Pretty much every Christian would wholeheartedly agree that idolatry is sin. However, when it comes to identifying idols there is far less consensus on the issue. I think this is because we fail to think past the obvious examples of idolatry; we fail to identify the different kinds of idols that we erect and and serve in our own life.
On the most basic level an idol is a false god. Immediately we think of Molech, Baal, Ganesh, Satan, or anything else that is worshipped in place of the true and living God of Scripture. We tend to agree that worshipping a statue of something, such as the Golden Calf in Exodus 32, or worshipping God through a statue of some kind is idolatry. Beyond this, we are less clear about idolatry.
Paul, the apostle, writes in Colossians 3.5 that covetousness is idolatry. When we set our hearts and minds on the things of this world that we do not have, we are building idols to bow down to. When our thoughts are consumed with matching our neighbors and friends possessions with our own, we are setting up idols. When we cannot or will not rejoice at the blessings of others until we have been similarly “blessed,” we are serving idols. When our goal is to pursue a trophy spouse, car, house, job, kids, degree, portfolio, or anything else for the sake of the thing itself, we are proving ourselves to be idolaters.
A buddy of mine, Phil, got me thinking through this issue again. Recently, he posted a short article about idolatry that I found both on target and challenging. To help understand Phil’s point about idols, let me give you a brief bio.
Phil has a great family who faithfully serve alongside him in his work. He is a sharp, educated, reformed minister who can relate the gospel to folks in such a way that the gospel and nothing else is the stumbling block. Phil is a street minister of sorts who serves a large mobile home community. Day in and day out my brother visits with, prays for, and serves the folks of Oakwood. On Sundays, Phil holds services outside (there is nowhere else to meet) where he faithfully preaches through Scripture, expounding and applying the actual text and laying out the gospel with great clarity. With that in mind, here is the list of what he writes about potential idols in his own life:
“1. My family
“2. The gifts God has given me
“3. My college degrees
“5. My eschatological views
“6. My desire to serve the poor and outcast
“7. My style of preaching
“8. Meeting with a church outdoors*”
Unbelievable! There is nothing on that list that anyone would tell him is wrong (unless of course you are an arminian). We would all do good to desire a godly family, a sound education, a solidly biblical theology, etc., etc. How can such things be idols? When we pursue anything, no matter how noble or pious it may seem, for any reason other than God’s glory, we are pursuing an idol.
John Calvin, a 16th century minister, wrote in one of his books, “…man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols.”** Calvin was, to be fair, talking about our desire for a tangible deity; however, his point applies more broadly. We need not limit our understanding of idols and idolatry to carved images that we bow down to or pray to. For many of us, our idols are far more pious than rank paganism. We can make an idol out of anything.
The glory of the work of Jesus Christ, is that in Christ we are freed from serving such base, impotent gods. The work of Christ – his life, death, and resurrection – frees us from the self-gratification of idol worship. If we are in Christ, no longer do we have to bow down to things that are not God. If we are in Christ, we have access, through his blood, to the very throne room of God. As the author of Hebrews writes, “…let us lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb 12.1-2). For freedom, Christ has set us free, may we only bow before the throne of the King.
**John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion vol. 1, ed. John T. Mcneill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, Library of Christian Classics, vols. XX-XXI, (Louisvill: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), 108.