Archive for October, 2009

Kinds of Idolatry

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
“4. Calvinism
“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.

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Applying the Old Testament

In his book, He Gave Us Stories, Richard Pratt writes regarding application of Old Testament narratives, “To put the matter simply, Christ always stands between Old Testament stories and the church.  Whenever we search for modern applications, we must trace Old Testament motifs through the decisive revelation that took place in Christ.  The content of His teaching, the effects of His life, death, resurrection, and ascension, and the instructions of His apostles lead us to significant adjustments of the original meaning for our day.”  In short, the Old Testament must be understood in light of who Jesus is and what he did.  The danger of ignoring this reality when approaching the Old Testament is two-fold.  On the one hand we may approach the Old Testament as if it says nothing to modern man.  On the other hand we may approach the Old Testament in order to mine ethical nuggets, which will result in prideful moralism.

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The Gospel and The Church

The gospel of Jesus Christ is the good news that Jesus Christ, the sinless Son of God, died as a substitute to pay the price for the sins of his people; therefore, all those who profess with their mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in their hear that God raised him from the dead will be saved.  In this series of articles, we are asking the question, “How does the gospel apply to the church?”  The simple answer is, “Without the gospel there is no church.”

We can talk about the church in a couple of different ways.  We can talk about the universal church, or we can talk about a local church.  The universal church consists of all those from every age and place that rest in the Lord Jesus Christ alone for salvation.  People from every race, nationality, gender, and time period are part of the one universal church.  Some also refer to the universal church as the invisible church.

A local church is a particular congregation of folks that profess faith in Jesus Christ.  In Conway, there are over 120 local churches.  Any local church will contain among its membership some who are not true believers and therefore not part of the universal church.  Also, local churches are necessarily bound by time and location and therefore less diverse that the universal church.  While a local church is necessarily less diverse than the universal church – as it simply cannot contain people from every age or place, it is a grievous situation that the majority of local churches are also less diverse in race and class than the community in which the exist.  Some also refer to local churches as the visible church.

Whether the universal or the local church is in view, belief in Jesus Christ is (in the case of the universal church) and should be (in the case of the particular church), the criterion by which individuals are included as members.  So, “How does the gospel apply to the church?”  Without the gospel there is no church.

Throughout history, there have been churches that have compromised the gospel in numerous ways.  Some have said Jesus was not really the Son of God.  Some have denied that Jesus was born of a virgin.  Some have held that Jesus was not actually sinless.  Some have denied the atoning power of Jesus’ death.  The list could go on.  Those churches that have denied the vitals of the gospel have been referred to as theologically liberal (this is entirely different than being socially or politically liberal).

If the gospel is vital to the church, then redefining the content of the gospel redefines the church. Paul said, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1.8, ESV).  In 1923, J. Gresham Machen, a Professor of New Testament at Princeton Seminary, wrote Christianity and Liberalism.  The premise of his book is that Christianity, that is biblically faithful Christianity, and Liberalism, that is theological liberalism, are not two varieties of the same thing but two completely different things.  Machen was right.  If by Jesus Christ I mean God in the flesh and you mean merely a man then we are talking about two completely different ideas.  One, as God, has the power and authority to save men from God’s wrath, and one, as merely a man, has no more power to do so than you or I.

The Bible leaves no room, on the matter of the gospel, for theologically liberal churches and biblically faithful churches to be considered under the same umbrella of being in Christ.  Either the gospel, as it is given in Scripture, is true, or it is not.  We do not have the freedom to alter the gospel in order to make it true. Either the gospel, as it is given in Scripture, defines the church, or it does not.  We do not have the freedom to alter the gospel to make it fit the church.  And frankly, if the gospel needs to be altered to be true or relevant, why bother?  So, again, “How does the gospel apply to the church?”  Without the gospel, as defined by Scripture, there is no church, only country clubs that don’t serve liquor.

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