St. Paul grips us with these stark words in today’s Epistle: “the wages of sin is death.” Sin is one of the most misunderstood concepts in Christianity. A whole host of psychological complexes emanate from its misunderstanding. In Catholic and Protestant belief, sin is often identified with legal transgression and guilt. Salvation is understood as derived from justification and atonement, or even, appeasement of God’s wrath.
Indeed, the post-Schism Western doctrine of ‘original sin’ asserts that we’re all guilty at conception of Adam’s sin. According to this perspective, salvation is about becoming individually ‘justified’, righteous, before God. Christ’s death is seen in this light, “paying the price” for our guilt, our sin, to right the scales of justice.
Now contrast this Western doctrine with our Orthodox belief: sin isn’t participation in collective guilt, but rather, ‘missing the mark,’ failing to live up to our God-given calling and purpose in life—to live to God’s glory, indeed, to be glorified as His adopted children, co-heirs with Christ. We’re not created as objects of wrath, but as objects of love—invited into a communion, participation, in the life that God Himself is as Holy Trinity.
Sin is likewise described in the Orthodox faith as sickness for the reason that St. Paul states in today’s Epistle: “sin leads to death.” Why is this the case if it’s not because of God’s just punishment? Because of the freedom that God’s planted in us to be capable of love, of returning and giving love, we must be free to choose or reject that love, to experience that love, which is life with God. Rejection of that life, of that calling, sin, leads us away from relationship, communion with Him who is Life, who created all life, sustains all life—Jesus Christ. In this sense, life apart from God and His life-giving will and communion is truly a ‘living’ death.
The Western concept of sin leads to a dead-end street with no way out in which the goal becomes “an egocentric fear of transgression,” and/or the tendency to gloss over sin or to reach an accommodation with it,” as Orthodox theologian, Christos Yannaras, rightly puts it. It’s as if we’re saying, “O, no big deal, I’m really a ‘good person,’ or, it was only a ‘white’ lie, a little one, or, “everyone does it…” We’ve all heard this before or maybe even said it ourselves.
This kind of misunderstanding of sin leads people to down-play sin and its sad affects on our lives, our personhood, our being with Christ. When the focus is on us, and we have to strive on our own to be justified, being judged by our sins, having upset the scales of justice, then we’re still lost, we’ve no way out, but to pretend that we’re basically ‘good’ people.
If being ‘good’ is the measure of our salvation, then we’re all lost. Christ proclaims, “No one is good but One, that is, God.” (Matt. 19:17). What seems like a “feel good” boost, to ignore sin and its consequences in our lives, actually makes us and keeps us spiritually sick; it ignores our need for God, our need for a real change that leads to our struggle with our passions and to salvation.
Instead, it’s our very real recognition of sin and desire for a change of heart, followed by our confession of that sin, which is the key to our liberation from its slavery, its hold on us, and its resulting separation from God and our fellow man. We call this recognition of sin and our turning from trust in ourselves to trust in God, repentance, metanoia in the original Greek.
It’s only in recognizing the truth about ourselves and our need for God, that we cannot become righteous or ‘good enough’ on our own to inherit life with God that this change begins. It’s in recognizing that we’ve “missed the mark,” that we’ve failed to be who we’re each called to be, that we’ve Someone, to turn to, the God-man, our Savior, Jesus Christ. He heal us of our sin-sickness, grows us in His likeness, saves us from the worst of ourselves so that we can become the best of who you and I are created to be.
By owning and grounding our identity, our self worth, in who we are in Christ God, as called to be a fellow heir with all the Saints, participating in the Body of Christ through the Sacraments, we become step by step through repentance, those co-heirs of Christ we’re called to be.
Existing as an autonomous individual, even a ‘good’ one, doesn’t save us from sin and death. But taking refuge in the Church, participating in the Sacramental life, acting out our repentance through confession, communing with God, sets us free from sin and grows us into the men and women of God, step by struggling step; and this struggle, this repentant spirit, bears fruit to salvation. For this reason, we confess our sins regularly, not to purge ourselves of guilt, but to be set free of their debilitating effect, to be healed of their spreading sickness, to be reunited to Christ God, to be freed to grow in our communion with Him.
Christ says, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted (Matt. 23:12, Lk. 14:11). We see this humility exemplified in the Saints. We think of St. John the Baptist, who says, “He (Christ) must increase and I must decrease” (Jn. 3). And we see this humility in today’s centurion, Cornelius, a great leader of 100 men in the eyes of the State, who says to Christ, “I am not worthy that You should come under my roof, but only speak a word, and my servant will be healed.”
When we repent, we’re humbling ourselves before God, we’re entrusting ourselves to God that He will free us from the weight of sin, cure of its hold on us, and orient us again to life with God, communion with Him; we’re enabled and equipped to live more fervently, more abundantly for God, participating even now through the Sacramental life and in our worship in the Kingdom.
We can’t serve two masters: We’re either slaves to sin and self-justification, in which case, we’re stuck, immobile, or, we become ‘slaves’ of God—that is, we die to self, our self-focus, our egos, our pride, our desire to justify ourselves and we instead allow God to change us and elevate us from slaves to beloved sons and daughters of the Most High. This is where He’s bringing us through our journey of deification.
And so, we take refuge in the Church, where we’re given meaning and purpose for our lives, an identity not grounded on this passing, transient world, but a name, an identity, a purpose that grounds us in God who is alone eternal and changeless. St. John Chrysostom asks in this regard, “Have you sinned? Come to the church and have them cleansed. However often you fall on your journey, as many times as that may be, you pick yourself up; in the same way, as many times as you sin, repent just as often. Do not lose hope or be lazy, that you may not lose your hope in the heavenly good things prepared for us… Here is the hospital; not a tribunal. Forgiveness is conveyed here… Come and see: repentance will save you.”
These are the words of truth given us this day. The Lord said to the Centurion concerning his servant, “I will come and heal him.” With our “yes” to God’s work in our lives, Jesus will come and heal our soul as well, “for the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” No soul open to change and transformation in Christ is beyond the healing reach of Him who is the Great Physician of our souls and bodies.