The Sin of Idolatry against the Triune God
“We know that an idol is nothing in the world,
and that there is none other God but one.”
—I Corinthians 8:4
On the basis of the clear and unmistakable testimony of Holy Scripture, such as in the verse quoted above, the true Christian faith firmly maintains that there is only one God. This one and only God rightly demands exclusive worship. “I am the Lord; that is My name; and My glory will I not give to another, neither My praise to graven images” (Isaiah 42:8). “Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and Him only shalt thou serve” (Matthew 4:10). But who is the one true God and Lord to whom alone belongs all worship, honor, and glory? Without using the specific terms “Trinity” or “Triune,” the Bible does clearly describe the Lord God as being Triune—three in one—for it identifies three distinct divine individuals (persons) as God, namely, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost (Matthew 28:19). Each one of these persons is completely God (not one third of God); and yet there are not three Gods, but only one. This is the Holy Trinity, the Triune God.
Now many people have adopted the false and misguided notion that the gods of the various religions throughout the world are really all the same god who has merely revealed himself differently to different groups of people at different times in history. However, such an opinion blatantly contradicts the Scriptures; for “we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is none other God but one. For though there be that are called gods, whether in heaven or in earth (as there be gods many, and lords many), but to us there is but one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we in Him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we by Him” (I Corinthians 8:4–6; see also I Corinthians 10:20, Galatians 4:8, Ephesians 2:12).
According to that same false notion, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, and even Muslims claim to worship the God of the Bible (both Old and New Testaments). Similarly, the Jews say that they worship the God who is revealed in the Old Testament. And yet all of these groups openly deny the Trinity —that the one true God is Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Concerning God the Son, Jesus Christ, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Muslims regard Him to be a good man and a prophet, but not God. The Jews (followers of modern Judaism) regard Jesus to be a blasphemer whom the devil used to lead people away from the true God. Mormons sometimes express themselves in ways that sound as if they believe in the Trinity (confessing faith in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost); but they do not believe that there is only one God. Instead they teach that there are many different gods and potential gods in the universe. Obviously, if a person does not know who the only true God is, it is impossible for him to worship that one true God. Consequently, all who profess an anti-trinitarian religion and believe in a god who is not the Triune God, they are worshiping a god (or gods) of their own creation which cannot save anyone (John 14:6; Acts 4:12). Therefore, it is no overstatement to say, as does the Athanasian Creed following a detailed description of our Triune God: “He, therefore, that will be saved must thus think of the Trinity.”
Because there is only one God, there is only one Being who deserves divine honor and glory. Therefore to put anyone or anything else on a level higher than, or even on the same level as, the one true God is to commit the sin of idolatry in violation of the First Commandment, which states: “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me” (Exodus 20:3). Our Catechism (Q/A 29) lists three ways in which “men have other gods,” which can be categorized as most obvious, less obvious, and least obvious forms of idolatry. Using these distinctions, the most obvious form of idolatry (described in Part A of the answer to Catechism question 29) is to “regard and worship any creature as God.” The thing that makes this kind of idolatry so obvious or “gross” is that even the sin-corrupted mind of man should be able to deduce that a creature (something created by God) cannot possibly be its own Creator. Oh how foolish it is to believe that something made by God (such as the moon, a volcano, a cow, etc.), as well as creatures formed by the hands of man (a golden calf, a statue, etc.), could in any way be God! “Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men’s hands. They have mouths, but they speak not; eyes have they, but they see not; they have ears, but they hear not; noses have they, but they smell not; they have hands, but they handle not; feet have they, but they walk not; neither speak they through their throat. They that make them are like unto them; so is every one that trusteth in them” (Psalm 115:4–8; Psalm 135:15–18).
The less obvious form of idolatry (described in Part B of the answer to Catechism question 29) is to “believe in a god who is not the Triune God,” such as do the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims, Jews, Christian Scientists, Scientologists, Unitarians/Universalists, adherents of the Bahai faith, and still others. Such beliefs are not as obviously false to the uninstructed mind as the belief that a creature could be God. In fact, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons are often quite successful in their efforts to market themselves as Christians who worship the God of the Bible. However, using the light of Holy Scripture, there should be no trouble detecting this kind of idolatry as “gross” or obvious, because it blatantly contradicts the Bible’s description of the Lord. To regard Jesus Christ, God the Son, as being worthy of any less or different honor than God the Father is to dishonor the Triune God; for Jesus says: “All men should honor the Son, even as they honor the Father. He that honoreth not the Son honoreth not the Father, which hath sent Him” (John 5:23).
The least obvious form of idolatry (described in Part C of the answer to Catechism question 29) is committed by people “when they fear, love, or trust in any person or thing as they should fear, love, and trust in God alone.” The reason why this kind of idolatry is “least obvious” or “fine” and harder to recognize is because it takes place in the heart. Of course, sins of the heart will often show themselves outwardly (Matthew 15:19; Luke 6:45); but even when such idolatry is carefully hidden to escape the notice of other people, the Lord still knows exactly what is in the heart and mind of man (Psalm 139:1–4). This kind of idolatry is committed also by true believing Christians, on account of their sinful flesh, when even for a brief moment they allow anything else to gain a higher position in their heart or life than the Lord their God (Romans 7:14–23; Galatians 5:17). And atheists, who scoff at the idea that they commit any idolatry (since they firmly deny the existence of any god), are constantly engaged in this least obvious form of idolatry by the very fact that they trust in human wisdom more than the Lord’s revelation (Psalm 14:1; 118:8) and are given to covetousness “which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5). Idolatry of the heart (fearing, loving, or trusting in anyone or anything more than God) is present in all people, and it lies at the root of every sin that humans commit. Consequently, the instruction of God’s Word concerning this kind of idolatry has the most practical application in the lives of Christians (I Corinthians 10:12–14).
The Lord God rightly demands that we fear, or respect, Him above all things. “Ye shall walk after the Lord your God, and fear Him, and keep His Commandments, and obey His voice; and ye shall serve Him, and cleave unto Him” (Deuteronomy 13:4). Having such fear of the Lord does not mean being terrified of Him, but it means respecting Him and showing Him reverence. Notice how the words “fear” and “awe” are used as synonyms when the Psalmist writes: “Let all the earth fear the Lord; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of Him” (33:8). In Psalm 130:4 the word “fear” is used in a way that cannot possibly include the idea of terror or dread. However, that the proper fear of God also includes respecting His ability to punish us should we ever turn against Him is brought out by the Lord Jesus when He declares: “Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul; but rather fear Him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). To respect God means to respect His Commandments; therefore, Godly fear of the Lord also includes the hatred of all sin, “the transgression of the Law” (I John 3:4). “The fear of the Lord is to hate evil” (Proverbs 8:13). When people minimize or excuse sin (either their own or another’s), they show that they are not fearing (respecting) God as they should and are thereby committing the sin of idolatry.
The Lord God rightly demands also that we love Him above all things. Jesus classifies love for God as the “first and great Commandment,” declaring in Matthew 22:37–38: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great Commandment.” Thus, according to God’s Law, it is not acceptable to serve Him half-heartedly, to let love for anyone or anything be put on the same or higher level than love for the Lord. Love for the things of this world (I John 2:15) and love for one’s family more than love for God (Matthew 10:37) are characteristic sins of unbelievers; but this kind of idolatry is also committed by true Christians in weakness because the devil, the world, and their flesh are constantly at work to pull their hearts away from God. Being negatively influenced by those spiritual enemies, we Christians often let love for ourselves predominate over love for God; and this becomes evident and should be recognized by our own hearts whenever we do what we want to do rather than what God wants us to do. Since “love is the fulfilling of the Law” (Romans 13:10), and since even the proper love of one’s neighbor flows from the love of God (I John 4:19–5:3), every time we sin against God or our neighbor —whether in thought, word, or deed— we demonstrate our imperfect love of the Lord; and thus we break the First Commandment.
Furthermore, the Lord God rightly demands that we trust in Him above all things. “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart” (Proverbs 3:5). “Trust in Him at all times” (Psalm 62:8). We are to trust Him more than we trust other people (Psalm 118:8–9); we are to trust Him more than we trust our own strength and abilities (Jeremiah 17:5); and we are to trust Him more than we trust our own opinions, thoughts, and feelings (Proverbs 3:5). This, of course, does not mean that we should be skeptical and distrusting of everyone but God. It would be wrong to assume people are lying to us when there is no proof of such deception (Zechariah 8:17). Spouses (Proverbs 31:11) and Christian brethren especially (Galatians 6:10) should show themselves to be trustworthy and be able to trust one another (Proverbs 18:24); but we would be committing the sin of idolatry, though in its least obvious form, if we trusted them more than we trust in the Lord (Psalm 118:8). Similarly, while there is nothing wrong with putting a limited amount of trust in the opinions of doctors and the medical procedures they recommend, it is foolish and sinful to trust in them more than we trust in God for our physical health (II Chronicles 16:12–13). Moreover, we should, as Christians, be able to recognize in ourselves the sin of idolatry when we are fearful, worried, anxious, or stressed about various things in this earthly life (Matthew 6:31–32a), all of which are in the complete control of our gracious heavenly Father (v. 32b; also Matthew 10:29–31). By our imperfect trust in God’s gracious providence and protection, all of us become guilty of committing this kind of idolatry in the heart, which, even if this were our only transgression, makes us worthy of eternal condemnation (James 2:10; Galatians 3:10).
Thankfully, the Lord Jesus Christ came into the world to save us from our sins (I Timothy 1:15). In order to be our Redeemer, Christ was “made flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14); as a true human being He was “made under the Law” (Galatians 4:4–5) so that by His perfect obedience of the Law in our stead we would be counted righteous (Romans 5:19). Though Jesus Himself is God, yet, according to His human nature (which is a creation of God), the heavenly Father was also His God (John 20:17); and, as our Substitute, Christ perfectly kept the First Commandment, which means that He also kept the entire Law of God flawlessly. Even in His youth, He was constantly engaged in the work of His Father (Luke 2:49). When He was tempted by Satan to fall down and worship him in exchange for the riches of this world, Christ rightly responded: “Get thee hence, Satan! For it is written, ‘Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and Him only shalt thou serve’” (Matthew 4:10). On two separate occasions, God the Father spoke from heaven, testifying that He was well pleased with Jesus’ person and work (Matthew 3:17; 17:5). In the Garden of Gethsemane, at the start of His intense suffering for the sins of the world, Jesus showed perfect submission to God by subduing His human will to avoid pain in obedience the will of His heavenly Father (which was also His own will) to redeem sinful men by suffering the pain that they deserve (Luke 22:42; cf. Isaiah 53). We should be forever grateful that because of the perfect righteousness of our Savior Jesus Christ we have been accounted righteous, and that because of His perfect vicarious atonement we have forgiveness for our innumerable sins against God’s holy Law, including our transgressions of His holy First Commandment.
While it is the Law of God that sets forth the clear prohibition of idolatry in its various forms, yet it is only the Gospel of God’s grace in Christ that enables and moves the Christian according to his new man to follow the First Commandment from the heart. Out of love and gratitude toward our gracious Redeemer, who satisfied God’s Law in our behalf and suffered the dread consequence of our disobedience (the agony of hell on the cross), we should, by His grace grow in faithful and cheerful service to the one true God, the Triune God —Father, Son, and Holy Ghost— and earnestly desire to fear, love and trust in Him above all things. Being guided by the Law of our Triune God (Psalm 119:12, 35, 133), and being constrained and enabled by His precious Gospel (II Corinthians 5:14–15; Philippians 4:13), let us earnestly fight against all temptations to idolatry (even in its most subtle forms) and live our lives to the glory and praise of the grace of the Lord our God for Jesus’ sake!
All blessing, honor, thanks, and praise
to Father, Son, and Spirit,
the God that saved us by His grace—
all glory to His merit!
O Triune God in heaven above,
who hast revealed Thy saving love,
Thy blessed name be hallowed!
(TLH 377, 10)
—P. E. B.