Pastor’s Class Notes
Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
IDOLATRY: THE TRUTH, THE WHOLE TRUTH,
AND NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH
Romans 1:23 “And changed the glory of the uncorruptible
God into an image made like to corruptible
man, and to birds, and four-footed beasts,
and creeping things.”
Introduction: Idolatry is withholding the homage and affection to which God alone is entitled, and then giving it to something else. It is the alienation of the heart from God. A man’s idol is that on which his heart is supremely set. Men serve many things apart from God, including idols, images, money, fame, ambition, power, success, self, etc. Idolatry is ever the curse of humanity. Men are miserably plunged in the mire of sense. Idolatry is rampant today and is seen in man’s worship of:
A missionary in India distributed copies of the New Testament and was later asked by a Hindu, “Did you write that chapter of Romans after you came here?”
“No, it has been there nearly 2000 years.”
“Well, all I can say is that it is a fearfully true description of the sin of India.”
The greatest honor God gave to man was to make man in His own image. We do not return the honor when we make God in the image of man. Men can know enough of God, just from Creation, to prevent them from the error of identifying any of the created things with the Creator. This should keep man’s conception of God free from idols, but it does not. Men picture Him as a contemptible creature, or as something grotesque. God’s glory is incorruptible, not subject to decay, but man pictures it in the form of man-made idols which do decay and corrupt. The limitations of a localized idol can not represent omnipresence. Helpless wood or metal does not depict omnipotence. Silent materials do not picture God’s desire for fellowship. A cold, hard substance does not picture the warm love of God. Idols made in the form of animals reverse God’s intended order. God set man over animals (GN 1:26).
The whole concept of idols is a perversion. In Taipei, Taiwan, J. W. McGorman saw a young man making an idol and asked, “Is this a god?” The young man replied, “Not yet. When it is finished, I will have the priest come from the temple. There will be a ceremony, and at this time the god will come to live in the wood.” McGorman was heartbroken to think a man created in God’s image would soon bow before a man-made object.
As I think of such a story as this, I wonder, If the god can fill an idol, why can he not fill the person himself? What kind of god prefers living in wood to living in a human heart? Such a god is not worthy of worship.
Even some heathen philosophers have seen the folly of idolatry. Seneca lived in Rome during Paul’s day. He wrote that there was great folly and impiety in the idolatrous practices of his day. He said the worship of them was “rather a compliance with custom than material in itself.” He scathed the practice, yet worshipped them himself. As Augustine observed, “He worshipped that which he censured, he did that which he had proved wrong, and he adored what he found fault with.”
Foolishness! What a curse it has been to the nations dominated by such religions. Anthropologists say such worship is merely a progression of religious evolution from animism and fetishism to monotheism and ultimately atheism. That is totally false! It is not the result of progress; it is rather a mark of degeneracy.
Monotheism is the historical starting-point for the religion of all mankind. The human race began twice (Adam and Noah) from this premise. The world’s pagan religions are an apostasy from the original belief.
The major heathen and idol-worshipping religions of the world are still going strong. They show no sign of “evolving” to a higher religious state. If anything, they are more degraded than ever. However, they are not the world’s only idolaters. . . .
II. GRAVEN IMAGES
While many believe their god in some way fills an idol, others view an image as merely a symbol of the real object of their adoration. On the surface, this second position sounds acceptable, but Scripture never takes notice of any distinction between the two views. Anyone who bows before a physical object for any reason has abdicated true worship.
Men delight in using physical aids in worship. People around the world burn incense which pleases their own nostrils, but is a stench to God. Men burn candles rather than burning midnight oil to pray. Strings of beads are passed through fingers while the mind wanders at will. Physical fetishes are used everywhere to aid in men’s worship.
Men construct “holy places” and worship at altars rather than confining their trust to the finished work of Calvary. One of Calvin’s first gestures for truth was to tear down the altar in his church and replace it with a pulpit. Architectural design was henceforth to emphasize the “sacred desk” upon which a copy of the Word of God was to be placed. The minister’s function was to be hidden behind that desk, kept out of sight as much as possible, while his voice blared forth the truth of the Book with healing for the penitent and judgment for the obstinate.
Let us learn to worship God in spirit and in truth.
Many claim to reject all outward forms of religion. They snarl at idols and images, but have nothing better to substitute in their place.
Men cannot become irreligious. They have to worship something. If one cannot find a religion in the world’s smorgasbord, he creates a religion to suit himself, and usually ends up worshipping at the altar of self.
If men reject God, they doom themselves to having less than God as their god. And, of course, man himself is the first alternative. He loves to be his own god–it fits in well with this self-concept: “As long as I’m available, I don’t need God.”
Men tend to resent any suggestion they are not fit to rule their own lives. Man hates creaturehood. He wants to steal deity from the hands of God. We all love to wear a god-mask. Hence, for many, their idolatry is the inability to distinguish between themselves and God.
Conclusion: Why are men prone to idolatry? Due to their love for wickedness. The heathen project human personality onto their idols, supposing them to be gratified with the same things which please the sensual cravings of human beings. The idol thus becomes a magnified sinner. And since men imitate their gods, man’s own immorality increases. Man cannot rise above his idol. If he did, he would discredit it and throw it away.
The man who emphasizes physical images in worship can easily separate everyday living from religious duties. As long as he goes through the right motions and honors the physical images, his everyday conduct is insignificant. The physical image provides a method whereby he can live like the devil while trying to buy off God.
Men who worship at the altar of self do not want a Holy God. They want to drag incorruptible God down to their own corruptible level because they want their own corruptible living approved. Serving self also assures one of a god he can control. Such a man makes material things his god because he is not willing to make the material elements in his life secondary to spiritual matters.
Wickedness is the cause of idolatry, but of greater importance is its consequence: it leaves a man in his sinful condition, without deliverance from death and Hell.