The Roots of Sin

What is the root of all sin? Is there a root, a foundational sin that led to all others? What was the driving force in Adam and Eve’s choice to make that first fateful choice? This is a question that has been wrestled with throughout church history. Theologians have landed in different places on the question.

Augustine, the early church father (350-434) wrote a book called “Faith, Hope and Love.” In his book, he argues that the tree of sin does not consist of a singular root. He suggests that sin has an entire root system. We are talking about roots rather than a root according to Augustine. Check out what he says.

Still, even in that one sin–which “entered into the world by one man and so spread to all men,”…one can recognize a plurality of sins, if that single sin is divided, so to say, into its separate elements. For there is pride in it, since man preferred to be under his own rule rather than the rule of God; and sacrilege too, for man did not acknowledge God; and murder, since he cast himself down to death; and spiritual fornication, for the integrity of the human mind was corrupted by the seduction of the serpent; and theft, since the forbidden fruit was snatched; and avarice, since he hungered for more than should have sufficed for him–and whatever other sins that could be discovered in the diligent analysis of that one sin.

Augustine identifies no less than six “separate elements” to the Adam and Eve’s first sin. He calls the first sin a “plurality of sins.” When you look closely, he suggests you can discern various roots or underlying factors that marked that first act of rebellion. He identifies these elements.

  • Pride- man preferred to be his own ruler
  • Sacrilege- man failed to acknowledge God
  • Murder- man cast himself down to death
  • Spiritual fornication- man’s mind was corrupted by the serpent’s seduction
  • Theft- man snatched the forbidden fruit
  • Avarice- man hungered for more than should have sufficed

He leaves the list open-ended as he suggests that further analysis would yield even more results. It is not surprising then to find that Martin Luther suggested another “element” when he drew attention to the first sin as an act of unbelief and trust in God’s word. John Calvin argued that unfaithfulness was the root of that first act. Elsewhere, Augustine suggests that disobedience was at the heart of Adam’s sin.

Meditating on this question is helpful for two reasons. First, it demonstrates the interlocking nature of sin and rebellion. In one act, we may well be motivated by pride, fear, theft and unbelief. Meditating on this reality drives us to a deeper appreciation of depravity, which in turn leads us toward intelligent repentance. Second, the movement toward owning our depravity and embracing repentance pushes us toward Jesus. The greatness and diversity of sins roots points us to the glory of God our Savior. If sin is made up each of those components—salvation is the remedy for each and everyone of those failures. Such great sin leads us to such a great Savior.

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All Good Men Were Once Bad

Augustine, the early church father (354-430 A.D.), was on of the most significant theologians in all of church history. In this post I have selected a number of quotes from a few different works.

“Hence it is not the case that every bad man will become good, but no one will be good who was not bad originally.”

“He that becomes protector of sin shall surely become its prisoner.”

“It is this Good which we are commanded to love with our whole heart, with our whole mind, and with all our strength. It is toward this Good that we should be led by those who love us, and toward this Good we should lead those whom we love. In this way, we fulfill the commandments on which depend the whole Law and the Prophets: ‘Thou shalt love the Lord Thy God with thy whole heart, and thy whole soul, and with thy whole mind’; and ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.’ For, in order that a man might learn how to love himself, a standard was set to regulate all his actions on which his happiness depends. For, to love one’s own self is nothing but to wish to be happy, and the standard is union with God. When, therefore, a person who knows how to love himself is bidden to love his neighbor as himself, is he not, in effect, commanded to persuade others, as far as he can, to love God?”

“Now the Apostle, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, says, “Knowledge inflates: but love edifies.” The only correct interpretation of this saying is that knowledge is valuable when charity informs it. Without charity, knowledge inflates; that is, it exalts man to an arrogance which is nothing but a kind of windy emptiness.”

Augustine on the Humility of God

Of the early fathers, Augustine was the premier theologian of humility. Deborah Ruddy wrote a great article on Saint Augustine’s understanding of The Humble God.

She says this about Augustine and humility: “While many of the early Church Fathers spoke of humility as the Christian virtue, no one was more insistent about its primacy in the Christian life than St. Augustine, whose views bear directly on the needs of the American Church at this time. By relating humility to almost every aspect of his theology, Augustine deeply influenced the understanding of Christian humility in the Western Church.”

The following are some helpful excerpts from this article that capture some of the key components of humility in the theology of Augustine. All of the quotations are directly from Augustine.

What is so singular about Augustine’s teaching on humility is that he so clearly views Christ’s humility as more than a moral example to be imitated; it is the central way that our reconciliation with God occurs. Christ’s humility is both salvific and exemplary. It is the way and the truth. Augustine’s distinctive contribution to the topic of humility, then, is his direct linking of humility to soteriology…

On every side the humility of the good master is being assiduously impressed upon us, seeing that our very salvation in Christ consists in the humility of Christ. There would have been no salvation for us, after all, if Christ had not been prepared to humble himself for our sakes…Christ’s humility is a “saving humility.”

Without losing what God is, God becomes what God is not. In Jesus Christ, a new kind of sublimity is introduced, a new way of seeing is discovered—lowliness is inseparable from grandeur; humility is inextricably tied to exaltation…

The humbling of the Word simultaneously reveals the desperate state of humanity and the immense worth of humanity. God’s extravagant self-emptying love revealed in the Incarnation highlights, by contrast, the possessiveness of human love…

In describing Christ’s redemptive work as more curative than juridical, Augustine draws on medical images of “cleansing,” “purifying,” and “healing.” As the medicus humilis, Christ heals our particular infirmity and makes possible our return to God. If human beings had suffered from a different ailment, a different medicine would have been prescribed to counteract the symptoms; humility is the remedy because pride is the sickness…

At the heart of Augustine’s understanding of Christ’s mediation is the joining of humanity to the divinity in Christ’s person: “He has appeared as Mediator between God and men, in such ways as to join both natures in the unity of one Person, and has both raised the commonplace to the heights of the uncommon and brought down the uncommon to the commonplace…”

Augustine describes the wood of the cross as the culmination of the humble pathway to God. The humility of the cross is that which actually moves one to God. In joining their suffering to his, the humble find a direct route to communion with God: “But what good does it do a man who is so proud that he is ashamed to climb aboard the wood, what good does it do him to gaze from afar on the home country across the sea? And what harm does it do a humble man if he cannot see it from such a distance, but is coming to it nonetheless on the wood the other disdains to be carried by.

“To cling to the wood of the cross is to surrender to the movement of God, to travel willingly the road of humiliation prefigured for us in the violent rejection of Christ.” Drawing from St. Paul, Augustine preaches, “Let your faith board the wood of the cross. You won’t be drowned, but borne up by the wood instead. That, yes, that is the way in which the multitudinous seas of this world were navigated by the one who said, But far be it from me to boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ…”

Through his likeness to humanity, Christ joins his humanity to ours, and in this similarity and solidarity “the dissimilarity of our iniquity” is overcome: “The sinner did not match the just, but man did match man. So he applied to us the similarity of his humanity to take away the dissimilarity of our iniquity, and becoming a partaker of our mortality he made us partakers of his divinity.” In this description of an exchange Christology, the humility of Christ carries the promise of our redemption, for through it, the eternal God descends to our mortality in order to invite our ascent to immortality…

The cross, then, is not merely an instrument to salvation; it is the precise way God chose to reveal himself and establish our own return to God…

The foundation of this salvific pattern is humility: “For from death comes resurrection, from resurrection ascension, from ascension the sitting at the Father’s right hand; therefore the whole process began in death, and the glorious splendor had its source in humility…”

I encourage you to click the article link at the top and read the entire thing. I found it helpful and challenging. I believe that a robust view of humility as it relates to the character of God is much needed in our theology. What are your thoughts? Where does humility fit into your view of God?

The Immutable Good

I’ve been reading Augustine’s classic The City of God. He argues that the pinnacle of blessing and goodness is found in the certainty of an uninterrupted enjoyment of God. Listen to what he says.

“The beatitude desired by an intelligent being as its proper end will result only from the combination of an uninterrupted enjoyment of that immutable good which is God with deliverance from any doubt or deception concerning the eternity of its continuance.”

God is the immutable good, in Augustine’s thought, and the most blessed state of a human being is in permanent union with this good. Augustine says that blessedness has two sides to it. First, it is marked by an incessant and undisturbed enjoyment of God. Second, it is marked by a certainty that fellowship with God will never be discontinued or broken. The heart of blessing is an eternal and unthreatened communion with the Triune God.

In the context of his discussion he makes an interesting point by contrasting the experience of the angels who fell with the chosen people of God. The angels who rebelled experienced one side of this coin. They knew an intimate and full fellowship with God. However, they did not know the experience of an eternal unbroken fellowship with him. The chosen of God are promised both. The highest blessedness includes the certainty of never losing connection to the immutable good.