Addressing the Idols of Our Hearts – January 6, 2023

If you read through the book of First John, the last verse seems terribly out of place. Throughout the book, John addresses numerous tests to determine if we are God’s children. However, he ends the book with a command to stay away from idols. This statement seems like an obvious command. So obvious it would not need to be stated. But this verse is not a mistake or an afterthought. It is the very foundation of all that has been said. One leading Christian counselor observed that “Idolatry is by far the most frequently discussed problem in the Scriptures.”[i] This verse summarizes, in conclusion, the book. In 1 John 2:15-17, John addressed our love (our desires) for the things of the world more than our love for God. 1 John 3:7-10 addressed our behavior (our actions, what we do) as our love more than our love for God. Those who love God don’t worship sin. 1 John 4:1-6 speaks to the demonic nature of idolatry. And just a couple of verses earlier in 1 John 5:19, John divides the world into two: of God and of Satan. So we can conclude that to be anything other than a genuine believer, to place anything over God is idolatry.

In the Roman world, this command would have made sense. Idolatry was rampant. Consider Ephesus in Acts 19:23-41. The Roman world was filled with what we think of when we hear the word idolatry. People were bowing down to and making sacrifices to statues. Today we are much more advanced. We are much more intellectual. We understand that statues are just statues. Surely this verse does not apply to us today. But I present to you that this verse is just as applicable and essential today as it was 1950 years ago.

The late David Powlison, formerly a professor on the faculty at Westminster Theological Seminary, made this statement about this verse: “John’s last line properly leaves us with that most basic question which God continually poses to each human heart. Has something or someone besides Jesus the Christ taken title to your heart’s trust, preoccupation, loyalty, service, fear, and delight? It is a question bearing on the immediate motivation for one’s behavior, thoughts, and feelings. … Who or what rules my behavior, the Lord or a substitute?”[ii]

So if an idol is more than a statue that we bow down to, what is an idol? It is best to look at the Biblical context of idolatry to understand what an idol is. God created all things for His pleasure (1 Cor. 10:31, Rev. 4:11). This most definitely includes his prize creation: the one being created in God’s image. We exist to glorify God. This is our purpose. God must dominate our lives. We must make our lives about God. God created all things good. But, when Satan rebelled, he attacked God’s most prized possession. And he did so in the form of idolatry. Satan caused Eve to question God’s command and God’s purpose. Adam and Eve then questioned God’s place and desired to displace God. Sin causes us to seek satisfaction apart from God by serving ourselves or something other than God (Rom. 1:25). In reality, all sin is idolatry in one shape or form. All sin is a failure to glorify God and keep God in his proper place. All sin is us putting ourselves in place of God.

Because God is the All-Powerful Creator, he demands that we fulfill our purpose in creation and place him first. Because of the Fall, God gave man the law in progress toward redemption. In it, he reminded us of his jealous nature. God will not be displaced. He alone is God and to be worshiped (Ex. 20:3-4). But even today, the problem is that we have a sinful nature that leads to an inherently idolatrous heart.

In Ezekiel 14, God charges the Israelites with idolatry. They did not worship physical statues but worshipped things other than God in their hearts. They had idols of the heart. We today have the same problem. Ephesians 5:5 and Colossians 3:5 identify some of these idols of the heart: Ephesians 5:5 – “For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.” Colossians 3:5 – “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” 2 Cor 10:5 explains that our idols can dwell in our thoughts: “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.”

In the journal article “Idols of the Heart and Vanity Fair,” David Powlison relates our hearts and our place in the world by reminding us of the classic book Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. “The world is a ‘Vanity Fair,’ as John Bunyan strikingly phrased it in Pilgrim’s Progress. Bunyan’s entire book, and the Vanity Fair section, in particular, can be seen as portraying the interaction of powerful, enticing, and intimidating social shapers of behavior with the self-determining tendencies of Christian’s own heart. Will Christian serve the Living God or any of a fluid multitude of idols crafted by his wife, neighbors, acquaintances, enemies, fellow members of idolatrous human society … and, ultimately, his own heart?”[iii]

So what is God’s answer to our idolatry problem? The answer is the Gospel. Jesus became our sin so that we might be made righteous. The Gospel teaches and empowers us to treasure once again and serve God (Titus 2:11-14, 2 Cor. 5:14-15). However, the Gospel does not eliminate the presence of sin before our glorification. So John reminds us to guard against idolatry in our lives. However, it is one thing to know that the presence of sin remains. It is another thing to understand why we continue to sin. Enter heart idols. Next week we will look at the personal context of our heart idols and ask, “How do I find my idols?”

[i] David Powlison, “Idols of the Heart and Vanity Fair,” The Journal of Biblical Counseling, Vol. 13, No. 2 (Winter 1995), 35-50.

[ii] Ibid., 35.

[iii] Ibid, 36.