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The Old Time Gospel:     "Idolatrous Worship"   by John Flavel

John Flavel

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Idolatrous Worship
by John Flavel

Touch not with idolatry and superstition under what name or notion soever it be presented to you: Here you had need be exceeding cautelous,[1] and circumspect,[2]

(1) Because it is a creeping thing which works in itself by plausible pretences and insinuations (2Pe 2:1; Eph 4:14; Col 2:23). In which respect [mystery] is written in the whore's forehead (Rev 17: 5). For as Dr. Usher[3] well observes, "The Roman apostasy stole into the church disguised and by degrees." It is a mystery of iniquity, saith the apostle, and a working mystery (2Th 2:7). Iniquity, but a mystical iniquity, because palliated[4] and cloaked under the name and pretence of piety and fidelity.

Idolatrous practices have a show of wisdom (Col 2:23). Saith Davenant[5] on [this passage]: "They are more modest than to pretend an immediate revelation of the Spirit." Yet lest their placets[6] and inventions should want a pretext[7] of Divine wisdom, they are wont[8] to say, that their doctrines and traditions are not indeed consigned to writing by the apostles, but delivered by lively voice, according to that, "We speak wisdom among them that are perfect." And by the name of this wisdom, every one calls his own fictions. Saith Irenaeus[9], "Thus sometimes under the pretext of wisdom, order, decency, apostolical traditions, antiquity, the power of the church, etc., it steals upon men insensibly, especially being so advantaged by the proneness of corrupt nature to it."

To this purpose it is observable that Babylon, the Mother of Harlots, is said to give the wine of her fornication in a golden cup (Rev 17:4). Wine in itself is temptingly pleasant, but more so when presented in a golden cup; the brims whereof are sugared and sweetened to make it the more grateful.[10] Therefore, little children, I mean you simple, plain, credulous[11] souls, apt to be taken with fine glittering things, look to yourselves.

(2) Because nothing more provokes and inflames the fiery wrath of the Lord, Who is a jealous God, than this doth. It makes His anger come up in His face as that expression is and kindles consuming wrath (Eze 38:18; Eze 43:7-9). Upon this account the blessed God complains after the manner of men as if His heart were broken, "I am broken with their whorish heart, which hath departed from me, and with their eyes, which go a whoring after their idols" (Eze 6:9). If it be but an unchaste glance upon an idol, it goes to the very heart of God. When He seeth His people yielding to the temptations of it, He shrieks as it were and cries out, "Oh! Do not this abominable thing that I hate!" Oh! If there be in you the hearts of children, do not that which doth, as it were, break the heart of your father.

Question: But what mean you by idolatry and superstition? We hope there are no such things practiced among us; Pagans and Papists may be guilty of it?

Answer: Give me leave here to open these things unto you, and then perhaps, you may see them nearer to you than you are aware of; and that this caution is a word in season.

Idolatry then, according to the true and generally received definition of it, is a religious worship given either to that which is not the true God or to the true God Himself, but otherwise than He hath prescribed in His word. From hence we plainly see that worship may be idolatrous two ways:

(1) In respect of object: if it have any thing besides the true God for its object, it is gross idolatry such as the First Commandment condemns, i.e., pagan idolatry, which the light of the gospel hath long since profligated[1]2 and expelled out of these parts of the world. Or,

(2) In respect of the manner: when we worship the true God, but in a way and manner which He hath not prescribed in His word, but is invented and devised by ourselves. And this is condemned as idolatry in the Second Commandment: Thou shalt not make unto thee, i.e., out of thine own brain or of thine own head, any graven image under which title all human inventions, corrupting the pure and simple worship of God, are prohibited as idolatrous. This inventing or making to ourselves is that which makes it idolatry (Amo 5:26; Num 15:59). Hence the molten calf became an idol to the Israelites, not because it was the object of their worship, for it is plain it was Jehovah, the true God, they intended to worship by it, appears from Exodus 32:4, 5: "Tomorrow is a feast to the Lord." But yet it being a way or manner of worshipping the true God, which was of their own devising, it became idolatry.

And this worship of God in ways of our own invention becomes idolatrous upon a double ground: (1) As it is will worship, i.e., such worship as hath no other ground or warrant but the will of man (Col 2:23); and so dethrones God by setting up the will of the creature above His and bestowing the peculiar honor and incommunicable sovereignty and glory of the blessed God upon the creatures. For the absolute sovereignty of God, which is His glory (1Ti 6:15) is manifested in two things especially: in His decrees (Rom 9:20) and in His laws (Isa 33:22; Jam 4:12). The Lord is our King and Lawgiver, and there is one Lawgiver.

Now by prescribing any thing by our own authority in the worship of God, the commands of God are made void (Mat 15:6), His royal law is slighted, the throne of God invaded by the creatures, who will be a lawgiver too, which can no more be borne than the heavens can bear two suns; and God is hereby forgotten, as Hosea 8:14: "Israel hath forgotten his Maker, and builded temples;" i.e. by building [temples] when God had appointed but one temple.

And upon this account it is, that the indignation and wrath of God smoke so dreadfully against such usurpers, as in the sad story of Nadab and Abihu because God is a jealous God, and jealousy is the rage of a man. This, God looks upon as the greatest and most daring wickedness that a creature can lightly commit. "All their wickedness is in Gilgal" (Hos 9:15), i. e., the height of their wickedness is there, because there they worshipped Him according to their own devices, which was such an affront to the wisdom and sovereignty of God that He could by no means bear it. This is called, a setting our threshold besides the Lord's threshold (Eze 43:8). And the nearer this comes to Him, the more it provokes Him.

Therefore, it is said in the same text, "There was a wall betwixt me and them," i.e., either it caused a wall of separation betwixt me and them as it is generally expounded; or else it notes how God is provoked by bringing their own inventions so near Him. For in the Hebrew it is, "There was but a wall betwixt me and them." And hence it is evident that doctrinal, symbolical ceremonies, I mean such rites and ceremonies as are brought into the worship of God, with a spiritual signification, merely upon the authority of man, are idolatrous mixtures and additions and such by which the Lord is dreadfully provoked. All the liberty that Scripture gives us is but this: to observe and perform those things which God hath instituted in an orderly and comely manner (1Co 15:46) and not to innovate new things, what, and as many as we please.

And then, (2) it becomes idolatrous upon this ground also, because this daring impudence of men in worshipping God in their own way argues gross and carnal notions and conceptions of God. When we devise a carnal, pompous way of worship for Him, it is an argument we have set up an idol first in our imaginations, one like ourselves and utterly unlike the true God, Who is a most simple, pure, spiritual Being; and as such will be worshipped (Joh 4:24). But by devising such a fleshly way of worship, I say it is manifest, we have fancied to ourselves another god, altogether different from that God revealed to us in the Word. Hence it was that Joshua told the people, "Ye cannot serve the Lord, for he is a jealous God, and will not forgive your sins" (Jos 24:19).

You cannot serve the true God, till you have gotten right apprehensions of Him. You fancy to yourselves a God made up of all mercy, as if He had no justice or righteousness to call you to an account for your sins and so do but worship an idol, formed in your own imagination instead of the true God. And if the thing be duly weighed, it will appear as well idolatry to submit to and acknowledge the sovereign authority of a creature in appointing laws for worship or falling down before an imaginary god or idol, formed in our own fantasy, as to bow to and worship a graven image or the stock of a tree.

Now hence you may come to see at once both the nature of this second sort of idolatry and also the rise and original of it. [It] is nothing else but the proud and carnal heart of men, which not willing to contain itself within the limits of the Word, wherein a plain, simple, and spiritual way of worship is ruled out, invents to itself new rites, ceremonies, and ways of worshipping God more suitable and pleasing to the flesh. And hence it is that idolatry is in Scripture reckoned a work of the flesh (Gal 5:20) because man naturally, having a proud heart and a working imagination, which depending upon sense, and not elevated and rectified by faith, first forms to itself carnal conceptions and notions of God, and then deviseth a way of worship suitable to those notions of Him.

So that as one well observes, "This is the fountain and principle of all error, that men think that those which please them, must needs please God; and what displeaseth them must also displease Him." So that this brat, idolatry, is begotten betwixt a proud, carnal heart and the devil; who, since he cannot draw men to the former sort of idolatry, endeavors all he can to entangle and defile them with this, and that partly out of malice to God, knowing what a dear thing His worship is to Him, and partly out of a design of ruining such as he can entice to it. For he knows their sorrows shall be multiplied, and God seldom lets it escape without some remarkable stroke (Psa 16:4).

Upon the whole then, you plainly see, worship may be right as to its object, and yet idolatrous in respect of the manner because the assuming of a despotical[13] power in this case, is not only a slighting of that royal law, but as high a piece of treason against Jesus Christ, as can lightly be committed by a creature.

The instituting of any, though the smallest part of worship, in and by our own authority without Scripture, warrant, makes it idolatrous as well as if we worshipped an idol . . . so that if that worship you perform to God be corrupted by a mixture of mere human, doctrinal, symbolical, rites and ceremonies, which God hath not appointed in His worship by the Word; though your worship be right for the object, yet it is idolatrous in the manner. Here you had need to be advised and careful, for you are upon a ticklish[14] point.

All and every part of God's instituted worship depends entirely upon His own sovereign will and pleasure. So that no man can appoint any part of it, but God alone, forasmuch as no man knows what will be acceptable to God, but God Himself. That, which is highly esteemed among men, is an abomination to God.

The will of God, which is the foundation and rule of His worship, is only revealed to us in the Scriptures; whence it is manifest, that in worship all men are bound to keep close to the Word.

Hence then you may see the door at which superstition enters, even addition of new and uncommanded things. When we invent new rites and ceremonies, and bring them into the worship of God, with a spiritual signification and use, this is superstition; being something above and beyond what God appoints and requires. And as all the water in the Tyber cannot wash the Papists from the filth of their idolatry and superstition, in their mass, altars, surplice, cross; so neither can any thing besides the blood of Jesus, cleanse us from the same, if we do like them.

1 cautelous – cautious; wary.
2 circumspect – watchful on all sides; examining carefully all the circumstances.
3 James Ussher (1581-1656) – Irish Protestant churchman and scholar. A vehement opponent of Roman Catholicism, yet he was respected by all parties for his sweet temper and the astonishing range of his scholarship.
4 palliated – softened by favorable representations.
5 John Davenant (1572-1641) – Puritan minister; author of a famous commentary on Colossians.
6 placets – decrees.
7 want a pretext – lack a reason given for doing something that conceals the real reason.
8 wont – accustomed.
9 Irenaeus (c. 140-c. 202) – bishop of Lyons in Gaul in the late 2nd century. Considered by many to be the first systematic theologian.
10 grateful – pleasing to taste; delicious.
11 credulous – disposed to believe too readily; gullible.
12 profligated – driven away.
13 despotical – absolute in power.
14 ticklish – difficult; critical.

John Flavel (c. 1630–1691): English Presbyterian. Voluminous writer of Evangelical works such as The Fountain of Life Opened and Keeping the Heart. Born at Bromagrove, Worcestor.

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