John 17:3, "This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent," captures the essence of what it means to be a Christian. Being a Christian, or having eternal life, is about having a relationship with God the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. This does not exhaust all truth about what it means to be a Christian, but it summarizes it well. And it is a kind of key to putting all of the other aspects into their proper roles, much in the same sense as love is a summary of the law1. Being a Christian is not primarily about getting to heaven; nor is it primarily about getting forgiven2.

There is a hierarchy to these ideas:

  • We are set free from the power of sin over us by faith in Jesus.3
  • God can forgive us without condoning sin.4
  • We can enjoy a loving relationship with God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ (if we abide in His word).5
  • This relationship will continue forever, which we call "eternal life."6
  • After we die physically, we will be resurrected and our life will continue in fellowship with God, which is commonly referred to as "going to heaven."7

But we can summarize it as a relationship.

What Kind of Relationship?

We have often heard that being a Christian is about having a personal relationship with God. But what is meant by this? The commonly accepted understanding of what it means to be a person, the essential parts that constitute a person, are the capacities of intellect, emotions, and will. In this sense, yes, our relationship with God is personal. God has intellect, emotions, and a will; and we relate to Him through all of these.

I suspect that many people emphasize the "personal relationship" aspect in reaction to misguided views of our relationship with God, such as salvation by inclusion in a group, or salvation by rule-keeping.

For a while, when people said we should have a personal relationship with God, I thought it sounded like it should mean I could have a conversation, hang out, get a hug. In other words, I felt exhorted to relate to God as people relate to each other. But God is a unique being and we relate to Him in a unique way. He doesn't need to be those other things to us.

Someone pointed out that God has met these experiential desires we have through His gift of nature to us, and that these are part of our relationship with Him. You need a hug? Feel the warmth of the sun and the presence of the whole universe around you, or get it from the people He has put in your life. Yes, this partly satisfies these needs.

These gifts God has given to us are part of our relationship with Him. We should enjoy them as such, but they are just part of it; and we must not confuse the gifts with the Giver. God is the one who gets to tell us how we must relate to Him.

Getting Confused

You have probably had the experience of picking out a gift for a child, something special you know they will enjoy, wrapping it up and then giving them the gift. You know that when they unwrap it and see what you got them they will be ecstatic. Then, as they unwrap it, it happens just like you anticipated: they open their eyes real wide, a smile fills their face, you open wide your arms for the big hug they're about to give you —and they run off to start playing with your gift.

They leave you hanging! And that's o.k. with you. You didn't give the gift so you'd get a hug, or even a "thank you." You gave it because you wanted them to receive it. Still, something's not right. You think it might be good for them to be grateful. And you don't want them to have an unbridled desire for gifts, without any regard for the gift giver.

If you're the parent and your child "forgets" to thank someone who gave them a gift, you will probably instruct your child to stop and go back and thank the person. (I'm sure that's the right thing to do, but you know that doesn't make them thankful, right? When my brother and I would fight, as kids, and our parents would make us say we're sorry, we did, but we weren't.)

There are other good reasons you know that it would be good for your kids to be grateful to the gift giver.

  • You want them to value the relationship with those who truly love them well over the value they place on any gift they might receive.
  • Showing gratitude toward you, the gift giver, acknowledges that your love for them is greater than the gift you gave. This will be important later in their lives (it will also be important later in this article).
  • And what if a stranger offers them a gift?!

What Is an Idol, in Its Essence?

"They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen."
(Romans 1:25, NIV)8

For one thing, it is worshipping the gift instead of the Giver.

In this sense, anything and everything can be an idol.

Sometimes I think people might think I'm making an idol out of something that I'm passionate about—Francesca (my cat), Bob Dylan, Saint Francis, coffee—and any of these things could be an idol, in a sense, if I confuse the order and forget who gave me these gifts. If I keep the order right, then my passion for these things goes toward my praise to God; and the stronger I feel about the value of these gifts makes me all the more grateful toward the one who gave them.

This isn't the only definition of an idol. In fact, most of the time when the Bible speaks of idols and idolatry, it's not talking about this. This is the essence of idolatry; this is what's wrong with idolatry; but it doesn't get called "idolatry" because it's not objective, it's internal; it's an idolatrous attitude in our hearts.

But when we take that thing and put a name on it, and call it "god," then we've solidified our idolatry. We've made it objective.

When we call it "god" we've defined, not just the object as god, but god as the object. And we're no longer looking for the Gift Giver. This is significant because it establishes standards of truth and of righteousness, which are so far inferior to the reality that God communicates and the holiness that God lives and requires of us, that it creates a huge obstacle to salvation.

What Is the Worst Thing About Idols?

(It is also the best thing about them, from the idol worshippers' perspective.)

It is that they are dumb. They can't speak. They won't say anything that will convict us of sin.9

So, you've given the child the gift, and they run off to play with it. You call out to them, "Wait! There's something very important I have to tell you about that, so you don't break it." "That's o.k., I know how to use it!" And sure enough, before too long, they come back to you to tell you that "it broke." The gift you gave required instructions to maintain it. You wanted to give instructions, not to be bossy, but for the same reason you gave the gift in the first place, out of love.

Well sometimes, God wants to give instruction with His gifts too. But those who don't want to follow the instructions want to ignore His voice so they don't get convicted of sin, so they don't feel guilty.

Why Worship at All?

If you are selfish and don't love God, why worship anything at all? Why not just ignore God and go on with your life? This is basically what the atheist does. But this is not the norm. The vast majority of unbelievers worldwide worship idols, in one form or another.10

All kinds of things can  be an idol, or all things  can be an idol.
All kinds of things can be an idol, or all things can be an idol.

When we speak of selfishness as the motivation behind all sin, we don't mean being primarily aware of our perspective, this can't be helped; this isn't selfishness, per se, but simply an inevitable by-product of being a self. And we don't mean seeing to our own needs and desires; this is just practical responsibility. When we speak of selfishness as the motivation behind all sin, we are speaking of self-gratification as our ultimate goal in life, even at the expense of others.

A selfish person has made feeling good their supreme goal. While a selfish person will usually feel it necessary to reject the one true God and His words that condemn his selfish heart, he will not be able to tolerate viewing himself as he is, as a sinful person. He will have the desire to affirm what is good as often as he can without giving up his sin. Offering adoration to good things in nature, or all of nature, satisfies this desire. Idol worship comes to the rescue and solves the problem, allowing a person to live in rebellion to God, but feel good about themselves.11

Part of feeling good is being guilt-free, and thinking of yourself as a good person. When someone hears about God's laws, it is common to hear them say, "I'm basically a good person." Or, have you heard unbelievers say, "I'm a spiritual person?" This is an even more evolved statement.

Idolatry Evolves

In fact, it uses natural selection—"the survival of the fittest." Just like the Darwinism that claims to explain where mankind came from—The Origin of the Species (though it lacks the necessary evidence to prove its theory).

This is like that: something changes in one member of a group. That change makes that individual more suited to survive in its environment, so it lives to pass that attribute on to others when it reproduces. A typical example is of the darker moth who blends in on the tree's dark bark, so the birds eat the lighter moths they can see, and the dark moths live on to reproduce, making more dark moths, while the light ones become extinct.

In a small section of Manhattan, there are so many restaurants packed into a small area that the competition is fierce. And the rents those restaurants have to pay is outrageously high. So if a restaurant is not exceptional, in every way, you have so many other choices you can make that you don't need to eat there. And the rents are so high, if they don't keep the place packed every night, they won't survive, they'll be gone, and another restaurant will open in its place. If they're not good enough, they'll be gone too, until finally someone comes along who can keep the place full. That happens all over that area until all of the restaurants that have survived are top quality.

The same thing happens with idols. You can study a culture and see how beliefs of groups of people change slowly over time. I've observed it here in our culture, in California, in the United States. It has changed in our lifetime. Most unbelievers in our culture today worship a highly-evolved idol. See the movie Avatar12 and you'll learn all about it. It's a very robust god, and it's well-adapted to its environment—our culture.

The Eight Possible Gods - blank
The Eight Possible Gods - blank
The Eight Possible Gods - completed
The Eight Possible Gods - completed


Idolatry in the Church

Let's sum up idolatry in this way:

  1. Idolatry is exchanging the Giver for the gift.
  2. Idolatry is about doing evil, but looking good doing it.

Do we have an equivalent to this in the church? Let's see.

I said at the start that Christianity was a relationship with God the Father and with Jesus Christ His Son. This consists of:

  • Our trusting God's love for us, particularly as expressed in Jesus' sacrifice on the cross.
  • Our trusting in His words and His commands to give us life.
  • His forgiveness of our sins.
  • The hope of unending fellowship with Him—eternal life, or "heaven."

If we want the gift without the Giver, we'll take the forgiveness (being called "righteous"), and we'll take the "eternal life" or the "hope of heaven," but we'll nix the trust in His words and commands.

John's Answer to Idolatry in the Church

First John is a special letter, written by a special guy.

John was the disciple Jesus loved. At the last supper we get an indication of their intimate friendship:

When Jesus had said this, He became troubled in spirit, and testified and said, "Truly, truly, I say to you, that one of you will betray Me." The disciples began looking at one another, at a loss to know of which one He was speaking. There was reclining on Jesus' bosom one of His disciples, whom Jesus loved. So Simon Peter gestured to him, and said to him, "Tell us who it is of whom He is speaking." He, leaning back thus on Jesus' bosom, said to Him, "Lord, who is it?"

The letter John wrote, First John, is a bright light. For years, after knowing what was in it, when I even thought of reading it, I felt uncomfortable, like in those dreams, when you're back in school, and you suddenly notice that, purely by accident, you came to school wearing only your underwear. And now everyone else starts to notice too.

As you start to read John's letter, you feel like you're staring into a bright light that's so bright it might blind you if you don't look away—right now! It's that feeling, that you're about to read, in black and white, in clear language, what you've known for a long time to be true, but no one will say it. And that, if you read it, there's no going back; there's no claiming ignorance anymore.

This book has only five chapters, for a total of 105 verses, including some of the most poetic verses about love: 3:1; 4:7-12; 4:16; and 4:19. We all know the great verse with the promise of forgiveness, "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9). Unfortunately these, and many others from this letter, are usually quoted with little regard for their context. Then there's the one that people seem to quote the most, and almost always out of context, 1:8, "If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us."

Read by itself, its meaning is vague. Does it mean "no sin, ever, at any point in our lives?" Or, does it mean, "no sin, right now, at this moment, because we are all sinning at all times; or perhaps sin is not even a choice or action, but a state of being , so we can never be 'without sin'?" Or does it mean (as I believe), "if we say that we have no sin, in a particular situation where we know we have sinned," or, "if we say we are not guilty when we sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us?"13

The context, what John says repeatedly throughout the whole letter, with a precision and thoroughness of language that's designed to keep anyone from ever misconstruing his words, is that true obedience, in thoughts and actions, is a requirement for Christians; and that it is impossible for us to be in fellowship with God if we are sinning (1:5-6; 2:1a; 2:3; 2:5-6; 2:29; 3:2b-3; 3:4-10; 3:14-15; 4:8; 4:20; 5:2-5; 5:18-19). Throughout the whole letter he is making this single point about holiness, then in the very last verse of the last chapter of the letter, he talks about idols:

20And we know that the Son of God has come, and has given us understanding so that we may know Him who is true; and we are in Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life.

21Little children, guard yourselves from idols.

He has not changed the subject! Remember our summary of the essence of idolatry:

  1. Exchanging the giver for the gift.
  2. Doing evil, but looking good doing it.

These apply to a Christian too. For the Christian, the gift received from God is not the world with its wealth of treasures, but the gift God has given us is Himself. He has given Himself, at great cost, at great pains, at agony to Himself, to have a relationship with us; so we could know Him, and know His character, and know His heart for us.

So, if the gift God has given us is God Himself, in the form of Jesus Christ, how is it possible to receive the Gift without receiving the Giver?

To do this, we must divide Christ. We must take the parts of Him that benefit us and reject what we don't want. The parts everyone wants are:

  • forgiveness of sins
  • the promise of heaven
  • God's approval (we want to feel righteous)

The part we don't want (if we are selfish and don't have faith, that is) is the part where we trust that God's commands are loving and worth putting our confidence in—worth putting our trust or faith in. Or, to put it another way, that His words are life.14

I am not saying that each time we sin we become idolaters. What I am saying is that if we replace Jesus' teaching of what it means to abide in Him with another doctrine which teaches that we are in Christ while we are sinning, we have constructed an idol; we have made a god of a character that suits our liking, rather than accepting God as He has revealed Himself to be. This redefining the Gospel is significant in the same way as with the idols created by unbelievers: it establishes standards of truth and righteousness, which are so far inferior to the reality that God communicates and the holiness that God lives and requires of us, that it creates a huge obstacle to salvation.

In his letter, John teaches God's holiness, and the necessity for us to live holy lives in order to have fellowship with Him, and he teaches these things in the strongest possible terms. But he also speaks in a gentle and loving tone:

  • "These things we write so that our joy may be made complete." (1:4)
  • "My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin." (2:1)
  • "Beloved, I am not writing a new commandment to you; but an old commandment which you have had from the beginning." (2:7)
  • "Children, it is the last hour..." (2:18)
  • "And now, little children, abide in Him..." (2:28)
  • "Beloved, now we are children of God..." (3:2)
  • "Little children, let no one deceive you..." (3:7)
  • "Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth." (3:18)
  • "Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God;" (3:21)
  • "Beloved, do not believe every spirit..." (4:1)
  • "You are from God, little children..." (4:4)
  • "Beloved, let us love one another..." (4:7)
  • "Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another." (4:11)
  • "Little children, guard yourselves from idols." (5:21)

How can he be teaching holiness and be speaking with such affection? Because the two are not in disagreement. In fact, if the affection is from sincere love and not merely self-serving emotion, they must go together. As John argues so convincingly, if love doesn't demand holiness in the beloved, it is not real love. In fact, John goes further than that. He says that God's love causes holiness in those who receive it.15

So, we understand that John loves those he's writing to, and he wants them to be holy by loving the brethren. But where does idolatry enter into it? Because those who were trying to deceive them had redefined Christ. They had redefined Him in such a way as to allow people to call themselves righteous while they weren't practicing righteousness. They had redefined Jesus' message in such a way as to allow people to say they were in fellowship with Him while they were sinning.

It is this redefining of what it means to "abide in Him" that constitutes idolatry. This is rejecting God as He is—as He has revealed Himself to be—and redefining Him in a way that suits a person whose sinful heart is intent on selfishness. This redefining of what it means to "abide in Him" is an exchanging of the giver for the gift. This creating a doctrine that says we are in fellowship with the Father and the Son, while we are sinning, is designed so we can do evil, and look good doing it.

"Little children, keep yourselves from idols."

1Matthew 7:12; Romans 13:8

2Matthew 16:25

3John 8:31-36; Romans 6:6-22

4Romans 3:25-26

5John 14:6-26; John 15:10; 1 John 2:24

61 John 2:24-25

7John 14:1-3

8Scripture has a lot to say about a right heart preceding right thinking. Selfish people are so determined to stay ignorant to avoid any conviction of sin, it seems there is nothing that will keep them from rejecting the truth, no matter how clearly it is depicted before them. Even the miracles Jesus performed were rejected by many of those who witnessed them. Here are a few passages which express this idea: John 3:19-21; John 5:39-44; John 7:16-17; Romans 1:18-25; 1 John 4:6; 1 John 5:9-12. Another article of mine, The Subjective Aspect of the Gospel, addresses this phenomenon.

(Of course, some truth must be present in the mind before someone can make a moral choice to begin with; without knowledge the heart would have no awareness of the moral character of the object it is choosing. And, it is well worth noting, the truth of the love of God expressed in Jesus' sacrifice, i.e., the Gospel, is truth offered to the minds of those who have already shut out the truth. This is done with the hope of awakening their hearts and turning them from their sins. So we must not make the mistake of thinking that the sinner has chosen to reject the truth, so we won't bother giving them more truth to reject.)

9See Habakkuk 2:18-20.

10See statistics of Major Religious Groups in Wikipedia.

11It is a common misconception that an entirely selfish person has no regard whatsoever for moral behavior or pious observance. But in fact, any human being will necessarily disapprove of sin and have strong emotions of disapproval toward immoral behavior, whenever they become aware of it. It is merely a natural function of the mind to observe destructive behavior and to evaluate that it is something to be disapproved of. And likewise, to recognize that the person who willfully causes destruction is to be disapproved of. And the emotions are an involuntary response to the intellect; they will react with exactly the degree of loathing that corresponds to the understanding provided by the intellect. This is not a virtue and has no moral quality; it is not righteousness nor is it sin, because it is an involuntary response to sin.

And so, it also logically follows that a selfish person will maintain as much "good" behavior and "pious" or "religious" observance as possible while still rebelling against God and living his life as he pleases.

12The Wikipedia article, Avatar, states, "Ross Douthat of The New York Times opined that the film is 'Cameron's long apologia for pantheism' which 'has been Hollywood's religion of choice for a generation now'."

13The ironic thing about interpreting verses 8 and 10 to mean that we cannot overcome sin is that, while the verses encourage us to confess our sins, they are employed by many as a tool to hide their sins. This is a marvelous thing! How can the people quoting the verses to mean that we cannot stop sinning be guilty of violating the very words they are using to support their argument? There is subtle deception here. If sin implies a free choice, and I, in my confession of sin, deny the freedom by which I committed it, then I have not denied that the sinful action took place, but I have denied the guilt associated with the sin. If I deny that I committed the sin of my own free will, in the absence of an absolute force, called a "sinful nature," causing me to do it, then I deny my own personal responsibility for hurting God and my brother. And in fact this is the most important aspect of sin in the context of John's first epistle. He says we don't have fellowship with God if we walk in the darkness (since "He Himself is in the light"). He defines darkness, in chapter 2 verses 9 through 11, as hating, and not loving, one's brother. So the guilt for the sin that is the cause of our not knowing God is what must be confessed. The one who uses verses 8 and 10 to show their lack of guilt, for we all know that no one is truly guilty for actions out of their control, does not know God, nor have they met the condition for receiving God's forgiveness spoken of in verse 9.

14For a study of how the Gospel consists of trusting in God's words for life, see my Bible study on The Metaphors of John and its companion study, The Metaphors of John—Addendum: Word Studies.

15See 1 John 4:9-11; 4:16-19; 5:3-5.