1 John 5:21 | Little Children, Keep Yourselves From Idols
Little children, keep yourselves from idols. (1 John 5:21)
Idolatry is the most widespread and contagious sin throughout human history, and the only hope we have of a cure is found in Jesus Christ.
Idolatry is not one sin among many; it is the ancestor of every other sin, inherited through the ages to every person, originating with our father Adam and descending to every child in the nursery down the hall. There is not a problem the Bible deals with more frequently. So, this is not a small matter to God. Every single one of us is an idolater, and unless God does something about it, every single one of us is damned because of it.
Though this verse seems an odd way to end his letter, John’s final words are some of the most important in the entire book. He drills to the core of our heart—what, or who, do we worship? If we ignore these words, whatever we heard about Jesus from the previous 104 verses will be of no value because idols cannot coexist with Jesus. And if we don’t keep ourselves from idols, we are in big trouble.
So, this morning, I want to consider three things, and we’re going to work backward through the verse to see them. First, the seriousness of idolatry. Second, the command against idolatry. Third, God’s salvation from idolatry.
The Seriousness of Idolatry
The reformer Martin Luther said that we don’t ever commit any other sin without first breaking the first of the ten commandments, “You shall have no other gods before me.” That means that every sin we commit is a sin first of idolatry.
God created every human with a built-in worship center, called the heart. And that’s a good thing because when we worship the right object, our heart comes alive. But our problem is that we often don’t worship the right thing. We should worship God, but instead, we worship idols. Idols aren’t only little statues people bow down to, or something segregated to a certain historical period or a particular group of people. An idol is anything more important to you than God. It can be a bad thing, such as sexual perversion or the love of money. But more often, an idol is a good thing that turns into an ultimate thing, such as family or career. An idol is anything that captures your heart more than God and asks of you what only God rightly deserves. Pastor Erik Raymond defines it in terms of robbery and perversion. It’s robbery because we take what is due to God and give it to something else. And it’s perversion because we give the devotion God rightly deserves to other things.
Idolatry is something we’ve all actively participated in. And it’s not because we lack something from God. When Adam and Eve ate the fruit in the Garden, they did not do it because they lacked anything from God. They did it because they wanted to be God. An idol formed in their heart and the sacrifice it required was a disobedient bite of fruit and a denial of their Maker. All it took to push them over the edge was the devil slithering in and asking, “Did God really say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” That’s not what God said! He gave them all the trees in the Garden but the one, but that’s not what they focused on because they wanted more than what God gave. Do you see how easy that is? All it takes is one question and Boom! Humanity has lost its purity. And every time we consider something else to be better than God, even for a moment, we are guilty of the same thing.
Idolatry is a sin against God, it’s an abandonment of him, an assault on him, a denial of his goodness. Idolatry is evil because it says to God, “You are unworthy.”
So, you may be asking the question now: how do I find my idols? One way to find them is to fill in the blanks to these statements with the first thing that comes to mind because our default answer often reveals our true answer.
● “More than anything, I want ____”
● “I need ____”
● “I fear ____”
● “I’m love ____”
● “I’m seeking ____”
● “I’m trusting ____”
● “I’m taking refuge in ____”
Whatever fills in those blanks that isn’t found in Christ is an idol.
What do you think about when nothing else demands your attention? Where do you spend most of your money? What, if you lost it, would make life feel worthless? What, if you gained it, would make life feel complete? Any answer not named Jesus is an idol, no matter how good of a thing it is, and often it will be a very good thing. But as the church father Augustine said, our hearts are restless, until they find rest in God. Idols dominate our lives, but they never satisfy.
So what is the form of idolatry is John addressing here in verse 21? He doesn’t say here, so we have to read this in the context of the entire letter. We know the Gnostic influence was profound in this church, preaching a secret knowledge and denying Jesus’ humanity. And there are a few places John addresses idolatry, without using the word “idol.” For example, in 2:15-17, John tells us not to love the world or the things in the world. In 3:7-10, he tells us not to be deceived by our flesh, to practice righteousness and flee from sin. In 4:1-6, he tells us to test the spirits because some are of the devil. In each case, John warns us because the idols these activities create are terrifyingly alluring, and they’re incredibly deadly. Idolatry is deadly serious. It denies Christ his glory, his people their love, and the church its unity.
That’s pretty bad news, isn’t it? But one thing I want us to notice right now, and come back to later, is this. In each of these verses where John highlights some form of idolatry, warning us against it, including the verse we are considering today, he begins with either the words “little children,” or “beloved.” John is talking tenderly to us, helping us see ourselves so that we can see Christ more clearly. He’s helping us identify our idols so that when he gives the command against them we understand, which leads to our second point.
The Command Against Idolatry
John tells us what we need to do: keep yourselves from idols. The word keep in the original language means guard. We must guard our heart from idols. But how do we do that? Well, as we’ve said throughout this series, John’s letter is about both how gospel doctrine creates gospel culture. When the good news of the gospel is preached and believed, God creates among his people a gospel culture, where the gospel’s reality is seen and felt. The guard rails he’s giving us are twofold. The first one is found in the doctrine God gives in the gospel, and the second is found in the culture God creates by the power of the gospel.
David Powlison, the Christian counselor, helps us see that the Bible presents two categories of idols—one internal and one external, one about gospel doctrine, the other about gospel culture. The first category, the internal, the doctrinal, is idols of the heart. These are idols at the level of our personal beliefs. They spring from this line of thinking, “Jesus, you’re a pretty decent guy, but you’re just not giving me everything I want. It makes me wonder if really love me. So, I’m going to add this other thing to my life, because it offers what I’m not getting from you.” Now, we might not be so bold to actually say that out loud, but whenever we worship something other than Jesus, whenever we make something more important than him, this is functionally what we’re saying. We’re believing a false message and denying Jesus’ lordship.
The antidote to the idols of the heart is gospel doctrine—the good news of Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. We worship idols because we long to worship, and what we need is to be re-centered on Jesus and his gospel. The way to fight the idols of the heart is to replace them with the glory of Jesus in the gospel. The gospel says to us that everything we’re looking for in every idol we’ve ever fashioned is found only in Christ. When we believe the gospel, God uproots idols from our heart and plants himself in their place.
The other category of idolatry the Bible offers is external, at the social level, the cultural aspect. In John Bunyan’s classic book, The Pilgrim’s Progress, he tells the story of a man named Christian on his way to the Celestial City. He must pass through a place called Vanity, and in the town of Vanity there is a fair, called Vanity Fair. This is Bunyan’s allegory of the world. Vanity Fair has everything the flesh longs for, and anything can be had, and no one will shame you because they’re all partaking. But it’s a hell on earth because only idols live there, and idols lie, enslave, and murder. They deny who God is and destroy what God gives. They rob God of glory and rob us of joy.
Bunyan helps us see that even if we try to flee from the idols of our heart, we must also flee from the idols of the world. If we don’t, our heart will start making new idols. In the world, it’s normal to worship your job or your spouse or your kids or your money or your college football team or your political party or your ego or sex or cars or houses or whatever. It’s so normal no one even notices they’re not worshiping Jesus.
Now, what happens when a church is plopped down in the middle of Vanity Fair? What happens when Jesus starts saving the citizens of Vanity Fair? What happens when sinners are plucked out of idolatry and placed inside of Christ, when the things of the Fair matter less because Christ matters more?
I can think of two things. First, the rulers of Vanity Fair might grow angry, and they’ll come up with a strategy. They’ll make the temptations more enticing. They’ll strip more clothes off. They’ll up the prize money. They’ll do whatever it takes not to lose business. Second, the church will start looking more attractive than Vanity Fair because the people inside the church will have answers to the questions everyone at the Fair is asking and never finding in their idols. And maybe—just maybe—Jesus will save them too.
Here’s the point I want to make. Idolatry is both personal and communal. What we surround ourselves with influences what, or who, we worship. John knew this. That’s why he shows us how gospel doctrine (the good news of Jesus) creates a gospel culture (the shared reality of that good news in the church). We all fashion our own personal idols, but the company we keep either reinforces them or poisons them. Idolatry is a problem rooted in denying gospel doctrine which prevents gospel culture.
So, be careful where you live. Vanity Fair is deadly.
What God does through the preaching of gospel doctrine, which John has been giving us throughout this letter, is create a gospel culture. And inside a gospel culture, idols don’t stand a chance. Not because the people in the church are so strong and powerful. They’re actually very weak—so weak that they had to be rescued. They’re weak enough to know that they need someone as strong as Jesus to keep them from idols. And when the object of worship at a social level has been transferred to Jesus, individual idols start crashing down all around as they’re confronted with the true God. As Jesus said, “when I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32).
As the gospel is proclaimed and believed, the shared reality of God’s grace creates an environment that isn’t safe for idols. That’s what we’re asking God to build and increase here at Refuge—a place where the gospel constantly exposes idolatry for the sham that it is, a place where everyone has the safety to open their heart and reveal what they really worship, where everyone has enough time to re-evaluate everything and come clean about what’s really going on in their life so that God can heal. We need a family who knows us inside and out, who is walking the same path toward Jesus as we are, and who has committed to loving us wholeheartedly for Jesus’ sake. We can’t be too scared to confess where our trust really lies because the only way to kill an idol is to bring it into the light of Jesus, and sometimes, we need other Christians to help us carry the heavy thing and throw it at the Savior’s feet. Gospel culture helps us repent of our idols and believe in Christ, and we all need that.
We will flee from idols to the degree that we—at an individual level and at a corporate level—believe and trust that Jesus is better than everything else. And the way that happens, according to the Bible, is through the preaching of gospel doctrine and through the Spirit’s formation of gospel culture.
And here’s the really good news: it's something God does! He's not commanding something too hard for us because he's commanding something he wants to give, and nothing is too hard for him! All we have to do is admit we need him. That’s what John’s been telling us all along. We need the real Savior, not the one we'd wish Jesus to be.
Now, here’s the problem. Our church still resides in the county lines of Vanity Fair. And if we’re not careful, we will slip back into town to worship other gods. We will forsake Jesus because another message will slip in and we’ll pursue it, thinking Jesus isn’t really all he’s cracked up to be. We’ll sell our home in the church for a nice, big place in the city, filled with new idolatrous treasures. But as Tim Keller says, “What you treasure will ultimately require you die for it, Jesus is the only treasure that died for you.”
So, we need to consider one final thing—the treasure that died for you. We need to consider God’s salvation from idolatry.
God’s Salvation from Idolatry
Within verse 21’s six words lies not only a biblical command but also a gospel promise. Without Jesus, we have no hope of obeying, but with Jesus, we have all the hope we will ever need. John Calvin said our hearts are idol factories. But Jesus can turn our factories of sin into a home for himself. That’s what a redeemer does.
Every time we worship an idol, we cheat on God. The second commandment says our God is a jealous God, and because he is, he won’t simply coexist with the idols of his elect. He will do something about them. He’s like a husband who will not stand to see another man with his wife. Ray Ortlund captures the imagery well. “What would you think of a husband who said to his wife, ‘I don’t care who gets into our bed. Just keep the noise down so that I can get my sleep’? God takes our idolatries personally, the way a husband would feel about the adulteries of his wife. Do you realize how important your love for Jesus is to Jesus?”
God’s jealousy is an aspect of his love, reflecting the intensity of his love and care for his people. And his jealousy led Jesus into this world to save us. God takes idolatry among his people so seriously that he gets personally involved. We can't save ourselves, so Jesus saves us.
God takes our idolatry seriously because he takes himself seriously, and because he takes our joy seriously. God is not one god among many. He is the only God and the only good. We were made for him alone. Every other thing claiming deity, claiming worship, claiming our heart is an idol. And God hates them all.
But he doesn’t hate his children, and do you remember what I said before? Throughout this letter, every time John warns us, and even in this verse we’re considering today, he begins by calling us “beloved” or “little children.” Though this verse is a call to everyone in the world, this verse is a special call to God’s children—those whom he has saved. We tend to see a verse like this as a great weight that God hangs about our neck. We feel the difficulty of the task. But what we often miss is that what God commands he also grants. We see this in the verse immediately before this, in verse 20, “We know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true.” What God commands he grants in his Son.
I want to go back a little further to something John says in 1 John 3:1-2. “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are…Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.”
Do you know what that means? Here’s a profound insight that I learned from scholar G.K. Beale. He says that we become what we worship. So if our idol is pride, we become prideful. If our idol is lust, we are driven by our sexual desire. If our idol is work, we lose ourselves in our job. What we worship becomes our identity. That's why idolatry is so dangerous. We were made in the image of God, to be like him, and idols make us like them instead.
So here’s how this verse is not only a biblical command but also a gospel promise. In Christ, we are God’s children. And as we worship our Father and his Son by the Spirit, we become like God. Moment by moment, as we worship God, he is bringing us closer to our inevitable future, where he will free us from this idol-infested problem with his glory-filled solution. He will wipe every tear from our eye, remove every pain from our heart, and restore everything that we lost. He’ll make us new, and we will never be able to ruin ourselves again. You can’t kill idolatry by simply removing idols. We are worshipers, and we will find something to worship. Idolatry is killed by replacing idols with God, and that’s the work God does for us in the gospel.
Idolatry is a big deal. But Jesus is a bigger deal. Idols don't love us, but Jesus does. He let God crush him so that when he crushes our idols he doesn’t have to crush us along with them.
So, what is our next step? Here’s John’s answer, 1 John 1:7: “If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” Our way out of idolatry and into the fullness of Christ is actually pretty simple. All we must do is confess, and Jesus will replace our idols with himself. But it will cost us something: we will have to give up building our lives on things other than Jesus, and that might hurt. But if we want freedom, we’re going to have to admit to ourselves, to God, and to others who we really are. Your idol will probably tell you if you take that step, you’re going to be all by yourself, but it’s lying. You won’t be alone. How do I know? Because Jesus is in the light. And even if everyone else runs and hides, you’ll have Jesus. Is the Savior of the world enough for you?
But of course, Jesus is saving so many people that we won't have only him, we'll have our brothers and sisters in Christ too. What if we spent this week in our community groups walking in the light of Jesus, revealing our idols for the ugly creeps they really are? What if God gave us this verse this week, as we head into Thanksgiving, to get free from the sins of idolatry that have been keeping us from rejoicing in Christ? Why not take that step in just a moment, before you come forward for communion? Jesus is offering freedom right now! Whatever you’re worshiping that is killing you can be replaced by the Giver of Life this very moment.
Your idols don’t want that to happen, and the devil is scared because he knows that some of you might just take that step. Let’s just all decide right not to make the devil mad! Let’s lay down our pride, admit our need, and let Jesus save us. Idols offer what we think we want. Jesus gives us what he knows we need. Idols never keep their promises. But Jesus does.
Little children, keep yourselves from idols. Run to Christ instead.