We all know what it’s like to do the right thing for the wrong reason. But what about the reverse? Have you ever done the wrong thing for (what you thought was) the right reason?
Your motives were pure, but you still blew it.
One thing that separates biblical Christianity from almost every other religion is its laser-like focus on our hearts. Our Creator cares what we do, to be sure, but most fundamentally he cares how and why we do certain things. He’s interested in those intentions that are hidden from human eyes. He’s after our hearts.
Psalm 100:2 commands us to “serve the LORD with gladness.” This means that serving God can be an exercise in disobedience. (Yes, you read that correctly.) If our service springs from a heart that isn’t glad in God, it isn’t obedience. It’s sin.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus raises the bar even higher. Struggling with hatred? You have a murder problem. Lust? It’s adultery (Matthew 5:21–22, 27–28). And when you fast or give to the poor, Jesus says, make sure no one notices (Matthew 6:1–4, 16–18). God sees your heart, and his approval is enough.
The Maker of heaven and earth isn’t just concerned with our service; he’s concerned with our intentions. Our motivations. Our hearts.
As deeply as God cares about our motives, however, there’s something he cares about even deeper.
And that’s our message.
A Startling Difference
While reading the Bible recently I was struck by two remarkably divergent responses to gospel proclamation:
It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. . . . The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice. (Philippians 1:15–18)
Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse! (Galatians 1:7–9)
Why did comparing these two passages startle me? In Philippians, even though the motives in view are wrong, Paul is rejoicing because the message is right. In Galatians, by contrast, we don’t read anything about motives. For all we know, the hypothetical apostles (“we”) and angel from heaven could have perfectly sincere motives! Nevertheless, Paul is outraged. Why? Because the message being broadcast is mistaken.
Motives, Messages, and Mormons
Have you ever met a Mormon? I grew up next to a Mormon family, and they’re still my parents’ neighbors. I’m not sure I’ve met nicer people. If salvation were based on religious sincerity, they’d have a far better chance than me.
But they’re lost and I’m saved. Is that because I’m more sincere? No, I’m not. More moral? Not that either. Because I have stronger faith? I doubt I do.
It’s for one simple reason: my Mormon neighbors and friends have the wrong message.
You see, the only thing that bothered Paul more than wrong motives (Philippians 1) was the wrong gospel (Galatians 1). According to the Bible, the purity of our message trumps every other consideration—even one as vital as our motives.
What are your motives when you share the good news of Jesus? For me, they’re often a mixed bag. Some are good (e.g., love for the lost, passion for God’s glory), others not so much (e.g., sense of guilt, desire to impress). How about your motives when you don’t open your mouth? For me, it’s often an ugly combination of apathy, selfishness, and fear of man.
Even more importantly, when you do attempt to share the gospel, what gospel gets shared? Which aspects of the message are you most tempted to edit, to mute, perhaps even to deny? Maybe it’s the severity of sin, or the reality of judgment, or the necessity of repentance. It’s exceedingly tempting in our culture today to emphasize God’s mercy but not his justice, his love but not his wrath, his kingdom but not his cross. Yet such lopsided messages, however loving they may feel, are powerless to save. As Thomas Watson (1620–1686) once said, “Till sin be bitter, grace will not be sweet.”
Bad and Worse
Because the Lord cares much about our hearts, wrong motives are bad. But because he cares most about his truth, the wrong gospel is worse.
Let’s not tweak the gospel of Jesus. Our mission is to deliver the mail, not tamper with it. The risen King doesn’t want editors; he wants men and women who, with gentle courage and humble conviction, will open their mouths to proclaim this liberating message “of first importance” (1 Corinthians 15:3)—the message of what God has accomplished in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus to restore rebels to himself.
So let’s get busy, friends. This good news, after all, is nothing less than God’s explosive power to save anyone who embraces his Son (Romans 1:16).
Matt Smethurst serves as associate editor for The Gospel Coalition. He and his wife Maghan have two children and live in Louisville, Kentucky, where they belong to Third Avenue Baptist Church. You can follow him on Twitter.