receiving and following the law.

Free Will and Sin

Profound though the effects of original sin are, man's nature as created in God's image remain enough in force to provide a basis upon which to build a covenant with a chosen nation meant to preserve a moral law. This is the same free will by which later human beings would come to accept the divinity and salvific office of Jesus Christ, and upon which all forms of holiness and sanctity would come to enter the heart of man.

This free will, however, cannot be theologically taken for granted. Disputes on the question arose during the sixteenth century, with some Reformers claiming that the concupiscience of Original Sin totally destroyed all vestiges of free will within man, and thus man is saved only through an act of God on behalf of man. Luther and Calvin were the leading proponents of these errors, denying free will, the essential freedom of man, and the interior nature of justification. These teachings are problematic for a number of reasons:

  • It poses a fundamental contradiction to man being created in the image of God. Without acknowledging the essential nature of the imago Dei, one must therefore deny the essential nature of the one whose image is in question. To say that man, though fallen, is in the image of God, is not to say that man is great, but it is to say that God who created man is great—so great that His image cannot be excoriated even through the worst of human sins.

  • It renders impossible the notion of a binding covenant or a law, as noted earlier. Thus, the Old Testament in its entirety—save for the opening lines of Genesis, would be proven false in its covenential and, therefore, prophetic dimensions. The heart of the Old Testament is God's covenant with Israel; without the freedom to accept God's invitation, this covenant would have been impossible.

  • It negates the meaning of Jesus' words during the Sermon on the Mount: "You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." [3] More to the point, and in a manner similar to the point made above, it totally renders moot any moral teachings in the Bible whatsoever. If a human being cannot do good, he can do no evil either. To be a sinner, man must possess a particular dignity in order to attain the level of sinner. A sinner is a person who misses the mark of morality and perfection: without knowledge of and striving for this morality and perfection, one cannot miss any mark whatsoever.

  • It divorces man's will from his own salvation. Salvation, then, would be a completely unwilled imposition on him from without. God is a respecter of human free will. He would likewise not force Hell on anyone as He would force Heaven on anyone. If free will plays no part in man's salvation, then we would be right to question and deny the omnibenevolence of God.

Thus, the most important thing about understanding sin is not what it says about man, but what it says about God.

Sin and the Nature of God

God did not create sin. God did not create any evil. All sin, all evil is against the will of God, which is what makes anything sin or evil by definition. God cannot possess two wills, otherwise there would be two Gods. Some of the earliest heresies contained this error, such as the Gnostics and the Montanists; each of whom was in turn dealt with through thorough theological exposition. [4]

Anything great about man is so because of his status as a created being. Any good in man is there because it is also good about God. Any evil in man is there, paradoxically, because the converse is good about God. In other words, God is the absolute standard for all good—what makes something evil is that it is apart from God. Goodness is light; evil is like dark. Dark does not emanate, dark has no source; it is merely the absence of light. Evil does not emanate, evil has not source (metaphysically speaking, though historically, it has its source in the fall of the rebel angels). Evil is merely the absence of good, or, to phrase it with more sophistication, evil is a good thing turned toward evil ends. Evil cannot exist without good in the way that dissonance within a symphony cannot exist without an intended consonance within a symphony: it is determined to be evil because of its aberration from the divinely intended, transcendentally established and unchanging nature of God, who is good itself.

The problem with Reformation theology is that it detaches the nature of good from the nature of God, whether consciously or unconsciously. It calls God good, but it does not know why it does so. Something is considered good either because God has proclaimed it to be good, or it is good, therefore God proclaims it to be good. In truth, God is not merely described as good, but God Himself is the good. Goodness is not determined through a proclamation of God, nor is a proclamation of God determinant of the good. Rather, God himself is the good. His moral law is not simply the rules He has given, but they are indicative of who God is Himself: to live within the moral law is to live within the goodness of God, which means to live within God Himself. God is temperate, therefore He desires that I should be temperate. If I am temperate, then I have a share in God's life as a temperate being. This is because there is no other source of temperance, or any other virtue for that matter, than God Himself. Therefore, to be infused with all virtues is to share as much as is humanly possible in the Divine Life of God. This is called Sanctifying Grace.

Sanctifying Grace is a precursor to eternal life in Heaven. It gives evidence to the process of salvation within the soul of the individual. Sanctifying Grace is not merely an important sign of salvation, but is in itself an instrument of salvation, being the Grace of God Himself. It fulfills the deepest longings in the heart of man; it prepares man for his entry into eternal life in Heaven. Without Sanctifying Grace, there can be no salvation. We will discuss this in further detail in Part II.


To conclude this treatment on the nature of sin in the context of grace and justification, we have prepared the groundwork necessary for discussing issue of greater import. We have established, first, the role of concupiscence in the will of man; second, the role of the human will in accepting salvation; and third, an understanding of human goodness in relation to God Himself, and thus laid the foundation for our discussion on Sanctifying Grace. In Part II, we shall explore this in further detail using the context of the divide between the theologies of the Protestant Reformers and the Catholic Church. What role, if any, do good works play in salvation? What assurance, if any, are we granted of our salvation? We will then, in Part III, discuss in detail issues of sanctity and holiness.

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