A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas before the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper on June 2, 2019.
And God spoke all these words, saying, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments (Exodus 20:1–6).
The first and second commandments presume that every human being is innately a worshiper. If we must be commanded to have no other gods before God, and if we must be commanded not to create and worship an idol, then the presumption is that our sinful heart will seek to do just that. Therefore, the second commandment is not merely an isolated prohibition against idolatry but is protection to free us to do what we were created to do, namely to worship God.
The fact that our Self-revealing God has given us His special revelation in the holy Scriptures and codified His Moral Law in the Ten Commandments and specifically commanded us not to worship idols, reveals to us that God is quite particular about worship. This of course flies in the face of the notion that all religions (or even good intentions) unite into one God. There is only one living and true God but many false gods.
Likewise, there is true worship and there is false worship, and the distinction is found in what the one true God has revealed in His Word. For this reason, and at the risk of sounding elementary, if we are commanded neither to create nor worship idols, it is imperative that we worship the right God. So also, He has given us His Word that we may worship the right God rightly. And, as He has commanded to worship the right God rightly, we must do so resolutely.
Worship the Right God
The Ten Commandments are not a random assembly of truisms; they are precise, divine commandments, given with order and purpose. The first commandment is in fact primary in that the following commandments build on it. As the catechism asks, “Which is the first commandment? The first commandment is, Thou shalt have no other gods before me” (WSC 45). This is not to imply that there are actually “other gods,” for God declares of Himself, “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god” (Isa. 44:6). The Apostle Paul helpfully clarifies this distinction when he warns the church of deceiving spirits and teaching demons (1 Tim. 4:1). What may appear to be a god is in fact the minions of the devil in disguise. So, Paul can state bluntly, “an idol has no real existence,” for “there is no God but one” (1Cor. 8:4). To worship the right God then is to worship the only, living and true God.
As straight forward as this sounds, there would not be a second commandment, prohibiting the creation and worship of an idol, if there were not the temptation to worship something or someone other than the Lord our God. The Prophet Isaiah asks, “Who fashions a god or casts an idol that is profitable for nothing?” He describes how an ironsmith uses his God-given knowledge, strength, and tools to fashion an idol to worship. Likewise, the carpenter cuts down the tree of God’s creation and then meticulously crafts an image of finite man. Having fashioned his idol, he then warms himself by the fire burning the very same wood; and then he falls prostrate in worship before his whittled image, praying: “Deliver me, for you are my god!” With no discernment and eyes closed to his idolatry, he will not say, he cannot say, “Is there not a lie in my right hand?” (Isa. 44:9-20).
Let us not be so arrogant to think that modern man has evolved out of such debauchery. Calvin is right when he describes the human heart as a perpetual idol factory (Institutes, I. xi. 8). In our age of idolatry we have merely become more sophisticated in our fashioning. Rather than the carpenter’s carved image, we carry devices that provide a cornucopia of idols. Why settle for a whittled statue of man when we can feed our worship of beauty, sex, power, and wealth at 25 mbps? Just as Israel craved the golden calf to worship at the base of Mount Sinai, so we crave the golden calves of our age. Why is this?
In his book Competing Spectacles: Treasuring Christ in the Media Age, Tony Reinke explains, “Idols mediate a promise or hope or offering of joy that is God-like. …Idols move the sinful human heart from craft to worship. This is how idolatry works. Idols always ask for something from us” (116). Our idols demand our devotion and therefore our worship, whether we call it worship or not. Confronting our idolatry is also not as simple as a digital detox. You can remove yourself from the digital age, isolate yourself in an empty cabin in the woods, and your sinful heart will find something to worship other than the one true God. We are professional idolaters! No, we must first acknowledge our idolatry, prayerfully discerning the ways that our sinful heart has carefully carved idols for worship.
Having acknowledged our idolatry, we must confess it as sin: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). For by God’s grace through faith in Christ we walk obediently in His Spirit, hearing clearly the call to worship: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one” (Deut. 6:4). Idolatry, however, is not just worshiping the wrong god, but it is also worshiping the wrong way. Therefore, we are to worship the right God and to worship Him rightly. How do we worship God rightly?
Worship God Rightly
From the call to worship that “The LORD our God, the LORD is one” flows the devotion of worship: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut. 6:4-5). Worshiping rightly begins with right devotion, an all-encompassing love for God. As Augustine prayed, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you” (Confessions, I. 1). But what is to guide our devotion? How should we then worship? We worship God rightly sola scriptura, by Scripture alone.
The Holy Spirit opens our ears to hear from what our Scottish ancestors referred to as “the mouth of God” (Scots Confession), for “All Scripture is breathed out by God” (2 Tim. 3:16). Consider the intricate details of Old Covenant worship. Large portions of our Old Testament canon are dedicated to the God-ordained, intricately-detailed means of worship. Worship was not left up to individual discretion but was dictated by God. So important was worship according to God’s Word that God killed the sons of Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, for inappropriately worshiping Him. Worshiping the right God rightly meant worshiping Him precisely as He revealed, not according to our whims or fads.
Worship in the New Covenant, in which the Old Covenant worship practices were fulfilled in Christ, is significantly less in detail but no less explicit. Our catechism summarizes the means of New Covenant worship as the “outward and ordinary means…especially the Word, sacraments, and prayer” (WSC 88). Through the reading, singing, and preaching of the Word, we worship the right God rightly. Through the hymns, psalms, and prayers of God’s people, we worship the right God rightly. Through the sign and seal of baptism we worship the right God rightly. And, through the Lord’s Supper, reverently partaken, we worship the right God rightly.
In an age where the ordinary means of grace are displaced by the seemingly extraordinary means of idolatry, we need to consistently fast from the worldly that we may feast on the heavenly. When reading and meditating on God’s Word, when sitting under the preaching of God’s Word becomes boring to you, know that your spiritual appetite has been lessened by idol worship. When you would rather skip Lord’s Day worship than assemble with the saints, know that your devotion has been displaced by idol worship. When witnessing a baptism becomes merely a utilitarian function of church membership to you, know that your perspective has been clouded by idol worship. When your prayer life is non-existent or as dry as the late-summer grass, know that the vitality of your communion has been drained by idol worship. When you fail to come to the Lord’s table regularly or to come with no appetite for the spiritual nourishment of Christ, know that your appetite has been lost to idol worship.
You may find my accusations too strong and presumptuous, but my conviction is that many of us are engaged in idolatry without even realizing it, and therefore we need to begin by acknowledging it and our susceptibility to it. And, one of the indications for determining this is your attitude and faithfulness in the ordinary means of grace worship of the Lord our God.
Worship God Resolutely
How then do we fight against the seemingly-pervasive temptation of idolatry? First, we look to the grace of the gospel: “And God spoke all these words, saying, ‘I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.’” We worship a redeeming God. Just as the Lord redeemed Israel from the Egyptian house of slavery so He has redeemed us from our sin: “In [Christ] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace” (Eph. 1:7).
Second, by virtue of the grace of the gospel, we live as if we were crucified, along with our idols. We declare, in union with Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). Crucified Christians don’t worship idols. Why? Because we are dead to worshiping dead things (Rom. 6:2).
Third, by virtue of the grace of the gospel and being crucified with Christ, we set our minds on heaven because we have been spiritually resurrected for it. As Paul explained to the Colossians, “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Col. 3:1-2). We do not seek out or set our minds on the worthless worldly but on the priceless heavenly.
Fourth, and finally, this returns us to the second commandment and the matter of worship. We are commanded not to create or worship idols, and by God’s grace through faith in Christ He has freed us from the sin of idolatry and enabled us by His Holy spirit to worship Him, and Him alone, in spirit and in truth (John 4:24). In other words, in Christ we are able to do the very thing we were created to do—glorify God and enjoy Him forever. In Christ, we are freed to have no other gods before Him. In Christ, we are freed from idol worship.
God has graciously given us in this life His ordinary means of grace, of Word, sacrament, and prayer to worship Him. In this context, we may think of them as anti-idolatry means. For example, God is using at this moment the reading and preaching of His Word to convict us of our idolatry, point us to the gospel of Christ, and direct us in right worship of God. Following the preaching we will pray for ourselves and others asking to be delivered from our idols, to be strengthened in Christ, and to glorify God in our lives and worship. Following our prayer in word and song, we will celebrate the Lord’s Supper, in which we will turn our eyes away from the visual idols of our day and look up to the ordinary elements of the bread and cup. As we consider the crucifixion of our Lord in His righteous body and atoning blood, we rejoice in His resurrection as He nourishes us by His Spirit.
In the sacrament we look not to the golden calf of our idolatry but to an empty cross, a vacant tomb, the Lord Jesus Christ seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty. And by the Holy Spirit present in this communion meal, we worship truly through this means of grace. By His Spirit we worship resolutely; according to His Word we worship rightly; by His grace we worship the right God, the one and only living and true God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.