Martin Luther and Tim Keller on Idolatry

We are reading G.K. Beale’s new book on idolatry as a church staff, and I am leading a Thursday morning group with Tim Keller’s, Counterfeit Gods; so I have this on my mind. Here are some thoughts from my reading thus far.

In his The Large Catechism, Martin Luther teaches on the Ten Commandments where he answers the question, “What is God?” This is his answer:

A god is that to which we look for all good and in which we find refuge in every time of need. To have a god is nothing else than to trust and believe him with our whole heart. As I have often said, the trust and faith of the heart alone make both God and and idol. If your faith and trust are right, then your God is the true God. On the other hand, if your trust is false and wrong, then you have not the true God. For these two belong together, faith and God. That to which your heart clings and entrusts itself is, I say, really your God.

Luther’s point is well taken! Idolatry is not so obvious – at least to the idolater. It is subtle – especially, when it is disguised in the heart and not manifested in the physical worship of an object. Tim Keller talks about this in Counterfeit Gods where he points to the idol worship of the west – in the form of money, sex, and power.

An element of Keller’s thesis is rooted in Alexis de Tocqueville’s critique of America (as Keller points out). When the latter toured the United States in the 1830s, he recognized a “strange melancholy that haunts the inhabitants . . . in the midst of abundance.” Alexis de Tocqueville observed that Americans believed that prosperity could satisfy their yearning for happiness, but he knew that “the incomplete joys of this world will never satisfy [the human] heart.” Perhaps, “the strange melancholy manifests in many ways,” Keller remarks, but it “always lead to despair of not finding what is sought.”

When we take the “incomplete joy of this world” and build our lives around it, it will inevitably lead to despair – because those things never satisfy. When we do that – that is, place our hope in creation and look for ultimate satisfaction in it, that becomes idolatry; whatever form “that” is in our lives!  Luther’s point is true – “That to which your heart clings and entrusts itself is, I say, really your God.” It can manifest itself in money, health, family, and even church. Anythings other than Christ is but a shadow. All things in this world – viewed properly – should point us to our ultimate satisfaction: God!

So, to what do our heart cling? Where is our hope? Something to ponder.

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6 thoughts on “Martin Luther and Tim Keller on Idolatry

  1. If we had the wherewithall to honestly look at ourselves, we would certainly have to acknowledge how much of our daily lives are entrusted to idols; many which have crept in disguised as conveniences and acceptable. I believe recognizing the lessor gods and dismantling them will require a radical overhaul of our very beings. The question is not whether it is possible, but how long will it take to make the true and living God our only God? If, we are actually even desirous of that level of intimacy, and are we willing to make the sacrifices?

  2. I love when someone can articulate into words what I have known and felt in my core being for so long. Thanks for reminding me once again, that are sojourners and this is not our home…

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