The Definition and Cause of Idolatry

J.C. Ryle (1816-1900)

Wherefore, my dearly beloved, flee from idolatry.—1 Corinthians 10:14

I believe that we have come to a time when the subject of idolatry demands a thorough and searching investigation. I believe that idolatry is near us and about us and in the midst of us to a very fearful extent. The Second Commandment in one word is in peril. “The plague is begun” (Num 16:46)… I feel that the subject is encompassed with many difficulties. Our lot is cast in an age when truth is constantly in danger of being sacrificed to toleration, charity, and peace falsely so-called...Truth about idolatry is, in the highest sense, truth for the times.

Let me, then, supply a definition of idolatry. Let me show what it is. It is of the utmost importance that we should understand this. Unless I make this clear, I can do nothing with the subject. Vagueness and indistinctness prevail upon this point, as upon almost every other in religion. The Christian who would not be continually running aground in his spiritual voyage must have his channel well-buoyed and his mind well-stored with clear definitions.

I say, then, that idolatry is a worship in which the honor due to God in Trinity and to Him only is given to some of His creatures or to some invention of His creatures. It may vary exceedingly. It may assume exceedingly different forms, according to the ignorance or the knowledge, the civilization or the barbarism, of those who offer it. It may be grossly absurd and ludicrous, or it may closely border on truth and admit of being most speciously defended…

It is not necessary for a man formally to deny God and Christ in order to be an idolater. Far from it! Professed reverence for the God of the Bible and actual idolatry are perfectly compatible. They have often gone side by side, and they still do so. The children of Israel never thought of renouncing God when they persuaded Aaron to make the golden calf. “These be thy gods, O Israel,” they said, “which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.” And the feast in honor of the calf was kept as “a feast to the LORD” (Exo 32:4-5)…We should observe [that] the idol was not set up as a rival to God, but under the pretence of being a help—a stepping stone to His service. But...a great sin was committed. The honor due to God was given to a visible representation of Him. The majesty of Jehovah was offended. The Second Commandment was broken. There was, in the eyes of God, a flagrant act of idolatry.

Let us mark this well: it is high time to dismiss from our minds those loose ideas about idolatry which are common in this day. We must not think, as many do, that there are only two sorts of idolatry—the spiritual idolatry of the man who loves his wife, or child, or money more than God; and the open, gross idolatry of the man who bows down to an image of wood, or metal, or stone, because he knows no better. We may rest assured that idolatry is a sin which occupies a far wider field than this...It is a pestilence that walks in the Church of Christ to a much greater extent than many suppose. It is an evil that, like the man of sin, sits in the very temple of God (2Th 2:4). It is a sin that we all need to watch and pray against continually. It creeps into our religious worship insensibly and is upon us before we are aware…

Let us gather up these things in our minds and ponder them well. Idolatry is a subject which, in every church of Christ that would keep herself pure, should be thoroughly examined, understood, and known. It is not for nothing that St. Paul lays down the stern command, “Flee from idolatry.”

Let me show…the cause to which idolatry may be traced. Whence comes it? To the man who takes an extravagant and exalted view of human intellect and reason, idolatry may seem absurd. He fancies it too irrational for any but weak minds to be endangered by it. To a mere superficial thinker about Christianity, the peril of idolatry may seem very small. Whatever commandments are broken, such a man will tell us, professing Christians are not very likely to transgress the Second.

Now, both these persons betray a woeful ignorance of human nature. They do not see that there are secret roots of idolatry within us all. The prevalence of idolatry in all ages among the heathen must necessarily puzzle the one—the warnings of Protestant ministers against idolatry in the Church must necessarily appear uncalled for to the other. Both are alike blind to its cause.

The cause of all idolatry is the natural corruption of man’s heart. That great family disease with which all the children of Adam are infected from their birth shows itself in this, as it does in a thousand other ways. Out of the same fountain from which “proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit,” and the like (Mar 7:21-22)—out of that same fountain arise false views of God and false views of the worship due to Him; and therefore, when the Apostle Paul tells the Galatians what are the “works of the flesh,” he places prominently among them “idolatry” (Gal 5:19-20).

A religion of some kind, man will have. God has not left Himself without a witness in us all, fallen as we are. Like old inscriptions hidden under mounds of rubbish…even so there is a dim something engraven at the bottom of man’s heart, however faint and half-erased—a something which makes him feel he must have a religion and a worship of some kind. The proof of this is to be found in the history of voyages and travels in every part of the globe. The exceptions to the rule are so few, if indeed there are any, that they only confirm its truth. Man’s worship in some dark corner of the earth may rise no higher than a vague fear of an evil spirit and a desire to [appease] him; but a worship of some kind man will have.

But then comes in the effect of the Fall. Ignorance of God, carnal and low conceptions of His nature and attributes, earthly and sensual notions of the service which is acceptable to Him, all characterize the religion of the natural man. There is a craving in his mind after something he can see and feel and touch in his divinity.1 He would fain bring his God down to his own crawling level. He would make his religion a thing of sense and sight. He has no idea of the religion of heart and faith and spirit. In short, just as he is willing to live on God’s earth, but, until renewed by grace, a fallen and degraded life, so he has no objection to worship after a fashion, but, until renewed by the Holy Ghost, it is always with a fallen worship. In one word, idolatry is a natural product of man’s heart. It is a weed which, like the earth uncultivated, the heart is always ready to bring forth…

[The] cause is nothing else but the deep corruption of man’s heart. There is a natural proneness and tendency in us all to give God a sensual, carnal worship, and not that which is commanded in His Word. We are ever ready, by reason of our sloth and unbelief, to devise visible helps and stepping stones in our approaches to Him, and ultimately to give these inventions of our own the honor due to Him. In fact, idolatry is all natural, downhill, easy, like the broad way. Spiritual worship is all of grace, all uphill, and all against the grain. Any worship whatsoever is more pleasing to the natural heart than worshipping God in the way which our Lord Christ describes, “in spirit and in truth” (Joh 4:24).

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