“Idolatry is having or inventing something in which to put our trust instead of, or in addition to, the only true God who has revealed himself in his Word” (LD 34).

We’re not guilty of idolatry, are we? We all believe in God and in our Saviour Jesus Christ. So when it comes to the first commandment, we can tick that box, can’t we?

But wait a minute. Those words “in addition to” imply that we could believe in God but also place some trust elsewhere. So we believe, with the catechism, that if we trust in something “in addition to” God, we’re engaging in idolatry. And no idolator will inherit the kingdom of God (Form for Holy Supper).

Must we do good works? Yes, we must (LD 32). But not in order to contribute to our salvation.

Yet the feeling that we have to do something for our salvation, that somehow by our good works we can at least earn part of our salvation, is something that has been with mankind for thousands of years. So we do well to be aware of our own inclinations herein.

It is the lesson the Israelites were loath to learn and the Pharisees couldn’t accept. Later, the Roman Catholics embraced the same error. ‘Protestant’ churches with Arminian ideas today continue to promote it. And who will deny that we, too, find it alluring. For people want, so much, to do something for their salvation.

Yet that notion that somehow we can contribute something towards our redemption is, at root, the sin of idolatry. It robs Christ of His glory because it says in effect that Christ is not enough. Our salvation then rests on Christ plus our good works. We fail to recognise the grand discovery that lifted Luther out of the pit of despair: that we are dead in sin and totally dependent for our salvation on the righteousness of Christ alone.

The sin of thinking we can do something towards earning our salvation is something the Israelites appear to have had great difficulty with. Having seen how the nations around them worshipped their gods, Israel took over their practices and sacrificed to God “on every hill and under every green tree”.  The more sacrifices the better, they thought.  God would be pleased and would bless and save them.

But thereby they had basically adopted the position of the heathens who saw their relationship with their gods as a sort of business deal. The heathens offered many and great sacrifices (even sacrificing their children) in the expectation that their gods, in return, would overlook their wrongs, provide rain, good harvests, childbirth, or whatever else they requested. By adopting this same idea Israel failed to recognise its sinful inability, failed to remember that it lived in a covenant of grace wherein the blood spilt through the sacrifices was not a business deal between them and God, not a payment for something, but a symbol of the blood which must be shed for their sins by the promised Messiah.

Later the Pharisees basically made the same error, thinking to make themselves worthy before God by innumerable “good” works. They went to extraordinary lengths to apply the O.T. laws to every area of their life – fasting far more frequently than necessary, paying tithes for even the minutest items, working out the law to the finest detail so as not to transgress it – thinking thereby to be acceptable in the eyes of God. They developed and expected that, because of this, and because of their descent from Abraham, God owed them salvation.

By the end of the Middle Ages, the Christian (Roman) Church had adopted similar notions. Although they believed in the idea of grace through Jesus Christ, they believed that grace had to be earned by living a very religious life. The clergy painted vivid pictures of hell and the terrors awaiting those who did not meet their obligations to the church. Moreover, they formulated seven sacraments through which they dispensed salvation. Thereby the clergy arrogated to themselves a power which effectively made them indispensable. Anyone seeking salvation could obtain this (to the degree it could be obtained) only by means of the sacraments administered by the clergy. Anyone wanting greater access to salvation could seek to join the clergy and become a monk or nun. By thus leading a devout religious life, they could circumvent purgatory where others believers were purified of their remaining sins, and go straight to heaven – if they had made the grade. Those not directly employed in the service of the church were dependent on their good works and on the good works of ‘saints’ to help them into heaven. Again, it was idolatry, placing trust “in addition to” Jesus Christ, the one true God.

The big lesson Luther learned was that all people are dead in sin and cannot contribute towards their own salvation. They are saved through grace by faith alone. God’s Word declares man’s utter inability to obtain salvation through good works:

“For by grace you have been saved through faith: and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works lest any man should boast” (Eph. 2:8).

Until people take the position of a lost sinner who can identify with Isaiah’s words “all we, like sheep, have gone astray”, there is no hope for their souls. However, once that position is taken the gates of salvation through Christ are opened and the comfort of His grace radiates in their lives.

Luther proved from God’s Word that salvation is by grace through faith in Christ alone.

The church excommunicated Luther and branded him a heretic because he exposed their self-willed worship and thereby threatened their income and power. They lost a great source of money when Luther exposed the sale of indulgences as a fraud. People could not pay for their sins by money or “good works”, said Luther, nor for the sins of those still in a fictional ‘purgatory’. Of course, the clergy found Luther a threat to their power and positions. The Roman church said that salvation was dispensed through the sacraments by means of the clergy. Luther proved from God’s Word that salvation is by grace through faith in Christ alone.

Today the Roman church no longer sells indulgences, but its position on the sacraments is the same. Its mass is “an accursed idolatry” and its formula is still: Christ plus good works equals salvation. However, even many ‘protestant’ churches today are zealous in doing “good works”, in being religiously active in their own way, but with a “theology” that involves idolatry. They claim to stand in the line of Luther but see themselves as being the means of providing salvation for others. What they focus on is not Luther’s struggles with and response to the questions: How am I saved from the curse of my sins? How can I escape the righteous judgement of God? How can I be reconciled to God and enjoy eternal salvation? Instead, they see in Luther someone who liberated the common people from the power vested in the church. They seek to echo his liberation from the Roman Church by their own theology of liberation, of promoting social and political action aimed at removing the injustices inherent in the structure of society and of the traditional church.

However, where Luther rejoiced that Christ had redeemed him from God’s judgement on his sins, today’s ‘reformers’ see sin as a horizontal matter. Sin is where oppression, inequality and unfairness occurs in society; and salvation is when such people are liberated from oppression. Did Christ not help the downtrodden, the sick, the oppressed? Was He not critical of the leaders of the established church – the scribes and Pharisees? Forget those struggles about doctrine in the church, practical Christianity will liberate people and create a better society. Such social reform, promoted in the context of their religiosity, will be rewarded by God, they feel, since Christ is their example. But their focus is away from the vertical, away from reconciling sinful man to God through Christ’s redeeming blood. They think that their good works will save them. Idolatry.

How tempting it is to engage in idolatry, to think that, in one way or another, our good works somehow contribute towards our salvation. One can even be pressured into thinking that unless we are actively engaged in all sorts of worthwhile organisations, our salvation is at risk. How sad when people will stand before God saying, “But Lord, did we not do this and that in your name” only to hear God say, “I never knew you, depart from Me …” (Mr 7:22).

It was the tax collector who cried, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” who went home justified, not the pharisee who, while believing in God, also trusted that his ‘good works’ would save him. Our good works are indeed essential; we must do them in gratitude (LD 32). But they cannot contribute to our salvation. That salvation is the free gift of our most wonderful and loving and gracious God who elected us to life eternal in Jesus Christ His Son and works faith and faithfulness in us by His Spirit.

Oh LORD our covenant God, who grants your children complete salvation in Jesus Christ, through free grace, keep us in the faith from all idolatry.