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.

The Creature’s Psalm

Psalm 131 is a short psalm containing only three verses. And yet, it is crammed full of great creation theology. With brevity, the psalmist captures the heart of what it means to be a creature before God. He presents a pathway to peace, an alternative to a frantic existence. Take a look at the text.

“O Lord, my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me. O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time forth and forevermore.”

The psalmist has embraced his human boundaries. He knows the limits of his capacity, ability, and influence. His words are an affirmation, an acceptance, as it were, of his very nature. It is as if he said, “I know I am a human being and I embrace all that entails. I find peace within the confines of my humanity…for it is here that I rest in my Creator and relish in being his creature.”

The text implies that the root of anxiety is the transgression of creaturely boundary. It is in occupying ourselves with things that belong to God that we are made restless and worrisome. We try to control what we cannot. We attempt to change things beyond our power. We grasp for knowledge that is above us. We seat ourselves on the divine throne though our feet cannot touch the ground.

Joseph Alexander states, “The great and wonderful things meant are God’s secret purposes, and sovereign means for their accomplishment, in which man is not called to cooperate, but to acquiesce.” Operating beyond our bounds will inevitably run us down. It’s like putting a four cylinder engine in a semi truck. On the other hand, rest comes from refusing to be anything but human.

The truth of this text also helps us to think realistically about the reach of our influence, the impact of our abilities, and the aspirations of our hearts. John Calvin has some helpful comments in this vein.

“In this he teaches us a very useful lesson, and one by which we should be ruled in life — to be contented with the lot which God has marked out for us, to consider what he calls us to, and not to aim at fashioning our own lot ­ to be moderate in our desires, to avoid entering upon rash undertakings, and to confine ourselves cheerfully within our own sphere, instead of attempting great things…the question, therefore, was not whether the lot of David was mean or exalted; it is enough that he was careful not to pass beyond the proper bounds of his calling…those who, like David, submit themselves to God, keeping in their own sphere, moderate in their desires, will enjoy a life of tranquillity and assurance.”

Charles Spurgeon addresses this same issue from his own angle.

“It is well so to exercise ourselves unto godliness that we know our true sphere, and diligently keep to it. A man does well to know his own size. Ascertaining his own capacity, he will be foolish if he aims at that which is beyond his reach, straining himself, and thus injuring himself. Such is the vanity of many men that if a work be within their range they despise it, and think it beneath them: the only service which they are willing to undertake is that to which they have never been called, and for which they are by no means qualified.”

Spurgeon also adds that this psalm is “one of the shortest Psalms to read, but one of the longest to learn.” Indeed, being human is the hardest thing for humans to do. It is this reality that made the incarnation necessary. The gospel is about making us human once again, for it puts to death our attempts to be more than human and releases us from all that makes us less than human. Sin within either works to exalt or degrade our humanity. God’s grace engages both impulses, suffocating them and replacing them with new desires. These new creation impulses created through the gospel are not exceptional, they are mundane. They are desires to be a human being—trusting the Creator and roaming in the freedom of being a creature.

Salvation by Vocation (1)

At the outset, let me say that I believe that salvation is the gift of God accomplished for us by the Triune God. We add nothing to his saving grace. The provocative title of this post is intended to draw the doctrine of vocation into the orbit of how God works out his saving purposes in us by means of our specific stations in life. Vocation is God’s chosen arena for extending his grace to us and through us.  God progressively sanctifies us, perseveres our faith, and pounds out our salvation in the present by our vocations. I believe this is a sound biblical assumption. To get at this idea, I have chosen an intriguing scriptural entry point: 1 Timothy 2:15.

The context of this verse is about leadership and teaching in the local church. Paul establishes the proper parameters for both men and women in this regard from God’s creational intentions. He also touches on the dynamics of the fall narrative in relation to both Adam and Eve. Then Paul transitions with this statement,  “Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.”

This is a strange verse at first glance. Some have argued that it is one of the most baffling texts in the New Testament.[1] There is much debate over every aspect of this text. In my opinion, there are definite challenges in the interpretation of the text, but there is one view and interpretation that seems straightforward, simple, and sound.

The gist of the view is that this text is speaking of the unique vocation of a woman in her ability to bear and raise children. I want to provide you a selection of quotes from a few solid biblical interpreters who hold this position. Here are the thoughts of Martin Luther from his lectures on 1 Timothy.

“It is a very great comfort that a woman can be saved by bearing children, etc. That is, she has an honorable and salutary status in life if she keeps busy having children. We ought to recommend this passage to them, etc. She is described as ‘saved’ not for freedom, for license, but for bearing and rearing children. Is she not saved by faith? He goes on and explains himself: bearing children is a wholesome responsibility, but for believers. To bear children is acceptable to God. He does not merely say that bearing children saves; he adds: if the bearing takes place in faith and love, it is a Christian work . . . This is the comfort for married people in trouble: hardship and all things are salutary, for through them they are moved forward toward salvation and against adultery.”

John Calvin writes this from his commentary on 1 Timothy.

“To censorious men it might appear absurd, for an Apostle of Christ not only to exhort women to give attention to the birth of offspring, but to press this work as religious and holy to such an extent as to represent it in the light of the means of procuring salvation. Nay, we even see with what reproaches the conjugal bed has been slandered by hypocrites, who wished to be thought more holy than all other men. But there is no difficulty in replying to these sneers of the ungodly. First, here the Apostle does not speak merely about having children, but about enduring all the distresses, which are manifold and severe, both in the birth and in the rearing of children.

Secondly, whatever hypocrites or wise men of the world may think of it, when a woman, considering to what she has been called, submits to the condition which God has assigned to her, and does not refuse to endure the pains, or rather the fearful anguish, of parturition, or anxiety about her offspring, or anything else that belongs to her duty, God values this obedience more highly than if, in some other manner, she made a great display of heroic virtues, while she refused to obey the calling of God. To this must be added, that no consolation could be more appropriate or more efficacious than to shew that the very means (so to speak) of procuring salvation are found in the punishment itself.”

Andreas Kostenberger made this statement in  an article he wrote on the topic.

“The view that has found considerable support among commentators in recent years is the one that interprets the reference to “childbearing” in 1 Tim 2:15 as a synecdoche. Women, it is held, will be spiritually saved by adhering to their God-ordained role in the domestic sphere. The future tense of σωθήσεται is usually taken to refer to women’s eschatological salvation at Christ’s second coming. As has been seen above, this was essentially the view of John Calvin, and many conservative interpreters such as Alford, Barclay, Bowman, Foh, Hendriksen, Kelly, Moo, Schreiner, Scott, White, and Witherington follow this approach.

Of all the interpretations surveyed thus far, this reading perhaps does most justice to the text in context. Moreover, this view is attractive particularly for conservative (and here especially Re­ formed) interpreters since it appears to harmonize well with Pauline theology elsewhere…Moreover, in line with 1 Timothy 5:14, one should view procreation as merely the core of the woman’s responsibility that also entails, not merely the bearing, but also the raising of children, as well as managing the home (synecdoche; cf. also Titus 2:4-5). The sense of the injunction in the present passage is thus that women can expect to escape Satan under the condition of adhering to their God-ordained role centering around the natural household.”[2]

You get the thrust. These interpreters hold that Paul is articulating an important principal about vocation. God calls us all to unique things and he uses these things to work out his saving purposes in our lives. John Calvin actually uses the language of vocation as he thinks about this text. He states, “Let us who know to what end we are made learn to bear the yoke God has laid upon us, i.e., let everyone of us follow his vocation.” Women are in a unique position to have children and raise them up. It is not given to men to bear children; this is a glorious gift that belongs to women alone. And it is one arena where God is at work in a powerful way.

Terri Moore wrote a helpful 90 page dissertation on this one verse. She concludes that the interpretation we have been discussing is the most faithful to the context, the book of 1 Timothy, and Pauline theology. She makes this statement in her conclusion about the saving significance of the vocation of child rearing.

“Many women have testified that the responsibilities of motherhood bring a depth to the spiritual life of a woman that no other duty brings. The task of nurturing and caring for the life God has graciously given is a sanctifying process that deepens the desire to live a godly life and the necessary dependence upon God for the power to lead such a life.”

A few qualifications are necessary at this point. First, I believe that underneath Paul’s teaching is a principal. That principal is that God works his saving, sanctifying, and persevering grace into the lives of his followers through their specific stations of life. In my view, this verse points to a much broader topic that is applicable to everyone in the human race. Second, this text does not mean that women who are unable to have children or choose not to have children are outside of the saving influences of God. This is a principal not a command. There are many other vocations that women participate in outside of child rearing where God is pleased to work his salvation. Proverbs 31 is a case in point on this topic.

I have been long winded….I will pick this up in the next post. There we will build on what we have discussed here. Any thoughts, disagreements, or comments on this topic? It is an intriguing one to me.

[1] David Kimberley, “1 Tim 2:15: A Possible Understanding of a Difficult Text,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (35:4, 1992), p 481-486.

[2] Andreas Kostenberger, “Ascertaining Women’s God-Ordained Roles: An Interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:15,” Bulletin of Biblical Research 7 (1997): 1-38.