As believers in the one true God, we know that idolatry is wrong. We know God hates it. We know first two of the Ten Commandments explicitly demand exclusive worship of the one true God. We even know that idolatry is not merely worshiping a false god, but even worshiping the true God by our own methods. Some of us have prudently made the connection between the first two commandments and the tenth—we know that coveting is a form of idolatry.
We know that idolatry is not merely bowing down to stone and wood fabrications of gods made in our image or even images of the God who made us; we know that idolatry is a matter of the heart. Some of us even quote our theological idol, John Calvin, who affirms the scope of the problem: “The heart is an idol factory.”
Idolatry is evil. We know it. We speak the right words and believe the right stuff. We reject idolatry consciously, deliberately, even passionately.
Come to think of it, we are pretty good at dodging it. Don’t we have a pretty successful track record at idol avoidance? While we believe Calvin’s quip, we really perceive idolatry as someone else’s problem. That is, the rest of humanity produces idols. As God-fearing people, we are . . . well, better than that. When was the last time, after all, that someone caught you bowing your knee to Baal or even to mammon?
After celebrating Christian love and truth throughout his epistle, John’s final words in his first epistle could seem distant, if not even odd, to us. “Little children, keep yourself from idols” (1 John 5:21). Why would the disciple whom Jesus loved end his epistle with such an unvarnished question? A little awkward, one might say. Doesn’t John know we are past the idol problem?
But perhaps John discerns something we may not. Perhaps the Spirit of God knows something about our hearts that we seek to excuse. Perhaps our idol vulnerability exceeds our self-awareness. Perhaps idolatry is not someone else’s sin. Perhaps it really is ours. Perhaps it is mine. Perhaps it is not just perhaps.
Aiming the pure gospel at our hearts, the Apostle Paul, like his fellow apostle-at-arms John, fires with marksman precision at your and my idolatry. In this and the following three Sine Qua Non articles, we will see how he does so.
Paul’s words should make us squirm. I hope they lead us to repentance.