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.