Friday, August 26, 2011

Is the Sin of Idolatry Pretty Much Obsolete?

Jay Adams seems to suggest that it is—unless, of course, you're bowing down to a piece of stone. At the very least, he's arguing that we're acting unbiblically if we help people identify their heart idols. Adams' comments are rather vague. It's not at all clear what he's responding to, or whether his preference is that counselors deal exclusively with raw human behavior rather than the affections that motivate the behavior.

Frankly, his comments are puzzling, since I'd assume most pastors and counselors would find some benefit in identifying the sinful heart issue beneath the sinful behavior. And it's not as if Adams (a Presbyterian) is coming from some hyper-dispensationalist position that radically bifurcates the OT prevalence of idolatry from the NT.

Adams, and all of us, ought to be able to recognize that the issue in OT idolatry isn't the nature of the object, but that the idol displaces God in the human heart. OT idolatry is a worship issue. It's about misplaced or distorted affections, values, allegiances, and hopes. One might well ask a NT sinning saint, "What were you loving or trusting in most at the moment you chose to sin? What lie were you believing about whom is worthy of your ultimate affections? What or whom were you really worshiping?" If that sort of communication isn't present in our preaching and our counseling, I'm not sure how we're going to accomplish anything more than behavior modification—treating symptoms

Of course, these notions aren't original with me. You can find them in Paul Tripp's books (especially this one), Tim Keller's sermons, and this outstanding little sermon series from Kevin Bauder. As I remember, the final sermon, "Shaping Our Affections Toward God" [MP3], spelled it out most directly.

Finally, and briefly, if you want NT texts that prove believers need to be warned about idolatry, in Galatians 5:19-20 one of the works of the flesh is idolatry. And even more explicitly, in Colossians 3:5 covetousness is idolatry. Covetousness—by definition a sin of the mind and heart.

18 comments:

Don Johnson said...

Ben, there is a bit of a divide between Adams and the Tripp/Welch et al crowd. My impression is that Adams thinks the other guys see too much idolatry in everything. I don't think Adams would deny that covetousness is idolatry! But he thinks the constant idolatry analysis on the other side is a bit over the top.

That's my impression anyway.

I think there is probably a middle ground somewhere on this issue that is probably the true Bible position. While I recognize humans can make an idol out of almost anything, there does seem to be a difference between the idolatry of the Roman Empire (and of, say, Hinduism and Buddhism, etc) and the 'idols of the heart' the current popular writers are all on about.

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Ben said...

Don, can you help me identify a sin that isn't fundamentally an exchange of the worship of the true God for a false god?

James Kime said...

I grew up hearing that the sin of pride is at the root of all other sins. That was the sin of satan. However, I think it is more accurate to say that idolatry is the root of all other sins. I think Rom 1:21 proves this.

For though they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God or show gratitude.

Don Johnson said...

Hi Ben,

There is a sense in which "every sin is fundamentally an exchange of the worship of the true God for a false god", I suppose.

But if we start using words like that pretty soon some of them lose any meaningful content, don't you think? I mean, if all sin = idolatry, then either the word sin or the word idolatry has no real distinguishable meaning and ceases to be useful. (I realize you weren't saying "all sin = idolatry" exactly.)

If every sin is idolatry, then idolatry becomes somewhat irrelevant, not a matter of deep concern... a 'so what' issue. I don't think the Bible uses the term like this.

So while I get it when someones says "every sin is fundamentally an exchange of the worship of the true God for a false god", it seems to me that the concept can be overdone.

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Shayne McAllister said...

The danger of Adams' dismissal of seeing every sin as an idol, is that by extension it makes scripture passages that deal with worshiping little carvings irrelevant to our lives. Few of us are tempted to worship little statues. So what is God telling us in all the passages related to idols? Are the passages not applicable? Of course they are.

Don, to your point. I'd understand your concern more if the preachers criticized for talking about idolatry used ONLY this approach in their teaching on sin. But they don't. Keller uses various ways to think about sin (I did a quick search on Redeemer's sermon site and I found the messages: Sin as Adiction, Sin as Slavery, Sin as Predator, Sin as Sickness. . . ) Much like we speak of the church as a body, family or house. We can look at sin from different perspectives and be helped more by one perspective at a different time.

I think in our culture, understanding sin as idolatry is particularly helpful to me. Our idols are made perhaps a little more cleverly these days because we just don't see them. That's why there is this new emphasis: Westerners don't think of themselves as idolators, and yet we are. The realization that we are idolators helps us have a fresh view of scripture that might have previously been hidden to us due to cultural blinders.

Jay Adams seems to totally disagree with the concept.

Shayne McAllister said...

http://www.monergism.com/postmodernidols.html

Keller says it better than me. (Duh)

Don Johnson said...

First, please note that I am not arguing for Adams' view, I am arguing that there is probably a middle ground which is where the Bible is on this issue.

I started to mention something from Ed Welch's book, Addictions: A Banquet in the Grave (great title and great book). He uses several 'models' to describe addiction in the book, 'addiction as disease', 'addiction as idolatry', etc.

So in pointing out the difference between Adams and the CCEL guys, I am firstly just noting what that difference is.

However, I do think Adams has a point and that the CCEL guys (and others) may be going too far in their application of 'idolatry' to every appearance of evil. Sins of covetousness are clearly idolatry, the Bible says so. I think we can see idolatry in our relations to the sports and entertainment world. And there is more.

But is a conflict between two people (say a husband and wife) rooted somehow in idolatry? Maybe, but it seems you have to go down a long and convoluted path to get to that conclusion.

Hope that clears up what I am saying a bit.

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Joshua Caucutt said...

Ben, would you tell a person who claims to be a Christian, "you need to stop your participation in orgies because those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God"? Or something different?

For instance, I know a whole bunch of people who are immoral, commit crimes, live lives of lasciviousness, but if you were to ask them: "What were you loving or trusting in most at the moment you chose to sin?" Their answer would be "my belief and trust in Christ and his unconditional justification".

Hear issues are certainly as important as physical actions. But "behavior modification" as you call it, is just as important as "heart modification" Titus 1:16. If we emphasize one over the other, we end up with legalism on one side and easy-believism on the other.

Ben said...

Josh, yes, of course. And I disagree with your final statement. It's not a matter of emphasizing both equally. Biblical soteriology embraces the truth that heart change and life change are inseparable. But it's not as if they're "two wings of a bird," to borrow the phrase. The former initiates, causes, and enables the latter.

But you haven't read me denying the need for life transformation, so I don't exactly understand how you're disagreeing with me.

Ben said...

Don, I think you mean CCEF. And yes, I believe a (presumably sinful) conflict between two people is directly rooted in idolatry. We prioritize what we want (whatever that may be in the particular circumstance) over obedience/submission to the will of God. That's idolatry—orienting our lives over our own will rather than God's. So I actually don't think the path is at all long or convoluted.

Are you thinking of an example that doesn't fit my explanation?

Don Johnson said...

Hi Ben,

Yes, you're right, CCEF! Boy, all these acronyms!!! And my advancing age!

I'll have to think on this a bit to see if I can give you a concrete example. So far I am only protesting because it sounds like you and others are saying: all sin = idolatry. That doesn't seem correct to me somehow.

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Ben said...

Don, that is what I'm saying. But very open to hearing about an example of a sin that is not, at its root, a displacement of God-worship for something-else-worship.

Don Johnson said...

Hi Ben,

Your question prompted a lot of reading tonight. My Bible dictionaries don't support as broad-ranging view of idolatry as is popular in the current teaching. It seems that a lot of this teaching stems from an article by David Powlison. Keller picked up on it as did Elyse Fitzpatrick and others. I've downloaded the Powlison article and will try to take a loot at it soon. A lot of the commentary on the web seems to echo Powlison's ideas. I also heard something of it in a message for one of BJU's opening services last night.

So the 'idols of the heart' view is pretty widespread.

But as I read my Bible dictionaries, it does seem that the Bible has a narrower view than that of the popular writers. It is clear that the NT doesn't limit idolatry to merely gods of stone or metal, but it does tend to focus the attention on covetousness, lust, power, etc.

Anyway, I'll have to leave the discussion there. It is an interesting topic, but I don't have time for more right now.

I may write something up on my blog about it as I study this out more. I'll try to remember to let you know if I do that.

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

brian said...

Ben,
Would you say any or all sin could similarly be classified as adultery? In other words, is spiritual adultery just another term for idolatry (the exchange of rightful worship of the true God for the worship of another)?

Ben said...

Brian,

Hadn't thought about that at all. My initial reaction is yes, but . . . the sin as adultery language in Scripture seems to be derivative from the underlying reality of sin as idolatry. Obviously I'm thinking of the OT, but that's true in James 4. Also, the adultery image seems only to apply to the covenant community. So I'm not sure it'd apply to the sin of a non-Christian, though idolatry still would.

brian said...

Ben,
Agreed. Depending on one's interpretation of Revelation 17, he might make the case that an unbeliever outside the covenant community can (and does) commit spiritual adultery. That's not my point, however.

Primarily, I think that James 4 displays that any form of worldliness (i.e. envy and conflict) is, in fact, spiritual adultery. If someone can agree to that equation, I don't know why they would have a problem with the whole scope of sin being labeled as a form of idolatry.

Secondarily, James' use of adultery language on such a broad scale seems to give credence to using the language of idolatry similarly: (1) to summarize various forms of sin, (2) to display mundane sin as grotesque, and (3) to bring "horizontal" sins into the realm of a direct offense against God and a breach of the relationship. Yes, it shows us the rebellion and unfaithfulness of our hearts, but it also shows just how offensive our "respectable sins" can be to God.

Don Johnson said...

Jumping back in! (I can't help myself!)

Just to say that James is writing primarily to professing believers, no? Thus the adultery emphasis.

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Ben said...

Brian, great points.

Don, you're totally right. And that's part of what makes Brian's point so strong. Just about every commentator will tell you that the adultery language in James is drawing on OT adultery language applied to Israel. Several of the modern translations actually obscure that connection to Israel as idolater/spiritual adulteress by translating "adulteresses" in a gender-neutral way.