Sin: Breaking the Covenant with God

Author: Pope John Paul II

In his General Audience on Wednesday, 29 October 1986, the Holy Father resumed his catechesis on original sin, reflecting on man's disobedience as a breach in his covenant with God.

1. In the catecheses of this cycle we continually have before our eyes the truth about original sin, and at the same time we try to look at the reality of sin in the global dimension of human history . Historical experience confirms in its own way what is expressed in Revelation: in the life of man, sin is constantly present, constantly current. On the part of human knowledge, sin is present as moral evil , which ethics (moral philosophy) deals with directly. But other branches of anthropological science of a more descriptive character, such as psychology and sociology, also deal with it in their own way. One thing is certain: moral evil (as well as good) belongs to human experience, and from here all the disciplines that seek to access it as an object of experience start to study it.

2. But at the same time it must be noted that, apart from Revelation, we are not capable of fully perceiving or adequately expressing the very essence of sin (that is, of moral evil as sin). Only having as background the relationship established with God through faith is the total reality of sin understandable . In the light of this relationship we can thus develop and deepen this understanding.

If it is a question of Revelation and above all of Sacred Scripture, the truth about the sin that it contains cannot be presented if it is not by going back to the "beginning" itself . In a certain sense also the "current" sin, belonging to the life of every man , becomes fully comprehensible in reference to that "beginning", to that sin of the first man. And not only because what the Council of Trent calls "inclination to sin" ( fomes peccati ), a consequence of original sin, is in man the basis and source of personal sins. But also because that " first sin " of the first parents remains to some extent the "model"committed by man personally. The "first sin" was itself also a personal sin: therefore the various elements of its "structure" are found in some way in every other sin of man.

3. The Second Vatican Council reminds us: "Created by God in justice, man, however, at the instigation of the devil... abused his freedom, rising up against God and pretending to achieve his own end apart from God" ( Gaudium et spes 13). With these words the Council deals with the sin of the first parents committed in the state of original justice . But also in every sin committed by any other man throughout history, in the state of hereditary moral fragility , those same essential elements are reflected. Indeed, in every sin understood as a personal act of man, a particular "abuse of freedom" is contained, that is, a misuse of freedom, of free will. Man, as a created being, he abuses the freedom of his will when he uses it against the will of the Creator himself, when in his conduct "he rises up against God", when he tries to "achieve his own end apart from God".

4. In every sin of man the essential elements are repeated , which from the beginning constitute the moral evil of sin in the light of the revealed truth about God and about man. They appear in a different degree of intensity from the first sin, committed in the state of original justice. Personal sins, committed after the original sin, are conditioned by the state of hereditary inclination to evil ("fomes peccati"), in a certain sense already from the starting point. However, this situation of hereditary weakness does not abolish the freedom of man, and therefore in every current (personal) sin there is contained a true abuse of freedom against the will of God. The degree of this abuse, as is known, can vary, and the different degree of guilt of the one who sins also depends on it. In this sense, a different measure must be applied to current sins, when it comes to assessing the degree of evil committed in them. From here also comes the difference between "serious" sin and "venial" sin. If serious sin is at the same time "mortal", it is because it causes the loss of sanctifying grace in the one who commits it.

5. Saint Paul, speaking of Adam's sin, describes it as " disobedience " (cf. Rom 5, 19): what the Apostle affirms also applies to all other "current" sin that man commits. Man sins by transgressing God's commandment, therefore he is "disobedient" to God, Supreme Legislator. This disobedience, in the light of Revelation, is at the same time breaking the covenant with God . God, as we know him through Revelation, is in effect the God of the Covenant and precisely as the God of the Covenant he is Legislator. Indeed, he introduces his law in the context of the Covenant with man, making it a fundamental condition of the Covenant itself.

6. Thus it was already in that original Alliance that, as we read in Genesis ( Gen 2-3), was violated "in the beginning". But this appears even more clearly in the relationship of the Lord God to Israel in the time of Moses. The Alliance established with the chosen people at the foot of Mount Sinai (cf. Ex 24, 3-8), has in itself the commandments as a constitutive part: the Decalogue (cf. Ex 20; Dt 5). They constitute the fundamental and inalienable principles of behavior of every man towards God and towards creatures, the first of which is man.

7. According to the teaching contained in the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans, those fundamental and inalienable principles of conduct, revealed in the context of the Sinai Covenant, are actually "written in the heart" of every man, even regardless of the revelation made to Israel. Indeed, the Apostle writes: "When the Gentiles, guided by natural reason, without Law, fulfill the precepts of the Law, they themselves without having it, are for themselves Law. And with this they show that the precepts of the Law are written on their hearts, their conscience being witness and the sentences with which they accuse each other or excuse each other" ( Rom 2, 14-15).

Thus, the moral order, validated by God with the revelation of the law in the scope of the Covenant, already has consistency in the law "written on hearts", even outside the confines marked by the Mosaic law and the Revelation : it can be said that it is written in the very rational nature of man, as Saint Thomas explains in an excellent way when he speaks of the "Lex naturae" (cf. I-II, q. 91, a. 2; q. 94, aa 5-6). Compliance with this law determines the moral value of man's acts, make them good. On the other hand, the transgression of the law "inscribed in hearts", that is, in the very rational nature of man, makes human acts evil. They are bad becausethey are opposed to the objective order of human nature and of the world, behind which is God, their Creator . Therefore, also in this state of moral conscience illuminated by the principles of natural law, a morally bad act is sin.

8. In the light of the revealed law the character of sin appears even more clearly. Man then has a greater awareness of transgressing a law explicitly and positively established by God . He therefore also has the consciousness of opposing God's will and, in this sense, of "disobeying." It is not just disobedience to an abstract principle of behavior, but to the principle in which God's "personal" authority takes shape: a principle in which his wisdom and his Providence are expressed. All moral law is dictated by God due to his request for the true good of creation, and in particular for the good of man. Precisely this good has been inscribed by God in the Covenant that he has established with man: both in the first Covenant with Adam, and in the Covenant of Sinai, through Moses and, finally, in the definitive one, revealed in Christ and established in the blood of his redemption (cf. Mk 14, 24; Mt 26, 28; 1 ​​Cor 11, 25; Lk 22, 20).

9. Seen in this perspective, sin as " disobedience " to the law is best manifested in its characteristic of personal " disobedience " towards God: towards God as Lawgiver, who is at the same time a Father who loves. This message, already deeply expressed in the Old Testament (cf. Hos 11, 1-7), will find its fullest enunciation in the parable of the prodigal son (cf. Lk 15, 18-19, 21). In any case, disobedience to God, that is, opposition to his creative and salvific will, which contains man's desire to "achieve his own end apart from God" ( Gaudium et spes 13), is "an abuse of freedom" (Gaudium et spes , 13.).

10. When Jesus Christ, on the eve of his passion, speaks of the "sin" about which the Holy Spirit must "warn the world", he explains the essence of this sin with the words: "because they did not believe in me" ( Jn 16, 9). This "not believing" in God is in a certain sense the first and fundamental form of sin that man commits against the God of the Covenant. This form of sin had already manifested itself in the original sin that is spoken of in Genesis 3. The law given in the Sinai Covenant also referred to it, in order to exclude it: "I am Yahweh, your God, who has brought out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage. You shall have no other God than me" ( Ex20, 2-3). The words of Jesus in the Upper Room and the entire Gospel and the New Testament also refer to it.

11. This unbelief, this lack of trust in God who has revealed himself as Creator, Father and Savior, indicate that man, by sinning, not only breaks the commandment (the law), but actually "rise up against" God himself , "pretending to reach their end apart from God" ( Gaudium et spes 13). In this way, at the root of all current sin we can find the reflection, perhaps distant but no less real, of those words that are at the base of the first sin: the words of the tempter, who presented disobedience to God as the path to be like God; and to know, like God, "good and evil."

But, as we have said, also in actual sin , when it comes to serious (mortal) sin, man chooses himself against God, chooses creation against the Creator, rejects the love of the Father like the prodigal son in the first phase of his crazy adventure. To a certain extent, all human sin expresses that " mysterium iniquitatis " (2 Thess 2, 7), which Saint Augustine has contained in the words: "Amor sui usque ad contemptum Dei": The love of oneself to the point of contempt for God ( De Civitate Dei , XIV, 28; PL 41, 436).

Copyright © Dicastero per la Comunicazione - Libreria Editrice Vaticana