Soul Idolatry, Or, “How Do I Discover and Destroy My Idols by Faith in Christ”
By David Clarkson
Edited by Pastor Charles R. Biggs
“For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.”
– ESV Ephesians 5:5
Do You Have Reigning or Ruling lusts?
Everything created that seeks to master your spirit and to bring your life into conformity unto it is potentially a reigning or ruling lust. Every love that is not subdued and submitted under the Lordship of Jesus Christ is a potential lust. Every desire that you have that seeks to rule you rather than to bring you delight in God is potentially a reigning or ruling lust. Every reigning or ruling lust is an idol, and every person in whom it reigns is an idolater. What are your reigning and ruling lusts?
Pleasures, and riches, and honors are the carnal man’s “trinity”, and these become gods that make men idolaters:
ESV 1 John 2:16 For all that is in the world- the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions- is not from the Father but is from the world.
In Satan’s kingdom, every one bowing himself to his lust worships it as an idol. When the mind is most taken up with an object, and the heart and the affections most set upon it, this is soul worship, and this is what is due only to God.
Secret and soul idolatry is when the mind and heart is set upon anything more than God; when anything is more valued, more trusted, more loved, etc.
According to Ephesians 5:5 (as well as Colossians 3:5 and Revelation 21:8) teaches us that soul idolatry will exclude men out of heaven as well as open idolatry. He that serves his lusts is as incapable of heaven as he that serves, worships idols of wood and stone. We must be careful as Christians, and learn to daily watch and pray. We must learn to live a life of daily repentance: Turning from the “over-desires” or inordinate loves and desires that we see seeking to master us, and influence us, and turn for grace and strength in Christ Jesus alone.
Can Christians Commit Idolatry??
Yes, but more subtly from the heart, or the soul (Prov. 4:23). The danger of soul idolatry is that we often do not notice it as easily because it is inward, from the heart, and so we fail to recognize the dangers of it as we do outward, more obvious idolatry. Many fine Christians would never bow the knee to wood and stone idols, but will bow down from their hearts or souls to other idols that are unseen, yet just as grossly idolatrous and displeasing to God (Deut. 4:19-21; James 4:1ff).
The following are the acts of soul worship so that you might prayerfully consider each one and if found an idolater in God’s sight, you might ask Him to forgive you and restore to you the joy and love of your salvation. God is always crying out to His people: “Return, O Israel…for you have stumbled because of your iniquity” (Hos. 14:1ff). Let us bring our confession to Him each day, knowing He is faithful to forgive us and restore us, and to give us new and wondrous grace to live for Him (Hos. 14:6-8; John 15:1ff; 1 Jo. 1:7; Heb. 4:14-16).
Are you an idolater? If so, remember God gives more grace in order that you might humble yourself through repentance and confess your sins to Him, knowing that He is faithful and just to forgive you and cleanse you from all unrighteousness (James 4:6ff; 1 John 1:7ff):
- Esteem: That which we most highly value we make our God. Estimation is an act of soul worship. What we most esteem we make our God such as high opinions of self, our accomplishments, what folks think of us, how we dress ourselves up before others, our possessions, etc. Whose opinions do you esteem the most? At the end of the day who has power over you to judge you “guilty” or “non-guilty”? God or other men? Who do you live your life before? Whose opinions do you “need” to make you someone important?
- Mindfulness: That which we are most mindful we make our God. What do you think about the most often? When we should be thinking about God and we’re thinking about other things, we are revealing what we love the most. Are our thoughts seeking to follow after God’s thoughts? Do you set your minds on things above where Christ is? (Col. 3:1-4).
- Intention: What is our greatest longing and goal in life? God and nothing else must be our chief end. If our chief end is to be great, safe, rich, powerful, famous, when it is our own pleasure, credit, profit, and advantage, this is soul idolatry. What do you get up each day with a mind of accomplishing and doing?
- Love: That which we most love we worship as our God. Do we love riches, possessions, family, and/or friends more, or equal with God? Love, whenever it is inordinate, it is an idolatrous affection.
- Trust: What do I trust in? Who do we trust, and/or depend upon the most? Where is our confidence? Trust God “with all of your heart” (Proverbs 3:5). Do you trust in your wisdom, strength, intellect, handgun, abilities, etc? Do you trust ultimately in riches, how much you have in your savings account and/or retirement; do you trust ultimately in your friends? Do you boast in yourself, and in your own wisdom or boast in the Lord (1 Cor. 1:29-31).
- Fear: What we fear, we worship as our God. That is our god which is our fear and dread: ESV Luke 12:4-5: “I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. 5 But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! Those therefore who fear other things more than God; who are more afraid to offend other people than to displease God; who fear more to lose outward enjoyments than to lose the favor of God and His Spirit; who fear outward suffering more than God’s displeasure and wrath.
- Hope: Ask yourself: What is my hope? Christ alone should be our hope as Christians; he is our hope and righteousness. What excites your hope each day helping you to get through the day?
- Desire: That which we chiefly desire is the chief good in our lives, and what we account as our chief good is our god. To desire anything more, or so much as the enjoyment of God, is to idolize it, to prostrate the heart to it, and worship it as God only should be worshipped. What is your heart prostrated before in worship? Pray with the Psalmist that God alone would be your chief desire: Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever (Psalm 73:25-26). Pray for the Holy Spirit to grant you not merely to “do” for God, but that you might will and desire to do good (Phil. 2:13- “to will and to work for His good pleasure”).
- Delight: Delight is an affection that in its height and elevation is called “glorying”. What do you “glory in”? To take more pleasure in any way of sin, uncleanness, temptation, intemperance, gluttony, drunkenness, earthly employments or enjoyments, than in the holy ways of God, than in those spiritual and heavenly services which we may enjoy God, is idolatry. Would you rather be “glorying” in other things (even lawful and good things) rather than worshipping God and fellowshipping with His people? How do you keep the Lord’s Day? How do you spend your money? Are you generous? The answers to these questions will reveal your idolatry or love for God alone.
- Zeal: What are we zealous for? Are we zealous for ourselves, our plans, our vacations, our dreams, our agendas more than God? Are we fervent for ourselves and our own good and glory, and indifferent, lazy, and lukewarm in our zeal for God and His Kingdom? Are we more zealous for political parties, persons and/or teachers in the church or in our communities than we are in God and His Church? Do we spend more time thining about, and planning our vacation and retirement than we do in preparing ourselves for worship of the Living God and to appear before the Judgment Seat of Christ?
- Gratitude: What are you most thankful for? Do we honor “diligence” or “luck” or “prudence” or “fortune” more than God’s goodness? In response to compliments, and/or other offering you respect do you give glory and thanksgiving to your “diligence” or your “luck” more than God?
When our care and industry (hard work) is more for other things than for God, we are idolaters. No man can serve two masters!
How Many Masters Do You Have?
When you are more careful and industrious (hard working) to please men, or yourselves, or your children and posterity, than to be serviceable, useful and faithful to God; if it is more important to you to provide for yourselves and your family more than to serve God; if you are more careful what you shall eat, drink, and wear more than how you may honor and glorify God you have a hateful and burdensome master who is not God: ESV Matthew 6:24 “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other….ESV Matthew 6:33 But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.
To live like this is to idolize the world, yourselves, your lusts, your relations, while the God of Heaven is neglected.
We must remember that the Bible defines true conversion to Christ as “turning from idols”: ESV
1 Thessalonians 1:9-10: For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.
Does this characterize your life? You have “turned to God from idols to serve…to wait for His Son…”?
Have you experienced true conversion? How do you know if your affections of your heart and your actions seek something more than God; if you’re an idolater- -how can you be assured of your knowledge and relationship to Christ?
Who then shall be saved??!!
Where is the heart in which some idol is not secretly advanced? Where it that soul that does not bow down to some lust or vanity? Where it that person that does not give that soul-worship to the creature which is due unto the Creator alone?
On the one hand, we find in Scripture that the people of God can be guilty of terrible sins such as stumbling into unforgiveness, anger, lying, drunkenness, murder, adultery, denial of Christ, and blatant idolatry itself (Abraham and the patriarchs, Noah, David, Solomon, Peter, etc). On the other hand, how can this be consistent with the state of grace when this is blatant spiritual idolatry that is offensive to God??!!
Answer: There is an aptness and still a propensity in every saint of God to be idolaters, just as much there is a propensity and aptness toward other sins. In fact, idolatry as a sin is a root and foundational sin to all the others in the heart. The corruption of our natures in Adam consists of proneness to all abominations, including idolatry.
Grace is imperfect in this life and only corrects this corruption in part. Grace weakens the disposition and desire to idolatry,but it does not completely abolish it. That is why we must be aware of it, and constantly be fighting to kill it in its first motions, and thoughts to sin. We must watch and pray that we do not fall into temptation.
It is true that those folks, those natures that are most sanctified on earth are still a seminary (seed bed) of sin; there is in them the roots, the seeds of atheism, blasphemy, murder, adultery, apostasy, and idolatry.
This disposition to idolatry remains more or less in the best, while the body of death remains. Remember the Apostle Paul’s struggle and great frustrations for his own sins (Romans 7:20-25):
Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.
Is Paul’s Struggle Familiar to You?
Is the Apostle Paul’s struggle in Romans 7 familiar to you? Do you have a fight, a conflict within your soul against sinfulness? Is your alliance with the Spirit of God warring against your flesh? Are you hopeful of being delivered by Jesus from the body of death?
Love in the regenerate still may be inordinate, therefore the other affections, desires, delights, desires, fears, zeals, etc. can give way to actual sins of idolatry in their actions.
With that said, however, we must still understand the power of Jesus Christ, and the fact that true believers have been united to Christ and take part in not only the removal of our penalty for sin, but we are empowered by God’s Spirit to live as more than overcomers (Romans 8)!
Are You Habitually Idolatrous?
The regenerate will still have a disposition toward idolatry, but they will not be guilty of habitual idolatry. The unregenerate and unbelieving are guilty of constant and habitual idolatry, but the regenerate will not be (1 Jo. 2:1-3). True Christians are not habitual idolaters; idolatry does not characterize their lives.
Believers will not yield to these idolatrous notions knowingly, willingly, constantly as unbelievers do; these idolatrous desires are not tolerated or allowed, but rather fought against because they have the Spirit that wages Holy War against the flesh (Gal. 5:16-26).
Believers resist idolatry by living watchfully, prayerfully, carefully, and fully and constantly dependent upon God’s strength and grace in Christ. True believers in Christ will resist, lament and pray against idolatry; they are neither arrogant or ignorant of their remaining sinfulness, but they know that sin shall not reign over them as their master:
ESV Romans 6:11-14: So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. 12 Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. 13 Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. 14 For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.
Are you a habitual idolater? Has arrogance made you neglectful and apathetic (see Rev. 3:14-22)? Has ignorance caused you to overlook it? Is your life privately characterized by idolatry?
Are you still a slave to sin? Does sin have dominion over you? Has it mastered you?
Begin with your private life. Begin with your heart. Ask God to search you and know you. Is your private life characterized by idolatry as sketched above? Are your hearts and minds filled with idolatry?
If you are characterized by habitual idolatry, you cannot claim the assurance of the knowledge of salvation in Jesus nor can you have assurance that you are empowered by His Spirit.
How can you be assured of your faith in Christ that it is truly a saving faith?
True believers fly to the blood of Christ for pardon; they run desperately and violently as possible to Christ and His power to overcome sin and idolatry! When believers see sin, they run to Christ to confess it.
Believers are diligent to mortify or kill their idolatry when they find it in their hearts and minds so that they can please Christ in their daily duties.
The idolatry that the saints united to Jesus are prone to is not the same as reigning, habitual idolatry of the unregenerate and the unrepentant. None are more ready to disclaim this idolatry than those who are most guilty! Those who are most guilty of idolatry reject any need from God or others.
Our proneness to idolatry is the reason why we must all be neither arrogant nor ignorant toward the remaining sin that is within us. We must seek the LORD and ask Him through watching and praying that He would deliver us more and more, and grant us a deeper repentance and trust in Jesus Christ.
The more we understand what we have been delivered from, and from what we are being delivered, and just how much it has eaten us up inside like a cancer, the more diligent we will be in exalting the grace of God found in Christ Jesus, and running to Jesus for His cleansing blood to purify and empower us over our sins.
Do you live a life of repentance, asking God to search your hearts and minds to cleanse of all of your idols?
Are you an idolater?
What is your hope?
If you realize how deeply your idolatry goes, wouldn’t it behoove you to use your time more wisely in seeking Christ, and seeking Him to make you pure as He is pure? The root to all of the believer’s fruitfulness is found in union with Jesus and we grow as behold the gracious face of God each day in our prayers and in our walk:
ESV 2 Corinthians 3:18 And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.
Our only hope is in our Savior Jesus Christ! So be strengthened by the grace that is in Jesus (2 Tim. 2:1); watch and pray that you fall not into temptation (Matt. 26:41); be strong in the LORD and in the power of His might (Eph. 6:10); resist the devil, draw near to God (James 4:6ff). Remember the words of James; if we need grace, God will grant it as we ask for it:
“…[God] gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” 7 Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8 Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 9 Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.”
Let us pray together for a closer, more committed walk with the Living God by His Spirit!
Dear Lord and Father, help me to watch and pray against idolatry in my heart. Keep my heart pure and clean, and my focus fixed on Christ! Grant me grace to be self-aware of my sin, leading me to daily repentance; make me Christ-aware as I keep my the focus of my affections, feelings, emotions, will and mind on Jesus and not on my base and sinful lusts. In Jesus’s Name. Amen.
In Christ’s Love,
 The sermon is by David Clarkson (1622-86), entitled ‘Soul Idolatry Excludes Men from Heaven’ (from Works of David Clarkson, Vol. 2, Banner of Truth Trust). Clarkson was a ministerial colleague of John Owen, and the minister who preached and ministered to Owen’s flock after John Owen’s death (yes, Pastor Clarkson was in the shadows of a greater man—but both were great men!).