What is idolatry?

Worship is war.

When we worship God, we are engaged in spiritual warfare against the demonic realm. We read of Jesus Christ, “the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’” Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’” [FOOTNOTE: Matthew 4:8-10] Both the Father and Satan offered Jesus the same opportunity – to sit at their right-hand ruling and reigning over a kingdom in power. The difference was that Satan offered the pleasure path, and the Father offered the pain path. Jesus’ choice was an act of war, as He would either chose to worship Satan and war against the Father or choose to worship the Father and war against Satan.

We make the same choice every day. Jesus saw all of the collective sinful temptation that everyone was facing on planet earth. Today, technology and the internet allow us to do the same. We can see global sex, fame, power, money, possessions, and pleasures in an instant and this is all a demonic war for the soul of the world as Satan wants to be worshipped through idolatry.

God creates, and Satan counterfeits. The counterfeit of worship is idolatry. Every human being—at every moment of their life, today and into eternity—is unceasingly doing either the former or the latter. On this point N. T. Wright says, “Christians are not defined by skin colour, by gender, by geographical location, or even, shockingly, by their good behaviour. Nor are they defined by the particular type of religious feelings they may have. They are defined in terms of the god they worship. That’s why we say the Creed at the heart of our regular liturgies: we are defined as the people who believe in this god. All other definitions of the church are open to distortion. We need theology, we need doctrine, because if we don’t have it something else will come in to take its place. And any other defining marks of the church will move us in the direction of idolatry. [ENDNOTE #1]

Christian counselor David Powlison says, “Idolatry is by far the most frequently discussed problem in the Scriptures.” [ENDNOTE #2] While idolatry is manifested externally, it originates internally with people who, “have taken their idols into their hearts.” [FOOTNOTE: Ezekiel 14:1–8] Before people see an idol with their eyes, hold it with their hands, or speak of it with their lips, they have taken it into their heart. This violates the first two of the Ten Commandments, choosing something as a functional god longed for in their heart and then worshiping.

Martin Luther’s insights on idolatry are among the most perceptive the world has ever known:

“Many a one thinks that he has God and everything in abundance when he has money and, possessions; he trusts in them and boasts of them with such firmness and assurance as to care for no one. Lo, such a man also has a god, Mammon by name, i.e., money and possessions, on which he sets all his heart, and which is also the most common idol on earth…So, too, whoever trusts and boasts that he possesses great skill, prudence, power, favor, friendship, and honor has also a god, but not this true and only God…Therefore I repeat that the chief explanation of this point is that to have a god is to have something in which the heart entirely trusts…Thus it is with all idolatry; for it consists not merely in erecting an image and worshiping it, but rather in the heart…Ask and examine your heart diligently, and you will find whether it cleaves to God alone or not. If you have a heart that can expect of Him nothing but what is good, especially in want and distress, and that, moreover, renounces and forsakes everything that is not God, then you have the only true God. If, on the contrary, it cleaves to anything else, of which it expects more good and help than of God, and does not take refuge in Him, but in adversity flees from Him, then you have an idol, another god.” [ENDNOTE #3]

One of the great evils of idolatry is that if we idolize, we must also demonize, as Jonathan Edwards rightly taught in The Nature of True Virtue. If we idolize our gender, we must demonize the other gender. If we idolize our nation, we must demonize other nations. If we idolize our political party, we must demonize other political parties. If we idolize our socioeconomic class, we must demonize other classes. If we idolize our family, we must demonize other families. If we idolize our theological system, we must demonize other theological systems. If we idolize our church, we must demonize other churches. This explains the great polarities and acrimonies that plague every society.

  1. T. Wright, For All God’s Worth: True Worship and the Calling of the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 28.
  2. David Powlison, “Idols of the Heart and ‘Vanity Fair,’” The Journal of Biblical Counseling vol. 13 (Winter 1995): 35. Also available here: http://www.greentreewebster.org/Articles/Idols%20of%20the%20 Heart%20(Powlison).pdf.
  3. Martin Luther, “The Large Catechism,” in The Book of Concord (St. Louis: Concordia, 1921), 3.5–28, http://www.bookofconcord.org/lc-3-tencommandments.php.

Leave a Comment