On the Law of God 4-6

On the Law of God by St. Philaret the Confessor

On the Law of Godby St. Philaret the Confessor

IV. God’s Law

The task of man's earthly life is preparing himself for eternal salvation and beatitude. To attain this, a man must live in a holy and pure manner - that is, according to God's will.

How can one recognize this will of God? First of all, in one's conscience, which for this reason, is called God's voice in the soul of man. If the fall had not darkened the human soul, man would be able unerringly and firmly to direct the path of his life according to the dictates of his conscience, in which the inner moral law is expressed. We know, however, that in a sinful man, not only are the mind, heart and will damaged, but the conscience is also darkened and its judgment and voice have lost their firm clearness and strength. It is not without reason that some people are called unconscionable.

Therefore, conscience alone - the inner voice - became insufficient for man to live and act according to God's will. The need arose for an external guide, for a God-revealed law. Such a law was given by God to people in two aspects: first, the preparatory - the Old Testament law of Moses - then the full and perfect Gospel law.

There are two distinguishable parts in Moses' law: the religious-moral and the national-ceremonial which was closely tied with the history and way of life of the Jewish nation. The second aspect is gone into the past for Christians, that is, the national-ceremonial rules and laws, but the religious-moral laws preserve their force in Christianity. Therefore, all the ten commandments in the law of Moses are obligatory for Christians. Christianity has not altered them. On the contrary, Christianity has taught people to understand these commandments, not externally - literalistically, in the manner of blind, slavish obedience, and external fulfillment, but it has revealed the full spirit and taught the perfect and full understanding and fulfillment of them. For Christians, however, Moses' law has significance only because its central commandments (the ten which deal with love of God and neighbors) are accepted and shown forth by Christianity. We are guided in our life not by this preparatory and temporary law of Moses, but by the perfect and eternal law of Christ. St Basil the Great says, "If one who lights a lamp before himself in broad daylight seems strange, then how much stranger is one who remains in the shadow of the law of the Old Testament when the Gospel is being preached." The main distinction of the New Testament law from that of the Old Testament consists in that the Old Testament law looked at the exterior actions of man, while the New Testament law looks at the heart of man, at his inner motives. Under the Old Testament law, man submitted himself to God as a slave to his master, but under the New Testament, he strives toward submitting to Him as a son submits to a beloved father.

There is a tendency to regard the Old Testament law incorrectly. Some see no good in it, but only seek out features of coarseness and cruelty. This is a mistaken view. It is necessary to take into consideration the low level of spiritual development at which man then stood thousands of years ago. Under the conditions of the times, with truly coarse and cruel morals, those rules and norms of Moses' law which now seem cruel to us (e.g., "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth," etc.) in reality were not such. They did not, of course, destroy human cruelty and vengeance (only the Gospel could do this), but they did restrain it and establish firm and strict limits upon it. Moreover, it must be remembered that those commandments about love toward God and neighbors, which the Lord indicated as the most important, are taken directly from the law of Moses (Mk. 12:29-31). The Holy Apostle Paul says of this law, "The law, therefore, is holy and each commandment is holy, just and good" (Rom. 7:12).


Answer the following questions.

1. What is man’s task of earthly life?

2. How must we attain this?

3. How do we recognize the will of God?

4. What is our conscience?

5. What are the two distinguishable parts in Moses’ law? Explain them.

6. What is the main distinction between New and Old Testament law?

7. How does New Testament law differ from Old Testament law in its view of man?

V. Freedom of Will

We realize that man bears the responsibility for his actions only when he is free in doing them. But does he have that spiritual freedom, a freedom of the will which is presupposed here? Recently, a teaching has spread, which is called determinism. The followers of this teaching - determinists - do not acknowledge freedom of will in man. They declare that in each separate action, man acts only in accordance with external causes. According to their teaching, man always acts only under the influence of motives and impulses which do not depend upon him, and usually submits himself to the strongest of these motives. The scholars say, "It only seems to us that we act freely. This is self-deceit."

The eminent 17th century philosopher Spinoza defends this opinion. As an example, he spoke of a stone that is thrown. If this stone could think and speak, it too would say that it is flying toward and falling upon the spot which it desires. But, in reality, it flies only because someone threw it and it falls under the action and power of gravity.

We will return to this example later, but meanwhile, let us note the following: The teaching which is opposite to determinism, and which acknowledges man's freedom of will is called indeterminism. This teaching is accepted by Christians, but it is necessary to remember that there are extreme indeterminists, whose teaching has a one-sided, false character. They claim that man's freedom is his full authority to act precisely as he desires. In their understanding, therefore, man's freedom is his complete free-will, authority to act upon his every desire or whim (the Holy Apostle Peter speaks concerning such "freedom" - l Pt. 2:15-16; 2 Pt. 2:19). This is not freedom, of course, this is an evil use of freedom, a distortion of it. Man does not have absolute, undoubted freedom; only Almighty God possesses the perfect and highest creative freedom.

In contrast to such false indeterminism, true indeterminism teaches correctly. Its teaching recognizes that man is undoubtedly under the influence of motives and impulses of the most varied types. For example, the surrounding milieu, conditions of life, the political situation, one's education, cultural development, etc., act upon him. All this is reflected in the features of his moral countenance. In this recognition of the action upon man - and sometimes very strongly - of various external motives and influences, the indeterminists are in accord with the determinists but, beyond this, there is a deep separation. While the determinists say that man acts one way or another only under the influences of the strongest motives, but does not have freedom, the indeterminists recognize that he is always free to choose any of the motives. This motive does not at all need to be the strongest. Moreover, man can even prefer a motive which, to other people, seems to be clearly disadvantageous and unprofitable. The zeal of the holy martyrs serves as an example of this. To their pagan persecutors, they seemed to be fools consciously destroying themselves. Thus, in the opinion of indeterminists, man's freedom is not an undoubted creative freedom, but a freedom of choice; the freedom of our will decides whether one acts one way or another. Christianity accepts precisely such an understanding of human freedom, agreeing with indeterminism. Applying it to the realm of morals, to the question of the struggle between good and evil, between virtue and sin, Christianity declares that man's freedom is his freedom of choice between good and evil. According to learned theological definition, "freedom of the will is our capability, independent of anyone and anything, of defining for ourselves concerning good and evil."

Now we can immediately set aside Spinoza's example of the falling stone. We realize that man possesses a free will in the sense of a choice of acting in one way or another. Spinoza considers the actions of the flying stone analogous with man's actions. This comparison could have been made only if the stone had a freedom of choice - to fly or not to fly, to fall or not to fall. But a stone, of course, has no such freedom and the given example is altogether unconvincing.

The insolvency of determinism, which negates the freedom of the will, is evident from the following. Firstly, not a single determinist effects his teaching in practical life. It is clear precisely why. For, if one is to look at life from a strictly deterministic point of view, there is no need to punish anyone - neither the thief for thievery, nor the murderer for murder, etc., since they did not act freely, but were slaves, unwilling fulfillers of whatever motives commanded them and which influenced them from without. This is an absurd but completely inevitable deduction from determinism. Secondly, proof of the freedom of the will is served by the fact of the experience of the soul which is called to repentance, an experience personally well-known to everyone. What is this feeling of repentance based upon? It is evident that it is based upon the fact that the repentant man returns in thought to the moment of the performance of his wrong action, and weeps over his sin, clearly acknowledging that he could have acted otherwise, could have done not evil, but good. Clearly, such repentance could not have had a place if man did not possess free will, but was an unwilling slave to external influences. In such a case he would not have answered for his action.

We Christians acknowledge man to be morally free and the guide of his own personal will and actions and responsible for them before God's truth. Such freedom is a most great gift to man from God, Who seeks from man not a mechanical submission, but a freely given filial obedience of love. The Lord Himself affirmed this freedom, "If anyone wishes to be My disciple, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me" (Mt. 16:24). Again, in the Old Testament He said through the prophet:

"Behold, I have set before thee this day, life and death, good and evil. If thou wilt hearken to the commands of the Lord thy God, which I command thee this day, to love the Lord thy God, to walk in all His ways, and to keep His ordinance, and His judgments; then ye shall live, and ... the Lord thy God shall bless thee ... but if thy heart change and thou wilt not hearken, and thou shalt go astray ... ye shall utterly perish ... I have set before thee life and death, the blessing and the curse: choose thou life ... to love the Lord thy God" (Deut. 30:15-19).


1. When does man bear the responsibility for his actions?

2. What is determinism?

3. What is indeterminism?

4. What is the Orthodox Christian definition of “freedom of will”?

5. How does one prove “freedom of the will”?

6. How do Christians acknowledge man?

VI. The Christian “I”

Living in this world, a Christian is in a constant, lively intercourse with God and with his neighbors. In addition to this, during the course of his whole life, he cares for himself, for his physical well-being and for the salvation of his soul. His moral obligations, therefore, can be divided into three groups: (1) concerning himself, (2) concerning neighbors, and (3) highest of all, concerning God.

The first, and the most important obligation which man has concerning himself, is the working out within oneself of a spiritual character, of our true Christian "I." The spiritual character of a Christian is not something given to him at first. No, it is something sought for, acquired and worked out by his personal toils and efforts (Lk. Ch.16). Neither the body of a Christian with its capabilities, powers and strivings, nor his soul itself - as an innate center of his conscious experiences and as a vital principle - are his spiritual personality, the spiritual "I." This spiritual character in an Orthodox Christian is what sharply differs him from every non-Christian. In the Holy Scripture it is not called a soul, but a spirit. This spirit is precisely the center, the concentration of the spiritual life; it strives toward God and the immortal, blessed, eternal life.

We define the task of the entire life of man as the necessity to use the earthly, transitory life for preparation toward the eternal, spiritual life. In the present instance, this can be said in other words: the task of the earthly life of man consists in that he is able, in the course of this life, to build up, to work out his spiritual character, his true, living, eternal "I."

One can care about one's "I" in different ways. There are people who are called egoists and who cherish and are concerned very much with their "I." An egoist, however, thinks only of himself and about no one else. In his egoism, he strives to obtain his personal happiness by any useful means - even though at the cost of suffering and misfortune for neighbors. In his blindness, he does not realize that from the true point of view - in the sense of the Christian understanding of life - he only harms himself, his deathless "I."

And here is Orthodox Christianity (i.e., the Holy Church), calling upon man to create his spiritual character, directing one in the course of this creativity, to distinguish good and evil and the truly beneficial from the pretended beneficial and harmful. She (the Holy Church) teaches us that we cannot consider the things given us by God (ability, talents, etc.) to be our "I," rather we must consider them gifts of God. We must use these gifts (like materials in the construction of a building) for the building of our spirit. For this, we must use all these "talents" given by God, not for ourselves egoistically, but for others. For, the laws of Heaven's Truth are contradictory to the laws of earthly benefit. According to worldly understandings he who gathers for himself on earth, acquires, according to the teaching of God's Heavenly Truth, he who, in the earthly life gives away and does good, acquires (for eternity). In the well-known parable about the careless steward, the main thought and the key to the correct understanding of it is the principle of making a distinction by contrast between the understandings of earthly egoism and God's truth. In this parable, the Lord specifically called earthly wealth, gathered egoistically, for oneself, "unjust wealth" and ordered that it not be used for oneself, but for others, in order that the reward be received in the eternal home.

The ideal of Christian perfection is unattainably high. "Be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect," Christ the Savior said. Therefore, there can be no end to the work of a man on himself, on his spiritual character. The entire earthly life of a Christian is a constant struggle of moral self-perfection. Of course, Christian perfection is not given to a man at once, but gradually. To a Christian who, through his inexperience, thought that he could attain holiness at once, St Seraphim of Sarov said, "Do everything slowly, not suddenly; virtue is not a pear - you cannot eat it at once." Nor did the Apostle Paul in all his spiritual height and power consider himself as having reached perfection, but said that he was only striving toward such perfection, "Not as though I had already attained, or were already perfect; but I strive for, if haply I might apprehend, that for which I am apprehended by Christ Jesus. Brethren, I do not consider to have apprehended (perfection): but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 3:12-14).


1. Moral obligations can be divided into what three groups?

1. _________________________________

2. _________________________________

3. _________________________________

2. Man’s most important obligation concerning himself is ___________________________________________________.

3. What does Luke Ch. 16 say about the Christian “I”? ______________________________

4. The spiritual character in an Orthodox Christian is _______________________________


5. The spirit strives toward ___________________________________________________.

6. The task of man’s earthly life is: _____________________________________________

7. The ideal of Christian perfection is ____________________
“Be _____________


8. The entire earthly life of a Christian ___________________________________________________