Idolatry Today—Where Is It?

J.C. Ryle (1816-1900)

Flee from idolatry.—1 Corinthians 10:14

Let me show…the forms which idolatry has assumed and does assume in the visible church [today]. Where is it?...That idolatry would arise seems to have been the expectation of the apostles, even before the canon of the New Testament was closed. It is remarkable to observe how St. Paul dwells on this subject in his epistle to the Corinthians. If any Corinthian called a brother was an idolater, with such an one the members of the church were “not to eat” (1Co 5:11). “Neither be ye idolaters, as were some of them” (1Co 10:7). He says again in the text which heads this paper, “My dearly beloved, flee from idolatry” (1Co 10:14). When he writes to the Colossians, he warns them against “worshipping of angels” (Col 2:18). And St. John closes his first epistle with the solemn injunction, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1Jo 5:21). It is impossible not to feel that all these passages imply an expectation that idolatry would arise—and that soon—among professing Christians.

The famous prophecy in the fourth chapter of the first epistle to Timothy contains a passage which is even more directly to the point: “The Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils” (1Ti 4:1)…

The last passage I will call attention to is the conclusion of the ninth chapter of Revelation. We there read, at the twentieth verse: “The rest of the men which were not killed by these plagues yet repented not of the works of their hands, that they should not worship devils, and idols of gold, and silver, and brass, and stone, and of wood: which neither can see, nor hear, nor walk” (Rev 9:20)…I...venture to assert that it is the highest probability these plagues are to fall upon the visible church of Christ, and the highest improbability that St. John was here prophesying about the heathen, who never heard the gospel…

And now, if we turn from the Bible to [historical] facts, what do we see? I reply unhesitatingly that there is unmistakable proof that Scripture warnings and predictions were not spoken without cause, and that idolatry has actually arisen in the visible church of Christ and does still exist.

The rise and progress of the evil in former days, we shall find well summed up in the homily of the Church of England on “Peril of Idolatry.”…There we read how, even in the fourth century, Jerome complains “that the errors of images have come in, and passed to the Christians from the Gentiles”; and Eusebius says, “We do see that images of Peter and Paul, and of our Savior Himself, be made, and tables be painted, which I think to have been derived and kept indifferently by an heathenish custom.” There we may read how “Pontius Paulinus, Bishop of Nola, in the fifth century, caused the walls of the temples to be painted with stories taken out of the Old Testament; that the people beholding and considering these pictures, might the better abstain from too much surfeiting and riot. But from learning by painted stories, it came by little and little to idolatry.” There we may read how Gregory the First, Bishop of Rome, in the beginning of the seventh century, did allow the free having of images in churches. There we may read how Irene, mother of Constantine the Sixth, in the eighth century, assembled a council at Nicaea and procured a decree that “images should be put up in all the churches of Greece, and that honor and worship should be given to the said images.” And there we may read the conclusion with which the homily winds up its historical summary that laity and clergy learned and unlearned, all ages, sorts, and degrees of men, women, and children of whole Christendom, have been at once drowned in abominable idolatry, of all other vices most detested of God, and most damnable to man, and that by the space of 800 years and more.

This is a mournful account, but it is only too true. There can be little doubt the evil began even before the time just mentioned by the homily writers. No man, I think, need wonder at the rise of idolatry in the primitive church, who considers calmly the excessive reverence which it paid, from the very first, to the visible parts of religion. I believe that no impartial man can read the language used by nearly all the Fathers about the church, the bishops, the ministry, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, the martyrs, the dead saints generally—no man can read it without being struck with the wide difference between their language and the language of Scripture on such subjects. You seem at once to be in a new atmosphere. You feel that you are no longer treading on holy ground. You find that things which in the Bible are evidently of second-rate importance are here made of first-rate importance. You find the things of sense and sight exalted to a position in which Paul and Peter and James and John, speaking by the Holy Ghost, never for a moment placed them. It is not merely the weakness of uninspired writings that you have to complain of; it is something worse: it is a new system. And what is the explanation of all this? It is, in one word, that you have got into a region where the malaria of idolatry has begun to arise. You perceive the first workings of the mystery of iniquity. You detect the buds of that huge system of idolatry which, as the homily describes, was afterwards formally acknowledged and ultimately blossomed so luxuriantly in every part of Christendom.

But let us now turn from the past to the present. Let us examine the question which most concerns ourselves. Let us consider in what form idolatry presents itself to us as a sin of the visible church of Christ in our own time.

I find no difficulty in answering this question. I feel no hesitation in affirming that idolatry never yet assumed a more glaring form than it does in the Church of Rome at this present day.

And here I come to a subject on which it is hard to speak, because of the times we live in. But the whole truth ought to be spoken by ministers of Christ, without respect of times and prejudices. I say this in all sadness. I say it, acknowledging fully that we have our faults in the Protestant church, and practically, perhaps, in some quarters, not a little idolatry…While, as for the Church of Rome, if there is not in her worship an enormous quantity of systematic, organized idolatry, I frankly confess I do not know what idolatry is.

To my mind, it is idolatry to have images and pictures of saints in churches, and to give them a reverence for which there is no warrant or precedent in Scripture. And if this be so, I say there is idolatry in the Church of Rome.

To my mind, it is idolatry to invoke the Virgin Mary and the saints in glory, and to address them in language never addressed in Scripture except to the Holy Trinity. And if this be so, I say there is idolatry in the Church of Rome.

To my mind, it is idolatry to bow down to mere material things and attribute to them a power and sanctity far exceeding that attached to the ark or altar of the Old Testament dispensation—and a power and sanctity, too, for which there is not a tittle of foundation in the Word of God. And if this be so..., I say there is idolatry in the Church of Rome.

To my mind, it is idolatry to worship that which man’s hands have made—to call it God and adore it when lifted up before our eyes. And if this be so with the notorious doctrine of transubstantiation and the elevation of the Host in my recollection, I say there is idolatry in the Church of Rome.

To my mind, it is idolatry to make ordained men mediators between ourselves and God, robbing, as it were, our Lord Christ of His office and giving them an honor which even apostles and angels in Scripture flatly repudiate. And if this be so with the honor paid to popes and priests before my eyes, I say there is idolatry in the Church of Rome…

I know how painful these things sound to many ears. To me it is no pleasure to dwell on the shortcomings of any who profess and call themselves Christians. I can say truly that I have said what I have said with pain and sorrow…

I believe and hope that many a Roman Catholic is in heart inconsistent with his profession and is better than the church to which he belongs...I believe that many a poor [Roman Catholic] at this day is worshipping with an idolatrous worship, simply because he knows no better. He has no Bible to instruct him. He has no faithful minister to teach him...But all this must not prevent my saying that the Church of Rome is an idolatrous church.

I should not be faithful if I said less...And in a day like this—when some are disposed to secede to the Church of Rome, and many are shutting their eyes to her real character and wanting us to be reunited to her—in a day like this, my own conscience would rebuke me if I did not warn men plainly that the Church of Rome is an idolatrous church, and that if they will join her they are joining themselves to idols…

And now let me show…the ultimate abolition of all idolatry. What will end it?...Here, as in other subjects, the sure word of prophecy comes in to our aid. The end of all idolatry shall one day come. Its doom is fixed. Its overthrow is certain. Whether in heathen temples or in so-called Christian churches, idolatry shall be destroyed at the second coming of our Lord Jesus Christ

The second coming of our Lord Jesus Christ is that blessed hope which should ever comfort the children of God under the present dispensation...That is the only day when every abuse shall be rectified and every corruption and source of sorrow completely purged away. Waiting for that day, let us each work on and serve our generation; not idle, as if nothing could be done to check evil, but not disheartened because we see not yet all things put under our Lord…

If these things be so, men need not wonder that we warn them to beware of all leanings towards the Church of Rome…

I hold, for one, that this Romish movement ought to be steadily and firmly resisted. Notwithstanding the rank, the learning, and the devotedness of some of its advocates, I regard it as a most mischievous, soul-ruining, and unscriptural movement…

Unity in the abstract is no doubt an excellent thing: but unity without truth is useless. Peace and uniformity are beautiful and valuable; but peace without the gospel—peace based on a common episcopacy and not on a common faith—is a worthless peace, not deserving of the name…

We live in a time when the Church of Rome is walking amongst us with renewed strength and loudly boasting that she will soon win back the ground that she has lost. False doctrines of every kind are continually set before us in the most subtle and specious forms. It cannot be thought unseasonable if I offer some practical safeguards against idolatry…Let me point out how we may be safe from it, and I will say no more.

(1) Let us arm ourselves, then, for one thing, with a thorough knowledge of the Word of God. Let us read our Bibles more diligently than ever and become familiar with every part of them. Let the Word dwell in us richly. Let us beware of anything which would make us give less time and less heart to the perusal of its sacred pages. The Bible is the sword of the Spirit—let it never be laid aside…If we once leave that for any bypath, however beautiful and old and frequented it may seem, we must never be surprised if we end with worshipping images and relics and going regularly to a confessional.

(2) Let us arm ourselves in the second place with a godly jealousy about the least portion of the gospel. Let us beware of sanctioning the slightest attempt to keep back any jot or tittle of it or to throw any part of it into the shade by exalting subordinate matters in religion. When Peter withdrew himself from eating with the Gentiles, it seemed but a little thing; yet Paul tells the Galatians, “I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed” (Gal 2:11). Let us count nothing little that concerns our souls. Let us be very particular whom we hear, where we go, and what we do in all the matters of our own particular worship…We live in days when great principles are involved in little acts; and things in religion, which fifty years ago were utterly indifferent, are now by circumstances rendered indifferent no longer. Let us beware of tampering with anything of a Romanizing tendency. It is foolishness to play with fire. I believe that many of our perverts and seceders began with thinking there could be no mighty harm in attaching a little more importance to certain outward things than they once did. But once launched on the downward course, they went on from one thing to another. They provoked God, and He left them to themselves! They were given over to strong delusion and allowed to believe a lie (2Th 2:11). They tempted the devil, and he came to them! They started with trifles, as many foolishly call them. They have ended with downright idolatry.

(3) Let us arm ourselves last of all, with clear sound views of our Lord Jesus Christ and of the salvation that is in Him. He “is the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15); “the express image of his person” (Heb 1:3); and the true preservative against all idolatry, when truly known. Let us build ourselves deep down on the strong foundation of His finished work upon the cross. Let us settle it firmly in our minds that Christ Jesus has done everything needful in order to present us without spot before the throne of God, and that simple, childlike faith on our part is the only thing required to give us an entire interest in the work of Christ. Let us not doubt that, having this faith, we are completely justified in the sight of God, will never be more justified if we live to the age of Methuselah and do the works of the Apostle Paul, and can add nothing to that complete justification by any acts, deeds, words, performances, fastings, prayers, almsdeeds, attendance on ordinances, or anything else of our own.

Above all, let us keep up continual communion with the person of the Lord Jesus! Let us abide in Him daily, feed on Him daily, look to Him daily, lean on Him daily, live upon Him daily, draw from His fullness daily…Once let the Lord Christ have His rightful place in our hearts, and all other things in our religion will soon fall into their right places. Church, ministers, sacraments, ordinances, all will go down and take the second place.

Except Christ sits as Priest and King upon the throne of our hearts, that little kingdom within will be in perpetual confusion. But only let Him be “all in all” there, and all will be well. Before Him every idol…shall fall down. Christ rightly known, Christ truly believed, and Christ heartily loved is the true preservative against ritualism, Romanism, and every form of idolatry.

Booklet available from Chapel Library.

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J. C. Ryle (1816-1900): English Anglican bishop and author; born in Macclesfield, Cheshire County, UK.

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