Holiness and the Problem of Idolatry


On any serious quest there are dangers and challenges, and inevitably some setbacks along the way. In the Christian’s quest for holiness, it is essential for those engaged to know something of the nature of the challenges that will befall them. What are the dangers? Where are the pitfalls? Who is the opposition? They need to know these things to be prepared; to recognize when they are facing danger and to know how to respond.

The quest for holiness in the Christian life certainly holds opposition and challenges. There are plenty of dangers and setbacks. Yet many Christians today simply are not prepared to face the challenges. Some do not even recognize the dangers or understand the nature of the problems. It might not even concern them that they make little progress in the quest.

At one level we could identify the major challenge we face in the quest for holiness as the problem of sin. We could go further and speak of dangers from the world, the flesh, and the devil. But in these next 5 articles we want to identify the root of the problem, and at the root of the problem of sin is the issue of idolatry. Thus, at the heart of the challenges, we face on the quest for holiness is the problem of idolatry.

Paul's Diagnosis

The apostle Paul helps identify the problem in Romans 1:18-32. This text is an incredibly profound analysis of the human condition. It is really the interpretative key for explaining why the world is the way it is. What Paul is doing in the larger context of Romans is demonstrating why God’s saving righteousness, revealed in the gospel (1:16-17), is so necessary. We really need the gospel and it is such glorious news because “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (1:18).

So, starting here in 1:18 through 3:20, Paul deals at length with the problem of sin, and the fact that all of us—Gentile and Jew—deserve God’s wrath.

For three chapters Paul lays bare our guilt and wickedness and shows our situation is desperate. There is no excuse; there is no defense. Every mouth is stopped and the whole world stands condemned before God (3:19).

Why does Paul do this? Why doesn’t he simply say “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23) and move on? Because we need a penetrating diagnosis of the problem in order to understand the seriousness of our condition and be led to the right remedy. If we have a superficial doctrine of sin we will not truly understand the gospel, and we won’t grasp the magnitude of the cross. Paul talks about the problem at length so we might see the power and sheer wonder of the gospel.

God Has Revealed Himself

He begins in 1:19-20 by showing that there is a general revelation of God in creation. The fact that there is a Creator, that He is powerful, and that He is God is clearly seen and understood through creation. Verse 19 says it is “plain to them, because God has shown it to them.” The problem is people suppress this truth. Verse 21 adds “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.”

The root of the matter is that although they knew God, they refused to honor Him. In their rebellion, they did not give to Him in thought, affection, and devotion the place that belongs to Him. Furthermore, they refused to give thanks to Him. C. E. B. Cranfield says, “They ought to have recognized their indebtedness to His goodness and generosity, to have recognized Him as the source of all the good things they enjoyed, and so to have been grateful to Him for His benefits.” But they did not. As a result, they plunged into futility, darkness, and folly.

Sin is ultimately a refusal to honor God as the true and living God. Sin is a failure to glorify the One who created all things for His glory (Col. 1:16). Sin is not simply a matter of transgressing God’s law. Of course, verses 24-32 show that it includes transgressing God’s law, but the things described in those verses are all rooted first in the rejection of God.

When We Cease to Worship God, We Worship Anything

The point is this: when we refuse to glorify God, we don’t just go on our merry way. Inevitably we turn to glorify some dimension of creation instead of God. Verse 23 says they “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images.” Verse 25 adds “they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator.” G. K. Chesterton said that when we “cease to worship God, we do not worship nothing, we worship anything.”

But what a foolish exchange! On the one hand, you have the glory of the immortal God, and man sees Him and says, “No thanks. I’d rather have images of mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. I don’t want to be accountable to God.” You have the truth about God that He has made plain, and man clearly perceives it but says “No thanks. I’m more comfortable with a lie.” You have the great Creator who brought the world into being, who is powerful, who is God blessed forever, and man says “I’d rather have the creature.” What folly!

Paul, no doubt, is thinking of Jeremiah 2 where God says: “Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods? But my people have changed their glory for that which does not profit. Be appalled, O heavens, at this; be shocked, be utterly desolate, declares the LORD, for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water” (Jer. 2:11-13).

Many in our culture think they are so sophisticated with their materialistic theories of the origin of the universe. They would rather embrace Darwinian evolution, and blind, random chance, and impossible odds, than accept that God made us. The intellectual elites mock and ridicule the suggestion of even a nameless intelligent design behind the universe. They cannot concede design as a possibility. “They became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools.” And the wrath of God is revealed.

The Consequences to Idolatry

There are judicial consequences to idolatry. Three times in the text Paul speaks of our rejection of God, and each time it is followed by a statement of God’s judgment:

  • 1:23 “[they] exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images”
    • 1:24 “Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity”
  • 1:25 “they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator”
    • 1:26 “For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions”
  • 1:28 “Since they did not see fit to acknowledge God”
    • 1:28 “God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.”

The judicial consequence of our idolatry is that God hands us over to what we prefer, and the result is sin and corruption.

Paul's Focus on Homosexuality

It is interesting that homosexuality is highlighted here: “For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error” (1:26-27).

Why does Paul focus on homosexuality? Not because it is the unpardonable sin. Some of the Corinthians had been homosexuals, but they came to Christ and were saved. Paul says to them, “you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:11).

The reason Paul focuses on homosexuality here is because it is the most vivid dramatization or illustration of the perversion of idolatry. The creature is supposed to worship the Creator. That’s natural; that’s God’s design. But idolatry perverts that good order by exchanging the glory of God for creatures.

Likewise, sexual relations are to be between a man and a woman in the sanctity of marriage. That’s natural; that’s God’s design. But homosexuality perverts that good order by exchanging what is natural for what is unnatural: women with women and men with men.

The connection is made clear by the way the word “exchanged” is used in verses 25 and 26: “they exchanged the truth about God for a lie” (v. 25); “their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature” (v. 26).

The Root of Sin: Idolatry

But of course, the distortion is not just related to homosexuality. That might be its most vivid dramatization, but the Old Testament prophets, again and again, call Israel’s idolatry harlotry, whoredom, and adultery. See, for example, Ezekiel 16 where the Lord vividly describes how His people have “played the whore” (16:15). “Adulterous wife,” God says, “who receives strangers instead of her husband!” (16:32). That is what idolatry is like in God’s eyes.

But again, it is not just at the sexual level that we see distortion. When we exchange the glory of God for other things, all manner of corruption breaks out. When we reject the Holy One, the outcome is not holiness but sin. See Romans 1:29-32.

Don’t miss the big picture here. The whole dreadful array of sins cataloged in 1:29-32 “has its roots in the soil of...idolatry.” Thus David Wells can say “all sin...involves idolatry.” All sin says “I prefer something else to God and His glory.” Idolatry is why we struggle with covetousness and pride and faithlessness and lust.

Now you might be thinking, “This is Romans 1. It’s all about sinful humans outside of Christ. How does that apply to us as believers on the quest for holiness?”

In response, what Romans 1 does is help us understand the true nature of sin. Greg Beale commenting on this text, says: “Paul sees idolatry to be the essence of sin.” This text helps us see that ultimately sin is exchanging the glory of God for other things.

Mark Stevenson

Mark Stevenson (PhD, University of Wales) has been teaching in the Bible and Theology Department at Emmaus since 1999. He is the author of the book "The Doctrines of Grace in an Unexpected Place." He and his wife Tonya have 4 children and live in Dubuque, IA.