John Calvin famously said:
From this we may gather that man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols…Man’s mind, full as it is of pride and boldness, dares to imagine a god according to its own capacity; as it sluggishly plods, indeed is overwhelmed with the crassest ignorance, it conceives an unreality and an empty appearance as God. –John Calvin, Institutes, 1.11.8
This quote is often used when discussing the issue of idolatry in the Christian heart. The argument usually goes something like this: Our hearts are perpetual idol factories, always leading us to worship something other than God. Therefore, we must be constantly evaluating our hearts to ensure that we are not drifting into idolatry.
I have made this argument myself. I included this argument in a book I wrote. But recently, my thinking on this issue has changed a bit.
To reference that other great theologian, Jay-Z, I’ve got 99 problems, and two of them are with the “idol factory” line of thinking.
First, Calvin was not referencing regenerated, Spirit-filled, New Covenant Christians when using the phrase “idol factory”. He was discussing the fact that throughout all ages, men have sought to create visual representations of God. He was not speaking of the Christian’s every day battle against sin. He was speaking of the unregenerate, and probably also taking a swipe at the Papacy, which Calvin liked to do in about every other sentence. Calvin concluded this particular section of the Institutes by saying:
In consequence of this blind passion men have, almost in all ages since the world began, set up signs on which they imagined that God was visibly depicted to their eyes.
If we’re going to quote John Calvin, let’s at least do him the kindness of quoting him in context.
My second problem with calling the Christian heart an “idol factory” is much more theological than literary. The dominant problem of God’s people in the Old Testament was idolatry. Shortly after being delivered from Egypt, the people of Israel erected a golden calf to worship. God punished the people, the people repented, and the people of Israel temporarily returned to God. This pattern repeated itself again and again. Reading the books of Judges and 1 Kings is like listening to a scratched record.
- And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and served the Baals (Judges 2:11).
But whenever the judge died, they turned back and were more corrupt than their fathers, going after other gods, serving them and bowing down to them. They did not drop any of their practices or their stubborn ways (Judges 2:19)
And the people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord after Ehud died (Judges 4:1).
Then Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the abomination of Moab, and for Molech the abomination of the Ammonites, on the mountain east of Jerusalem. And so he did for all his foreign wives, who made offerings and sacrificed to their gods (1 Kings 11:7-8).
And Judah did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and they provoked him to jealousy with their sins that they committed, more than all that their fathers had done (1 Kings 14:22).
You get the point. The people of God repeatedly turned away from God to worship idols. They repeatedly loved false gods more than the true God. And this pattern would have repeated itself indefinitely if God himself had not intervened. In Ezekiel 36:25-27, God promised that a day was coming when he would give his people the power to follow him:
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.
The beauty of living in the New Covenant is that we have the Spirit of God dwelling within us, empowering us to obey and cleansing us from our idols. Are we still tempted to worship things other than God? Sure. That’s why John tells his readers to keep themselves from idols (1 John 5:21). But the fundamental disposition of our hearts has changed. Our hearts are not primarily bent toward idol worship, they are bent toward obeying God. When we do sin, the Spirit convicts us of sin and draws us back to himself.
When we refer to ourselves as “idol factories”, we are undermining the glorious, wonderful, God-given power that is ours in Christ. We are minimizing all that God has accomplished for us through the work of Christ. And, we potentially put ourselves in the position of being navel gazers – always looking inward in an effort to detect the slightest idol, rather than trusting the Spirit to do what he promised.
Are we sinners? Yes. But we are redeemed sinners with changed hearts. We are no longer “idol factories”, we are children of God.