I hear it all the time: I don’t want to give up sex or quit drinking. I’m not ready to settle down. I just graduated. I work on Sundays. My friends or my family would all stop talking to me. We haven’t found a church since we moved. And so on. I’m sparing you a much larger paragraph describing all the many excuses I have heard for why someone believes in God but does not belong to a church. Or why they believe in God, even Jesus, but are not a practicing Christian.
Now, before I drown myself out with the loud thumping of my Bible, bear with me. Tell me if you disagree with me.


Let’s turn the picture on its side. Name all the things you assume (rightly or wrongly) you would have to ‘give up’ or ‘stop doing’ to live a life as a committed Christian. Tell me if I get close: sleeping around, drinking, partying, smoking pot, Vegas, porn, your job. Are any of these things on your list? More than one? Most or all of them?

I get it. Been there. Threw out the T-shirt. But this is how it works. God told us that we could not love Him and also love the world (1 John 2:15-17). It’s a tall order, but we can get there, with God’s help.

First, I would suggest you not trick yourself into believing that God is moved by your belief in Him even though you won’t follow Him (Rev 3:16). That is the result of a decision you gave yourself, not the decision God gave you. That’s not a ‘power-up.’ That won’t get you enough reward points for a small drink. God wants all of you (Mark 12:30). Put another way, He created you, and now He wants all of you back (Jer. 24:7).

Second, you must identify that you have an idol in your life. The good news is you don’t have to tackle your idols alone. Prayer is profitable in this area (Phil. 4:6-7). God would love you to ask Him to help you with the idols in your life (Mark 11:24). God wouldn’t ask you to do it alone (Matt. 28:20). He knows you can’t.

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:28-30)

It’s a process, though. It takes work. Miss me with all of the hyper-semantic, “grace not works” arguments. That doesn’t apply here. “Not works” has devolved into not necessary, not accountable, and not gonna change. I’m not talking about achieving salvation. I’m talking about working out your salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12-13).

You don’t just shut off everything on your list cold turkey. It won’t work. Have you ever quit smoking? It’s painful to stop an addiction. If you ask Him to, that’s the part God will help with. Soon, though, not smoking makes you feel better than smoking ever did. Even if you don’t feel better, if you don’t eventually stop, it will kill you (Matt. 5:29). Sin is no different.

The most surprising thing for me was that God will actually change the desires of your heart (Ezek. 36:26). He will make Himself the most important thing in your life. He made the first move (the Jesus bit), but you must also move (Rom. 10:9).


Before I move ahead, allow me to take a step back. I like a good head of steam before I deliver a punch line.

Early on in my walk, in one of my first classes on biblical studies, I asked my professor, “If Satan has been defeated, if the victory has been won, what is the point of spiritual warfare and “Armageddon” and the end times? Can’t Satan read? Does he not know that he’s lost?” To my absolute shock and disappointment, my really nice professor answered, “I don’t know.”

I would go on to give this same answer myself, as there are some mysteries in Scripture, but I have come to believe that this is not one of them.


I’ve written other articles about the Gospel, salvation, and the Christian life. This isn’t those. It wouldn’t hurt for you to have a grasp on those topics, though, after considering this one.

Picture the landscape. If you believe in God, as you say, then you should recognize it. God created the world and the people in it. Satan corrupted it with sin. God created a way to overcome it through your faith in His Son, Jesus (Eph. 2:8). Until a person accepts that way, they remain corrupted.

If you do accept it, though, you enter communion with God (Rev. 21:3-4). You’re reconciled back to Him. He has you back in the perfect way He made you. Not perfect the way you and I think of it. The way God thinks of it (Matt. 5:48).

God sees perfection as the amount of unforgiven sin you have within you. This should be easy; we’re either covered in sin, or we’re spotless. If you have sought God’s forgiveness, you have no unforgiven sin within you (1 John 1:9).

Anyone who has sought forgiveness from God, or anyone who is saved, if that is easier, has the exact same amount of sin in her as early Adam and Eve—zero. When Jesus returns, all unforgiven sin in the world will be burned up, but those who sought forgiveness and received it will not (Rev. 20:15).

So, Satan’s goal is to load you up with things that you don’t want to be forgiven for—money, power, status, drugs, alcohol, sex, popularity, Vegas. He makes it so that measuring God’s importance in your life doesn’t even occur to you. Shoot, this stuff is all great! Heaven sounds boring.

That’s great. The problem is if there is anything on this list (or your list) that you wouldn’t give up to follow God, then that battle is over.

All the enemy must do is distract you long enough to prevent you from choosing God before you die, whenever that is, and he’s won. That’s his part in spiritual warfare. Satan has certainly lost the war, but he will not go gentle into that good night.

The sobering part, he doesn’t need all of you. He only needs a piece. He still wants to win every battle (every soul) he can before the window closes. Inside of you, my friend, is one of those battles (Eph. 6:12). You have a decision to make. That is spiritual warfare. Satan can read just fine.


Fortunately for me, since I am a simple man, all of the reasons on all of the lists are the same. There is something more important to you than God. That something keeps you from pursuing a life of Christ-following, even though you believe in Him. That something is called an idol.

An idol is anything more important to you than God. Even if that anything is simply an idea of God that is more palatable to you than the God of the Bible. That breaks the first commandment all over the place. Doing so is what’s called idolatry.

Idols have tremendous power. They don’t actually do anything menacing to acquire it. They get their power just from standing off to the side where you can barely see them, hoping you’ll value them more than you value God. By value, I mean worship.

Obviously, not doing the things from the list above or the things from your list will not render you perfect. There is no ‘good enough.’ Forgiving yourself or meeting your own standards doesn’t do you any good. Only God’s forgiveness and meeting His standard (don’t get ahead of me) can save you.


Let’s look at the story of the Rich Young Man, sometimes referred to as the Rich Young Ruler. I’ll be drawing from the account in Mark 10:17-31.

While Jesus was on His final journey back to Jerusalem to be executed, He frequently stopped to teach the crowds that gathered and answered their questions. Jesus was with His disciples, and He had an audience, as He often did.

A man asked Jesus, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (v. 17) Jesus replied, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone” (v. 18). Jesus was not saying He wasn’t God and shouldn’t be called ‘good.’ It was more like saying, you don’t know that I am God. You shouldn’t call things ‘good,’ unless you know they’re God.

Jesus then began His answer. He said, “You know your commandments:” He listed the ‘love your neighbor’ commandments: don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t bear false witness, and honor your parents (v. 19). In the ESV, He also said, “don’t defraud.” I expected Him to say, “Do not covet.” Perhaps this means the same thing since you couldn’t defraud someone out of something if you didn’t covet it first. Perhaps not.

If you read this story more than once, you’ll notice that Jesus was setting the rich man up here. He was just getting started.

I think the young man replied a little too quickly, but he was excited. He couldn’t help himself. “All of these I have kept from my youth” (v. 20). Here. There’s nothing on my list! This is how we know he had no idea he was talking to Jesus.

What I find interesting is that this young man walked up to Jesus as if to say, Here, there’s nothing on my list. I’m doing everything right. But there’s still something missing. What am I doing wrong? You’re a rabbi. Maybe you can help me. What I hope you will also see is the battle raging in this guy, just like in you.

The commandments that Jesus didn’t get to were: have no other gods before Me (the first one), don’t make any graven images, don’t take the Lord’s name in vain, remember and keep holy the Sabbath. The ‘love God with all your heart’ ones. If I was wrong earlier, then He definitely left out “Do not covet” this time.

Jesus seemed to give him the easier ones first. I never killed anyone. Jesus was done playing games. He only needed to bring up one more, which Jesus knew he couldn’t keep—the first one—the one about having no other gods before God.

And God spoke all these words, saying, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:1-3)

I make it a point to quote the two verses before the first commandment appears in Exodus. It helps me to keep the list in the proper perspective.

Jesus was about to give him a choice—the only choice that matters. If he would make the right choice, he would inherit the eternal life he sought. Jesus was about to finish his sentence. Before He did, though, Jesus looked at him and loved him (v. 21a).

Before Jesus ever asks us to make this choice, He first loves us. He acts first, knowing whether we will make the right choice or not. He freed us from slavery. He became one of us and died on our behalf. He washed Judas’s feet (John 13:1-20). It is because He loves us that He is delighted when we make the right choice and sad if we make the wrong one (Luke 19:41-42). It is because He loves us that we can even make the choice at all.

Jesus handed the man his list back with one item written on it:

“You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions (Mark 10:21-22).

I have to unpack this a little because it is so often met with misunderstanding and/or hostility. Jesus did not say to everyone in His audience, including all readers of this Scripture into the future, that to have eternal life, you must sell everything you own. He was telling this one rich man that he had to. He had to because of what his wealth and his possessions actually were.

We know that Jesus wasn’t telling either the rich young ruler or His audience that selling everything you have and following Him would get you eternal life because only by following Jesus can you have eternal life. Anything added to that, anything (plus) Jesus (in regards to inheriting salvation) is a work that impugns what Jesus did on the cross. That’s where “faith not works” applies.

The story’s key is that we cannot do anything to earn eternal life. Jesus did everything. However, there are things that can prevent us from receiving this gift, mainly having anything in life that is more important to you than God, having an idol.

Hence Jesus’s instructions. If you really want to have eternal life, God has to be the most important thing in your life. If there’s anything else in the way, such as addictions, pursuit of riches, satisfying sinful behaviors, you first must rid yourself of those things. Then God will take their place.

Jesus told the man that he lacked one thing. Then Jesus gave him two things. Jesus’s answer was, get rid of that thing that’s keeping you from following Me, and come, follow Me (v. 22). Following Jesus was the one thing he lacked.

For the rich young man, his idol was his love of money. Jesus gave him the answer, but the man did not like it. The answer disheartened him. The self-defense of his perfect behavior, his perfect record, and all of his self-promotion suddenly dissolved. He turned his back to Jesus and simply walked away with his list, sorrowful. Why? Because, as the verse points out, he had great possessions. His possessions meant more to him than Jesus did, so he unknowingly walked away from Jesus.

Of course, his possessions’ number, size, or value were not at issue. The issue was that the idea of selling his possessions and sharing with the needy was not on the table. God doesn’t care how much money we have, even if it’s in the billions, so long as its value in our hearts is not greater than our value of God. Jesus knew that the man valued his possessions more, so He made him choose.

And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD. (Joshua 24:15)

The man’s actions showed us that he would never choose to give up his wealth even if doing so would make room for God. Since his obtaining eternal life depended on replacing his idol with God, he knew he would never have eternal life. And he went away sorrowful.


I’ll begin my exit with this: I’m afraid I don’t have the stadium-filling, headline-grabbing, pom-pom-shaking message you’ll get at many churches today. If you make the choice, this comes with it. By that, I mean we have light burdens, but we can’t take any of that for granted. An idol will capture our attention if we don’t focus on God. Then, we pick up more burdens. But idols won’t just move out. They have to be kept out.

We’ve all seen ‘Christian’ cult leaders, pastors, and priests make the news. Some of their names are famous. Sexual immorality, greed, cruelty, substance abuse, infidelity, thirst for fame. Some of the list is different, but it’s all the same. Only the names have changed. They’re idols.

If you make the choice, you’ll soon see that the people who go to your church are struggling with idols, too. Some are succeeding. The ones who succeed do so through prayer. The ones who don’t say things like, I tried Christianity. It didn’t take. They didn’t keep the idols out. The difference is prayer. That is our part in spiritual warfare.

Look at your list again. What item on your list is more important to you than your communion with God? If you don’t know what communion with God means, learn. Start here. Like and subscribe.

If you find even one thing on your list, or you don’t like and subscribe (I kid), you have every reason to walk away sorrowful. You’re turning your back to Jesus and every eternal thing He has in store for you to walk toward a pleasure you probably won’t still be indulging in ten years from now.

Money, power, alcohol, and other things are not sins in and of themselves. If you make that thing more important than God that it becomes a sin. When that more important thing is already a sin, like sexual immorality, drugs, deception, or cruelty, then you’re in real trouble. Then you’ll likely never wind up almost 3,000 words into a blog post on idols.

Remember, Jesus died to forgive all these things. You’re not being asked for too much. You’re being asked not to make the sin that Jesus died to forgive more important to you than Jesus Himself.

What will your answer be?

Saved for Later is a blog for the recently – or almost – saved adult. To get more of the foundational truths that we were not taught in childhood, subscribe to this blog. Please ‘like’, comment, and share!

Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.