When we imagine God differently than how Scripture describes Him, we are actually forging an idol in our minds. Idolatry begins in our minds when we exchange the truth of God for our own “truth”: “Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (Romans 1:22-23).
The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
John 4:19-24, ESV
Last time, I argued that the Catholic practice or praying to Mary is idolatry. Improper worship abounds in Protestant churches too, enough that the god who is worshipped in many American churches today is not the God of the Bible, so the Jesus whose coming we celebrate in this Advent season would be unwelcome in many American churches. This post will look at that prevalent form of idolatry—the worship of the god of our imagination rather than God as revealed in Scripture—which is much worse than praying to Mary.
Before looking at the specific idol in question, we need to a refresher on idolatry. We commit idolatry when we put anyone or anything in place of God, including a mental image of God that does not align with Scripture. As a result, we are constantly at risk of creating new idols:
Hence we may infer, that the human mind is, so to speak, a perpetual forge of idols….The human mind, stuffed as it is with presumptuous rashness, dares to imagine a god suited to its own capacity; as it labours under dullness, nay, is sunk in the grossest ignorance, it substitutes vanity and an empty phantom in the place of God. To these evils another is added. The god whom man has thus conceived inwardly he attempts to embody outwardly.
John Calvin trans. by Henry Beveridge, Institutes of the Christian Religion III, 1845 (orig. 1581): chapter 11, paragraph 8.
When we imagine God differently than how Scripture describes Him, we are actually forging an idol in our minds. Idolatry begins in our minds when we exchange the truth of God for our own “truth”: “Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (Romans 1:22-23). Because of this exchange, God gives people over to various dishonorable passions, most notably homosexuality (Romans 1:26-27). When people abandon the fundamentally-different God in exchange for gods resembling themselves, is it any wonder that they proceed to abandon the fundamentally-different opposite sex in exchange for what is the same?
That is exactly what many American churches have done. They have abandoned the God of the Bible in exchange for a god that was created in the mind of man and resembles man. When discussing theological illiteracy, we saw that many have erroneous views of God. Contrary to Scripture they think that He makes mistakes, changes, and is largely absent. They deny Jesus’s divinity and see the Holy Spirit as an impersonal force. And since many believe that our God is the same as the god of the non-Messianic Jews and Muslims, they think He accepts any and all worship. As a result, they teach an overly-simplistic version of God: that God is love—and not much else. They have no concept of His holiness, righteousness, justice, and wrath. As a result, many people view God as the harmless and lovable grandpa who could never hurt a fly, much less condemn anyone to hell. This modern false god is safe and easy to approach, which is just as idolatrous as the opposing view we discussed last time: that God is unapproachable. But that weakness makes this god very unsafe, for a harmless god is a worthless shelter. Only the true God who is omnipotent, holy, just, jealous, and wrathful can give us true comfort and shelter. For believers, all of God’s attributes work in our favor, so Christianity would be worthless without them. The defanged god of the American church is worthless: he is no god at all, so there is no reason to fear him. Unsurprisingly then, there is no fear of God in most American churches. And since the fear of God is the beginning of knowledge and wisdom (Proverbs 1:7, 9:10), many churches have succumbed to folly.
The modern view of Jesus is similarly worthless, lacking any semblance of power. As we discussed recently, the church at large (like society) has become very effeminate, so the resulting depiction of Jesus has become effeminate as well: a hippy with fair complexion, long hair, and soft clothing. In many “worship” songs, Jesus is portrayed as the doting boyfriend. As a result, it is often difficult to differentiate worship songs from pop love songs, especially with lyrics involving sloppy wet kisses. Many misunderstand “gentle Jesus meek and mild”, forgetting that gentle doesn’t mean docile and meekness means immense strength restrained by self-control—i.e., ideal masculinity. Most people couldn’t imagine Jesus with a sword (Matthew 10:34) and a robe bloody from trampling His enemies (Revelation 14:19-20, 19:15 cf. Isaiah 63:3). They would be appalled to know that it was the pre-incarnate Christ (the Angel of the LORD) who annihilated 185,000 Assyrian soldiers (2 Kings 19:35, Isaiah 37:36). But that is exactly what Scripture says about Jesus Christ, so if you cannot imagine Jesus ruling the nations with an iron fist (Revelation 12:5 cf. Psalm 2:9), you are worshipping an idol erroneously called “Jesus”. Churches that teach these things are committing idolatry and leading their people to commit idolatry. They have exchanged the distinctiveness of God for the sameness of a god made in their own image (Romans 1:24-27). Just as the lack of commitment to the local church could be considered spiritual adultery, worship in many American churches could be considered spiritual homosexuality. Since none who unrepentantly practice homosexuality will enter heaven (1 Corinthians 6:9-10, Ephesians 5:5), those who practice this spiritual homosexuality shouldn’t expect to enter heaven either. But this is nothing new.
Golden Calves and High Places
In many ways, the church’s idolatrous false god made in man’s image is a modern golden calf. In Exodus 32, as Moses was on Mt. Sinai receiving the Law from God, his brother Aaron made a golden calf for the people to worship. Bearing some resemblance to the true God, the calf is credited with rescuing them from Egypt (Exodus 32:4) and given the sacred name of God (Exodus 32:5), so this was an attempt to worship the true God. But being uniformed by the truth of who God is, the calf ended up reflecting some attributes of God but many attributes borrowed from pagan gods. As punishment for this idolatry, Moses obliterated the idol and the Levites slaughtered three thousand of the idolaters (Exodus 32:20,28-29).