The Issue Is Idolatry

Today, I want to take a break from talking about statistics, and get back into one of my pet issues: worship. I found a recording of an N. T. Wright lecture he gave at Calvin College back in 2002 about recovering Christian worship. It was a very good theological discussion of sin, eschatological vision, and worship renewal. The last 15 minutes of the one-hour lecture were pure gold.

The gist of Wright’s argument is that the issue which hounds us is not just sin generally, but the central sin of idolatry. Our state of Sin is that of rebellion against our Creator – not properly submitting to the God who deserves all worship – and this state of Sin leads us to all sorts of individual sins. Going back to the creation story, we see the serpent tempting Adam and Eve with the lie that they could be like God; that God was keeping something special from them. In the end, the man and woman no longer wanted to worship God, but they wanted to be God themselves. Satan himself wants to usurp his Creator, and it is for this that he was cast out of the presence of God. This is the sin.

This theme of mankind’s idolatry is present throughout the Old Testament experience. We see it when the Israelites so easily leave the God who brought them out of Egypt. We see it when they demand a king – it wasn’t wrong for them to want a king, but the issue was that they were rejecting God because they wanted a king on their terms. We see it in the prophets as these mouthpieces of God proclaim that Israel’s idolatry is like that of an unfaithful spouse. Constantly dissatisfied, constantly searching, but never seeing the One True God standing right in front of you.

We come to the Apostle Paul in his letter to the church in Rome. Paul illuminates the human propensity for idolatry.

Romans 1:18–23 (ESV)

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 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.

Paul is emphasizing, in this great epistle of salvation, that the sin of man upon which the wrath of God is poured out is ultimately the sin of idolatry. Humankind repeatedly and pridefully rejects its Creator, and would rather worship anything else.

Romans 1:24–27 (ESV)

24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. 26 For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 27 and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.

Paul goes a step further to say that our obsession with sex is the natural extension of this idolatry, and is the ultimate expression of it. Sex has become our religion, and is a form of worship of the creature. Pornography, adultery, fornication, all forms of sexual perversion (homosexual practice mentioned specifically in this passage) outside of heterosexual marriage are forms of idolatry. Paul says that because of this hell-bent determination toward idolatry God lets us have what we want. You want to worship the human body and indulge in lust? Fine. You can have it, and all the destruction that comes with it.

But see, the issue here is not sex. We can fight the culture war all we want. However, this is like treating a decapitation with a Band-Aid. The issue is idolatry. The issue is the proper object of worship, and worship properly performed within the church is part of that equation. Sexual sin of all kinds is a worship problem, and that worship problem is both personal and corporate.

I am convinced that our church culture’s obsession with individual self-expression and spontaneity has nothing to do with the gospel. It has nothing to do with proper worship, and everything to do with the idolatry of self. These are strong words, I know. I can hear the voices in my head telling me I’m crazy.

But the purpose of God is to restore all creation to the proper worship of Him. Every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. Jesus ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father, in the throne of David, the place of honor and authority. All things have been placed under his feet, and one day all enemies will be conquered and the Kingdom will be handed over to the Father. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven. What is being done in Heaven? Worship. Always. Forever. The angels are right now singing, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty.” This is their purpose. Ours is to enjoy God and glorify him forever. I doubt we’ll be hovering around on clouds playing harps, that is not our purpose. Ours is the purpose of living in this world, as it is, as image bearers of or Creator, reflecting His glory.

We have a worship problem. When it comes to church renewal, we have a truncated and short-sighted plan. Good theology alone, as important as it is, will not solve what ails the American church. This is the intellectual solution of the Enlightment. Simply knowing more does not guarantee spiritual transformation. This is coming from a guy with a degree in systematic theology.

The culture war, as compelling as it is, is like trying to put out a house fire with a water pistol. Our problem goes so deep that passing the right laws will give us the facade of righteousness, but won’t actually solve anything.

Good preaching is so very important, but that alone does not teach us to put aside idolatry unless it also shows us how to do that. I’m not speaking in metaphor. We must practice – with our worship words and physical actions – the art of submission to our Creator. Our worship must teach us to bow and kneel. It must teach us to submit to our Creator. It must teach us to listen to him, and patiently wait for Him to do what He has promised. It must teach us to do what we almost never do – worship someone other than ourselves. But hey, we’re Americans, we don’t bow to anyone.

The issue is idolatry. The solution is the gospel, and proper gospel preaching requires a renewal in how the American church worships. WORSHIP METHOD CAN NOT BE SEPARATED FROM GOSPEL PREACHING. Proper worship preaches the gospel.

Modern worship is about music and preaching. Music whose first priority is to be appealing to the masses, and preaching to tell us how to have our best life now is idolatry.

As I’ve written before, historic worship is about Word and Sacrament. The word of God preached and read, allowing the Holy Spirit to speak through it. The sacrament of communion, allowing the Holy Spirit to speak through the physical elements to our souls. Both word and sacrament pointing us to the Word – the Logos of God – Jesus.

The American church has fallen for the Big Z – zeitgeist/the spirit of the day. Modern worship is about what appeals to the masses. Modern worship is idolatry. There, I said it. I am accusing the modern American church of idolatry.

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