A fellow pastor asked me to respond to help him respond to a couple questions he had received regarding the image of God in our lives and how sin effects us after salvation. It wasn't what I had intended to put it in a blog, but as I thought about all the approaches and thoughts people express and share about, few think about the premise. The premise is at the heart of this one.
Thomas Oden writes, “We are not originally made to be sinners” (298). This statement is important to remember in reflecting the optimism and hope that is at the root of Wesleyan/Methodist theology and practice. We chose to become sinners because of how we have been created, which includes free will, and is in the threefold image of God which Wesley talks about in his sermon, “The New Birth.” Wesley divides the image of God three ways:
1. Natural image of God. It is in this form of the image we have free will & immortality.
2. Political image of God. It is this form we are stewards of creation and order society/enact justice.
3. Moral image of God. In this form, we show how we are made for righteousness and holiness (298).
In the fall, the image of God is defaced. “…the Fall entails the complete loss of the moral image, while the natural image and the political image are retained, albeit in a distorted manner. The moral image, however, is the image proper” (48, Colin Williams). While not always received well, Wesley clearly understood, in agreement with Calvinists, humanity suffers from a state of total depravity. Williams writes again, “The loss of the moral image spells total depravity because separation from God and the substitution of self-government in place of acceptance of the Lordship of God means that the good capacities of man are twisted from their true course and used for wrong purposes” (49, Ibid). See also Wesley’s Notes on the New Testament, Romans 6:6 when writing about “our old man,” states, “ …for that entire depravity and corruption which by nature spreads itself over the whole man, leaving no part uninfected.” But the grace of God is an intervening gift, a gift which works to make possible a decision for God to intervene – to save us.
So to answer the initial question, “can the image of God be lost?” The moral image, is lost to us until salvation while the natural and political image of God is twisted and marred.
I like the way Bishop Scott Jones paraphrases Wesley when he writes “…justification is something God does for us through Christ, while sanctification is something God does in us through the Holy Spirit” (178). There is simultaneous nature to these gifts of God. But if, as Jones notes later, “Sanctification is a real change, where righteousness is imparted…(179),” then it seems to me that it is in the gift of sanctification we find the moral image of God renewed within the life of the Christian.
Can we later lose our salvation? Can we, by our actions, regress in to a fallen state? Wesley thought so as he describes in “The Great Privilege of those that are Born of God.” Thomas Oden outlines this in far more detail, but in essence, the longer the Christian gives into temptation, remaining unattentive to the Spirit’s corrections and warnings, if becomes a downward cycle. The power of the Lord eventually leaves BUT their always remains prevenient grace present and at work.
1 John 3:9 contains the promise that “whoever is born of God does not commit sin.” To this Oden, attributes that the sins of “voluntary transgressions of the law” are what is meant. What Wesley understood as the “Wilderness State” and “Heaviness” reflect two distinct states on the Christian journey. The “Wilderness” is descriptive of the downward cycle when the Christian begins to give into temptation. The time of “Heaviness” is comparative to St. John of the Cross', “dark night of the soul,” wherein the Christian finds temptations abounding and are called on to be in prayer continually, seeking after God even in the struggles.
Oden, Thomas. “John Wesley’s Scriptural Christianity.” Zondervan. 1994.
Williams, Colin W. “John Wesley’s Theology Today.” Abingdon. 1960.
Jones, Scott J. “ United Methodist Doctrine: The Extreme Center. Abingdon. 2002.