But these “factories” don’t produce their goods ex nihilo—out of nothing. Rather, they take the good gifts that God has already provided to us and pervert them by assigning them a place of preeminence in our lives. As C.S. Lewis says, our hearts take second things and put them first. We take good gifts such as work, family, money, accomplishment, sex, food, and drink, and we make them ultimate things in our lives. We give our hearts to them, and we serve them with our thoughts, our time, our priorities, and our resources. We allow these things to become substitutes for God. Because of the sin that remains in us, this is what we are “prone” to do. In the words of the hymn writer, our hearts are prone to wander. In the words of Calvin, they are idol factories.
This means that the Christian life will necessarily be a constant struggle to recognize these new idols of the heart and then to tear them down. Or, using Lewis’ categories, we recognize that second things have in fact become first things, and then we seek to remove those second things from their place of preeminence and restore them to their rightful position. This is what genuine repentance is all about: tearing down the idols of our hearts, destroying them completely. We do that when we take our hearts away from the idols that have possessed them, and we give our hearts back to God.
This has been one of the most helpful realizations in my own Christian life over the last five or six years. For a long time, I looked at repentance in almost exclusively behavioral terms. I saw it as a 180-degree change in my outward actions. But, all the while, I gave little attention to the desires of my heart. More recently, I have come to see that genuine repentance must focus on the heart. It must begin with changing my heart’s desires. I must take my affections away from whatever substitute gods I have been serving and fix them again on Christ. I must tear down every new idol of my heart, destroying it completely, and give my heart to Christ again “promptly and sincerely,” as Calvin said so long ago. This is a daily struggle. It is the daily struggle of the Christian life.
I once heard Dr. R.C. Sproul summarize Calvin’s idol-factory language by referring to the human species as Homo faciens—which means “man, the maker”—rather than the scientific label Homo sapiens—which means “man, the wise or discerning.” His point was that the human species ought to be classified scientifically by that which chiefly characterizes it. And “idol makers” does that much more accurately than “wise men.” If we apply R.C.’s logic to what we have said about repentance in this article, we can rightly conclude that Christians ought also to be called Homo destruens—which means “man, the destroyer”—because the Christian life is fundamentally about destroying the idols that our hearts are constantly producing. In other words, it is precisely because you and I are Homo faciens that we must also be Homo destruens. Then and only then will we begin to see real victory over sin in our lives, and then and only then will we experience real and lasting joy in Christ.