Ending Idolatry by Walking in the Spirit – February 24, 2023

We said no to our idol, but it came back. We tried to overcome that sin, but we failed. We have all been there before. We understand the need to change, try to, and fail to change. We often conclude that this struggle will always be a part of our identity. Others might be able to overcome sin, but we cannot. Two weeks ago, we examined the need to murder our idols to overcome them. But we mentioned that we must employ one more critical step. Without this step, we will fail to overcome our idols.

In Ephesians 4, we observe that getting rid of our idols is like changing clothes. We must take off the old clothes and put on the new clothes. When we murder our idols, Paul relates that to removing dirty clothes. However, if we stop there, we accomplish nothing. We must still put on new clothes.

Then we must put on the new clothes. Paul calls this walking in the Spirit. But what does this mean? How do we do this? Paul demonstrates what this looks like in Ephesians and Colossians. First, we are told that we must clean ourselves, like taking a shower. So how do we take a spiritual shower and remove the filth of the idol and sin we must see destroyed in our lives? We do this through the Word of God. In John 17:17, Jesus informs us that we are sanctified through the Word of God. In Ephesians 5:26, Paul reveals that the Word is what cleanses us. God uses the Word in our lives to make us like him. God uses the Word in our minds to help us think rightly. To see the idol destroyed in our life, we must meditate on God’s Word to understand God and what He expects. However, all too often, we try and cheat on this step. We spend a few minutes reading a few verses and then fail to understand why change does not happen. Psalm 1 and Joshua 1 both reveal that the Christian must meditate on the Word of God for change to occur. This means that we think about the Word of God constantly. We memorize it and mull over it. Without this cleaning, we will fall prey to the idol again.

Second, we must take our idols seriously. In Ephesians 4:26-27 Paul gives us two instructions: to be angry at sin and not give sin a chance. In other words, we are to hate sin and build fences. First, we must hate sin. Paul tells us to be angry but not sin. What does this possibly mean? Isn’t anger a sin? Sinful anger is sin. Righteous anger is not a sin. What is righteous anger? It is anger that is directed toward our sin. It hates our sin. The major problem with our idols is that we love them. We follow them out of love. But we must learn to hate them. We indulge in sin because we love sin. We must learn to hate it. How? By recognizing what that sin costs. That sin, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, damned me to hell for all eternity. No matter how small or seemingly insignificant, that sin sent God to the cross. That idol required Jesus’ blood.

Second, we must build fences around ourselves to protect ourselves. Paul tells us not to give place or opportunity to the Devil. Building fences for yourself is not legalism. It is safety. A lack of fences in your life is not a sign of spiritual maturity but spiritual stupidity. Often we sin because we place ourselves into situations where we will face unnecessary temptation. Proverbs twice tells us a wise man sees evil afar off and hides himself, but the foolish pass on and are punished. Wise people recognize that they are weak and keep themselves from unnecessary temptation. One way that you overcome sin is by avoiding it. Put up fences to protect yourself from unnecessary temptation.

Third, we are to speak the truth to ourselves (and our fellow believers). Often, we do not overcome our idols, and we do not overcome sin because we listen to ourselves instead of talking to ourselves. We listen as our flesh states that we need those idols and sins. We listen as our flesh tells us that we do not have the power to overcome them. But the reality is that we do indeed have the power and ability. Next week we will look more closely at how we accomplish this through Paul’s words in Colossians 3:16.

Asking God, “Why?” – February 17, 2023

This past week a young man I know had a heart attack. I had the privilege of serving as his youth pastor and soccer coach. I have the extraordinary privilege of calling him a friend. Today he is fighting for his life. Over the past months, another young man I had the privilege of serving as his youth pastor, coach, and friend is battling cancer. Both young men are in their 20s. Both young men love the Lord and want to serve Him with their lives. Twice I have spent significant time asking God, “Why?”

We don’t have to live long before we all come to the place where we wonder why God allows certain things to happen. One prominent liberal theologian wrote a book asking the question and concluded that God is not really in control. However, this answer does not line up with Scripture. In several places, Scripture reminds us that God is in absolute control and is always good. But God does not always give us a reason behind His actions. So in those times, when we find ourselves asking why, we must lean into what we know of God.

Paul asks, “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:31-32). God sacrificed His Son for our redemption. He already gave the ultimate proof of His perfect love for us. God did not sacrifice His Son to forget about us now. In these overwhelming trials, we must remember that God is not withholding good from us. In His divine plan, God will work this for our good and His glory (Romans 8:28). Nothing can separate us from God’s holy, perfect love (Romans 8:38-39). We may not see the purpose behind our trial, but He sees it all.

What, then, is our response? First, we must understand that we can and should ask, “Why?” The Psalms are filled with songs of lament. God made us emotional beings to experience joy, happiness, and pain. When the pain comes, we don’t ignore it. However, God also invites us to cast that pain (that burden) on Him (1 Peter 5:7). So, out of the depths of despair, we cry to God (Psalm 130:1-2). It is not wrong to cry to God. It is necessary for us.

Second, we remind ourselves of God. We must speak the truth to ourselves even when we don’t feel it or believe it. We remind ourselves of His power, mercy, and faithfulness (Psalm 130:3-4). We remind ourselves that God’s love never fails (Romans 8). In these times, we meditate on Scripture. We pray God’s Words back to Him. And we lean into God’s people. We do these things because we need to remember who our God is (Job 38-42). And when we remember who God is, we see the God of all comfort.

Third, we wait for God to work. We wait with patience, knowing that God’s timing is not our timing (Psalm 130:6). We wait trusting that He keeps His Word (Psalm 130:5). We wait with hope (Psalm 130:7). We wait with this steadfast assurance that God will not let us down. Sometimes God gives us more than we can handle. But when He does so, He grants us His power (2 Corinthians 12:7-9). The trial may not leave, but God’s grace and power do not leave either.

Finally, we look to the eternal Kingdom. The struggles of this broken world remind us that redemption is coming. Sin and death will be no more. The day is coming when Christ will return and reverse sin’s curse. So we cry together, “Even so, Lord Jesus, come quickly!” But until that day, in the middle of your struggle, as you ask God, “Why?” don’t quit! Don’t lose hope! Take your anxiety to God and find peace to help in times of need (Philippians 4:6-7).

Identify and Murder Your Idol! – February 10, 2023

In 2016, at a conference sponsored by the wall street journal, the CEO of Netflix stated they the company’s goal was to eliminate boredom and loneliness. They strive to do this through entertainment because they recognize it as a significant idol in our culture. As we finish our study in 1 John, we look for a final time at the last challenge from John, Little children, keep yourselves from idols (1 John 5:21).

Last week we looked at several questions we must ask of ourselves to find our idols: What do my finances tell me? What does my time tell me? What does my attitude tell me? What do my thoughts tell me? And what does hardship tell me? Once we have identified our idols, we must overcome them. But how? John challenged us to keep ourselves from idols, but how do we do this? It is one thing to say it and another to actually do it! Thankfully, God’s Word does not keep up wondering. To overcome our sinful idols, we must take two steps. We find these two steps in Ephesians 4 and Colossians 3.

The process of overcoming our idols is like the process of changing clothes. We put off the old clothes, and we put on the new ones. To overcome our idols, we must first turn our back on them. We must turn away from them. Consider what the Apostle Paul wrote regarding our idols. But that is not the way you learned Christ!— assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires (Ephesians 4:20-22). But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth (Colossians 3:8). As long as we hold on to idols, we cannot overcome them. So how do we turn our backs on our idols?

First, we must see our idol for what it is. Ephesians 4:17-18 reminds us, Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. First, Paul states that these idolaters walked in the futility of the mind. What they were doing was vain, arrogant, and futile. When we worship the idols of our hearts, we ask them to do things they cannot do. We are engaging in futility. These idols cannot satisfy because only the one true God can satisfy. So, we constantly need more from our idols. We need to redesign our idols because we become incredibly frustrated as they fail to satisfy us. The belief that these idols can satisfy is the height of vanity and arrogance. We believe that we can replace God in our lives. We will be disappointed when we look to family for our satisfaction or identity. We will be disappointed when we look to relationships for satisfaction or identity. We will be disappointed when we look to our jobs for our identity and satisfaction. Whenever we think, “if only this would happen, then I would be happy,” we will be disappointed. It is futile thinking.

Second, Paul states that while idol worshipers are incredibly arrogant, they are ignorant. They have had their understanding darkened by sin. They cannot know the things of God (and therefore truth) because they don’t know God. Paul calls them blind. As you observe those who are blind from birth, they are severely limited in what they can know. How do you describe colors to a blind person? How do you describe what something looks like without that individual having any point of reference? Yet this is what the world is like spiritually. They are trying to understand the world around them: origins, purpose, future, and meaning. Yet, they have no frame of reference with which to work because they are blind. As a result, God calls them ignorant. And when we follow our idols, we make ourselves ignorant. We act like ignorant people.

The first step to overcoming our idols is to see them for what they are. We worship them because we believe that they will satisfy us. We set them up because we think that they will bring us joy. We must admit that they will not do these things. They are futile and ignorant.

Once we have seen our idols for what they are, the next step in putting off our idols or turning our backs on our idols is to murder our sin. We must murder our idol. Consider what Paul and Peter stated. Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry (Colossians 3:5). He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed (1 Peter 2:24). John Owens calls this action the mortification of the flesh. To overcome our heart idols, we must say no over and over. We must remind ourselves that we don’t have to obey that sin. We can turn away from it. We don’t have to worship that idol. We can turn murder it.

Unfortunately, many of us stop at this step. We seek to say no to the idol in our power. We come up with catchy ways to help ourselves say no (like counting to 10 before we get mad) and then become frustrated when we fail. However, there is a second step to destroying our heart idols. We cannot destroy our idols without employing this second step, which we will look at next week. However, we cannot utilize the second step without taking the first step. So, say no to your idol, mortify your flesh, and consider yourself dead to that sin!

Finding the Idols of Our Hearts, Part 3 – February 3, 2023

Watching children play a game of hide and seek is enjoyable. When they are young, they don’t know how to hide. We find humor as the child hides under the bed with their feet sticking out. However, as they get older, they get much better at hiding. When children play hide and seek, it is enjoyable. When our idols play hide and seek, it is serious. Our idols do not want to be identified. For then, we will be able to dispatch them. Over the last few weeks, we discussed why our idols are hard to spot. Today let’s discuss some practical ways to identify our idols.

How do I find my heart idols? How do I determine what has taken the place of God in my life? Often these are things that everyone around us can identify but we cannot see it. And so, as we seek wisdom from God, His Word, and His people, we can ask several diagnostic questions.

We must first ask the questions, “What do I spend my money on?” and “What am I willing to sacrifice for?” We spend money and sacrifice for the things we love. Sadly, many Christians are not interested in spending money on and sacrificing for God. They give what they deem they must but are unwilling to go beyond into actual sacrifice. Some view their service as a sacrifice. They assign some arbitrary number to their time and consider that as giving. Unfortunately, this simply reveals that they love their idols more than God. Christ reminds us, Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Matthew 6:19-21). We spend money on and sacrifice for what we value.

A second question we must ask is, “What does my time tell me?” You have heard the phrase. “You have time for what you make time for.” You spend your time on what you value. Your calendar informs all around you of the things you deem important. Sadly, many Christians value their sports and activities more than God. They are quick to miss corporate worship for athletic events or their hobbies. Then they wonder why their children rebel against God. They would find the answer if they looked at their calendar.

The third question is, “What does my attitude tell me?” What makes you angry, and what gets you excited? These are huge indicators of what you value. What sets off your temper, and what do you get mad about not receiving? What do you long for more than anything else? Are these things recognition, peace and quiet, or financial stability? And what do you fear the most? Do you fear financial hardship, family relationship struggles, your children failing, your health failing, or not being recognized for what you do? The answer to these questions reveals your idol.

The fourth question is, “What do my thoughts tell me?” About what do I find myself thinking? What do I find myself talking about most often? About what do I find myself worrying? You think about what you value. This is why Paul challenged us, Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:6-7).

Finally, we should ask, “What does hardship tell me?” Often this is called chaos theory. What do you run to when you need refuge? Where do you go to feel safe and secure? Often the answer to this reveals your idol. This is why Jesus stated in Matthew 11:28, Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

We all struggle with idols. A significant part of overcoming them is admitting that we have them. Once we have acknowledged our idol problem, we can begin to identify them. Once we have identified them, we can start to overcome them. Next week we will examine how to overcome our idols and obey John’s command, Little children, keep yourselves from idols.

Finding the Idols of Our Hearts, Part 2 – January 27, 2023

When I think of idols, I can’t get past the scenes in Indiana Jones as the natives worship the statues. Covered in colored paint, they dance, sing, and pray that their idol will give them blessings. When we consider the need to refrain from idols, we often think we do not have this problem because we think of these scenes. However, over the last few weeks, we observed that we have an idol problem. Our hearts are idol factories. The problem is that we don’t see them. For this reason, we began last week to look at why we struggle to spot our idols by looking at the first three reasons in Ezekiel 14. This week we want to cover the last two.

We struggle to identify our idols because they work in groups. Ezekiel 14:4 reveals that we all have an assortment of idols. Idols do not work alone. They work in groups. And so often, we may admit that we have one idol while several lurk in the background. We become content when we gain victory over one idol while we fail to recognize that we have more. Christian counselors have come to this realization and are now training to address sin that comes in packs. Someone who struggles with the idol of gratification through sex often struggles with the idol of money. Someone who struggles with the idol of self-worth often also struggles with the idol of judgmentalism. Rarely do we worship one idol. Often, we worship a multitude of idols. The idol factories of our hearts are seldom content with just one.

Because our idols work in groups, they work to hide each other. In elementary school, we played a lot of dodgeball. One strategy we employed was the strategy of distraction. We would attempt to get our opponent to focus on one team member while the other members attacked from a different angle. In the same way, one sin problem captures our attention, while the other idols attack us from the blind side.

A final reason we struggle to identify our idols is that they cut us off from the light. In verse 5, Ezekiel states that these idols estrange people from God. John tells us that God is light. He is the source of truth. God is the solution to our idol problem. But these idols cut us from the light needed to identify them. God, God’s Word, and God’s people are the best ways to diagnose our idols. Our idols recognize this and seek to cut us off from them. Just as it is hard to walk through the dark and identify obstacles in our way, our idols cut us off from the light that exposes them. Your view of God dictates your view of life. Idols cut us off from God and distort our view of life.

Don’t be blinded by your idols. They lurk everywhere in our hearts. We must find them and eliminate them. Next week we will begin to discuss the practical ways to identify our idols.

Finding the Idols of Our Hearts – January 20, 2023

Our culture understands that we have an idol problem. Culture refers to people we long to be like as our idols. There is a popular culture show based on this premise that does not even try to hide it. They put it in the title, American Idol. The advertising industry builds itself around what we idolize. In short, we have the propensity to worship everything but God. And so, John concludes his book with a direct challenge: Little children, keep yourselves from idols (1 John 5:21).

Over the last few weeks, we have examined our idolatry problem. We walked through a Biblical view of idolatry and began exploring ourselves to find our idols. We challenged ourselves with the reality that we all have an idolatry problem. While the worldly culture does not try to hide its idol problem, the church culture many times outright denies it. But we must acknowledge that we have idols. Now I would guess that no one has a statue on their mantle to which they bow down, worship, and offer sacrifices. No one has a totem pole in their backyard. How can I state so dogmatically that we all struggle with idols? How can we look at this passage and conclude that it directly impacts our lives? Let’s remind ourselves of the definition of an idol: “An idol of the heart is anything that rules me other than God.”[i]

I mentioned last week that those around us and close to us could probably tell us exactly what our idols are. But we struggle to see them ourselves. Our Idols lie to us and tell us that we cannot see them. We are often blind to our idolatry. So how do we obey this command to keep ourselves from idols? How do we even know what our idols are? To expose the idols of our hearts, we must answer two critical questions: “Why are our idols hard to spot?” and “How do I find my Idols?” This week we want to examine the first question.

In Ezekiel 14, God addressed the concept of heart idols. Israel did not believe that they had an idol problem. But through the Prophet Ezekiel, God sought to demonstrate to Israel that they had a massive idolatry problem. While they had not set up physical statues, they had set up idols in their hearts. Yet, like us, Israel was blind to their idolatry problem. As a result, Ezekiel 14 gives us a guide to help us understand why idols are so hard to spot.

We discover the first reason in verse three. Our idols are hard to spot because they are self-built. Because we build them, we tailor our idols to ourselves. This tailoring of our idols is often an unconscious act. We usually do not, nor did the Israelites, consciously decide to turn our back on God and serve these idols. Instead, through our lives, we place things ahead of God little by little until one day, we look up and discover that we have replaced God in our lives. We focus on a desire so much that it becomes an obsession and then our god. It drives everything we do. This is the message of James 1:13-15. This text teaches us that God does not draw us into sin. Instead, we are drawn away by our desires. These desires become obsessions and actions, which in turn become our god, ultimately leading to shipwreck and death if left unchecked.

Further, because we build our idols, we do not often see them as evil. In reality, they usually are not bad in and of themselves. Many times, these idols are things that are necessary for everyday life. While some are driven by clearly wicked things, as believers, John has demonstrated that sinful living does not mark us. Our idols are often not things that are wicked in and of themselves. They have simply replaced God as the source of our satisfaction and joy. They become more important to us than God. They can be innocent things like family, finances, work, friends, rest, or food. But they become wrong when we seek our satisfaction in them instead of God.

We discover the second reason our idols are hard to spot in verses three and four. Our idols are in our hearts. They are at the very seat of our lives. Christ reminds us, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:21). What we value is what we worship. What we worship directs our behavior. And our values lie in our hearts. Because our idols are sourced in our hearts, we value them. They are our treasure. These idols are the very reason why we do what we do. They are our treasures. So often, when we act on what we treasure, we don’t even think about why we are doing what we are doing. We merely act.

Culture today instructs us to follow our hearts. However, this advice is satanic. God informs us that our hearts are unreliable and naturally tend towards wickedness (Jer. 17:9). Because we struggle with a sinful nature, we cannot trust our hearts. Jeremiah states that they are deceitful and wicked. However, not only are our hearts vulnerable to idols, but they are also deceitful idol factories. Our sinful nature creates idols as fast as we can destroy them. And this factory is a factory of deceit. It will never admit that it is an idol factory. And so we must constantly remind ourselves of its work. This deceit of our hearts gives us an amazing ability to justify sin. We can become the “it’s not my fault” guy, the “it’s not that bad” guy, or the “it’s necessary” guy. This is why many even joke about their idol. They make their worship of food, sleep, finances, or friendship out to be no big deal by normalizing it through humor.

We also discover the third reason our idols are hard to spot in verse 3. Our idols blind us. The picture that Ezekiel uses is fascinating. He states that they set them up as stumbling blocks before their faces. Of all people, we should know our idols because we build them. And yet, we are blind to them and stumble over them. Why? Because sin blinds us to our sinfulness. Reasoning with people entrenched in sin (in idolatry) is incredibly frustrating because they are often unwilling to admit that they have a sin problem. Our culture has recognized this and admitted it regarding addictions (drug or alcohol). Studies have been built around interventions needed to help people admit they have a problem. The drunk and the drug addict will deny they have a drug or drinking problem while this problem wreaks havoc on their lives.

Yet we do the same thing. We fail to admit that we have a problem with our sin because our sin blinds us. We cannot see it even though it is painfully apparent. We set up our stumbling blocks. We are the hunter who sets the trap only to walk into it. 

We cannot afford to deny the existence of our heart idols. We all worship heart idols because our hearts are idol factories. Over the next few weeks, we will continue to examine how to discover our heart idols and put them to death.

[i] Paul David Tripp, Instruments in The Redeemers Hands (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2002).

Finding the Idols of Our Hearts – January 13, 2023

Last week, we reminded ourselves that our hearts are an idol factory—our hearts long for things more than God. As a result, every one of us is an idolater. Perhaps you pushed back in your mind as you read last week’s letter. You don’t have idols. You are not a pagan. However, we often don’t see our idols as idols. They camouflage themselves as harmless things. Perhaps they even may appear helpful and spiritual. To dethrone our heart idols, we must first unmask them.

We must define what we mean when we say heart idols. David Powlison states, “‘ Idolatry’ is the characteristic and summary Old Testament word for our drift from God. … Interestingly (and unsurprisingly) the New Testament merges the concept of idolatry and the concept of inordinate, life-ruling desires. Idolatry becomes a problem of the heart, a metaphor for human lust, craving yearning, and greedy demand.”[i] Ken Sande states, “In biblical terms, an idol is something other than God that we set our hearts on (Luke 12:29, I Cor. 10:6), that motivates us (I Cor. 4:5), that masters or rules us (Ps. 119:133), or that we serve (Matt. 6:24).”[ii] Paul Tripp continues, “An idol of the heart is anything that rules me other than God.”[iii] We can clearly see that a heart idol can be just about anything. A heart idol is anything we love and serve more than God.

So how do I find my heart idols? How do I determine what has taken the place of God in my life? Often these are things that everyone around us can identify but we cannot see it. As a result, we must do two things: Acknowledge that we have heart idols and identify an idol’s progression.

Don’t believe the first lie about heart idols: heart idols don’t exist. Heart idols do, indeed, exist. You have an idol. Every one of us has an idol that we battle. In fact, every one of us has multiple heart idols. Unless we acknowledge them, we cannot overcome them. Consider the words of God through the prophet Ezekiel, “Therefore speak to them and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Any one of the house of Israel who takes his idols into his heart and sets the stumbling block of his iniquity before his face, and yet comes to the prophet, I the Lord will answer him as he comes with the multitude of his idols, that I may lay hold of the hearts of the house of Israel, who are all estranged from me through their idols. Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord God: Repent and turn away from your idols, and turn away your faces from all your abominations.” (Ezekiel 14:4-6). Paul exhorts us, “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5). Christian, you have a heart idol. And, you must unmask and dethrone that idol. The reality of heart idols helps explain the motivating “why” behind our seeming eagerness to engage in continuing sin.

Once we admit we have a problem, we can begin fixing it. A helpful step in overcoming idolatry is recognizing its progression in our lives. The most beneficial way to unmask idols is through our worship. Today’s Christians have secluded the idea of worship to an event on Sunday. This deceit from Satan leads us to ignore the worship in our hearts every moment of every day. You see, everyone worships something or someone. God made us to worship. As a result, we spend our days sacrificing our time, energy, and emotion to something. That something is what we worship because worship motivates human activity.

We can further identify what we worship through what we treasure. Christ reminds us, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). In short, we worship what we value. We worship what we want. How do you know what you value? Answer the question: “What are you unwilling to lose?” David Powlison asks the insightful questions, “Has something or someone besides Jesus 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. In the Bible’s conceptualization, the motivation question is the lordship question. Who or what “rules” my behavior, the Lord or a substitute?”[iv]

Perhaps you still wonder, what do I worship and what do I value? What you worship, you value; what you value, you serve. Stated another way, “You do what you do because you want what you want. And you want what you want because you love what you love.”[v] When we understand that our actions unmask our idols, we can identify them and dethrone them. For many, their heart idols are good things that have taken God’s place and become evil. It just might be that your heart idol is your reputation, your job, your home, your hobby (like your RV, fishing, or working on vehicles), peace and quiet, or even your family. All of these are good things. But all make terrible gods. Dear friend, what is your heart idol? What do you value more than God? What has taken precedence in your life over the Kingdom of God and His church? The two verses before the quote from Christ we looked at challenge us to refrain from worshipping this world. Instead, we must value eternity. Someday you will stand before God and give an account for your idols. However, you can find joy and purpose if you fight them here.

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

[ii] Ken Sande, Resolving Everyday Conflict (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2015).

[iii] Paul David Tripp, Instruments in The Redeemers Hands (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2002).

[iv] David Powlison, “Idols of the Heart”

[v] This unpublished quote comes from my good friend Dr. Kraig Keck, Professor of Christian Counseling at Faith Baptist Bible College.

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.

The Forgotten Christmas Character – December 23, 2022

Let’s talk about the forgotten Christmas Character. No not Dancer, Prancer, Donner, or Blitzen. Not even Rudolph. Every Christmas, we rightly sing about the Christ child. We ask if Mary knew stuff. We sing about the Wisemen and the shepherds. And Joseph falls into the background. However, as we look closely at Joseph, we discover a man of incredible faith.

Two young people, Joseph and Mary, were betrothed to be married. Between the betrothal and marriage, Joseph would build a home for them and prepare to provide for his young bride. As he anticipates marriage and works hard to prepare, Mary arrives with news. “Joseph, I am pregnant.” You can imagine the heartbreak that occurs in Joseph. Perhaps he asks, “Who is the father?” Mary then dares to say, “There is no father. God is the father.”

Place yourself in Joseph’s position. He is an adult. He understands basic biology. Now Mary attempts to tell him that she is pregnant by God? It would not be any more believable in that day than it is today. How would you respond? Would you react with anger, bitterness, or distrust?

Matthew 1 gives insight into Joseph’s mindset. Joseph understandably did not believe Mary. Yet, he had the integrity to seek to protect her from what he perceived as her sin. Matthew informs us that he attempted to devise a way to end the engagement without anyone knowing. Even in his hurt, he sought to protect the one he loved.

As he thought through his reaction, God visited Joseph and informed him that Mary had told the truth. At this point, we discover Joseph’s faith. He believed God. He agreed to continue the engagement and enter marriage with Mary. We must understand that in the small town of Nazareth, the news would travel fast. If he ended the engagement, the town would pity him and be on his side. If he went through with the marriage, the town would think he was the father. Later in the Gospels, we discover that this is what happened as they refer to Jesus as the son of Joseph. Having a child out of wedlock was an absolute scandal in that day. Yet Joseph was willing to endure the ridicule to obey God.

We rarely talk about Joseph. But perhaps we should talk about him more often. He endured a wide range of emotions and ridicule while holding onto his faith. He obeyed God even though it negatively impacted his reputation with his family and friends. He believed God when told of the impossible. And he loved Mary through it all. Men, we should strive to be like Joseph. We should seek to be faithful men of integrity. This Christmas, remember Joseph.

Three Important Results of Eternal Life – December 16, 2022

You can have confidence that you will have eternal life. Often individuals hope for the best. They live the best life they can. They serve other people. And they hope that God will accept them when they get to heaven. But God desires something better. God desires that we have confidence in our eternal future. John informs us that the purpose of his first epistle is to help instill this confidence into believers’ hearts. When we have this confidence, some fantastic things result. In the final paragraph of the first epistle, John informs us of these tremendous benefits of eternal security.

First, because we have confidence in our eternal home, we have access to God. For thousands of years, priests would go into the holy place in the temple once a year to sacrifice for the people’s sins. This day was known as the Day of Atonement. Only a specific priest was allowed to go behind the massive curtain, the veil, that separated the holiest of holies from the rest of the temple. If an unauthorized person entered, God would kill him immediately. When Christ died, one of the miracles was that the temple’s veil tore from top to bottom. The book of Hebrews tells us that this was done because God granted direct access to his presence to every believer at any time through the sacrifice of Christ. One of the results of eternal life is that we have direct access to God as believers.

This direct access means two things. First, it means that God hears us. Think about this for a moment; God listens to you. You have direct access to the one who places and removes kings from their thrones. You have direct access to the one who spoke the world into existence. Further, John states that he hears us. This word “hear” gives the picture that he listens. Sometimes when people talk, we only half listen. We tune them out. God doesn’t do that to believers. He listens to you. He hears you. We can hold to this confidently.

Second, if we ask according to God’s will and have confidence that he hears us, we can have confidence that he will act for us. When we ask for something according to God’s will, we can be confident that he will work on our behalf. What an amazing promise that the God of the universe will act on our behalf.

The second result of eternal security is that we pursue righteousness. This pursuit of righteousness takes on two forms. First, we take sin seriously. If we have access to God, know that God hears us, and take sin seriously, then we should be praying for others in their struggle with sin. The second form is that we recognize God’s power. Sin is a big deal, but we have the ability and the power to overcome and conquer sin. We do not have to be bound to it. Believers are no longer under the control of the evil one because Jesus Christ keeps them safe so that the evil one cannot harm them!

John has already stated that a believer cannot persist in sin because God’s seed remains in him (3:9). Now, he says that a believer cannot continue in sin because God keeps him safe. He will not allow Satan to harm him. John is confident the true believer will remain. John reminds his readers that no one born of God continues in sin since Jesus protects him from Satan’s influence. Sin and its consequences are to be taken seriously, but in Christ, the child of God is given supernatural power to overcome sin and obey God’s will.

The final result is that we will keep ourselves from idols. At first glance, this verse (v. 21) seems to be terribly out of place. It seems almost to be a passing statement tacked onto the end. “Here is how you know if you are genuine believers, and oh yeah, don’t follow idols.” But this verse is not a mistake or an afterthought. It is the very foundation of all that has been said. This verse summarizes the book as a whole. In 2:15-17, John addressed our love (our desires) for the things of the world more than our love for God. In 3:7-10, John addressed our behavior (our actions, what we do) as our love more than our love for God. Ones who love God don’t worship sin. 4:1-6 speaks to the demonic nature of idolatry. And just a couple of verses earlier in 5:19, John divides the world into two parts, “of God” and “of Satan.” To be anything other than a genuine believer, to place anything over God is idolatry. We will discuss this more as we enter the new year.

This final text reminds us that eternal life is more than fire insurance. Eternal life brings with it many implications and responsibilities. John addressed them as he closed out his epistle. We have access to God. We must use it. We must take advantage of it. It is our source of power. Second, we must pursue righteousness. We have been given the ability to overcome sin. We cannot continue to be its slave. We must take sin seriously. We must address it when we see it. Finally, we must put away the idols of our hearts. May God bless us as we follow him.