For far too long, this has been my definition of sin: “The breaking of God’s commands.” Somehow, I got it in my head that sin was either active rebellion or my passive indifference to the law of God. God has high standards of conduct, and if we "fall short," or “miss the mark” of that moral conduct, we have sinned. I had defined sin in juridical terms. The problem with humanity is that we can never live up to God’s “glorious standards,” so God, as just Judge, must sentence us to a destiny in Hell. But God, as merciful Savior through Jesus Christ, lived the perfect life of obedience to the moral law and then died the death that we each deserve because we all fall short of that perfection. Those who place their trust in this juridical transaction are saved from Hell and assured of Heaven.
It all sounds so biblical—it’s straight out of Romans. But it is not the whole story.
Leonard Sweet, in his incredible book, Out of the Question…Into the Mystery, defines sin this way: “Sin is a relational concept. It is a violation of and damage done to our relationship with God and others and ourselves. God’s grace is the gift of relationship. Both sin and grace are defined biblically more in relational than juridical terms…Sin is not a breaking of commands; sin is a breaking of relationships. When we sin we do not break stone-bound laws, but heart-carved love.” (pp. 144-45)
So, God’s commands are given to ensure relationship. I recently had my kids draw their own stone tablets of the Ten Commandments. Trey, my six-year-old, asked me why these commandments were so important. I thought, “What a great question!” I said to him, “the first four commandments tell us how we can love God—how to have a great relationship with Him. The other six commandments tell us how we can love people—how to have great relationships with them.” He liked that answer better than, “Thus sayeth the Lord!”
There is a reason for the commands; there is a reason for God’s law. They are there to ensure healthy relationships—with God and with others. Sin is the breaking of relationships. That is why Jesus was able to sum up all the commands as simply as this: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength,” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (see Mark 12:28-31; Matt 22:34-40)
If I can move my thinking away from simply “law-keeping” to the more all-encompassing “relationship-keeping,” the law-keeping will come more naturally, for the law is all about relationship-keeping. If I focus on law-keeping and not relationship-keeping, I won’t accomplish either.
Jesus said, "As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends. You are my friends if you do what I command." (John 15:9-14)