J. C. Ryle
(This updated and revised manuscript is copyrighted
Ó1998 by Tony Capoccia.
All rights reserved.)
"Flee from idolatry"
(1 Corinthians 10:14)
Our text for today may seem at first to be hardly needed in our country. In an age of education and intelligence, we might almost fancy it is waste of time to tell us to "flee from idolatry."
I am bold to say that this is a great mistake. I believe that we have come to a time when the subject of idolatry demands a thorough and searching investigation. I believe that idolatry is near us, all around us, and in the midst of us, to a very fearful extent. The second commandment, in one word, is in danger. "The plague is begun."
Without further preface, I propose to consider the following four points:
I. The definition of idolatry. WHAT IS IT?
II. The cause of idolatry. WHERE DOES IT COME FROM?
III. The form idolatry assumes in the visible Church of Christ. WHERE IS IT?
IV. The ultimate termination of idolatry. WHAT WILL END IT?
I feel that the subject is encompassed with many difficulties. Our lot is cast in an age when truth is constantly in danger of being sacrificed to "toleration," "love," and "peace," falsely so-called. Nevertheless, I cannot forget, as a minister, that the Church has given little or no warnings on the subject of idolatry; and, unless I am greatly mistaken, truth about idolatry is, in the highest sense, truth for the times.
I. Let me, then, first of all supply a definition of idolatry. Let me show WHAT IT IS.
It is of the utmost importance that we should understand this. Unless I make this clear, I can do nothing with the subject. Vagueness and indistinctness prevail upon this point, as upon almost every other in religion. The Christian who desires not be continually running aground in his spiritual voyage, must have his channel well buoyed, and his mind well stored with clear definitions.
I say then, that Idolatry is a worship, in which the honor due to the Triune God, and to God only, is given to some of His creatures, or to some invention of His creatures.
It may vary. It may assume different forms, according to the ignorance or the knowledge—the civilization or the barbarism, of those who offer it. It may be grossly absurd and ludicrous, or it may closely border on truth, and being most superficially defended. But whether in the adoration of the idol of Juggernaut, or in the adoration of the Pope in St. Peter's at Rome, the principle of idolatry is in reality the same. In either case the honor due to God is turned aside from Him, and bestowed on that which is not God. And whenever this is done, whether in heathen temples or in professedly Christian Churches, there is an act of idolatry.
It is not necessary, for a man to formally deny God and Christ, in order to be an idolater. Far from it. Professed reverence for the God of the Bible and actual idolatry, are perfectly compatible. They have often been done side by side, and they still do so. The children of Israel never thought of renouncing God when they persuaded Aaron to make the golden calf. "Here are your gods," they said, "who brought you up out of Egypt." And the feast in honor of the calf was kept as a "festival to the LORD (Jehovah)" (Exodus 32:4, 5).
Jeroboam, again, never pretended to ask the ten tribes to cast off their allegiance to the God of David and Solomon. When he set up the calves of gold in Dan and Bethel, he only said, "It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem. Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt" (1 Kings 12:28).
In both instances, we should observe, the idol was not set up as a rival to God, but under the pretense of being a help—a steppingstone to His service. But, in both instances, a great sin was committed. The honor due to God was given to a visible representation of Him. The majesty of Jehovah was offended. The second commandment was broken. There was, in the eyes of God, a flagrant act of idolatry.
Let us mark this well. It is high time to dismiss from our minds those loose ideas about idolatry, which are common in this day. We must not think, as many do, that there are only two sorts of idolatry—the spiritual idolatry of the man who loves his wife, or child, or money more than God; and the open, gross idolatry of the man who bows down to an image of wood, or metal, or stone, because he knows no better. We may rest assured that idolatry is a sin, which occupies a far wider field than this. It is not merely a thing in pagan lands, that we may hear of and pity at missionary meetings; nor yet is it a thing confined to our own hearts, that we may confess before the mercy-seat upon our knees. It is a pestilence that walks in the Church of the Living Christ to a much greater extent than many suppose. It is an evil that, like the man of sin, "that sets himself up in God's temple, proclaiming himself to be God" (2 Thessalonians 2:4).
It is a sin that we all need to watch and pray against continually. It creeps into our religious worship unnoticed, and is upon us before we are aware. Those are tremendous words which Isaiah spoke to the faithful Jew—not to the worshiper of Baal, remember, to the man who actually came to the temple (Isaiah 66:3): "Whoever sacrifices a bull is like one who kills a man, and whoever offers a lamb, like one who breaks a dog's neck; whoever makes a grain offering is like one who presents pig's blood, and whoever burns memorial incense, like one who worships an idol."
This is that sin which God has especially denounced in His Word. One commandment out of ten is devoted to the prohibition of it. Not one of all the ten contains such a solemn declaration of God's character, and of His judgments against the disobedient: "I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me" (Exodus 20:5). Not one, perhaps, of all the ten is so emphatically repeated and amplified, and especially in the fourth chapter of the book of Deuteronomy. This is the sin, of all others, to which the Jews seem to have been most inclined to commit before the destruction of Solomon's temple. What is the history of Israel under their judges and kings but a sorrowful record of repeated falling away into idolatry? Again and again we read of "high places" and "false gods." Again and again we read of captivities and chastisements on account of idolatry. Again and again we read of a return to the old sin. It seems as if the love of idols among the Jews was naturally bone of their bone and flesh of their flesh. The besetting sin of the Old Testament Church, in one word, was idolatry. In the face of the most elaborate ceremonial ordinances that God ever gave to His people, Israel was incessantly turning aside after idols, and worshipping the work of men's hands.
This is the sin, of all others, which has brought down the heaviest judgments on the visible Church. It brought on Israel the armies of Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon. It scattered the ten tribes, burned up Jerusalem, and carried Judah and Benjamin into captivity. It brought on the Eastern Churches, in later days, the overwhelming flood of the Muslim invasion, and turned many a spiritual garden into a wilderness. The desolation which reigns where Cyprian and Augustine once preached, the living death in which the Churches of Asia Minor and Syria are buried, are all attributable to this sin. All testify to the same great truth which the Lord proclaims in Isaiah: "I will not give my glory to another or my praise to idols" (Isaiah 42:8).
Let us gather up these things in our minds, and ponder them well. Idolatry is a subject which, in every Christian Church, that wants to keep herself pure, should be thoroughly examined, understood, and known. It is not for nothing that Paul lays down the stern command, "Flee from idolatry."
II. Let me show, in the second place, the cause to which idolatry may be traced. WHERE DOES IT COME FROM?
To the man who takes an extravagant and exalted view of human intellect and reason, idolatry may seem absurd. He fancies it too irrational for any but weak minds to be endangered by it.
To a mere superficial thinker about Christianity, the peril of idolatry may seem very small. Whatever commandments are broken, such a man will tell us, professing Christians are not very likely to transgress the second.
Now, both these persons betray a woeful ignorance of human nature. They do not see that there are secret roots of idolatry within us all. The prevalence of idolatry in all ages among the heathen must necessarily puzzle the one—the warnings of Protestant ministers against idolatry in the Church must necessarily appear uncalled for to the other. Both are alike blind to its cause.
The cause of all idolatry is the natural corruption of man's heart. That great family disease, with which all the children of Adam are infected from their birth, shows itself in this, as it does in a thousand other ways. Out of the same fountain from which "come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly" (Mark 7:21, 22)—out of that same fountain arise false views of God, and false views of the worship due to Him, and, therefore, when the Apostle Paul tells the Galatians (Galatians 5:20) what are the "works of the flesh," he places prominently among them "idolatry."
Man will have some kind of a religion. God has not left Himself without a witness in us all, fallen as we are. Like old inscriptions hidden under mounds of rubbish, there is a dim something—engraved at the bottom of man's heart, however faint and half-erased—a something which makes him feel he must have a religion and a worship of some kind. The proof of this is to be found in the history of voyages and travels in every part of the globe. The exceptions to the rule are so few, if indeed there are any, that they only confirm its truth. Man's worship in some dark corner of the earth may rise no higher than a vague fear of an evil spirit, and a desire to appease him; but a worship of some kind man will have.
But then comes in the effect of the fall. Ignorance of God, carnal and low conceptions of His nature and attributes, earthly and sensual notions of the service, which is acceptable to Him, all characterize the religion of the natural man. There is a craving in his mind after something he can see, and feel, and touch. He is eager to bring his God down to his own crawling level. He would make his religion a thing of sense and sight. He has no idea of the religion of heart, and faith, and spirit. In short, just as he is willing to live on God's earth, until renewed by grace, a fallen and degraded life, so he has no objection to the worship of idols, until renewed, by the Holy Spirit. In one word, idolatry is a natural product of man's heart. It is a weed, which like the uncultivated earth, the heart is always ready to bring forth.
And now does it surprise us, when we read of the constantly recurring idolatries of the Old Testament Church, of Baal, and Moloch, and Ashtaroth—of high places and hill altars, and groves and images—and this in the full light of the Mosaic ceremonial? Let us cease to be surprised. It can be accounted for. There is a cause.
Does it surprise us when we read in history, how idolatry crept in by degrees into the Christian Church, how little by little it thrust out Gospel truth, until, in Canterbury, men offered more at the shrine of Thomas a’Becket, than they did at the shrine of the Virgin Mary, and more at the shrine of Virgin Mary, than at the shrine of Christ? Let us cease to be surprised. It is all intelligible. There is a cause.
Does it surprise us when we hear of men going over from Protestant Churches to the Roman Catholic Church, in the present day? Do we think it impossible, and feel as if we ourselves could never forsake a pure form of worship for one like that of the Roman Catholic Church? Let us cease to be surprised. There is a solution for the problem. There is a cause.
That cause is nothing else but the corruption of man's heart. There is a natural proneness and tendency in us all, to give God a sensual, carnal worship, and not that, which is commanded in His Word. We are always ready, by reason of our laziness and unbelief, to devise visible helps and stepping-stones in our approaches to Him, and ultimately to give these inventions of our own the honor due to Him. In fact, idolatry is all natural, downhill, easy, like the broad way. Spiritual worship is all of grace, all uphill, and all against the grain. Any worship whatsoever is more pleasing to the natural heart, than worshipping God in the way, which our Lord Christ describes, "in spirit and truth" (John 4:23).
I, for one, am not surprised at the quantity of idolatry existing, both in the world and in the visible Church. I believe it perfectly possible that we may yet live to see far more of it than some have ever dreamed of. It would never surprise me if some mighty personal Antichrist were to arise before the end—mighty in intellect, mighty in talents for government, yes, and mighty, perhaps, in miraculous gifts too. It would never surprise me to see such a one as him setting up himself in opposition to Christ, and forming an Agnostic conspiracy against the Gospel.
I believe that many would rejoice to do him honor, who now glory in saying, "We will not have this Christ to reign over us." I believe that many would make a god of him, and reverence him as an incarnation of truth, and concentrate their idea of hero-worship on his person. I advance it as a possibility, and no more. But of this at least I am certain, that no man is less safe from danger of idolatry than the man who now sneers at every form of religion; and that from belief to unbelief, from Atheism to the grossest idolatry, there is but a single step. Let us not think, that idolatry is an old-fashioned sin, into which we are never likely to fall. "So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don't fall!" We shall do well to look into our own hearts: the seeds of idolatry are all there. We should remember the words of Paul, "Flee from idolatry." (Please click here to continue reading, "Idolatry")