Gospel Idols

Idolizing our Good Works – Part Two

Yesterday we had a discussion of idols. Today, we will look at examples of what we discussed previously.

Some examples of personal idols: a) Workaholism. Work becomes the thing you live for–to be productive and useful, or to feel successful and powerful. b) “Codependence.” Because you “need to feel needed” you stay in unhealthy relationships with perennially needy individuals. c) Beauty and image. This can have various forms, including 1) eating disorders and excessive time, effort, and concern about appearance, and 2) pornography. d) Romance. This is not the same as pure sexual gratification. You live for crushes or for someone to love you. e) Family as idolatry has many variations: 1) your children’s prospects and happiness become the most important thing, or 2) meeting your parents’ expectations become the most important thing, or 3) getting married or having a ‘perfect’ marriage becomes the most important thing. f) Money as idolatry has many variations: 1) having (and saving) lots of money may be your ‘security’, the main way you feel safe in the world, 2) having (and spending) lots of money may be the main way of feeling significant and important. g) Perfectionism in general. You live to keep complete control of your life.

Some examples of social/cultural idols: a) Fascism-makes an idol of one’s race or nationality. “I am acceptable because I am a(n) ______” rather than getting identity as a child of God. Leads of course to racism. b) Communism-makes an idol of the state. Government will solve all problems rather than God. Marx said everything is political, and all problems are political/economic ones, rather than spiritual ones. c) Populism-makes an idol out of public opinion or majority rule, rather than what God says is right. d) Capitalism-makes an idol out of the free market. Like communism, seeing all our problems as economic ones. Seeing all issues in cost-benefit terms. Sees all things, even people, as ‘commodities.’ e) Multi-culturalism—makes one’s ethnic group or culture an absolute value. There are no absolute standards by which to judge. f) Enlightenment “humanism”–makes an idol of reason and scientific investigation. Science has an answer for everything and reason will open all doors. g) Individualism–makes an idol out of individual freedom. Nothing must curb the individual’s freedom to choose whatever he or she wants to be happy. h) Traditionalism–makes the family and tradition an idol. Traditional cultures see the rights of individuals as unimportant compared to the name and interests of the family and tribe.

Quotations for Thought: “The Greek word for ‘Lust’, epithumiai [inordinate desires], used in Galatians 5:16ff; Ephesians 2:3, 4:22; 1 Peter 2:11, 4:2; 1 John 2:16; James 1:14ff, is the catch-all for what is wrong with us. The New Testament merges the concept of idolatry and the concept of inordinate, life-ruling desires…for lust (i.e. demandingness, craving and yearning) is specifically referred to as ‘idolatry’ (Ephesians 5:5 and Colossians 3:5)…Here is the most basic question which God poses to each human heart: “Has something or someone besides Jesus taken the title to your heart’s functional trust, preoccupation, loyalty, service, fear and delight? Questions…bring some of people’s idol systems to the surface. ‘To who or what do you look for life-sustaining stability, security and acceptance?…What do you really want and expect [out of life]? What would [really] make you happy? What would make you an acceptable person? Where do you look for power and success?’ These questions or similar ones tease out whether we serve God or idols, whether we look for salvation from Christ or from false saviors. [This directly relates to] the immediate motivation of my behavior, thoughts, and feelings. In the Bible’s conceptualization, the motivation question is the lordship question: who or what ‘rules my behavior, the Lord or an idol?’” —David Powlison

“When a finite value has been elevated to centrality and imagined as a final source of meaning, then one has chosen…a god….One has a “god” when a finite value is…viewed as that without which one cannot receive life joyfully. Anxiety becomes neurotically intensified to the degree that I have idolized finite values…”

Instead of striving to Love someone, look to the Gospel, see how completely unloving you are and how unlovely you are and that God in Christ still loved you, you can love others as yourself.

Instead of striving to be joyful, look to the Gospel, see how truly joyless you truly are and how joyless your life is and that God in Christ was joyfully serving and obeying the Father for you and in your place – and THIS joy is yours as you believe the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus and His finished work upon the cross FOR you and IN your place.

Instead of striving for peace, look to the Gospel, see how un-peacefully you have treated God, yet God in Christ pursued peace FOR you and IN your place and by faith in the Gospel (in Jesus and His finished work on the cross), you have peace with God.

In other words, the idolatry of your heart is a law that only brings condemnation and increases the trespass (Romans 5:20), but in Christ, as we look to the Gospel, we are continually conformed into the image of Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18 – “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord,t are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.”

But if we strive to love others, or seek peace, or choose to be joyful, we inherently look to our efforts to do these things, and we have even (very possibly) made love or peace or joy (and our efforts) into idols. BUT the Spirit of God Who dwells within us does His Gospel-Apply work to our hearts and ALL that Christ has done for us and in our place is OURS and becomes fruit (Galatians 5:22ff).

This is Good News to all who believe because the Gospel is the power unto salvation even from our good works that we idolize.

Gospel Idols

Idolizing our Good Works

There are two things in Scripture that are classified as “the power of God” 1) The Gospel 2) Jesus Himself

Romans 1:16-17 – “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

Paul is not ashamed of the Gospel. Why? Because IT (Jesus and His finished work on the cross) is the power of God for salvation. This salvation is not just “entrance” into the Christian life. It’s ALL of the Christian life. The Gospel is the power that saves us (Justification) and the power to grow us (sanctification).

Christians do not grow simply by ‘trying hard to live according to Biblical principles.’ What then is the key to how we change into Christ-likeness? It’s found in the Bible’s concept of idolatry. ‘Idolatry’ in the Bible is a major theme for what ails us—psychologically, intellectually, sociologically, culturally.

The inevitability of idolatry – The very first commandment is “I am your God—have no other gods before me.” There is no third option between those two. Rom 1:25 says we will “worship and serve” either God or some created thing (an idol). It is not possible that we should worship nothing. Something will capture our hearts and imaginations and be the most important thing, the ultimate concern, value, or allegiance. So every personality, community, and thought-form will be based on either God Himself or on some god-substitute, an idol.

The range of idolatry – So an ’idol’ is anything more fundamental than God to your happiness, meaning in life, and identity. Idolatry is the inordinate desire of (even) something good. This means any thing can become an idol, including good things such as career, family, achievement, your independence, a political cause, material possessions, certain people in dependence on you, power and influence, physical attractiveness, romance, human approval, financial security, your place in a particular social circle or institution. Idols are not only personal and individual, they are also corporate and cultural. Different societies can make into ultimate values things like the family (“traditional values”) or feeling (romanticism) or the state (communism) or racial superiority (fascism) or rationality (empiricism) or individual will and experience (existentialism) or group identity (post-modernism.)

The power of idolatry – On the one hand, an idol is an empty “nothing” with no real power to help us and save us (Isaiah 40:20; 41:6-7.) It is only a way we are trying to save ourselves (Isaiah 44:10-13.) On the other hand, paradoxically, our idols exercise great power and control over us. They enslave (Jeremiah 2:25.) Once we have come to believe that something will really make us happy, then we cannot help ourselves—we must follow our god. Idols demand complete dependence (Isaiah 44:17); they completely capture our hearts (Ezekiel 14:1-5). In Romans 1 Paul shows how all the breakdowns in life—spiritual, psychological, social, cultural—come because we “worship created things rather than the creator.” (Romans 1:25)

The importance of understanding idolatry – The Bible does not consider idolatry to be one sin among many (and thus now a rare sin only among primitive people). Rather, idolatry is always the reason we ever do anything wrong. Why do we ever fail to love or keep promises or live unselfishly? Of course, the general answer is “because we are weak and sinful”, but the specific answer is always that there is something besides Jesus Christ that you feel you must have to be happy, that is more important to your heart than God, and that is enslaving the heart through inordinate desires. For example, we would not lie unless first we had made something—human approval, “face”, reputation, power over others, financial advantage–more important and valuable to our hearts than the grace of God. So the secret to change is always to identify and dismantle the basic idols of the heart.

We will continue this discussion by looking at examples tomorrow.