This study is based upon the New City Catechism.
“For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened… They exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator.” (Romans 1:21, 25)
We have already studied the second commandment, which forbids the worship of idols (Exodus 20:4). However, the concept of idolatry warrants further reflection, because Paul says in Romans 1 that idolatry points to the root of all sin. The fundamental evil of all sin is a worship of creature rather than Creator (Romans 3:25). Because sin is lawlessness, we can also say this about breaking God’s law. Failure to obey God is ultimately idolatry. It looks like a crowd of Jews bowing before Nebuchadnezzar’s statue (Daniel 3:1-7), and obedience looks like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego declaring, “Be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up” (v.18).
First, notice from where idolatry comes. There are no true, through-and-through atheists, for God has implanted knowledge of Himself in all men: “they knew God” (Romans 1:21; cf. 2:15). While thorough atheism may not exist, superficial atheism does. Atheism is anything that persists as if the Triune God does not live. This is the sin of verse 21: “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him.” This is the font of all idolatry, for it is the beginning tide of what comes in verse 25.
All idolatry comes from a posture of living as if the Triune God does not live. This is a sin of which Christians and pagans alike may partake, but it is perhaps most vivid in the carving of idols. A man cannot in one moment act as if he lives in the presence of a holy God, and in the same moment chisel eyes into a log for the purposes of worshiping it. An eerily similar picture presents itself when a Christian opens the web-browser in safe-mode, en route to his favorite pornographic site. He is chasing an idol, and the pursuit began the moment he stopped living as if he was in the presence of a holy God.
Second, notice to where idolatry leads. Paul presents two options, of which man rejected the first: to honor God as God and give thanks to him. The second option is to become futile in thought and dark in the heart (v.21). This may describe the act of idolatry, but certainly describes the state in which man is left by idolatry. To abandon God is to give oneself to lies, because God is the perfectly true. This darkness of the mind will coincide with a darkening of the affections.
Solomon equated truth with sight: “The wise person has his eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness” (Ecclesiastes 2:14). To grope in darkness is manifestly a great evil, an accursed struggle: “If you will not obey the voice of the Lord your God…. And you shall grope at noonday, as the blind grope in darkness” (Deuteronomy 28:15, 29). This darkness is painful in and of itself. The wrath of God in Hell is called an “outer darkness” (Matthew 8:12). The darkness is also reproductive. With no sight, without the light of God, sins multiply (Acts 26:18; Romans 13:12).
Third, notice of what idolatry consists. Paul describes idolatry as worshiping and serving the creature rather than the Creator. This is a wretched exchange, for when God is abandoned, truth is likewise; when creatures are worshiped, lies are taken upon (Romans 1:25). “Lie” is a fitting name for where idolaters live. Consider the absurdity: to take a product of God’s hand and serve it as if it was God. This is a farce. This is fantasy play. It is, in substance, make-believe. Vocal atheists enjoy prodding Christianity as being akin to belief in Santa Clause or the Tooth-fairy. However, this jab is only appropriately given to they who abandon their Creator, creating their own small kingdom of existence where rocks and sticks and video games are divine.
Therefore, understand the foolishness of idolatry – the folly of sin’s fundamental nature. To sin is to live like an atheist. To sin is to plunge oneself towards darkness. To sin is to play make-believe, to dress oneself in fantasies. May we endeavor ever more, day by day, to make for the holy city of truth and light, worshiping the Triune God Who is very much alive.
Question: What is idolatry?
Answer: Idolatry is trusting in created things rather than the Creator.