Idolatry and Worship: Form Matters (part 2)

When our worship is not shaped by God’s Word we can easily fall into idolatry, worshiping the right God the wrong way, regardless of our intentions.

[Note: This is part 2 of 2 on the topic of idolatry, worship, and how the form our worship matters. You can find part 1 here]

Idolatry is not only worshiping anything other than the one true God; it also includes worshiping the right God in the wrong way. In the previous post on this topic, we saw how God’s people not only worshiped him with the right words and actions while their hearts remained far from him (hypocrisy), they also were guilty of worshiping with sincere hearts but in creative and improper ways that were not according to God’s Word (idolatry). We also observed that a common thread in all instances of idolatry is a rejection of the sufficiency of God’s Word for worship. When Scripture is regarded as insufficient for informing our worship, we can easily take matters into our own creative and idolatrous hands.

Idolatry Today

So, where do we see this today? Here are just a few instances where see idolatry rearing its ugly head. In all these cases, we don’t find God’s Word to us sufficient to describe who he is and how he desires to be worshiped, and we move into dangerous and idolatrous territory, regardless of our intentions.

God’s Character

We aren’t satisfied with the Triune God being invisible and eternal (Deut 4:15-19; 1 Tim 6:16; cf. 1 Peter 1:8), so we make him into an image, or a character in a movie we can see and relate to.

Similarly, we don’t like certain biblical attributes of God (Judge, Father, Holy, etc.) so we only worship him for the ones we like, making him more user-friendly and palatable to the world. This is the idea behind popular statements like, “I could never worship a God who…” or “I refuse to believe in a God that would…”. This is also why “The Shack” is so problematic and dangerous in its depiction and description of The Trinity.

God’s sovereignty bothers us, so we turn him into a cosmic butler or magic genie that we can control and who can make us healthy, wealthy, and famous.

God’s condemnation of sinful lifestyles and behaviors irritates us, so we worship a false god who winks at sin, is “open and affirming,” and encourages lifestyles contrary to biblical teaching on marriage, sexuality, and gender.

These particular instances of idolatry can also be considered a violation of the 1st commandment. In making God more palatable to us, we are worshiping a false god of our imagination. But they also violate the second commandment because we aren’t worshiping the God of the Bible according to what the Bible says. In his commentary on Judges, Tim Keller writes: ” Worshiping God with images reveals an inward spirit which does not want to submit to God as he is, but which wants to pick and choose attributes in order to create a God who is palatable to us.”1


Our patriotism can easily encroach upon and subtly replace our worship of God when incorporated in our Lord’s Day gatherings. Of course, we should thank God for our country, pray for our leaders, and honor those who defend it. However, saluting the flag and singing patriotic songs in our worship services can diminish and obscure the glory of the cross and the praise that belongs exclusively to God. Despite our good intentions, the American flag can become our own golden calf. Joe Carter writes, “When we bring civil religion into our worship services, we are confusing our patriotic duty to the temporal country God gave us with the allegiance we owe to the kingdom in which we will be citizens forever.”

Fresh and “Authentic” Worship

In our attempts to offer sincere, fresh, passionate, and “authentic” worship, we look for new ways to show our devotion to God. We feel like if we do the same things over and over they will automatically become empty rituals. The problem is, our novelty often comes at the expense of fidelity to Scripture. Like the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel (cf. 1 King 18:25-29), we will do whatever it takes to get our god’s attention; we will constantly be looking for fresh ways to show our sincerity to God. Unfortunately, our insatiable desire for “authentic” worship succumbs to the law of diminishing returns; what made us “feel” God’s presence today becomes boring tomorrow. As a result, we can often wind up offering “strange fire” to the Lord; we approach him in ways that we feel are acceptable, and participating in “spiritual” practices that have no biblical basis.

Golden Calves and Glory Clouds

Like Israel and Jereboam, we want a god we can see, touch, experience, and control. We’ll fly to across the country and pay money to go where the “presence of God” is being conjured up. While those seeking these signs often accuse skeptics of “putting God in a box”, they fail to realize they are shrinking God down and placing him in a box of their own. How? By feeling like God can only be truly worshiped when the right music is played, the right “atmosphere” is set, and the “presence” of God can be seen and felt. Without even realizing it, they restrict God to certain locations (cf. John 4:21; Acts 17:24). Bob Kauflin hits the nail on the head when he writes:

Whenever I think I can’t meet with God unless “X” is present, I’m making a profound statement. If “X” is anything other than Jesus Christ, and his Holy Spirit, I’ve moved into idolatrous territory.

Please don’t misunderstand me: the desire to see and experience God’s glory is a good thing! However, we can fail to be content with seeing it the way God has prescribed: in the person and work of Christ revealed to us in the Scriptures (Eph 3:3-8; 1 John 1:1-4; 2 Cor 3:7-15). As a result, the little country church on the edge of town—using hymnals with no band, lights, haze, or “glory clouds”— can be written off as a lifeless church where the Spirit isn’t moving.

The Antidote to Hypocrisy and Idolatry

So what does true, biblical, and acceptable worship look like? How do we keep from falling into hypocrisy or idolatry? Although more needs to be said to cover this topic comprehensively, we can only scratch the surface here. For starters, we can look to what Jesus said to the woman at the well (John 4). Whatever we think about the regulative principle, or the styles and structures of worship, we must agree on this: our worship must be in spirit and in truth (John 4:23-24).

Worship in Truth

To worship God in spirit and in truth includes several related notions. Since Jesus is the truth (John 1:17; 14:6), our worship must be first and foremost, according to D.A. Carson, “by means of Christ…Christian worship is new covenant worship; it is gospel-inspired worship; it is Christ-centered worship; it is cross-focused worship.”2 Furthermore, since Jesus declares that God’s Word is truth (John 17:17; Ps 119:160), our worship must be Word-centered and Word-saturated. If we don’t worship according to truth, the who and how of our worship will inevitably be wrong, and our ignorance will lead to idolatry. When Israel began to abandon/add to God’s Word, idolatry and hypocrisy were right around the corner.

Worship in Spirit

Not only must we worship God according to truth but in a humble and joyful “spirit,” or attitude. This is made possible solely by regenerating work of the Spirit, who leads us into all truth (John 16:13; cf. 1 Cor 12:3; 2 Cor 4:3-6).  In his exposition of the second commandment, Ezekiel Hopkins (1634-1690) writes:

The true and spiritual worship of God, in the general, is an action of a pious soul, wrought and excited in us by the Holy Ghost; whereby, with godly love and fear, we serve God acceptably, according to his will revealed in his Word: by faith embracing his promises, and in obedience performing his commands; to his glory, the edification of others, and our own eternal salvation.3

God’s perfect and sufficient Word must control the who and how of our worship. Kevin Vanhoozer rightly concludes that, “worship in truth is the antidote to idolatry, and worship in spirit is the antidote to hypocrisy.”4

Form Matters

How we worship God matters, not merely our sincerity. Vanhoozer puts it this way:

If our knowledge of God is partial or not according to what he has revealed about himself in his word, then we are not worshiping him correctly. To make an even bolder statement, we cannot help but worship falsely unless we are guided by God’s word.5

Without being fully dependent upon Scripture, we will become idolatrous, worshiping God according to our own feelings and forms.

Many of us grew up singing how we must come back to the “heart of worship,” and rightly so. Our worship must be focused on who God is and what he has done for us through Jesus Christ. Might I also suggest, for those wandering from the biblical pattern of worship, that we return to its proper form (1 Cor 4:6)? Can our worship be based God’s perfect and sufficient Word? Can we focus on preaching the Word, singing and praying the Word, and seeing the Word in the sacraments?As we strive for creativity and excellence (as we should!), let’s stop attempting to replace or improve on what pleases God. May our worship be in spirit and truth, shaped by Scripture, centered on the gospel, and for God’s glory alone.

  1. Timothy Keller, Judges For You, 169.
  2. D.A. Carson, Worship by the Book, 35.
  3. Ezekiel Hopkins, The Works Ezekiel Hopkins, Vol. I, 360.
  4. Kevin Vanhoozer, Pictures at a Theological Exhibition: Scenes of the Church’s Worship, Witness and Wisdom, 113.
  5. Vanhoozer, Pictures at a Theological Exhibition, 117
  6. See Kevin DeYoung’s excellent article on the regulative principle,