The Intellectual Exchanges of Idolatry

Written by Mark Farnham

On March 14, 2016

Buddha and monks statue meditaing, Laos.

In order for an unbeliever to continue to deny what is obvious and plain, he must bargain with his heart and mind. Romans 1:23 calls this an exchange. This is a word drawn from Greek marketplace language where one object is traded for another, presumably of equal value. The irrationality of unbelief, however, means that something of immense value is exchanged for another thing of far lesser value. Three exchanges are mentioned in Romans 1:23-26. In response to each of these bad trades God levies a judgment against them.

  1. First, unbelievers trade the glory of the immortal God for the tarnished glory of his creation (v. 23). When God first created the world it perfectly reflected his glory. Nothing in creation was cursed by sin or tarnished in any way. It was all “very good” (Gen. 1:31). After Adam and Eve sinned, however, the creation was cursed. Humans became corrupt, animal life became marked by death and brutality, and the natural order was frustrated (Gen. 3:14-19). No longer able to see God’s glory uncorrupted, people quickly turned to idolatry, in which objects became worshiped.

An example helps us understand this. Let’s say a soldier goes off to war and brings with him a photo of his wife. He stares at the picture every day because it gives him courage and hope. He may even speak to the picture, so he feels like he is talking to her. When he returns home, we would expect him to set aside the picture and focus on his wife, talk to her, and interact with her. If he kept staring at the photo of his wife while she was present, we would question his sanity. The real is present in all its glory. The image is not needed and doesn’t compare to the glory of the real person.

Whether we talk about ancient idols (such as gold statues of animals) or modern idols (career, cars, cash, popularity, power, fame), anything we worship other than God is a mere image, something of greatly diminished glory. We were not made to worship created things, but rather the Creator. When we worship anything less than the God in whose image we are made, we diminish our dignity and endanger our humanity, making us liable to becoming inhuman. This is exactly what is described in Romans 1:31, 2 Tim. 3:2-5, and 2 Pet. 2:12, where inhuman and animalistic behavior marks the worst of those who worship created things.

  1. Second, unbelievers trade the truth for a lie (v. 25). Even when they know the truth, unbelievers, apart from the work of the Holy Spirit, do not want to accept the truth of God. To accept the existence of the Christian God that is already clearly known is to acknowledge several distasteful truths. First, to accept the existence of God is to accept his authority over his creation. This means that the unbeliever must acknowledge that God is the rightful sovereign, not human beings. It also means that the unbeliever is accountable to this authoritative God; he must give account of his actions. Second, to accept the existence of God means that the unbeliever is guilty before God. This is something no one naturally wants to admit. As a result, some people simply deny that they have sinned in any way, or that they are guilty before God.

This exchange lies at the heart of those who can accept lies they know to be untrue. When a person rejects the Christian God for another religion, or for non-belief in any deity, he accepts what he knows to be a lie. Sometimes believing a lie is easier psychologically than facing the truth. Sometimes when parents are told that their child has died, they respond by saying, “No, that’s not true. It can’t be!” They deny what they know to be true because the truth is to awful to consider.

In the case of unbelief, however, the exchange of the truth for a lie is not rooted in grief, but in rebellion. The unbeliever will accept anything other than the Christian God. This is one reason why there are so many religions in the world. Each is a variety of the human heart saying, “I will believe anything but the truth of who God is.” The ultimate expression of this foolish rebellion is denying God altogether (Ps. 15:1). However, atheists, agnostics, and skeptics don’t escape belief and worship by denying God. They simply worship other, less visible idols—reason, science, wealth, and more. As G. K. Chesterton said, “When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything.” While nonbelievers often regard Christians as irrational, their rejection of what is obviously true makes them truly the irrational ones (1 Cor. 1:18-25).

  1. Third, unbelievers trade what is natural for what is unnatural (v. 26). The last trade builds on the first two. Once a person turns away from truth and glory and worships images and believes lies, he will live in a way that is the antithesis to God’s design. The word antithesis means the exact opposite. The unbeliever who suppresses truth long enough will believe that beauty is ugliness and ugliness is beauty. He will believe a moral good like trying to prevent the murder of babies in the womb is evil, and that making abortion free and easy to obtain is a moral good. He will also reject the good of sexuality as God designed it and embrace and endorse perversions of God’s design.

In this passage, homosexuality is featured as an illustration of the unnatural. Paul is not saying that homosexuality is the worst sin one could commit, but rather that homosexuality is the most vivid example of unbelievers declaring something to be good which is so obviously contrary to the design of nature. Homosexual acts are attempts to bring a union similar to sex within marriage, but without the benefit of anatomy designed for such purposes. At the most basic level of human anatomy is the complementarian design of heterosexual sex in which body parts fit and are capable of reproduction. Homosexuality cannot fulfill God’s intention because it goes contrary to His design.

All unbelief results in some form of unnatural behavior. In the Old Testament, God reminds Israel many times that the idols they worshiped were made out of the same stuff as their firewood. To burn one half of a log in the fire and carve the other half into an idol for worship goes against nature, which tells us that trees cannot hear, speak, walk, or do anything else that only God can do (Ps. 115:1-8; Is. 44:9-20).

Unnatural behavior is a hallmark of someone who has severely suppressed the truth, as is rejecting the truth for a lie and preferring images to real glory. Each of these exchanges is clearly a loss for the unbeliever. He moves farther away from relationship with God and with the life God intends. The more the unbeliever makes these exchanges, the further he descends into blindness (Is. 59:1-13; 2 Cor. 4:4).

In the next post we will examine God’s response to the idolatrous exchanges unbelievers make in their denial and rejection of God.

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