John Calvin famously referred to the
hearts of men as “idol factories” (fabricum idolarium), which means that
by nature, in our fallen condition, our tendency is to create idols and false
gods for ourselves to serve and worship. How ironic it is that in an age in
which American Christianity is in rapid decline, one of the most popular
television programs is called “American Idol.” Hollywood and its teen idols and
heartthrobs and the modern media, through television, movies, videos, DVDs, and
the internet, have captured the minds of nearly all of us through their flashing
images. Even American Christianity has its video screens and multimedia
presentations, Jesus films, nativity scenes, passion plays, and portraits of
Jesus. How do we reconcile all these things with the Bible’s teachings
regarding idolatry and images?
The second commandment of God’s
everlasting moral law declares: “"You shall
not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the
earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship
them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the
sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but
showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my
commandments" (Exodus 20:4-6, NIV).
Colossians 1:15 tells us that Jesus
Christ is “the image of the invisible God.”
Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms teach more fully what the second
commandment means and how it applies to Christians.
50 What is required in the second commandment?
commandment requires the receiving, observing, and keeping pure and entire, all
such religious worship and ordinances as God has appointed in His word.(1)
Deut. 32:46; Matt. 28:20; Acts 2:42.
51 What is forbidden in the second commandment?
The second commandment forbids the worshipping of God by images,(1) or any other
way not appointed in His word.(2)
(1)Deut. 4:15-19; Exod. 32:5,8 (2)Deut. 12:31,32.
108 What are the duties required in the second commandment?
The duties required in the second commandment are, the receiving, observing, and
keeping pure and entire, all such religious worship and ordinances as God has
instituted in His word;(1) particularly prayer and thanksgiving in the name of
Christ;(2) the reading, preaching, and hearing of the word;(3) the
administration and receiving of the sacraments;(4) church government and
discipline;(5) the ministry and maintenance thereof;(6) religious fasting;(7)
swearing by the name of God, (8) and vowing to Him; 9) as also the disapproving,
detesting, opposing, all false worship;(10) and, according to each one’s place
and calling, removing it, and all monuments of idolatry.(11)
(1)Deut. 32:46,47; Matt. 28:20; Acts 2:42; 1 Tim. 6:13,14 (2)Phil. 4:6; Eph.
5:20 (3)Deut. 17:18,19; Acts 15:21; 2 Tim. 4:2; James 1:21,22; Acts 10:33
(4)Matt. 28:19 (5)Matt. 18:15-17; Matt. 16:19; 1 Cor. 5 throughout; 1 Cor. 12:28
(6)Eph. 4:11,12; 1 Tim. 5:17,18; 1 Cor. 9:7-15 (7)Joel 2:12,13; 1 Cor. 7:5
(8)Deut. 6:13 (9)Isa. 19:21; Ps. 76:11 (10)Acts 17:16,17; Ps. 16:4 (11)Deut.
7:5; Isa. 30:22 [see also Ex. 34:13; Num. 33:52; Deut. 7:25-26; 12:2-3]
commandment requires us to maintain purity in our worship of God. It requires
us to receive, observe and keep purely and completely that religious worship and
those ordinances that God has appointed (or “instituted”) in His Word.
It also requires us to voice our disapproval, detestation, and opposition to all
manifestations of false worship. And, according to our place in Christ’s church
and the calling that God has given to us, the second commandment requires us to
labor diligently for the removal of all false worship and all monuments of
109 What are the sins forbidden in the second commandment?
The sins forbidden in the second commandment are, all devising, (1)
counseling,(2) commanding,(3) using,(4) and any wise approving, any
religious worship not instituted by God Himself; (5) tolerating a false
religion;(6) the making any representation of God, of all or of any of the three
persons, either inwardly in our mind, or outwardly in any kind of image or
likeness of any creature whatever; (7) all worshipping of it,(8) or God in it or
by it;(9) the making of any representation of feigned deities,(10) and all
worship of them, or service belonging to them;(11) all superstitious
devices,(12) corrupting the worship of God,(13) adding to it, or taking
from it,(14) whether invented and taken up of ourselves,(15) or
received by tradition from others,(16) though under the title of
antiquity,(17) custom,(18) devotion,(19) good intent, or any other pretence
whatever;(20) simony;(21) sacrilege;(22) all neglect,(23) contempt,(24)
hindering,(25) and opposing the worship and ordinances which God has
(1)Num. 15:39 (2)Deut. 13:6-8 (3)Hosea 5:11; Micah 6:16 (4) 1 Kings 11:33; 1
Kings 12:33 (5) Deut. 12:30-32 (6) Deut. 13:6-12; Zech. 13:2,3; Rev.
2:2,14,15,20; Rev. 17:12,16,17 (7) Deut. 4:15-19; Acts 17:29; Rom. 1:21-23,25
(8) Dan. 3:18; Gal. 4:8 (9)Exod. 32:5 (10) Exod. 32:8 (11) 1 Kings 18:26,28;
Isa. 65:11 (12) Acts 17:22; Col. 2:21-23 (13)Mal. 1:7,8,14 (14)Deut. 4:2 (15)Ps.
106:39 (16)Matt. 15:9 (17)1 Pet. 1:18 (18)Jer. 44:17 (19)Isa. 65:3-5; Gal.
1:13,14 (20)1 Sam. 13:11,12; 1 Sam. 15:21 (21)Acts 8:18 (22)Rom. 2:22; Mal. 3:8
(23)Exod. 4:24-26 (24)Matt. 22:5; Mal. 1:7,13 (25)Matt. 23:13 (26)Acts 13:44,45;
1 Thess. 2:15,16
commandment forbids us from worshipping God in
appointed in His Word.
the essence of the Biblical “Reformed” regulative principle of worship, as is
reflected in the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 21, paragraph
1. It forbids all superstitious devices and all corruptions of pure worship.
It forbids us from adding to or subtracting from the religious
worship that God Himself has instituted. Whether these additions or
subtractions were “invented and taken up of ourselves,” or received by church
tradition, or received by an appeal to antiquity or to custom or to our own good
intentions, they are still forbidden by the second commandment. Also, the
second commandment forbids us from opposing the worship that God has appointed.
This brings us to Jeremiah’s teachings
on idolatry and images.
Jeremiah 1:17 "Therefore prepare
yourself and arise, And speak to them all that I command you. Do not be dismayed
before their faces, Lest I dismay you before them.”
Whenever Scripture uses these
expressions, it means to say that there is extreme madness in those men who
worship in the place of God not only the sun and moon and other created things
but also the idols which they form for themselves. For how is it that they
worship their own idols, except that they have formed for them a nose, and
hands, and ears?
Jeremiah 2:13 "For My people have
committed two evils: They have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters,
And hewn themselves cisterns -- broken cisterns that can hold no water.”
He says that they had done two evils:
the first was, they had forsaken God; and the other, they had
fallen away unto false and imaginary gods. . . . God is a fountain of living
waters; and He compares idols to perforated or broken cisterns, which
hold no water. When one leaves a living fountain and seeks a cistern, it is
a proof of great folly, for cisterns are dry except water comes from elsewhere;
but a fountain has its own spring. Furthermore, where there is a spring
perpetually flowing, and an everflowing stream of waters, the water is more pure
and much better.
The superstitious think that they labor
not in vain, when they worship false gods. There are some resemblances to true
religion in false religions; hence the Prophet compares false gods to wells,
because they were made hollow, suitable to hold water, but there was not a drop
of water in them, as they were broken cisterns.
2:18 “And now why take the road to Egypt, To drink the waters of Sihor? Or why
take the road to Assyria, To drink the waters of the River?”
are stubborn refuse to repent, but rather they seek false remedies for their
woes: “If you carefully inquire,” says God, “how it is that you are so
miserable, you will find that this cannot be ascribed to Me, but to your own
sins. Now, then, what ought you to have done? What remedy ought you to have
sought, except to reconcile yourselves to Me, to seek pardon from Me, and to
strive to correct your wickedness? I would then have immediately healed you;
and had you come to Me, you would have found me the best Physician. Why do you
now act in a way quite contrary? For you run after vain helps; now you flee to
Egypt, then you flee to Assyria; but you will gain nothing by these expedients.
It is as
though Jeremiah said to the unrepentant people, “What advantage do you gain?
How great is your folly, since you know that God is angry with you, and that you
are suffering many evils? God is adverse to you, and yet you think nothing of
reconciliation. Your healing would be to flee to God and to be reconciled to
Him; but what do you now do? You flee to the Assyrians and to the Egyptians.
How wretched is your condition, and how great is your folly in thus wearying
yourself without any advantage!
God alone can give us living water (John 4:10). Jesus said,
"He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow
rivers of living water” (John 7:38). He said, “I will give to the one who
thirsts from the spring of the water of life without cost” (Rev. 21:6, NAS).
2:19 ““Your own wickedness will correct you, And your backslidings will rebuke
you. Know therefore and see that it is an evil and bitter thing
That you have forsaken the LORD your God, And the fear of Me is not in
you," Says the Lord GOD of hosts.”
hence learn that we are not to seek drink either from the Nile or from the
Euphrates, that is, from the enticing things of the world, which make a great
show and display; but that we are, on the contrary, to drink from the hidden
fountain which is concealed from us, in order that we may seek it by faith.
superstitions just an innocuous thing? No, for all superstitions are deemed
idolatries by God.
And idolatry is demonic: The gods of the heathens are demons and all their
superstitions are sacrilegious.
idolaters are fools; the apostle Paul declared, “Professing to be wise, they
became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made
like corruptible man--and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things”
(Rom. 1:22-23). All men who neither worship nor fear the only true God are
detestable beings, because so much of His glory shines forth, that all men are
bound to acknowledge Him. It then follows that those who are carried away into
various superstitions are to the last degree stupid and brutish; for God renders
His glory conspicuous [clearly seen] everywhere, so that it ought to engage and
occupy the thoughts of all men; and it would do so were they not led away by
their own vanity.
10:8 “But they are altogether dull-hearted and foolish; A wooden idol is
a worthless doctrine.”
There is no
one, he says, however intelligent, who does not approve of the superstitions of
the people, who does not bend the knee before a wood or a stone.
are wise in the eyes of the world affirm idolatry: It is evident that the
grossest superstitions of the nations were ever approved by all their wise men.
As the apostle Paul says, “Professing to be wise, they became fools” (Rom.
commands all people to hate idolatry: It is commanded to all without exception
to detest idols.
The apostle John said, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols. Amen” (1
23:23-24 "Am I a God near at hand," says the LORD, "And not a God afar
off? Can anyone hide himself in secret places, So I shall not see him?" says
the LORD; "Do I not fill heaven and earth?" says the LORD.”
hypocrites are by nature idolatrous: For while they thus set themselves up as
arbitrators, so that they subject God to their own laws, they think Him to be
dull of apprehension, as though He sees nothing, or at least very little. God
says that He is not only a God near at hand but also afar off.
Hypocrites greatly detract from His majesty, when they, according to their own
notions, imagine that God can see no more than a mortal man.
fallen condition, apart from God’s regenerating grace, all people are led to
create a god after their own image: This error of imagining a God like
ourselves is inbred almost in us all. Hence it is, that men allow themselves so
much liberty; for they consider it a light thing to discharge their duty towards
God, because they reflect not what sort of being He is, but they think of Him
according to their own understanding and character. As, then, we are thus gross
in our ideas, it is necessary for us carefully to reflect on this passage, where
God declares, that He is not only a God near at hand, that is, that He is
not like us, who have only a limited power of seeing, but that He sees in the
thickest darkness as well as in the clearest light.
As they are
superstitious, idolaters seek superstitious places to worship God (Jer. 32:30):
Idolaters ever sought high places, as they imagined that they were thus nearer
51:17 “Everyone is dull-hearted, without knowledge; Every metalsmith is put to
shame by the carved image; For his molded image is falsehood, And
there is no breath in them.”
the first chapter to the Romans, assigns it as the cause of idolatry that men
become vain in their own wisdom, because they follow whatever their own brains
suggest to them. This doctrine is in itself true and useful; for men have
devised idols for themselves because they would not reverently receive the
knowledge of God offered to them but rather believed their own inventions.
Whatever man imagines according to his own thoughts is mere vanity; therefore,
it should not be surprising that those who presumptuously form their own ideas
of God become entirely foolish and infatuated.
Spirit enables us rightly to see that idolatry is foolishness: The craftsmen
who cast or forge idols or form them in any other way are completely delirious
in thinking that they can by their own art and skill make gods. A log of wood
lies on the ground, is trodden under foot without any honor; now when the
craftsman adds form to it, the log begins to be worshipped as a god; what
greater madness can be imagined than this? The same thing may be said of
stones, of silver, and of gold; for though it may be a precious metal, yet no
divinity is ascribed to it, until it begins to put on a certain form. Now when
a melter casts an idol, how can a lump of gold or silver become a god? The
Prophet then sharply reproves this monstrous madness, when he says that men are
in their knowledge like brute beasts, that is, when they apply their skill to
things so vain and foolish.
conclude our study of idolatry based on the prophecies of Jeremiah, let us
consider a subtopic of idolatry, the question of images.
Images--The Books of the Simple-Minded?
10:8 “But they are altogether dull-hearted and foolish; A wooden idol is
a worthless doctrine.”
Now we may
from this passage draw a general truth—that when men seek to represent God under
any visible form, they give way to the delusions and lies of Satan. Well known
is that sentence of Gregory to Serenus, the Bishop of Marseilles, when that good
man cast down the images which he saw led to ungodly worship and purged the
churches of Marseilles from such pollutions: Gregory, though a pious man, yet
wrote very foolishly—that Serenus acted rightly and wisely in forbidding images
to be worshipped, but that he yet acted inconsiderately by emptying the churches
of them; for “they are,” he said, “the books of the simple;” this is the
conclusion of his letter. And it is ever in the mouth of Papists—that images
are the books of the simple. At the same time I wish they retained this
truth avowed by Gregory—that they ought not to be worshipped. But as I have
already said, that answer of Gregory was puerile and foolish: for we hear what
the prophet says—that in wood and stone and in every outward representation
there is vanity. The Prophet Habakkuk declares the same thing in the second
chapter of his prophecy, where he calls an idol the teacher of vanity (Hab.
2:18-19). Every statue, every image, by which foolish men seek to represent
God, is a teacher of falsehood.
Prophet Jeremiah says that the teaching of vanities is found in all statues,
because God is thus misrepresented; for what can be in a wood or stone that is
like the infinite power of God or His incomprehensible essence and majesty?
Men, therefore, offer a serious affront to God when they thus deform Him.
Likewise, Paul says in Romans 1:25 that the truth was thus changed into
falsehood, that is, when He is supposed to be in any way like external and dead
figures. (Idolaters “worshiped and served the creature rather than the
Creator.”) The same Paul further reasons in Acts 17:29, saying, Do you think
that God is like wood or stone, silver or gold? (“we ought not to think that
the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and
man's devising.”) And his argument was at that time suitable; for Paul had to
deal with heathens: he did not refer to the law, though he might have quoted a
passage in Deuteronomy, where God reminded the people that He so appeared to
them that they saw no resemblance; and he might have referred to the testimonies
of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and of the other Prophets; but as he addressed heathens,
even the Athenians, Paul says, “One of your poets has said, that we are the
offspring of God;” if we are then, he says, the offspring of God, do you not
draw God down from His celestial throne, when you seek to depict Him according
to your impressions and suppose that He lies hid in wood or stone, in silver or
gold? For some life appears at least in men; they are endued with mind and
intelligence, and so far they bear some likeness to God; but a dead wood and
stone, which are void of sense—gold also and silver, which are metals without
reason, which have no life—what affinity, he says, can these have to God? . . .
16:10-13 " And it shall be, when you show this people all these words, and they
say to you, 'Why has the LORD pronounced all this great disaster against us? Or
what is our iniquity? Or what is our sin that we have committed
against the LORD our God?' "then you shall say to them, 'Because your fathers
have forsaken Me,' says the LORD; 'they have walked after other gods and have
served them and worshiped them, and have forsaken Me and not kept My law. 'And
you have done worse than your fathers, for behold, each one follows the dictates
of his own evil heart, so that no one listens to Me. 'Therefore I will cast you
out of this land into a land that you do not know, neither you nor your fathers;
and there you shall serve other gods day and night, where I will not show you
prophecy of Jeremiah refutes the folly of the Papists [the followers of the
Pope] who deny that they are idolaters, because they worship pictures and
statues with dulia, that is, with service (if we may so render it) and
not with latria, as though Scripture in condemning idolatry never used
51:18 “They are futile, a work of errors; In the time of their punishment
they shall perish.”
[the followers of the Pope] seem to themselves to find a way to escape when they
confess their images are not to be worshipped, but that they are books for the
unlearned. They who wish to appear more enlightened than others under the
papacy repeat the same saying, that images ought to be tolerated, because they
are the books of the ignorant. But what does the Holy Spirit, on the other
hand, declare here, and also by the Prophet Habakkuk? The Holy Spirit declares
that they are the works of falsehood, even mere snares or traps (Hab.
2:18). All, then, who seek instruction from statues or pictures gain nothing,
but rather become entangled in the snares of Satan and find nothing but lies.
And doubtless, whatever draws us away from the contemplation of the only true
God, ought justly to be deemed a counterfeit or a deception; for who by
the sight of a picture or a statue can form a right idea of the true God? Is
not the truth respecting Him thus turned into falsehood? And is not His glory
For we have
then only the true knowledge of God when we regard Him to be God alone, when we
ascribe to Him an infinite essence which fills heaven and earth, when we
acknowledge Him to be a spirit, when, in short, we know that He alone, properly
speaking, exists, and that heaven and earth, and everything they contain, exist
through His power. Can a stone or wood teach us these things? No; but on the
contrary, I am led by the stone to imagine that God is fixed and confined to a
certain place. And then the life of God, does it appear in the stone or in the
wood? Besides, what likeness has a body, and that lifeless, to an infinite
spirit? It is, then, not without reason that He complains, as it is
recorded by Isaiah, that He is thus entirely degraded: “To whom have you made Me
like? For I contain the earth in My fist, and you confine Me to wood or stone”
(Isa. 40:12, 18). If, in a word, the minds of men received no other error from
idols than the thought that God is corporeal, what can be more preposterous?”
conclusion, all the deities which the world devises for itself are false and
mere inventions of Satan, by which he deludes mankind. Doubtless no one can
courageously oppose such errors, except he who believes in the one true God.”
May all God’s people take their stand for the one, true God, and let us stand on
guard against idolatry.
Copyright © 2012 Wabash
Bible Ministries. All rights reserved.