“Then 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 an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments’” (Exodus 20:1-6).
We’ve been in Heidelberg Catechism, questions 92-95, these last two weeks in our family devotion. Q.95 in particular has had my attention because of a conversation I had this week:
“95. Q. What is idolatry? A. Idolatry is having or inventing something in which to put our trust instead of, or in addition to, the only true God Who has revealed Himself in His Word.”
A church member asked me what Scripture I’d read to an unbeliever if I had a chance. My initial response was John 3 (verse 16 in particular). Her husband had suggested the same verse, but she was concerned that there was no clear call to repentance in the verse (repentance being the command of the Gospel, Matthew 3:2; 4:17; Mark 1:15; 6:12; Luke 13:3,5; 24:47; Acts 2:38; 3:19; 17:30; 20:21; 26:20). Further, she had an unbelieving co-worker who used the first phrase of the verse (“God so loved the world”) to claim she was loved of God and was good enough to go to heaven because of her works.
I advised her to ask one question about John 3:16. We must ask why God had to give His Son. The scriptural answer is, of course, because there had to be a sacrifice in our place so that those who believe could inherit eternal life. Quite the opposite of affirming our worth or goodness, John 3:16 logically requires we realize just how sinful we are – it took God the Father punishing His willing Son in our place to save us. Only the most extreme, radical act could save us. That’s how dire our situation is outside of repentant trust in Jesus Christ alone for our salvation.
The first two commandments and Heidelberg Catechism Q.95 identify the problem: authority. This unbeliever’s misuse of John 3:16 makes her guilty of violating the first two commandments. It’s ironic that, in this age where individuals all think themselves gods who speak reality into being, we ignore God’s own self-revelation. We think God is as we imagine and speak Him to be, regardless of what He has said about Himself. Our society would not tolerate that in any other context. Only God loses His right to self-identify.
Heidelberg Catechism Q.95 ends with the all-important phrase “the only true God Who has revealed Himself in His Word.” It doesn’t matter what you think or imagine Him to be. He has explicitly told us Who He is “to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways [the Old Testament], in these last days has spoken to us in His Son [revealed in the apostolic witness of the New Testament], Whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world. And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power” (Hebrews 1:1-3).
We imagine a god who looks just like us, thinks just like us, and is in whatever image we speak him to be. We make ourselves authority over his being. This is a violation of the first commandments, and this transgression is enough to make us guilty forever.
Unbelievers know this to be true, and I can prove they know it. A twisting of this reality is manifesting itself in a culture where the greatest sin is to not accept what someone says about themselves in their self-identifying. Unbelievers, as part of creation, inherently have knowledge of the Creator. In their sin and rebellion, however, they take this knowledge and twist it, replacing God with their own fantasy: “…since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures” (Romans 1:20-23). It doesn’t matter how “good” a person is, they are violating the first two commandments. It is impossible to have a right relationship with God (or to enter into His eternal presence of bliss) if you are ignoring His self-identification and have replaced Him with a god of your own imagination. He has identified Himself, His character, His works, and His will clearly in His Word. What gives you the right to ignore Him and reimagine Him in your own image?
In this day, it is a cultural sin to deny someone’s self-identification – you become rejected, labelled, and often unemployable. The first commands, given by God concerning Himself, have been reallocated by our society to its preferred god: the absolute individual.
“…You thought that I was just like you; I will reprove you and state the case in order before your eyes” (Psalm 50:21).
Repent of this, dear friends. His mercy is unending and free to those who turn from their rebellion against His Word and come to Him through faith in His Son. Yes, “God so loved the world” (John 3:16). Why did this necessitate Him giving “His only-begotten Son”? I suggested to the church member that she share from Romans 5 with this unbeliever if she got the chance: “…while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly…God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. And not only this, but we also exult in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through Whom we have now received the reconciliation” (Romans 5:6-11). Of course, there are a lot of other places to further explain the love of God rightly (I’m always stunned by the title “Him Who justifies the ungodly,” Romans 4:5); each passage about God’s love, when read in context, requires us to see our own unloveliness. His love toward us is all of grace, grace, God’s sweet grace. A view of the love of God that ignores your sins and centrally posits your beauty or worth will always ignore God’s revelation of Himself and ultimately be a religion whereby you cheat Him of the glory and thanks He alone deserves.
He has revealed Himself to us; believe this revelation for His glory and your eternal joy. He alone is worthy.