David Clarkson and Soul Idolatry

David Clarkson and Soul Idolatry, Part 1: The Problem Identified

Recently, I was preaching from 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10, where we learn of the church turning “to God from idols to serve the living and true God,  and to wait for his Son from heaven” (ESV).  I took the opportunity to study the theme of idolatry more fully and came across the post of our own Ben Ciavolella. He had just that week posted some comments by Samuel Rutherford about idolatry, specifically concerning that “master idol,” that “whorish creature,” that “house devil” – the self.  I gladly and smartingly made use of this treatment in my sermon. 

My study  then led me to Puritan David Clarkson (c1621–1686), who had served briefly as a co-pastor with John Owen at the end of the latter’s life. Specifically, his  Soul Idolatry Excludes Men out of Heaven, will be the focus of this and my next post. First, we will identify the problem of “soul idolatry,” then the remedy for it. 

The work started with Ephesians 5:5, “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” (KJV). The idolater, here, notes Clarkson, is the one in whom any of these reign (more than simply remain), namely, the sexually immoral, the impure, or the greedy.  By implication, “every reigning lust is an idol; and every person in whom it reigns is an idolater,”  and one excluded from heaven. 

Clarkson defines idolatry as giving “honor and worship to the creature which is due only to God (Rom 1:25).” So, when such worship is given “to other things, whatever they are, we hereby make them idols and commit idolatry.”  Worship “due to God” alone “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.” Idolatry occurs whether we bow externally to a carved image or internally to anything that enslaves our heart. 

Accordingly, Clarkson focuses in the work on the internal “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.” Thus, Clarkson warns the reader, “He that serves his lusts, is as incapable of heaven as he that serves or worships idols of wood or stone.” 

Clarkson then provides thirteen acts of soul worship, all of which can be expressed in a positive way towards God in Christ or in a negative way towards an idol. The section prevents anyone from escaping its convicting grasp in exposing soul idolatry related to such objects as ourselves, family, money, possessions, pleasures, ease, accomplishments, fame, friends, safety, and power. In consideration of idolatry, Clarkson observes that “we make our god,” instead of or above the true God approached in Christ, that which: 

  1. “we most highly value,” 
  2. “we are most mindful of,” 
  3. we treat as “our chief aim,” 
  4. “we are most resolved” for or determined to pursue, 
  5. “we must love” or adore, 
  6. “we most trust” or place our confidence in or dependence upon, 
  7. “we most fear,” 
  8. “we make our hope” or expectation of acceptance, 
  9. “we most desire” or long for, 
  10. “we most delight and rejoice in,” 
  11. “we are most zealous” or “fervent” for, 
  12. “we are most grateful” to for what we receive in life, and 
  13. we “are more careful or industrious” for or spend the most effort upon. 

As Clarkson considers how far-reaching this internal soul idolatry is, he asks (among other similar questions), “Where is that man that does not give that soul-worship to the creature which is due unto the Creator?” He makes clear that even the best saints cannot in this life escape the tendency towards idolatry. In them, it “abides” and while “weakened” is by no means “annihilated.” So, Christians may “be guilty of idolatrous acts and motions” but not in a “habitual” way. True believers do not give way to such motions in an “unresisted” conscious manner but instead grieve over and judge themselves for them. 

The habitual idolater gives himself over to the idol and loses heaven as a result. For example, Clarkson observes that we (according to Jesus in Matt 6) “cannot serve God and mammon,” or be “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.” In modern parlance, one characterized as a materialistic workaholic will not make it to heaven. Yet, at what point does this define someone rather than simply denote a struggle they have? At what point has money and stuff effectively taken the place of God?

Such a question we cannot easily answer. In a society where addictions and counseling for them abound [e.g. drugs – prescription or illegal, pornography, alcoholism, narcissism (worship of self), co-dependency, food – related to conditions such as gluttony, orthorexia (eating heathy), bulimia, or anorexia], we must tread carefully. In ministering to others, we must avoid delivering either crushing despair or false hope to the struggling sinner. 

In the next post, we will consider the remedy that Clarkson gives us against idolatry. For now, it important to set forth his summary response: “Fly to the blood of Christ for pardon, to the power of Christ for strength,” as we strive to be “diligent in the use of mortifying duties” to bring such idols under subjection. In true believers, there will exist a true “resistance” to “cry to the Lord with strong cries” against the idols of our lives. 

Bob McKelvey (@mckelvrj) is an OPC minister and serves as the Director of Research and Dean of Students at the Greystone Theological Institute. He is the author of Histories that Mansoul and Her Wars Anatomize: The Drama of Redemption in John Bunyan’s Holy War and a contributor to Drawn into Controversie: Reformed Theological Diversity and Debates within Seventeenth-Century British Puritanism. In connection with his Bunyan studies, he has written an allegory of his own, one for children: Nutonius of Acornshire.

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Bob McKelvey