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Understanding and Overcoming Idolatry

Updated: Aug 7, 2023

“One has only the choice between God and idolatry. There is no other possibility. For the faculty of worship is in us, and it is either directed somewhere into this world, or into another.” Simone Weil Born February 3, 1909, Paris, France—died August 24, 1943. French mystic, social philosopher, and activist in the French Resistance during World War II.

Satan, the father of lies, has done a cunning job of deceiving even believers in our day of thinking that idolatry is something that happened centuries ago or that perhaps only happens today in places like India or Asia where people still bow down to man made idols. Our intent in this post is to unmask his lies and help especially we believers in the West to see and flee from all forms of idolatry.

Let’s start off with an attempt to define idolatry. Noah Webster in his 1828 Dictionary defines it this way: 1. The worship of idols, images, or anything made by hands, or which is not God. Idolatry is of two kinds; the worship of images, statues, pictures, etc., made by hands; and the worship of the heavenly bodies, the sun, moon and stars, or of demons, angels, men and animals. 2. Excessive attachment or veneration of anything, or that which borders on adoration.

Christian leaders throughout the centuries have spoken to the reality and danger of idolatry. Let’s listen in to a handful of them:

Augustine of Hippo defines idolatry this way: “Idolatry is worshipping anything that ought to be used, or using anything that is meant to be worshipped.”

John Calvin wrote, “For what is idolatry if not this: to worship the gifts in place of the Giver Himself?”

A. W. Tozer in his book “The Knowledge of the Holy” wrote these helpful words towards understanding modern day idolatry, ““Let us beware lest we in our pride accept the erroneous notion that idolatry consists only in kneeling before visible objects of adoration, and that civilized peoples are therefore free from it. The essence of idolatry is the entertainment of thoughts about God that are unworthy of Him. It begins in the mind and may be present where no overt act of worship has taken place. “When they knew God,” wrote Paul, “they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened…..Then followed the worship of idols fashioned after the likeness of men and birds and beasts and creeping things. But this series of degrading acts began in the mind. Wrong ideas about God are not only the fountain from which the polluted waters of idolatry flow; they are themselves idolatrous. The idolater simply imagines things about God and acts as if they were true.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, speaking to the idol of materialism declared, “Earthly goods are given to be used, not to be collected…Hoarding is idolatry.”

We will learn much more about idolatry as we jump in the scriptures. As we do that I want to share seven principles or truths relating to idolatry – all from the New Testament.

First, Idolatry is one of the manifestations of our sinful flesh. All unregenerate people practice it to some degree. As John Calvin stated, “Man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols.” Sometimes it is obvious with physical manifestations like the apostle Paul observed in the city of Athens, “Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was being provoked within him as he was observing the city full of idols.” Acts 17:16 Later Paul states that idolatry is one of the deeds or fruit of the flesh, “Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions,” Galatians 5:19, 20 All humans practice idolatry until Jesus Christ invades our lives and sets us free from it.

When Paul was beginning a discussion with the church in Corinth about how God speaks and moves through the gifts of the Spirit he first reminds them of their former life wherein they worshipped things that did not speak at all, “You know that when you were pagans, you were led astray to the mute idols, however you were led.” I Cor. 12:2 Being led into idolatry leads us to our second truth or principle:

Demons are associated or connected to idols. Idols in and of themselves are nothing as Paul declares to the church in Corinth (see I Corinthians 8:4, 10:19, 20a). But Satan and his demons hate God and they desperately do not want humans to worship God. So they lead us to worship elsewhere. They are the ones who draw us into idolatry. Paul spoke to this again to the church in Corinth when he said, “What do I mean then? That a thing sacrificed to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, but I say that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God; and I do not want you to become sharers in demons. You cannot drink of the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot partake of the table of the Lord and table of demons. Or do we provoke the Lord to jealousy?...” I Corinthians 10:19-22 A man made idol is simply that – a man made idol. But the practice of putting one’s trust or security in or deriving one’s pleasure or satisfaction from that idol is inspired and orchestrated by demons. And believers must be sober about this reality.

The apostle John speaks to this in a discussion about end time events and those who despite severe judgments from God still will not repent of their sins (and idolatry), “The rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands, so as not to worship demons, and the idols of gold and of silver and of brass and of stone and of wood, which can neither see nor hear nor walk;” Revelation 9:20 John equated in this passage worshipping demons and idolatry.

Our third principle or truth about idolatry speaks to the eternal consequences of such - - Idolaters will not enter the kingdom of God. People who practice idolatry and who do not repent of it and place their faith and trust in Christ and turn from worshipping idols to worshipping Christ will spend eternity in hell. Both Paul and the apostle John speak to this sober reality:

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals,” I Corinthians 6:9 “….those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” Galatians 5:21

For this you know with certainty, that no immoral or impure person or covetous man, who is an idolater, has an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.” Ephesians 5:5 "But for the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death." Revelation 21:8 “Outside are the dogs and the sorcerers and the immoral persons and the murderers and the idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices lying.” Revelation 22:15

Our fourth principle or truth about idolatry is: Those who would come to Christ must repent of idolatry.

Our God is a righteously jealous God and He will not tolerate our claiming to worship and follow Him while continuing to worship our pet idols. The leaders of the early church wanted all the churches to know this truth:

- “but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood. ... that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication; if you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well. Farewell." Acts 15:20, 29

- "But concerning the Gentiles who have believed, we wrote, having decided that they should abstain from meat sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication." Acts 21:25 All the new Gentile believers in the early church were instructed to repent and turn from any association with the practice of idolatry.

- “For they themselves report about us what kind of a reception we had with you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God,” I Thessalonians 1:9 One of the most clear evidences that someone is truly born again by the Spirit of God is that they willingly and tangibly turn from their idolatry.

Rev 9:20 - “The rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands, so as not to worship demons, and the idols of gold and of silver and of brass and of stone and of wood, which can neither see nor hear nor walk;” They could have and should have, but refused again and again to do so.

So what if there are people attending our worship services, who claim to have turned to Christ and love Christ, but are still practicing idolatry? Our fifth principle answers that question:

We Believers are not to Fellowship with so called Believers who Practice Idolatry

1Co 5:11 - “But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler--not even to eat with such a one.” As God opens our eyes to idolatry in various forms in our lives and He gives us grace to turn from it and be freed from it, we are going to from time to time discover that people in our congregations who claim to love and follow Christ are willfully and consistently still practicing idolatry. Because sin like leaven spreads and infects others as Paul explained to them in vs. 6,7 of that chapter, we are to avoid any ongoing fellowship with such folk until they repent. May the Lord use us to help them do so!

Our sixth principle about idolatry is this: Believers are Repeatedly Commanded to flee from or guard/free themselves from idolatry.

1Co 10:7 - “Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written, "THE PEOPLE SAT DOWN TO EAT AND DRINK, AND STOOD UP TO PLAY." We are to learn from Israel’s bad example in this regard.

1Co 10:14 -“ Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry.” Paul makes clear herein that there is no room or allowance for playing around with or still holding on to a vestige of idolatry. It must be fled from at all costs as if it were a deadly poisonous snake.

2Co 6:16 - “Or what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; just as God said, "I WILL DWELL IN THEM AND WALK AMONG THEM; AND I WILL BE THEIR GOD, AND THEY SHALL BE MY PEOPLE.” God has called us to intimacy with Himself. One of the things that is necessary for us to experience that is not being bound with people who do not know Him and who are thus practicing idolatry. (see vs. 14-18 for the full discussion of this).

Col 3:5 - “Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry.” No matter how long and how intensely we practiced idolatry before we came to Christ or before Christ saved us, we must be convinced of the fact that now that we are in Christ, the power of idolatry has been broken off of us.

1Jo 5:21 - “Little children, guard yourselves from idols.” There will never be a time this side of heaven wherein we can relax on this danger of sliding back into idolatry. It abounds all around us. We can never let down our guard!

Here is our last or seventh principle or truth about idolatry:

While believers must flee all forms of idolatry, we are encouraged to try to reach the lost who are trapped in idolatry.

1Co 5:10 -“ I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to go out of the world.”

Our loving God has called us to seek and love and worship Him with our whole heart, soul, strength and mind. As we learn to do this by His grace and power, we will be ever more conformed to His very image. As we are conformed to His image we will be ever more the shining light in our dark world filled with idolatry. As our light grows so will our needed witness to this lost and dying world around us. As G.K. Beale made clear, “What people revere, they resemble, either for ruin or restoration.”

To sum up, idolatry today in the Western world may not include a person bowing down to or burning incense to an actual man made idol. But most people in the Western world practice idolatry in that they have “an excessive attachment” to things other than God. One of the most obvious idols that I had to get in touch with and be freed from is that of worshipping sports teams or sports in general or even our performance of a given sport. Another I had to get in touch with and be freed from is the worship of ministry success or performance in the church world. Many in the church world worship financial security or prosperity to the detriment of their spiritual vitality and intimacy with Christ. And the list goes on.

So how can we better see and be freed from all forms of idolatry? Well here are few steps that have helped me overcome various forms of idolatry over the years.

First I would say let’s redouble our efforts by the Holy Spirit’s power to find our joy and satisfaction in God alone on a daily basis. John Piper spoke to this when he said, “We make a god out of whatever we find most joy in. So find your joy in God and be done with all idolatry.” Carving out and scheduling more daily time to be alone with our great God is crucial in this regard. The more I actually experience God’s presence and lovingkindness on a daily basis, the less draw the idols of my world will have on me.

Second, we need to regularly remind ourselves of the truth and reality that in Christ we are dead to idolatry as Paul reminded us of in Colossians 3:5 (see above). It’s power has been broken over us. But the enemy of our souls is always trying to deceive us that that is not the case and that we are hopelessly going to always be this way.

Third, let’s humble ourselves and ask others to pray for us to see idolatry in our lives and be freed from it. We all have practiced it and perhaps to some degree are still practicing it. So there is no need for shame or condemnation herein. But there is a significant need to first have our eyes opened to see where we are worshipping and treasuring something other than God Himself and then to “…confess your sins to one another and pray for one another so that you may be healed….”. James 5:16

May our great Savior continue to reveal to us and free us from the sin of idolatry for His glory in His name, Amen!

(Back to fathering in our next post).

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