Book Review: “Counterfeit Gods” by Tim Keller

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“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.

You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love me and keep my commandments.”

(Exodus 20:2-6 ESV)

Premise

In Counterfeit Gods, Tim Keller examines the sin that is perhaps the core of all sin: that instead of worshiping the One True God, we seek other things to replace Him. Not only is idolatry an affront to God and His worthiness, but it’s also harmful to us. We pour out our lives and resources and stake our desires and purposes on things that ultimately cannot fulfill, things that are transient and powerless.

The introduction defines idolatry, explains how idols are made in our lives, and shows how what we worship affects the way we live. The next six chapters are dedicated to specific, common idols: our wishes; romance and love; wealth; success; power and fame; and cultural idols (patriotism and business success) and religious idols (legalism, doctrinal purity, ministry success). The last chapter and the epilogue point to God as the source of true fulfillment and the only One worthy of worship.

How This Book Helped Me

The introduction alone made the book worth reading. Keller makes penetrating and clear statements that help to diagnose sin:

  • “What is an idol? It is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give.” (xvii)
  • “A counterfeit god is anything so central and essential to your life that, should you lose it, your life would feel hardly worth living.” (xviii)
  • “If anything becomes more fundamental than God to your happiness, meaning in life, and identity, then it is an idol.” (xix)

Over and over, Keller forced me to evaluate the things I love in life and to put them in their rightful place before God. I found myself digging up idols that I never thought I had, things that were so innocuous or culturally praised that I had let them take the place of God in my life.

The structure of each chapter was also helpful. Keller presents the potential idol and discusses the ways it can manifest in a person’s life. He then provides an example of the idol at work in the life of a Biblical figure, showing how the idol influenced the person’s actions and the consequences of those actions. Lastly, he shows how God is better than each idol, how He is more worthy and more fulfilling. The chapter on romance was particularly helpful to me in that regard, and I suspect others, single or in relationships, would be similarly benefited.

The last thing that was helpful to me was the solution to idolatry that Keller provides. One cannot simply remove an idolatrous object of worship; we must put off and put on. The solution to idolatry is not removal of an idol, but replacement of the idol with the God who is far more worthy. We must repent of our idolatry by treasuring our Lord more.

Recommendation

  • Length: At fewer than two hundred pages, Counterfeit Gods packs a powerful punch against indwelling sin.  The book could probably be finished within a week reading only ten or fifteen minutes per day.
  • This Book Is Good For: Anyone struggling with persistent sin; anyone seeking to correct their priorities in the things they like; anyone curious about the topic of idolatry.