Taken from a message given at a conference in 2015: John Piper
Provided in Two Parts: Today, Part 2
What Is the Deepest Root of Sin?
A Definition of Sin
So my definition of sinning is: Sinning is any feeling or thought or speech or action that comes from a heart that does not treasure God over all other things. And the bottom of sin, the root of all sinning, is such a heart — a heart that prefers anything above God, a heart that does not treasure God over all other persons and all other things. Or, as I once tried to express it in a message years ago. What is sin? Sin is:
The glory of God not honored.
The holiness of God not reverenced.
The greatness of God not admired.
The power of God not praised.
The truth of God not sought.
The wisdom of God not esteemed.
The beauty of God not treasured.
The goodness of God not savored.
The faithfulness of God not trusted.
The promises of God not believed.
The commandments of God not obeyed.
The justice of God not respected.
The wrath of God not feared.
The grace of God not cherished.
The presence of God not prized.
The person of God not loved.
Why is it that people can become emotionally and morally indignant over poverty and exploitation and prejudice and abortion and the infractions of religious liberty and the manifold injustices of man against man, and yet feel little, or no, remorse or indignation or outrage that God is disregarded, disbelieved, disobeyed, dishonored, and thus belittled, by millions and millions of people in the world? And the answer is: sin. And that is the ultimate outrage of the universe.
Once Paul has made clear what the essence or root of sin is in Romans 1–3, he now makes clear in the following chapters the magnitude of its power in us. He speaks of sin reigning like a king in death (5:21), holding dominion like a Lord (6:14), enslaving like a slavemaster (6:6, 16f, 20), to whom we have been sold (7:14), as a force that produces other sins (7:8), as a power that seizes the law and kills (7:11), as a hostile occupying tenant that dwells in us (7:17, 20), and a law that takes us captive (7:23). And this powerful presence in us, defines us until we are born again.
“That which is born of the flesh is flesh. That which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6). And Paul adds, “Nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh” (Romans 7:18). What we are apart from new birth, new creation by the Spirit of God because Christ, is the embodiment of resistance to God. Romans 8:7, “The mind of flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.” Because it doesn’t want to. We disapprove of God as supreme treasure. We prefer other things.
So you may lay to rest forever the notion that your sin is mainly what you do or don’t do. It’s not mainly what you do. It is mainly who you are—until you are a new creature in Christ. And even then, for us who are born of God, it is an ever-present, indwelling enemy to be put to death every day by the Spirit (Romans 8:13).
Before Christ, sin is not an alien power. Sin is our preference for anything over God. Sin is our disapproval of God. Sin is our exchange of his glory for substitutes. Sin is our suppression of the truth of God. Sin is our heart’s hostility to God. It is who we are to the bottom of our hearts. Until Christ.
So can such sinners do good works — build hospitals, keep the speed limit, negotiate peace, heal diseases, feed the poor, pay a fair wage? And of course the answer from one angle is yes.
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)
So what did Westerholm mean when he said “human beings are incapable of doing [good works]” (p. 32)? Was he just wrong?
(Reference to Stephen Westerholm’s book, Justification Reconsidered)
No. Because there is another angle from which to look. Another biblical angle.
The other angle starts in Romans 3:10, 12, “None is righteous, no, not one; . . . no one does good, not even one.” From this angle, without Christ we cannot do good. The writer to the Hebrews puts it like this: “Without faith it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6). And Paul puts it like this: “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23).
In other words, the reason some deeds of unbelievers are called “good” in the New Testament is because in the ordinary use of language we sometimes describe deeds according to ordinary human standards. Committing adultery is bad. Not committing adultery is good.
But there is another angle. If not committing adultery comes from a heart that has no love for God and treasures many things more than God, then that act of chastity is not an expression of love to God. It’s not a way of expressing his value. And so it is a dishonor to God. He is neglected, ignored, not a decisive factor, and in that sense the fruit of that heart is not good. Westerholm put it like this: “Where God is not honored, something basic is awry, spoiling even what would otherwise be good” (48).
What this calls for is a radical God-centeredness in the way you think about everything. If God is not central and supreme. If his honor and glory are not uppermost in your affections, then God-ignoring kindness, God-ignoring, truth-telling, God-ignoring generosity will not be seen by you as evil. You won’t have a category for that. That only makes sense if God’s glory is the all-defining, all-pervasive good in the universe.
Paul had to undergo a massive reorientation of his mind when he was converted — a reorientation concerning God and sin and most everything else. He said in Philippians 3:6-8 that before he was a Christ he was “blameless in the law.” That included many good deeds, and the avoidance of much evil. And after he became a Christian, he said, “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. . . . and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:8). In other words, unless all those good deeds come from faith in Christ, they are refuse and loss. That was his new orientation.
The reason Paul says that “whatever is not from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23) is that faith is a receiving of God in Christ as our Savior, and Lord, and supreme Treasure. Which means that actions which don’t come from faith, don’t come from treasuring God over all things. And that’s what sin is — not treasuring God above all things, preferring anything more than God.
Grace Becomes Sweeter
So there I am sitting in my chair in Knoxville, Tennessee last summer, realizing as never before the horrible and glorious truth that the reason my justification, my right standing with God, cannot be founded on 99.99% grace and .01% good works is that there are no truly good works in those who are not yet justified. They don’t exist, and have never existed since the fall. The question for the unbeliever is not, Can you do enough good works to outweigh your bad works? The question is, can you do one good work and contribute that as part of the basis of your acceptance with God? And the answer is no. “No one does good. Not even one” (Romans 3:12).
For all of us, this should be a weighty moment of realization. And justification by grace alone through faith alone on the basis of Christ alone, to the glory of God alone has never been more sweet. I pray that will be true for you. (End)
John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist and most recently What Is Saving Faith?