Part 1 - Understanding Idolatry:
Letter to Romans - unique letter, Paul hasn’t been there - wasn’t answering specific questions but giving a systematic account of the faith. Romans 1:16-17 intention is to set out the gospel
As Paul begins to proclaim the gospel he doesn’t begin with the person of Christ (does this in Romans 3,4), but with the knowledge of God and the issue of idolatry. Paul gives a way of seeing our society - can apply to anyone, anywhere in the world.
In every context we have important things to communicate before we get to talking about Christ, especially in our society where increasing idolatry and the more secular our society. In a secular society we can’t begin with Christ, the fact of sin, the need for faith etc. Instead Paul begins at these points:
1. God has revealed himself to all humanity
- revelation of God to every person
- despite the fact that God is invisible
- the truth about God is clearly seen in the created universe
FAS talks of the universe and its form, and the mannishness of man.
Paul begins by answering the charge that because you can’t see God you can’t know him. Paul tells us three things that can be known about God from the created universe:
a. God’s eternal power - as creator, it is a created universe. It is obvious that God is the Creator; despite the teachings of evolution people still believe in creation.
b. God’s divine nature - there is a Supreme Being who has existence in himself.
c. God’s moral nature - they know God’s righteous decree, everyone knows this is a moral universe, no one is consistently a relativist. FAS illustration of putting a tape recorder around our necks recording all the criticisms we make of others etc. All God would need to do is play it back on the day of judgement to declare us guilty. In our hearts everyone knows this is a moral universe, there is good and there is evil.
2. People have no excuse for not worshipping God
“people are without excuse..”. This isn’t obscure information, it is clear information. Psalm 19 - the whole universe is all the time declaring that God exists - we are surrounded by it all day long - there is no speech or language where it is not heard.
This is the point Paul is making, no one is ignorant of God’s existence. Our problem is not ignorance.
a. The vast majority of people acknowledge that there is a God.
b. Even the minority who are atheists spend there lives fighting against God e.g. Bertrand Russell is self conscious that he is attacking God - his book is devoted to giving an answer to God.
c. The problem is not ignorance but a refusal to acknowledge God, a refusal to have God in their knowledge - 18 “suppress the truth in their unrighteousness” - 28 “not worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God”. The problem is the suppression of that knowledge. In everyone there is this knowledge of God constantly rising up and they try to keep it down.
d. The added refusal to give thanks and to worship God - Everyone is constantly receiving good gifts from God. Acts 14 this is the way Paul addresses the pagans - 17ff he gives you good gifts, everybody in the world receives them.
3. In every culture people claim wisdom for their own ideas over against the truth about God which they know. All people develop their own wisdom, philosophy, worldview. :22, they claimed wisdom versus the truth they already know, BUT
a. These ideas are actually vain, they claim to be wise and true but are really vain i.e. are empty - not truth, an elaborate invention of the human mind, a fantasy, no reliable content, no adequate foundation. - 22 “became fools” - 25 “exchanged the truth of God for a lie” - 28 “have depraved mind” Their thinking is empty.
b. Their hearts are also foolish - “darkened with folly”. This involves devotion, worship.
4. This folly (of heart & mind) is demonstratd by idolatry - the system of thought itself is idolatrous, their own invention, a figment of their imagination rather than the truth about God. - because people are innately religious they will worship something or someone. All humanity is innately religious. There are three possibilities for this practical idolatry:
a. Worship actual idols, images of some part of creation e.g. the statue of Diana in Ephesus.
b. Worship part of creation directly e.g. sun, moon,material possessions (house, money), sex etc.
c. Worship humanity e.g. the nation (nationalism), a hero (sports figures, film stars, pop idol), themselves.
“Exchange the glory of the immortal God for...” Idolatry demonstrates their folly. Why? - Because they fall so far short of the glory of God. Acts 14,17. Isaiah 40-48 - all these idols fall so short of what their worshippers even acknowledge of God. Contrast between the far idol (of ideas) and the near idol (of heart).
5. The false belief / folly of idolatry are demonstrated further by the moral consequences of it - Idolatry identifies its folly by its moral consequences, there is a present reality to God’s judgement. - 18 the wrath of God is being revealed now. The folly of idolatry is identified by the moral consequences:
a. Breakdown of family / sexual morality - one of the first indicators of false religion and idolatry - 24,26,27.
b. Also demonstrated in every other type of sin also - 28-32 whole of life affected.
c. The closer any religion is to the truth, the less moral breakdown there will be e.g. Jehovah Witnesses acknowledge much which is right, though not a saving knowledge. This acknowledgement keeps them from some of the consequences of moral breakdown. The holding onto some aspects of who God is acts as a kind of brake on moral breakdown.
These five points Paul makes give a clear account of false belief and idolatry - we need to look at our culture in light of this, especially where there is a functional deism. How does this work out today?
Part 2 - Idolatry Today:
We began to think about idolatry in our first section, and in particular we looked at Paul's systematic account of idolatry in Romans 1. God has made himself known to all people, but they refuse to acknowledge him. People try to ignore God and turn away from him, developing their own religion in place of worshipping him. It is this refusal to honor God that leads people to idolatry, because everyone has to live their life for something. When we step back to reflect on the things people live for we can see readily how foolish it is to worship something less than God. We can see too the moral consequences of false worship. These consequences are very evident in our society.
This brings us to our next step: to examine idolatry today and to think about just how a person's life is affected by idolatry.
We noted that all people are religious. This is true in every culture and in every age. God has set eternity in the hearts of men and women and they will search for meaning, purpose, and order for their lives.
We might break down human religious need in this way:
1. There is a need for an explanation of life, a reasonable account of the world, a worldview. Every culture has such an account, a story that explains, and gives meaning and order to life. Every individual has some account of life too. God's word is truth, it gives us the true account of Who he is, who we are, why we are here, what our dilemma is, and the resolution to this dilemma.
2. There is a need for emotional commitment and satisfaction. Everyone has the need for ritual, for traditional patterns in life, for giving honor and praise, and receiving the emotional satisfaction that arises from this. Everyone has a need for worship, and everyone sees something as the source of joy. They give thanks to something. God has created us to glorify and enjoy him. This is our purpose. The worship of him individually and corporately brings joy to his heart and to ours. We thank him for all the gifts of life.
3. There is a need for control of our wills. We all live for something, there is some purpose around which we order our priorities. We live in obedience to some organizing principle. God has created us to acknowledge him as our Lord and master. We are to live in obedience to him, following his commands, walking in his ways.
As we look at this simple outline we can see how the gospel brings all three of these aspects together: the rational, the emotional, the volitional. Truth, worship and obedience are united.
What happens in our culture today? For many people these three are split apart.
1. A rational account - Most Americans today say they believe there is a God—but he is a distant God, the God of Deism.
a. He is needed to start the world—most people believe there must be a Creator. But, there is no sense of God as Provider, as Ruler of creation or the nations; there is no sense of God acting in history.
b. He is an unknown God. We can have no certain knowledge of him. Because of this there can be no creeds, no true beliefs. There will be no worship of him, or love for him.
c. There is no sense of God as a Judge, except perhaps in the most extreme circumstances. So there is no sense of accountability to him, no sense of coming judgement for the individual.
d. God is needed personally only for moments of crisis. People will cry out to him and blame him for misfortune, but there is no expectation of answers or intervention.
e. Some attend worship services, and say formal or ritual prayers—but these are for themselves. Worship can give them a lift, prayer makes them feel better but there is no sense of communication with God.
f. All religions are the same, all are different roads to the same end. These religions are thought of as simply human constructions to meet a religious need—primarily for primitive people, for children, for those psychologically weak, for women (the chauvinist will say)—but not for those who are strong, who have come of age.
g. There is no word from God, so there are no commandments. We have to make our own choices, to master our own lives and destinies.
2. The emotional need - This deistic view of God creates a cold, formal religion that does not satisfy the need for worship. (Though these needs may be partly met even for unbelievers by the ritual, music and beauty of a liturgical worship or by the intense emotional power of charismatic worship). But there is this God shaped hole in the heart, so people meet these needs of the heart in other ways.
a. New Age religion offers spirituality; emotional and spiritual satisfaction and peace.
b. Human relationships are obviously for many the primary means of meeting this need—though the demand for complete emotional satisfaction will destroy a marriage or a parent's relationship with children.
c. Sexual pleasure is another way some try to meet this need—though there are
diminishing returns and wilder experimentation to give the same pleasure—and in the end dissatisfaction and frustration.
d. The arts—especially music is the emotional idol for others.
e. Sport for many Americans takes the place of worship and gives emotional satisfaction.
3. The need of the will - People live their life for something. For some this will be satisfied by a religion or philosophy they follow, but for many in our culture there is some everyday idol of the will, a near God that they obey.
a. Religion, particularly the cults, appeals to those who feel aimless in society.
b. A political cause - particularly for those on the extreme right or left.
c. Work gives identity and meaning to many Americans. Their job defines them, and is the primary source of their own value to themselves and to the world. This may be quite unconscious until a job is lost or retirement comes—but work is controlling life.
d. Wealth: money and possessions is another obvious idol for many people in our society. Living for more money and things becomes dominant. One gives one's life to this end, and all satisfaction comes from this.
e. Pleasure and self-fulfillment are other obvious idols. Every choice is made around the satisfaction of our needs.
As we think about these aspects: the mind, the emotions and the heart, obviously these different aspects may come together to some extent apart from the worship of the true God. The needs of the heart and the will sometimes bow before one idol: self-fulfillment, making money, etc. The needs of the mind may also be met by one object of worship and devotion. This will happen for those who join a religious cult.
For us, today, the question arises: who or what do we worship? Are our hearts, minds, wills united in worship understanding and obedience? Or are our loyalties divided?
Part 3 - Idolatry: Empty Promises:
Idolatry has to meet three demands, or three aspects of our human hunger: the need of the mind for a reasonable account of our lives; the need of the heart for emotional satisfaction; the need of the will for a controlling purpose. In our last lecture we examined this three-fold division so that we might challenge our own divided loyalties. Also so that we might gain some understanding of how people around us try to find meaning, happiness and purpose apart from knowing the one true God through the love of his Son, Jesus Christ, and through walking in his ways.
In knowing God and acknowledging the truth of his word we have found the key to unlock the meaning of our existence. His word makes sense of all that we see around us. We are given a rationally satisfying account of our life here in this world. We know the truth, and the truth sets us free, as we think God's thoughts after him.
In knowing God's love for us in Christ and loving him in return we have begun to find joy for our heart:
- the joy of sins forgiven and of full acceptance
- the gladness of fellowship with Him in devotion and public worship and of fellowship with one another in the family of his people
- the delight of receiving good gifts from his hand
- the heart's ease of knowing that one day every tear will be wiped away and all our present brokenness will be set right when we see Him face to face.
In knowing God as our Lord and master we have found that submitting our wills to His will is the path of life. His law becomes increasingly treasured by us as we find freedom in following His way. We have begun to understand that righteousness shines far more brightly than the temporary pleasure of sin that are offered by walking in our own ways, or following the pattern of the culture.
We struggle with divided loyalties but our minds and hearts and wills are slowly but surely being made fit for the service of the king.
But why does everyone not follow him, bow mind and heart and will to him? What is so attractive about idolatry that people fall so easily, generation after generation, nation after nation? In this lecture we turn to look at why people bow before idols, and at the rewards they get from their service.
1. Why is idolatry attractive? God has revealed Himself so clearly in creation, by His word, through His son, why do people worship and live for something which is so evidently not God?
No one stops to think,
no-one has the knowledge to say,
"Half of it I used for fuel;
I even baked bread over its coals
I roasted meat and I ate.
Shall I make a detestable thing from what is left?
Shall I bow down to a block of wood?"
He feeds on ashes, a deluded heart misleads him;
he cannot save himself, or say,
"Is not this thing in my right hand a lie?"
'No one stops to think'. There is a lack of serious reflection, and a measure of self-deception in worshipping sex, ambition, work, money, pleasure, etc. Why?
a. As one of the consequences of the fall we are divided from ourselves, and do not know our own hearts, for the heart is deceitful.
b. Part of the answer is the divided loyalty we spoke of last time. People try to keep their minds satisfied with vague ideas about God, but don't allow those ideas to intrude on the devotion of their hearts and wills. However, to acknowledge this is not sufficient. It is simply a description.
c. The idol is attractive precisely because we choose it, we create it. Think of how Isaiah describes the process of fashioning an idol, the devotion and care the craftsman puts into his task. Think about the devotion someone puts into the thing their heart derives satisfaction from, or the part of their life they live for. Think about the person who is in love with themselves, their own looks, their sexuality. Think of the time spent grooming and admiring themselves. All idolatry is like this. Because I choose the idol I have a feeling of control, of power: "I am the master, this is my chosen way of life; I'm the one who makes the money; holds this family together; has arrived at this important position; has created this beautiful home; who is the devoted fan of this sports' idol, or this team..."
d. God, however, demands submission to His will. We have to bow before Him acknowledging He is Lord; He is our creator, sustainer, provider, judge, redeemer, captain. This requirement of humbling oneself under the mighty hand of God is an offense to the rebellious human heart. Idolatry leaves us with a sense of power over our lives, of control.
"I am the master of my soul
I am the captain of my fate."
2. The idol's reward - What rewards do idols give? Do they follow through on their promises? Certainly they make promises: promises of sexual satisfaction, of personal peace, of financial freedom, of realized ambition.
a. There are indeed temporary rewards and pleasures, for idols are God's gifts to us for our fulfillment; therefore they can indeed bring joy and satisfaction for a time.
b. The sense of control is an illusion. Idols demand sacrifices. They exact a heavy price. More and more time, energy, devotion has to be given to them. These demands become more insistent. Consider work as an example. If I live for work, and find my identity from my work then my job will constantly raise its price—more time, more energy, more commitment - less time for leisure, for friends. The demands increase and touch the worshipper closer to his or her heart. Less time for children, for one's marriage. What about my moral convictions? Sacrifice them on the altar of the idol.
c. The worshipper loses control, the idol controls him or her. It gives less satisfaction and demands more devotion. The idol reduces one's humanity. One becomes increasingly like one's idol. "Money is written all over him." "Sex is all she talks about." The worshipper becomes less able to love, to choose, to be moral, to create, to exercise dominion. One's humanity is diminished, one's human relationships are destroyed. One is left alone, with an empty heart and life. See Psalm 115.
d. There is a spiritual reality here too (See 1 Corinthians 10:19-20). Only God can deliver us from the bondage of idolatry (Psalm 107).
3. The Bible deals with idolatry primarily by contrast: declaring the glory of God over against the shame and emptiness of idolatry.
This is the central message of Isaiah 40-48.
a. God is worthy of worship. He is full of glory. Consider His character, His works, His acts of redemption. Consider His love for us. Yes, He makes demands that we bow before Him, but we owe our life to Him both as creator and redeemer. He gave Himself for us. No idol has sacrificed itself for you.
b. God does ask us to live no longer for ourselves, but for Him. We, indeed, are asked to lose our lives, to humbly acknowledge His authority, and to live for Him. But He asks us to do so freely and gladly, from the heart, in response to His love.
c. As we obey His commandments we find that we are set free. In losing ourselves we find ourselves. His law is a law of liberty. I gain the freedom to enjoy relationships, to have increasing control over my own life. What He asks from me, He gives back.
d. He gives us all His good gifts to richly enjoy (1Timothy 6:17-19).
e. We become like the one we worship. As we follow Him we are changed into His likeness—from one degree of glory to another (2 Corinthians 3:17-18).
Copyright © Jerram Barrs 2002
(Author: Jerram Barrs
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