While driving around my hometown during recent weeks, I have noticed the presence of a few unusual yard signs. Instead of the typical political messages, these signs portray a facsimile of two tablets of stone on which are written the Ten Commandments.
Most likely, those who put up the signs are conveying their thinking on the controversy surrounding the posting of a copy of the commandments on public property, at the Supreme Court building in Alabama, and elsewhere. I suspect they believe that posting the commandments is a way of encouraging the restoration of moral behavior in our country—a reminder to try harder. Not a bad motivation, really. With high rates of births to single mothers, divorces becoming more common, sexually transmitted diseases spreading at an alarming rate, gang violence, and child abuse rampant—to name just a few problems—it seems natural to try to change things somehow. But I wonder whether the whole effort is somehow missing the point.
Leaving aside the political issue of the relationship between church and state, is making the public aware of the commandments the way to improve public morality? Or, on a more personal note, will I become a better person by keeping the list of the commandments in front of me? I believe this view of the transformation of self and society actually misunderstands the true nature of sin and thus misses the correct nature of growth and change.
01. Historic Christian Understanding of Sin
The historic Christian understanding of sin begins with the primordial sin of Adam and Eve in the garden. In the beginning, God created man in his image (Genesis 1:27). Whatever this might mean in its fullness, man was made to share in the glory of God. Humans were to share dominion of the earth with God, were given the ability to reason, to be self-conscious, to exercise free will, to connect with another (both divine and human), and to love.
Irenaeus of Lyons, a second-century church father, taught that there is a distinction between the image of God and the likeness of God. The image is the capacity for humans to become as much like God as is possible for finite creatures. The likeness is the fulfillment of that potential. Irenaeus believed that Adam and Eve were created with the image of God, but that the likeness remained to be fulfilled. That glorious likeness was to be attained through a process of growth and communion, of God’s sharing with his creation through his grace what he is by nature.
The setting was idyllic; at least, it seems so to us: a beautiful garden, fruit, and streams; everything green, peaceful, and filled with joy. Among the trees of the garden were two with special significance, the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. According to the account in Genesis, God placed Adam in the garden and commanded him, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Genesis 2:16–17, NRSV All Scriptures used in this article are taken from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.).
What was this commandment about? Is it merely a rule established by God to test the loyalty and obedience of his people? Or is there something deeper, something in the nature of reality itself at work here?
Part of the answer lies in the nature of the two trees. One was the tree of life. Where does life originate? From God. He alone has life in himself; he alone is able to share that life with others. Life in every form comes from God. Humans have no life apart from the breath of God, the Spirit that enlivens. The tree of life is the opportunity in the garden to taste sacramentally of the life of God. It is the gift that leads to life, the choice that leads to God himself, who is Life. In the glorious vision of heaven in Revelation 21–22, the tree of life, whose very leaves are for the healing of the nations, stands on either side of the river of the water of life that flows from the throne of the Lamb, and offers twelve kinds of fruit (Revelation 22:2). Jesus himself says, “This is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you hast sent” (John 17:3). To know God—to abide in him and the energy of his presence—is to eat of the tree of Life.
The other tree is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. At first blush, the knowledge of good and evil seems like a good thing. In the college ethics class I teach, in fact, it seems best to examine the nature of evil as well as the nature of good to find some sort of guideline for behavior. Isn’t there a sort of wisdom in knowing what is good and what is not? Isn’t it, as the serpent says, even a means of being “like God”?
But in a world that is built on the knowledge of God, evil has no independent existence. It is not an entity to be known; instead, it is the absence of something that should be known. God is Good. There is no goodness apart from God. To be able to tell the difference, then, between good and evil is to know something in which there is no positive presence of the grace of God. That which is evil is not God. So the primordial temptation is to turn away from God to know something else, something that is not filled with Life or Love or Goodness.
God’s command, therefore, is not arbitrary. He has made man in his image because of the boundlessness of his love. God is Love (1 John 4:8). Love is the absolute giving of oneself for the good of the other. The Father has eternally shared everything that he is by nature with the Son and the Holy Spirit, holding nothing back. That love is absolute and unselfish.
God made the world not because he had a lack and needed someone to alleviate his loneliness or because he needed someone to whom to show his love. The love of the Holy Trinity is full and complete in itself. Rather, he created the world because he wanted to share his unbounded love with creatures who could share in his love by loving him and by loving each other. That is why the image of God is male and female. It is not possible for God to be a monad, nor is it possible for his image to be full without the possibility of sharing love with others. To choose to know good and evil is to choose to know something that goes beyond the bounds of love, to know that which is the denial of love, thus the denial of the essence of God himself.
02. So What Is Sin?
So what is sin? It is the refusal to accept the love of God, substituting a love of the self for the true wisdom of abandoning the self to the infinite goodness of the Other. The serpent begins the process by getting Eve to move from love of God to mistrust of God. If she truly loved God, her love would bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things (see 1 Corinthians 13:7). Instead, she becomes convinced that God is holding something back, keeping something good and wise from them. She loves herself and what she wants for herself more than she loves God, the One who gave her life. She believes the lie that wisdom is in knowing what God knows or imitating the characteristics that she perceives he has. She believes she will become like him if she knows good and evil, if she knows something other than God. But God himself is Wisdom. To know God is to know Wisdom. The knowledge of good and evil is earthly wisdom, devilish wisdom (James 3:15) that separates the soul from him who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
Sin is not the violation of the commandment in itself—the commandment as law or directive. Sin is turning away from the love of God to the love of self, the love of earth, the love of all that is not God. And the result can be nothing but death.
Often the result of the Fall is portrayed as the punishment of God on his sinful creation. Adam and Eve sinned, so they deserved the death penalty. But that is not what happened. God did not say, “In the day you eat of it, I will surely kill you.” Rather, he said, “In the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Genesis 2:17). Life comes from God. Love comes from God. In the moment we turn ourselves away from the love of God, we ontologically cut ourselves off from the source of life. God does not kill us. We kill ourselves by turning from him.
Just as an electronic device stops working when it is unplugged from the power source, so we die when we separate ourselves from the life of God. But even this shows us the depths of the love of God. He wants our love of him to be free, not coerced. We are not robots, manipulated by the whims of an all-powerful being. We are made in the image of God and are free to respond or not respond to his love. Freedom is the condition for the possibility of life, of love, and of death. God shows his love for us by allowing us to choose freely to reject him, even forever. But his love for us never stops. God does absolutely everything possible to reveal his love to us. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:16–17).
This brings us back to the Ten Commandments on the lawn signs. If the basic human sin is defined as “transgression of the law,” then the commandments become the principles or the code defining what should not be transgressed. We become righteous by obeying the commandments, as Adam could have become righteous by obeying the command not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil—not righteous merely in the sense of conforming to the rules and holding to a standard of behavior, but righteous because obedience to God is an expression of love for him. As Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). Loving obedience deepens the communion between God and man and produces the fruit of righteousness. “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them” (John 14:21).
Another common definition of sin is “to miss the mark.” So righteousness would consist of hitting the mark. But what is the mark? The mark is love. St. Paul says that we are to “owe no one anything, except to love one another; for he who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:8). Jesus identifies the most important commandments as, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. . . . And a second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:37, 39–40). To be righteous is to live in a mature and loving relationship with God and neighbor.
Every commandment derives from the central principle of love: love of God or love of neighbor. The first four of the Ten Commandments focus on the love of God, at least in a negative form. If we love God, we will have no other gods before him. We will not construct a god according to the fantasies of our imagination, whether in a graven image or in the idolatry of self-will that is covetousness. Love of God means bringing honor to the holiness of his name, not profaning it by word or by the disobedience of our lives. Love of God means to turn away from the distractions and cares of this world to the Sabbath rest and renewal that are communion with him.
The remaining commandments are negative expressions of the call to love our neighbor. If we love, we will not murder, steal, betray our spouse, bear false witness, or covet our neighbor’s possessions, and we will do our duty to our parents. These, too, though, like the commandment to Adam and Eve in the garden, are not arbitrary; they derive from the nature of the character of God. God gives life; he does not desire the death even of the sinner. (“The Lord . . . is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance,” 2 Peter 3:9.) God is the faithful husband to the bride who still strays from his love. God gives everything, to the last drop of the blood of his Son. He does not steal. He does not take by force what has not been given to him in love.
According to Jesus, it is not enough simply to avoid the negative expression of sin. To sin is also to fail to do positive good, to fail to love the neighbor actively. Jesus finds the source of sin in the heart.
The commandment says, “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13). But Jesus says, “If you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment” (Matthew 5:22). Guilt attaches in the heart, not just in the action. He calls for reconciliation with our brother before bringing our offering to God. Love and forgiveness are the positive expression of the commandment not to kill. The commandment says, “You shall not commit adultery.” Jesus says that the sin goes even to the lust of the heart (Matthew 5:28). Adultery begins by failing to see another as a person, as one made in the image of God, worthy of true love. Rather, the other becomes an object of desire, an expression of the love of self. So lust treats the other as an object. Adultery treats the spouse with contempt rather than loyal love.
This love extends not only to those who love us back, our friends. It extends also to our enemies. Jesus says that we are not to return evil for evil, but rather to give far beyond what is expected— turning the other cheek or going the second mile (see Matthew 5:39, 41) What he calls for is nothing less than to love in the same way and with the same love with which God has loved us. We are to love our enemies because God loves even those who betray him. “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Jesus demonstrates this love even for his enemies on the cross when He prays, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
The goal of our life is thus to “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48)—to love God with all that is within us, and to love others with the love with which he loves us.
To turn from the good, the source of our life in God himself—that is, to turn to the love of self or to the love of that which is not God—is the essence of sin. Evil has no independent existence. It is the perversion of that which is good, or the rejection of the love of God.
03. The Opposite of Sin Is Trust and Transformation
So how do we become transformed, become better people, overcome sin, become “perfect”? Only through the love of Christ. It is not enough to put the list of commandments before us, as though to inspire us to greater efforts, or to remind us where we fall short. We must be reunited in the depths of our being with the loving energy of God. The goal is not merely to avoid acts of sin, but to become the kind of person who normally and habitually avoids sin—by living connected to God.
In Christ, the Word made flesh, God and man are joined together. The likeness of God is seen in Christ, “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15), in whom “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Colossians 2:9). By abiding in Christ, we “may become participants of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4), being transformed by grace into what he is by nature. God’s love abides in us, God’s holiness becomes real in us, God’s loyalty and faithfulness become ours, and God’s eternal life is shared with us.
The full description of how we overcome sin and put on Christ is beyond the scope of this meditation. In the Orthodox Christian tradition, we understand salvation to be a process of growth in participation in the energies of God. We begin with a new birth, a sacramental union with Christ through baptism, dying to death, and rising to new life. Our new life is nurtured by heavenly food, tasting of the tree of life, the “powers of the age to come” (Hebrews 6:5), by eating and drinking of the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them” (John 6:56). And we must constantly draw near to God, praying without ceasing, ever communing with the Source of Life himself, denying ourselves and submitting our wills to the wisdom of God. The spiritual disciplines of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving help us in this battle against sin, the flesh, and the devil.
Where do we begin? We begin where Isaiah did when he saw the Lord on his glorious throne (Isaiah 6). He fell before the glory of God in repentance, recognizing the depth of his sinfulness, considering himself “a man of unclean lips” dwelling among “a people of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5). So, too, must we, with broken and contrite hearts, confess our sinfulness and cry out to the Lord of glory. And the angel of the love of God will bring the coal from the altar, and touch it to our lips, and heal our souls. God’s Spirit will rekindle the divine fire within us, and in love we will obey his commandments.
FATHER F. GREGORY ROGERS is pastor of St. Catherine Antiochian Orthodox Church in Aiken, South Carolina, and St. Barnabas Antiochian Orthodox Church in Lexington, South Carolina. He is also program coordinator of history and social sciences at Aiken Technical College, Aiken, South Carolina. His most important role is as husband of Pamela and the father of three grown children.