Saved from Idolatry

David Clarkson and Soul Idolatry, Part 2: The Remedy Applied

Our last post identified the problem of soul idolatry from David Clarkson's book, Soul Idolatry Excludes Men out of Heaven. For Clarkson, soul idolatry occurred in general “when the mind and heart is set upon anything more than God.” Even the best saints are plagued by this, though no Christian can be habitually overcome. This post applies the remedy for idolatry offered to us by Clarkson.

Obviously, dealing with idolatry presupposes the need to “search it out” in our hearts, “else how can it be avoided?” He suggests reviewing the sections covered to that point (especially with the searching questions he offers) to identify the problem. “If you discover it not,” he warns, “it is because you will not see.” Consequently, “this abominable sin in you is willful, and yourselves inexcusable, and the justice of God clear, if any perish for it.” 

Once you discover idolatry, “bewail it,” with sorrow for your sin and going “then in secret” to “blush before the Lord,” in shame and humility. In full sight of our sin, Clarkson bids us, “Fly to Christ for pardon,” for he alone “can wash off the deep stain of this crimson sin.” One instance of idolatry “though you be guilty of millions” is “enough to sink you into hell,” under the wrath of God of which Christ alone can deliver you. To highlight our need to bewail our sin and fly to Christ, Clarkson begs us to consider the inheritance we lose in order to keep our sin.  At one pointing he asks, “And will you lose the kingdom of God rather than sacrifice this sin?” For Clarkson, the matter is simple: Leave the sin, or lose the Savior and the eternal inheritance which he alone can give. 

Even for Christians who are not losing glory, motions toward idolatry make attaining heaven “exceeding difficult.” Clarkson here wishes to motivate us to wage war on our idols. Clinging to idols makes the way to heaven “woeful and perilous,” and serves to “dash your hopes,” “darken your evidence,” “blast the prosperity of your souls,” weaken the power of godliness and presence of holiness, and bring your souls into a malnourished, diseased, and “languishing condition.” In short, when we give our  hearts over to anything more than God, “this idolatrous plant will suck away all the juice and sap of your souls.” 

Furthermore, it prevents “intimate communion with God, where this tolerated. And what is the life of a Christian without this, but a shadow of death?” In the end, a Christian playing with idols brings his or her soul towards ever closer to apostasy in which the hypocrite is exposed rather than salvation is lost, the latter of which is impossible. With such idolatry eating away “as a cancer” in a most “dreadful” manner, “should not this be a forcible motive” to subdue and expel it? Think about it, when we as Christians value anything above God, it never gives us the comfort, relief, whatever that it promises. Beyond that, not only does it fail to satisfy, it in the end makes us miserable. Yet, how we reluctant we are to cast away our precious. 

Next, Clarkson writes that if you continue in your idolatry, God will likely bring you into some “sharp affliction” even using your idols to embitter your life. So, he turns them into “serpents; so that instead of the comforts you expect to refresh you, you shall find a sting to wound you.” In other words, you are “deluded” if you expect enjoy “your idol quietly” without the Lord making “you smart for it.” 

Likewise, the Lord who afflicts also withdraws “himself from you” in the midst of your idolatry. “And oh,” bemoans Clarkson, “how sad will your condition be, if outward afflictions and spiritual desertions should meet together!” As if God were speaking, Clarkson charges the idolater in this miserable condition, “Go and cry to these idols that you preferred before me, let them deliver you, let them speak peace to you, let them save you, let them free you from the wrath to come, let them secure you from going down into the pit.”  Clarkson ends the section pleading with us to remember these things, “before it be too late.” 

Moving on to the means to deal with idolatry, Clarkson first tells us (speaking to unbelievers and manifesting preparationism), “get new natures” and cry out to the Lord “for the spirit of regeneration.” While no one may enter heaven without a renewed heart as the foundation for saving faith in Christ, Clarkson disappoints here. He would have done much better to point the sinner to the Savior rather than a regenerated heart as his or her hope.

Next, in a manner reminiscent of his colleague Owen’s Mortification of Sin (1656), he instructs us as believers, “Mortify your lusts.” Here, I found myself wishing Clarkson had elaborated more. Still, he at least provides these mortifying duties:

  • “Search out your lusts” growing in the ability to discern them. 
  • “Be ashamed of them.”
  • “Acknowledge them” in humility before the Lord “frequently” and “seriously.”
  • “Cut off the occasions which nourish” or “support them.
  • “Beat down your bodies, and bring them into subjection” abstaining from “lawful liberties” if enjoying them means “yielding any encouragement to your lusts by them.”
  • “Cry unto God for strength against this great multitude,” which must be seen “as more dreadful than an host of armed enemies.”
  • “Bewail them as your greatest afflictions.”
  • In faith draw on the power of your crucified Savior through whose strength alone “you must conquer” as you crucify unmortified lusts and “die daily unto them.” 

Finally, he ends by challenging us not to overvalue “outward things,” which “is the birth and food” of soul idolatry. In the end, the “choicest worldly enjoyments” are vain, uncertain, dissatisfying, deceitful, and unprofitable. With this in mind, we must recognize that “lawful comforts” can be “the most dangerous snares” as we feel secure in them and pursue them “too eagerly.” Such a warning he applies to our enjoyment of friends, family, and recreations. 

Here, the church today must pay great attention as we, in Christian liberty, enjoy the lawful comforts and pleasures of life to an excess as we “let out our hearts to them.” So, then, I close my post with Clarkson’s groaning closure to his book:

Oh, how many who escape the gross pollutions of the world, and are far from excess of riot, are miserably ensnared in the inordinate using and affecting of lawful things! Here we lie most open to Satan; therefore; if ye would avoid this idolatry, be most watchful and jealous in these things.


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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