What is Idolatry?

by Mike Ratliff

1 Then God said to Jacob, “Arise, go up to Bethel and live there, and make an altar there to God, who appeared to you when you fled from your brother Esau.” 2 So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, “Put away the foreign gods which are among you, and purify yourselves and change your garments; 3 and let us arise and go up to Bethel, and I will make an altar there to God, who answered me in the day of my distress and has been with me wherever I have gone.”  (Genesis 35:1-3 NASB)

idolatry 1: the worship of a physical object as a god 2: immoderate attachment or devotion to something (from Webster’s Ninth Collegiate Dictionary)

I’m sure that most Christians’ conception of idolatry is one in which people fall down and worship some statue or image or a facsimile of something that appears to resemble a god. While that is an example of idolatry there is a more subtle form of idolatry that all people are neck deep in outside of the grace of God. If we look closely at the dictionary definition I placed near the top of this post, we will see that the first definition is our conception while the second is the reality that we must all agree that we are guilty of. The last word in that definition could easily be change from “something” to “someone.” Then all we have to do is look in a mirror to see who that someone is. We are all guilty of idolatry to some level.

All in Christ have been forgiven and are guiltless before God because at the moment of salvation He declared them Righteous. He imputed both Christ’s active and passive righteousness to them. Christ’s blood covers their guilt and they are imputed Jesus’ perfect keeping of the Law. When the Father looks at His children he sees His son’s perfection instead of their guilt. Christ is the Passover Lamb whose blood on their doorpost causes the Angel of Death to “Pass over” them.

Another form of Idolatry that Christians seem to fall for all the time is to “idolize” their Christian leaders. They place their pastors or favorite evangelist or Bible teacher on a pedestal they by no means deserve. They see them as a quasi-Saviour or one that at least hears directly from God face-to-face in their tent of meeting as Moses did. God most definitely gifts some of His people to be leaders, pastors, preachers, and teachers. However, they are just people like everyone else. We must not become guilty of idolatry by seeking to place these people between us and God as if they are Saints that must intercede for us because our guilt (in our own minds) is too great for us to come to the throne of grace. This is idolatry.

There is also another form that plagues the Church. It is “traditions” or the extra-biblcial “teachings” of men that have been elevated to doctrinal status. Any attempt to shine the light of Biblical truth into that darkness will bring down an amazing display of the wrath, not from God, but from those in love with their traditions (idols).

However, the most prevalent form of Idolatry that Christians must have no part in is that of seeming to serve God without Christ the Mediator, His Word and command. It has taken many years, but I think I have finally learned that any work I do that is “ministeral” in any form in which I am not totally dependent upon the Grace of God to do it, is Idolatry. The following quote is from Martin Luther’s Tabletalk. It is in the section titled “Of Idolatry” article CLXXI.

Idolatry is all manner of seeming holiness and worshipping, let these counterfeit spiritualities shine outwardly as glorious and fair as they may; in a word, all manner of devotion in those that we would serve God without Christ the Mediator, his Word and command. In popedom it was held a work of the greatest sanctity for the monks to sit in their cells and meditate of God, and of his wonderful works; to be kindled with zeal, kneeling on their knees, praying, and having their imaginary contemplations of celestial objects, with such supposed devotion, that they wept for joy. In these their conceits, they banished all desires and thoughts of women, and what else is temporal and evanescent. They seemed to meditate only of God, and of his wonderful works. Yet all these seeming holy actions of devotion, which the wit and wisdom of man holds to be angelical sanctity, are nothing else but works of the flesh. All manner of religion, where people serve God without his Word and command, is simply idolatry, and the more holy and spiritual such a religion seems, the more hurtful and venomous it is; for it leads people away from the faith of Christ, and makes them rely and depend upon their own strength, works, and righteousness.

In like manner, all kinds of orders of monks, fasts, prayers, hairy shirts, the austerities of the Capuchins, who in popedome are held to be the most holy of all, are mere works of the flesh; for the monks hold they are holy, and shall be saved, not through Christ, whom they view as a severe and angry judge, but through the rules of their order.

No man can make the papists believe that the private mass is the greatest blaspheming of God, and the highest idolatry upon earth, an abomination the like to which has never been in Christendom since the time of the apostles; for they are blinded and hardened therein, so that their understanding and knowledge of God, and of all divine matters, is perverted and erroneous. They hold that to be the most upright and greatest service of God, which, in truth, is the greatest and most abominable idolatry. And again, they hold that for idolatry which, in truth, is the upright and most acceptable service of God, the acknowledging Christ, and believing in him. But we that truly believe in Christ, and are of his mind, we, God be praised, know and judge all things; but are judged of no human creature. – Martin Luther

Man-made religion is idolatry. In this quote from Luther we see that even in the 16th century the Roman Catholic monks were practicing a from of Contemplative Prayer. This is making a huge comeback in our time.  Luther knew all about the idolatry of the religious orders in the monasteries which had their own rules to come to God that did not include faith in Christ, but instead, relied on keeping their own set of rules.

Notice in the last paragraph from Luther that the Roman Catholics considered their religiosity, which in actuality was idolatry, to be the greatest service to God while, at the same time, they considered to be idolatry that which is the most upright and most acceptable service of God, the acknowledging of Christ and believing in Him. Can you see the complete reversal, the complete backwardness this is? Idolatry is getting everything between us and God backward. This is a marker of the Antichrist. This is his way. The following quote is by William Tyndale from his book The Obedience of a Christian Man. It is from the chapter “Obedience to all degrees” section “Of miracles and worshipping saints.”

Our blind disputers will say, if our good deeds justify us not, if God look no on our good deeds neither regard them nor love us the better for them what need we to do good deeds? I answer God looketh on our good deeds and loveth them, yet loveth us not for their sakes. God loveth us first in Christ of his goodness and mercy, and poureth his spirit into us, and giveth us power to do good deeds. And because he loveth us, he loveth our good deeds: yea because he loveth us, he forgiveth us our evil deeds which we do of frailty and not of purpose or of the nonce. Our good deeds do but testify only that we are justified and beloved. For except we were beloved and had God’s spirit we could neither do nor yet consent unto any good deed. Antichrist turneth the roots of the tree upward. He maketh the goodness of God the branches and our goodness the roots. We must be first good after Antichrist’s doctrine, and move God and compel him to be good again for our goodness’ sake: so must God’s goodness spring out of our goodness. Nay verily God’s goodness is the root of all goodness and our goodness, if we have any, springeth out of his goodness. – William Tyndale

Humans are full of idols. All are guilty of idolatry to some degree. All in Christ have been forgiven and cleansed. However, it is so easy to slip into idolatry or for the spirit of the Antichrist to invade, coming between us and God. Humanism is a form of idolatry. Why? it refuses to submit to the sovereignty of God. It says that the end of all things is the happiness of Man. Genuine Christianity says that the end of all things is the Glory of God. The Church of the 21st Century is humanistic to the core for the most part. God is drawing those from that Great Harlot who will worship Him in Spirit and in Truth, obeying Him and serving Him for His glory alone. This Remnant must still be on guard to not only stand and not fall as the Great Apostasy surrounds it, it must also be bold in telling the truth and not compromising in any way. This stand cost William Tyndale his life, but of course his martyr’s death was not the tragedy we see it is because he walked from his execution pyre right into our Saviour’s arms in victory. As we stand against the growing darkness we must not be surprised when those bound to the spirit of the Antichrist attack us with every weapon they have. Even so…come soon Lord Jesus.

Soli Deo Gloria!

9 thoughts on “What is Idolatry?

  1. Mike, this is good!
    When I came out of the RC system over twenty-five years ago, it’s because the idolatry had begun to be unbearable…and our lovely Lord (Who had already claimed me for Himself) faced me with a choice: that church..OR ..Himself…It was a no-contest situation…I was literally thrown out of the RC church ..
    But over the years, He has been showing me my own innards and the idols still hidden in secret recesses…Want to weep..So faithful is our Saviour..to bring us where He has purposed…no matter how much it hurts us. And the breaking and smashing and burning up has to be done again..and again! Till He and only He is my complete Vision, and only Joy and Treasure!


  2. not to mention the many blessings we receive from God (material,money etc) in which i constantly struggle with, knowing that these things will burn and mean nothing in light of eternity but what a snare they can become. I find im constantly coming before God asking of his forgiveness and strength to put him and keep him in his rightful place, the center of my heart.


  3. Also the church is guilty of ‘American’ idolatry and all the trappings of it… flags, military, presidents, party affiliations, the idol in the harbor and the buildings and idols in the D.C. along with worship of military in the sanctuaries and the ‘fallen’.
    Also the cross alone has become an idol…. instead of looking unto the resurrection of our Lord after the death on the cross, we have been taught to look unto the cross and it then it is polished and presented more than our Lord himself.
    Whenever someone demonstrates or lifts our veil that allows us to see an idol in our hearts…. we get pricked.


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