Idols of Our Own Making

Augustine wrote, ” O poor soul, how you debase yourself when you love earthly things.  You are better than them!  Only God is above you and you were made to love him only!”

God – the God of the Bible – is the Creator of all and leaves no room for any other imagined deity.  He is eternal, uncaused, self-existing and absolute perfection, and nothing can be added to him or taken from him.  No other being is its own cause.  No other being rivals the One True God.  In the Ten Commandments we read,   

6 ‘I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.  7 ‘You shall have no other gods before Me.  ‘You shall not make for yourself a carved image—any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; 9 you shall not bow down to them nor serve them.  For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, 10 but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.  11 ‘You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain.

Deuteronomy 5

That message is repeated throughout the whole of Scripture.  The Christian believer is to love and serve Him as Lord and as God; there is never to be any place given to any other god, idol, or power.  Further, we are to worship and revere Him as He is, as He has objectively revealed Himself to us in His Word, and not merely as we might wish or imagine Him to be. Idolatry, at times incorporating the religious influences of the pagan nations around them, and ultimately essentially forgetting the One True God, brought ruin and destruction to the Jewish kingdoms in the Old Testament.  Isaiah 44 conveys a key and powerful message:

 Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel,
And his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts:
‘I am the First and I am the Last;
Besides Me there is no God.

The superiority of God over idols is the main point of this writing of Isaiah, proven by the ability of God to foretell the future.  At the end of the chapter is a detailed prophecy of events fulfilled more than a century in the future at the time of writing, and throughout the writings of Isaiah there are a number of very detailed prophecies that have been fulfilled.

And who can proclaim as I do?
Then let him declare it and set it in order for Me,
Since I appointed the ancient people.
And the things that are coming and shall come,
Let them show these to them.
Do not fear, nor be afraid;
Have I not told you from that time, and declared it?
You are My witnesses.  Is there a God besides Me?
Indeed there is no other Rock; I know not one.’ ”

Other “gods” made by men are idols that cannot see, speak, hear, or even do what humans can.  The ancient workmen who created idols from the natural elements of creation were mere men who could make nothing superior to themselves. 

Those who make an image, all of them are useless,
And their precious things shall not profit;
They are their own witnesses;
They neither see nor know, that they may be ashamed.
10 Who would form a god or mold an image
That profits him nothing?
11 Surely all his companions would be ashamed;
And the workmen, they are mere men.
Let them all be gathered together,
Let them stand up; Yet they shall fear,
They shall be ashamed together.

12 The blacksmith with the tongs works one in the coals,
Fashions it with hammers,
And works it with the strength of his arms.
Even so, he is hungry, and his strength fails;
He drinks no water and is faint.

13 The craftsman stretches out his rule,
He marks one out with chalk; He fashions it with a plane,
He marks it out with the compass, And makes it like the figure of a man,
According to the beauty of a man, that it may remain in the house.
14 He cuts down cedars for himself, And takes the cypress and the oak;
He secures it for himself among the trees of the forest.
He plants a pine, and the rain nourishes it.

15 Then it shall be for a man to burn,
For he will take some of it and warm himself;
Yes, he kindles it and bakes bread;
Indeed he makes a god and worships it;
He makes it a carved image, and falls down to it.
16 He burns half of it in the fire; With this half he eats meat;
He roasts a roast, and is satisfied.
He even warms himself and says,
“Ah! I am warm, I have seen the fire.”
17 And the rest of it he makes into a god, His carved image.
He falls down before it and worships it,
Prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!”

18 They do not know nor understand;
For He has shut their eyes, so that they cannot see,
And their hearts, so that they cannot understand.
19 And no one considers in his heart,
Nor is there knowledge nor understanding to say,
“I have burned half of it in the fire,
Yes, I have also baked bread on its coals;
I have roasted meat and eaten it;
And shall I make the rest of it an abomination?
Shall I fall down before a block of wood?”

Nothing could be more foolish than worshipping something made of metal or wood or other materials of creation.  Idolatry is declared to be a deception, which profits nothing and brings judgement.  The chosen Jewish nation failed to maintain strict loyalty and obedience to God.  Few of us, either individually or in our churches, have any sort of statue or image that might be considered an idol, but too often we too are given to very real idolatry. 

In Colossians 3:5, Paul wrote  “Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.”   John warned believers in 1 John 5:21 to “Keep yourselves from idols.”  Earlier he warned, in 1 John 2:16, “For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world.”   To love the world is to make an idol of some element of it.  Sexual sin, materialism, jealousy, covetousness, hunger for power and prestige, the inordinate pursuit of pleasure, selfish pride; these things are idolatry and displace God from His rightful place in our lives.  Paul wrote in 2 Timothy 3:1-5 “But know this, that in the last days perilous times will come: 2 For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, 3 unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, 4 traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, 5 having a form of godliness but denying its power. And from such people turn away!”  Too many of us are guilty of these things, and often we must be reminded to turn away from such behaviors and attitudes. 

But all idolatry is not so obvious.  John’s statement to believers in 1 John 5:21 to “Keep yourselves from idols,” is perhaps a contrast with reference to “the true God” in verse 20, essentially a warning against false teachers and false teaching.  A god who is not the god of Scripture becomes in effect an idol, a false god, and the god of growing segments of perceived evangelicalism is just that, a false god of their own making.

“Lovers of self” leads the list of Paul’s description of the last days in the 2 Timothy passage; if unrepentant self is loved and admired it is an idol.  This has been forgotten by a broad part of the church with people often essentially encouraged to be “proud,” “unholy,” and “lovers of themselves” by the church.  God isn’t championed as the living sovereign God of Scripture, holy, righteous, just, intolerant of rebellion and sin, while also love and grace and mercy; but rather merely as accepting and loving as defined by human reasoning.  The gospel that is presented is broadly a man-centered gospel of happiness, hope, prosperity, and success; Jesus the life-coach. The Jesus of history becomes a divine source of inspiration and timeless wisdom but not the source of salvation through His atoning death and resurrection, for a god of purely human-defined love and acceptance requires no atonement. There is little mention of the sin of man and his utter helplessness in turning to God for salvation.  Jesus is frequently referred to in literature, sermons and teaching, and especially in music in terms of filial or erotic love; Jesus the divine boyfriend.  Compromise and secularization of the church is justified by saying that this is necessary to appeal to a broader segment of society and attract the un-churched.  Pragmatism rather than revealed truth becomes a driving principle, with churches that warn no one of eternal judgement or teach that anyone should repent of their sins. As a result of these compromises they are no longer worshipping the living God but are worshipping an idol of their own making.  This is idolatry as surely as bowing down to a statue.

Ideology often becomes, in effect, an idol embraced by the church.  Patriotism and love of country is a good thing, but it can never be allowed to displace the gospel as the dominant theme of the church, and at times this has become a problem in conservative American evangelicalism.  But God, as it were, is neither Republican nor Democrat.  Themes of socialism, “social justice,” critical theory, multiculturalism, and leftist-Marxist ideas have begun to gain acceptance in the perceived evangelical community; these ideas are completely antithetic to the gospel.  The god envisioned by those who accept these ideologies is not the God of Scripture but rather an idol, a god of human making. 

“Jesus” must be the Jesus of Scripture, the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity who came to atone for the sins of all who will repent and believe His gospel.  The prosperity-promising Jesus, the sin-affirming cosmic boyfriend Jesus, the life coach Jesus, the inspirational philosopher Jesus, the example of divine love martyr Jesus, the socialist Jesus, the Jesus adapted to fit the culture of the day – these are idols, abominations to God.  The Jesus of the Bible will be all or nothing, Lord and Savior, and anything else is a lie and a deception. 

John Calvin (Institutes, 1.11.8) rightly said, “Man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols.”  Just as idolatry brought disaster to the ancient Jewish nation, it will bring disaster to us. 

6 Now these things became our examples, to the intent that we should not lust after evil things as they also lusted. 7 And do not become idolaters as were some of them. As it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play.” “Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry” 

1 Corinthians 10:6-7

“Not Yours” – The Child and the Pandemic

Some would suggest that the current coronavirus pandemic is a message from God.  Perhaps it is a harbinger of the end times, or a warning of divine judgement.  We have certainly learned how easily mass panic can be engendered in the age of the internet and the constant bombardment of “news,” and how easy it is to get people to fall in line with growing governmental involvement in their lives when it is presented as necessary for their own good and the perceived good of the community.  But a “sign of the times?”  I don’t think so; there are no “signs of the times” to look for.  Christ will come suddenly for His Church, and then the prophesied events that precede the second coming and the establishment of the kingdom will come to pass.  But nevertheless, there is a profound reminder of scriptural principle for us in the situation.

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My wife and I often have occasion to watch our little granddaughter.  Both parents are employed, and we split daycare duties with the other grandparents and have done so since our daughter returned to work from maternity leave.  As the baby began to become mobile, first crawling, and then crawling faster, now toddling, generally during the day we have kept her in our family room most of the time.  The room is never too hot or too cold, always just right.  Her diaper is checked and changed regularly.  Bottle feeding was administered per her mother’s instructions, and now at some fourteen months old she is given age-appropriate nutritious food, and water is almost always available.  Toys and books are readily available as well as someone to read to her or play with her almost constantly.  Naps when she is tired are facilitated and encouraged.  Grandpa often carries her around the house, showing her “baby” – pictures on the wall, most featuring her, the baby.  Yet, invariably, she attempts to disregard the barriers to her exit from the room.  She attempts to escape and crawl up the stairway to the upstairs and has always been intercepted and scooped off the stairs, with, in my case, a pronouncement of “Not Yours.”  Attempts to get to something that might harm her, or to “mess up” something in the house, are met with “Not Yours.”  She wants the television remote, the lamp cords, anything placed out of her reach.  Taken into the room full of her toys and stuffed animals and books and told that “These are Yours,” she will soon attempt to escape to what is “Not Yours.”

She has enjoyed going outside in recent weeks and loves it.  In our back yard, we let her toddle around for the most part at will.  She may be met with “Not Yours” when she puts plant material in her mouth, but otherwise we enjoy watching her explore.  It is natural and healthy for her.  Over coming weeks, months, and years, we will enjoy watching her grow and explore.  That is what should happen.  That is for her enjoyment and benefit as well as for the profound pleasure of those who love her.

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The Bible affirms that God created man for His own divine purposes.  He created the world around us explicitly for us.  The writer of Genesis, the Psalmists, the Old Testament prophets affirm the glory of creation.  From the subatomic particle to the vastness of outer space, God created a perfect world, immensely beautiful and complex, a display of his grandeur, a place for people to explore and learn from.  The Edenic environment was perfect for the first created humans.  It was no doubt stimulating and awe inspiring, an environment in which humans could grow and explore and have fellowship with their Creator.

But the unimaginable happened.  Mankind rebelled and sinned against the Creator.  The principle of “Not Yours” was violated.  God, for His own unfathomable purposes, had created humans with the ability to disobey Him, and they did.  Their nature fundamentally changed.  They no longer had unimpeded communion with God, and in fact even their relationship with their world, with self, and with each other was damaged.  We can infer from Scripture that cataclysmic change occurred throughout the natural world when sin came.  And now everywhere we look, we see the glory of creation juxtaposed with the destruction of sin and rebellion against God.  There was no death in Eden, no pain, no tears, no suffering.  Mankind was created with a perfect environment.  But displaying their own will, the first humans rebelled against God.  Flood and drought.  War.  Misery.  Disease and pandemic.  Above all death.  All obviously allowed by Sovereign God, none part of His original creation.

The world didn’t merely become “broken.”  My granddaughter has some Lego-like plastic blocks.  Sitting on the floor with her, I can assemble a few into a shape.  She takes apart what I put together – she breaks it, the blocks easily reassembled or assembled into another shape.  A while back I attempted to glue back together a Christmas ornament that fell and broke, a ceramic egg picked up as a travel souvenir.   Almost as good as new, missing just a few tiny pieces, seams showing just a little glue and fitting almost but not quite perfectly.  That is “broken.”  But the Fall is something far beyond that.  The rebellion of creature against Creator was and remains something more massive, with consequences displayed everywhere we look.  Creation and the Fall.  The first two parts of God’s great plan for humanity.

The apostle Paul reminded in Romans 5:12-19,

 Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned— (For until the law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law.  Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those who had not sinned according to the likeness of the transgression of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come.  But the free gift is not like the offense. For if by the one man’s offense many died, much more the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abounded to many.  And the gift is not like that which came through the one who sinned. For the judgment which came from one offense resulted in condemnation, but the free gift which came from many offenses resulted in justification.  For if by the one man’s offense death reigned through the one, much more those who receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ.)

Therefore, as through one man’s offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation, even so through one Man’s righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so also by one Man’s obedience many will be made righteous.

The fallen nature that we inherited from Adam plagues all humans.  Even my granddaughter.  The principle of “Not Yours.”  But the story does not end there.  As the Romans 5 passage reminds us, Christ came and has overcome the consequences of the Fall for us.  Rebellion against God required a solution of nothing less than Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity, coming to earth as man to die on the cross for human sin.  The third part and culmination of God’s great plan for mankind that is explained in the Bible from Genesis to Revelation is the salvation that Jesus accomplished for us.  He made a way for us as sinners to return to fellowship with holy God.  It is incumbent on humans to be born again, to respond to the gospel and to the Spirit and recognize that we have by nature and by choice violated “Not Yours,” to turn in faith to Christ, to end our rebellion and call out to Him.  The necessary atonement for human sin has been made by the Second Adam.  Centuries after the Cross, we live in a world still plagued by the effects of the Fall, by disease and disaster and death, but we can individually know redemption and restoration.  The first Adam sinned and brought destruction and ruin; when we go toward what God has told us is “Not Yours” it brings problems to us individually.  God’s divine purpose is to call out people who are in violation of “Not Yours” and save them if they will turn to Him in faith.  Christians eagerly await the final part of God’s great plan, the end of the age and the eternal state, the restoration of all that was lost in the Fall.  An eternal age when we will know Him as Creator.  An eternal age when we will know Him as Redeemer.

An eternal age when there will be no more pandemics.

 

 

Right Here and Everywhere

Historic orthodox Christianity at its most basic core believes that God is both infinite and personal and wants to have a relationship with us.  The Bible tells us of a God who is the uncaused first cause, who preexisted the universe that we know and inhabit.  Beyond the limitations of the physical, and in fact the creator of the physical world, God is in no way limited by space and time; He created it all.  The immense and wonderful universe that exists is a display of His infinite intelligence, power, and creative ability.  He “spoke” all that exists into existence out of nothing that previously existed – He willed it and it was so.  An incalculable number of unfathomably complex atoms came into existence, formed into billions of galaxies, stars, and solar systems, in immeasurable space.

Many, maybe most, today believe that it is not reasonable to think that in the vastness of the cosmos there simultaneously exists a God who relates to individual people.  The authors of a social media post somewhat mockingly expressed this commonly held idea:

CHRISTIANITY: Belief that one God created a universe 13.79 billion years old, 93 billion light years in diameter (1 light year = approximately 6 trillion miles), consisting of over 200 billion galaxies, each containing an average of 200 billion stars, only to have a personal relationship with you.

While not agreeing with all of the stated presuppositions here, I think this statement about Christianity is essentially correct.  Christianity fundamentally believes that God is both infinite and personal and wants to have a relationship with us.

Creation has a divine purpose beyond merely manifesting God’s infinite glory to Himself and to His created beings.  He created the universe of “93 billion light years in diameter (1 light year = approximately 6 trillion miles), consisting of over 200 billion galaxies, each containing an average of 200 billion stars” as the perfectly designed home for humankind.  He created all that exists within our observation and comprehension for a great divine purpose that is in truth even beyond the glory of creation.  He designed us for the grand purpose that demands that we know Him, love Him, and worship and serve Him.  He created human beings in order to manifest His grace, mercy, forgiveness, and love.  Mankind, created by God, did the unthinkable, as God knew would be the case even before creation.  Mankind sinned and rebelled against the Creator.  Far more wonderfully than even creation itself expresses, God in turn has done the unimaginable.  He has made a way for us to be spared the consequences of rebellion against Him.  In Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Triune God became incarnate.  God stunningly became a man in order to be the requisite Savior.

Jesus Christ told us of God.  He taught us great high ethical standards.  He told us of God’s majesty and holiness.  He told us of the grace and love of God.  But supremely, He, God incarnate, submitted to a tortuous death on a crude Roman cross to demonstrate the monstrous consequence of human rebellion against creator God and to be the perfect sacrifice to provide the necessary atonement for human sin.  He died and resurrected in victory over death and sin for anyone who will but end rebellion against God, turn to Christ and embrace His gospel, recognize Him as Savior and Lord.  Yes, “only to have a personal relationship with you.”

Space and time and life on earth is a great display of God’s glory, and of His attributes of transcendence, unlimited knowledge, unlimited ability.  But surpassing that is the fact that God in Christ has Himself atoned for human sin and rebellion.  His redeemed people will know and love and worship Him eternally as Creator, but even more as gracious Redeemer.  A contemporary hymn writer has beautifully reminded us,

How deep the Father’s love for us
How vast beyond all measure
That He should give His only Son
To make a wretch His treasure.

God’s love, expressed in Christ on the cross, is “vast beyond all measure.”

What one believes about the anti-Christian sentiment and doubt expressed in the referenced social media post has great philosophical and practical implications.  Without an infinite personal god, human existence and life becomes vain and purposeless.  A human is but a tiny meaningless speck, an accumulation of a few trillion atoms, existing in a vast eternal cosmos of meaninglessness.  The uncomfortable but necessary conclusion is that there may be no answer in the quest for purpose and meaning.  Ethics and morality become relative.  Absolutes have no basis.  If I as an individual have no meaning or objective value, why might I assign value or purpose to others beyond what they can do for me?  The existentialist’s though of individual personal autonomy, of “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die, and when I die I shall but rot,” becomes completely reasonable.  Love, hate, or indifference become merely highly complex chemical reactions in the brain of an individual.  The immaterial aspects of a human being that make one human – intelligence, emotions, thoughts, logic, will – have no explanation.  A purely naturalistic worldview cannot account for such realities.

Ultimately, the underlying nature of doubt about an infinite personal god is rooted in the fact that people want to be their own authority.  Jesus said, recorded in John 3:19, “And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.”  They are unwilling to admit their sin and turn away from their sin.  They are unwilling to acknowledge Christ as Savior and Lord; they see no need for a supernatural savior, they want no Lord.

But to the Christian, there is no vain pursuit of meaning.  God values “beyond all measure” the people who He has created and who He has forgiven and redeemed.  He values us so much that Jesus Christ died on the cross for our sins to conquer sin and its effect, death and eternal separation from God.  He in fact delights in our eternal joy.

God told the ancient prophet Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you” (Jeremiah 1:5).  God knows us intimately and gives our lives purpose and meaning.  He formed us through His wisdom and power, and He sustains every moment of our existence.  Reflecting on God’s sovereignty over our existence, the psalmist David wrote in Psalm 139:17, “How precious to me are your thoughts, God!”  The Creator made us, knows us, and loves us.

Further, the Christian belief in a personal god, the God Who has revealed Himself to us through the ancient Hebrew prophets, through the inspired Scriptures, and supremely in Christ, leads to the conviction that moral authority resides in that personal God.  Man is no longer left to his own devices on questions of ethics and morals.  We can no longer be autonomous.  We cannot act as we please; we cannot treat others as we please.  We are created by God in the image of God who placed within us a moral nature.  He created us as both physical beings and as mind and “soul,” capable of communication, thought, reason, emotions, and will.  God has in fact spoken to us and revealed Himself to us, and we must live in obedient relationship to God as the ultimate authority.  All questions of philosophy, ethics, morals, human relationships and societal construct are subject to Him as Creator, Redeemer, and Supreme Ruler over creation.