Idolatry and Ingratitude (Luther)

 Luther’s lectures on Romans were given during the years 1515-1516 at the University of Wittenberg.  During this time, Luther himself was still learning and reforming, so his later lectures and writings are more developed than what you find in his work on Romans.  However, in much of his discussion on Romans he’s on the right track, so to speak.  Here’s a very insightful commentary on the themes of ingratitude and idolatry from Romans 1:21-23.

…People even today come to commit spiritual idolatry of a more subtle kind, and it is quite frequent: they worship God not as he is but as they imagine and desire him to be.

Ingratitude, namely, and the love of vanity (i.e., the sense of self-importance and of self-righteousness or, as one says, of “good intentions”) delude people terribly, so that they become incorrigible, unable to believe anything else but that they behave splendidly and are pleasing to God. Thus, they make themselves a gracious God, though this does not correspond to reality. And so they worship the product of their own imagination more truly than the true God himself, who they believe resembles this product of their fancy.

Here now “they change him into the likeness of their own imagination” (Rom. 1:23), which exists only in their corruptible minds that know only carnal desires. See, then, how great an evil ingratitude is: it produces a love of vanity, and this results in blindness, and blindness in idolatry, and idolatry brings about a whole whirlpool of vices.

Gratitude, however, keeps the love for God and thus holds the heart directed toward him. Because it is thereby also illumined, it worships, once it is illumined, only the true God, and to this worship there soon attaches itself the whole chorus of virtues.

Luther’s insight here on the text and the human tendency is quite profound.  Unthankfulness and idolatry are related, and Luther very well explains Paul’s teaching on that fact.  This is perhaps one reason why the Apostle emphasizes thankfulness in the Christian life (Eph 5:4, 5:20; Phil. 4:6; Col. 2:7, 3:17, 4:2, etc.).  So we “give thanks” in all circumstances, because it is God’s will for us in Christ (1 Thes. 5:18)!  The Heidelberg Catechism’s structure also picks up on this biblical truth: though guilty we are saved by grace, and our response is gratitude.

The above quotes are found on page 26 of Luther’s Lectures on Romans.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015


The Danger of Idols (Lints)

 Not many people in our American culture worship and bow down to physical images and statues.  Instead, our idols are things like money, entertainment, sports, sex, health, fitness, image, relationships, and work.  But whether the idol is an actual statue or something like football or a flat stomach, the truth is that idols are dangerous and deadly.  Here’s how Richard Lints explains it as he discusses the image of God in man as it relates to idolatry:

“The image finds its flourishing in its relationship to the original.  Creatures find their satisfaction in the God who made them.  The idol represents both a false fulfillment and a perversion or corruption of the creature.  The [biblical] canon goes to great lengths to narrate the tug in human hearts between the living God and the idols who pull them away from the living God.”

“Idols are dangerous in the same way that outside love interests are dangerous to the marriage.  Adulterous liaisons inevitably pull the marriage apart at the seams.  As with adultery, so idolatry is about both wrong beliefs (e.g. a belief about where satisfaction can be found) but more importantly, idolatry is also about corrupted desires (e.g. the desire to get gratification on whatever terms are necessary).

“All idolatry involves error in belief to some extent, if the belief in question is that some creature has a worth enjoyed only by the Creator.  If there is only one God, there is only one object worthy of worship and adoration.  Monotheism and monolatry go hand in hand.  The worship of one God (monolatry) is a necessary consequence of the belief that only one God exists (monotheism).”

These are some profound thoughts about idolatry.  It is dangerous, it is about wrong beliefs, and idolatry is about corrupted desires.  These are things to think about as we fight idolatry and seek to faithfully bear the image of God rather than sinfully bear the image of an idol we’ve made.  As the Apostle John said, Dear children, keep yourselves from idols (1 John 5:21 NIV).

The above slightly edited quote is found on page 39 of Lints’ Identity and Idolatrywhich, by the way, is one of the best books on idolatry that I’ve ever read.  I highly recommend it!

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

The Simplicity of Reformed Worship

Historic Reformed churches worship the Lord in simplicity.  That is, Reformed churches do not include ceremonies, festivals, crucifixes, processions, incense, relics, images, vestments, altars, and so forth in their worship services.  Reformed worship simply consists of the Word (read, preached, sung, confessed, prayed) and the sacraments (the Lord’s supper and baptism).

The main reason for the simplicity of Reformed worship is the teaching of Scripture.  The Bible doesn’t command God’s New Covenant people to worship him with all the images and vestments and ceremonies.  The Reformers believed that the external ceremonies and images didn’t elevate the mind to God, but domesticated God and therefore were idolatrous.  Furthermore, they said that all these non-biblical extras in worship throw a fog over the gospel.  Simple worship, therefore, means the gospel will not be obscured.  In 1560 the Reformer Guillaume Farel explained it like this:

The Church should be decorated and adorned with Jesus Christ and the Word of his gospel and his holy sacraments.  This great Sun of Righteousness, Jesus Christ, and the light of his gospel, have nothing to do with our burning torches and our candles and candelabras.  God has instead ordained that by true preaching and by the holy sacraments practiced in their simplicity this light might be manifested and illumine us with all glory.

Similarly, Theodore Beza preached the following in 1585:

[God’s house is not a place] that we enter to see the beautiful shapes of vaults and pillars, or to admire the splendor of gold and silver and precious stones.  Nor is it a place that we visit in order to fill our ears with the signing of choirs and the music of organs.  Rather it is a place where the pure Word of God is clearly preached in the presence of each person, with words of exhortation, consolation, warning, and censure necessary for salvation.

In other words, the Reformers wanted worship to be ordered according to the Word and centered on the gospel.  They wanted to keep it simple so God’s word and his gospel would clearly be front and center.  In that way, he alone would receive all the glory, honor, and praise.  ‘Soli Dei Gloria’ goes hand in hand with Reformed worship!

The above discussion and quotes are found on pages 31-37 of Scott Manetsch’s book, Calvin’s Company of Pastors.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

The Thin Idol (Or: The Idolatry of Being Thin)

We would be wrong if we thought that eating disorders and obsession with weight and size were things that only teenage girls struggled with.  In fact, many adult women struggle with these things, as do men of various ages.  In our superficial culture where outward appearance is everything, it’s easy for us to become obsessed with our looks.  How many (dangerous) fad diets have come and gone, and come back?  How many fad exercise routines and regiments have come and gone, and come back?  This is even tough on Christians; sometimes our desire to be a certain weight or size is stronger than our desire to follow Christ.  Yes, I’m thinking of idolatry.

Because Elyse Fitzpatrick understands these struggles, she wrote Love to Eat, Hate to EatThis isn’t a Christian dieting or Christian exercise book.  Instead, it’s a Bible-filled guide on following Christ without being enslaved to diet, exercise, weight, or size.  I’m not quite finished with the book, but so far I really appreciate it because it has reminded me of the biblical perspective on these things.  For example, here’s one helpful selection:

“…I’m going to say something that may seem rather surprising.  You know, I’ve read the Bible straight through many times, and I’ve never found any Scripture that commands or even commends thinness!  Think of that.  I don’t believe that there is any verse in either the Old or New Testament that encourages Christians to be thin or states that being thin is a mark of godliness.  Keeping in mind the fact that God’s Word, the Bible, is our guide for life, it appears that many of us (including me) have spent much of our lives chasing after something that God doesn’t seem to think is very important.”

“[However,] just because God doesn’t command thinness doesn’t mean that we should ignore our health or our eating habits. …While there are some biblical concerns that can be brought to bear on our health and eating habits – such as learning to desire only Him, thinking about your life the way that He does, and learning to discern whether your eating habits are godly – the whole matter of ‘thinness for thinness’ sake’ isn’t one of them.”

“Seeking after thinness merely for appearance’s sake is not a godly goal.  That’s because it falls into the categories that we have already been discussing – such as the pursuit of outward beauty (which the Bible calls vanity) and all of its attending futility.  The kind of beauty that God desires for you is found in 1 Peter 3:4: ‘…the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit.’  It is called the ‘fruit of the Spirit’ (the results of the Holy Spirit’s work in your life) in Galatians 5:22-23…. [It is found in Proverbs 31:] “Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised.”

Elyse Fitzpatrick, Love to Eat, Hate to Eat (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 1999), 45-46.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

God’s Unfaithful Wife by R. Ortlund – A Review

If you’ve read the OT history books and the prophets, you know that God’s people time and again were unfaithful to him.  One biblical metaphor for this unfaithfulness is spiritual adultery, or playing the harlot.  Israel prostituted herself with false gods, forsaking her Maker and Husband, Yahweh.  So the Lord brought punishment upon them for their adultery/idolatry.

Ramond Ortlund wrote an excellent book that traces this theme throughout Scripture: God’s Unfaithful Wife: A Biblical Theology of Spiritual Adultery.  In just under 200 footnote filled pages, Ortlund traces the theme of spiritual adultery from Genesis to Revelation.  There is a scripture index at the back of the book.

I agree with Ortlund: this theme usually isn’t discussed enough (perhaps because it isn’t a PG theme!).  But it is true: “…if Yahweh is the husband of his people, then their lapses from faithfulness to him may properly be regarded as the moral equivalent to whoredom” (p. 8).  We do live in a sexually charged culture, so these themes must be discussed carefully and with a biblical nuance, but they must be discussed!  Ortlund does this well.

While this book does discuss the spiritual adultery theme in the Pentateuch, most of this language is found in the prophets, so Ortlund does spend a lot of time talking about Hosea, for example.  In fact, chapters 3, 4, & 5 are entitled “Committing Great Harlotry,” “Under Every Green Tree,” and “In Every Public Square,” echoing the prophetic language of Hosea 1, Ezekiel 6, and Ezekiel 16.  Ortlund does a nice job exegeting and explaining these texts that talk about Israel whoring after other gods. It is quite a gruesome and disgusting picture – but then again, forsaking God and running after idols is indeed gruesome and disgusting (and supremely foolish!).

Ortlund also talks about the marriage imagery in the NT.  The spiritual adultery imagery is not quite as pervasive in the NT as it is in the OT prophets, but it is there.  The NT discussion also includes a nice section on what it means that Christ is the bride of the church and how we are to remain pure and faithful to him.  There is a concluding reflections section which is quite short.  (One of my few critiques of this book is that I wish there was a bit more application in this last section.)  Finally, there is an appendix about this harlot imagery and modern feminist interpretation.

I recommend this book for students of the Word who want a helpful, detailed read on this theme of spiritual adultery in the Bible.  It’s not always easy and quick reading, but it is clear, level-headed, and nicely summarizes Scripture’s teaching on the topic.  Also, if you’re studying or preaching through Hosea or Ezekiel, use this book as a supplemental commentary!  I thoroughly enjoyed it, and will use it again when this theme comes up in my studies, teaching and preaching.

Raymond C. Ortlund, Jr. God’s Unfaithful Wife (Downers Grove, IVP: 1996/2002)

Shane Lems


Invocation of Saints and Prayer to Mary?

Systematic Theology, 3 Volumes The Roman Catholic Catechism still teaches and affirms prayer to Mary and invocation of the saints for help (see paragraphs 2675, 2676, 2683, 956, etc.).  In Protestant theology, specifically in the Reformed catechisms, prayer to Mary and to the saints is said to be idolatry – a violation of the first commandment.  Why or how is prayer to saints or Mary (or anyone besides God) a form of idolatry and a grave sin?  Charles Hodge explains this well as he gives three main theological objections to the invocation of saints (I’ve slightly edited the following for length):

1) It is, to say the least, superstitious.  It assumes, without any evidence from Scripture or experience, that the spirits of the dead are accessible to those who are still in the flesh; that they are near us, capable of hearing our prayers, knowing our thoughts, and answering our requests. The Church or the soul is launched on an ocean of fantasies and follies, without a compass, if either suffers itself to believe without evidence; then there is nothing in astrology, alchemy, or demonology which may not be received as true, to perplex, to pervert, or to torment.

2) The whole thing is a deceit and illusion. If in fact departed saints are not authorized and not enabled to hear and answer the prayers of suppliants on earth, then the people are in the condition of those who trust in gods who cannot save, who have eyes that see not, and ears that cannot hear. That the saints have no such office as the theory and practice of invocation suppose is plain, because the fact if true cannot be known except by divine revelation. But no such revelation exists. It is a purely superstitious belief, without the support of either Scripture or reason.  …If this be so, then how dreadfully are the people deluded How fearful the consequences of turning their eyes and hearts from the one divine mediator between God and man, who ever lives to make intercession for us, and whom the Father heareth always, and causing them to direct their prayers to ears which never hear, and to place their hopes in arms which never save. It is turning from the fountain of living waters, to cisterns which can hold no water.

3)  The invocation of saints as practiced in the Church of Rome is idolatrous. Even if it be conceded that the theory as expounded by theologians is free from this charge, it remains true that the practice involves all the elements of idolatry. Blessings are sought from the saints which God only can bestow; and attributes are assumed to belong to them which belong to God alone. Every kind of blessing, temporal and spiritual, is sought at their hands, and sought directly from them as the givers. This Bellarmine (a Roman Catholic theologian) admits so far as the words employed are concerned. He says it is right to say: “Holy Peter, save me; open to me the gates of heaven; give me repentance, courage,” etc. God alone can grant these blessings; the people are told to seek them at the hands of creatures. This is idolatry.  Practically it is taken for granted that the saints are everywhere present, that they can hear prayers addressed to them from all parts of the earth at the same time; that they know our thoughts and unexpressed desires. This is to assume that they possess divine attributes. In fact, therefore, the saints are the gods whom the people worship, whom they trust, and who are the objects of the religious affections.

Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Volume 3, pages 283-285.

shane lems
covenant presbyterian church (OPC)
hammond, wi

Your God is Too Small!

In the first half of his excellent book published in 1955, Your God is Too Small, J. B. Phillips exposes “the inadequate conceptions of God which still linger unconsciously in many minds, and which prevent our catching a glimpse of the true God.”  Or, to put it in the form of a question, “What are some faulty views of God?”  Here are some of Phillips’ (edited/summarized) explanations of inadequate conceptions of God.

1) Resident Policeman.  To many people conscience is almost all that they have by way of knowledge of God.  No serious advocate of religion would deny the function of conscience, yet to make conscience into God is a highly dangerous thing to do.  Conscience is by no means an infallible guide and it is extremely unlikely that we will ever be moved to love, worship, and serve a nagging inner voice.

2) Parental Hangover.  In this view, the conception of God is almost invariably founded upon the child’s idea of his father.  This view almost always goes hand in hand with fear and/or guilt.

3) Grand Old Man.  Some Sunday School children were once asked to write down their ideas as to what God was like.  Most of the answers said something like this: ‘God is a very old gentleman living in heaven.’  Children often view their superiors and “old,” which carries over into a person’s conception of God.  People use old and archaic language or Victorian expressions to speak about and pray to God, because he seems old to them.

4) Meek-and-Mild.  Why on earth do children’s hymns call Jesus ‘mild?’  Of all the epithets that could be applied to Christ this seems one of the least appropriate.  What does the word ‘mild’ bring to mind?  Someone who would let sleeping dogs lie and avoid trouble; someone of a placid temperament who is almost a stranger to the passions of red-blooded humanity.

5) Heavenly Bosom.  Some critics accuse Christianity of being escapist.  They do have a point, as is evident in the hymn ‘Jesus Lover of My Soul.’  It is true that there is refuge and shelter in God, but this is not pietistic escapism as if we can be free from life’s troubles.

6) Managing Director.  Humans have a tendency to build up a mental picture of God from our knowledge and experience of man.  Man may be made in the image of God, but it is not sufficient to conceive of God as nothing more than an infinitely magnified man.  This view runs the risk of thinking of God as the Commander-in-Chief who cannot possibly spare the time to attend to the details of his subordinates’ lives.

You’ll have to get the book to read the details of those points (Note: the book is well under $10 on Kindle or paperback).  Phillips also talks about these faulty views of God: Projected Image, Pale Galilean, God-in-a-Box, Second-Hand God, Perennial Grievance, and a few others.  In the second half of the book he gives a constructive – biblical – explanation of who God is and what he is like.  As Phillips notes in the intro,

“If it is true that there is Someone in charge of the whole mystery of life and death, we can hardly expect to escape a sense of futility and frustration until we begin to see what he is like and what his purposes are.”

J. B. Phillips, Your God is Too Small, New York: MacMillan, 1955.

shane lems