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David B. Garner is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary and Pastor of Teaching at Proclamation Presbyterian Church (Bryn Mawr, PA). Pastor, professor, and author, he has also served as a missionary, ministering in Europe and Central and Southeast Asia. From 2003-2007, he served as Director for TE3 (Theological Education for Eastern Europe), a regional theological training ministry based in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Column: Sine Qua Non by David Garner

Truth and Idolatry: I Am Not an Idol Worshiper

January 30, 2015 •

Idolatry Reconsidered

As believers in the one true God, we know that idolatry is wrong. We know God hates it. We know first two of the Ten Commandments explicitly demand exclusive worship of the one true God. We even know that idolatry is not merely worshiping a false god, but even worshiping the true God by our own methods. Some of us have prudently made the connection between the first two commandments and the tenth—we know that coveting is a form of idolatry.

We know that idolatry is not merely bowing down to stone and wood fabrications of gods made in our image or even images of the God who made us; we know that idolatry is a matter of the heart. Some of us even quote our theological idol, John Calvin, who affirms the scope of the problem: “The heart is an idol factory.” 

Idolatry is evil. We know it. We speak the right words and believe the right stuff. We reject idolatry consciously, deliberately, even passionately.

Come to think of it, we are pretty good at dodging it. Don’t we have a pretty successful track record at idol avoidance? While we believe Calvin’s quip, we really perceive idolatry as someone else’s problem. That is, the rest of humanity produces idols. As God-fearing people, we are . . . well, better than that. When was the last time, after all, that someone caught you bowing your knee to Baal or even to mammon?

After celebrating Christian love and truth throughout his epistle, John’s final words in his first epistle could seem distant, if not even odd, to us. “Little children, keep yourself from idols” (1 John 5:21). Why would the disciple whom Jesus loved end his epistle with such an unvarnished question? A little awkward, one might say.  Doesn’t John know we are past the idol problem?

But perhaps John discerns something we may not. Perhaps the Spirit of God knows something about our hearts that we seek to excuse. Perhaps our idol vulnerability exceeds our self-awareness. Perhaps idolatry is not someone else’s sin. Perhaps it really is ours. Perhaps it is mine. Perhaps it is not just perhaps.

Aiming the pure gospel at our hearts, the Apostle Paul, like his fellow apostle-at-arms John, fires with marksman precision at your and my idolatry. In this and the following three Sine Qua Non articles, we will see how he does so.

Paul’s words should make us squirm. I hope they lead us to repentance.

Well Done!

In 1 Timothy 6:3–10, Paul seeks to hearten Timothy to faithfulness in his ministry. This encouragement includes both commendation to true doctrine (1 Timothy 3:15) and warning about its false but alluring counterpart (1:3–7). In the reassurance and admonition, the Pauline exhortations entail care for his mind (4:6), his heart (1:19), his life (4:8) and even for his physical health (5:23).

In it all, Paul repeatedly calls for the light of the gospel to shine brightly in Timothy so that it will shine brightly from Timothy. “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (4:16). Ministry success rides on the life of his doctrine and the doctrine of his life. Notably, Paul warns Timothy of false teaching and false teachers, as he urges him to “be a good servant of Christ Jesus” (4:6).

Timothy? Yes, Timothy. Think about it for even just a fleeting moment! Paul’s pressing warnings about susceptibility to idolatry come to this young servant who, as Paul’s own child in the faith (2 Timothy 1:2; 2:1), has personally witnessed the faith and faithfulness of the Apostle Paul (2 Timothy 3:10–11)! Timothy’s personal privilege does not temper the Pauline sense of urgency. As Paul and John would have us know, vulnerability extends to even the most astute, to even those most closely associated with the apostolic message and the apostles themselves.

This realism should knock us from any sense of self-assurance about our own ability to escape idolatry’s groping and gripping tentacles. The slippery human heart easily succumbs to the deceptive winsomeness of false teaching and false teachers. All of us are vulnerable! All of us are guilty.

How and why that is so occupy our attention for the next three SQN articles, where we will consider our very real vulnerabilities to false teaching and idolatry, with a view to faithful stewardship. Oh, to hear the voice of our Master declaring, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:23a)!

False Teaching, Idolatry, and Discontentment

To attend this consideration of idolatry, we turn to Paul’s closing words in the first of his two letters to Timothy.

In this passage the Apostle weaves false teaching, idolatry and discontent inextricably and revealingly together. This subtle yet illumining intersection warrants our attention, as it will aid us in confronting the idolatrous infatuations of own hearts.

[3] If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, [4] he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, [5] and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain. [6] But godliness with contentment is great gain, [7] for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. [8] But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. [9] But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. [10] For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.  (1 Timothy 6:3-10)

Preparing the Way

Some songs loop in our minds and can drive us nearly to distraction. For me, “Little Bunny Foo Foo” is one such song. Hear it once and I will hear it in my head all day. Maybe even the next. Psychologists call this syndrome “earworms.”

There are some theological themes that don’t play in our heads as often as they should. With the profile they are given in Scripture, the themes raised in 1 Timothy 6 should play in our heads and hearts with daily redundancy. Rather than driving us to distraction, these God-given lyrics should drive us afresh to him.

The exclusive expectations of the exclusive God call us to exclusive faith and sincere repentance where such undivided faith is lacking. His grace generously enables such faith and repentance. To that end, in each of the next three SQN articles, we will address the following points in succession:

  1. We must call the gospel what it is—God’s truth.
  2. We must call theological error what it is—rebellion and unbelief.
  3. We must call discontent what it is—idolatry.

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