Warning #8 to the Church- Idolatry
Written by: Ryle, J.C. Posted on: 04/09/2003
For more than a century, J. C. Ryle was best known for his plain and
lively writings on practical and spiritual themes. His great aim in all
his ministry, was to encourage strong and serious Christian living. But
Ryle was not naive in his understanding of how this should be done. He
recognized that, as a pastor of the flock of God, he had a responsibility
to guard Christ's sheep and to warn them whenever he saw approaching
dangers. His penetrating comments are as wise and relevant today as they
were when he first wrote them. His sermons and other writings have been
consistently recognized, and their usefulness and impact have continued
to the present day, even in the outdated English of the author's own day.
Why then should expositions already so successful and of such stature and
proven usefulness require adaptation, revision, rewrite or even editing?
The answer is obvious. To increase its usefulness to today's reader, the
language in which it was originally written needs updating.
Though his sermons have served other generations well, just as they came
from the pen of the author in the nineteenth century, they still could be
lost to present and future generations, simply because, to them, the
language is neither readily nor fully understandable.
My goal, however, has not been to reduce the original writing to the
vernacular of our day. It is designed primarily for you who desire to
read and study comfortably and at ease in the language of our time. Only
obviously archaic terminology and passages obscured by expressions not
totally familiar in our day have been revised. However, neither Ryle's
meaning nor intent have been tampered with.
All Scripture references are taken from the HOLY BIBLE: NEW INTERNATIONAL
VERSION (C) 1978 by the New York Bible Society, used by permission of
Zondervan Bible Publishers.
Warning #8 to the Church
J. C. Ryle
"Flee from idolatry" (1 Corinthians 10:14)
The text which heads this page may seem at first sight to be hardly
needed in our country. In an age of education and intelligence like
this, we might almost fancy it is waste of time to tell us to "flee from
I am bold to say that this is a great mistake. I believe that we have
come to a time when the subject of idolatry demands a thorough and
searching investigation. I believe that idolatry is near us, and about
us, and in the midst of us, to a very fearful extent. The second
commandment, in one word, is in peril. "The plague is begun."
Without further preface, I propose in this paper to consider the
following four points:
I. The definition of idolatry. WHAT IS IT?
II. The cause of idolatry. WHERE DOES IT COME FROM?
III. The form idolatry assumes in the visible Church of Christ.
WHERE IS IT?
IV. The ultimate termination of idolatry. WHAT WILL END IT?
I feel that the subject is encompassed with many difficulties. Our lot
is cast in an age when truth is constantly in danger of being sacrificed
to "toleration," "love," and "peace," falsely so-called. Nevertheless, I
cannot forget, as a clergyman, that the Church has given little or no
warnings on the subject of idolatry; and, unless I am greatly mistaken,
truth about idolatry is, in the highest sense, truth for the times.
I. Let me, then, first of all supply a definition of idolatry. Let me
show WHAT IT IS.
It is of the utmost importance that we should understand this. Unless I
make this clear, I can do nothing with the subject. Vagueness and
indistinctness prevail upon this point, as upon almost every other in
religion. The Christian who would not be continually running aground in
his spiritual voyage, must have his channel well buoyed, and his mind
well stored with clear definitions.
I say then, that
Idolatry is a worship in which the honor due to God in
Trinity, and to Him only, is given to some of His creatures,
or to some invention of His creatures.
It may vary. It may assume different forms, according to the ignorance
or the knowledge--the civilization or the barbarism, of those who offer
it. It may be grossly absurd and ludicrous, or it may closely border on
truth, and being most superficially defended. But whether in the
adoration of the idol of Juggernaut, or in the adoration of the Pope in
St. Peter's at Rome, the principle of idolatry is in reality the same.
In either case the honor due to God is turned aside from Him, and
bestowed on that which is not God. And whenever this is done, whether in
heathen temples or in professedly Christian Churches, there is an act of
It is not necessary for a man formally to deny God and Christ, in order
to be an idolater. Far from it. Professed reverence for the God of the
Bible and actual idolatry, are perfectly compatible. They have often
been done side by side, and they still do so. The children of Israel
never thought of renouncing God when they persuaded Aaron to make the
golden calf. "Here are your gods," they said, "who brought you up out of
Egypt." And the feast in honor of the calf was kept as a "festival to
the LORD (Jehovah)" (Exodus 32:4, 5).
Jeroboam, again, never pretended to ask the ten tribes to cast off their
allegiance to the God of David and Solomon. When he set up the calves of
gold in Dan and Bethel, he only said, "It is too much for you to go up to
Jerusalem. Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt"
(1 Kings 12:28).
In both instances, we should observe, the idol was not set up as a rival
to God, but under the pretense of being a help--a steppingstone to His
service. But, in both instances, a great sin was committed. The honor
due to God was given to a visible representation of Him. The majesty of
Jehovah was offended. The second commandment was broken. There was, in
the eyes of God, a flagrant act of idolatry.
Let us mark this well. It is high time to dismiss from our minds those
loose ideas about idolatry, which are common in this day. We must not
think, as many do, that there are only two sorts of idolatry--the
spiritual idolatry of the man who loves his wife, or child, or money more
than God; and the open, gross idolatry of the man who bows down to an
image of wood, or metal, or stone, because he knows no better. We may
rest assured that idolatry is a sin which occupies a far wider field than
this. It is not merely a thing in pagan lands, that we may hear of and
pity at missionary meetings; nor yet is it a thing confined to our own
hearts, that we may confess before the mercy-seat upon our knees. It is
a pestilence that walks in the Church of the Living Christ to a much
greater extent than many suppose. It is an evil that, like the man of
sin, "that sets himself up in God's temple, proclaiming himself to be
God" (2 Thessalonians 2:4).
It is a sin that we all need to watch and pray against continually. It
creeps into our religious worship unnoticed, and is upon us before we
are aware. Those are tremendous words which Isaiah spoke to the faithful
Jew--not to the worshiper of Baal, remember, to the man who actually
came to the temple (Isaiah 66:3): "Whoever sacrifices a bull is like one
who kills a man, and whoever offers a lamb, like one who breaks a dog's
neck; whoever makes a grain offering is like one who presents pig's
blood, and whoever burns memorial incense, like one who worships an
This is that sin which God has especially denounced in His Word. One
commandment out of ten is devoted to the prohibition of it. Not one of
all the ten contains such a solemn declaration of God's character, and of
His judgments against the disobedient: "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" (Exodus 20:5). Not
one, perhaps, of all the ten is so emphatically repeated and amplified,
and especially in the fourth chapter of the book of Deuteronomy.
This is the sin, of all others, to which the Jews seem to have been most
inclined before the destruction of Solomon's temple. What is the history
of Israel under their judges and kings but a sorrowful record of
repeated falling away into idolatry? Again and again we read of "high
places" and "false gods." Again and again we read of captivities and
chastisements on account of idolatry. Again and again we read of a
return to the old sin. It seems as if the love of idols among the Jews
was naturally bone of their bone and flesh of their flesh. The besetting
sin of the Old Testament Church, in one word, was idolatry. In the face
of the most elaborate ceremonial ordinances that God ever gave to His
people, Israel was incessantly turning aside after idols, and worshipping
the work of men's hands.
This is the sin, of all others, which has brought down the heaviest
judgments on the visible Church. It brought on Israel the armies of
Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon. It scattered the ten tribes, burned up
Jerusalem, and carried Judah and Benjamin into captivity. It brought on
the Eastern Churches, in later days, the overwhelming flood of the
Saracenic invasion, and turned many a spiritual garden into a wilderness.
The desolation which reigns where Cyprian and Augustine once preached,
the living death in which the Churches of Asia Minor and Syria are
buried, are all attributable to this sin. All testify to the same great
truth which the Lord proclaims in Isaiah: "I will not give my glory to
another or my praise to idols" (Isaiah 42:8).
Let us gather up these things in our minds, and ponder them well.
Idolatry is a subject which, in every Church of Christ that would keep
herself pure, should be thoroughly examined, understood, and known. It
is not for nothing that Paul lays down the stern command, "Flee from
II. Let me show, in the second place, the cause to which idolatry may be
traced. WHERE DOES IT COME FROM?
To the man who takes an extravagant and exalted view of human intellect
and reason, idolatry may seem absurd. He fancies it too irrational for
any but weak minds to be endangered by it.
To a mere superficial thinker about Christianity, the peril of idolatry
may seem very small. Whatever commandments are broken, such a man will
tell us, professing Christians are not very likely to transgress the
Now, both these persons betray a woeful ignorance of human nature. They
do not see that there are secret roots of idolatry within us all. The
prevalence of idolatry in all ages among the heathen must necessarily
puzzle the one--the warnings of Protestant ministers against idolatry in
the Church must necessarily appear uncalled for to the other. Both are
alike blind to its cause.
The cause of all idolatry is the natural corruption of man's heart. That
great family disease, with which all the children of Adam are infected
from their birth, shows itself in this, as it does in a thousand other
ways. Out of the same fountain from which "come evil thoughts, sexual
immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness,
envy, slander, arrogance and folly" (Mark 7:21, 22)--out of that same
fountain arise false views of God, and false views of the worship due to
Him, and, therefore, when the Apostle Paul tells the Galatians (Galatians
5:20) what are the "works of the flesh," he places prominently among them
Man will have some kind of a religion. God has not left Himself without
a witness in us all, fallen as we are. Like old inscriptions hidden
under mounds of rubbish--like the almost-obliterated underwriting of
Palimpsest manuscripts,* even so there is a dim something engraven at the
bottom of man's heart, however faint and half-erased--a something which
makes him feel he must have a religion and a worship of some kind. The
proof of this is to be found in the history of voyages and travels in
every part of the globe. The exceptions to the rule are so few, if
indeed there are any, that they only confirm its truth. Man's worship in
some dark corner of the earth may rise no higher than a vague fear of an
evil spirit, and a desire to appease him; but a worship of some kind
man will have.
[* "Palimpsest" is the name given to ancient parchment manuscripts which
have been twice written over, that is, the work of a comparatively modern
writer has been written over or across the work of an older writer.
Before the invention of cheap paper, the practice of writing over an
old manuscript was not uncommon. The object of the practice, of course,
was to save expense. The misfortune was that the second writing was
often far less valuable that the first.]
But then comes in the effect of the fall. Ignorance of God, carnal and
low conceptions of His nature and attributes, earthly and sensual notions
of the service which is acceptable to Him, all characterize the religion
of the natural man. There is a craving in his mind after something he
can see, and feel, and touch. He is eager to bring his God down to us
own crawling level. He would make his religion a thing of sense and
sight. He has no idea of the religion of heart, and faith, and spirit.
In short, just as he is willing to live on God's earth, until renewed by
grace, a fallen and degraded life, so he has no objection to worship
after a fashion, until renewed, by the Holy Spirit, it is always with a
fallen worship. In one word, idolatry is a natural product of man's
heart. It is a weed, which like the uncultivated earth, the heart is
always ready to bring forth.
And now does it surprise us, when we read of the constantly recurring
idolatries of the Old Testament Church, of Peor, and Baal, and Moloch,
and Chemosh, and Ashtaroth--of high places and hill altars, and groves
and images--and this in the full light of the Mosaic ceremonial? Let us
cease to be surprised. It can be accounted for. There is a cause.
Does it surprise us when we read in history how idolatry crept in by
degrees into the Church of Christ, how little by little it thrust out
Gospel truth, until, in Canterbury, men offered more at the shrine of
Thomas Becket, than they did at the shrine of the Virgin Mary, and more
at the shrine of Virgin Mary, than at the shrine of Christ? Let us cease
to be surprised. It is all intelligible. There is a cause.
Does it surprise us when we hear of men going over from Protestant
Churches to the Roman Catholic Church, in the present day? Do we think
it impossible, and feel as if we ourselves could never forsake a pure
form of worship for one like that of the Roman Catholic Church? Let us
cease to be surprised. There is a solution for the problem. There is a
That cause is nothing else but the corruption of man's heart. There is a
natural proneness and tendency in us all to give God a sensual, carnal
worship, and not that which is commanded in His Word. We are ever ready,
by reason of our laziness and unbelief, to devise visible helps and
stepping-stones in our approaches to Him, and ultimately to give these
inventions of our own the honor due to Him. In fact, idolatry is all
natural, downhill, easy, like the broad way. Spiritual worship is all of
grace, all uphill, and all against the grain. Any worship whatsoever is
more pleasing to the natural heart, than worshipping God in the way which
our Lord Christ describes, "in spirit and truth" (John 4:23).
I, for one, am not surprised at the quantity of idolatry existing, both
in the world and in the visible Church. I believe it perfectly possible
that we may yet live to see far more of it than some have ever dreamed
of. It would never surprise me if some mighty personal Antichrist were
to arise before the end--mighty in intellect, mighty in talents for
government, yes, and mighty, perhaps, in miraculous gifts too. It would
never surprise me to see such an one as him setting up himself in
opposition to Christ, and forming an Agnostic conspiracy against the
I believe that many would rejoice to do him honor, who now glory in
saying, "We will not have this Christ to reign over us." I believe that
many would make a god of him, and reverence him as an incarnation of
truth, and concentrate their idea of hero-worship on his person. I
advance it as a possibility, and no more. But of this at least I am
certain, that no man is less safe from danger of idolatry than the man
who now sneers at every form of religion; and that from unbelief to
belief, from Atheism to the grossest idolatry, there is but a single
step. Let us not think, that idolatry is an old-fashioned sin, into
which we are never likely to fall. "So, if you think you are standing
firm, be careful that you don't fall!" We shall do well to look into our
own hearts: the seeds of idolatry are all there. We should remember the
words of Paul, "Flee from idolatry."
III. Let me show, in the third place, the forms which idolatry has
assumed, and does assume in the visible Church. WHERE IS IT?
I believe there never was a more baseless fabric than the theory which
obtains favor with many--that the promises of perpetuity and preservation
from apostasy, belong to the visible Church of Christ. It is a theory
supported neither by Scripture nor by facts. The Church against which
"the gates of Hades will not overcome," is not the visible Church, but
the whole body of the elect, the company of true believers out of every
nation and people. The greater part of the visible Church has frequently
maintained gross heresies. The particular branches of it are never
secure against deadly error, both of faith and practice. A departure
from the faith--a falling away--a leaving of first love in any branch of
the visible Church, need never surprise a careful reader of the New
That idolatry would arise, seems to have been the expectation of the
Apostles, even before the canon of the New Testament was closed. It is
remarkable to observe how Paul dwells on this subject in his Epistle to
the Corinthians. If any Corinthian called a brother an idolater, with
such a man the members of the Church were not to even eat with
(1 Corinthians 5:11). "Do not be idolaters, as some of them were"
(1 Corinthians 10:7). He says again, in the text which heads this paper,
"My dear friends, flee from idolatry" (1 Corinthians 10:14). When he
writes to the Colossians, he warns them against the "worshipping of
angels" (Colossians 2:18). And John closes his first Epistle with the
solemn injunction, "Dear children, keep yourselves from idols" (1 John
5:21). It is impossible not to feel that all these passages imply an
expectation that idolatry would soon arise, among professing Christians.
The last passage I will call attention to, is the conclusion of the ninth
chapter of Revelation. We there read, at the twentieth verse: "The rest
of mankind that were not killed by these plagues still did not repent of
the work of their hands; they did not stop worshiping demons, and idols
of gold, silver, bronze, stone and wood--idols that cannot see or hear or
walk." Now, I am not going to offer any comment on the chapter in which
this verse occurs. I know well there is a difference of opinion as to
the true interpretation of the plagues predicted in it. I only venture
to assert, that it is the highest probability these plagues are to fall
upon the visible Church of Christ; and the highest improbability, that
John was here prophesying about the heathen, who never heard the Gospel.
And this once conceded, the fact that idolatry is a predicted sin of the
visible Church, does seem most conclusively and forever established.
And now, if we turn from the Bible to facts, what do we see? I reply
unhesitatingly, that there is unmistakable proof that Scripture warnings
and predictions were not spoken without cause, and that idolatry has
actually arisen in the visible Church of Christ, and does still exist.
The rise and progress of the evil in former days, we shall find well
summed up in the sermon "Peril of Idolatry." To that I beg to refer
all Christians, reminding them once for all, how, even in the fourth
century, Jerome complains, "that the false doctrine of images have come
in, and passed to the Christians from the Gentiles;" and Eusebius says,
"We do see that images of Peter and Paul, and of our Savior Himself are
made, which I think to have been derived and kept indifferently by an
heathenish custom." There we may also read,
1. How Pontius Paulinus, Bishop of Nola, in the fifth century, caused the
walls of the temples to be painted with stories taken out of the Old
Testament; that the people beholding and considering these pictures might
the better abstain from too much excess in their lives. But from
learning by painted stories, it came little by little to become idolatry.
2. How Gregory the first, Bishop of Rome, in the beginning of the seventh
century, allowed images in the churches.
3. How Irene, mother of Constantine the Sixth, in the eighth century,
assembled a Council at Nicaea, and procured a decree that images should
be put up in all the churches of Greece, and that honor and worship
should be given to the images.
And there we may read the conclusion with which the sermon winds up its
historical summary, "that the congregation and the clergy, learned and
unlearned, all ages, sorts, and degrees of men, women and children of
whole Christendom, have been at once drowned in abominable idolatry, of
all other vices most detested by God, and most damnable to man, and that
in the space of 800 years and more."
This is a mournful account, but it is only too true. There can be little
doubt the evil began even before the time just mentioned by the sermon
writer. No man, I think, need wonder at the rise of idolatry in the
Early Church who considers calmly the excessive reverence which it paid,
from the very first, to the visible parts of religion. I believe that no
impartial man can read the language used by nearly all the Fathers about
the Church, the bishops, the ministry, baptism, the Lord's Supper, the
martyrs, the dead saints generally--no man can read it without being
struck with the wide difference between their language and the language
of Scripture on such subjects. You seem at once to be in a new
atmosphere. You feel that you are no longer treading on holy ground.
You find that things which in the Bible are evidently of second-rate
importance, are here made of first-rate importance.
You find the things of sense and sight exalted to a position in which
Paul, and Peter, and James, and John, speaking by the Holy Spirit, never
for a moment placed them. It is not merely the weakness of uninspired
writings that you have to complain of; it is something worse; it is a new
system. And what is the explanation of all this? It is, in one word.
that you have got into a region where the malaria of idolatry has begun
to arise. You perceive the first workings of the mystery of iniquity.
You detect the buds of that huge system of idolatry which, as the sermon
describes, was afterwards formally acknowledged, and ultimately blossomed
in every part of Christendom.
But let us now turn from the past to the present. Let us examine the
question which most concerns ourselves. Let us consider in what form
idolatry presents itself to us as a sin of the visible Church of Christ
in our own time.
I find no difficulty in answering this question. I feel no hesitation in
affirming that idolatry never yet assumed a more glaring form than it
does in the Roman Catholic Church in this present day.
And here I come to a subject on which it is hard to speak, because of the
times we live in. But the whole truth ought to be spoken by ministers of
Christ, without respect of times and prejudices. And I should not lie
down in peace, after writing on idolatry, if I did not declare my solemn
conviction that idolatry is one of the crying sins of which the Roman
Catholic Church is guilty. I say this in all sadness. I say it,
acknowledging fully that we have our faults in the Protestant Church; and
practically, perhaps, in some quarters, a little idolatry. But from
formal, recognized, systematic idolatry, I believe we are almost entirely
free. While, as for the Roman Catholic Church, if there is not in her
worship an enormous quantity of systematic, organized idolatry, I frankly
confess I do not know what idolatry is.
(a) To my mind, it is idolatry to have images and pictures of saints in
churches, and to give them a reverence for which there is no warrant or
precedent in Scripture. And if this be so, I say there is idolatry in
the Roman Catholic Church.
(b) To my mind, it is idolatry to invoke the Virgin Mary and the saints
in glory, and to address them in language never addressed in Scripture
except to the Holy Trinity. And if this be so, I say there is idolatry
in the Roman Catholic Church.
(c) To my mind, it is idolatry to bow down to mere material things, and
attribute to them a power and sanctity far exceeding that attached to the
ark or altar of the Old Testament dispensation; and a power and sanctity,
too, for which there is not a speck of foundation in the Word of God.
And if this be so, with the holy coat of Treves, and the wonderfully-
multiplied wood of the true cross, and a thousand other so-called relics
in my mind's eye, I say there is idolatry in the Roman Catholic Church.
(d) To my mind, it is idolatry to worship that which man's hands have
made--to call it God, and adore it when lifted up before our eyes. And
if this be so, with the notorious doctrine of transubstantiation, and
the elevation of the host in my recollection, I say there is idolatry in
the Roman Catholic Church.
(e) To my mind, it is idolatry to make ordained men mediators between
ourselves and God, robbing, as it were, our Lord Christ of His office,
and giving them an honor which even Apostles and angels in Scripture
flatly repudiate. And if this be so, with the honor paid to Popes and
Priests before my eyes, I say there is idolatry in the Roman Catholic
I know well that language like this jars the minds of many. Men love to
shut their eyes against evils which is disagreeable. They will not see
things which involve unpleasant consequences. That the Roman Catholic
Church is an erring church, they will acknowledge. That she is
idolatrous, they will deny.
They tell us that the reverence which the Roman Catholic Church gives to
saints and images does not amount to idolatry. They inform us that there
are distinctions between the worship of "latria" and "dulia,"* between a
mediation of redemption, and a mediation of intercession, which clear her
of the charge. My answer is, that the Bible knows nothing of such
distinctions; and that, in the actual practice of the great bulk of Roman
Catholics, they have no existence at all.
[*"latria" and "dulia" are two Greek words, both meaning "worship or
service," but the former being a much stronger word than the latter.
The Roman Catholic admits that the worship of "latria" may not be given
to saints, but maintain that "dulia" may be given.]
They tell us, that it is a mistake to suppose that Roman Catholics really
worship the images and pictures before which they perform acts of
adoration; that they only use them as helps to devotion, and in reality
look far beyond them. My answer is, that many a heathen could say just
as much for his idolatry--that it is well-known, in former days, they did
say so--and that in Hindostan many idol-worshippers do say so at the
present day. But the apology does not help. The terms of the second
commandment are too stringent. It prohibits "bowing down," as well as
worshipping. And the very anxiety which the Roman Catholic Church has
often displayed to exclude that second commandment from her catechisms,
is of itself a great fact which speaks volumes to a candid observer.
They tell us that we have no evidence for the assertions we make on this
subject; that we found our charges on the abuses which prevail among the
ignorant members of the Roman Catholic Church; and that it is absurd to
say that a Church containing so many wise and learned men, is guilty of
idolatry. My answer is, that the devotional books in common use among
Roman Catholics supply us with unmistakable evidence. Let any one
examine that well known book, "The Garden of the Soul," if he doubts my
assertion, and read the language there addressed to the Virgin Mary. Let
him remember that this language is addressed to a woman, who, though
highly favored, and the mother of our Lord, was yet one of our
fellow-sinners--to a woman, who actually confesses her need of a Savior
for herself. She says, "My spirit rejoices in God my Savior" (Luke
Let him examine this language in the light of the New Testament, and then
let him tell us fairly, whether the charge of idolatry is not correctly
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