Ligon Duncan on the Non-Negotiables of the Gospel

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  • Tuesday, April 10, 2007

    Idolatry, and the Point of Contact

    Idolatry is not just a substitute for God, idolatry is seeking a point of contact with God that is outside of God's design. Calvin puts it this way: "That idolatry has its origin in the idea which men have, that God is not present with them unless his presence is carnally exhibited." This is a bit more subtle approach to idolatry and self-atonement. We want to connect with God and so we create our own point of contact, a transmitter, a place of meeting.

    My wife and I were at the house of an acquaintance recently and we noticed an unusual artifact. It was a "Star Of David" carved to look like a Celtic knot. Historically there is no evidence that the Cel
    ts ascribed any magic to these artful knots, but some Wiccans have taken up the creation of celtic knots, attributing to them ideas and magical properties that may not have been there originally. Based on additional images and objects in this ladies house, and her own description of her syncretistic 'cafeteria style' religion, I knew this "Star of David" was more than a mere piece of artwork.

    The majority of people, when asked the question "What is idolatry?", will give you an answer that involves the creating of a false god. This is true. When we think of idols, we think of statues carved in the shape of animals or grotesque mythical creatures and ecstatic primitives bowing down to them.

    An idol is indeed a substitute for God. Romans 1:21 tells us:

    21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

    The apostle Paul explains that forming a substitute God is the result of withholding honor from God, for which God diminishes our ability to reason. The bible calls knowledge of God's perfections and work, light. But in the futile workings of our corrupted darkened minds we perceive only shadows of the Truth. We believe we are wise and can even fool our fellow men, but in light of God's word, we are foolish child 'kings'. Just as a rebellious child hides from the authority and justice of his parent, the 'child king' hides from God. Hiding our sin from God is called 'self-atonement'.

    Man's shame has left him addicted to self-atonement. Our ancestral grand-parents tried to cover themselves with leaves and God demonstrated to them that the shedding of blood would be the means of atonement - of sin covering. This lesson did not stop the rest of Adams children from seeking other ways to shelter their shame.

    One way to ease guilt is to do away with the Holy Judge. We made 'gods' that were not so holy, so just and so demanding; gods that were gods by OUR will; Gods that were subject to OUR word. We gave these gods their attributes and their form. We controlled every aspect of their, and our, divinity. Hence we may define as idol as a god created in man's image. Most believers will flee from this type of pagan religious expression; tt's easy to see that it violates the second commandment and is abhorrent to us and to our God.

    Idolatry as a point of contact
    Idolatry, however, is not just a substitute for God, idolatry is seeking a point of contact with God that is outside of God's design. It's mystifying for many that Aaron and the Israelites could turn so quickly from God to a golden calf. After the great miracles they had seen how could they be so confused? How could the great priest Aaron fall so far and so fast? You must remember that after Aaron and the artisans formed the 'idol' he proclaimed, "Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord.”

    They were not seeking a NEW God that was NOT Yahweh. They were just frustrated with God being invisible, they wanted a God they could see - the wanted a new POINT OF CONTACT. Calvin puts it this way:
    That idolatry has its origin in the idea which men have, that God is not present with them unless his presence is carnally exhibited.
    This is a bit more subtle approach to idolatry and self-atonement. We want to connect with God and so we create our own point of contact, a transmitter, a place of meeting. We will go a long way toward recognizing idolatry if we keep this second definition in mind.

    Is it acceptable to expect to move God's hand by repeating the 'Prayer of Jabez'? Can we pray with more focus by looking at a 'picture' or statue of Jesus? of Mary? of Joseph? Can we pray through a saint? Can we experience the divine through a handkerchief blessed by (name your favorite TV preacher)? Are we closer to God if we stand in the Jordan river or at the tomb? Can we create our own point of contact as long as the Lord is our focus of destination? The answer to all these questions is NO. The reason that these pursuits are wrong is that there is only ONE point of contact where we meet God and that is His WORD.

    One Point of Contact
    We are to be a people of the Book, the Word of God. One may say, "I am a disciple of Christ", but if you are not familiar with his teachings and abide in his Word (John 8:31) then you are no disciple of Jesus. The Word of God is THE point of contact. It is where God meets his people for "faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God."

    You might ask, "Can't we find God in nature?". No, God certainly reveals his divine nature and power within the nautral world but it can only be defined and interpreted by the Word. God spoke the Word and the universe, the world came into being; nature is a product of the Word, not the other way around. If you want to connect with nature, go through the Word.

    Even a church can become an idol or idol factory. Martin Luther said that a true church is where the Word of God is pure and the sacraments are administered correctly. Today we are seeing the rise of niche churches - cowboy churches, hip hop churches, men only churches. These are not churches for the Word of God is not kept pure. The church is not to be broken up into small groups based on common interests, the church is where distinctions are broken down. These 'niche churches' are man-made attempts to create new and fresh points of contact with God.

    Singing "I can sing of your love forever" 27 times is not a point of contact. But I've watched the 'rapture' in the faces of the members of the praise band and it makes me wonder. Songs of praise, even scripture itself (Prayer of Jabez) can be misused and transformed into a talisman, a formula, an incantation if we are not careful in our handling.

    "Hence we may infer, that the human mind is, so to speak, a perpetual forge of idols." (Calvin, Insti. 1.6.8) So let us be vigilante as we go to God and meet him through and in the Word. Seek out a church where the Word and the Gospel are faithfully preached, where the sacraments (ordained physical expressions of the Word) are faithfully administered. Be cautious of the next new thing, new movement, new book that even the secular world gets interested in. We are a people of the Word.

    John 1:
    1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.


    1 comment:

    Swordbearer said...


    This post is insightful. Nothing to add. It says alot and says it well!