The Root Of All Sin
Temptation is a false promise–a promise that doesn’t deliver. When we give into temptation, we are believing a lie. In the moment that we’re being tempted to do something, say something, or believe something, there is a deeper temptation happening under the surface. This may come as a surprise to you, but temptation has more to do with belief than it does behavior. Every temptation to sin (going all the way back to the Garden of Eden) is, at it’s root, a temptation to disbelieve the gospel. Gerhard Forde puts it this way:
The sin to be ultimately expelled is our lack of trust, our unbelief.
When we are being tempted, we are being enticed to purchase something we think we need in order to escape the judgement of emptiness. On the surface, the bait might be lust, anger, greed, self-pity, defensiveness, entitlement, revenge, having to win, and so on. But the only reason we take the bait is because we think it will satisfy our deeper hunger for meaning, freedom, validation, respect, empowerment, affection, a sense of identity, worth, and so on.
So, here’s the connection between sinning (the fruit of the problem) and unbelief (the root of the problem): our failure to lay aside the sin that so easily entangles is the direct result of our refusal to believe in the rich provisional resources that are already ours in Christ–we’re not believing that, by virtue of our Spirit-wrought union with Christ, everything we need and long for, we already possess. John Calvin rightly said that, “Christians are in perpetual conflict with their own unbelief.”
This is why when Jesus was asked in John 6:28, “What must we do to be doing the works of God?” he answered, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him who he sent.” Jesus was making the indisputable point that unbelief is the force that gives birth to all of our bad behavior and every moral failure. It is the root. While the disciples located godliness in something they must do, Jesus pointed them back to himself–the One who came to do for them what they could never do for themselves. “Believe in me.”
In the preface to Martin Luther’s commentary on Romans, he writes:
…only unbelief is called sin by Christ, as he says in John 16, “The Spirit will punish the world because of sin, because it does not believe in me.” Furthermore, before good or bad works happen–which are the good or bad fruits of the heart–there has to be present in the heart either faith or unbelief–the root, sap and chief power of all sin. That is why, in the Scriptures, unbelief is called the head of the serpent which the offspring of the woman (that is, Christ) must crush, as was promised to Adam in Genesis 3.
Believing that “it is finished”, that everything we need in Christ is already ours and therefore we need nothing more, is the hardest thing (so much harder than modifying our behavior) because we are all seasoned “do-it-yourselfers.” Self-salvation engineers (that’s all of us) find it much easier to make a moral “to-do” and “not-to-do” list and try to live by it, then they do trusting, believing, and resting wholly in the work and provision of Another. “To be convinced in our hearts”, said Luther, “that we have forgiveness of sins and peace with God by grace alone is the hardest thing” because “the sin underneath all sins is the lie that we cannot trust the love and grace of Jesus and that we must take matters into our own hands.”
Failing to believe the gospel leads to slavery because now finding peace, joy, meaning, and satisfaction is up to me. I’m on my own. This is why we give into temptation–we’re desperately looking under every rock and behind every tree searching for something to make ourselves happy, something to save us, something to set us free.
The gospel declares that I don’t need to save myself, defend myself, legitimize myself, justify myself, free myself, or in any other way, ensure that the ultimate verdict on my life is pass and not fail. The gospel frees me from the obsessive pressure to avoid the judgement of joylessness, the enslaving demand to find happiness. Walker Percy has described humanity as waiting for news. Christianity announces that the news has come: I’m not on my own. It’s not on me. We all know that “further, better, and more aggressive living” on our part isn’t producing life for us, and so the gospel comes as good news to those who have crashed and burned. What I need and long for most has come from outside of me–from “above the sun”–in the person of Jesus.
Real freedom in “the hour of temptation” happens only when the resources of the gospel smash any sense of need to secure for myself anything beyond what Christ has already secured for me.
Like the father of the boy with the unclean spirit in Mark 9, let us cry out daily, “I believe; help my unbelief!”