I have to admit, this is a subject I need to do more research on, and I could be wrong in what I am about to write, but this is how I understood relationship between the actions of humanity and the grace of God. I remember a friend of mine told me once that ancient Latin Scholastic fathers have criticized the Cappadocian fathers to be semi-Pellagian in their writings, but I can't find his reference. In any case, there seems to be an Eastern thought and understanding in all this that can make one quite confused when engaging in discussion with Western thinking peoples. I have hope though somewhere along the line, there's an agreement, and perhaps semantics can play a role. And perhaps, I need to do more reading of the Cappadocian fathers to see what their views on grace and humanity's virtues (or lack thereof) are.
The center of the issue is indeed the idea of separating "sinlessness" and "salvation." We know that from St. Irenaeous' theology that Christ would have been incarnate even if there was to be no "fall." In other words, there's more to the incarnation than merely salvation from sins. We also know from St. Athanasius and from an OO father St. Severus (who made his views very clear in his fight against the aphthartodocetic views in Julianism) that there is no real change in human nature before or after the Fall. The difference is simply the presence or lack of grace, which is pretty much God's active presence in one's nature. Therefore, baptism plays a role not only in purifying one's soul in preparation for the descent of the Holy Spirit in this person, for even though the soul may have not sinned, the world itself is filthy, filled with lusts, with sights that can forever scar souls, with influences without end, baptism also leads one to be united into the mystical Body of Christ.
Why was the Virgin Theotokos or the Forerunner so different? Because they separated themselves from the world. They lived wholly ascetic lifestyles that allowed them to fully conceive of God's plans. They grew in grace until they were able to do their duties, the former to give birth to God, the latter to wed God to His ministry.
What is sin to me? Well, sin can mean one of both things. It can be an act of immorality, a breaking of the Law. As St. Paul teaches, even Gentiles, judged by their consciences, have the same Law in their hearts. Therefore, morality is something innate, something understood. There are those who are born into a family where this morality is strengthened and thus can achieve a strong moral framework, and others where they are physically born with predispositions that can cause them to struggle. Therefore, there is a genetic and an environmental influence in these situations. It would seem to me certain exceptions in history, like the Theotokos and the Forerunner, occurred. These people were born of righteous families and were raised in ascetic lifestyles. They trained their flesh, born like any other flesh, to live righteous and virtuous lives. They may have been sanctified for their roles and continual prayers, but they have not received the ultimate salvation that comes from Christ until a certain time.
What about Ghandi? I'd say, likewise, he too trained his flesh to be separate from the world. In fact, when we see the virtuous life of Ghandi, one cannot help but say to himself, this is exactly how a Christian should act. Therefore, how do we see a non-Christian act this way? Can we say the grace of God? Perhaps, just as the Spirit of God who hardens hearts, like that of Pharaoh, or inspires hearts like that of King Cyrus or Balaam, these who are not even part of the chosen people of God, God's grace seems to fill the world, that whoever seems to act in a way befitting God, grows all the more free, and even more so now, in Christ's era, where we have even influenced non-Christians to act like Christians. I am willing to accept that Ghandi was given the grace of charity and some virtue through God Himself even though Ghandi could not bring himself to believe in God (a heart hardened there?).
But we all know that being righteous and moral is not enough for salvation. It is unity in God the Father through Christ by the Holy Spirit. This is where another view of "sin" comes in. St. Augustine even mentions Christ as the salvation of our apparent and "hidden" sins (from "The Confessions"). It seems to me, sin takes a different view than "immorality." If we were to define sin as the state of our soul before God, then surely, "all have sinned" as St. Paul said, including the Virgin Theotokos and the Forerunner, and I cannot give exceptions to that. So while they lived righteous, pure, and virtuous lives, I believe they too were included in the verses that St. Paul mentioned in Chapter 5, death reigned to all, even those who have not sinned, as St. John Chrysostom makes clear in his reading of St. Paul:
“Wherefore as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin, and so death passed upon (διἥλθεν6 mss. εἴς…) all men, for that all have sinned.”NOTE: Notice that in St. John Chrysostom's reading, it is not those who have not sinned in the likeness of Adam's transgression, but that death reigned in the likeness of Adam's transgression.
As the best physicians always take great pains to discover the source of diseases, and go to the very fountain of the mischief, so doth the blessed Paul also. Hence after having said that we were justified, and having shown it from the Patriarch, and from the Spirit, and from the dying of Christ (for He would not have died unless He intended to justify), he next confirms from other sources also what he had at such length demonstrated. And he confirms his proposition from things opposite, that is, from death and sin. How, and in what way? He enquires whence death came in, and how it prevailed. How then did death come in and prevail? “Through the sin of one.” But what means, “for that all have sinned?” This; he having once fallen, even they that had not eaten of the tree did from him, all of them, become mortal.
“For until the Law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed where there is no law.”
The phrase “till the Law” some think he used of the time before the giving of the Law—that of Abel, for instance, or of Noah, or of Abraham—till Moses was born. What was the sin in those days, at this rate? some say he means that in Paradise. For hitherto it was not done away, (he would say,) but the fruit of it was yet in vigor. For it had borne that death whereof all partake, which prevailed and lorded over us. Why then does he proceed, “But sin is not imputed when there is no law?” It was by way of objection from the Jews, say they who have spoken on our side, that he laid this position down and said, if there be no sin without the Law, how came death to consume all those before the Law? But to me it seems that the sense presently to be given has more to be said for it, and suits better with the Apostle’s meaning. And what sense is this? In saying, that “till the Law sin was in the world,” what he seems to me to mean is this, that after the Law was given the sin resulting from the transgression of it prevailed, and prevailed too so long as the Law existed. For sin, he says, can have no existence if there be no law. If then it was this sin, he means, from the transgression of the Law that brought forth death, how was it that all before the Law died? For if it is in sin that death hath its origin, but when there is no law, sin is not imputed, how came death to prevail? From whence it is clear, that it was not this sin, the transgression, that is, of the Law, but that of Adam’s disobedience, which marred all things. Now what is the proof of this? The fact that even before the Law all died: for “death reigned,” he says, “from Adam to Moses, even over them that had not sinned.”
How did it reign? “After the similitude of Adam’s transgression, who is the figure of Him that was to come.” Now this is why Adam is a type of Christ. How a type? it will be said. Why in that, as the former became to those who were sprung from him, although they had not eaten of the tree, the cause of that death which by his eating was introduced; thus also did Christ become to those sprung from Him, even though they had not wrought righteousness, the Provider of that righteousness which through His Cross He graciously bestowed on us all. For this reason, at every turn he keeps to the “one,” and is continually bringing it before us, when he says, “As by one man sin entered into the world”—and, “If through the offence of one many be dead:” and, “Not as it was by one that sinned, so is the gift;” and, “The judgment was by one to condemnation:” and again, “If by one (or, the one) man’s offence death reigned by one;” and “Therefore as by the offence of one.” And again, “As by one man’s disobedience many (or, the many) were made sinners.” And so he letteth not go of the one, that when the Jew says to thee, How came it, that by the well-doing of this one Person, Christ, the world was saved? thou mightest be able to say to him, How by the disobedience of this one person, Adam, came it to be condemned? And yet sin and grace are not equivalents, death and life are not equivalents, the Devil and God are not equivalents, but there is a boundless space between them. When then as well from the nature of the thing as from the power of Him that transacteth it, and from the very suitableness thereof (for it suiteth much better with God to save than to punish), the preëminence and victory is upon this side, what one word have you to say for unbelief, tell me? However, that what had been done was reasonable, he shows in the following words.
St. Augustine also says, "But even the infants, not personally in their own life, but according to the common origin of the human race, have all broken God’s covenant in that one in whom all have sinned." (City of God 16:27)
As we pray in the Coptic Church, "Even if one's life be one day on earth, there is no one without sin." (quoting out of memory)
Origen also says, "Many manuscripts read that death reigned over even those whose sin was not like that of Adam. If this reading is correct, then it may be said that it refers to that death which has kept souls in hell, and we would understand that even the saints have passed away because of this law of death, even though they were not subject to the law of sin. Therefore it may be said that Christ descended into hell not only in order to show that he could not be held by death but also that might liberate those who found themselves there not because of the sin of transgression but merely because of their mortal condition." (quoted from Ancient Christian Commentary, Romans, p. 136)
Ambrosiaster also writes, "Some Greek manuscripts say that death reigned even in those who had not sinned in the way that Adam had. If this is true, it is because Satan's jealousy was such that death, that is, dissolution, held sway over even those who did not sin." (quoted from Ancient Christian Commentary, Romans, p. 136)
This doesn't mean I believe grace is unnecessary. For the majority of the world, one cannot escape the grasp of sin without the grace of God. Surely, I can say so of myself. For when there are days when I have lost sight of God, I am in deep sin, and when I gain my sight in God, I am filled with clarity and disgust of my own soul. So then yes, it is extremely hard without the grace of God to act virtuous, but not impossible, as is implied by some Church fathers depending on how the text of Romans 5:14 is written. Grace makes one freer and I am in no position to disagree with that. For just as light aids in my sight to see through darkness, so does God in giving me His grace aids me to walk through the world filled with sin, knowing not to choose sin. With the case of the Theotokos and the Forerunner, I'm more inclined to think of them like blind men who are able to walk in the world knowing how many steps to take to get to places.
I think I've answered everyone's questions.
I'd like to touch on one more thing MardukM touched, which I believe is a minuscule issue really:
Secondly, I must assert that I never claimed that Enoch, Elijah or the Forerunner were immaculately conceived. I admit my memory is spotty, but it’s impossible that I could have ever made such a claim since, for example, Scripture tells us that St. John was sanctified six months after his conception. Thus, I can’t imagine that I would have ever claimed that he was sanctified at his conception. I assume brother Mina misunderstood whatever it was I stated.
Well, at some point, you mentioned they were given the "grace of sinlessness." I don't even understand what difference it makes whether it be conception or three months after conception when it comes to John the Forerunner. What is the importance that the Virgin Theotokos has to be immaculate from the very moment of her conception, whereas God's Baptist be three months after conception? What about Jeremiah the prophet? When he was given immaculateness?