Whenver I blog these conferences, people want to know what books have been recommended. Before each session we’ve had a couple of books recommended to us. Here is the list thus far:
Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God by J.I. Packer
Questioning Evangelism by Randy Newman
Doing Things Right in Matters of the Heart by John Ensor
The Message of the Old Testament by Mark Dever
The Message of the New Testament by Mark Dever
Holiness by J.C. Ryle
Tonight finds C.J. Mahaney delivering the first of two messages he’ll bring this weekend. This is one of the first messages by C.J. that Josh ever heard and he asked him to preach it this weekend because it is relevant to the topic of discernment. It is titled “The Idol Factory” (though Josh referred to it as “Idols of the Heart”).
How interesting and ironic that American Idol, this massively popular show, makes an explicit reference to idolatry in its title. Yet in our culture the practice of idolatry seems remote, antiquated and irrelevant. Most people think idolatry is something from the past. Idolatry, though, endures. Modern day idolatry is prevalent and powerful. It exists in many subtle and sophisticated forms. For most of us the word idolatry brings us thoughts only of ancient cultures. We have distanced ourselves from the whole idea of idolatry and this is true even of the evangelical church. Understanding and applying this topic has the potential to make a dramatic difference in your understanding of God, your growth in godliness, your involvement in the local church and in your heart. In this message we draw near to this topic rather than distance ourselves from it. We’ll discover that idolatry is the most frequently discussed and most seriously condemned sin in Scripture.
It doesn’t get any clearer than Exodus 20 where God commands, “You shall have no other Gods before me.” This appears as clearly in the New Testament, for in Romans 1:18 and 21:25 we are told that before conversion idolatry was our primary sin. This is the without doubt the worst trade in history-trading truth for a lie. This trade has eternal consequences and prior to conversion each and every one of us has made this trade and approved of it. Prior to conversion we were all worshiping someone or something else other than God. We loved and worshiped and served and obeyed the creature rather than the Creator. But by the grace of God it is a different story when we encounter idolatry in 1 Thessalonians 1:9 for there the spell of idolatry has been broken. All who have been genuinely converted have seen this happen.
But this is not where the experience of idolatry in our lives concludes. The presence of sin remains. Because of remaining sin a propensity for idolatry remains as well. But the daily temptation and tendency to idolatry remains. Scripture addresses this tendency and provides numerous ways to fight it. 1 Corinthians 10:13-14 tells us that God will not let us be tempted beyond we can bear but tells us to flee idolatry. In Colossians 3:5 we are told to put aside covetousness which is idolatry. We will not conquer this sin fully and finally before death. Conversion contributes to the weakening of this temptation but will not destroy it.
It is unacceptable that this is a foreign topic for the church. Yet, sadly, as one looks out at the evangelical landscape, there is no real difference between the church and the world when it comes to this issue. For many of us the most discussed sin in the Bible is the least considered in our lives. We’re little better at recognizing idols than those who have not been converted. We need theologically-informed discernment so we can detect and destroy the idols of the heart.
Understanding idolatry will give you new eyes so you might discern and detect and destroy the idols that are active and at work in your soul. Understanding idolatry will give you new eyes to discern and appreciate the Savior’s sacrifice on the cross for our idolatry. May there be the gift of new eyes in the form of discerning eyes as the result of this message!
This message has three points: defining idolatry, discerning idolatry and The effect of destroying idolatry.
Defining Idolatry. An idol is a substitute for God that one loves and worships and serves rather than the one true God. It is anyone or anything you love or serve in place of God. An idol is a false God. As a Christian it is possible to sincerely profess a love for the true and living God while functionally serving a false God. Here C.J. quoted Richard Keyes who wrote, “An idol is something within creation that is inflated to function as God. All sorts of things are potential idols, depending only on our attitudes and actions towards them…idolatry may not involve explicit denials of God’s existence or character. It may well come in the form of an over-attachment to something that is, in itself, perfectly good…An idol can be a physical object, a property, a person, an activity, a role, an institution, a hope, an image, an idea, a pleasure, a hero - anything that can substitute for God.”
Many idols are obvious and easy to identify. Yet many idols may come in the form of an over-attachment to something that is, on its own, good. John Calvin wrote “The evil in our desires usually does not lie in what we want but that we want it too much.” Often what we want are gifts from God. The evil is in wanting this too much. The desire for a gift from God becomes a sinful craving, a ruling craving. There is an endless list of things that can become idolatrous: leisure, health, marriage, vocation, food, and so on. They are all gifts from God but are all also potential objects of idolatry not in and of themselves but when idolatry emerges internally when we want this gift as a substitute for God. As we consider this list we need to ask, is there some gift of God we really want too much? It is probably what you think of when we hear or read this very point.
Discerning Idolatry. The source of idolatry is sin that remains within. “Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” (James 1:14.) Calvin writes, “The human heart is a factory of idols…every one of us is, from his mother’s womb, expert in inventing idols.” Our hearts will regularly create idols of the heart.
There are four ways God has given by which we can identify idolatry:
Through Holy Scripture (see Hebrews 4:12 - “For the Word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword…”). The Bible has a unique ability to penetrate and reveal our hearts.
The person and the work of the Holy Spirit. The opening of our eyes is an act of the Spirit and we must appeal to Him (Psalm 139:23-24). We are not to engage in morbid introspection but are to ask God to search and try us. When we talk about how to identify idolatry we are dependant on the Spirit as we contemplate Scripture in the shadow of the cross, secure in our justification.
The church. We need the church to help us identify idols. We need the preaching of the Word and we need brothers and sisters in Christ. In the local church we are to receive the caring and discerning eyes of others on our souls because sin blinds and deceives. Sin always blinds and deceives the self before others. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend.” We need to approach our friends and invite them to help us examine our hearts since we are so obvious oblivious to what is obvious to them. We need to initiate and invite and persist because we need the caring and discerning eyes of others on our souls.
Circumstances. (Here C.J. introduced two tests: the test of adversity and the test of prosperity) The test of adversity asks “what is your response if you do not obtain a desire of your heart?” What is our response if it is taken away? At this moment we find if we are worshiping someone or something other than God. What could begin as a good and godly desire may turn into a sinful craving. What is your response when things to do not go as you had hoped? Idols never deliver. They always disappoint. Discernment protects us from the consequences of sin. Whenever you experience the test of adversity God is testing your heart and there is a shift from created things to the Creator. This is what God does through this test.
Sadly, time did not permit a discussion of the test of prosperity, though C.J. pointed out that heroes of the faith more commonly fail the test of prosperity more than the test of adversity. He said also that it can be particularly difficult to cope with the test of adversity when another person or a friend is going through the gift of prosperity, and especially if this happens around the same gift (such as when one person is struggling with finances and another is enjoying a time of outpouring).
At this point the time had long since lapsed and he was able to give little more than “A Discerning Idols Starter Kit.” He pointed us to 1 John 5:21 which says “Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.” He then told us that David Powlison has taught him all he knows about idols and he stands on this man’s shoulders. He pointed us to a chapter in one of Powlison’s books that will be distributed here and which will be posted on the New Attitude web site.
Very quickly he gave two quick pointers for the fruit of identifying idolatry. The first is growth in godliness. If you feel you are unsuccessfully battling against sin, it may be that you are not addressing the root issues which may be idolatry issues. The second is growing in gratefulness to God. Idolatry reminds us of our need for forgiveness for sin and the Savior’s sacrifice on the cross for our sin. As you study this topic you will find yourself affected and profoundly grateful as you find how much you’ve been forgiven by God. “But he who is forgiven little loves little” (Luke 7:47). Is your love for God little or much? If you study idolatry you’ll become freshly aware of how much you’ve been forgiven. If you are lacking passion and gratefulness perhaps you don’t realize how much you’ve been forgiven. Those who know they’ve been forgiven much, necessary love much. Prior to your conversion, you, on a daily basis, insulted God. You created one false God after another. You exchanged truth about God for a lie. You served and worshiped the creature rather than the Creator. You offended Him and were justly and righteously the objects of His wrath.
If you have turned from sin and trusted in the Savior you have been forgiven much. You are now free from future wrath. We must love Him much because we’ve been forgiven much.
After the band led in a song, Josh led a time of repentance in which he encouraged people to search their hearts to identify the idols that they have allowed in their hearts. He asked that God would allow us all to see the wickedness of idolatry and to turn from it. And then the evening was over.