The Trap and the Escape of the Christian Idolater

The Trap and the Escape of the Christian Idolater

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There is a problem for the Christian who believes he can live any way he wants to live because God has saved him. Though he is free from the penalty of sin, he is not free from idolatry’s consequences. Grace does not give him the freedom to live a self-indulgent and idolatrous life. The big question is, how can a person like this change? Paul gives us help from 1 Corinthians 10:1-14.

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But First, the Gospel

Because we all have failed to be what God wants us to be, we stand under His judgment. Even worse, we are incapable of changing our situation and escaping punishment. We are deeply flawed and broken. The human condition is pathetic because of sin. Even the good things we do happen from selfish motives. And though people may perceive our actions as good, the Lord does not accept them as an answer to the human dilemma.

According to the Bible, we are stuck. We are deeply flawed, and because of our profound brokenness, the Bible demands that we pay for our attitudes, words, and actions. This demand creates an unsolvable problem from a human perspective: the corrupted, finite cannot satisfy the Infinite, Holy God.

The Bible offers hope through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which is at the heart of the gospel. The Father punished His one and only Son for our sins. And we have the privilege of trusting the works of Christ rather than our pitiful offering. If we trust Him, the Lord will save us from ourselves and the penalty and future punishment that all unbelievers will receive. This truth is what “saved by grace” means. The Savior accomplished everything we need to be right with God.

The excellent news for the “incapable” is that we only have to trust the capable one. We rely on this truth: my salvation is 100% in and on the person and work of Christ; He is the gospel. If that is the case for you, then you are not only born again, but you will be able to enjoy and serve God throughout eternity.

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A Problem for the Christian

Because salvation does not remove the sin problem from our lives or our world, we can drift from the truths of the gospel. This result is what Christians call idolatry. Although salvation and sanctification are 100 percent about the grace of God, we can grow in an “entitlement mindset” after salvation, which is a “distortion of grace.” We might think, “I deserve better than what I am receiving.” This thinking can further lead to,

I’m not happy with my circumstances, and I’m going to change them. I will do what I need to do to improve my conditions, even if I sin. Besides, God will forgive me.

Yes, God will forgive you for all of your sins. He is a gracious God. This truth is one of the many benefits and privileges of being a Christian. But if you sin, there are still consequences for your evilness, and God will not always remove the effects of your self-centered thinking and living.

The consequences of selfishness can disqualify you from certain things (Read: blessings), even though you are a believer and you’re going to heaven. The issue here is not whether God saved you. Do you enjoy the “full benefits package” that the Lord holds out to any Christian who will trust Him regarding his salvation and his sanctification? This problem with idolatry’s temptations is why Paul’s teaching to the Corinthians is so relevant to us today. We can learn from those who have gone before us and apply the grace we need to keep from their traps.

Warning against Idolatry

1-4: For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.

5-6: Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness. Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did.

7-10: Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.” We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer.

11-12: Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.

13: No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.

14: Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry (1 Corinthians 9:24-10:14).

Verses 1-4 – God saved Israel by grace. The main point that Paul says five times is “all.” They were always aware of God’s saving power and sustaining hand. They all experienced God’s provision in the wilderness. They all were baptized in Moses, meaning they all identified with the salvation they saw, learned, or experienced through Moses. What they experienced was the “real presence of Christ.”

Though they predated the historical Christ on earth, they experienced God’s presence, power, and provision in the gospel of Christ. The God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament was very much the same. Notice how the Bible tells one story, the gospel story, as seen in Christ.

Verse 5 – With most of the Israelites, God was not pleased with presuming upon His grace, so He struck them down in the wilderness. They became presumptuous, complacent, grumbling, and dissatisfied with God’s methods. So, God allowed them to experience the consequences of their sin. This tragedy is what happened in the past, but the warning is that it can happen to us now.

God is mercifully instructing us through Paul not to set our hearts on evil as the Israelites did. This appeal begs the question: where are we going to put our hearts? They set their hearts on the things that pleased them. They were acting like the spoiled children of a wealthy man.

They grew into an entitlement mindset, which was a presumption of God’s goodness and mercy. Paul called their sin idolatry. He tells us not to be idolaters when things do not go according to our plans, thoughts, hopes, dreams, or expectations. They began to drift from God and soon erected idols that were more reflective of their hearts.

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The Strong Master Wins

Ultimately people are true to their real selves. Who you are and what you do are consistently the same (Luke 6:43-45). Your words and actions are your most authentic worship. You cannot serve two masters (Matthew 6:24). The stronger master (passion) will always displace the weaker one. Though the “weaker master” can rule occasionally, ultimately, the stronger and more ensconced master will characterize you.

Ensconced is an established, settled, and secret place that brings you comfort. Whatever this established and settled place is in the hidden recesses of your heart, it will be the animating center of your life. And you will reflect your “idol” before God and others.

What did the Israelites reflect before God and others? It was grumbling! They grumbled and complained. Their reaction was a clue to their animating center—their true passion, the stronger master. They were spreading their idolatrous thinking to others, which not only contaminated others, but it motivated God to judge them. He had no choice but to judge His saved children.

Better to Trust Than Test

Even though God saves these people by grace, Israel’s children were testing God rather than trusting Him. They experienced the consequences of their lack of trust.

Verse 11 – These things happened as an example for our instruction, so you must learn the lesson. Just because you experienced God’s grace initially in the past, and though it was profound, it does not mean things will always be the same. The application of grace should be a daily occurrence.

Verse 13 – When your test comes, there is a way out of that temptation because God provides a means of escape. You can trust God in times of testing.

Verse 14 – We are to flee idolatry?

Thinking about Idolatry

When you look to some created thing to give you what only God can give you, that is idolatry. An idol is anything in your life that is so central to your life that you can’t have a meaningful life if you lose it. —Dr. Tim Keller

Human strength is no match to the evil challenges of our souls. What we need is supernatural. You cannot have self-control in times of temptation if idolatrous passions are fueling you from within. Self-control only works when the Lord is your animating center.

  1. Do you know what your deepest passions are?
  2. Do you know what your deepest passions should be? (Hint: the gospel)

Whatever your deepest passions are, they will run your life. If your deepest passions are not the gospel, your deepest desires will ruin your life. There is only one right answer as to what your most profound passion should be: it is the gospel.

My heart and your heart are always looking for one supreme object to rule us. According to Keller’s implication of idolatry, the only way to dispossess the heart of an old affection is by the expulsive power of a new one. Are you experiencing the expulsive power of the gospel? To experience release from the bondage of sin, you must have a unique, supreme, and expulsive affection that takes over you. Hebrews 12:1-3 paraphrased:

Let us run the race by having our affection set on Christ. Suppose He, the most ultimate joy known to man, is set before us. In that case, we can run the race, endure all manner of hostility, and not grow weary or fainthearted. The way of escape is the gospel (Christ). The one who keeps the cross before them is enduring any temptation.

Look for Idolatrous Clues

What are some of the critical attitudes that give you a clue that you are idolatrous? Let me give you a few hints: anxiousness, fear, impatience, frustration, gossip, inward-private judgments, grumbling, cynicism, and fretting. The critical question is, why are these attitudes clues?

All of them indicate a lack of trust (believing God in moments of temptation). Whenever you are not trusting, you are idolatrous. And there is a dissatisfied craving in the soul that you are trying to satisfy your way. And, of course, idolatry leads to unsavory consequences.

  • What if you took some time to examine the outward effect of your inward passions?
  • When you are selfish or self-centered regarding a relationship, how have your selfishness’s consequences hindered that relationship?
  • What do you believe that relationship could be if you were relating to this person like Christ or Paul, or how other mature Christians would interact with such a person?

Learn from the Israelites

The Israelites began to drift from God and soon erected idols that were more reflective of their true selves. How do you think your life sinfully reflects your true self? Do you know? While there are many things you do that reflect the character of Christ, you can still “hold out” on specific pet passions. Thus, set up relationships or contexts that sinfully reflect these inward cravings.

This kind of defiance “tests” Christ and brings negative consequences to you. It is like saying, “I know what I need and want, and God does not.” In such a case, you set-up contexts and relationships (idols) that best soothe your desires, even if those desires are contrary to the purposes of God. It is “setting your heart on evil.” It is saying, “I need something more than what Christ has done because He is not giving me what I want.”

  1. Are there ways or times in which you presume on God’s grace by doing what you want to do, even though the Spirit is guiding you differently?
  2. What can be some of the consequences for the Christian disobeying God? What have been some of the outcomes you have experienced for not trusting God?

When that test comes, you have a way out of the temptation because God provides the escape. You can trust the Lord in times of testing. What is the purpose of this? What is God trying to do for you? The answer is that He wants to grow your affection and trust in Him, which will further fortify you in future temptations. Your testing presents an ironic twist: it increases your confidence in the Lord.

Final Question – What is your true master, the one that typically wins the day in your heart? If it is not the gospel, then your animating center needs to change. How can you change your affection from whatever it is to Christ?

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