Idolatry, Covetousness, and the Gospel Solution


I recently completed a study in my Sunday School class on the 10 Commandments titled “Rules for the Rescued.” God rescued his people from the land of Egypt and gave them the commandments to distinguish them from the pagan nations of Canaan. Both the first and last commands address the heart or the attitude of the redeemed child of God. The commands are found in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. The first command, “Have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:3; Deut. 5:7) highlights the importance of recognizing the unique nature of God himself. He is the only God, and therefore no other god (idol) should ever exist in his place. The final command, “Do not covet your neighbor’s house. Do not covet your neighbor’s wife, his male or female slave, his ox or donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbor” (Ex. 20:17; Deut. 5:21) highlights covetousness as the foundational attitude that forms the basis for many other sins.

These two attitude commands are the basis for the rest of the commandments as we relate to God and to others. Rejecting the attitude of idolatry by worshiping God alone is of primary importance. Obeying command #1 protects us from disobeying God in making idols, taking his name in vain, and breaking the Sabbath day (commands 2-4). Rejecting the attitude of covetousness is central to treating others respectfully. Obeying command #10 protects us in relation to honoring our parents, not murdering, not committing adultery, not stealing, and not being dishonest (commands 5-9). Addressing these attitude rules by focusing the heart on correct worship and redeemed desires is the first way in which we deal with sinful actions.

Interestingly, Paul in his letter to the Colossians identifies covetousness with idolatry (3:5). I believe his point is that covetousness is the attitude that forms the basis for idolatry. Examples follow. When we desire something with so much passion that we steal it, we have made it an idol replacing God’s promise of provision. When we obsess over some condition, quality, or possession such that it controls our thoughts we engage in covetousness that is really idolatry (wanting or worshiping something more than God). The attitude of covetousness is actually replacing God as the central figure and focus in our lives. Modern day idolatry is generally not exhibited in bowing down to some graven statue, but rather replacing God (who alone is worthy of our total attention, love, devotion, obsession, and worship) with something, someone, or some dream.

And how in the world do we hope to address our failure to obey these rules (primarily the two that deal with the attitudes of our heart—coveting and idolatry)? Do we focus ourselves more severely to obey the commands? Do we set up more rules for ourselves as fences to make sure we are not breaking these commands? No, I believe our flaws in keeping the rules have been tried and have consistently fallen short throughout the history of God’s people. How we learn to keep these rules is actually not ultimately through our own efforts. We learn to keep them by applying our rescue and redemption (the gospel) to our lives on a daily basis.

God did not give Israel these rules nor does he give them to us as prerequisites to becoming his people. He gave the rules because we ARE his people. Redemption preceded these commands. Rescue came before the rules. The rules are not meant to MAKE us God’s people; rather they are meant to REFLECT us as God’s people. So when you come face to face with your own covetousness and idolatry (as I have done during this study), apply the gospel to yourself.

  1. Recognize that God is your holy Creator and Redeemer and that he has every right to expect perfect holiness from you.
  2. Repent of your sinful attitudes and actions as you view them in light of God’s holiness (which are displayed in the commands).
  3. Receive God’s gracious forgiveness by means of the cross of Christ.
  4. Renew your commitment to live in obedience as a reflection of your salvation not a means to it.

Sounds a lot like when you received Christ for the very first time, doesn’t it? It should. Our growth process, especially when identifying and dealing with our sin, flows from applying the gospel to our daily lives.

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