Idolatry in the Heart
Son of man, these men have set up their idols in their hearts, and put before them that which causes them to stumble into iniquity.
Question 109 of the Larger Catechism asks, “What are the sins forbidden in the Second Commandment?” It gives the answer, “The sins forbidden in the second commandment are, all devising, counselling, commanding, using, and any wise approving, any religious worship not instituted by God himself; tolerating a false religion; the making any representation of God, of all or of any of the three persons, either inwardly in our mind, or outwardly in any kind of image or likeness of any creature whatsoever; all worshipping of it, or God in it or by it; the making of any representation of feigned deities, and all worship of them, or service belonging to them; all superstitious devices, corrupting the worship of God, adding to it, or taking from it, whether invented and taken up of ourselves, or received by tradition from others, though under the title of antiquity, custom, devotion, good intent, or any other pretence whatsoever; simony; sacrilege; all neglect, contempt, hindering, and opposing the worship and ordinances which God hath appointed.” Last week we considered the sinful tolerance of wickedness that God hates. This week we look at idolatry of the heart.
Today when we hear of the sin of idolatry, we probably immediately envision ancient people falling down before carved wooden or stone statues in order to offer worship to them (or through them). Such practices are sinful, though they are rarely seen in such primitive forms today. Still, most Eastern religions and even some branches of the (professing) visible church, including official Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox theology, continue to support the use of images in worship, though they do so within a sophisticated theological system in an impossible effort to escape the sin of idolatry. The Catechism, simply reflecting the uniform teaching of Scripture, condemns all and every form of worship where any physical image or object of any kind is used: “all worshipping of it, or God in it or by it.” Consider in just one passage how completely the Word of God condemns all objects for use in worship:
“Take careful heed to yourselves, for you saw no form when the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, lest you act corruptly and make for yourselves a carved image in the form of any figure: the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any animal that is on the earth or the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground or the likeness of any fish that is in the water beneath the earth,” (Deu. 4:15-18). Clearly our God will not allow any of His holy worship to be given to or mediated through any kind of physical object whatsoever. Such was the case temporarily in the priestly sacrificial system, where certain physical objects were necessary for the proper worship of God (e.g. the priestly garments, the altar, the arc of the covenant, etc.), and were meticulously regulated by God. But by definition that worship was temporary and incomplete. As the New Testament declares, because God is Spirit, those who rightly worship Him must worship Him in spirit and truth (John 4:24). Such spiritual worship is necessary for His glory and for our good.
However, even though outward idol worship is practiced very differently today, the one thing that has not changed is the proclivity of idolatry in the human heart. Consider how many idols of the heart today’s culture promotes to sinful man: pride, success, pleasing man, sinful sexual pleasure, greed, lust, laziness, luxury, self-pity, selfish anger, materialism, etc., etc. John Calvin said that the human heart is an idol factory. The most natural thing for our sinful hearts to do is to continually manufacture idols with which to replace God. This inner idolatry is what the Catechism so strongly condemns, saying: “making any representation of God… inwardly in our mind… and all worship of them or service belonging to them.” The Catechism is not saying that you cannot allow yourself to ever think of Jesus as a real man, with a real visage and image, as is so often wrongly interpreted. But it is condemning and forbidding even mental images of the Father, Son, or Holy Spirit for the purpose of facilitating or enhancing worship. Thus, I think the best theologians have distinguished between a historical representation of Jesus, such as the physical letters of the word J-e-s-u-s, or a depiction of His human image in the minds of those disciples who had seen Him, or in a painting, sculpture, or video; vs a sinful representation, which, whether mental or physical, is intended for use in worship. God is Spirit. We cannot rightly allow anything to come between our spirits worshiping Him by His Spirit. To do so in any way is to derogate from the mediation which our Lord Jesus Christ has accomplished for us. May God grant us an increasingly pure, spiritual worship!