Idolatry: The Idol of Good Behavior
By Kevin Probst
Tim Keller wrote in A Reason for God, “If you center your life and identity on religion and morality, you will, if you are living up to your moral standards, be proud, self-righteous and cruel. If you don’t live up to your standards your guilt will be utterly devastating.”
We can make an idol out of good behavior and moral standards. It’s easy to look around and say, “Well, I’m better than they are, therefore, I must be doing pretty good. Surely I’m going to heaven.” But Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles? ” (Matt. 7:21-22) Morality becomes an idol for many because they look to good behavior for salvation rather than to Christ.
It’s very hard for us to unlearn this concept. Almost from birth we are taught that good behavior will reap great benefits. One of the earliest ditties we teach our children is:
You better watch out, You better not cry,
Better not pout, I'm telling you why:
Santa Claus is coming to town.
He's making a list, And checking it twice;
Gonna find out Who's naughty and nice,
Santa Clause is coming to town.
He sees you when you're sleeping.
He knows when you're awake.
He knows if you've been bad or good,
So be good for goodness sake!
To please our parents, to please our teachers, to please Santa Clause and to please Jesus we are taught to be good. Granted, being good goes a long way toward pleasing all of these but ‘being good’ is not pleasing to Jesus when our behavior causes us to ignore Christ’s words to Nicodemus, “You must be born again.”
Paul said it very well to the Philippians (3:7-8) “But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ…”
Paul is saying, my family used to be my righteousness, my occupation used to be my righteousness, my education used to be my righteousness, my own efforts used to be my righteousness…I used to count these thing for righteousness but now I understand that my righteousness is as filthy rags. (Isa. 64:6) I was bowing to my own idols of rubbish and junk, they are nothing but dung. “Behold, old things have passed away and all things have become new.” (2 Cor. 5:17) The old nature tells me I can earn my salvation but my new nature tells me that salvation comes through faith as a gift of God.
Jesus was led up into the wilderness and Satan challenged him to turn stones into bread and to cast himself down to prove his deity. There is certainly nothing wrong with turning stones to bread, He once turned water into wine. What Satan was really tempting him to do was to be self-sufficient. “You can have everything you want apart from your walk with God.” An idol always says to the human heart, “I can do for you all the things God can do. You don’t need God.” Isn’t that what Satan was telling Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden?
God had some words for Ezekiel, you can find them in the 14th Chapter, verse 3. “Son of man, these men have set up idols in their hearts and put wicked stumbling blocks before their faces. Should I let them inquire of me at all?”
Surely God looks out over idol infested churches today and he says, “People are filling the church and they have idols in their heart and they want to ask me for help and they petition me for things. Why should I answer them when they have adulterated their love for me?”
If good behavior or a moral code or our own self-righteousness is an idol we must identify it, repent of it and take it to the cross of Christ.
I teach in a Christian high school and every year in October we take nearly 150 students off on a student retreat. It is a time of recreation, socialization and spiritual renewal. On the last night of the retreat we build a campfire and have an open microphone section for students to share with others. What often happens is that the session devolves into a slough of self-pity. Young students will grab the mic and tell long stories of how they were misused, abused and how cruel the world has been to them. Then other students will gather around them and hug them and weep with them and they all end up bathing in their own self-pity. Many will make strong vows of devotion to God but a week later there is evidence that what was said in a moment of emotion was lacking in long term commitment.
They are sorry for the consequences they have suffered as a result of living in a sinful world but they haven’t yet learned to hate sin. Real repentance is not so much confessing your sin because you fear the Lion of Judah will drop his hammer on you and devour you. Real repentance is realizing how hard and calloused your heart has become in its failure to realize how sin has crushed the heart of the Christ of Calvary.
God help us to realize that it is not so much what we do as it is about who we are.
Kevin Probst - Is a teacher of Apologetics and History at Calvary Christian School and Associate Pastor of Crosspointe Nazarene Church church in Columbus, Georgia.