Grab your Bible, and let’s go deeper into Romans 1.
Read: Romans 1:18-25
Idolatry is one of the most talked about things in Scripture.
Three of the ten commandments specifically speak to idolatry. He begins with, “You shall have no other gods before me,” (Exodus 20:3) and then He ends with the 10th commandment, which talks about covetousness—craving something more than you should, which is a form of idolatry. So, God bookends the 10 Commandments with a focus on idolatry. The teachings on idolatry are not just confined to the Old Testament. We read in 1 John 5:21, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.”
This should give us a deep desire to go deeper into this area of our sin, so we can understand and answer the following:
What is idolatry?
What are the consequences of idolatry?
How can we be free from idolatry?
Consider for yourself: When someone says idol worship or idolatry, what do we commonly think of? We usually think of an idol as an animal or human figure made of stone or wood, right? We picture someone prostrate on the ground before an object for religious devotion or magical power. Or we might use “idolatry” to describe someone’s obsession with money or someone we “idolize.”
Author Richard Keyes says, “We have, in effect, distanced ourselves from the whole idea of idolatry by pushing it out to the extreme cultural and psychological margins of life.” This distance has produced two problems: First, we misunderstand
the wreckage of idolatry that the writers of the Bible so often and intensely write about. If we as Christians today see idolatry only at life’s margins, we will be ill-equipped to address these sinful struggles in a biblical way.
The second problem is similar to the first but even more important: If we do not understand the nature of idolatry, we will not be able to recognize or guard against it in our own lives and communities. My hope is we begin to see that overlooking idolatry makes us blind toward our own problems! Idols are not just on pagan altars; they are also in well-educated hearts and minds.
So, our first stop must be to answer the question, “What is idolatry?”
In sin, we tragically altered our relationship with God, and as a result, instead of turning GODWARD and finding in Him all that we need in life, we turned away and to other things to try to discover those things God designed in us to be fulfilled by Him. The way the Apostle Paul put it in our passage today is instead of turning Godward, we turn away from God. We did not honor Him as God!
Romans 1:21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him …
We ceased to see God as fundamental and essential for the existence and fulfillment of our lives. Because we are made to have relationship with God in which we are fulfilled, purposed, secure, and where we have clear identity, when we no longer seek Him to be those things for us, we now have an active vacuum in our hearts that looks to find those things in other places.
We do not simply turn away from God; we actually have to find something to put in His place. So what Paul says is that people embrace a lie to exchange the Creator for the created. Romans 1:25 says, “because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.”
Because we are wired for worship, we will worship! So hear this: When we turn from God we find a substitute on whom we heap our worship. We look to something else to give us identity, meaning, significance, purpose, security and joy! G. K. Chesterton said, “When we cease to worship God, we do not worship nothing, we worship anything.” So it is these substitutes that become our idols.
So our working definition of idolatry is this: A substitute or counterfeit God—something in the creation that is inflated to function as God. It is something that has become more fundamental than God in your life for your identity, personal significance, sense of security, purpose for living, source of happiness, and joy. So your idol, likely then, is not a carved block of wood or shiny metal or formed stone, but a person, a place, a house, a car, a team, a hope, an idea, a pleasure, a political party, or a motorcycle. In it you are putting your hope and your trust. You’re trying to learn from it. And you are trying to find your identity, personal significance, sense of security, purpose for living, happiness and joy in and from it.
When we begin to understand this, we begin to really understand what God was asking for in the first commandment: “Do not have any other gods before me.” He is saying, “Do not make anything more necessary or fundamental or valuable than me.” Martin Luther’s teaching on the commandments can be summarized this way: Every breaking of the commandments is, at its core, a breaking of the first commandment.
Here is why breaking any commandment is really breaking the first:
Why do we lie? Because we want the approval or the thing that lie gets us to fulfill us: replacing God.
Why do we steal? Because we think we NEED that thing to fulfill us: replacing God.
Why do we covet or envy? Because we think if I had that, I would be happy. It would satisfy me: replacing God.
So it is essential that we understand an idol is not simply a statue of wood, stone, or metal; it is anything we love and pursue in place of God! An idol is something within creation that is inflated to function as God.
This brings to light a key thing to understand: An idol (in its essence) isn’t necessarily something evil. It commonly is something very good. Colossians 3:5 says, “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” I want to focus on the words “evil desires.”
Our affections or desires really are the root of our worship and whether or not we honor God or something else. So “evil desires” here is key and yet often misunderstood. The phrase “evil desires” here is an effort of the English translators to get across a single Greek word, which is “epithumia,” and means “an over desire” or “an excessive desire.”
All throughout the New Testament, this word pops up when dealing with character change. The problem is we typically read it or translate it as a desire for something evil—something forbidden, like to kill someone, to steal, or to deal drugs to kids. But that’s not what epithumia is! It is an over or misplaced desire for anything that is good. It is essentially addiction or lust for something God has made.
John Calvin clearly says, “The evil in our desire typically does not lie in what we want, but that we want it too much.”
So often the object of desire is good, and the evil lies in the lordship of the desire.
I am a parent: it is very possible to turn my kids into idols.
I am a pastor: it is possible to turn my job into an idol.
I am a patch holder in SFJMC: it is possible to turn the patch into an idol.
It is a good thing that you have simply inflated to function as God in your life.
So consider this: Another way to define idolatry is “Taking a good thing and making it an ultimate thing.” This happens when we replace God’s will for our own and try to determine how we live. As a result, our natural affections (for any good thing) in SIN become ruling cravings.
In this, we can begin to see why people do a lot of things. The guy who feels he has to get drunk on the weekends is not necessarily making an idol of alcohol. Or the girl who feels she has to give her body away sexually to men isn’t necessarily making an idol of sex. The ultimate thing in both of these hurtful practices could be an over desire for friendship and love!
So one cheapens one’s self to get wasted on the weekend or gives her body away sexually because being fulfilled in friendship or love has become ultimate. And at any cost, they make that thing their master!
The good thing of your “looks or beauty” can become an ultimate thing (an idol) in your life in an effort to find your personal significance. The good thing of your “career” can become an ultimate thing (an idol) in your life in an effort to find your sense of security. The good thing of “raising your kids” can become an ultimate thing (an idol) in your life in an effort to find your purpose for living.
Idolatry happens when you and I try to find our identity, personal significance, sense of security, purpose for living, happiness, and joy in these things or people or in status INSTEAD OF IN GOD!
Now it is critical we begin to see the consequences of idolatry.
What are the consequences of idolatry? Notice what happens when we exchange God as ultimate in our lives and make something else more fundamental or ultimate for our joy, identity, purpose for living, security, and personal significance.
Back to Romans 1: look at verse 25. Romans 1:25 says, “because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.”
Consequence #1: It leads to slavery! You become a slave to your idols—it begins to control you. You begin to serve it.
This functional counterfeit god in our life becomes our master. Herein lies the irony for all those who deny God because they don’t want to be controlled by God: You inevitably will turn to something else that turns on you and controls you. The intention in the beginning is you think you can control it, but it gains power and priority over you, and in the end, it controls you so that you become a slave to your idol.
Money becomes an idol when it becomes more fundamental to your joy and life than God. Money says, “You will finally enjoy life if you have me. You will amount to someone. You will be secure with more money.” And so, you work yourself to death, even at the cost of family, friendships, or ministry. We put cash on the throne in our hearts and make it KING.
We make money our idol, and instead of working to live, money is so your master, your KING, and you live to work.
Like a slave master who has you in his grip, you lie for him to qualify for loans or credit cards. You steal and spend more than you know you have and have to pay back at the expense of someone else. You cheat on your taxes and in your addiction make excuses that it is ok, because you have decided ultimately who really should get your money—not the government or God, but you. Now, because it has become everything to you, what losing it means is the second consequence of the idol factory at work.
Consequence #2: It leads to devastation! Hosea 8:4: “… With their silver and gold they made idols for their own destruction.”
When your idols let you down or break down or run away, you will begin to come undone! You feel crushed, like you want to die. Why? Because that thing or position or person has become everything to you—ultimate, fundamental—and so when it is away or not working or lost or gone, you feel incomplete and undone. What is little and/or temporary is set up on a mantle to be EVERYTHING—to be ultimate and fundamental to us. A family member can become an idol if they become more fundamental to your joy and life than God. When you make a family member ultimate, if they leave you or get hurt or die, it will wreck you.
If a good thing is lost, you are sad. If an ultimate thing is lost, you are lost. Whatever you give your heart to converts you. It gives you a sense of identity and purpose to live. Now, because losing our idols is so devastating, you become trapped in fear, which leads to the third consequence of the idol factory at work.
Consequence #3: It leads to fear! Because the response to losing our idols is so powerfully devastating, we can become overcome with fear of losing it. So a level of great unhealth comes to us because of our fierce, fear-driven motivation to keep our idols in our possession. This is where addiction for so many takes over—an imbalance in thinking that causes one to over-elevate something that isn’t necessarily bad to an unhealthy involvement.
Because we are stricken with fear, seldom do we really feel true peace! Why? Because the thing I have elevated to ultimate could be lost or stolen or broken. Only in the everlasting God are we able to find peace, because all that is temporary gains purpose as it points to Him, and in Him my ultimate affection is always satisfied.
But a righteous God—a just God—must justly give out judgment for those who choose the created over the Creator to worship and love and find meaning for life. This leads to the fourth consequence of the idol factory at work in our hearts.
Consequence #4: It leads to God’s judgment! Back to Romans 1. Romans 1:18 says, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.” When we turn away from God, we turn toward judgment—we remove ourselves from relationship with God.
The wrath of God is perfect for all those in unrepentant sin who choose to worship something else. So, His wrath is revealed to those who deny or “suppress” the truth, which is life with the living God. Everything else that you and I try to set our lives on will only lead to certain and eternal death. Our idolatry is serious because God’s judgment means eternal death. It is as serious as death—eternal death.
The pressing question then has to be, “How can we be free from idolatry?” The answer is the difference between two words: achieve or receive!
Achieve: You can live your life trying to achieve a certain identity, life of significance, level of security, purpose, or joy. We can try to achieve those things; it is called SELF-SALVATION.
As far back as you can remember, you have been in achieve mode trying to answer these questions!
For the ladies: When you were little you would ask, “Daddy, aren’t I pretty?”
Or the boys might have said, “Mommy, watch how fast I am!”
It is always “achieve.” “I have to be more, do more, prove myself.”
Because you have to achieve on some level to find a sense of identity, significance, purpose, or joy! Job, friends, love, family being proud of you, family members, house, car, bank account, recognition/awards. It becomes, “Can I achieve to the point of self-salvation?”
--Even the drug addict on the street is in achieve mode to get his next high.
--The outlaw who steals or fights does so to achieve acceptance or significance.
--You are trying to rescue yourself from insecurity, from insignificance, and trying to achieve.
HEAR THIS: As long as you live in achieve mode, you will live as a slave!
But there is good news! Instead of slaving away at trying to achieve, you can receive! Receive what? Receive the gospel, which brings us to the true way of salvation.
Turn Godward and receive the life of Christ, who stands in your place to achieve all that is needed to be restored to the living God, who ultimately is your identity, personal significance, sense of security, and purpose for living, and you can find in Him your happiness and joy. The gospel helps us understand that Jesus came and lived idol-free, and yet took upon Himself our deserved wrath for our idol-worship. He died in our place so that we no longer had to achieve but could be free to RECEIVE His life in our place. This resulted in the restoration of our relationship to the Father and opened the doors for us to be satisfied in Him forever.
In Christ, we RECEIVE an identity with God that we could never gain, nor can we ever lose!
Let me be really clear: To receive Jesus is not coming to church long enough so you are ok, or working hard enough to get your life straight, or rectifying the wrongs from your past. All that would just be more achieving, by which you would claim some of the worship and glory. That’s religion.
The gospel is altogether different, because Christ achieved what we could not. He makes us a forever part of the Church. He empowers us to straighten out our life to honor Him. He rectifies the wrongs of our past on the cross. All we do is receive by repenting from sin and trusting in Christ as Lord.
Only “in Christ, who is our life,” are we able to look to the good things in our life and see them as good and not have to make them ultimate things.
So your marriage is a good thing but not the ultimate thing.
Your career is a good thing but not the ultimate thing.
Your club is a good thing but not an ultimate thing.
You realize none of those things can ACHIEVE ULTIMATE JOY and LIFE—only JESUS can do that! None of those things could die for you and remain your JOY. If they were even willing to do that, they would be dead, and then you would be devastated. But Christ rose to victory and sets us on a new path, and IN HIM alone our idol factory can close for good.