Idolatry, A Substitute god

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Ed Walsh

Puritan Board Senior
Greetings beloved of the Lord,

Here is the introduction to three subjects in the title blow. It is on the nature of idolatry as a matter of the heart. It helped me see that I still have some idols to destroy.
It is presented simply, and I think usefully.

If some find this helpful, I will add the commentary of the title's three subjects.

A Delusion, a Servant, a New Song
Isaiah 41:21–42:17

Introduction to the three sections that follow

Isaiah doesn’t respect idols. That’s obvious. What’s less obvious is whether his message is relevant to us today. Didn’t modern civilization leave idols behind a long time ago? Doesn’t idolatry belong to primitive cultures? That depends.

If idols were only images and figurines and fertility charms and so forth, Isaiah’s message would be of antiquarian interest only. But the Bible is smarter than that. Even the Old Testament speaks of people taking idols into their hearts (Ezekiel 14:1–11). Idols don’t have to be actual images to work their spell on the human psyche. They can be internalized in our hearts. If we understand that an idol is any heart-level substitute for God, then we can see that the modern world is infested with idols. In fact, John Calvin said that the human heart is a perpetual idol-factory.[1]

Idolatry, therefore, is more than a pagan problem. It’s a human problem. It’s a modern problem. In fact, it’s a Christian problem. The Old Testament repeatedly warns the covenant community against idolatry, beginning with the story of the golden calf (Exodus 32). We know that warning applies to us today because the New Testament says it does (1 Corinthians 10:1–12). The New Testament says to us, “Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry” (1 Corinthians 10:14). “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21). And the flip side of that warning is the gospel’s glad announcement that “Christ … is your life” (Colossians 3:4).

This is why the Bible attacks idols so aggressively. Christ is serious about being our happiness. His salvation is not a pious slogan; it is our life. The problem is, we have a hard time believing that. We waffle. He can seem more obligatory than satisfying. And we inevitably gravitate toward whatever we believe will make us happy. So, this category idolatry really explains something about us. It explains why we all struggle with persistent, enslaving sins that hold us back. The sin itself is only the surface problem, and mere willpower can’t get rid of it. The real problem causing the sinful behavior is some idol or other captivating our hearts by promising to make us happy, and we fall for it. We tell ourselves that our joy and freedom and significance and security require something more than Christ. Our faith in him is so unimaginative. Our expectations of him are so low. We run from him to stuff ourselves full of counterfeit pleasures and empty salvations. What we need every day is to taste the goodness of the Lord all over again.

The first commandment is, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). Why is that one the first? Because if we can give ourselves to God alone, it’s easier to obey the other nine commandments. But if we reverse that, if we open our hearts to idolatrous substitutes, we unleash all kinds of sinful impulses. This is why the Bible says, “Keep yourselves in the love of God” (Jude 21). Any source of life, any explanation of reality, any strength for living that robs Christ of his exclusive glory in our hearts is an idol and will inevitably degrade us.

But an idol is not a bad thing in itself. It is some good, God-created thing, some gift of God that we use as a substitute for God himself (Romans 1:23, 25). An idol is anything other than God that we absolutize as essential to our peace, our self-image, our contentment, our sense of control, our acceptability. Augustine explained how this worked in his own life and how God liberated him:

Late have I loved you, Beauty so old and so new; late have I loved you. And see, you were within and I was in the external world and sought you there, and in my unlovely state I plunged into those lovely created things which you made. You were with me, and I was not with you. The lovely things kept me far from you, though if they did not have their existence in you, they had no existence at all. You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness. You were radiant and resplendent, you put to flight my blindness. You were fragrant, and I drew in my breath and now pant after you. I tasted you, and I feel but hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours.[2]​

Martin Luther’s catechism on the First Commandment helps us all identify with the realities of idolatry:

What is it to have a god? What is God? Answer: A god is that to which we look for all good and in which we find refuge in every time of need. To have a god is nothing else than to trust and believe him with our whole heart. As I have often said, the trust and faith of the heart alone make both God and an idol. If your faith and trust are right, then your God is the true God. On the other hand, if your trust is false and wrong, then you have not the true God. For these two belong together, faith and God. That to which your heart clings and entrusts itself is, I say, really your God.[3]​

Our root problem is not social or intellectual or even moral, as we usually think of it. Our root problem in all of life is that we keep going to false gods for their false salvations. More than we realize, our hearts complicate the profound simplicity of faith in God. And then we wonder why we’re disappointed with life. Here’s what we need to see with clarity: There is only one salvation, it belongs to Christ alone, we receive it on his terms, and no one has ever trusted him in vain.

The Bible says that Israel brought foreign idols into the temple of the Lord (2 Kings 21:1–9). God had filled it with his very presence (1 Kings 8:10, 11). Then Israel filled it with idols. We read that Biblical story, shake our heads, and think, “What a bunch of morons.” But is it really that far-fetched? Several years ago the Episcopal Church confirmed a declared homosexual in the office of Bishop. God loves homosexuals as much as he loves anyone else. But that decision was wrong. Why? It sanctified within the church an alien ideal—a worldly ideal of self-defined sexuality in defiance of God’s design for human sexuality. It brought a foreign idol into the temple. But idolatry can cast its spell on any church, even a conservative church. In Galatians 4:8–10 Paul writes:

Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods [idols]. But now that you have come to know God … how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? You observe days and months and seasons and years!

These legalistic believers were re-enslaving themselves to their old idols of self-defined righteousness in defiance of Christ’s righteousness. They too were bringing an alien ideal into the church—“the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world.” It was the idol of works-righteousness. So whether you come from a progressive background or a conservative background, if Jesus Christ is not the defining confidence of your heart, you have a problem with idols.

But God loves us idolaters and wants us to experience his salvation, the way Augustine did. And we can. God’s whole purpose for human history is to establish his glory as our highest joy and deepest resource. In this passage Isaiah shows us three things: a delusion, a servant, and a new song. He shows us how stupid our idols are, how worthy God’s alternative is, and how desirable it is to dump our idols and embrace his alternative with all our hearts.

Ortlund, R. C., Jr., & Hughes, R. K. (2005). Isaiah: God saves sinners (pp. 266–270). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.
–––––––––––––––––
1 Institutes, 1.11.8.
2 Henry Chadwick, trans., Augustine’s Confessions (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 201.
3 Robert H. Fischer, trans., The Large Catechism of Martin Luther (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959), p. 9.
 

David Shedlock

Puritan Board Freshman
"If idols were only images and figurines and fertility charms and so forth, Isaiah’s message would be of antiquarian interest only."
You should see the personal reviews of The Chosen video series. I assume the writer (you?) believes that images of Jesus on celluloid (or digital) count.
 

Ed Walsh

Puritan Board Senior
You should see the personal reviews of The Chosen video series. I assume the writer (you?) believes that images of Jesus on celluloid (or digital) count
Morning David,
I haven't seen the chosen or the reviews so I'm at a bit of a loss as to what you are getting at in your question. I'd be happy to try to answer you if you would clarify it for somebody who's a little bit of a mushroom on this matter.
Thanks for writing,
Ed
 

David Shedlock

Puritan Board Freshman
Sorry about that. "The Chosen" is a video series on YouTube that was crowdfunded. It purports to be about Jesus and his disciples. and includes an actor pretending to be Jesus. It is on YouTube and has been watched by millions of Christians.
 

Ed Walsh

Puritan Board Senior
Thanks, David, for the info. After you first wrote the first time, I looked it up and learned a little about it. Those things are always a little (or a lot) flaky. I never watch them for very long. I find it a better use of time seeking the real deal through the Scriptures. I didn't look for any reviews yet. From what you said, they seem to be scarce.

Did you have any questions or criticisms on the portion I posted this morning? I thought it was pretty good stuff.

Ed
 

David Shedlock

Puritan Board Freshman
Morning David,
I haven't seen the chosen or the reviews so I'm at a bit of a loss as to what you are getting at in your question. I'd be happy to try to answer you if you would clarify it for somebody who's a little bit of a mushroom on this matter.
Thanks for writing,
Ed
Great stuff in your writing. I may use it to supplement family worship for a few days. Here is the link to personal viewers reviews, which is what I was referring to rather than the ministerial ones. https://tinyurl.com/azbe2dk4
 

VictorBravo

Administrator
Staff member
Just to be clear, Ed, what you posted was quoted from Ortland as your citation indicates.

I've read that chapter and found it helpful in going through Isaiah 41 and applying it to our time. Certainly idolatry is rampant in our day, too.

From my notes I found this:

"If you think you can create a God or, broader speaking, think you can create a system of thought that transcends God, then you are making yourself to be God.
Instead of worshipping the Creator, we pretend to be creators ourselves. That is the most abominable form of Pride because it violates the First Commandment right at the start:

2 "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
3 "You shall have no other gods before Me. (Exod. 20:2-3 NKJ)

... And, addressing worldview:

"Nevertheless, the great hope of the natural man, is to explain Nature on his own terms. This is tied into the desire to predict the future.

From the ancients to the present. From soothsayers to stock market prognostictors, from tea leaves and astrology to “predictive modeling”, we all are looking for an advantage in dealing with our existence.

Underlying this, of course, is order. But why should there be order?
  • The natural man assumes order because “that’s the way it has always been.”
  • God reveals to us that there is order because he created it and he upholds it.
The idols cannot know something that has never happened, because their world is limited by experience.
Isaiah’s attack zeroes in on this problem: The idols cannot account for first principles. God does."
 

Ed Walsh

Puritan Board Senior
Just to be clear, Ed, what you posted was quoted from Ortland as your citation indicates.

Not a word of it is mine. In the past, I made it clearer that it was Ortland (or whoever). I guess I took it for granted people would be familiar with the author I quoted here. This is my third or fourth citation of his work.

His is a rather myopic (In a good sense) interpretation of Isaiah. But refreshingly so. He sees grace and salvation in just about every verse.

Thank for the clarification.

Ed
 

Ed Walsh

Puritan Board Senior
Below is a brief quote from Ortland's commentary on Isaiah 43. It is out of context, but I think his quote by Tozer is earth-shattering.
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In this passage, Isaiah guides us toward personal and corporate reformation. We need it. Every generation needs reformation and not just revival. A. W. Tozer put it bluntly:

A revival of the kind of Christianity which we have had in America the last 50 years would be the greatest tragedy of this century, a tragedy which would take the church a hundred years to get over.

What’s the point of reviving the wrong kind of Christianity? It’s not just more power that we need, though we do need that. We also need a new kind of Christianity, reformed according to God’s great purpose for us. Too many churches can talk about “the chief end of man” as glorifying and enjoying God, but the meaning of that has never sunk in enough for those churches to pursue their chief end with glad intentionality. They just drift, little realizing how much more God has for them. We need reformation today.
 
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