Recently, I began preaching a sermon series on idolatry. We may have a vague idea of what idolatry truly is, but sometimes we need to explore the Scriptures to discover the devastating nature of idolatry and the condition of our sinful hearts.
John Calvin said “The human mind is a perpetual factory of idols…men have in almost all ages since the world began, set up imaginary idols before their eyes to take the place of God.” 1 John 5:21 says, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” What exactly is idolatry?
At its core, idolatry is worshipping and serving any created thing rather than the Creator. Martin Luther’s larger catechism addresses idolatry in relation to the First of the Ten Commandments and he defines it as: “Whatever your heart clings to and relies upon, that is your God; trust and faith of the heart alone make both God and idol.”
In Romans 1:18-25 Paul explicitly teaches the fundamental nature of the idolatry of the human heart. This passage reads: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.
For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
Paul uses a very interesting word to describe human sin—he says sinner “suppress” the truth. This word means to “restrain, to push down, to stifle.” In other words, people can look up at the stars in the sky, or see a sunset, or watch the waves crash on the beach, or the grandeur of a snow peaked mountain and know deep in their hearts that there is a Creator bigger than themselves who put those things there.
But instead of seeing this for what it is as God creating the universe, we suppress or hold down that truth. This suppression in reality is an act of rebellion against common sense. And what is the result of this suppressing of the truth that God has made so plain and clear in His creation? Verse 20 says that we are without excuse. The word is a legal term which really means that we have been stripped bare in God’s courtroom with no defense. We are guilty, accountable and helpless. We have no excuse.
As a result of your suppressing the truth about God, three things begin to happen to you because of your sin nature. First of all, you fail to honor and thank God for all that He is and has done for you. What should knowledge of God lead to? It should lead us to honor Him and thank Him for all His many blessings. Instead, most people walk through life suppressing the truth of God’s existence and live in ingratitude and selfishness.
Second, you begin to have futile or worthless thinking. You are not thinking with a Biblical worldview, but with a worldly and sinful way of thinking. Your entire thought process is wrapped up in honoring yourself and living in selfishness to indulge your lustful appetites.
Third, you begin to have a darkened heart. Not only do you begin to have sinful thinking patterns, but your heart—the seat of your affections—becomes darkened. And when your mind and heart have become so dull and blinded and cold and rebellious to God, it leads you to have a false sense of reality about your condition. You claim to be wise, but in reality you are a fool. (v 22) This self-deification leads to self-deception. When you place yourself on the throne of your life and become your own “god”, you end up deceiving yourself by thinking you’re actually wise, when in reality you are a fool.
At its fundamental level, idolatry involves making a damning “exchange.” Notice the wording in verse 23: Paul says they have “exchanged”—that is they substituted the glory of God for created things. Instead of valuing and enjoying and cherishing the glory of God in all of His wonder and majesty, you trade that in or exchange it for images of His creation.
You also exchange the truth of God for a lie (v 25). We also see this in verse 25. So not only does idolatry exchange God’s glory, but it also exchanges God’s truth. And what comes up in its place? What do you end up trading those in for? Images and lies. Idols and deception.
Is your heart a perpetual factory of idols or is your heart clinging solely to Jesus as your all in all? In the words of the apostle John: Little children, keep yourself from idols!