Thursday, November 27, 2014

Image Is Everything

Part 2 of Keep Yourselves from Idols

Text: Romans 1:18-25

You can listen to this sermon here.

[They] exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things (Rom. 1:23). 

Those whom God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son (Rom. 8:29).

A Foolish Trade 

Have you ever made a bad trade?

In Romans 1, the apostle Paul declares that those who worship idols have made a foolish trade. He writes that idolaters “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (v. 23). Paul also states that idolaters “exchanged the truth for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (v. 25).

Idolatry is the worship of a God-substitute. Idolaters exchange the worship of God for the worship of a substitute.

Resembling Our God

How does our worship—either of God or an idol—affect us?

Paul was probably thinking of Psalm 106:19-20 when he wrote verse 23: “They made a calf in Horeb and worshiped a metal image. They exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass.” The psalmist is referring to the golden calf incident. After God had delivered the Israelites out of Egypt, they “made a golden calf” (Exod. 32:4) and “worshiped it” (Exod. 32:8).

The worship of the golden calf took place while Moses was receiving God’s commands for the Israelites. And what were the first two commands? First, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exod. 20:3). And, second, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them” (Exod. 20:4-5).

After the Israelites made and worshiped the golden calf, God described them as “a stiff-necked people” (Exod. 32:9; cf. 33:3, 5; 34:9; 2 Chron. 30:8; Neh. 9:16, 17, 29; Jer. 7:26; Acts 7:51). The golden calf would have been a bull (an ox?), a stiff-necked animal. The Israelites resembled their idol. [1] Psalm 115:8 says, “Those who make [idols] become like them; so do all who trust in them” (cf. Ps. 135:18; Isa. 42:17-20). This is true for both traditional idolaters and idolaters of the heart. 

We become like what we worship. 

We were not made to worship and resemble an idol; we were made to worship and resemble God. Genesis 1:26 says that God made us “in [his] image, after [his] likeness.” When we worship idols, God’s image in us is distorted. Idolatry is a distortion of reality. Idolaters think they are wise, but they’re really fools. Traditional idolaters pray to idols who “have ears, but do not hear” (Ps. 115:6). Idolaters of the heart seek happiness in things that can’t satisfy. Paul says that idolaters “suppress the truth” (Rom. 1:18; cf. vv. 21-22).

Ruin and Restoration

In his book We Become What We Worship, G. K. Beale writes, “What people revere, they resemble, either for ruin or restoration.” [2] In Romans, the Greek word for “image” (eikon) occurs twice: “images [i.e., idols] resembling moral man and birds and animals” (1:23) and “the image of [God’s] Son” (8:29). Idols ruin God’s image in us. God restores his image in us.

Idolatry is really the root of all sin. When Adam and Eve sinned, they doubted the goodness of God. They thought that God was withholding something from them that would make them happy. The serpent said to Eve, “God knows that when you eat of [the fruit] your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:4). Adam and Eve made knowledge an idol, desiring to eat the fruit more than desiring to obey God. Their idolatry brought ruin to their lives. And Adam became like his idol, acting like a know-it-all when con-fronted by God about his disobedience (Gen. 3:12).

When we give our hearts to God, he begins to restore his likeness in us. 

Do you want to know what God’s image looks like? It looks like Jesus, “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15; cf. 2 Cor. 4:4). For God to restore his image in us means to make us like Jesus: “Those whom [God] foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8:29). The gospel is the story of God’s restoration plan.

Image Is Everything

Back in the ‘90s, Andre Agassi used to be on Canon camera (EOS Rebel) commercials, and the slogan was “Image is everything.” The image that Agassi portrayed in those commercials seems kind of silly today.

For God, image is everything. He made us to be like him. He made us to know him. When we trade God for idols, we further distort his image in us. In the end, there will be ruin.

Salvation is not just about delivering us from God’s wrath against our sin. It’s also about restoring us. Contrary to popular opinion, obeying and imaging God is the path to true happiness.

[1] The Israelites repeatedly acted in a stiff-necked manner in the wilderness, refusing to obey God. This was espe-cially seen when they refused to enter the promised land.
[2] G. K. Beale, We Become What We Worship, 16.

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Idol Factory

Part 1 of Keep Yourselves from Idols

Text: Exodus 20:1-6

You can listen to this sermon here.

Little children, keep yourselves from idols (1 John 5:21). 

Idols of the Heart

The first commandment says, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exod. 20:3). Is idolatry a problem in our city? Yes, it is. This afternoon, our city will be filled with idolatry. Mic Mac Mall and Dartmouth Crossing will be crowded with shoppers worshipping the idol of materialism. People will be visiting salons and gyms worshipping the idol of physical beauty. Football fans will be seated in front of TVs worshipping the idol of sports. Idolatry is a problem in our city because it’s a problem that originates in our hearts.

The human heart is an idol factory. 

When John wrote, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols,” he was probably writing to Christians living near or in the city of Ephesus. [1] In Ephesus, there was both traditional idolatry and idolatry of the heart (cf. Ezek. 14:3, 4, 7). Ephesus was famous for its Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (see Acts 19:21-41). The worship of Artemis was traditional idolatry. The apostle Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, states that a “covetous” person is “an idolater” (Eph. 5:5; cf. Col. 3:5). Covetousness is one form of idolatry of the heart.

How to Make an Idol 

What is idolatry? John Calvin writes that idolatry is “to worship the gifts in place of the giver himself.” [2] Tim Keller defines idolatry as “the making of good things into ultimate things.” [3]

In his book Counterfeit Gods, Keller writes than an idol is “anything so central and essential to your life that, should you lose it, your life would feel hardly worth living.” [4] Whenever there is a financial crisis, there are some people who commit suicide. Without their money, life isn’t worth living. Money is their god. 

Idolatry is turning a good thing into an ultimate thing. 

Something like sports is a good thing. But if we begin to care more about sports than God, we have committed idolatry.

Guarding Against Idolatry

In 1 John 5:21, the Greek word for “keep” (phylasso) means “to guard.” “John is urging his readers to watch out for anything that may become a substitute for God.” [5] How can we guard against idolatry in our lives? We must continually remind ourselves of two truths.

1. Only God deserves our highest love, not an idol. 

God told the Israelites, “You shall not bow down to [idols] or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God” (Exod. 20:5). [6] In the OT, God is described as the husband as his people, and idolatry is said to be spiritual adultery. In Jeremiah 3:20, God said, “Like a woman unfaithful to her husband, so you, Israel, have been unfaithful to me.”

God will not tolerate any rivals for our love. Nor should he. To the Israelites, he was the one “who brought [them] out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exod. 20:2). To us, he is the one “who redeemed [us]…with the precious blood of Christ” (1 Peter 1:18-19, NIV). He deserves our highest love. Jesus said that the most important commandment is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). [7]

2. Only God can truly satisfy us, not an idol.

When people are devoted to an idol, they are looking elsewhere for satisfaction. People who are devoted to idols say, “If only I could [fill in the blank], then I’d be satisfied.” But idols always end up disappointing us. 

God declared, “My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that hold no water” (Jer. 2:13). To the woman at the well, Jesus said, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again” (John 4:13-14).

We Are All Worshippers

Every baby is born with a desire for milk. What would happen if you gave a baby Coke to drink instead of milk? It wouldn't be good.

Whether people realize it or not, everyone is born with a desire for God. We are all worshipers. We either worship God or a substitute.

As a baby’s life would be harmed by drinking something other than milk, our lives are harmed when we worship an idol.

[1] D. A. Carson, Douglas J. Moo, Leon Morris, An Introduction to the New Testament, 451.
[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.17.36.
[3] Timothy Keller, The Reason for God, 162.
[4] Keller, Counterfeit Gods, xviii.
[5] Gary M. Burge, Letters of John (NIVAC), 218.
[6] Jealousy is not always sinful. It’s fitting for a husband or wife to be jealous if his or her spouse commits adultery.
[7] The command to “love the Lord your God with all your heart” is stating positively the negative command “You shall have no other Gods before me.”

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Justified by Works

Part 3 of Faith and Works

You can listen to this sermon here.

You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone (James 2:24). 

Same Word, Different Meaning 

Do you know what a homograph is? A homograph is a word that is spelled like another word but is different in meaning (e.g., “park,” “bat,” “fine”).

The word “faith” has more than one meaning in the Bible (though perhaps not technically a homograph). “Faith” in the Bible does not always refer to saving faith. James writes, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” (v. 14). In this verse, James is referring to a certain kind of faith—a faith he describes as “dead” (vv. 17, 26) and “useless” (v. 20). [1] It’s a faith of words but not deeds. How can I be sure that my faith is not dead and useless? 

Saving faith results in good works. 

Abraham's Faith and Works

James writes, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar?” (v. 21). In Genesis 22, God told Abraham, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you” (Gen. 22:2). [2] But as Abraham was about to sacrifice his son, the angel of the LORD said to him, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me” (Gen. 22:12).

In verse 23, James writes, “And the Scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’—and he was called a friend of God” (v. 23). The quote about Abraham’s faith is from Genesis 15:6, which indicates that Abraham had faith in God long before his obedience recorded in Genesis 22.

Abraham believed God before he obeyed God. 

How was Abraham “justified by works”? “Justified” is another word that has more than one meaning in the Bible.
James 2:21, 24, and 25 are the only verses in James that contain forms of the verb “justify”...; in each case, the term means to “show to be righteous.” Thus [Abraham was] shown, in history, to be righteous by [his] actions, giving proof of [his] prior spiritual state (cf. Ge 22:12, with its “now I know”). [3]
When Paul writes that Abraham was “justified by faith,” he’s referring to Abraham’s initial justification (declared righteous by God through faith). But when James writes that Abraham was “justified by works,” he’s referring to a present justification (shown to be righteous through works). [4]  Jesus used “justified” in the same way that James does: “By your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matt. 12:37; cf. 11:19).

James states that Abraham’s obedience demonstrated that “faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works” (v. 22). The Greek word translated “completed” (teleioo) is also found in 1 John 4:12: “If we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.” Douglas Moo writes,
Clearly our love does not "complete" God's love in the sense that the love of God is in-adequate or faulty without our response. It is rather that God's love comes to expression, reaches its intended goal, when we respond to his grace with love toward others. So also, Abraham's faith, James suggests, reached its intended goal with the patriarch did what God was asking him to do. [5]

Testing the Genuineness of Our Faith 

James states, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (v. 24). The NIV says, “You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.”

How we treat others is a good test of the genuineness of our faith.

What James writes in 2:14-26 is possibly in response to people saying, “We have faith. Don’t bother us about helping others.” This could be why James says what he does in vv. 15-17 (see also 2:1-4, 8-9; 3:8-11).

[1] John 6:66 mentions that “many of [Jesus’] disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.” John 12:42-43 says that “many even of the authorities believed in [Jesus], but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, so that they would not be put out of the synagogue; for they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God.” These are two examples of people who possessed faith that did not save.
[2] Skeptics often claim that it would be immoral for God to tell Abraham to kill his son. However, God’s command for Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac was a test of faith (Gen. 22:1) that resulted in a promise of divine blessing for Abraham and his descendents (Gen. 22:15-18) and foreshadowed God’s gracious sacrifice of his only Son (Rom. 8:32).
[3] Craig L. Blomberg, Miriam J. Kamell, James, 136.
[4] Many commentators see this justification as a future justification at the final judgment: “Paul refers to the initial declaration of a sinner’s innocence before God; James to the ultimate verdict of innocence pronounced over a person at the last judgment. If a sinner can get into relationship with God only by faith (Paul), the ultimate validation of that relationship takes into account the works that true faith must inevitably produce (James)” (Douglas J. Moo, The Letter of James, 141).
[5] Moo, 137.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Justified by Faith

Part 2 of Faith and Works

You can listen to this sermon here.

And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness (Rom. 4:5).

Standing Before the Judge

On Friday, Justin Bourque, who shot and killed three RCMP officers, was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 75 years. It is the longest sentence in Canadian history, and the harshest since the death penalty was abolished.

The writer of Hebrews states, “It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Heb. 9:27). That’s a sobering thought. One day I will die, and then I will stand before God. And without God’s provision of justification there wouldn’t be hope for any of us.

What Is Justification?

The most common meaning of the word “justify” is “to prove or show (something) to be just, right, or reasonable.” When you justify a purchase, you declare the rightness of the purchase.

What does it mean to be justified by God? It means to be righteous in God’s sight (i.e., innocent of wrongdoing).

When God justifies a person he declares that person to be innocent of wrongdoing. 

But how is it possible to be justified? Paul repeatedly states in Romans 3 that everyone is guilty of wrongdoing. “None is righteous, no, not one” (3:10). “By the works of the law no human being will be justified in [God’s] sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (3:20). “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23).

Justification is possible because of Christ. Sinners “are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (3:24-25). All who put their faith in Christ are justified (see 2 Cor. 5:21).

People sometimes ask, “Why did Jesus have to die? Why didn’t God excuse our sin?” When people ask these kinds of questions, they reveal that they are underestimating the awfulness of sin in God’s eyes (like a baby not realizing he has filthy hands). There had to be atonement for our sins.

Boasting Eliminated

Paul writes, “We hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (3:28). Since we aren’t justified by works, “our boasting” is “excluded” (3:27).

In 4:1, Paul asks, “What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather, according to the flesh?” (v. 1). “With the word ‘then’ Paul connects what he is about to say about Abraham with what precedes (3:21-31), where he claimed that a righteousness of God comes through faith in Christ apart from the law.” [1] Is Abraham an exception? Was Abraham justified by works? Paul says no.

1. Justification is not a reward earned by works. 

Paul writes, “For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God” (v. 2). What does Paul mean by “but not before God”? John Piper puts it this way: “But before God such a thing is inconceivable.” [2]

2. Justification is a gift received by faith. 

Paul quotes from Genesis 15:6: “For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God’” (4:3). In Genesis 15, God said to Abraham, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.... So shall your offspring be” (v. 5). Abraham was childless and was in his nineties. But Abraham believed God’s promise. His faith revealed that he was relying on God, not himself. Because Abraham believed, his faith “was counted to him as righteousness” (4:3).

Paul writes, “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (vv. 4-5). Thomas Schreiner comments, “Righteousness is obtained not by working for God but by believing in a God who works for us in that he justifies the ungodly.” [3]

Is Justification Just? 

Does justification violate the principle of Proverbs 17:15: “He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the LORD” (cf. Exod. 23:7; Isa. 5:23). God condemned a righteous person (Jesus) and justifies wicked people (e.g., me). How is God not an abomination to himself?

First, when judges acquit a guilty person, they often do so because they are bribed. But to justify sinners, God gave. He “did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all” (Rom. 8:32). Second, when judges acquit a guilty person, they the acquitted person is a high risk to reoffend. But those whom God justifies, he also transforms. Douglas Moo writes,
…God’s “justifying the wicked” cannot be seen in isolation. Yes, it is clear that God puts us right before him when we are still sinners and that justification in itself does not change our moral status or basic nature. But Paul insists that God does more than “justify” us when we become Christians. He also “regenerates” us, “sanctifies” us, and causes his Spirit to indwell us. These acts of God change us “from within.” Paul is one with James in insisting that a genuine Christian must always reveal the transforming work of God in a new life of obedience. 
The person who claims to be justified but has no interest in doing works is an abomination to God. 


It's been said that we don't truly worship God until we are amazed by him. The truth that God justifies us by grace through faith should amaze us. We sing songs about God’s “amazing grace” and his “amazing love,” but have we stopped being amazed?