Theological Teachingy

Discussion question: Grace and Sin

Tom Oden in his book The Transforming Power of Grace asks the question, “How could it be that one spiritually lost and dead could be yet possessed of moral ability that makes him responsible for his lost condition?” Answering his question from the general consensus of the first five centuries of Christian belief, Oden quickly surveys and rejects two options, writing: “The Pelagian view that freedom of the moral will has suffered no disability must be rejected. The deterministic view that natural man is utterly incapable of exercising free will leads to opposite excesses” (p. 44). Oden then begins a nuanced examination of how grace was considered to operate by those early Christians building upon his earlier survey of how God’s grace encourages the will to desire the good by challenging our prejudices, disarming our resistances, and enabling our ability to hear the Word of God, having argued, “grace transforms in its work of enabling is not simply our understanding of truth, but more so our disposition to embody the truth. The willingness and desire of the seeker behaviorally to embody the truth is made increasingly possible” (p. 43). “Grace,” Oden writes, “moves positively by helping to offer the soul an appetite for heavenly food, a desire to reach the celestial city” (p. 43).

The answer to his question, Oden says, is a theological balance between the created nature as good and the fallen nature that is tempered by grace. Oden writes, “No one remains merely in an utterly ungraced, fallen state.... The good that is found in the unregenerate fallen human will is not due to nature, as the semi-Pelagians would have it, but grace. This explains why all men are not as bad as they could be. ‘Grace arrested man in his fall, and placed him in a salvable state, and endowed him with the gracious ability to meet all the conditions of personal salvation. Fallen man has never been without the benefits and influences of the atonement,’ wrote Tillet. The benefits of Christ’s righteousness and atoning death are coextensive with the effects of Adam’s sin” (Ps. 117, 120; Rom. 5:12-21 [pp.44, 45]).

Oden then argues that nobody is condemned for Adam’s sin alone but because of personal and volitional desire to sin that exercises itself in sundry defective ways. Notwithstanding, God is more full of grace than the world is of sin.

Discussion question:

Oden’s method of developing a contemporary theology from a consensual understanding of early Christianity is well understood and documented. Does his understanding of the early Christians agree with your own in areas of grace arresting mans’ fall and of all accountable sin as being volitional (willingly done)?

In Christ alone,

Eric Landstrom

Follow up discussion:

Q: What you think it means to be made in the image of God, or what attributes of God have been imparted to Adam, and then how does the curses listed as a result of fall, affect the "image of God"?

Adam's fall both affects and effects our nature. In an unregenerate state, without God's ministry of grace, we would all wax more and more wicked. Notwithstanding, because of grace, after the fall, man is still said to be in God’s image (Gen. 9:6) and likeness (James 3:9); nontheless he requires to be "renewed... after the image of him that created him" (Col. 3:10; cf. Eph. 4:24).

Answer your question?

Q: Yes, and no....

In my own experience when I was young and not saved, there was times when I did some things that were right, not breaking a commandment, not always but at times. When I did these "good" things there were times when I did them for selfish gain, and other times I did them just because it was the right thing to do.

This experience I believe not to be just mine, but all mankind at different times within their lives. This "seems" like the nature that is passed along by being in the image of God, and it also "seems" like grace. Isn't this antinomy?

Your experience sounds typical to me. The paradox of two natures you describe is now being renewed into the likeness of Christ. I'll try and explain: As a natural man, one's senses and appetites are dulled to the things of God. The Formula of Concord frames this well, writing,

Although man's reason or natural intellect indeed has still a dim spark of the knowledge that there is a God, as also of the doctrine of the Law, Rom. 1, 19ff, yet it is so ignorant, blind, and perverted that when even the most ingenious and learned men upon earth read or hear the Gospel of the Son of God and the promise of eternal salvation, they cannot from their own powers perceive, apprehend, understand, or believe and regard it as true, but the more diligence and earnestness they employ, wishing to comprehend these spiritual things with their reason, the less they understand or believe, and before they become enlightened and are taught by the Holy Ghost, they regard all this only as foolishness or fictions.

But by grace, the sinful Adamic nature that does not desire or will the things of God is circumcised.* Where the old nature could not even grasp the things of God, under the beginnings of grace was kindled to then know the good but unable to do the good, goes on to be renewed to not only know of the good but to also be able to do the good. Do you see the progression that our Lord's ministry of grace makes in the life of a believer as the person moves from complete anonymity with God to taking on the nature and image of Christ?

If nobody has shared with you the progressive nature that grace takes in the life of believers that always goes before us, enabling and empowering, then, in part this is a failure of the Christian community that tends to respect the fallen sinful nature too much and regard our Lord's ministry of grace without enough affection.


Eric Landstrom

* The illustration of circumcision in the OT highlights the idea of outwardly rejecting sin and embracing godliness by the cutting away of the sinful Adamic nature, but Moses called for an even greater circumcision than even that, he said, "Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no more stiffnecked" (Deut. 10:16).


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