What is idolatry?

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Idolatry is trusting in created things rather than the Creator for our hope and happiness, significance and security.

Romans 1:21 and 25

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened…. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator.

For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened…. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator.

Commentary

What is it to have a god? Or, what is one's god? Answer: To whatever we look for any good thing and for refuge in every need, that is what is meant by "god"…it is the trust and faith of the heart, nothing else, that make both God and an idol…. To whatever you give your heart and entrust your being, that…is really your god…. Many a person imagines that he has God and everything he needs, provided he has money and property. He relies upon these, boasts about them, and feels…immovably secure…. But look, he too has a god, named mammon, that is the money and property to which he has given his whole heart. Mammon is the world's favorite idol. One who has money and property has a sense of security and feels…happy and fearless…. On the other hand, one who has nothing is as insecure and anxiety-ridden as if he had never heard of God…. Similarly, one who congratulates himself on his great learning, intelligence, power, special advantages, family connections, and honor and trusts in them also has a god, only not the one true God. The evidence for this appears when people are arrogant, secure, and proud because of such possessions, but desperate when they lack them or lose them. I repeat, to have a god means to have something on which one's heart depends entirely.

So now you can easily understand what it is and how much it is that this [first] commandment requires. It requires that man's whole heart and all his confidence be given to God alone and no one else…. The true worship and service of God, the kind that pleases Him and which He also commands on pain of everlasting wrath…takes place when your heart directs all its trust and confidence only toward God and does not let itself be torn away from Him; it consists in risking everything on earth for Him and abandoning it all for His sake. You can easily judge how, in contrast to this, the world practices nothing but false worship and idolatry…. Everyone has set up for himself some particular god to which he looks for benefits, help, and comfort…. For idolatry does not consist simply in setting up an image and worshiping it; it takes place primarily in the heart, which looks elsewhere than to the one God, seeks help and comfort in created things…. Besides this there is also that false worship, that height of idolatry, which…involves…those who seek comfort and salvation in their own works and presume to capture heaven by putting God under the pressure of an obligation…, they wish to earn everything themselves or merit it by works…. What is this but turning God into an idol, into a plaster image, while the worshiper actually is setting himself up as his own god. However:…We are to trust in God alone, look to Him, and expect to receive nothing but good things from Him…. Question and explore your own heart thoroughly, and you will find out if it embraces God alone or not. Do you have it in your heart to expect nothing but good things from God, especially when you are in trouble and in need? And does your heart in addition give up and forsake everything that is not God? Then you have the one true God. On the other hand, is your heart attached to and does it rely on something else, from which you hope to receive more good and more help than from God? And when things go wrong, do you, instead of fleeing to Him, flee from Him? Then you have another god, a false god, [an idol].

Martin Luther (1483–1546). A German Protestant pastor and professor of theology, Luther was the son of a mining family, intended to become a lawyer, and at first took monastic orders. On 31 October 1517 Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg, sparking the Reformation. His refusal to retract his writings at the demand of Pope Leo X and Emperor Charles V resulted in his excommunication. Luther wrote many works, including his small and large catechisms (from which this quote is taken), and preached hundreds of sermons in churches and universities.

From Luther’s Large Catechism, translated by F. Samuel Janzow (St. Louis, MO.: Concordia, 1978), 13–17.

Further Reading

“General Revelation” and “Guilt” in Concise Theology, by J. I. Packer.

Prayer

O God, the light of every heart that sees thee, the life of every soul that loves thee, the strength of every mind that seeks thee, grant me ever to continue steadfast in thy holy love. Pour thyself into my heart, and let it overflow, and be so entirely filled with thy pleasures, that there may be no room left for the trifling vanities here below. I am ashamed and tired of living after the way of the world; the very sight and hearing of transitory objects is troublesome: help me, my God, against the insinuations of such, and be thou the joy of my heart: take it all to thyself, and keep thy continual residence there…that I may leave all here below, and serve, and fix, and dwell upon thee alone.

Augustine of Hippo (354–430). Bishop of Hippo in Roman North Africa, philosopher, and theologian, Augustine is considered a saint and Doctor of the Church by both the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion. He wrote an account of his conversion in his Confessions, his most known work, but he is also one of the most prolific Latin authors in terms of surviving works with hundreds of separate titles (including apologetic works, texts on Christian doctrine, and commentaries) and more than 350 preserved sermons.

From Pious Breathings: Being the Meditations of St Augustine, his Treatise of the Love of God, Soliloquies and Manual, translated by Geo. Stanhope (London: J. Nunn & Co., 1818), 29–31.