Taken from a message given at a conference in 2015: John Piper
Provided in Two Parts: Today, Part 1
What Is the Deepest Root of Sin?
So what I want to do in this message is mainly answer the question biblically: What is sin? What is the essence and root of all sinning?
Let’s go for deepest root immediately. I want to find out if we humans are so sinful that apart from the grace of God in Christ we cannot do any good works at all. It’s a pressing question, because you know that you call much of what unbelievers do “good” — build hospitals, keep the speed limit, negotiate peace, heal diseases, feed the poor, pay a fair wage, and on and on. And the Bible itself says that ordinary people without reference to their faith can do good works.
Rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval. (Romans 13:3)
The most penetrating and extensive treatment of sin in the Bible is Romans 1–3. And even when the word isn’t used, we know that is what Paul is dealing with because when he comes to summarize it he says, “What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin” (Romans 3:9). And he leaves no doubt about his conclusion in the next verse: “None is righteous, no, not one” (verse 10) and in verse 12, “No one does good, not even one.”
So we back up then to Romans 1 in search of the essence of sin. By essence I mean: What’s at the bottom of it? What makes all sinful actions sinful? What is wrong with us at our core that gives rise to so many different kinds of evil?
You might say: Why do you even think that way? Why don’t you just assume that sin is what we do? Why do you go beneath the doing to a root or a condition or a so-called depravity?
The reason I go beneath our doings to a root of depravity is because Paul does. And he does so not incidentally but vigorously and forcefully. Paul sees that the essence or the root all sinning is a presence, a force, in us, part of who we are, called sin. For example, in Roman 7:8 he says, “Sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness.”
Now everyone agrees that covetousness is a sin. “Thou shalt not covet” (Exodus 20:17). It’s a sin in the heart. A heart-sin that might produce outward sinning like stealing. But notice, Paul says, “Sin produced covetousness.” Well, covetousness is sin. Right. And so there is a sin beneath sin that produces sin. That’s what I want to see. I want to know at the root what is wrong with me. What is at the bottom of all my evils? And all the evils in the world?
Let’s go to Romans 1 and start with verse 18, “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness (adikian) suppress the truth.” Here mankind in general is described as “ungodly and unrighteous.” John says in 1 John 5:17, “All unrighteousness (adikia) is sin.” So we are talking about sin here. And Paul choses to talk about it first in terms of ungodliness and unrighteousness.
And the first thing he says about it is that is that it causes people to suppress the truth. Sin repels the light of truth and runs to the darkness of falsehood. Jesus said that we are guilty sinners not because we are victims of the darkness but because we are lovers of the darkness. John 3:19, “Light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light.” So sin by nature inclines and empowers us to suppress the truth.
What truth particularly does sin hate? The next verse tells us. Romans 1:19. The reason we know that men suppress the truth is “Because what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.” Knowledge of God is repulsive to sin. So, Paul says, when this knowledge is suppressed, we have no excuse. Why? Verses 20–21: “So they are without excuse. For [because] although they knew God, they did not glorify him as God or give thanks to him.”
So the root of suppressing the knowledge of God is the desire to avoid glorifying and thanking God. Sin does not love to glorify God. Sin does not love to thank God. Sin hates glorifying God and thanking God. That’s what “ungodly” meant in verse 18. In “ungodliness and unrighteousness,” he said, we suppress the truth — namely, the truth that God is infinitely worthy of glory and thanks from our hearts. Sin hates that and therefore suppresses that truth.
But sin is not just a hater. Sin is a lover. When the hated truth is suppressed, the loved lie is embraced. This is described over and over in the rest of chapter 1. Look at verse 22–23: “Claiming to be wise, they (that is, those who suppress the truth and have darkened hearts) have became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images.” They don’t just bury truth; they embrace alternative lovers. There’s no vacuum. When the real God is rejected, images are embraced. They “exchanged the glory of God for images.” Sin hates the real God and loves his God-substituting images.
Is this the root of sinning? And if there ever was an age devoted to images, it is our age. We spend most of our leisure time looking at images. Watch how Paul describes now the relationship between this exchange, this suppressing of true God and this embracing of replacement gods—the relationship between that, and the outpouring of sinning in the world.
Verse 24: “Therefore [because of this exchange in verse 23] God gave them up in the lusts [desires] of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves.” Because of the exchange of verse 23, God goes hands off and godlessness and unrighteousness of the human heart goes unrestrained into sinning.
And lest we missed the connection between verses 23 and 24 (the root of suppressing God and the shoot of impurity of life), he states it again in the connection between verse 24 and 25.
Why did “the desires of their hearts run to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies” (verse 24)? Verse 25: “Because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator.” The impurities of active sinning have a root. And the root is this: Sin hates the truth of God, suppresses it, and exchanges it for what sin loves and worships. Sin loves to worship and serve the creature not the Creator. That’s the root of sinning.
And just in case we missed it in the connection between verse 23 and 24 and in case we missed it in the connection between verse 24 and 25 Paul shows it again in the connection between verse 25 and 26. Verse 26: “For this reason” — for what reason? For the reason of verse 25, because we exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature — for this reason (now continue in verse 26), “God gave them up to dishonorable passions.” The flood of dishonorable passions in the world, with all their behaviors, has root. And the root is that sin hates the truth about God and worships, serves, loves God-substitutes.
And, please forgive Paul, if you think he is overdoing it — I said he probes vigorously and forcefully down into the root of depravity beneath our sinning. But he does it here one more time — for a fourth time (not only the connection between verse 23 and 24, and 24 and 25, and 25 and 26) but now look at verse 28. “And since (or “just as”) they did not see fit [or did not approve, edokimasan] to have God in their knowledge, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.”
“They did not see fit to acknowledge God,” is, I think, a bland translation that would be more forcefully rendered, “They did not approve to have God in their knowledge.” The truth of God comes to them from every direction and they feel, “I don’t approve of you! I don’t want you. I don’t like you. I will not let you in as part of my knowledge.” And then comes the connection that we have seen four times now: So, “God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.”
Notice two crucial terms: because they prefer lies to truth (verse 25) and images to God (verse 23), therefore God hands them over to “a debased mind.” Another good translation of debased would be depraved. So if you are ever wondering: Where does that idea of human depravity come from, here is one answer. Without redeeming grace through Jesus Christ, we are handed over to a mental depravity that does not want God.
And the second crucial term to notice in verse 28 is “to do what ought not to be done.” “God gave them up to a depraved mind to do what ought not to be done.” This depravity that does not want God does things that ought not to be done. In other words the root of sinful action is a sinful nature. And the bottom of the sinfulness of the sinful nature is: We don’t like the true and living God. We suppress truth that leads to him. We exchange his glory for images. We disapprove of having him in our knowledge. We have a deep, unshakeable, compelling preference for other things rather than God. That is the bottom.
So, when we get to the end of Paul’s analysis and indictment of our condition and he starts to turn to the great work of God to save us from our sin and from his wrath against our sin, we are not surprised that we would sum it up with these words in Romans 3:23, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” The word for “fall short” is literally “lack” (husterountai). What does this mean?
Well, if you come short of something you lack it. You don’t have it. But you can lack, or come short of, or not have, something in more than one way. So here we come short of or lack the glory of God. Does that mean: Come short of being glorious with the glory of God? Or does it mean come short of having God’s glory as our supreme treasure — our highest perspective?
Now we know from Romans 8:17 that if we have the glory of God as our supreme treasure, we will be glorified with the glory of God. But what is meant here? What’s the focus of Romans 3:23? And my answer is: He means that all have sinned, that is all have come short of embracing God as our supreme treasure. And the reason I think that’s what he means is because that is what he has said at least four times leading to this conclusion.
Romans 1:18, we suppress the truth about God. Romans 1:21, we don’t glorify him or thank him. Romans 1:23, we exchange his glory for images. Romans 1:25, we exchange the truth about God for a lie. We worship — we stand in awe of what God made, not God. Romans 1:28, we disapprove of having the true God in our knowledge. We don’t want him. We prefer others things and other persons more than God. He is not our supreme treasure. We have come short of this: knowing, cherishing, prizing, loving, treasuring God above all things. That is the essence of our sinful condition and that is the root of all sinful action. This is the bottom. (Continued, Conclusion, Part 2 tomorrow).