The Problems of Worldly Worship

A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on June 20, 2021.

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 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. 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 1:18– 23).[1]

On a June day in 1842, George Holyoake was arrested, handcuffed, and escorted to the Gloucester jail. His arrest was not unexpected. Known publicly as the editor of the Oracle of Reason and notoriously as a self-professing atheist, Holyoake’s crime was his unbelief, or more precisely his public profession of it. Holyoake’s case moved swiftly to trial with the prosecution confident in his conviction. He had not hidden his atheism nor his disdain for the Christian religion. An articulate intellectual, Holyoake served as his own legal counsel resulting in a reasoned defense, plenty of publicity, and a guilty verdict. He was convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to six months in prison.

After a brutal and inhumane prison sentence, as if incensed, Holyoake vigorously defended his atheism and began to proselytize with religious fervency. He sought to reveal what he perceived to be the irrationality of Christianity by championing a rationalism, life “guided by reason and regulated by science.”[2] He would call his belief by a new name, “secularism.”

Drawing from the ideas of the Enlightenment, Holyoake believed that secularism was man’s rescue from religion, a liberation where science not God offered salvation. As such, Holyoake established seven foundational principles of his new-founded secularism: That God is unknown. That a future life is unprovable. That the Bible is not a practical guide. That Providence sleeps. That prayer is futile. That original sin is untrue. That eternal perdition is unreal.

The irony of Holyoake’s principles is that they are less defining of what secularism is and more about Holyoake’s bias against the essential doctrines of Christianity. While he supposedly neither affirmed nor denied God’s existence, he mocked the inspiration of scripture arguing instead for the providence of science, the holy word of empiricism. The salvation of secularism promised a moral reformation, a new birth of man-made in the image of man.[3]

Yet, as original as Holyoake considered his belief, there is indeed nothing new under the sun (Eccl. 1:9). Regardless of what you call it, human beings will always worship something, because we are all inherently worshipers. And what do worshipers worship apart from God’s grace? Evidently, everything but God.

This is in essence what Paul explains to the church. Apart from God’s grace the world will worship mortal man or animals, artists or the arts, athletes or athletics, politicians or politics, entertainers or entertainment, the sexy or sex. The list is seemingly unending, because our hearts are perpetual idol factories. And so, we worship at the altar of worldly worship, as willing and faithful adherents. The problem is worldly worship comes with inherent problems, as does anything that is not rooted in the truth of God. And while not an exhaustive description, Paul summarizes these problems in our passage, which I have organized into five points. I call them the five problems of worldly worship.

Problem #1: Worldly worship misses our biggest problem

What is the biggest problem in the world today? You won’t hear it on the news or discussed in public dialogue. Many would even deny its existence or at least its relevance. And yet, it is a real, clear, and present danger for all who do not believe: Apart from Christ, we are all under the wrath of God. I like the way one commentator defines this wrath as, “The divine Judge’s righteous retribution and personal revulsion evoked by moral evil.”[4] And Paul says that this righteous retribution and revulsion is revealed (present tense) “against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.”

Why is this our biggest problem? Because, it is against not some but “all ungodliness,” connoting the perversion of God’s truth, every bit of it without distinction, and “unrighteousness,” meaning thoughts, words, and deeds morally distinct from the perfect righteousness of God. Used together, ungodliness and unrighteousness are like hand and glove. What we believe or do not believe about God ultimately impacts how we live. And apart from God’s grace in Christ, how we live warrants and welcomes, in this very moment, the wrath of God. 

Note that neither ungodliness nor unrighteousness is defined relative to an individual person’s belief or sin but by contrast. The standard of godliness and righteousness is never the sinner but God. Sin never reveals the righteousness of God, only his wrath, and anything contrary to his holiness is an offense. As the psalmist puts it, “God is a righteous judge, and a God who feels indignation every day” (Ps. 7:11). God feels indignation every day toward the sins of humanity! So, the first problem with worldly worship is it misses our biggest problem: Sin warrants God’s wrath.

Problem #2: Worldly worship suppresses the truth

Liars do not want to be lied to, yet we are all liars. As every human being is made in the image of God, though fallen we continue to carry aspects and attributes of God. One of these is a desire for truth. Everyone wants to know the truth; no one welcomes a lie. But we are professionals at telling them, even to ourselves.

Of course, if we were perfectly godly and righteous, like God, this would not be the case. We are neither and not. Therefore, our ungodliness and unrighteousness suppresses, or stifles, the truth about God. It’s not that we don’t know it, yet we willingly suppress it.

The truth is there is objective, observable truth about God right before our eyes. As we look to the sky, there is truth; as we look to the earth, there is truth: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge” (Ps. 19:1-2). We are surrounded by the truth about God.

Yet, apart from God’s grace, the earth and sky to do not lead us to saving belief. At best, they may encourage theism, but we do not hear the gospel in the rustling wind or babbling brook. We do not see the gospel in the sky or on the land, not because the testimony of the one true God isn’t there, but because our ungodliness and unrighteousness suppress it. Therefore, the world worships in vain everything but the one, true God, suppressing the truth about him.

Problem #3: Worldly worship denies the evident

The truth about God is not hidden but is evidenced in creation, in plain sight, to be received through sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste. God is not hidden from anyone, as if he may be known only by the curious but has revealed himself in the general revelation of the heavens and earth.

There are invisible attributes of God, indeed, but they may be perceived. When Adam and Eve looked to the beauty of the garden, they did not consider its beauty an end in itself but in it saw the truth about God, such as his eternal power and divine nature. It would take the colossal, cosmic catastrophe of the Fall to deny the obvious.

Such is the dilemma that worldly worship reveals. We think we perceive clearly, but we do not. Unless the Lord gives us eyes to see, our sin nature blinds us to the truth about God. Though we claim the wisdom of a god, we are fools, exchanging the truth about God for a perversion of it. The problem is neither God’s eternal power nor his divinity but our denial of the evident.

Problem #4: Worldly worship breeds dishonor and ingratitude

Denying the evident, however, does not inhibit our worship, not of him, but everything made by him. Rather than looking through creation with gratitude and honor to God, we celebrate the gifts over the Giver. We enjoy the daily bread of God’s common grace, satisfying ourselves on his provision without regard for our Provider, and so dishonor him. In him we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28) taking for granted that he upholds the universe by the word of his power (Heb. 1:3), revealing our ingratitude.

In our very beings, as men and women made in the image of God, we carry a knowledge of him. Yet, our ungodliness leads us to deny God’s existence or to disregard his care. Likewise, our unrighteousness encourages us to fashion a god after our own image, one whom we will honor and to whom we will give thanks from the bottom of our sinful hearts. If our hearts are a perpetual idol factory, they perpetually dishonor and deny thanks to God.

Problem #5: Worldly worship clouds the mind and fools the heart

The irony is that as human beings we believe we are evolving into a better species, growing wiser with each passing millennium. Human history tells another story. Since the Fall, the most consistent human characteristic is not evolution or even improvement but sin, in thought, word, and deed.

Fallen in sin, as human beings we are not blank slates to be conditionally improved, we are by nature con-artists, deceiving ourselves with a wisdom of our own concoction. We look with lust to creation, desiring to be fulfilled by what was filled. The result is a futility of mind, dumb to eternal truth, and a calloused heart, numb to the love of God. As all of creation declares the glory of God, so also all have sinned and fall short of it (Rom. 3:23). In fact, apart from God’s grace, we don’t even see it, let alone acknowledge it.

Therefore, we worship what our dumb minds and numb hearts lead us to. The world is filled with countless gods of our creation, countless idols fashioned to the specifications of our hearts and minds. Entering the temples of our devotion, sacrificing upon the altars of our celebration, satisfying our souls in the God-forsaken images of our creation, we cultivate the appetites that warrant our greatest problem. We are without excuse, bearing the wrath of God. Left to our own devices, like George Holyoake, we create our own religion, even if it is no religion at all.

Conclusion

If then as humans, we suppress the truth about God, deny its existence, dishonor God with ungrateful hearts, and are clouded in mind and foolish in heart, bearing the wrath of a holy and incensed God, what hope is there? Our only hope is that God act on our behalf. And so he has. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). And “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).

It’s not a matter of self-improvement, but a supernatural work of God through his Spirit, shining his light upon our darkened hearts, and giving us both the will and the faith to believe. Although our biggest problem is the wrath of God, Jesus said, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” (John 3:36). Therefore, even this day, believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, not only from the wrath of God but from all the problems of worldly worship. And through faith in Christ, you will be enabled to truly worship the one, true God, as he has revealed himself in creation and his Word. You will be able, with all who believe, to worship the Lord in spirit and truth.


[1] Unless referenced otherwise, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001).

[2] Andre Wakefield, ““The Theological Roots of Secular Modernism”,” in Enlightenment and Secularism: Essays On the Mobilization of Reason, ed. Christopher Nadon (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2013), 106.

[3] Ibid.

[4] R.C. Sproul, ed., The Reformation Study Bible (Orlando: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2015), 1979.

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