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Core Christianity: Tough Questions Answered

The Idol of Self and the Gospel

by Adriel Sanchez posted March 22, 2021

The apostle John concluded his first letter with a warning that sounds foreign to modern ears: “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21). In biblical times, idol worship was a part of society. The Greco-Roman world had a plethora of gods to adore, fashioned from wood, stone, and metal. During the Old Testament era, Israel was frequently warned about the dangers of idolatry. The gods of the surrounding nations threatened to displace the true God of heaven and earth, and if you’re familiar with the history of Israel, they often did.

How are modern people to flee from idolatry, though? The Protestant Reformer Martin Luther defined idolatry in this way: “Whatever your heart clings to and relies upon, that is your God; trust and faith of the heart alone make both God and idol.” In other words, idols aren’t just little figurines we burn incense to; they can even be ideas or feelings. We can idolize power, pleasure, success, or security.[1]

There’s one idol that the modern person is especially enamored with, though, and that is the idol of self. In former days, men and women looked outside of themselves for answers, to the gods of wood, stone, and metal. Today, our ultimate authority and object of worship lies within. It’s the human heart. In the last several hundred years there has been a significant shift inward when it comes to how people think about identity and authority. Historian Carl Trueman writes,

Few, if any of us, are likely to argue that our own moral views are simply based on our emotional preferences. But the latter seems today to offer a good way of understanding how most people actually live their lives. “It just feels right,” “I know in my heart it is a good thing,” and other similar stock phrases are familiar to us all, and all point to the subjective, emotional foundation of so much ethical discussion today.[2]

So many people today worship the mutable god of their own feelings, placing us at the center of worship.

Growing up, my favorite museum to visit was The Museum of Man in San Diego’s Balboa Park. Not long ago I was visiting with my own children when I learned that, after many years, the museum had decided to change its name to The Museum of Us. The renaming was the museum’s attempt at inclusivity, but it placed us–me–at the center of the study of humanities. The modern person has exchanged the worship of cows, birds, and stars with the worship of the self. We claim for ourselves the central status, believing that all the people around us should provide for our individual happiness. When we aren’t worshipped by others, and if they fail to give us the glory that is due to our name, we punish them with the wrath of the gods. Our own wrath.

Biblically speaking, there’s something especially wicked about the sovereignty of self. The prophet Jeremiah was told by the LORD in Jeremiah 16:10-12,

And when you tell this people all these words, and they say to you, ‘Why has the Lord pronounced all this great evil against us? What is our iniquity? What is the sin that we have committed against the Lord our God?’ then you shall say to them: ‘Because your fathers have forsaken me, declares the Lord, and have gone after other gods and have served and worshiped them, and have forsaken me and have not kept my law, and because you have done worse than your fathers, for behold, every one of you follows his stubborn, evil will, refusing to listen to me.

In essence, God says, “You’ve made your own heart the idol!” The warning to Israel here should cause those who submit to the authority of their feelings to tremble. In God’s eyes, do you know what’s worse than bowing down before a golden calf, or lighting incense to an image of Buddha? When you follow your own stubborn heart and refuse to listen to God’s word. When you become the object of worship–the idol.

How do we challenge the self-idolization that so permeates modern society, and even our own hearts? We begin by looking outside of ourselves to the God who emptied himself. The answer to the self-sovereignty of today is found in Paul’s letter to the Philippians:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Phil. 2:5-8)

The Christian gospel stands in direct antithesis to modern idolatry, but it’s also its only antidote. It lifts our eyes from the self to the savior, Jesus. By laying down his life, Jesus paid for our idolatry and taught us to lay our lives down instead of worshipping them (John 15:13). Christianity invites us to look outside of ourselves in order to find God, and that’s actually a huge comfort. When morality and religious belief are founded on our feelings, they become unstable. We find ourselves needing others to affirm our “truth” or feelings in order to give us assurance. In contrast, Christianity gives us God’s affirmation in Jesus so that we’re free to serve our neighbors instead of demand they worship or affirm us.

[1] Timothy Keller helpfully unpacks this idea in his book, Counterfeit Gods.

[2] Carl Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self (Wheaton: Crossway, 2020),87.

Photo of Adriel Sanchez

Adriel Sanchez

Adriel Sanchez is pastor of North Park Presbyterian Church, a congregation in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). In addition to his pastoral responsibilities, he also serves the broader church as a host on the Core Christianity radio program, a live, daily call-in talk show where he answers listeners' questions about the Bible and the Christian faith. He and his wife Ysabel live in San Diego with their four children.

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