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David B. Garner is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary and Pastor of Teaching at Proclamation Presbyterian Church (Bryn Mawr, PA). Pastor, professor, and author, he has also served as a missionary, ministering in Europe and Central and Southeast Asia. From 2003-2007, he served as Director for TE3 (Theological Education for Eastern Europe), a regional theological training ministry based in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Column: Sine Qua Non by David Garner

Truth and Idolatry: Call the Gospel What It Is

February 10, 2015 •

This is the second article in a series entitled, "Truth and Idolatry." Read part 1, "I Am Not an Idol Worshiper."

Idolatry by Degree?

Idolatry lacks nuance. It knows no degrees, and before a jealous God, delivers no passable excuses, no matter how sophisticated they may sound. No one is sort-of guilty of idolatry; no one is guilty of sort-of idolatry.

Just as a married man cannot innocently philander, flirting with a false god lacks any gradation of acceptability. Fidelity is flawless or it is infidelity. No one will ever stand before the one true God defending his divided affections, incomplete gratitude, or devotional syncretism.

The biblical demands for pure worship are clean, clear, and compelling. Yet how quickly Scripture’s lucid exclusivity enters the fog of confusion under the spell of our ingenuity! The human heart is a muddling magnet for erudite excuses, plausible-sounding defenses, and syrupy-sweet lies. What is true, clear and exacting gets hopelessly lost in the labyrinth of heart-created contortion, distortion, possibility, and manipulation.

While the biblical definition of idolatry truly is simple, idolatry’s complex expressions evidence the pervasive power of deception. Warped by sin’s distortion, we lose touch with gospel authority in a sea of rationalizations and qualifications. Divine truth gets buried beneath piles of smug deception, and the absolute demands for trust in the divine Word suffer incremental and damnable nuance in our souls.

Scheming interpretive methods usurp divine authority and clarity. “God said” becomes “Did God really mean?” And so my heart springs into the black hole of human autonomy and the free-fall of self-righteous theological invention. God is God, but in my qualifications about the divine Word, I function as though I am.

The human mind enthusiastically yields to the ruse, and as Scripture asserts with uniform vigor, self-deception knows no bounds (Genesis 6:5).  Though idol making of any sort is manifestly rebellious, our idol fabricating hearts stubbornly justify our chosen gods and preferred worship forms. The perverse lusts of our hearts are filthy, foggy, and yet disastrously convincing. Such rebellion is both inborn (Romans 5:12) and inexcusable (Romans 1:18–32).

 “None is righteous. No not one” (Romans 3:10). You are an idolater. I am an idolater. Our idolatry demands Spirit-generated repentance and a new heart.

Divine Word, Divine Antidote

Only the Spirit-given truth of God’s Word can rescue the soul from its love affair with self and its god-making. With incisive precision, Scripture exposes our error and delivers God’s truth. The Spirit of God reveals rebellion and the need for repentance. His Word also dispenses the only reliable guide for worship and obedience. As the Westminster Confession of Faith 1.2 puts it, only Scripture is “ . . . given by inspiration of God to be the rule of faith and life.” There is no other legitimate place to turn. No other authority even approaches it.

As noted in the last column, in 1 Timothy 6, the Apostle Paul offers a three-pronged apostolic assault against idolatry. In his counterattack, he starts with divine authority. He constructs his argument around the truth of the gospel. Christ’s life-giving words, as given in apostolic teaching, effectively counter the deadly words of deception:

[3] If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, [4] he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, [5] and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain. [6] But godliness with contentment is great gain, [7] for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. [8] But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. [9] But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. [10] For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.  (1 Timothy 6:3-10 ESV)

Doctrine, Not So Much . . .

With no hesitation, Paul tethers apostolic doctrine directly to the teaching of the Lord Jesus. Sound words derive from Jesus. He is the Benchmark of all truth. He is the Authority for all truth. He is the Source of all truth. Apostolic teaching is Jesus’ teaching.

To put this affirmation in its larger theological context, we note that Jesus’ words echo his Father’s. Jesus prays, “For I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me” (John 17:8). As the words of his Father in heaven, Jesus’ words demand complete submission, engagement, and delight. Jesus’ words guide in the right pathway, because He is the way.  Jesus’ words are true because He is the truth. Jesus’ words bring life because He is the life (John 14:6).

For those that claim to love Jesus but express no interest in theology, Paul offers stern warning. To love Jesus is to love his truth. To love Jesus compels us to love what he loves and to love who he is: the Way, Truth, and the Life. One cannot love the Word incarnate without loving his words, those proclaimed by the apostles and preserved in Scripture for us. To be disinterested in truth is to be disinterested in Jesus. To be disinterested in truth is to flirt with unbelief. Accordingly, as the primary defense against idolatry, the Apostle Paul insists that we must call the gospel what it is—God’s truth.

In fact, before it was penned to Timothy, Paul had already associated this divinely given gospel with the sternest of admonitions:

“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed”  (Galatians 1:6-9).

To abandon the gospel is to abandon “him who called you.” Doctrinal compromise is personal rebellion against God.

Heaven and earth ride on gospel truth. With the stakes as they are, it is no wonder that Paul emphatically informs Timothy of the non-negotiability of the unchanging and unchangeable gospel truth, the “deposit” which he stewarded before the face of God and Christ. God had acted just as he promised in the Old Testament. Jesus Christ has risen from the dead for sinners, just as Scripture said (1 Corinthians 15:1–3).

To consider the gospel as the words of men is to fail not only the gospel message but to deny the Gospel Revealer, God himself. Paul had earlier commended the Thessalonian church for its acceptance of the divine message: “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers” (1 Thessalonians 2:13).

God acted and God has spoken. Unreserved trust in his truth is essential. There is no fidelity in worship with inhibited faith in the divine Word. Qualified or partial faith is full disobedience. It is idolatrous.

Deposit and Stewardship

Contrary to common contemporary (and condescending!) rhetoric, the Pauline preoccupation for the truth and faithfulness to it does not stem from insecurity. Psychological malaise, threat, or some perverse fetish does not drive the Apostle. His life and death commitment to faithful preaching of God’s truth began with God himself!

Paul’s calling to apostolic office by the risen Christ defined all that he preached and prayed. “I was appointed a preacher and an apostle,” he affirms (1 Timothy 2:7). Amazed by the gospel personally, Paul did not ground his commitment to truth in his own existential appreciation. He proclaimed the gospel because of a divine obligation: “the preaching with which I have been entrusted by the command of God our Savior” (Titus 1:3).

This truth revealed to the apostles (1 Timothy 1:11b; Titus 1:3; cf. 2 Corinthians 4:1) is an entrustment, which Paul carefully hands along to Timothy and Titus, and then through them to the future ages of the Church. Because of its inestimable value as the revelation of God, the stewardship requires vigilance to uphold: “This charge I entrust to you, Timothy, my child, in accordance with the prophecies previously made about you, that by them you may wage the good warfare” (1 Timothy 1:18). Preservation of truth is worthy of war, because idolatry is cosmic treason.

Paul urges his understudy, “O Timothy, guard the deposit entrusted to you” (1 Timothy 6:20).  And again, “By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you” (2 Timothy 1:14).

Jesus’ truth informs and demands. It intercepts and interrupts. It comforts and compels. It calls, convicts, and constrains. It disturbs the complacent; it comforts the forlorn; it satisfies the hungry and quenches the thirst of those spiritually parched. It rescues the idolater from his idolatry. “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).

Over against the sickly words of the false teachers (see 2 Timothy 4:3), the “sound words” of Jesus demand that we give ourselves over completely to them (1 Timothy 6:3; Titus 2:1–10). Jesus’ authority knows no match. His truth is unqualified. He calls for unqualified trust and obedience. None of Jesus’ teaching directly or through his apostles permits laziness, distance, proviso or postponement. No slouching is permitted in the classroom of the Master Teacher.

To believe truth with such resolve requires knowing and loving the Source of truth. Gospel truth compels heart and life obedience in the God of the gospel. “Trust and obey. There is no other way!” Calling the gospel what it is—God’s truth—attunes the heart of both preacher and hearer to the Christ of the gospel. With such a grasp of the gospel we enjoy the loving grasp of the God of the gospel. Clarity and power for the fight against idolatry begin with the revealed gospel, the Word of God.

In service of the Lord Jesus and with a view to protecting the Church from idolatry, Paul’s first point is this: we must call the gospel what it is—God’s truth.

Second, we must call theological error what it is—unbelief and rebellion. To this second vital point, we will turn in the next article.

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