The Worshipper Becomes the Worshipped
Man was created to worship. Even in his sinfulness, he still seeks something to worship and hold dear, for he cannot transcend the bounds of how he was created. Thus, in this present age as we groan under the curse of sin and await redemption through Christ, we easily see how man in his depravity has eagerly sought to worship other things besides God his Creator. This post will deal with some common ways in which man misdirects his worship.
Ultimately, in a certain sense, all that sinful man does is worship himself, since his pride blinds his eyes to see that he is only a creature and not a god; this was indeed the sin that Satan was also accursed by (cf. Isaiah 14, Ezek. 28). All that unredeemed men do is solely to serve their own ends and interests. Because man always has a need to worship something, he must set up something “divine” in God’s place to replace the hole left by his removal of God from the world. This is not only manifested in atheism which is merely man’s giving worship to himself, but through several other methods, as detailed below.
One key way in which men commit idolatry in failing to honor God through their worship is through their invention of false religions. These religions are man’s attempt to satisfy their deep longings for someone who is higher than them, but whom they want nothing to do with because of His holiness and consequential anger towards man’s sin - so they create other gods in their image, to serve their own needs (Isa. 44:9-20). Furthermore, since man wishes to merit his way to glory primarily by his own efforts, all these religions promote “salvation” through works rather than as the free gift of man’s Creator to man. The free grace of salvation is anathema to prideful man’s heart, for in accepting it man acknowledges that there is One greater than himself who gives him everything, not leaving any room for even a little contribution by his own hands.
Another way in which man seeks to replace God, especially in today’s world, is to lift up the State or the government as the highest end (as the builders of the Tower of Babel did in Genesis 11 and as Nebuchadnezzar did in the book of Daniel by commanding his image to be worshipped). The State becomes the hallmark of man’s progress, and to the extent that man serves the State, he sees himself as moving history forward to a triumphal climax when the work of his own hands will become supreme and perfect. The State then, in a way, becomes a god and its leaders the divine representatives of this god-force upon Earth. But in serving the State, man unwittingly surrenders his humanity and becomes fragmented and pitiful as family, friends, and local communities are swallowed up by the all-encompassing Leviathan which becomes yet another force of sin oppressing him.
The worship of Nature and of the things of creation is another way in which men seek to escape God (Rom. 1:18-25). The creation is a wonderful work of God, often so overpowering that sinful men who stare unblinkingly at it become deceived by its glory to believe that creation is all there is. Magnificent mountains, silvery streams, majestic meadows, and the vast expanse of the sea all grip the heart of men. Thus, men seek “communion” with Nature and the other creatures that inhabit it; they try to find harmony in this world, yet their chief end is still to pleasure themselves and drown out their loss of God in the soothing slumbering stupor of pantheism. In a more ordinary sense, humans also seek ultimate comfort in particular things they enjoy, whether it be their cars, their sports, their artistic endeavors, their cosmetics, or their dream careers. Even though they focus on the things of creation, they are still ultimately worshipping themselves.
Sadly, the Christian world is not exempt from the temptation to dethrone God from His proper place. Many professing Christians, of course, will not be so bold to say that God is not their Lord, but they seek to tweak “distasteful” aspects of Christianity. Heresies such as Arianism and Pelagianism grew out of both sinful man’s attempt to solve the deep mysteries of God through the powers of his own mind and his desire to contribute to his salvation by the strength of his own hands. Other, more subtle inclinations towards idolatry occur when the Church seeks to gather its practices from the culture around it instead of from God’s Word. Churches imitate a business CEO model for their governing policies, set up their order of service based upon popular music groups and the latest “entertainment” techniques, and seek to appeal to the unchurched through moralistic sermon series such as “Messages from the Movies: Becoming Braveheart - Defeating Discouragement” rather than simply and faithfully preaching the Gospel and administering the sacraments. By trying to be like the culture it is attempting to reach, the Church has effectively fallen prey to the Idol of Man and has lost its saltiness (cf. Matt. 5:13). I do realize that there is a lot of debate on this issue of outreach, proper worship, and contemporary relevance, but God’s Word is also very clear that we ought to worship according to the Lord’s commandments. It does make sense, given our fallen condition and our need for revelation to help us know God, that our worship should be governed solely by this principle, only by what is in His Word. This is called the “regulative principle of worship,” encouraging us to be faithful to God’s commandments in our order of worship because these were instituted to help us joyfully worship Him properly and respectfully (some key Scripture texts among many, which come together to form a “big picture” perspective: Ex. 20:25; Lev. 10:1-3; 1 Sam. 15:22; Matt. 15:9; Eph. 5:15-21; Col. 3:15-17; Heb. 12:28-29). There is much more that can be said here, of course, but I point you to other resources on this website about worship, and to the reading resources at the end of this post. My main point is that the temptation to idolatry in the Church is very great, and we need to faithfully guard ourselves against it - that means sticking fast to God’s Word in what it prescribes concerning worship.
Thankfully, in spite of all the ways in which man has rebelled against God, the Lord has not abandoned us. To remove the guilt which Adam’s sin laid upon us, and to fulfill Adam’s original role upon Earth, the Father sent His Son, Jesus Christ, as the Perfect Worshipper, that He might both save us and give true worship to the Father, with us alongside Him. This will be the subject of the third and final post in this series on worship.
For more resources on the subject of church worship, see R. Scott Clark’s Recovering the Reformed Confession, Ch. 6 of W. Robert Godfrey’s John Calvin: Pilgrim and Pastor, Michael Horton’s Christless Christianity, and G.K. Beale’s We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry (more academic).
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