Idolatry Defined

Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.”

- Philippians 3:19

God demands absolute allegiance from His people, as we have seen in our look at the first commandment. Beside Him there is no god, so it is foolish to trust in other deities who cannot save (Isa. 43:11; 44:6). To refuse to worship Him but to worship another is idolatry, a grave sin condemned throughout Scripture (Lev. 19:1–4; Ps. 31:6; 96:5; Ezek. 6; 1 Cor. 10:1–22; Rev. 21:8).

Throughout biblical history, the idolatry that most of the prophets railed against was the serving of pagan deities, beings that people worshipped specifically as gods. Often, those who worshipped these pagan gods built graven images of them, and they constructed altars at high places—sites where these deities were worshipped— within the land of Israel (2 Kings 17:1–23; Isa. 44:9–20). Today, we see such crass idolatry within Hinduism, tribal religions, and cultures where professedly Christian churches merely paper over the people’s animistic and polytheistic traditions.

As “idolatry is having or inventing something in which one trusts in place of or alongside of the only true God, who has revealed himself in the Word” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 95), religious idolatry is also seen in the major monotheistic religions. Muslims, who worship the Allah of the Qur’an, and modern Jews, who worship a unitary deity defined more by rabbinic tradition than by the Old Testament, are both guilty of idolatry because they do not worship the triune God of Scripture.

Yet, idolatrous attitudes and practices need not be explicitly religious in the sense of being directed toward a defined god or occurring within a framework of an organized religion. Anything that we love more than God Himself should be considered an idol. Jesus makes that point implicitly in Matthew 10:37–39, when He rejects any who love their family members more than Him. In today’s passage, Paul identifies some individuals whose god was “their belly” (Phil. 3:19). Their appetites were so consuming that the Apostle viewed them as worshipping their stomachs.

Every fallen culture has its idols, and we must be particularly sensitive to what the world is calling us to worship in place of the one true God. Neither sex nor power nor fame nor anything else deserves primacy in our lives, for none of these things is transcendent—none is the Lord and Creator of all.

Coram Deo

Anything or anyone can become an idol in our lives because whatever we love more than the Lord is, by definition, an idol. Because our hearts are idol factories, as John Calvin taught us, we are all continually tempted to make temporal things into ultimate things, and so we must be on guard against idolatry in our lives. We should periodically assess the state of our hearts to see what we may have turned into an idol.

Passages for Further Study

Leviticus 26:1
1 John 5:21

Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way, you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, and you do not make more than 500 physical copies. For web posting, a link to this document on our website is preferred (where applicable). If no such link exists, simply link to www.ligonier.org.

Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: From Ligonier Ministries, the teaching fellowship of R.C. Sproul. All rights reserved. Website: www.ligonier.org | Phone: 1-800-435-4343