SELF EXAMINATION: How to expose complacent idolatry of the soul

by | Posted March 22nd at 3:19am

Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test! (2 Cor 13:5-7)

The following is from David Clarkson (c. 1621-1686), a Puritan who assumed the pulpit of John Owen: 1

This material was written in the mid-1600s, so admittedly, the language is somewhat archaic English but well worth persevering in the reading as it is very effectual to personal soul searching. (2 Cor 13:5-7)

A long list of self-examinable insights is available here to assess our life to see how sincerely we love and follow him, as we prepare for eternity in His Spirit.

For this ye know, that no whoremonger, nor unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, hath any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.—Ephesians 5:5 A covetous man—and the like may be understood of the rest—is an idolater…Not only the covetous but the unclean are idolaters. The apostle, who here makes covetousness to be idolatry, also counts voluptuous persons to be idolaters, where he speaks of some who make their belly their God (Phil 3:19).

“The lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (1John 2:16), i.e., pleasures, riches, and honours, are the carnal man’s trinity, the three great idols of worldly men, to which they prostrate their souls. Indeed, every reigning lust is an idol; and every person in whom it reigns is an idolater. And giving that to them which is due only to God, they as a result of this become guilty of idolatry…

That this may be more evident, that covetousness, uncleanness, and other lusts are idolatry, let us consider what it is and the several kinds of it. Idolatry is…to give that honour and worship to the creature due only to God (Rom 1:25)…Now when this worship is made common, communicated to other things, whatever they are, we hereby make them idols and commit idolatry. Now this worship due to God only is not only given by heathens to their false gods; and by papists to angels, saints, images, etc.; but also by carnal men to their lusts. For there is a twofold worship…due only to God, internal and external:

1. External, which consists in acts and gestures of the body. When a man bows to or prostrates himself before a thing, this is the worship of the body. And when these gestures of bowing, prostration are used, not out of a civil, but a religious respect, with an intention to testify divine honor, then it is worship due only to God.

2. Internal, which consists in the acts of the soul and actions answerable thereto. When the mind is most taken up with an object and the heart and affections most set upon it, this is soul worship; and this is due only to God. For He being the chief good and the last end of intelligent creatures, it is His due, proper to Him alone, to be most minded and most affected. It is the honor due only to the Lord to have the first, the highest place, both in our minds and hearts and endeavors. Now according to this distinction of worship there are two sorts of idolatry:

1. Open, outward idolatry, when men, out of a religious respect, bow to or prostrate themselves before anything besides God. This is the idolatry of the heathens and part of the idolatry of papists.

2. Secret and soul idolatry, when the mind and heart is set upon anything more than God; when anything is more valued, more intended; anything more trusted, more loved, or our endeavors more for any other thing than God. Then is that soul worship, which is due only to God… Hence, secret idolaters shall have no inheritance in the kingdom of God. Soul idolatry will exclude men out of heaven as well as open idolatry. He that serves his lusts is as incapable of heaven as he that serves or worships idols of wood or stone. Before we come to confirm and apply this truth, it will be requisite to make a more clear discovery of this secret idolatry…In order thereunto, observe, there are thirteen acts of soul worship…:

1. Esteem. That which we most highly value we make our god. For estimation is an act of soul worship…Worship is the mind’s esteem of a thing as most excellent. Now the Lord challenges the highest esteem, as an act of honor and worship due only to Himself. Therefore, to have a high esteem of other things, when we have low thoughts of God, is idolatry. To have a high opinion of ourselves, of our parts and accomplishments, of our relations and enjoyments, of riches and honors, or those that are rich and honorable, or anything of like nature, when we have low apprehensions of God, is to advance these things into the place of God, to make them idols and give them that honor and worship which is due only to the divine Majesty. What we most esteem, we make our god. If other things are of higher esteem, ye are idolaters (Job 21:14).

2. Mindfulness. That which we are most mindful of we make our god. To be most remembered, to be most minded, is an act of worship which is proper to God, and which He requires as due to Himself alone (Ecc 12:1). Other things may be minded; but if they be more minded than God, it is idolatry—the worship of God is given to the creature. When ye mind yourselves, mind your estates and interests, mind your profits or pleasures more than God, you set these up as idols in the place of God. When that time, which should be taken up with thoughts of God, is spent in thoughts of other things; when God is not in all your thoughts; or if He sometimes be there, yet if other things take place of Him in your thoughts; if when ye are called to think of God—as sometimes every day we should do with all seriousness—if ordinarily and willingly you make these thoughts of God give place to other things, it is idolatry. If either you do not think of God or think otherwise of Him than He is—think Him all mercy, not minding His justice; think Him all pity and compassion, not minding His purity and holiness; think of His faithfulness in performing promises, not at all minding His truth in execution of threatenings; think Him all love, not regarding His sovereignty—this is to set up an idol instead of God. Thinking otherwise of God than He has revealed Himself or minding other things as much or more than God is idolatry.

3. Intention. That which we most intend we make our god, for to be most intended is an act of worship due only to the true God. For He being the chief good must be the last end. Now the last end must be our chief aim, i.e., it must be intended and aimed at for itself; and all other things must be aimed at for its sake…in a subserviency to it. Now, when we make other things our chief aim or main design, we set them up in the stead of God and make them idols. When our chief design is to be rich, or great, or safe, or famous, or powerful; when our great aim is our own ease, or pleasure, or credit, or profit and advantage; when we aim at, or intend any [thing] more, or anything so much, as the glorifying and enjoying of God; this is soul idolatry…

4. Resolution. What we are most resolved for we worship as God. Resolvedness for God, above all things, is an act of worship which He challenges as due to Himself alone. To communicate it to other things is to give the worship of God unto them and so to make them gods. When we are fully resolved for other things, for our lusts, humours, outward advantages, and but faintly resolved for God, His ways, honour, service…; when [we] resolve presently for other things, but refer our resolves for God to the future—“Let me get enough of the world, of my pleasure, of my lusts, now; I will think of God hereafter, in old age, in sickness, on a deathbed”—these are idolatrous resolutions. God is thrust down, the creatures and your lusts advanced into the place of God, and that honor which is due only to Him you give unto them. This is unquestionable idolatry.

5. Love. That which we must love, we worship as our god; for love is an act of soul-worship…To love and to adore are sometimes both one…That which one loves, he worships. This is undoubtedly true, if we intend hereby that love which is superlative and transcendent; for to be loved above all things is an act of honour and worship, which the Lord challenges as His due in peculiar (Deut 6:5). In this the Lord Christ comprised all that worship which is required of man (Mat 22:37). Other things may be loved, but He will be loved above all other things. He is to be loved transcendently, absolutely, and for Himself. All other things are to be loved in Him and for Him. He looks upon us as not worshipping Him at all, not taking Him for a God, when we love other things more or as much as Himself (1Jo 2:15)…Love, whenever it is inordinate, it is an idolatrous affection.

6. Trust. That which we most trust we make our god; for confidence and dependence is an act of worship, which the Lord calls for as due only to Himself. And what act of worship is there which the Lord more requires than this soul-dependence upon Him alone? “Trust in the LORD with all thine heart” (Pro 3:5). He will have no place there left for confidence in anything else. Therefore, it is idolatry to trust in ourselves, to rely upon our own wisdom, judgments, parts, accomplishments. The Lord forbids it (Pro 3:5)… To trust in wealth or riches. Job disclaims this and reckons it amongst those idolatrous acts that were punishable by the Judge (Job 31:24-28). David joins this and the disclaiming of God together (Psa 52:7); and our apostle, who calls covetousness idolatry, dissuades from this confidence in riches as inconsistent with confidence in God (1Ti 6:17).

To trust in friends though many and mighty. He fixes a curse upon this as being a departing from, a renouncing of God, an advancing of that [which] we trust into the room of God (Psa 146:3)…“It is better to trust in the LORD than to put confidence in man. It is better to trust in the LORD than to put confidence in princes” (Psalm 118:8-9)…The idolatry of this confidence is expressed, in that the true God is laid aside. Trust in the creature is always idolatrous.

7. Fear. That which we most fear we worship as our god, for fear is an act of worship…He that does fear, does worship that which is feared, which is unquestionable when his fear is transcendent. The whole worship of God is frequently in Scripture expressed by this one word fear (Mat 4:10 with Deut 6:13); and the Lord challenges this worship, this fear, as due to Him alone (Isa 51:12-19). That is our god which is our fear and dread (Luk 12:4-5). If you fear others more than Him, you give that worship to them which is due only to God, and this is plain idolatry…

8. Hope. That which we make our hope we worship as god, for hope is an act of worship…and worship is due only to God. It is His prerogative to be the hope of His people (Jer 17:13; Rom 15:13). When we make other things our hope, we give them the honor due only to God. It is a forsaking of the Lord the fountain and advancing of broken cisterns into His place (Jer 2:13), hereby worshipping them as God…Thus do the papists openly, when they call the virgin mother, the wooden cross, and saints departed, their hope. And thus do others amongst us, who make their prayers, their sorrow for sin, their works of charity, or any acts of religion or righteousness, their hope, when men expect hereby to satisfy justice, to pacify God’s displeasure, to procure heaven. Nothing can effect this, but that which is infinite—the righteousness of God. And this we have only in and from Christ. He is therefore called our hope (1Ti 1:1), our “hope of glory” (Col 1:27). Those that make their own righteousness the foundation of their hope, they exalt it into the place of Christ and honor it as God…

9. Desire. That which we most desire, we worship as our god; for that which is chiefly desired is the chief good in his account who so desires it. And what he counts his chief good, that he makes his god. Desire is an act of worship…, and to be most desired is that worship, that honor, which is due only to God. To desire anything more or so much as the enjoyment of God is to idolize it, to prostrate the heart to it, and worship it as God only should be worshipped. He only should be that one thing desirable to us above all things, as to David (Psa 27:4)…

10. Delight. That which we most delight and rejoice in, that we worship as god; for transcendent delight is an act of worship due only to God. And this affection in its height and elevation is called glorying. That which is our delight above all things, we glory in it; and this is the prerogative which the Lord challenges (1Co 1:31; Jer 9:23-24). To rejoice more in our wisdom, strength, riches, than in the Lord, is to idolize them. To take more delight in relations, wife, or children, in outward comforts and accommodations, than in God, is to worship them, as we ought only to worship God. To take more pleasure in any way of sin, uncleanness, intemperance, earthly employments, than in the holy ways of God, than in those spiritual and heavenly services wherein we may enjoy God, is idolatry…

11. Zeal. That for which we are most zealous, we worship as god; for such a zeal is an act of worship due only to God. Therefore, it is idolatrous to be more zealous for our own things than for the things of God—to be eager in our own cause, and careless in the cause of God; to be more vehement for our own credit, interests, advantages, than for the truths, ways, honor of God; to be fervent in spirit, in following our own business, promoting our designs, but lukewarm and indifferent in the service of God; to count it intolerable for ourselves to be reproached, slandered, reviled, but manifest no indignation when God is dishonored, His name, Sabbaths, worship, profaned; His truths, ways, people, reviled—this is idolatrous…

12. Gratitude. That to which we are most grateful, that we worship as god; for gratitude is an act of worship…We worship that to which we are most thankful. We may be thankful to men, we may acknowledge the helpfulness of means and instruments; but if we rest here and rise not higher in our thanks and acknowledgments; if the Lord be not remembered as Him without whom all these are nothing; it is idolatry. For this the Lord menaces those idolaters (Hos 2:5, 8). Thus when we ascribe our plenty and riches to our care and industry; our success to our prudence and diligence; our deliverances to friends, means, and instruments, without looking higher, or not so much to God as unto these, we idolize them—sacrifice to them—as the prophet expresses it (Hab 1:16). To ascribe that which comes from God unto the creatures is to set them in the place of God and so to worship them…

13. When our care and industry is more for other things than for God. No man can serve two masters. We cannot serve God and mammon, God and our lusts too, because this service of ourselves, of the world, takes up that care, that industry, those endeavors, which the Lord must have of necessity, if we will serve Him as God. And when these are laid out upon the world and our lusts, we serve them as the Lord ought to be served, and so make them our gods. When you are more careful and industrious to please men or yourselves, than to please God; to provide for yourselves and posterity, than to be serviceable unto God; more careful what you shall eat, drink, or wherewith [you may] be clothed than how you may honor and enjoy God; to make provision for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof, than how to fulfill the will of God; more industrious to promote your own interests, than the designs of God; to be rich, or great, or respected amongst men, than that God may be honored and advanced in the world; more careful how to get the things of the world, than how to employ them for God; rise early, go to bed late, eat the bread of carefulness, that your outward estate may prosper, while the cause, and ways, and interests of Christ have few or none of your endeavors, this is to idolize the world, yourselves, your lusts, your relations, while the God of heaven is neglected. And the worship and service due unto Him alone is hereby idolatrously given to other things… He that makes Christ his chief aim, if at length he finds Him Whom his soul loveth, this quiets his heart, whatever he want, whatever he lose besides. He counts this a full recompense for all his tears, prayers, inquiries, waitings, and endeavors. From “Soul Idolatry Excludes Men out of Heaven,” in The Works of David Clarkson, Vol. II, reprinted by The Banner of Truth Trust.

1 David Clarkson (c. 1621-1686): Puritan preacher and author. Colleague of John Owen and successor to Owen’s pulpit. Born in Bradford, Yorkshire, England.


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