As Christians, we can argue that we are more than animals -- but we cannot claim to be less. If we leave God out of the picture for a moment, our behavior is 100% the result of two factors, genetics and conditioning -- same as that for any other animal. From the time we are conceived to the time we die, we behave in the way our species evolved (or was created, if you prefer) to survive -- and we can do that as well as any other animal. It we were any less adept, our species would have went extinct.
Physically, we are nothing special. In fact, we are physically inferior to many other species. We are more clever, but that does not make us any more special to hound dogs than it makes hound dogs special to goldfish. If there is anything that makes us "better", or more "special" than other animals, it will have to be something more than our bodies or brains. So, what else is there?
I believe it is our ability to deny our selfish instincts and conditioning. No other species has ever been observed to do this. We know a bitch will sometimes sacrifice her life defending her litter. However, this is purely instinctive and required for the perpetuation of her species. It is not a sacrificial decision she makes.
We've heard stories of dogs that "gave" their own life for their human masters. This sounds like a sacrificial decision, but is it? It certainly is a sacrifice, but was it one the dog decided upon -- or was it the result of the dog's genetics and/or conditioning? Dogs are descended from wolves who live, hunt, and fight together as a pack. It is their instinct to defend each other. Dogs make wonderful companions and protectors because we become members of their pack. Although it may appear to be a "choice" on their part to sacrifice themselves for us, it is not. A dog's sacrificial behavior is due to it's hardwired instincts.
Only one species of animal can "decide" to deny its survival instincts and/or conditioning for the sake of another animal -- Homo sapiens. God said that He made our species in His image. If the only way we uniquely differ from other species is in our ability to sacrifice ourselves for others, that must be what "in His image" means. It would explain why love (which requires self-sacrifice) is such an important issue in the Bible , to the point of being exemplified by Christ's sacrifice for us on the cross.
So, what does this "unique-in-the-animal-world" ability to sacrifice ourselves for others have to do with "sin"? I believe that without this ability, sin would not exist for us -- no more than it does for my Beagle hound, Sadie. It's the "much is required from those to whom much is given" principle. God chose to give our species, not Sadie's, the ability to be concerned over the welfare of others. Along with that ability came the responsibility to use it.
Where do we find this responsibility addressed in the Bible ? We find it in the "laws" He gave our species. We understand that the laws were given (as Jesus pointed out regarding the Sabbath) for our sake. Their purpose was to be benefit us -- not to benefit God. They served to protect us from ourselves. They instructed us to deny our natural, selfish animal instincts for the sake of our neighbor.
One of these laws instructed us to not steal. Why? There is nothing "wrong" or "sinful" about our desire to have our neighbor's boat. It is as natural as it is for Sadie to want another dog's bone. It is a normal and natural example of our God-given animal instincts. We don't consider Sadie a "sinner" if she steals another dog's bone. Why should we consider a man a sinner if he steals his neighbor's boat?
It's a sin for us Homosaps because we were given the ability, and therefore the responsibility, to deny our natural instincts for the sake of others. If we do not deny those selfish instincts, we will steal that boat (if we can get away with it). Why would that be a sin? Is it because we break a law? I don't think so. It would be a sin because we hurt our neighbor. To steal his boat, or to bear false witness against him, or to murder him, or to commit adultry with his wife, or to put sugar in his gas tank, or to do any other harmful thing to him is a sin because we hurt him -- not because we broke the law. The only purpose of the law was to prevent us from hurting him. If we love him as we love ourselves, a law against stealing his boat is not needed.
As Paul pointed out, the law was a schoolmaster. It chose a few selfish acts that would hurt others and forbid us to do them. It taught us to love our neighbor instead of hurting him. It did not forbid us to put sugar in our neighbor's gas take, yet we know that would be wrong. Why? Because we know that would hurt him. We don't need a law to forbid it, and we won't be "let off the hook" just because such a law does not exist. This is why Christ could summarize the commandments into loving our neighbors as ourselves.
Hurting our neighbor is the way we "sin". We don't sin by wanting our neighbor's boat or our neighbor's wife. That's part of the "natural man" -- which (as Paul understood) we have little or no control over. We sin when we pander to those animal instincts and take our neighbor's boat or wife. To use another example, we can be angry and "sin not" -- or we can be angry and hurt someone. It's not the anger that's a sin -- it's the hurting someone.
So, what about the first commandment -- the one about giving it all up for God? I believe it is the most misunderstood commandment of all. It is the commandment that has dictated 95% of all Jewish and Christian behavior since it came from the mountain. Our "worship" of God makes up 95% of our "service". It provides 95% of all the words to our hymns. So, what's wrong with that, one may ask? Nothing at all -- if a desire for such "worship" is the reason He gave us the commandment.
We Christians have always considered the "loving God" half of Christ's summary far more important than the "loving our neighbor" part -- but does God? Does He want us spending 95% of our time and efforts on our knees with our hands and voices upraised in praise -- with a mere 5% left over for loving our neighbor as ourselves? If his goal is simply to be "woshipped" for worship's sake, then yes -- but, I don't believe that's the case.
I can understand our desire to worship the Creator "simply because". After all, He's an awesome God. But, I don't think it's the end He has in mind. I don't think it's why He told us to have no other God's before Him.
I believe He requires 100% of our love and obedience for one reason, and it's not to stroke his ego. I believe He requires us to follow the first command to ensure we follow the second. As Christ said about the Sabbath, He made the laws for us -- and I have no reason to believe the "first and greatest" was an exception. If we follow the first, we have no choice but to follow the second.
If we understand that, it will make us change some things in our behavior as Christians. We will be forced to redefine our idea of what it takes to "worship" God. We will worship Him by caring for our fellow man. We will serve Him by feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. We will praise Him in song by singing words that bring hope and comfort to others. Our prayers will change considerably, from "Help us" to "Help us help others".
If we understand what makes us sin, we will put the emphasis where it belongs -- upon loving each other rather than upon obeying laws or traditions of men. If we understand how failure to "love thy neighbor" defines sin, we will understand the real (and probably only) reason it would be a sin for the pastor of the local Baptist Church to drink a beer while preaching a sermon.