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The Essential: Idolatry

This is the seventeenth installment in a series on theological terms. See previous posts on the terms theology, Trinity, creation, man, Fall, common grace, sin, righteousness, faith, pride, election, revelation, atonement, adoption, sanctification and incarnation.

“For what is idolatry if not this: to worship the gifts in place of the giver himself?” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.17.36) Calvin summarizes well what it means to commit idolatry. Idolatry may well be in full view in the days to come as so many of us make our New Year’s resolutions. Do we make these resolutions because we want to honor God? Or are we resolving to do things that make us feel better about the idols we worship? Losing weight may be a noble goal, but not if we want to lose weight for all the wrong reasons.

The clearest places we see idolatry defined in Scripture are in two similar passages from Paul’s epistles:

For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. (Ephesians 5:5)

Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. (Colossians 3:5)

In both of these passages, idolatry is used synonymously with covetousness. The Greek word behind covetousness (pleonexia) is defined as “the state of desiring to have more than one’s due,” which is to say that a covetous person is not content with what they’ve been alloted by God—including God himself—and so they are constantly looking elsewhere for their satisfaction. Does that sound at all familiar?

This means that idolatry is the same as covetousness in the sense that, as people remain (or become) discontent with who God is and what he has done for them, they look elsewhere for satisfaction. They divert their eyes from the Giver and look to his gifts for their fulfillment. This can include all sorts of physical pleasures, none of which is inherently bad—food, sex, exercise—as well as intangible things like ambition, productivity, learning, and social acceptance. As Tim Keller has taught us, anything can be, and everything has been, an idol.

The lesson for us in these, the final days of an old year, is to choose our New Year’s resolutions carefully and biblically.