The Law and Sin What is Sin? Romans 3:20

Oct 14/27 2009 21st Tuesday after Pentecost



Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin. Rom 3:20 KJV


It cannot be that perfectly doing the works of the law is of no benefit, since Christ “fulfilled the law [1]”, and in so doing did all the works of the law, not transgressing even once. This must mean that no man CAN do all the deeds of the law. The law, our “schoolmaster [2]” was not created to make us righteous, but rather, to show us how unrighteous we are. The law gives us “the knowledge of sin”.


So what is sin? This is the age old question, which is answered badly by Jews, Gentiles and Christians alike. Most answer this description by referring to deeds done or not done which violate God’s commands. This is true, but the Christian has (should have) a more perfect understanding of sin; it is what transpires because of our human condition, which can only be changed by faith in Christ.


People have a difficult relationship with the law. The law, which is still in effect, albeit in a different way than in OT times, tells us not to do many things. Some of these things may confuse us, especially in our immoral and lax days, when all manner of sexual conduct has been redefined to be “ok” in the eyes of God, and when we see lawbreakers apparently [3] living calm and happy lives. Breaking the law, that is, sin, leads to death [4], but this death is not readily seen.  


It is a tough sell to tell a young person (or an old one who has never learned self-control and gained wisdom in years) to refrain from pleasure, especially when it is not immediately apparent that anyone is being harmed. Murder, theft, adultery – we can understand why these things are sins – they directly harm another person. We have more trouble understanding why a consensual sexual relationship, or even our un-acted upon thoughts (such as lust, jealously, anger) or “private” sins (such as laziness or lack of prayer, are sinful. This is because we do not understand sin. If one does not understand sin, one does not understand the law.


In OT times, the law defined sin and righteousness, with little explanation. There were glimmers of explanation in various places, but for the most part, it defined “don’t do this, don’t do that”. The Jew had a poor conception of sin; for him it caused the wrath of God to fall upon him because of something He did or did not do, which was commanded in the law and animal sacrifice and the shedding of blood was necessary to remove this judgment from him.


For the NT man, the law has been further defined and elucidated by Jesus Christ, particularly in the Sermon on the Mount. With the elucidation of the law, from the example and words of Jesus Christ, sin also has become more defined.


For the Christian, sin is imperfection, incompleteness, sickness, disease.


The law actually tells us the actions that come about as a result of this disease. Most diseases of the body are invisible or not readily apparent until substantial degradation of the body has already occurred (examples are cancer, diabetes, heart disease, which may be present for a long time before manifesting serious and even deadly symptoms). A sick man cannot know what makes him sick without an expert physician treating him and teaching him. We cannot know what makes us sick without the law schooling us.


The OT law tells us to not steal, commit murder, covet, commit adultery, etc. These sins cause us to be separate from God and unable to withstand His majesty, whether we know this connection or not. The OT law merely tells us things commanded to do or not to do, but does not explain the deeper meaning of these commandments. 


The NT explanation of the law further shows us a deeper meaning of these elementary prohibitions. For example, we are told in the OT law to not commit adultery, and our Lord explains the complete meaning of this prohibition by informing us that if we look upon a woman to lust after her, we have already committed adultery with her in our heart [5]. Our thoughts matter. They debilitate us as much as our actions.


St Paul explains that the law taught us the knowledge of sin. All the law does, whether in its OT form, of according to the refined teaching of the Savior, is inform us of the things which debilitate us and make us sick. Having this knowledge is a great advantage, to the Jew [6] or the Christian, but only the Christian can know how to fulfill the law, by understanding his nature, which leads to sin, and how Christ has renewed his nature, making new creature, able (with effort) to fulfill the law.


What then? Are we better than they? No, in no wise: for we have before proved both Jews and Gentiles, that they are all under sin;  (Rom 3:9)


“under” = “hypo” = “subject to”, “under the power of”


Sin is not only something you do, it is something you are! It is weakness, a predilection to ungodly and useless things. It is slavery.


We need to get it out of our heads that sin is some-”thing” that is wrong – we are wrong, and we need to get right! This understanding of sin is mostly a NT one; as we have said, the Jews had a poor understanding of sin.


This is why it is very powerful to FORCE ourselves to do good.


Do you have trouble fasting? Good! Fast (even if you do it poorly – being “bad” at something holy is not an excuse to not do it at all!), and you will gain power over sin.


Do your eyes start to wander when you see something sexually tempting? Good! (but only if you struggle to avert your eyes).


Anytime we deny ourselves, even if imperfectly, we are living in the NT reality that Jesus Christ frees us from sin. We will be made “more than conquerors” if we struggle against sin. This is not a struggle to not do something that is against the law, but rather a struggle to become something, “free indeed” [7] and no longer subject to corruption and death (the wages of sin is death), that is righteous.


With the law we have the knowledge of sin, and Jesus Christ teaches us how to NOT sin, by becoming so strong in our will that we are capable of resisting all sin.



Do you understand that because of your weak human nature you are under the power of sin, and that this is the great tragedy of the human condition? And also, that the only way to overcome the power of sin is to struggle against it, making progress by God’s grace?


Test yourself.


The next time you confess, do not rattle off a bunch of stuff you did or did not do: “I broke the fast two times, I missed my morning prayers, I did not come to church because I was lazy, I become angry, I cursed”, etc.


You sin because you are still a weak person, under the power of sin. Lament the kind of person you are, and not just the things you do, because the person you are leads to the things you do or cannot do.



Priest Seraphim Holland 2009.     St Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, McKinney, Texas


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[1] Mat 5:17  Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.

[2] Gal 3:24  Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith.

[3] One of my favorite sayings is “Things are never as they seem”.  It would be good to remember this when we are tempted to be envious of a person who in some way seems to be better or more fortunate than us, as well as when we are tempted to judge someone as worse than us.

[4] Rom 6:23  For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

[5] Mat 5:28  :But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.“

[6] Rom 3:1-2 KJV  “What advantage then hath the Jew? or what profit is there of circumcision?  (2)  Much every way: chiefly, because that unto them were committed the oracles of God.”

[7]John 8:36  If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed.



  1. Father, Bless

    I have a difficulty before the confession, because I always thought I have “not enough” of this “bunch of staff”, and what I can say about what I did wrong, or, which is more probable in my case – I still cannot notice my sins. But still – when I confess this way, there is always a feeling, quite a torturing one, that something is wrong, that I enumerated the things, but did not purify my soul. It does give a feeling of repentance. As this kind of confession turns into formality, and maybe because of this I have a feeling of guilt. and still something heavy remains in my heart. This is why for me it is more useful & “healthy” to confess “what kind of person I am”, which gives much assistance to my soul. But I always thought that it is not quite right, that I should say only practical things during the confession. Having read your homily, I understood that my tendency to confess what person I am, my weaknesses, sinful inclinations is actually correct. And it was a mistake from my side to try to restrain from this, as for me it always seemed logical that we confess not the symptoms only, but the disease. It’s really a God’s blessing if a person can (at least sometimes!) see this disease in himself! The priests never objected this, but I myself – I don’t know why – considered that I should focus more on actual deeds, sins by action. Really, thoughtless enumeration without thorough analysis, without regretting about core things, without strict observation of our personal fallen nature, cannot be called repentance….Only if we realize how broken & sinful WE ARE, we’ll have a chance to understand what we do, and why we do something sinful. and – with the help of God, the priest, our efforts – maybe improve something in the core mechanism:-)

  2. Natalia, I think confessing the actual sins is useful, too, as it provides evidence (the symptoms) of the disease we are confessing. It is important to understand the difference between symptoms and disease and it is the disease that needs to be cured, not just the outwards symptoms. But, for me, I find that i must confess the symptoms, as well as the disease, as a practice of honesty and humility. Sometimes it is easier to say “I broke the fast” than to say “I am mindless, careless and ruled by my stomach,” But other times it is easier to say, “I do not love my family as I should” than to say “I cursed and struck my son.” In other words, I find it is best to confess both symptoms and disease to avoid the devious attempts of my sinful subconscious to keep me from admitting and confessing how sick I really am.

    Father, Bless,
    This disease model/metaphor for sin is powerful. In the early 1900’s there was a woman in New York who worked as a cook. Unknown to her was the fact that she was a symptomless carrier of typhoid fever. Several people were infected and some died in the households where she worked before the disease was traced to her. However, even after she was told that she was a carrier and that she must stop cooking for people, she refused to believe and continued infecting and killiing people. She was finally forced into permanent quarantine on an island.

    I thought of this story of “Typhoid Mary” when I read your post and when a while ago I read a story of St. Moses the Black. Upon being called to help judge a fellow monk who had fallen into sin, he took a leaky jug of water and trailing water, walked into the meeting and said “My sins trail out behind me and I do not see them–and I come to judge my brother.” Whether I or others see the outward symptoms of my disease or not, I am diseased and whether I see it or not, I walk about shedding the virus of my sinful state continuously.

  3. Thank you, Deborah! Nicely expressed.
    I don’t know why I thought I should keep much from confessing the disease, trying to confess more the symptoms. We really should really listen to our heart, as what you say – sometimes practical things are more difficult to confess, and it all depends on concrete circumstances & sins.

    “Whether I or others see the outward symptoms of my disease or not, I am diseased and whether I see it or not, I walk about shedding the virus of my sinful state continuously”. – very-very true…This is something that I constantly feel – there is much dirt inside me, and I cannot find enough words to express it & to confess it. It is deeper & much more dangerous that I feel I can shape it all in words or concrete actions, as what I feel is – that all sins, symptoms I say or even think – this is far not sufficient…Maybe it’s because I don’t see my sins, but I can feel the corruption of my soul nevertheless.

  4. Thank you Deborah!

    Surely “the lips of the wise disperse knowledge” (Pov 15:7) and “every scribe instructed concerning the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure things new and old” (Matt 13:52 NKJV).

    This is so truly edifying for me. I can see that I am sick in need of Christ’s healing power, and that I should continue to struggle to do His will in all things, though I miss the mark on occasions.

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