What is Idolatry?

January 6, 2022 | by: Dale Thiele | 0 Comments

Posted in: Pastoral Encouragement

When we hear of idolatry, we can easily conjure images of a statue of a bull or some other creature. The Golden Calf from Exodus 32 is a prime example of blatant idolatry. So, when the New Testament call us to “flee idolatry” (1 Cor. 10:14) or “keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21), we may not even bat an eye at such a command; that’s not for our day and age; we’re not tempted to fall down in worship of a massive statue. 

Perhaps we need a better understanding of idolatry. 

Idolatry is resting in anything other than Christ for salvation. 

I use the Westminster Shorter Catechism Question 86 to help create this definition. The questions asks and answers, “What is faith in Jesus Christ? Faith in Jesus Christ is a saving grace, whereby we receive and rest upon him alone for salvation, as he is offered to us in the gospel.” By defining idolatry in terms of rest for salvation, we bridge the cultural gap from the Old Testament to the modern day. To help us further in our understanding of idolatry, let me explain how salvation and idolatry relate. 

Salvation is judicial. The guilt of our sin is condemned in Christ on the cross and we are counted righteous in Christ. Idolatry is resting in anything other than Christ for the appeasement, relief of, or liberation from that guilt. We do this all the time when we do works of righteousness in order to feel good about ourselves. This is idolatry. 

Salvation is relational. The broken relationship with God (due to our sin) is reconciled in Christ and we are adopted as children of God. There is no greater love or acceptance. Idolatry is resting in anything other than Christ for that ultimate sense of acceptance and love. We do this all of the time when relationships become ultimate or when we feel unloved, rejected, and isolated when human relationships go awry. This is idolatry. 

Salvation brings significance. The reconciled relationship as adopted children of God brings all the privileges of that relationship. There is no greater source of significance. Idolatry is resting in anything we do or accomplish or identify with other than Christ for our ultimate sense of significance. Our value is rooted and secure in the finished work of Christ. 

More can be said about salvation. Salvation is eternal, the source of true joy and peace, and sanctifying. Idolatry is resting in anything other than Christ for all that salvation brings us. And idolatry can manifest itself in all areas of our lives: our families, our marriages, our friendships, our careers, our education, our shopping habits, our entertainment, etc. Half the battle of heeding the command “Flee idolatry” is identifying the idols to which we are most susceptible. 

The other half of the battle is receiving the grace of God offered in the Gospel. The main folly of idolatry is the emptiness of idols. They can never meet or fill what Christ freely gives us in salvation. We flee idolatry when we rest upon Christ alone for salvation.


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