In the message on Sunday, we looked at the truth that motive matters. When we obey, it matters why we are obeying, for our motive is the basis on which our works will be judged on the last day (1 Cor 3:10-15, cf 1 Cor 4:5). If the fire reveals godly motives, we will receive our commendation from God.
We also looked briefly at a number of godly motives endorsed by Scripture. These included:
- love for God (Matt 22:37; John 14:15; 2 Cor 5:14; 1 John 5:3)
- the desire to please God (2 Cor 5:9; 1 Thess 2:4, 4:1; 2 Tim 2:4; Heb 11:5-6)
- the desire to have a clear conscience (Acts 24:16; 1 Tim 1:5, 1:19; 2 Tim 1:3)
- the desire for others to come to know the Lord through our godly example and witness (Titus 1:10-2:15; 1 Peter 3:1-2)
- the desire to avoid the Lord’s chastening (Heb 12:3-11, cf Acts 5:1-11; 1 Tim 5:20;2 Cor 5:11, 7:1; Eph 4:30; Phil 2:12)
- the desire for greater heavenly reward (1 Cor 3:10-15; Matt 6:19-21; Luke 19:17-19;2 Cor 5:9-10; 2 Tim 4:6-8; 1 Pet 5:4)
In this post, I’d like to consider a few ungodly motives mentioned or depicted in Scripture. The first is the desire to earn man’s approval. Sometimes this is referred to as the fear of man. Essentially, this is obedience that comes from a desire to impress others or to please people.
A couple of weeks ago in our study of the first verses of Matthew 23, we noted that this is the desire that motivated the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus said of them, “They do all their deeds to be seen by others” (Matt 23:5). He then described how they loved to be exalted before men. In other words, their obedience was all about their own exaltation.
This desire to please men stands in direct opposition to the desire to please God. It is impossible to be motivated by both at the same time. In John 12:42-43, we’re told that some Jews believed in Jesus but were afraid to confess Him before others because “they loved the approval of men rather than the approval of God. Similarly, Paul noted the opposition of these two desires when he wrote, If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ (Gal 1:10).
We are frequently guilty of the desire to please men. This is what stands behind our tendency to wear masks in front of other Christians. We behave in more “godly” ways at church than we do in private because we want others to think more highly of us. We want others to believe that we have it all together. We want man’s approval.
And what can be expected by those who obey for this reason? Jesus told us in Matt 6. Regarding the hypocrites who do their acts of righteousness to be seen by others, Jesus said repeatedly, “They have received their reward” (Matt 6:2, 5, 16). Lest we miss the personal application, He said, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven” (Matt 6:1). In that chapter, the Lord uses the Jewish leaders as examples. They were not saved, so they received no reward whatsoever. However, it is possible for believers to obey for the same reason, therefore, according to 1 Cor 3-4, they will be saved, but will receive no commendation from God for those works on the last day.
Another ungodly motive for obedience is envy and rivalry. Paul told the believers at Philippi that his imprisonment was resulting in the greater spread of the gospel. He noted that many were moved to speak the truth due to his imprisonment, but for different deeper motivations: Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment (Phil 1:15-17).
This motive is similar to the previous one in that they both are inherently self-exalting, yet envy/rivalry has the added component of wishing to gain at the expense of others. It seems that these people mentioned by Paul wanted to hurt him. How their preaching the gospel would have accomplished this is not clear, however, it is possible that they assumed Paul shared the same motive, that is to elevate himself above others through ministry. They may have seen his imprisonment as an opportunity to overshadow his reputation as an effective servant of the Lord. They wanted what he had – a good reputation among believers. And they weren’t content merely to share it with him, but they wanted to take it from him.
Are we ever motivated in this way? Certainly. We can have a tinge of envy when we see someone else serving in a capacity that we desire. It is especially strong when the other person is receiving recognition for that service. I’ve heard people in music ministry confess such a motive. I’ve heard preachers and teachers confess the same thing. We want what that other person has – both the ministry position and the reputation that goes along with it. Works done for this motive will not survive the fire.
Another ungodly motive for obedience is the desire to earn our salvation. This is one that is easy for us to dismiss because we believe in salvation by grace through faith in Christ. We may think it is a motive only shared by those who do not believe in the perseverance of the saints or who actually believe that salvation is by works. However, it is quite possible for us to live in a way that does not coincide with the theology that we say we believe.
Two New Testament books come to mind when I think about the temptation to introduce works as a basis for our salvation. Galatians and Colossians both address the heresy of adding things to the work of Christ as a basis for acquiring or maintaining our right standing before God. Paul calls this a “different gospel” (Gal 1:6-7). This heresy taught that you need faith in Christ and other outward works in order to be saved.
To this, Paul responded: Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?...Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith…? (Gal 3:2-5). The clear message is that salvation is by faith alone in Christ alone.
We would all deny the legitimacy of works as a basis for salvation, yet many of us live as if our performance either acquires or maintains our salvation. We obey hoping that God will love us more. When we disobey, we believe that God loves us less. In a way, this motive for obedience is similar to the others in that it elevates self – it says that I and not Jesus determine my standing before God. For this reason, it’s possible that this motive is the most offensive to God – it degrades the work of Jesus on the cross.
The reason that this motive is so difficult to avoid is that the NT does repeatedly call us to obey. It does describe the necessity of good works on the last day (Matt 7:15-23, 12:33-37, 25:31-46; John5:28-29, 15:8; Acts 26:20; 2 Pet 1:5-11; Rev 20:11-15). Many wrongly assume that this means good works are in some sense the basis for our salvation. But a biblical understanding is that good works are the outward evidence of an internal by-grace-through-faith salvation. The basis of our salvation, both our receiving and retaining of it, is the finished work of Jesus Christ. Works are the outward evidence that this has taken place. It takes great discipline to think rightly about these things and the most effective way to do so is to rehearse the gospel everyday, understanding that works are the result of salvation not the cause of it. As with other ungodly motives, works done for the purpose of earning salvation will not survive the fire on the last day.
It is quite possible and even common to do good things for wrong reasons. Let’s continue to consider the reasons we do the things we do. And may the Lord bless us this Sunday as Pastor Rick teaches us how we can grow in that greatest of all godly motives – love for God.