Idolatry: The Secret Sin of the Heart


Idolatry is serious business in the eyes of the Lord, who demands absolute allegiance from the people of God. After all, there is no other true God, so it is foolish to trust in deities (gods) who cannot save (Isaiah 43:11; 44:6). To refuse to worship the Lord God is idolatry—a grave sin, condemned throughout the Bible (Leviticus 19:1-4; Psalm 31:6; 96:5; Ezekiel 6; 1 Corinthians 10:1-22; Revelation 21:8).

Throughout biblical history, the idolatry that most of the Prophets spoke against was the serving of pagan deities—beings that people worshipped specifically as gods. Those who worshiped pagan gods built graven images of these false gods and constructed altars at high places—sites where they were worshipped within the land of Israel (2 Kings 17:1-23; Isaiah 44:9-20). In this sense, idolatry today exists within Hinduism, tribal religions, and where professing Christian churches gloss over people’s animalistic and polytheistic traditions.

The Heidelberg Catechism Question and Answer 95 defines idolatry as “having or inventing something in which one trusts in place of or alongside of the only true God, who has revealed Himself in the Word.” Idolatry can also be seen in the major monotheistic religions such as Islam, whose practitioners worship the Allah of the Qur’an; and modern Jews, who worship a unitary deity, defined more by rabbinic tradition than by the Old Testament. Both of these religions are guilty of idolatry because they do not worship the triune God of Scripture.

Idolatrous attitudes and practices do not need to be religious, in the sense of being directed toward a defined ‘god’, or need to occur within an organized religious setting. Anything that we love more than the Lord Himself is an idol. Jesus makes this particular point in Matthew 10:37-39, when He rejects any who love their family members more than Him. In Philippians 3:19, Paul identifies some individuals in that congregation whose god was “their belly”; meaning that their physical appetites were so consuming that Paul viewed them as worshipping their stomachs.

Every fallen culture has idols, so Christians must be sensitive to what the world is calling us to worship in place of the one true God. Neither sex, nor power, nor fame, nor anything else deserves the place of supremacy in our lives. Only the transcendent, which is identified as the Lord and Creator of all, is deserving of our ultimate worship.

In John 5:20, the apostle John says, “the Son of God has come,” which refers to the Incarnation of the Lord Jesus. In the Incarnation, the divine Son has come into the world in human flesh. Only those with faith and assurance in the Lord Jesus can embrace the Incarnation without reservation.

John also explains (in 1st John 5:20) that the Lord has “given us understanding.” John’s phrasing is interesting, since the idea of salvation by right knowledge was essential to those countering the apostle’s teaching. Knowledge of biblical Christianity is critical, for we cannot know God without a revelation from the Son (Matthew 11:27); therefore, knowledge is vital for salvation. Unlike the false teaching of John’s opponents, knowledge leading to salvation is knowledge of the Incarnate Christ—a Person. Such knowledge involves not only belief in facts, but also personal trust in Him as Savior and Lord.

John’s point now becomes clear—knowing “him who is true”, God the Father is inseparable from being in union with God the Son, Jesus Christ (1st John 5:20). To know the biblical God and have eternal life is to be in the Son—Jesus. Only those who belong to Jesus, who are His disciples, have everlasting salvation.

The Lord demands our allegiance, but He also expects His people to keep themselves from idols (1st John 5:21). Since there is only one God, Christians must never set up anything else in His place (Exodus 20:3). Though it may not be the gods of wood or stone common in the Old Testament, Christians must be careful not to make their jobs, money, families, reputations, or anything else the center of their affections. John Calvin is right when he says, “the vivifying light of the Gospel ought to scatter and dissipate, not only darkness but also all mists, from the minds of the godly.”

Idolatry is not a subject that is often covered, but it is one that gets to the root of the fallenness of man and our need for Christ alone. Our idols reveal our need for Jesus. Our lives are always before the face of the only true God, who sees and knows our thoughts and deeds. Idolatry helps reveal the heart of man and what we value of supreme worth. The Gospel provides the cure to the idolatry of man—showing where we find our true identity and value apart from Christ alone—and how we can, as the people of God, rest in who we are now in Him. The gospel highlights our need to expose our idols, and the Holy Spirit does this, through the teaching of the Word of God to convict, comfort, and equip the His people.

In this issue, you’ll find a variety of articles aimed at those who are single, married, and everywhere in-between. As you consider this topic of idolatry, our hope and prayer is that you’ll be helped, equipped, and pointed to the Lord Jesus.

In Christ alone,

Dave Jenkins

Executive Editor, Theology for Life Magazine

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