J. C. Ryle (1816-1900)
[Excerpts] 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 [to] 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.”
This updated and revised manuscript is copyrighted 1998 by Tony Capoccia. All rights reserved.
Tony Capoccia — www.biblebb.com