Is Idolatry the New Sin?

Carlton Wynne Articles
Is Idolatry the New Sin?
"Just talk about idolatry and you'll be fine."  A mentor recently offered these words in my presence to a seminary student who was facing an assignment to preach on the topic of sin.  The student's sermon may, indeed, have been "fine" if he followed that suggestion, but the advice struck me as signaling something deeper than a single Sunday pointer.  It struck me as something more comprehensive--more a blanket orientation for today's Sunday preacher, a kind of homiletical compass that, if pointed properly, enables a preacher to navigate toward a culture's hidden sins and lead listeners to believe the gospel.  I do not know whether that particular student followed that compass, but I have noticed that couching sin in terms of idolatry seems increasingly to mark some recent attempts to communicate the gospel to a new generation.  Judging from common counseling approaches, best-selling books and blogosphere endorsements that extol this idolatry model, I doubt mine is an isolated observation.  Which leads me to ask: In the increasingly fashionable world of Reformed Christianity, is idolatry becoming the new sin?
Why "Sin" is Out and "Idolatry" is In
Why should "sin" be addressed under a new label?  Because the times they are a'changing, many say.  The tectonic plates of truth views, even whether there is such a thing as truth, have shifted, it is said.  Tradition has given way to postmodernism.  Today's seismic skepticism has so cracked and questioned our moral and social footing that, as David Wells has argued, there seems to be no place for truth to stand.  Staggering from the shock waves, even self-described evangelicals are suggesting that traditional expressions of Christianity may be outdated and increasingly irrelevant, particularly for the generation of "digg"-ing, tweeting, and app-savvy young people.  These more culturally attuned among us sense that traditional notions of authority, law, and absolute truth, once indispensable to a Christian description of sin, are apt to be met with snickers and rolling eyes by postmodern listeners who no longer relate to such rationalistic truth claims.  We are told that such "modernist" (read traditional) descriptions of sin spawn only meandering debates about moral absolutes that lead to little more than stalemate.  To the extent this is so as to unsaved hearers, it is tragic.  Abandoning or side-stepping the hard reality of sin misses the very reality to which the gospel of Christ responds.  Without sin, there is no desperate need.  Without desperate need, there is no glorious salvation.
Effective evangelism today, it is advised, requires modifying our description of sin--not a make-over, just a touch-up--a slight re-packaging that better understands, engages, and eventually overcomes the resistance of postmodern sensibilities.  Addressing sin in terms of idolatry, many say, cuts the postmodern Gordian knot that restrains the gospel.  This take on idolatry speaks of sin not so much as "doing bad things" as it does "making good things into ultimate things."  In this model, sinners do not so much commit a crime as elevate good things of life beyond their proper place.  We prize good things more than we prize God.  We are looking for love, and everything else that makes life worth living, in all the wrong things and places.  In other words, we are sinning when we look to things besides God to give our lives meaning, fulfillment, or purpose.  Instead of telling someone that he is sinning by sleeping with his girlfriend, we would do better to diagnose his obsession with romance as an attempt to find satisfaction and approval, even salvation.  His sexual appetite, itself a good thing, cannot live up to the importance he is attaching to it and so, for him, it has become an idol.  Once the idol of the heart is identified in such a way, the idea is that the unbeliever can better grasp, and can better be drawn to, the relational intimacy and personal fulfillment found only in Christ through the gospel.      

Sex, of course, is hardly the only available "idol" to use in this approach.  Just as Paul found countless idols in Athens, says this view, we, too, have an array of identifiable idols in our culture.  Examples today are stunningly diverse and include such things as money, power, doctrinal correctness, morality, an ideology, respect, children, spiritual gifts, education, work, appearance, a spouse, wanting a spouse, not wanting a current spouse--anything besides God that we crave and think we cannot live without.  

Let me be clear: I do not doubt that the proponents of this idolatry-oriented approach to the sin problem yearn to see sinful hearts convicted and the gospel received.  I believe they are sensitive to the battles the church faces and mean to engage with, not retreat from, contemporary unbelieving responses to the Word of God.  Many display piercing insight into the cultural battles we face as Christians.  But I am concerned that while perhaps appreciating some postmodern hang-ups, defining sin in these terms of idolatry harbors at least two defects: first, it misreads the biblical examples of genuine idolatry; and second, and even more importantly, it diminishes both the essence and the effects of sin.  Whether or not I am right in these concerns, surely we can all agree that to the extent we confuse for others what sin really is and does, we will as well obscure God's remedy for it.  For this reason, I believe how we are communicating the gospel component of sin today requires a closer look.  The first step is to hold up modern so-called "idols" to the light of Scripture.

Idolatry in Scripture vs. Idolatry Today
To include absolutely everything that distracts our hearts from God in the pantheon of so-called "idols" today departs from the biblical category of idolatry at key points.  The Spirit-inspired writers of both Testaments describe idols as material images, or the deities they represent, that serve as objects of worship. [1]  In short, idols in the Bible depicted competing deities to the one true and living God and, as such, exhibited at least three features.  First, they were personal agents.  Tangible idols depicted regional deities who, in the eyes of their worshippers, were dynamic, volitional and real.  The Bible speaks of the idolater's god as a personal agent who could listen (1 Kings 18:26), learn (1 Chron 10:9), save (Ex 32:4), even tremble (Is 19:1), though they were impotent before Yahweh and actually non-existent (Is 40:18-20, Jer 10:14, 1 Cor 8:4).  Modern preaching on idolatry discounts the personhood of biblical idols when it floods the category of idolatry with all sorts of abstract principles and goals, ideologies and emotional states.  Those who sinfully chase after such impersonal things, some of them anything but "good," do not ascribe to them Baal-like personhood.  To assume people do, or to ignore the fact they don't, I believe, begins to trace a skewed theological trajectory for discussing "sin as idolatry."

Second, and flowing from their personhood, idols were thought to possess inherent power.  The god-infused idol could secure wartime victory (1 Sam 4:7-8), witness vows (Is 44:8-9), and protect its devotees from harm (Job 12:6).  The Almighty rebukes all rival claims to power through judgments and plagues (Ex 12:12) in order to inform those who revere His contenders that "I am the LORD, and there is no other" (Isa 44:8; 45:5, 6, 14, 18; cf. Acts 4:12).  Though preachers tout the seductive power of "idols of the heart," when impersonal objects and abstractions become "idols," the notion of inherent power featured in Scriptural examples of idolatry is lost.  A dictator's ideology may induce him to oppress a nation, but does the ideology itself, and not the dictator, wield inherent power?  Do adherents of a particular ideology believe their ideology watches over them while they sleep?  That it created the earth?  If not, and if we seek to adhere to Scriptural treatments, can we rightly characterize such things as being "idols"?  

Third, idols were the objects of worship.  They received sacrifices (Jer 7:18, Ezek 20:31, 1 Cor 8:1ff) and blessed supplicants (Jer 44:17) according to their perceived strength.  The act of worship which lay at the heart of biblical examples of idolatry mocked the supremacy and worthiness of God.  Paul warned the Corinthians not to engage in worship at idol temples by emphasizing God's burning jealousy for His own glory (1 Cor 10:21-22).  Do modern so-called "idols," including any hobby, relationship, or desire similarly challenge God by receiving genuine "worship"?  Do the cultic practices of idolaters in Scripture orient their worship to a breadth of types of "idols" that include anything under the sun?  Leaving aside rhetorical finesse and metaphorical zingers, effective as they may be, does one really sacrifice his children to the "idol" of corporate success?  Can one offer genuine worship to the desire for marriage?  How does one go about worshipping a "desire" in any biblical sense?  God intimately knows everyone's desires, whether sinful or pure, but never identifies them as idols.  People who lust do not worship the idol of physical gratification; they commit the sin of adultery (Matt 5:28).  Those who slander others to get ahead do not worship the idol of success; they commit the sin of murder (Matt 5:22).  Worship is offered either to competing deities or to the One who proclaimed, "I am the LORD; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols" (Isa 42:8, my emphasis).  

Those who describe sin as overvaluing good things, or "making good things into idols," maintain that the Bible speaks of idols that do not fit the neat characteristics of competing deities.  After all, they suggest, God told Ezekiel to rebuke Israel's elders because they had "taken idols into their hearts" (Ezek 14:3).  Isn't this an ancient example of our so-called "idols of the heart"?  No, at least not as that phrase is frequently used today.  God clarifies that the elders also "set the stumbling block of their iniquity before their faces" (v. 3).  What types of idols does this phrase identify--competing deities in the traditional sense or the abstractions included in the modern model?  We find a probable answer in chapter 7 when Ezekiel uses the same phrase ("the stumbling block of their iniquity") to describe Israel's idols of "silver and gold" (Ezek 7:19).  In other words, they had yoked themselves to the false gods, and their tangible idols, of the surrounding paganism.  The Israelite elders' idols were "of the heart" insofar as their hearts were bound up, as Calvin says, with these competing deities, presumably Marduk, Sin, Ishtar, and rest of the Babylonian pantheon.[2]    

But is not our heart a fabricum idolorum ("idol factory"), as Calvin said? [3]  It may be surprising to many that Calvin's famous quote, regularly cited by proponents of the current idolatry model, is part of a polemic against the icons of Rome, not an endorsement of "idols of the heart."  Calvin is in that phrase condemning man's compulsion to erect and worship competing deities against Yahweh, whether they be the "false gods" of the Old Testament (paganism) or, of immediate concern to Calvin, "symbols in which [men] believed God appeared before their bodily eyes" (Rome). [4]  Are we not misreading the targeted idols in Ezek 14:3 and in Calvin's thinking when we identify them with our modern, catch-all category of "idols of the heart"?  

By highlighting what I perceive to be an unwarranted expansion of the biblical category of idolatry, I do not mean to suggest that, at least for most Westerners, idolatry is the relic of an ancient era.  While we may not bow down to tiny statues or pray to Baal, idolatry still thrives.  But the brand of idolatry we practice is not of the "overvalued good things" variety, but instead probes the dark heart of what sin really is.  This is my second and major concern about the "sin as idolatry" model.
Sin Takes Aim at God, Not Me
Defining sin as "making good things into ultimate idols" too often functionally overlooks the fact that sin is, at its root, rebellion against the holy character and rule of God.  The abuse of good gifts from God is, of course, a feature of some sins.  But at its core, all sin is a direct assault on God's own personhood.  Sin is "doing...evil" (Judg 2:11) because God is the standard for goodness; it is "disobedience" (Rom 5:19) because we must obey God; it is "transgression" (1 Tim 2:14) and "lawlessness" (1 John 3:4) because God's law has been broken.  Put simply, sin is "ungodliness" (Rom 1:18) because it directly opposes the "Godness" of God.  In short, sin is a violent expression of our willful, vain, and defiant claim, "I will not have this Man to rule over me!"  Describing sin as "the making of good things into ultimate things" may posit God as the remedy for sin, but it risks removing Him as the staggeringly pure object of sin's offense.   

Ironically, as the new twist on sin focuses on the sinner's misplaced priorities, it suffers misplaced priorities of its own.  By beginning with "good things" taken too far, sin becomes wrong because it puts things out of order--the good is made ultimate--and when we get things out of order, our lives go bad.  With this idolatry slant on sin, God's glory is no longer the principal object of sin's robbery.  I am.  It's my world that suffers, my flourishing that flounders, my best that is missed.  Defining sin as idolatry ends up doing what it decries.  It skews the proper priorities.  It pushes God, and the offense to God, to the side and brings me and my situation to the fore.  Now again, sin may involve abusing the good things of the world, and sin certainly wreaks havoc in a person's life, driving him or her towards compulsive living, moral confusion, arrogance, and misery.  But the sorts of disorientation and destruction sin reaps in a life or a society are, in traditional understanding, merely symptomatic of the more profound horror of its assault against God's majestic holiness.  When Nathan's withering indictment prompted King David to repent of his adultery and mourn the devastation radiating from his deed, David did not simply look inward and lament having overly-valued sex, he looked upward and confessed to God, "Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight" (Ps 51:4).  He knew what he had done deserved a death sentence from the very One he had offended.  His cry should force us to ask: Are we bringing our unbelieving friends closer to echoing David's single-minded confession by offering our new definition of sin?  Are we graciously but fearlessly echoing Nathan's indictment that each sinner has "utterly scorned the LORD" (2 Sam 12:14)?  

Many who gravitate to the new definition will undoubtedly respond that "sin as idolatry" is only an entry-level explanation, admittedly inadequate to portray sin fully.  Many proponents contend that more should and will be said later concerning law, justice, moral absolutes, and the like.  But the potential of unwanted consequences of the theological shift inherent in this fresh articulation of sin should be carefully considered.  Once we fail to define sin as cosmic treason against God but rather as an impediment to human flourishing--even if we point out that genuine flourishing comes only when God's ultimate status is recognized--the all-important vertical and relational insult of sin may well have faded into the fog.  It is not unlike telling a husband he must stop abusing his wife because it may leave him hungry at dinnertime.  The heart of the matter, the relational insult, just hasn't been reached.  The unbeliever, who is already inclined to view everything selfishly, may welcome the idea of reshuffling his priorities and entirely miss the God-ward heinousness of his sin.
It's not hard to imagine why Christians who describe sin as an idolatrous "making of good things into ultimate things" have encountered less resistance from postmoderns.  At a minimum, it removes from the table the notions of law-breaking and moral absolutes that are so rebarbative to postmodern ears.  Therefore I grant that, because it is a more amenable category of thought, this view of idolatry may open up fresh avenues for discussing the gospel.  I hope it does.  But such an explanation of sin also risks endorsing straightway the unbeliever's pre-existing goals as worthy in themselves--namely, to find an identity he or she enjoys, to flourish in life on his or her own terms, and so on.  Moreover, such an explanation offers that the re-ordering of goals may be achieved simply through restraint.  Just pull back on what you are misperceiving as ultimate and give it a Substitute.  To put it another way, the new approach tends to tell the unbeliever that he is on the right track, he is traveling a good road, he is just missing the exit ten miles back that says "Fulfillment in God."  But King David would remind us that repentance is what we need before a holy God, not just a priority shift.  It is a confession of carnal affections that God requires, not just moderation of them.  God must forgive and transform our desires, not just reveal and curb them.  Our new definition of sin risks leading the unbeliever to view God simply as the Great Rearranger who is here to deal with our misplaced priorities and grant us the identities we've been looking for all along, rather than as the Almighty King who will either judge or forgive our monstrously selfish demands for identities that would overthrow His benevolent and rightful reign.  For these reasons, I believe this new formulation of "sin as idolatry" needs a modification of its own.

Will the Real Idol Please Stand Up?

When the Bible addresses sin, certainly in the gospel context that man deserves God's wrath and desperately needs redemption, it is concerned first and foremost with the condition of man's heart.  This is a point of common ground for skeptics and proponents of the current model alike, but it is also a frequent point of departure when it comes to explaining sin.  Rather than grant natural man the ability to discern "good" things and overvalue them, much less to call such things "idols," Scripture is unyielding in finding man's condition to be wicked, to be enslaved to sin, to be inclined to nothing of truly "good" things, to be dead to the things of life and alive only to the things of death (Jer 17:9, Rom 8:5-8, Eph 2:1-3).  None of natural man's attitudes, nothing of how he values things, is truly good.  As God's image, he may recognize what is good and what is true, but he always immediately suppresses such things in unrighteousness (Rom 1:18).  Faced with this reality, the biblical point is less that people sin by overly exalting good things and is more to see why they desire what they do to begin with.
The clear biblical answer is that man attaches priority importance to himself.  To put it bluntly, man is his own idol today.  This idolatrous orientation to self is evident even more clearly in our Western context than in ancient pagan examples of idolatry.  We are the personal agents who vie for the glory that belongs to God alone.  We are the ones who foolishly boast of power by which we try to defy God's sovereignty.  We are the objects of our own false worship instead of God.  Things such as money, sex, and fame are not idols in the biblical sense, as many claim.  They are instead merely manifestations of our self-worship.  Satan and the world offer, and we selfishly employ, everything under the sun to worship ourselves instead of offering ourselves in generous worship to God.  This reality is reflected in part in the Scriptural correlation that "greed" (or "covetousness") is "idolatry" (Col 3:5; cf. Eph 5:6).  That statement literally does not say that it is the thing (the supposedly overly-valued "good" thing) that is the idol.  That statement literally says it is the wanting, the craving condition of man's heart, not so much the thing that is craved, that is idolatrous.  That being so, in which direction does that statement point to find the idol?  Is it outward to the thing or inward to the heart?  The answer is obvious. [5]  The greedy and enslaving idol of self precludes loyalty to God because it hates Him (Matt 6:24). [6]  Some might say that the current idolatry model still stands, that it is ultimately the self that is overly valued.  The stubborn fact, though, is that by no stretch is the natural man's self "good."  To the contrary, "None is righteous, no, not one" (Rom 3:10).  Overly valuing self and selfish interests cannot be an over-evaluation of anything that is "good."  So, when the current idolatry model of sin finds its logical conclusion in the heart by conceding that the self is the over-valued "good thing," it finds that the hard reality of sin is infinitely more bleak.

Finding Solid Ground
Let us remember, the floodlights of Scripture can still out-blaze the dim flashbulbs of unbelieving thought.  Using terms like "law-breaking", "rebellion", and "ungodliness" will undoubtedly invite scorn for the Biblical notion of sin, even if, as we should, we use such terms with patience and compassion.  As we point unerringly to God, and the grave offensiveness of our sin to Him, we will be exposed to dismissal, belittlement, or worse.  Absent the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit, we will certainly be less persuasive to fallen minds.  But, when it is driven by the relentless Spirit of grace, our message will pierce to the division of soul and spirit and may even expose a heart that is loaded with good soil, ready to hear more.  At that point, what glorious hope lies in store!  Postmodernism has wrought fissures in our cultural landscape, to be sure, but let us beware lest our biblical understanding of sin falls through the cracks.  As long as the preacher exposes sin as David confessed it, we might advise, he'll be fine.

[1] P. Comfort, "Idolatry," DPL 424.
[2] This is confirmed when the elders' idolatrous practices, described as "abominations" in Ezek 14:6, first appear as "vile abominations" (Ezek 8:9) in Ezekiel's earlier temple vision.  Rather than see today's "idols of the heart" there, the prophet records that in the temple "engraved on the wall all around, was every form of creeping things and loathsome beasts, and all the idols of the house of Israel" (Ezek 8:10, my emphasis).  Idols there seem to be equated to engravings, forms, things and beasts, diverse to be sure, but not all-encompassing.
[3]John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, 2 vols., Library of Christian Classics 20-21 (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 1.11.8. 
[4]Ibid., 1.11.8. 
[5]William Hendriksen confirms the self as an idol when he states, "Every sin is basically selfishness, the worship of self instead of the worship of God, the substitution of self for Christ, in one's affections (cf. Col 3:1-3).  It is for this reason that Paul adds, 'which is idolatry.'" (Colossians [New Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1979], 147).
[6]This verse is hardly sufficient for building the modern theology of idolatry.  Jesus is teaching us not to be unduly concerned for having enough money, which God promises sufficiently to provide (Matt 6:33).  God would surely not promise to provide an "idol."  Instead, in view is an example of the idolatrous and enslaving selfishness outlined above (cf. Col 3:5, Eph 5:6).

Carlton Wynne is the Assistant Pastor at Providence Presbyterian Church in Dallas, TX.

Carlton Wynne, "Is Idolatry the New Sin?", Reformation21 (November 2009)

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