POST MODERN IDOLS
by Tim Keller
When I first began reading through the Bible I looked for some unifying themes. I concluded that there are many and that if we make just one theme the theme (such as ‘covenant’ or ‘kingdom’) we run the danger of reductionism. However, one of the main ways to read the Bible is as the ages-long struggle between true faith and idolatry. In the beginning, human beings were made to worship and serve God, and to rule over all created things in God’s name (Gen 1:26–28). Paul understands humanity’s original sin as an act of idolatry: “They exchanged the glory of the immortal God…and worshipped and served created things rather than the creator”(Rom 1:21–25). Instead of living for God, we began to live for ourselves, or our work, or for material goods. We reversed the original intended order. And when we began to worship and serve created things, paradoxically, the created things came to rule over us. Instead of being God’s vice-regents, ruling over creation, now creation masters us. We are now subject to decay and disease and disaster. The final proof of this is death itself. We live for our own glory by toiling in the dust, but eventually we return to the dust—the dust “wins” (Gen 3:17–19). We live to make a name for ourselves but our names are forgotten. Here in the beginning of the Bible we learn that idolatry means slavery and death.
The Ten Commandments’ first two and most basic laws (one-fifth of all God’s law to humankind) are against idolatry.* Exodus does not envision any third option between true faith and idolatry. We will either worship the uncreated God or we will worship some created thing (an idol). There is no possibility of our worshipping nothing. The classic New Testament text is Romans 1:18-25. This extensive passage on idolatry is often seen as only referring to the pagan Gentiles, but instead we should recognize it as an analysis of what sin is and how it works. Verse 21 tells us that the reason we turn to idols is because we want to control our lives, though we know that we owe God everything. “Though they knew God, they neither glorified God nor gave thanks to him.” Verse 25 tells us the strategy for control—taking created things and setting our hearts on them and building our lives around them. Since we need to worship something, because of how we are created, we cannot eliminate God without creating God-substitutes. Verses 21 and 25 tell us the two results of idolatry:
1) Deception—”their thinking became futile and their hearts were darkened,”and
2) Slavery—”they worshipped and served” created things.
Whatever we worship we will serve, for worship and service are always inextricably bound together. We are “covenantal” beings. We enter into covenant service with whatever most captures our imagination and heart. It ensnares us. So every human personality, community, thought-form, and culture will be based on some ultimate concern or some ultimate allegiance—either to God or to some God-substitute. Individually, we will ultimately look either to God or to success, romance, family, status, popularity, beauty or something else to make us feel personally significant and secure, and to guide our choices. Culturally we will ultimately look to either God or to the free market, the state, the elites, the will of the people, science and technology, military might, human reason, racial pride, or something else to make us corporately significant and secure, and to guide our choices.
No one grasped this better than Martin Luther, who ties the Old Testament and New Testament together remarkably in his exposition of the Ten Commandments. Luther saw how the Old Testament law against idols and the New Testament emphasis on justification by faith alone are essentially the same. He said that the Ten Commandments begin with two commandments against idolatry. It is because the fundamental problem in law-breaking is always idolatry. In other words, we never break the other commandments without first breaking the law against idolatry. Luther understood that the first commandment is really all about justification by faith, and to fail to believe in justification by faith is idolatry, which is the root of all that displeases God.
Luther says that failure to believe that God accepts us fully in Christ—and to look to something else for our salvation—is a failure to keep the first commandment; namely, having no other gods before him. To try to earn your own salvation through works-righteousness is breaking the first commandment. Then he says that we cannot truly keep any of the other laws unless we keep the first law—against idolatry and works-righteousness. Thus beneath any particular sin is this sin of rejecting Christ-salvation and indulging in self-salvation.
For example, let’s say a person cheats on his income tax form. Why does he do that? Well, you say, because he is a sinner. Yes, but why does his sin take this form? Luther’s answer would be that the man only cheated because he was making money and possessions—and the status or comfort from having more of them—more important than God and his favor. Or let’s say a person lies to a friend rather than lose face over something she has done. In that case the underlying sin is making human approval or your reputation more important than the righteousness you have in Christ.
The Bible, then, does not consider idolatry to be one sin among many (and a rare sin found only among primitive people). Rather, all our failures to trust God wholly or to live rightly are at root idolatry—something we make more important than God. There is always a reason for a sin. Under our sins are idolatrous desires.
(Taken from Monergism.com)