Five hundred years ago, God ignited a small flame in Wittenberg, Germany, and it grew into the golden blaze of the Protestant Reformation. What started in the hands of Martin Luther’s fabled hammer swings, soon became a battering ram which rung across the culture, smashing every false image of God in the cultural worship of the day.
It got messy.
Yes, it smashed images and statues and shrines and icons and relics. But these were simply outward manifestations of the invisible idols rooted in sinful hearts — idols sometimes perpetuated under the guise of “Christianity.”
The Reformers perceived the ancient expression of idol-making as simply the expression of an inner idol, a falsely placed confidence. The Protestant Reformation was a declaration of war on vain thoughts about God. And when war is declared against vain thoughts about God, war is declared on the culture’s idols.
John Calvin fought in this battle, famously writing that “Man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols.” But listen to what Calvin says a few sentences later.
Man’s mind, full as it is of pride and boldness, dares to imagine a god according to its own capacity; as it sluggishly plods, indeed is overwhelmed with the crassest ignorance, it conceives an unreality and an empty appearance as God. (Institutes, 1:108)
Nothing is more dangerous than religious confidence in a fake god of our own imagining.
Martin Luther fought this same war, writing against Rome:
The wicked say and confess . . . “I am a monk. I serve God with vows and ceremonies. Because of this he will give me eternal life.” But who tells you that you thus are worshiping the true God, when he has not commanded these things? Therefore you have made up for yourself some god who wants these things, although there is no true God who requires this or who wants to give eternal life because of this. What then are you worshiping except an idol of your own heart, whom you think the righteousness of your works pleases? (Works, 18:9–10)
Hear the unmasked lie: “I’ll be happy once I attain my spiritual security in my own meritorious deeds and vows and ceremonies.”
This claim is a false idol — a false security in the flesh — a false image of God and a false gospel and a false god altogether.
The Protestant Reformation was ignited by this confrontation with vain securities. The Reformers opposed images and statues and shrines and icons and relics. But far more central, the Reformers were aiming at the doctrinal idols, the false claims about God, and the presumptions concerning God that misled whole generations (Colossians 2:8; 2 Corinthians 10:4–5).
The Reformers drew from the first three commands to challenge this universal attraction of idols in every culture.
- Command 1 in Exodus 20:3 — Don’t follow other gods.
- Command 2 in Exodus 20:4–6 — Don’t corrupt your worship of God with vain images.
- Command 3 in Exodus 20:7 — Don’t use God’s name in vain.
The three commands are three divine warnings against vain and shallow thoughts about God.
Warning 1 forbids syncretism. Don’t think that you can mix God with your worship of idols. If you want one-third of God, and two-thirds of other idols, you get none of God. Syncretism is vain thinking about God.
Warning 2 forbids reductionism. Don’t think that you can reduce God down into something manageable that you can hold in one hand like a household idol or a little golden calf. The earth is his footstool (Isaiah 66:1). Reductionism of God is vain thinking about God.
Warning 3 forbids presumption. Don’t speak rashly of God. It is vanity to think that we can invoke God’s name to cover over our ignorance of who he really is. Presumption about God is a cloak over vain thinking about him.
At root, all the physical idols of the Old Testament lie about God. That’s all they can do: lie. Idols are birthed from lies. Thus, in turn, idols can only preach sermons of deceit to their worshipers (Habakkuk 2:18; Zechariah 10:2; Jeremiah 10:15).
And as Luther discovered in the text of Scripture, the golden calf was fashioned with a stylus, a “graving tool” originally meant to write truth about God, but instead used to shape a golden lie (Exodus 32:4).
Our Idols Today
Taking aim at the religious idols of the age would become the battlefront as the Reformers reclaimed and proclaimed the epistles of Paul to the Galatians and Romans.
Man’s heart is an idol factory, and it took an entire revolution to slow its gears. Preachers had to be trained and sent out, evangelists had to take up the call, missionaries had to sail across dark seas to unknown lands, translators had to bring Scripture into the vernacular of the people, and healthy local churches had to grow so they could serve in this war. Every believer had to resist the idol factory of their heart by filling their hearts with Christ and nourishing themselves with robust knowledge of who God has revealed himself to be in Scripture.
This was the central concern the Reformers aimed at 500 years ago. Shallow thinking about God always replaces God, and sets in his place a fraudulent idol of security or sex or wealth or power or even of religion.
Martin Luther didn’t stand alone 500 years ago. Nor does he stand alone today.
To mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we invite you to join us on a 31-day journey, beginning October 1, just 5–7 minutes each day, to meet the many heroes of the Reformation.
The sad reality is that Scripture warns us over and over that we are all idol-makers. Seven billion polytheists today cannot (and will not) stop worshiping, because they cannot stop placing their hope and future security in things. Sovereign grace must break our idolatrous impulses.
As John Calvin so famously put it: The human heart is an idol factory, churning out new idols like the conveyor belt in a manufacturing plant rolling out new widgets. Viral idols gush out of fallen hearts and flood every nook and cranny of media in our culture — in social media, television, music, movies, and novels and memoirs.
A long time ago in Wittenberg, Germany, a monk ignited a 500-year war on idolatry. And the Reformation flame endures because the fundamental battle wars on today.
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