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Sin Breaks Man's Covenant with God

General Audience — October 29, 1986

—    Sin as disobedience
—    Sin as disbelief

In the catecheses of the present series we have the truth about original sin continually before our eyes. At the same time we seek to view the reality of sin in the overall dimension of human history. Historical experience confirms in its own way what is expressed by revelation—sin is continually present in the life of every person. From the point of view of human knowledge it is present as moral evil, with which ethics (moral philosophy) is more directly concerned. But in their own way other branches of anthropological science of a more descriptive nature, such as psychology and sociology, are also concerned with it. One thing is certain—moral evil (as well as moral good) belongs to human experience—and this is the point of departure for all the other sciences that intend to study it as an object of experience.

At the same time, however, one must observe that, apart from revelation, we are not in a position to perceive fully or to express adequately the essence of sin (or of moral evil as sin). Only against the background of the relationship instituted with God through faith can the full reality of sin become understandable. In the light of this relationship let us seek to develop and deepen this understanding.

In the case of revelation and especially of Sacred Scripture, the truth which it contains about sin cannot be presented except by returning to the "beginning" itself. In a certain sense even "actual" sin, pertaining to the life of every person, becomes fully understandable in reference to that "beginning," to that sin of the first man. This is not only because what the Council of Trent calls "the spark of sin" (fomes peccati), the consequence of original sin, is the basis and source of personal sins in man, but also because that "first sin" of our first parents remains to a certain extent the "model" of every sin committed personally by man. The "first sin" was also in itself a personal sin; hence the individual elements of its "structure" are found in some way in every other human sin.

The Second Vatican Council recalls: "Although he was made by God in a state of holiness, from the very onset of his history man abused his liberty...and sought to attain his goal apart from God" (GS 13). In these words the Council treats of the sin of our first parents committed in the state of original justice. However, all the sins committed throughout history reflect those same essential elements, as a result of the moral weakness that the human race has inherited. Understood as a personal act of man, every sin contains a particular "abuse of freedom," that is, an evil use of freedom, of free will. As a created being, man abuses his free will when he uses it against the will of his Creator, when in his behavior "he lifts himself up against God," when he seeks "to attain his goal apart from God."

Every human sin repeats the essential elements, which from the very beginning constitute the moral evil of sin in the light of the revealed truth on God and man. They are presented in a degree of intensity different from that of the first sin, committed in the state of original justice. Committed after original sin, personal sins are conditioned by the state of inherited inclination to evil ("the spark or incitement of evil desire"), in a certain sense already at the very point of departure. However, this situation of inherited weakness does not cancel human freedom. Every actual (personal) sin is a real abuse of freedom, contrary to the will of God. The degree of this abuse may vary. The different degrees of guilt of the sinner also depend on this. In this sense one must apply a different measure for actual sins, when it is a question of evaluating the degree of evil contained in them. From this, too, derives the difference between "grave" sin and "venial" sin. Grave sin is also "mortal" because it brings about the loss of sanctifying grace in the one who commits it.

1.  Sin as disobedience

Speaking about Adam's sin, St. Paul describes it as "disobedience" (cf. Rom 5:19). The same is valid for every actual sin committed. Man sins by transgressing God's commandment, therefore he is "disobedient" to God as supreme lawgiver. In the light of revelation this disobedience is at the same time a breaking of the covenant with God. God, as we know him from revelation, is the God of the covenant. Precisely as God of the covenant, he is lawgiver. He inserts his law in the context of the covenant with man, making it a fundamental condition of the covenant itself.

Thus it was in that original covenant, which, as we read in Genesis (cf. Gen 2-3), was violated "in the beginning." This appears still more clearly in the relationship of the Lord God with Israel at the time of Moses. The covenant made with the Chosen People at the foot of Mount Sinai (cf. Ex 24:3-8) contains as its constitutive part the Commandments—the Decalogue (cf. Ex 20; Dt 5). They constitute the fundamental and inalienable principles of behavior of every person in regard to God and in regard to creatures, especially to human beings.

According to St. Paul's teaching in his Letter to the Romans, these fundamental and inalienable principles of conduct, revealed in the context of the covenant of Sinai, are "written in the heart" of every human being, even independently of the revelation made to Israel. The Apostle wrote: "When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them" (Rom 2:14-15).

Reinforced by God with the revelation of the law in the context of the covenant, the moral order is already endowed with effectiveness in the law "written in the heart," even apart from the limits indicated by the Mosaic law and revelation. It can be said that it is inscribed in man's rational nature itself, as St. Thomas so very well explains when speaking of the "law of nature" [1] . The fulfillment of this law determines the moral value of human acts and insures their goodness. On the contrary, the transgression of the law "written in the heart," that is, in the rational nature of the human being, determines that human acts are evil. They are evil because they are opposed to the objective order of human nature and of the world, behind which stands God, its Creator.

In the light of the revealed law the nature of sin is set out in still greater relief. Man then possesses a greater awareness of transgressing a law explicitly and positively established by God. He is therefore aware of opposing God's will, and in this sense, of "disobeying." It is not merely a case of disobedience to an abstract principle of behavior, but to a principle in which the "personal" authority of God is formulated, to a principle in which God's wisdom and Providence are expressed. The whole moral law is laid down by God because of his solicitude for the true good of creation, and in particular for the good of the human person. It was precisely this good that was inscribed by God in the covenant which he made—both in the first covenant with Adam, and also in the covenant of Sinai through Moses, and finally, in the definitive covenant revealed in Christ and sealed in the blood of his redemption [2] .

Viewed against this background, sin as "disobedience" to the law is more clearly revealed in its nature of disobedience to a personal God—to God as lawgiver, who at the same time is a loving Father. Already profoundly expressed in the Old Testament (cf. Hos 11:1-7), this message will find its fullest formulation in the parable of the prodigal son (cf. Lk 15:18-19, 21). In any event, disobedience to God, that is, opposition to his creative and salvific will, including man's desire "to attain his goal apart from God" (GS 13), is an "abuse of liberty" (GS 13).

2.  Sin as disbelief

On the day before his passion, Jesus Christ spoke of the "sin" of which the Holy Spirit must "convince the world." He explained the essence of this sin in the words: "because they do not believe in me" (Jn 16:19). That "non-belief" in God is in a certain sense the first and fundamental form of sin, which man commits against the God of the covenant. This form of sin had already been manifested in original sin, spoken of in Genesis. The law given in the covenant of Sinai also refers to it, but in order to exclude it: "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me" (Ex 20:2-3). The words of Jesus in the cenacle and the whole of the Gospel and the New Testament also refer to it.

This disbelief, this lack of trust in God who is revealed as Creator, Father and Savior, indicate that man, by sinning, not only transgresses the commandment (the law), but really "lifts himself up against" God himself, "seeking to attain his goal apart from God" (GS 13). In this way we can find at the root of every actual sin the echo, distant perhaps, but nonetheless real, of those words which were at the basis of the first sin. The words of the tempter presented disobedience to God as a way of being like God; of knowing, like God, "good and evil."

However, as we have already said, even in actual sin, when it is a case of grave (mortal) sin, man chooses himself in opposition to God. He chooses the creature in place of the Creator, and he rejects the Father's love as did the prodigal son in the first phase of his foolish adventure. To a certain extent every human sin is an expression of that "mystery of iniquity" (2 Thess 2:7) which St. Augustine summarized in the words: amor sui usque ad contemptum Dei—love of self to the point of contempt of God [3] .

[1]   cf. Summa Theol., I-II, q. 91, a 2; q. 94, aa. 5-6

[2]   cf. Mk 14:24; Mt 26:28; 1 Cor 11:25; Lk 22:20

[3]   De Civitate Dei, XIV, 28, PL 41, 436