On Free Will, Grace and Sin

On Free Will, Grace and Sin April 9, 2010

One of the discussions currently being addressed on at least two blogs is on the question of free will, human nature, and grace. I think there is considerable good will going on in the discussion, despite the norm. It is in this spirit I want to address this discussion. The people involved, in general, have not had a rigorous study in theology, and in that sense, one must understand what they say as contemplative reflections, not as final statements, and more importantly, and those struggling to understand concepts with a limited exposure to the debate around them. This means they can, and will, make mistakes which people who have studied the matter further will not make. More importantly, because I think such discussions are important, and that sometimes the non-expert will stumble upon something which the experts have not, I only want to help them along with some observations which, I hope, will help them all. In doing so, I will relate ideas from many sources, but I will do so in the methodology suitable for a contemplative essay and not a piece of academic theology: it will be more metaphoric, and engage, save for a few places, those academic distinctions necessary for a proper work in theology.

One of the issues involved is whether or not one can be sinless without grace. The question itself, and how it has been addressed, in general reminds me of the question of pure nature: can one be a just, good human, in the realm of the “natural” without any relationship with the “supernatural”? The answer is no. Sin blocks one’s relationship with God, one’s relationship with grace. Before the fall, Adam was in a perfect relationship with God in such a way that he was, even in his “natural form” open to and receiving God’s grace. Isolation from God is what the fall is about. Whatever creates isolation from God creates a barrier between oneself and God so that God’s grace is cut off from them, and the action which does this is sin. But we were created in such a way that, in each moment of our life, we can either open ourselves up to God’s grace or close ourselves to grace. When we close ourselves off to it, however, the grace which is necessary to be open to it is cut off so that, in such a fall, we no longer have the same freedom we had before that fall. Sin isolates and imprisons, and once put in that prison, one’s freedom still exists though in a far more limited nature. Thus, there is still freedom, but there is also bondage: both are true. The Catholic and is in play.

In what remains of our freedom, we can struggle to remove that barrier, but our ability is so weakened, that the barrier, by our power alone, cannot be broken — it can be weakened, and we have the freedom to work to weaken it, and indeed, we should do so — but there is the need for something else, further grace, to break it down. Grace creates the cracks needed in order to allow us to break through our sinful barrier; cooperation with grace is to break through our barrier by the means of those cracks and get out of the structure of sin.

The point above, however, is that there is no pure nature without a relationship to God and therefore, no pure nature without grace. To be pure to our nature is to have no barrier between us and grace. But even when we become less than our nature, that nature remains as it always was: good, powerful, free, because our nature is, by itself, open to God. When we cut ourselves from God, it is not our nature which suffers, but our mode of existence which suffers: we become unnatural. Sin prevents us from being what we are by nature, and turns us from persons into individuals. As individuals, we no longer have the full freedom given to us by our nature — our nature remains ever free, but our existence does not.

Now, it is asked, whether or not it is possible for someone to live a life without sin. The answer is yes! Grace which restores us to our nature can be cooperated with to overcome concupiscence. Concupiscence is manifested in the personal (and therefore, individualized) habits that form in us because of original sin (and actual sin). Habits do not have to be followed; they have to be struggled against, but they can be overcome, with the creation of virtuous habits (which of course, can be broken and turned into sinful habits if we cut ourselves off from grace). Those sinful habits are the structure created by our sin which limit our freedom; grace cracks it up. Even encased in sin, we have the freedom — and duty– to take those cracks and break down the structure (hell is when we become so isolated, so encased by sin, we do not have any more freedom to move and cooperate with grace). Some people have worked so much with grace that they have entirely gone beyond the structures of sin and are entirely free. Some have lived sinless lives (St John the Baptist, Mary), and others, after cooperation with grace have become sinless after that engagement. St Symeon the New Theologians makes it clear: if Christ demands something of us, he demands not the impossible, but the possible. The further we move and interact with grace, and break down the structure of sin, the more freedom we have to move forward until, at last, thanks to that grace, the structure of sin is broken down entirely and one can live in true and full freedom with a pure relationship with God. St Symeon the New Theologian pointed out that this was the case of his spiritual advisor (who, after he died, St Symeon founded a cult; he was able to convince the hierarchy of Constantinople of the truth of his claims, that St Symeon, under much opposition by court theologians, got his spiritual father canonized).

In this way, not only is it possible to work with grace so that we become sinless — we must affirm this possibility, because if we do not, we give excuse to sin. The weaker we are, and the greater the foundation of sin in our lives, the more it will take to get to that state — but it is possible. Purgatory is the continuation of that work for those who have not, by the end of their lives, overcome the structure of sin in their lives.

We must also understand the power of sin. It is individual in the sense it isolates us, and turns us into individuals cut off from God and from each other. But it is also communal in the sense that society can work together to create the structures of sin, to encase each other in towers of sin. Social sin is real, and it is the attempt of a society to do with itself as the individual does to itself. It is, in its way, analogous to the Tower of Babel. The structure created by social sin will be great, and can appear triumphant, but it is unstable and it will crack and fall in on itself — God’s grace, if nothing else, will make sure this is so. When this happens, there is either the option of individuals isolating themselves in their individualized prison of sin, for society to try to recreate its own structure of sin, or a reformation, where at least some of those structures are entirely eliminated.

Since we are created as persons to be open to each other, we must understand social sin can and will affect us even as we try to overcome the sin we create for ourselves. This, of course, is what material and formal cooperation with sin details: the more formal and proximate our cooperation with sin, the more those social structures encase us and cut us off from God. The more remote, the further they are from us, the more we experience them around the cracks of grace, and the more we find ourselves free to move despite their existence.

I hope this reflection helps.

"St. Peter Damian had the right answer in 1050 A. D. Implement the Book of ..."

Imagining Evil
"Several years ago, in 2012, I got into this subject as a General Practitioner, because ..."

Spontaneous Abortions and Moral Theology
""The brain, we know now, is the seat of rationality." Following Aquinas, a Thomist would ..."

Spontaneous Abortions and Moral Theology
"I agree that the matters of God's providence and the meaning of human existence are ..."

Spontaneous Abortions and Moral Theology

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • David Nickol


    FIRST QUESTION: What does it say about human beings that –at least according to Catholic belief — the very first ones (“Adam” and “Eve”) sinned? Are humans sinful by nature, and were they prone to sin even before the fall? Doesn’t it strongly imply some kind of flaw inherent in humans that the very first ones, who dealt with God “face to face,” disobeyed him?

    And as I have said before, isn’t it crystal clear that the serpent tells Eve the truth? The serpent says, “No, God knows well that the moment you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods who know what is good and what is bad.” And when God discovers what has happened, he says, “See! The man has become like one of us, knowing what is good and what is bad!” How much more clear could it be that the serpent was not lying?

    SECOND QUESTION: What would a sinless person be like? So often in life, one has to make very difficult judgments. There are situations where you’re “damned if you do and damned if you don’t.” There are questions of morality that have been debated for two thousand years without agreement on an answer. Assuming there is always a right choice in every situation, no matter how much of a dilemma it may seem, will a sinless person always do the right thing? Or will a sinless person always follow his conscience and hence be blameless even if he does the wrong thing?

    And why do great saints invariably think of themselves as miserable sinners? I remember C. S. Lewis saying we must not think of this as a pious illusion upon which God smiles.

    One further thought. I am not sure what grace is, but sometimes God is depicted as intervening to such a degree that he practically determines the outcome. When Saul (Paul) is knocked off his horse on the road to Damascus, it seems difficult to imagine he could resist God’s influence. It seems to me that anyone poised to do something wrong could be given such strength of will, or such a flash of insight into the true nature of their actions, as to be dissuaded from the wrongdoing. Is God being “fair” with the amount of grace he gives to each person, or are some persons much more favored than others?

    • David

      We have discussed many of these issues before. Human nature, as nature, is not sinful. The nature is not fallen, it is a fallen mode of being which we find ourselves in, and we confuse our mode of being for the nature itself. It is like Plato’s cave, confusing what is in the cave, being chained in the cave, as being the fullness of human potential. Human nature, as nature, is free and is in open communion with God and with the rest of humanity. Human persons, as persons, relate to one another, and are in communion with one another and God. Breaking up the points of relation into individual realities cut off from each other is where sin lies. Sin is in the breaking up of oneself from love of God and love of neighbor.

      Humanity in its creation is not deified, but is given freedom to either open or close itself to God. The fall is, in its way, creating good and evil for oneself (Ellul), and in doing so, cutting oneself off from God. It creates a modality of existence which is fallen, and morality itself, is geared toward that fallen reality. Why morality is often seen in conflict in morality is because of the structures of sin which cut off one from the proper action, and so one must follow them in one way or another.

      As for sinless people: John the Baptist, Jesus and Mary, and of course, there are those who pious tradition suggests have gone to the level that they became sinless. Sinless does not mean, however, their reactions or ways will be the same. Sin is the closure to God and others, closure to the way of love to become an individual cut off from others and all that one has is oneself.

      As for grace, we are not Calvinists; grace is working to take down the construct of sin, and will perfect the nature of the one striving for it, but again, it takes cooperation — one can resist it, and that is what leads one to hell.

  • “The people involved, in general, have not had a rigorous study in theology”

    Glad you got the “in general” in there, Henry… 🙂

    Nice reflection… the concept of “pure nature” is obviously relevant, and I’m glad you raised it.

    • Chris

      Yes, the “in general” was put in because I knew you were adding some comments in the mix, and I certainly didn’t want to include you in that comment. But beyond that, I hope I made it clear, I do not see lack of study is necessarily a bad thing, and here, I think the dialogue can be good and useful, as long as the limitations of it are known and understood. Beyond that – the concept of pure nature was, I think the issue which needed to be brought into the mix; I hope others read this and use my reflection to further their own explorations.

  • Alright. I’m extending a good faith invitation, Henry, for you to come over to my last post on sin and human freedom, and explain what it is I, or anyone else, got wrong. After all you said,

    “This means they can, and will, make mistakes which people who have studied the matter further will not make. ”

    So what mistakes were made? What statements were made that you think are factually incorrect? What are the “limitations”? It seems to me like you just assume they’re there. Well maybe they are – but how are we going to know unless we’re told?

    So I’m not going to check back here. You can post on my post if you want. Maybe we can discuss this without the nastiness of previous encounters. Maybe this recent business can provide a fresh start. You come over and make a respectful post and I’ll give a respectful reply. How does that sound?

  • Joe

    A couple things. I said I only wanted to help with a couple observations. I made them. Use them as you will (or not use them, as you will). But you will note Chris acknowledges the importance of them for the discussion.

    Second, your attitude continues to show here. “I won’t look back here.” Fine. That says enough. Really, it does.

    I tried to help. I tried to give observations to all involved in the discussion. Those who want to think through them will, those who want to ignore them will. But don’t go “I will be nice, but I will ignore you over here.” No, that’s not nice.

  • Cindy

    It does help. But I have to ask you something else Henry. What are we to love the most as human beings? Do we put first the ‘church’, and everything that the church is built upon. I am having a hard time understanding people’s love for the church. What does that mean? Is it a love of written doctrines, or is it the celebration of the mass or what? I feel really lost, because I’m a simple soul I suppose. I don’t understand why the people in the church are not the most important aspect? It seems to me when I read Scripture it tends to be mostly about people and as you seem to have put, trying to get them free from sin as much as possible. Yet, I see so many people in love with the idea of the church, that they forget the people entirely. I just don’t understand where we should be applying our love to first? Does this make any sense what I am saying. I am such a poor communicator and I don’t have the ability to express myself as you do. But I guess what I am trying to decipher is, are people in the church the mission, or is the chuch itself the mission? Does this make sense what I am asking?

    • Cindy,

      There are many issues you raise, and to do each properly, there would be much which had to be said, distinctions which had to be made. For example, what is the church? How does one see the church? There are many aspects to the church; loving the church could be about loving all that is holy and redeemed. This is perfectly natural and fine, to love it because it is holy. But when we talk about the church, we talk about the church in historical reality; the church is the vehicle by which sinners receive grace, it is the sacrament to the world, and those of us who are in the church are expected to be the bearers of that grace, and that means to love people, in and outside of the church. But it does not mean we will have to love all the actions done in the name of the church — some, if real good, we can and should, but others, we should decry. But, as long as we are in the historical situation, outside of the end (eschaton) the mission is for all of humanity, both those within and those without the church — both in their own way — what is of sin is ultimately not of the eschatological, holy church, and those who have been cut off from grace, because of sin, are those who the church is for, because it is calling them to come within.

      I hope that helps — though it probably is just a very muddled presentation.

  • Cindy

    No it does help. I’m just struggling to understand why or where the cultural differences come into play inside Catholicism. You see when I read Scripture, and granted I am not trained in theology, but when I read it, I see that the people are the temple of God and the Spirit dwells within us. I am just trying to figure out a way to bridge the gap between people that are so judgemental on what makes someone a Catholic, and what makes them not? It’s like in certain crowds, if you are not trained in theology or well read enough, they act as if you are not good enough to even be called a Catholic. So that means me. Yet, I can sit and reflect that it seems like they dont care that much for the actual people in the church, but more about the status symbol of what the church means to them,and that becomes more important than the idea that God lives inside of us all. So it in some ways gets down to what is born of flesh and what is born in Spirit? If we abide in God and his laws, then we bear much fruit. When we do not, as you so eloquently displayed we lack grace. So when Scripture says set your hearts on things above and not on earthly things, how do we apply that to every day politics and life? It’s like in my view, we are all doomed to fail, because of the fall of man. So if we dwell there, in that arena, the political arena and trying to change laws, and at the same time, so willingly condemning others because they don’t measure up, then are we not actually farther away from the spirit that is dwelling within us?

  • David Nickol


    I sometimes have the following thought. Imagine the first, second, or third generation of followers of Jesus. The ones who knew him firsthand, or the ones who knew those who had known him directly, when memories of him were still fresh. I think those early followers of Jesus would be utterly bewildered at about 99.99% of what contemporary Catholics are “required” to believe.

  • Cindy

    That is a great way to look at things. I guess simply by reading the Bible, you are imagining what the 1st, 2nd or 3rd generation of followers were living and thinking. I often picture the world of Jesus even in his time. I mean the world is different, but is it really all so different? We don’t publically cruxify people in the streets, but we silently murder our children. Now Jesus was here for a purpose and he wasnt here to start a campaign about those terrible injustices of those times. He was here to call us to a different way of thinking which consequently was a means to change our lives entirely. Yet today the message is altogether different, and they are now more focused on the injustices of our time and I’m worried about the people and losing sight of ministering to people, which should be what makes up the church. I find it all rather conflicting.

  • Smith


    I have always found this topic interesting but I need a brief clarification from you. You said that, “Human nature, as nature, is not sinful. The nature is not fallen, it is a fallen mode of being which we find ourselves in, and we confuse our mode of being for the nature itself.” Then at the end of this comment you stated, “grace is working to take down the construct of sin, and will perfect the nature of the one striving for it, but again, it takes cooperation”.

    It seems to me that you said that nothing happens to the nature of the person, just their “mode of being.” After which you then follow up by saying that their nature needs to be perfected. If nothing happens to the nature of the person, and it remains as God intended, then why does it need to be perfected? Thank you.

    • Smith

      The nature as nature is open, but its perfection can only be in communion with God, with theosis.

  • Ronald King

    Henry, There is too much in here to discuss, but, here is an attempt. Sin originally was defined as missing the mark, evil was not applied to it. Just as with Christ’s teachings and the original understanding of the fall, the further we are removed from the original teachers the more the message becomes distorted and we “miss the mark”. This is a classic flaw in human relationships.
    R.D. Laing wrote about this in “The Politics of Experience” and “Knots”.
    As I have stated previously, I view the fall as the birth. What is Grace without Wisdom? Why does the man change the name of his mate from woman to Eve after he has knowledge of “good and evil” or would it be knowledge of duality? Why would he fear God and hide if he really knew God?
    I left the Church at 18 because I did not experience love in the Church. I was driven to find love my entire life which resulted in settling into the philosophy and psychology of Buddha for several decades which provided a loving path of understanding the intrapersonal and interpersonal dynamics of suffering without the burden of shame imposed on me by the teachings of sin and God I had learned from well intentioned instructors in my Catholic youth.
    Instinctively we are provided the knowledge to know what is love and what isn’t. As I look back Grace was guiding that drive to seek Love and then Grace appeared as Light and told me I am loved. Once I saw that Light I knew where I belonged–the Church.
    It is not the material structure of the Church which stands like the tower of Babel and is built on a cracked foundation. It is the Church upon which the foundation is built–God’s Love.
    The Fall is the foundation of the material Church and the natural consequences of that weak foundation are being revealed in the cracking of the pilars which support the walls of the Church.
    As you stated, Henry, Grace is always attempting to get through our walls and this Grace destroys anything that is not created in Grace or with Grace.
    I am tired now. However, I could go on and on in a discussion about this.