When Christianity Is Idolatry

(This is a re-post of an article, by Matt Johnson, that appeared here.)



I am standing in front of a church congregation with a microphone in-hand. The pastor had asked me to give a short testimony about when I came to the church and what was going on in my life at the time. Here’s, essentially, what I said:

I came to the church during a confusing time in my life. I was struggling with theological and philosophical ideas and there were some people in the church who understood my questions and helped straighten me out.


Recollections of Idolatry

Fast forward about five years. I am on a stroll with my wife through a park on a sunny spring day. Out of nowhere I get a revelation. That little speech in front of the church all those years ago was idolatry.

The backstory to that mini-testimony is that a couple years prior, I’d come out of a rebellious, sinful time of my life. I’d gotten “straightened out” but I had never truly faced my sin before my savior. Instead, I’d accepted the counterfeit of deep theological study. I’d fallen for the subtle lie that knowledge of good Christian theology served as my justification.

All I’d done was exchange the truth for a lie and served created things for the Creator God (Rm. 1:25). I’d taken a good gift from God and used it for my own purposes of looking good in front of others. If I were to infuse some truth serum into that speech, it would sound a little more like this, “Hi, I am guilt-ridden over some past sin but I’ve pridefully never really faced the fact that my sin is treason against God. So rather than call it sin, I’ll just say I’ve been trying to crack a ‘theological problem’ so you’ll think I’m smart.”


When Christianity Becomes Idolatry

Even good Christian theology can become an idol. When Christian belief is information detached from the substance of Jesus’ objective work on the cross for sinners, it becomes idolatry. Like it or not, you and I are guilty of it. How so?

  • Do you live for the approval of others in the church?
  • Do you stew over your spiritual performance and personal holiness more than you steep in what God has already accomplished for you in Jesus?
  • Are you prideful about your biblical knowledge?
  • Do you love to debate finer points of theology with others and get angry when you’re challenged by your views?
  • Are you feeling burnt out and joyless in your service to those in the church?
  • Are you uncomfortable with suffering people and find you’re quick to recite Bible verses as a way to avoid awkward, personal engagement?

If you answered "yes" to any of these, there is a good chance you have taken God’s good gifts and used them for your own selfish purpose. You have used God to make yourself look good through your service, your knowledge, and personal growth. This form of idolatry is hard to detect because the “fruit bearing” looks good to everyone else. Let's face facts though; it's idolatry.



The problem is, like the Pharisees, we prefer our safe religion over the death of our selfish spiritual aspirations.



Religion is a Golden Calf

The clearest picture of idolatry in the Bible is the Exodus 32 narrative on the golden calf. This narrative isn’t simply a message that pagans, perverts, and addicts need to hear; it's also for religious folk like you and me. When God looked down from the mountain and found his people had crafted the Golden Calf, he wasn’t simply witnessing immoral living. He saw a people he had redeemed that had taken his good gifts and used them against him. While it's not explicitly stated in the text, the gold the Israelites used to make the calf was intended for God’s purposes. Later in the narrative we see the leftover gold is used for the building of the tabernacle. Just think about that for a minute. The Israelites used God's gift for their own selfish purposes. In creating the golden calf, the people had committed high treason. Even though the true God had always proven himself faithful, they just couldn’t wait. They needed a God that met them on their terms, a God of their choosing that they could define and control. We’re so quick to judge those primitive, control-addicted Israelites. What we miss in those people are you and me.


Hi My Name’s Joe Christian and I’m a Religious Addict

Religion is control addiction. In the appendix to Redemption, Mike Wilkerson comments on a lecture given by David Powlison at the 2008 CCEF conference titled, The Addict in Us All. Religious addiction has a least two components: impression management and escape from sin.

“Religiosity is about the show, the 'impression management,' and the trappings of religion, but not its faith and certainly not its God. Like any other addiction, religiosity serves as an escape from reality. Are you devastated by the loss of a loved one? 'God is sovereign,' blurts the stoic religious addict, like a knee reflex, and by this he means, 'Don’t feel it; don’t think about it; just detach yourself from it. Since God is sovereign, why should you bother?'

The religious addict escapes the reality of his own sin too....he justifies himself by the doing of and associating with religious stuff: serving, reading, teaching, praying, and church-going, along with adopting the lingo, aesthetic tastes, and moral lifestyle typical of other religious people. These are his “sacrifices” to gain his god’s favor and retain his righteous standing. But he is as deceived and rebellious as the Israelites imitating orthodoxy through idolatry.”


Religion is About Control Amidst Brokenness

Religion is God-talk we use for our own controlling purposes. We use his word as a defense mechanism against him and other people. It’s a kind of excuse-making for God as if we’re smart enough to know what he’s up to when life is difficult. Its time to face the pain of a broken world without our pre-packaged religious answers. To gloss over our pain and suffering or someone else’s through religiosity is inhumane. We love the story of the cross as a get-me-out-of-hell free card. But nobody wants to face the cross when it’s time to put sin to death, extend love to others in crisis, or come to terms with the brokenness of our world. The problem is, like the Pharisees, we prefer our safe religion over the death of our selfish spiritual aspirations.



Religion is God-talk we use for our own controlling purposes.



Graced Pharisees Called Out Of Slavery

The word Pharisee is synonymous with hypocrite. Many Christians don’t know when they are being hypocritical. Identifying our need to appear religious by spiritual performance or being a Bible know-it-all is difficult because doing religion seems like the right thing to do. It feels good to us and looks good to others, but our religion offends God.

If this is all true, if you and I are religious addicts and idolaters, we have a big problem on our hands. God’s anger against us is justified in the same way his anger was justified when the Israelites made the golden calf. Now is the time for repentance.

The good news is when we confess, he is faithful to forgive: 1 John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Fortunately, many of the Hebrews were spared for Moses' sake. We too are spared for Jesus' sake. He is the greater intercessor. Not only does he intercede on our behalf and forgive us our sin, he restores and sustains us. Reaching back to Exodus 17, 1 Corinthians 10:4 says the Israelites "drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ."

God has called us out of slavery. We are his treasured possession. While we are faithless, he has remained faithful. Our idols are wrought with the unholy sacrifice of his good gifts. We have crawled up into God’s lap only to slap him. But thanks be to God, rather than punish us, he graces us. And his grace is big enough even for Pharisees like Paul, and like you, and like me. He leads us out, he leads us through, he atones for sin, and he leads us home.

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