The worship of false gods; the worship of the one true God by images; the worship of the one true God conceived as less than He is; the giving of honor due to the one true God “to some of His creatures or to some invention of His creatures”1; the valuing of anything or anyone more than the one true God.
“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Exodus 20:3-6 ESV)
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. (Romans 1:21-24 ESV)
- From The Heidelberg Catechism, 1563:
Question 95. What is idolatry?
Answer: Idolatry is, instead of, or besides that one true God, who has manifested himself in his word, to contrive, or have any other object, in which men place their trust.
- From Impatience and Idolatry by Ligon Duncan
[T]here are two ways to commit idolatry. You can worship anything or anyone that is not the true God and be an idolater (breaking the first commandment), or you can worship the true God in the wrong way and be an idolater (breaking the second commandment). Israel broke both commands in Exodus 32. Even though, in Egypt, God had demonstrated His superiority over all gods represented by idols, the people called for an image, a representation of deity, to be made. They directly violated God’s will by worshiping a false god or gods in the form of the young bull. Some no doubt were still infected with polytheism, while others made the God of Israel after their own fancy, and thus became worshipers of a god that didn’t exist. In these ways they transgressed the first and second commandments even as they were being explicitly delivered to Moses.
God’s stricture against idolatry was and is vital for the purity of worship and for spiritual growth. If we worship God according to our own designs and imaginations, instead of in accordance with His Word, we inevitably become idolaters. Furthermore, idolatry undercuts spirituality (though it often claims to enhance it). For, if spiritual growth means being transformed by God’s grace into His moral likeness, then worshiping Him in a likeness that is not in accordance with His Word necessarily derails the process of sanctification. In fact, idolatry always leads to sub-human behavior (Rom. 1:21-32).
We who live in an age when church leaders host conferences on “re-imaging God,” and when the Bible’s teaching about God is altered to make Him more politically correct and culturally palatable, dare not dismiss these warnings against idolatry. We may feel ourselves far too sophisticated to be capable of idolatry, but A. W. Tozer warned us many years ago, “An idol of the mind is as offensive to God as an idol of the hand.”
- From Spiritual Idolatry by John Angell James::
My dear friends, let me admonish you to worship God alone. Give your heart, your whole heart to him. Is it not your sin, and ought it not to be your shame and your sorrow—that you bestow so much of your affection upon other objects, and so little upon him—that you treat him so little as such a God deserves, and claims to be treated? Recollect he is God, God in Christ; God reconciled, your Father, your portion; all glorious and all gracious. Think how you ought to love him, with what entire, ardent, constant, devoted affection. It would seem, when we consider his glory, as if it would be the easiest thing in the world to love and serve him, and the hardest thing in the world to love any other objects; as if it would be impossible so to get out of the sight, and beyond the attraction of his glory, as to have time, inclination, or ability to take an interest in anything else than in his favor, which is life, and his loving-kindness which is better than life; as if with the hope of his favor through Christ as our portion, we should really no more desire any other object or source of delight, than the condemned criminal does besides the royal pardon, or the starving man the supply of food. Amazing baseness, that with an infinite God to love, we should be so taken up with the finite, and many of them the really minute objects of this world; and that with his love to us as our river of pleasure, we should be so dependent for bliss upon the ‘drops of earthly enjoyment’, which ooze and trickle out from created good!
How offensive this must be to God, who knows, and who alone knows, the ineffable glories of his own nature! How ungrateful must it appear to him when he has opened this fountain of living waters for us, to see us turn away from it, to hew out broken cisterns that can hold no water! How insulting to him to see a relative, a trade, a house, a minister—exalted into a rival claimant for the heart, and receiving that affection, confidence, and devotedness which are due to him alone! Remember he is a jealous God—and as among men jealousy is inflamed to the highest pitch by seeing an unworthy and insignificant object preferred, so God will, and must, resent our preference, to him, of such objects as this world at best can present.
…Let me, my dear friends, earnestly admonish you to give this subject a deep and due consideration. Examine your hearts. Does not the charge of spiritual idolatry appertain to you? Is there not some object, or class of objects, that have come between God and your souls? Have you no idols? Has your heart departed from the Lord? Search the mind, the house, the shop, the sanctuary, the world—and see where it has gone, and what you have exalted into a competitor with God. Be faithful to yourself. Is there not something for which God has a controversy with you? Ask yourself what it is you trust in, look to, depend upon, for happiness. Do you indeed look through and above all—to God? Is God your center, rest, and dwelling place? Is Christ more to you than everything else? Is it he that is precious? Is he the chief among ten thousand, and the altogether lovely one? Is he the sun that makes the day of your prosperity, the moon that enlivens the night of your adversity? Is he your riches, your friend, your home, your pearl of great price? Say, dear brethren, is God really God to you—loved and treated as God should be?
Ask yourselves if while you are praying for the downfall of idols in heathen countries—are there are none to be pulled down in your own hearts and houses? If while you are seeking the conversion of the worshipers of the Hindu deities, you have not need to be converted from the worship of self and mammon? Be humbled, deeply humbled—for this your sin!
- Tim Challies: The Essential: Idolatry
- GotQuestions.org: What is the definition of idolatry?
- J. C. Ryle: Idolatry
- Bob Deffinbaugh: The Glory of God and Idolatry
- John Murray: Pictures of Christ
- New City Catechism: What is idolatry? (video)
- Don Carson: What is sin and how is it different from idolatry? (video)
- G. K. Beale: The Irony of Idolatry (mp3)
- Tim Keller: The Grand Demythologizer: The Gospel and Idolatry (audio or video)
1From Idolatry by J. C. Ryle
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