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Warning #8 to the Church- Idolatry

Written by: Ryle, J.C.    Posted on: 04/09/2003

Category: Sermons

Source: CCN


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have been consistently recognized, and their usefulness and impact have continued to the present day, even in the outdated English of the author's own day.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.                                                   Tony Capoccia

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

                                Idolatry                                   by                               J. C. Ryle                               (1816-1900)

              "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 idolatry."

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 idolatry. 

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 idol."

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 idolatry."

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 second.

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 "idolatry."

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 cause.

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 Gospel.

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 Testament.

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 Church.

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 1:47).

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 made. 

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