On the Law of God 1-3

On the Law of God by St. Philaret the Confessor

by St. Philaret the Confessor

I. Conscience And Moral Responsibility

OF ALL the beings inhabiting the entire earth, only man has an understanding of morality. Every person is aware that the actions of man are either good or bad, kind or evil, morally positive or morally negative (immoral). By these concepts of morality, man immeasurably differs from all animals. Animals behave as is characteristic of them by nature, or else if they have been trained, in the way they are taught. But they have no concept of morality and immorality and so their behaviour cannot be examined from the point of view of moral understanding.

By what means does one distinguish between the morally good and the morally bad? This differentiation is made by means of a special moral law given to man by God. And this moral law, this voice of God in man’s soul, we feel in the depth of our consciousness and it is called conscience. This conscience is the basis of morality common to man. A man who has never listened to his conscience, but stifled it, suppressed its voice with falseness and the darkness of stubborn sin, is often called unconscionable. The word of God refers to such stubborn sinners as people with a seared conscience. Their spiritual condition is extremely dangerous and can be ruinous for the soul.

When a person listens to the voice of his conscience, he sees that this conscience speaks in him, first of all, as a judge–strict and incorruptible, evaluating all the actions and experiences of a person. It often happens that some given action is advantageous to a person or has elicited approval from other people, but in the depth of the soul this person hears the voice of conscience, “This is not good, this is a sin.”

In a tight bond with this (action of judging), conscience also acts in man’s soul as a legislator. All those moral demands which confront a man’s soul in all his conscious actions (e.g., be just, do not steal, etc.) are norms, demands, enjoinments of this very conscience. And its voice teaches us how one must and must not behave. Finally, conscience also acts in man as a rewarder. This happens when we, having acted well, experience peace and calm in the souls and vice-verse, after having sinned, we experience reproaches of the conscience. These reproaches of the conscience sometimes pass over into terrible mental pain and torment, and can lead a person to despair or to a loss of mental balance if he does not restore peace and calmness in the conscience through deep and sincere repentance.

It is self-evident that man bears a moral responsibility only for those actions which he commits, firstly in a conscious condition and secondly being free in the carrying out of the actions. Only then can moral imputation be applied to these actions and then do they impute a man either guilt, praise or judgment. On the other hand, people not recognizing the character of their actions (children, those deprived of reason, etc.) or those who are forced against their will to commit such actions, do not bear responsibility for their actions. In the epoch of persecution against Christianity, the pagan tormentors often placed incense on the hands of martyrs and then held their hands over the fire burning on their altar. The torturers supposed that the martyrs would not endure the fire and would jerk their hands away, thus dropping the incense into the fire. In fact, these confessors of the faith were usually so firm in spirit that they preferred to burn their hands and not drop the incense; but even if they had dropped it, who would charge that they brought sacrifice to the idol? On the other hand, a drunkard could not be held as free of responsibility since he began to become drunk while still in a normal and sober condition, knowing very well the consequence of being drunk. Thus, in certain northern European states, a person who commits a crime while in a drunken condition is doubly punished, both for having become drunk and for the crime itself.

That the moral law must be acknowledged as innate to people, that is, fixed in the very nature of man, is indisputable. For this is bespoken by the undoubted universality in mankind of a concept of morality. Of course, only the most basic moral requirements can be accounted as innate, a moral instinct of a sort, but not revealed and clear moral understandings and concepts. Since clear moral understandings and concepts develop in man in part through up-bringing and influence from preceding generations, most of all on the basis of religious awareness. Therefore, coarse heathens have moral norms lower, coarser, more malformed than Christians who know and believe in the True God Who placed the moral law into man’s soul, and Who, through this law, guides all of his life and activity.


Answer the following sentences in complete thoughts.

1. What does man have that no other creature on earth has?

2. What does morality and immorality mean?

3. What is moral law?

4. What is your conscience?

5. What happens when you don’t listen to your conscience?

6. How are some of the ways the conscience acts?

7. What does impute mean?

8. Who do not bear the responsibility for their conscience?

II. The Nature of Sin

All Orthodox Christians know from the Holy Scripture and believe that God created man in His own image and likeness. Therefore, in the creation man received a sinless nature. But not even the first man, Adam, remained sinless. He lost his original purity in the first fall into sin in paradise. The toxin of this sinfulness contaminated the entire human race, which descended from its forbearers who had sinned–just as poison water flows from a poisoned spring. Acting upon the inclination to sin inherited from our ancestors1, each person commits one’s own personal sins, as the Scriptural indictment says, “There is no one who will live for a single day and not sin”2 Only our Lord Jesus Christ is absolutely free from sin. Even the righteous, God’s Saints, bore sin within themselves, and although with God’s help they struggled with it, yet they humbly acknowledged themselves to be sinners. So, without exception, all people are sinners, tainted with sin.

Sin is a spiritual leprosy, an illness and an ulcer which has stricken all of mankind, both in his soul and his body. Sin has damaged all three of the basic abilities and powers of the soul: the mind, the heart and the will. Man’s mind became darkened and inclined toward error. Thus, man constantly errs–in science, in philosophy and in his practical activity.

What is even more harmed by sin is man’s heart–the center of his experience of good and evil, and feelings of sorrow and joy. We see that our heart has been bound in the mire of sin; it has lost the ability to be pure, spiritual and Christian, to possess truly elevated feelings. Instead of this, it has become inclined toward pleasures of sensuality and earthly attachments. It is tainted with vainglory and often startles one with a complete absence of love and of the desire to do good toward one’s neighbor.

What is harmed most of all, however, is our will as the capability for action and effecting one’s intentions. Man proves to be without strength of will particularly when it is necessary to practice true Christian good–even though he might desire this good. The holy apostle Paul speaks of this weakness of will when he says: “For I fail to practice the good deeds I desire to do, but the evil deeds which I do not desire to do are what I am always doing.”3 That is why Christ the Saviour said of man the sinner, “Whoever practices sin is the slave of sin,”4 although to the sinner, alas, serving sin often seems to be freedom while struggling to escape its nets appears to be slavery.

How does a sin develop in one’s soul? The holy fathers, strugglers of Christian asceticism and piety, knowing the sinful human soul, explain it far better than all the learned psychiatrists. They distinguish the following stages in sin: The first moment in sin is the suggestion, when some temptation becomes identified in a person’s conscience–a sinful impression, an unclean thought or some other temptation. If, in this first moment, a person decisively and at once rejects the sin, he does not sin, but defeats sin and his soul will experience progress rather than degeneration. It is in the suggestion stage of sin that it is easiest of all to remove it. If the suggestion is not rejected, it passes over first into an ill-defined striving and then into a clear conscious desire of sin. At this point, one already begins to be inclined to sin of a given type. Even at this point, however, without an especially difficult struggle, one can avoid giving in to sin and refrain from sinning. One will be helped by the clear voice of conscience and by God’s aid if one will only turn to it.

Beyond this point, one has fallen into sin. The reproaches of the conscience sound loudly and clearly, eliciting a revulsion to the sin. The former self-assurance disappears and the man is humbled (compare Apostle Peter before and after his denial of Christ).5 But even at this point, defeat of sin is not entirely difficult. This is shown by numerous examples, as in the lives of Peter, the holy prophet-king David and other repentant sinners.

It is more difficult to struggle with sin when, through frequent repetition, it becomes a habit in one. After acquiring any kind of habit, the habitual actions are performed by the person very easily, almost unnoticed to himself, spontaneously. Thus, the struggle with sin which has become a habit for a person is very difficult since it is not only difficult to overcome, but is even difficult to detect in its approach and process.

An even more dangerous stage of sin is vice. In this condition, sin so rules a person that it forges his will in chains. Here, one is almost powerless to struggle against it. He is a slave to sin even though he may acknowledge its danger and, in lucid intervals, perhaps even hates it with all his soul (such for example is the vice of alcoholism, narcotic addiction, etc.). In this condition, one cannot deal with oneself without special mercy and help from God and one is in need of prayer and the spiritual support of others. One must bear in mind that even a seemingly minor sin such as gossiping, love of attire, empty diversions, etc. can become a vice in man if it possesses him entirely and fills his soul.

The lowest stage of sin, in which sin completely enslaves one to itself, is the passion of one or another sinful type. In this condition, man can no longer hate his sin as he can with a vice (and this is the difference between them). Rather he submits to sin in all his experiences, actions and moods, as did Judas Iscariot. At this stage, one literally and directly lets Satan into his heart (as it is said of Judas in the Gospel),6 and in this condition, nothing will help him except Grace-filled Church prayers and other such actions.

There is yet another special, most terrible and destructive type of sin. This is blaspheming against the Holy Spirit. Even the prayers of the Church cannot help one who is found in this condition. The apostle John the Theologian speaks of this directly when he entreats us to pray for a brother which has sinned, but points out the uselessness of prayer for this sin.7

The Lord Jesus Christ Himself says that this sin–the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit–is not forgiven and will not be forgiven either in this age or in the future.8 He pronounced these terrible words against the pharisees who, though they clearly saw that He worked everything according to the will of God and by God’s power, nevertheless distorted the truth. They perished in their own blasphemy and their example is instructive and urgent for all those who would sin mortal sin: by an obdurate and conscious adversity to the undoubted Truth and thereby blaspheme the Spirit of truth–God’s Holy Spirit.

We must note that even blasphemy against the Lord Jesus Christ can be forgiven man (according to His own words) since it can be committed in ignorance or temporary blindness. Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit could be forgiven, says St. Athanasios the Great, only if a man ceased from it and became repentant. But the very nature of the sin is such that it makes it virtually impossible for a man to return to the truth. One who is blind can regain his sight and love the one who revealed the truth to him and one who is soiled with vices and passions can be cleansed by repentance and become a confessor of the Truth, but who and what can change a blasphemer who has seen and known the Truth and who has stubbornly refused and hated it? This horrible condition is similar to the condition of the Devil himself who believes in God and trembles but who nevertheless hates Him, blasphemes Him and is in adversity to Him.

When a seduction, a temptation of sin, appears in man, it usually comes from three sources: from man’s own flesh, from the world and from Satan.

Concerning man’s flesh, there is absolutely no doubt that in many respects it is a den and source of anti-moral predispositions, strivings and inclinations. The ancestral sin–this inclination towards sin, a heritage from the sin of our progenitors and our own personal sinful experiences: all this added up and each (experience) strengthening one another, creates in our flesh a source of temptations, sinful moods and acts.

More often, though, the source of seduction for us is the world around us, which, according to the Apostle John the Theologian, “is under the power of the Evil-One”9 and friendship with which, according to another Apostle, is enmity with God. The milieu around us seduces us, the people around us do likewise (especially the willful, conscious seducers and corrupters of youth about whom the Lord said, “Whoever causes one of these little ones to stumble and sin, it would be better for that man that a millstone be tied around his neck and he be cast into the sea”).

The enticers are also external goods, riches, comforts, immoral dances, dirty literature, shameless attire, etc.–all of this is undoubtedly a fetid source of sin and seduction.

But the main and root source of sin is, of course, the devil, as the Apostle John the Theologian says, “he who practices sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning.”In struggling with God and His Truth, the devil struggles with people, striving to destroy each of us. He struggles most intensely and with the most malice with the Saints as we see in the Gospel and in the lives of the Saints. We, sick and infirm, are specially defended by Christ against those fierce temptations to which God’s Saints, strong in spirit, are subjected. Nevertheless, Satan does not ignore us. Acting through the enticements of the world and the flesh, making them stronger and more deceptive, and also tempting us by sinful suggestions of all kinds. It is because of this that the Apostle Peter compares Satan with a “raging lion which stalks about seeking whom he might devour.”10

1. Orthodox Christians must not confuse this realization of the effect of the ancestral sin with the sectarian teaching about “Original Sin”. There is no doctrine of “Original Sin”In the Holy Church, for it is not possible to inherit Adam’s guilt. Nowhere do the Fathers mention “Original Sin,”but they refer to the ancestral sin, which caused, as Metropolitan Philaret shows here, not a guilt, but a hereditary disease, namely, the inclination to sin: man’s state of separation from God, etc.

2. cf. Eccl. 7:20; 2 Chr. 6:36

3. Rm. 7:19

4. Jn. 8:34

5. comp. Mt. 16:21-22; 26:33 with Mt. 26:69-75

6. Jn. 13:27; Lk. 22:3

7. 1 Jn. 5:16

8. Mt. 12:31-32

9. 1 Jn. 5:19

10. 1 Pet. 5:8


Answer the following statements with true or false and discuss them with your study group and priest.

_____ 1. We know and believe that God created man in His own image and likeness.

_____ 2. In creation, man received a sinful nature.

_____ 3. Only our Lord Jesus Christ is absolutely free from sin.

_____ 4. Most people are sinners and most are tainted with sin.

_____ 5. The soul of man is most harmed by sin.

_____ 6. The first moment in sin is suggestion.

_____ 7. A vice is not a sin.

_____ 8. A vice is a sin that forges one’s will in chains.

_____ 9. The lowest stage of sin is passion.

_____ 10. Judas (Iscariot) submitted to the lowest sin.

_____ 11. The most terrible sin is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.

_____ 12. Christ says that the sin of blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is not forgiven and will not be forgiven.

_____ 13. For certain reasons, some sins of blasphemy can be forgiven.

_____ 14. Flesh, the world, and Satan are the three sources of seduction.

_____ 15. There are many enticers which are sources of sin.

_____ 16. Man is the source of sin.

III. Virtue

The complete opposite of sin is virtue. Its rudiments are found in every person, as remnants of that natural good which was placed into the nature of man by his Creator. It is found in a pure and complete form only in True Christianity, for Christ the Saviour said: “without Me ye can do nothing.”

Christianity teaches us that man’s earthly life is a time of moral struggle, a time of preparation for the future, eternal life. Consequently, the tasks of man’s earthly life consist of correctly preparing for future eternity. The earthly life is brief and it does not repeat itself, for man lives but once on earth. Therefore, in this earthly life, one must work at virtue if one does not wish to destroy one’s soul. For this is precisely what God’s truth demands of one on the threshold of eternity.

Each Christian, with God’s help, is the shaper of his own earthly life in the sense of its course toward virtue. In order to be virtuous, however, one must not only do good for others, but work on oneself, struggling with his insufficiencies and vices, developing in himself a good, Christian-valued foundation. This work on oneself, this struggle toward moral perfection of man’s earthly life, is indispensable for every Christian. The Lord Himself said: “the kingdom of heaven has endured violent assault and violent men seize it by force.”1

The moral character and features of each person are worked out in such a life-struggle. A Christian must, of course, be a Christian before all else, a person with an established, solid moral character and he must aim for the building of such a character. In other words, he must strive for progress in himself toward moral perfection.

Thus, from a Christian point of view, life is a moral struggle, a path of constant striving toward good and perfection. There can be no pause on this path, according to the law of the spiritual life. A man who stops working on himself will not remain the same as he was, but will inevitably become worse–like a stone which is thrown upwards and stops rising, it will not remain suspended in the air, but will fall downward.

We already know that our sins generally originate from three sources: from the devil, from the world around us lying in evil, and from our own sinful flesh. And since sin is the main enemy and obstacle of virtue, it is evident that a Christian who is striving towards virtue must, through God’s mercy and help, struggle against sin in all its aspects. It is especially needful at this point to recall the Saviour’s words to the Apostles in the Garden of Gethsemane, “keep vigil and pray lest you fall into temptation.The words are directed not only at the Apostles but to all of us, indicating that the struggle with sinful temptations is possible only for one who is vigilant and who prays, standing on guard for his survival.

1. Mt. 11: 12


Complete the following statements by filling in the blanks.

1. The complete opposite of sin is _____________.

2. “Without Me _______ can do _____________.”

3. The tasks of man’s earthly life consist of ____________ ____________ ______ ____________ ____________.

4. Each __________ with God’s help, is the __________ of his own earthly life in the sense of its __________ __________ __________.

5. A Christian must be a _________________ before all else.

6. Life is a moral struggle, a path of ____________________.

7. The struggle with sinful temptations is possible ______________________________________