Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Is Johnny A Christian?

A few weeks ago, Johnny hopped on a plane from Louisville to Atlanta. Madam Cleanway had the seat next to him. In Atlanta, they were set to part ways and get on separate flights to different destinations. Madam Cleanway is an Evangelical Christian who makes it a priority to share the gospel with everyone she encounters. She looked at Johnny and asked, "If this plane crashed and you died, do you know where you would go?"

Johnny was caught off guard by the question, but, somewhat reservedly, he replied, "I guess I would go to heaven because I am a good person, but I'm hoping that the plane makes it to Atlanta and lands safely."

Madam Cleanway had heard this response before. With as much tact as possible, she shared the gospel with Johnny, saying, "The reality is that all of us are sinners and God is just. God will judge sin, and because all of us have sinned, all of us deserve to be punished for our sin. But God is also gracious. He provided a way for us to have eternal life with Him. God sent Jesus Christ to die on the cross as a sacrifice for our sins. If we place our faith in Christ, then Christ has taken the punishment for our sin on the cross. By believing in Jesus Christ, we can have salvation."

"Wow!" Johnny said. "I knew about Jesus and I guess I knew that I was a sinner, but I've never thought about it that way before." Johnny asked how he could become a Christian, and Madam Cleanway told him that his faith in Christ is what makes him a Christian. She told him to pray and ask God to forgive his sins, trusting that Christ had taken the punishment for his sins on the cross. She told him to begin reading the Bible and start obeying the commands of Christ.

Madam Cleanway was excited by Johnny's response and wanted to encourage the development of his faith, but she knew that she'd probably never see Johnny again after the plane landed. She asked Johnny whether he had any Christian friends. "Oh yes," Johnny replied, "There are five people I can think of off the top of my head that are always talking about Jesus."

Madam Cleanway told Johnny to go to his five friends and tell them about his response to her gospel presentation and to ask them about discipleship.

Is Johnny a Christian?

Johnny did exactly what Madam Cleanway advised. Each of his five friends were so excited to hear that Johnny heard and responded to the gospel on the plane ride, and Johnny was so excited that he planned to meet regularly with each of these five friends to learn more about the Bible. Johnny's first friend was Joe Lowsteen; Joe taught Johnny about all of the riches that could be attained in truly following Christ. His second friend was Ben Kneehen, who taught Johnny about all of the spiritual gifts and the nature of God. Mr. Watchtower, Johnny's boss, met with Johnny after work and taught Johnny about the differences between Jesus the Son and God the Father. Johnny's friend, John Paul, taught Johnny about the necessity of good deeds in the Christian life. Finally, Johnny's fifth friend, Bobby Behl taught Johnny about the vastness of God's love. Johnny learned so much in such a short about of time, and he soaked it all in. He began reading books that his friends suggested, and he began developing nuanced theology from all of the things he was learning. After a few months, Johnny began sharing what he'd learned with others and asking about how he could lead Bible studies on his own. He also began to discover that many Christians didn't believe the things his friends were teaching him, and he began to defend those teachings.

Joe Lowsteen is a proponent of the prosperity gospel.
Ben Kneehen denies the Trinity and believes that tongues are necessary for salvation.
Mr. Watchtower is a Jehovah's Witness who denies the deity of Christ.
John Paul is a devout Roman Catholic who believes good deeds are necessary for salvation.
Bobby Behl is a postmodernist who denies Biblical inerrancy and the doctrine of hell.

All of these characters are teachers of what has historically been labeled as false teachings or heresies. Johnny believed that he had been saved by Jesus, but he has been led astray by false teachings and has himself become a teacher and defender of those things.

Is Johnny still a Christian?

At this point, stop and ask yourself what you believe. Did you think Johnny was a Christian when I asked the first time? Do you still think Johnny is a Christian?

While this hypothetical story represents a scenario that is not as common as it could be because Christians are far too slow to share the gospel, it does represent a scenario that is potentially and probably real for a lot of people. It is an unfortunate reality that, in our culture, an extraordinarily wide range of theologies and doctrines operate under what is called Christianity. The secular culture will call anyone a Christian who labels themselves as a Christian, but most Christians throughout history have labeled people with the beliefs of Johnny's five friends as heretics, not Christians.

Romans 1:16 says that the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes. The implication is that the gospel is sufficient for salvation. If someone believes the gospel, then they are a Christian.

But when this truth is applied to the scenario presented above, a crucial questions arises: did Madam Cleanway actually present the gospel?

Given the way he responded, it's safe to assume that Johnny sincerely believed what Madam Cleanway told him. But if Madam Cleanway presented the gospel and Johnny believed it, then Johnny is a Christian.

1 John 2:19,24, says, "They went out from us, but they were not really of us; if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us...If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, you also will abide in the Son and in the Father.

If what Johnny's friends believed was heresy, then they are not Christian. And if Johnny believes these heresies and is willing to defend them, then Johnny is not a Christian. There are many Christians that have been taught some of these things incorrectly, but a true believer, equipped with the Spirit, will be willing to receive correction from the authority of Scripture.

In this circumstance, we have a catch-22. Either Johnny was never really a Christian, or he is still a Christian. Both cannot be true. 

This leaves two options:
1. What Johnny's friends believe is not truly heresy.
2. Madam Cleanway did not truly present the gospel.

Perhaps Christians are too quick to shout, "heresy!" All of us allow for some leniency in doctrine. Differences in beliefs about ordinances, soteriology, eschatology, and ecclesiology are vast among Christianity, but it is rare for Christians to makes claims of heresy over differences in these areas. Perhaps the umbrella of permissible (not necessarily true, but also not necessarily heretical) beliefs in Christianity is wider than we'd like to think. We are sinners in need of grace. And Christ, who knew no sin, became sin that we might become His righteousness. God sent His one and only son, Jesus Christ, so that whoever believes in him would not perish but would have eternal life. It is possible, and all too common, for people to believe these truths of 2 Corinthians 5:21 and John 3:16 and also believe doctrines that would be considered, by most Christians, to be outside of orthodoxy.

Option one, in certain cases, may be true. Perhaps, in some instances, we are too quick to make claims of heresy. However, the opposite may also be true. Perhaps we allow too much to fall under the umbrella of Christianity. 

I don't believe that Johnny is a Christian, but the issue is that, if I had only heard the first half of the story, I probably would have assumed that Johnny was a Christian. Regardless of what I would have thought, though, Johnny denied that Christ was truly God. He believed that Christ was someone who died so that he could have a financially prosperous life. Johnny denied some doctrines that were central to Christianity. He followed a different Jesus.
For this reason, I tend to believe that option two is more likely to be true than option one.

Madam Cleanway is bolder than most of us. She was faithful to call a sinner to repentance and to present the work of Christ on the cross. However, if someone can believe the punishment for their sin to be paid on the cross of Jesus Christ and still not be a Christian, then the gospel that is sufficient for salvation encompasses more than the work of Christ on the cross. 

I'm not going to pretend that I can confidently pronounce all of tertiary doctrines of the Christian faith that we can freely differ on and still remain brothers, but the necessary doctrines of the Christian faith are the ones that are fundamental to the gospel. There are some very central doctrines of the Christian faith that are necessary implications of the gospel, so those doctrines are necessary doctrines in saving faith.

Christ was crucified because of his claims of deity; when we present the gospel, we must make it clear that Jesus Christ is God. Christ died because sinners are on a path to eternal destruction; when we present the gospel, we must make it clear that the alternative to eternal life available in Christ is eternal damnation. Christ called his followers to pick up their cross and follow him; when we present the gospel, we must make it clear that following Jesus Christ is costly and requires the denial of our selfish desires and plans. The New Testament is clear that salvation is by grace through faith and not by works; when we present the gospel, we must make it clear that good deeds are not necessary for salvation. Whatever is necessary for a Christian to be called a Christian should be clearly portrayed in our words as we present the gospel. We cannot expect a prospective Christian to be able to count the cost of conversion if they do not truly understand the cost of conversion. So speak the truth, and tell the whole truth.

Do you believe that Johnny was a Christian? Why or why not? What are the things that you believe define a Christian, and what are the things that compromise Christianity at its core?

Furthermore, who do you know that needs to hear the gospel? Who will you encounter in the coming days that you will share the gospel with? What will you tell them? What will you do to ensure that these people will not be led astray by heretics? Who is your Johnny?

Thursday, October 17, 2013

A Biblical Definition of Worship

Defining the Word
In developing a Biblical theology of worship, the best place to begin is by understanding how the Bible uses the word itself. As Vine’s Expository Dictionary notes, “The worship of God is nowhere defined in Scripture,” at least not explicitly.[1] There are certainly places in Scripture where worship is described without actually using the word worship, but until it is understood what is meant by worship explicitly, one cannot discern when those less explicit passages are referring to worship from when they are referring to something potentially similar to but distinct from it. Admittedly, there are also several places where worship, as it is rendered by the NASB, is used in Scripture that are not helpful for understanding its definition. For example, there are passages in which worship is described as having taken place with no further description of that worship.[2] In addition to this, there are passages where worship is commanded with little to no further detail about how to obey the command to worship.[3] Aside from these passages, there are several passages that describe worship in a certain place – in Jerusalem, in a temple, or on a mountain – but even most of these passages do not describe the worship that is taking place.[4] It is not that these verses are entirely unhelpful – it is important to understand that the people of God are a worshiping people. However, worship-noted, worship-commanded, and worship-located are not particularly helpful for discovering worship-defined. Aside from these uses of worship, the most common usage for worship (specifically, shachah in the Old Testament and proskuneo in the New Testament) is in reference to the worship of idols, which is found explicitly about sixty times.[5] The remaining Biblical usages for worship are the ones that will help define worship, as it is used Biblically. In a few places, the Bible ties worship to offerings, sacrifices, and the pardon of sin.[6] In even fewer places, the Bible ties worship to music and singing.[7] The association of worship with these offerings, sacrifices, purification, and singing can certainly be helpful in defining worship Biblically because this association shows clearly that the thing worshiped in these verses is understood to be worthy of offerings, sacrifices, purity and song. However, there is one prevailing Biblical usage for worship that helps define it more clearly than all of the usages that have been mentioned. Only including passages that reference the worship of God, rather than the worship of idols, the Bible associates worship with bowing down or falling down at least twenty-three times. At least nine times, the Old Testament speaks of people who bow down (qadad) in worship (shachah).[8] In a few other places, the Old Testament speaks of people who kneel (kara) or fall (naphal) in worship (shachah).[9] In the New Testament, at least nine times, people are described as falling down (pipto) in worship (proskuneo).[10] This widespread, but not exclusive, association of worship with bowing down makes the Biblical understanding of worship much more clear. In bowing down, a worshiper understands that the object worshiped is superior. A worshiper of God bows to God because he believes that God is transcendent. Every act of worship toward God, therefore, is a response to an understanding of God’s transcendence. It is for this reason that offerings, sacrifices, and songs of praise are associated with worship. The Biblical understanding of worship is so closely related to the act of bowing down that shachah is often translated bowing down. One clear example of this is the NASB rendering of 2 Kings 5:18: “In this matter may the LORD pardon your servant: when my master goes into the house of Rimmon to worship (shachah) there, and he leans on my hand and I bow (shachah) myself in the house of Rimmon, when I bow (shachah) myself in the house of Rimmon, the LORD pardon your servant in this matter.” Within the same verse, shachah is translated both worship and bow. Proskuneo in the New Testament is also translated both ways, though it is rendered worship more often.[11]
            To further show the correlation between worship and bowing down, Vine’s Expository Dictionary defines shachah as “to worship, prostrate oneself, bow down.” It expounds on this definition, saying:
The fact that it is found more than 170 times in the Hebrew Bible shows something of its cultural significance…the act of bowing in homage is generally done before a superior or a ruler. Thus, David “bowed” himself before Saul (1 Sam. 24:8). Sometimes it is a social or economic superior to whom one bows, as when Ruth “bowed” to the ground before Boaz (Ruth 2:10). In a dream Joseph saw the sheaves of his brothers “bowing down” before his sheaf (Genesis 37:5, 9-10). [Shachah] is used as the common term for coming before God in worship, as in 1 Sam. 15:25 and Jer. 7:2…Other gods and idols are also the object of such worship by one’s prostrating oneself before them (Isa. 2:20; 44:15, 17).[12] 
While Vine’s Expository Dictionary does not specifically define proskuneo as having a correlation with bowing down, the New Bible Dictionary does, as it defines the word, “to bow in reverence.”[13]
            There are also several other words that are translated as worship in the Bible, though these other words are less numerous. For example, just in the New Testament, sebomai is defined “to revere”, sebazomai is defined “to honor religiously”, latreuo is defined “to serve, to render religious service or homage”, eusebio is defined “to act piously toward”, sebasma is “an act of worship”, and ethelothreskeia is defined as “will-worship, voluntarily adopted worship”.[14] All of these words are translated in the Bible, at least in some translations, as worship. “A consideration of the above verbs shows that it is not confined to praise; broadly it may be regarded as the direct acknowledgement of God, of His nature, attributes, ways and claims, whether by the outgoing of the heart in praise and thanksgiving or by deed done in such acknowledgement.”[15]
            So worship isn’t always necessarily connected to bowing down, at least not according to the definitions from Bible dictionaries of the Greek and Hebrew words that are translated as worship. However, what bowing down signifies is certainly always connected to that which worship signifies, namely that the thing bowed down to and the thing worshiped is considered superior to the bower and the worshiper. Donald Whitney helps define worship this way:
“The word worship comes from the Saxon word weorthscype, which later became worthship. To worship God is to ascribe the proper worth to God, to magnify His worthiness of praise, or better, to approach and address God as He is worthy. As the Holy and Almighty God, the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe, the Sovereign Judge to whom we must give an account, He is worthy of all the worth and honor we can give Him and then infinitely more…Just as an indescribable sunset or a breathtaking mountaintop vista evokes a spontaneous response, so we cannot encounter the worthiness of God without the response of worship…So worship is focusing on and responding to God.”[16]
It was mentioned that one of the most common uses for worship in the Bible is in reference to the worship of idols; people in the Old Testament are often seen worshiping statues of gold, or offering sacrifices to Baal. However, there is a necessary distinction that must be made when it comes to the worship of God. Michael Horton beautifully describes this distinction, saying, “With idolatry, the object of worship is passive and the worshipers are active, but speech announces the presence of the other…The object of our worship – the triune God – is alive, and we are mere recipients of his living and active Word.”[17] With idol worship, worshipers are in control. Idolaters ascribe worth to something that is not worthy. On the other hand, worshipers of God do not ascribe worth to God – God is already worthy. Worshipers of God simply recognize the worth that is already present.
Worship and the Transcendence of God
             The worship of God is a response to the recognition of God’s transcendence. Worship responds in humility to the acknowledgement that God is greater. Worship responds with awe to God’s glorious and gracious revelation of Himself. Worship responds in thankfulness to God’s grace and mercy. Wayne Grudem says, “An attitude of worship comes upon us when we begin to see God as he is and then respond to his presence…Therefore genuine worship is not something that is self-generated or that can be worked up within ourselves. It must rather be the outpouring of our heart in response to a realization of who God is.”[18] Allen Ross adds, “The starting point of any discussion of worship must be the object of worship, the Lord God himself, who is higher and more significant and far more glorious than life itself. This is the vision we need to inspire our worship; it is the vision that a world lost in sin needs in order to be reconciled to God.”[19] Ross goes on to say, “Genuine worship is the natural and proper response to the revelation of the holy Lord God of glory. It will bring about reverential fear, confession, sacrifice, praise and commitment.”[20]
            These helpful understandings of worship help guide the way Biblical worship is seen from passages in the Bible where worship is not used explicitly. An incredible example of this is found in Isaiah 6. Isaiah has a vision of the train of God’s robe filling the temple, and, in a worshipful response, Isaiah cries out in verse 5, “Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts.”[21] Another example comes when a Psalmist is seen worshiping God with the words that bookend Psalm 103, “Bless the LORD, O my soul!”[22] The Psalm is filled with a recognition of God’s transcendence; verses 3-5 proclaim, “Who pardons all your iniquities, who heals all your diseases; who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with lovingkindness and compassion; who satisfies your years with good things, so that your youth is renewed like the eagle.” These words evoke worship! God’s revelation spurs worship in the hearts of His people. “The term ‘worship’ is misunderstood if it gives the impression that the major element in what human beings do or offer to God. Biblical religion is primarily concerned with what God does for his people (Mk 10:45)…Worship is human response to a gracious God, and it needs to be placed in this context if it is properly understood.”[23]
            The act of bowing down, as it relates to worship, is certainly tied directly to God’s transcendence. The most gracious act of God toward man is undoubtedly the cross of Jesus Christ. Can a man come to the cross in pride? Absolutely not! The righteousness of Christ can only be attained by coming to the cross in humility. Seeing the gracious work of God in the cross drives men to their knees because it forces men to see their unrighteousness and unworthiness in the light of Christ’s righteousness and worthiness.  When people see God’s grace, they are forced to see their sin. When people see God’s mercy, they are forced to see their need. When people see God’s magnificence, they are forced to see their triviality. When people see God’s wisdom, they are forced to see their foolishness. God’s transcendence forces a bowing down in worship. The posture of a man’s heart and body are humbled by the superiority of God. Ross says:
By remembering the death of Christ in worship and by basing all worship acts on the sacrifice of Christ, worshipers will come to realize that all worship itself is sacrificial, inspired by the Lord’s own sacrifice. It is in this realization that worship becomes life changing. Our sacrificial service begins when we first bring to him the sacrifice of a broken heart, that is, when we surrender our wills to him so that we may properly dedicate our lives to him, offer our gifts to him, and share our possessions with those in need.[24]
            When the Bible uses the word worship, there is a strong correlation with the act of bowing down or falling down. This is a humble position, a position of surrendered strength and acknowledged inferiority. When a man worships an idol, he credits worth to the object of his worship. However, when the object of worship is God Himself, a person bows down to God’s acknowledged transcendence. The worship of God is the recognition of and response to his sovereignty and goodness. In Scripture, the worship is often seen in the form of sacrifice or offering or songs of praise. All obedience is an act of worship because it recognizes the transcendence of God and his commands. These truths show that God’s transcendence is central and essential in Christian worship. Worship humbles the believer, while also bringing the believer into the incredible fullness of joy and love and comfort and grace of God. Worship says, “He must increase, but I must decrease,” because “He who comes from above is above all, he who is of the earth is from the earth and speaks of the earth. He who comes from heaven is above all.” [25]


Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994.

Horton, Michael. The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011.

Marshall, Howard I., A.R. Millard, J.I. Packer, and D.J. Wiseman, editors. New Bible Dictionary. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1962.

Ross, Allen P. Recalling the Hope of Glory: Biblical Worship from the Garden to the New Creation. Kregel Publications, 2006.

Vine, W.E., Merrill F. Unger, and William White Jr. Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Whitney, Donald S. Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1991.

[1] Vine, W.E., Merrill F. Unger, and William White Jr. Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words. 687.
[2] Examples: 1 Samuel 1:19, 1 Samuel 1:28, 2 Samuel 12:20, 2 Kings 19:37, Isaiah 37:38, Matthew 2:2,8, Luke 24:52, John 12:20, Hebrews 9:6, Hebrews 11:21, and Revelation 13:8. 
[3] Examples: Exodus 12:31, Deuteronomy 6:13, Deuteronomy 26:10, 2 Kings 18:22, 1 Chronicles 16:29, Psalm 96:9, Psalm 97:7, Matthew 4:10, Luke 4:8, Hebrews 9:1, Revelation 14:7, and Revelation 22:9. 
[4] Examples: 2 Samuel 15:32, Isaiah 27:13, Jeremiah 26:2, Ezekiel 46:2-9, John 4:20, Acts 8:27, and Acts 24:11
[5] Exodus 20:5, Exodus 23:24, Exodus 32:8, Exodus 34:14, Deuteronomy 4:19, Deuteronomy 5:9, Deuteronomy 8:19, Deuteronomy 11:16, Deuteronomy 17:3, Deuteronomy 29:26, Deuteronomy 30:17, 1 Kings 9:6, 1 Kings 9:9, 1 Kings 11:33, 1 Kings 12:30, 1 Kings 16:31, 1 Kings 22:53, 2 Kings 10:19-23, 2 Kings 17:16, 2 Kings 21:3, 2 Kings 21:21, 2 Chronicles 7:19-22, 2 Chronicles 33:3, Psalm 81:9, Psalm 106:19, Isaiah 2:8, Isaiah 2:20, Isaiah 44:15-17, Isaiah 46:6, Jeremiah 1:16, Jeremiah 8:2, Jeremiah 25:6, Jeremiah 35:15, Ezekiel 23:49, Daniel 3:5-28, Matthew 4:9, Luke 4:7, Acts 7:43, Revelation 13:4, Revelation 13:12-15, Revelation 14:9-11, Revelation 16:2, Revelation 19:20, and Revelation 20:4.
[6] Examples: Genesis 22:5, 1 Samuel 1:3, 1 Samuel 15:25-31, Isaiah 19:21, Zephaniah 3:10, Romans 12:1, and Hebrews 10:2
[7] Psalm 66:4, Nehemiah 12:45, and 2 Chronicles 29:28.
[8] Genesis 24:26, Genesis 24:48, Exodus 4:31, Exodus 12:27, Exodus 34:8, 2 Chronicles 20:18, 2 Chronicles 29:30, Nehemiah 8:6, and Zechariah 14:16.
[9] 2 Chronicles 7:3, 2 Chronicles 29:29, Psalm 22:29, Psalm 95:6, and Job 1:20.
[10] Matthew 2:11, Acts 10:25, 1 Corinthians 14:25, Revelation 4:10, Revelation 7:11, Revelation 11:16, Revelation 19:4, Revelation 19:10, and Revelation 22:8.
[11] The NASB renders prosukeo as bow down in eight of its sixty occurrences: Matthew 8:2, 9:18, 15:25, 18:26, 20:20, Mark 5:6, 15:19, and Revelation 3:9.
[12] Vine, W.E., Merrill F. Unger, and William White Jr. Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words. 295-296.
[13] Marshall, Howard I., A.R. Millard, J.I. Packer, and D.J. Wiseman, editors. New Bible Dictionary. 1250.
[14] Vine, W.E., Merrill F. Unger, and William White Jr. Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words. 687.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Whitney, Donald S. Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life. 87.
[17] Horton, Michael. The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011.
[18] Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. 1011.
[19] Ross, Allen P. Recalling the Hope of Glory: Biblical Worship from the Garden to the New Creation. 39.
[20] Ross, Allen P. Recalling the Hope of Glory: Biblical Worship from the Garden to the New Creation. 60.
[21] NASB.
[22] NASB.
[23] Marshall, Howard I., A.R. Millard, J.I. Packer, and D.J. Wiseman, editors. New Bible Dictionary. 1250.
[24] Ross, Allen P. Recalling the Hope of Glory: Biblical Worship from the Garden to the New Creation. 505.
[25] John 3:30-31, NASB.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Lesser Reward

"Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven."
Matthew 6:1
"So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand in doing, so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you."
Matthew 6:2-4
"When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you."
Matthew 6:5-6
"Whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance so that they will be noticed by men when they are fasting. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face so that your fasting will not be noticed by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you."
Matthew 6:16-18

This passage is found right in the heart of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

In Matthew 5, Jesus focuses on the hearts of men, emphasizing what his listeners thought about their own inner moral righteousness. In Matthew 6, Jesus turns the attention toward what his listeners thought about their own outward righteousness. Verse 1 introduces this transition, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them,” and Jesus provides three illustrations of religious activity that have been abused for the sake of outward righteousness. The first illustration has to do with giving – a way that our religion acts toward others. The second illustration has to do with prayer – a way that our religion acts toward God. And the third illustration has to do with fasting – a way that our religion acts toward ourselves. In essence, Jesus encompasses all of our religion and shows how it can be perverted by selfishness. Then in Matthew 7, Jesus says that many will come to him with these high views of their inner and outer righteousness, and they will be surprised to hear the words, “I never knew you. Depart from me…”

The way we see our righteousness has eternal weight. We can think ourselves to be the most righteous men in the world, but if we do not know God, we have nothing.

Referring back to Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18, Jesus speaks of giving, praying, and fasting. In each of these illustrations, Jesus tells his listeners to not be like the hypocrites. Hypocrites are found in Scripture from Genesis to Revelation; they are found inside and outside the church. They say they believe one thing, but their actions reveal something entirely different than their professions. In Greek culture, hypocrites were those that wore a mask to portray an exaggerated role in theater, and, in a similar way, the hypocrites in this passage are putting on a show for the sake of theatrics. But the theatrics of hypocrisy is exactly what makes hypocrisy dangerous. Very few hypocrites understand their own hypocrisy.

As Jesus spoke about giving in verses 2-4, he says not to be like the hypocrites who sound a trumpet so that all can see their giving. The command to give reveals how our religion is meant to act toward others. Our obedience is meant to benefit others. These hypocrites gave to the poor, but they gave for their own sake. Hypocrites pervert religious commands that are meant for the benefit of others by using them to benefit themselves.

As Jesus spoke about prayer in verses 5-6, he says not to be like the hypocrites who pray on the street corners for others to hear. The invitation to pray reveals how our religion is meant to bring us into communion with God. Prayers are an act of humility because prayers recognize God’s authority, sovereignty, and superiority over the one praying. The prayers of hypocrites are grammatically directed to God, but they prayed for their own sake. Hypocrites pervert religious commands that are meant to humbly bring them into communion with God by using them to benefit themselves.

As Jesus spoke about fasting in verses 16-18, he says not to be like the hypocrites who make their fasting noticeable. Fasting may be the most neglected spiritual discipline in all of Christianity. Jesus says, "whenever you fast," suggesting that fasting would be a regular part of our lives. The command to fast in Scripture reveals how our religion is meant to act toward ourselves. Our obedience means self-denial. We’re commanded to fast, neglecting food from ourselves as a means of being fed by God; as we learn to mortify our hunger, we learn to mortify our sin. But the hypocrites in this passage pervert religious commands that are meant to bring self-sacrifice by using them to bring self-gratification.

So often, when we think of hypocrites in the church, we think of the blatantly sinful people who turn people away from the church with their sin – the people who sing on Sundays and sin on Mondays. We think of people who label themselves as “Christian” on their Facebook profile, but their lives reveal something far different. But when Jesus talks about hypocrites, he doesn’t talk about adulteresses and tax collectors. He isn’t talking about the child molesters, drug dealers, racists, and prostitutes. When Jesus talks about hypocrites, he talks about people who give, people who pray, people who fast. These are generous people who could be leaders in the church and who have discipline and self-control. These are the best among us. The warning of Matthew 7 is not a warning to “those people.” This message is for you. This message is for me.

If you combine just the right amounts of carbonated water, high fructose corn syrup, concentrated orange juice, citric acid, natural flavors, sodium benzoate, caffeine, sodium citrate, erythorbic acid, gum arabic, calcium disodium EDTA, brominated vegetable oil, and yellow 5, you will have the most delicious beverage that has ever graced the tongues of men that someone in Johnson City, TN, decided to call Mountain Dew.

I love Mountain Dew. It has caffeine and sugar for incredible energy and focus. It’s the perfect beverage to quench thirst and satisfy the taste buds alongside any meal or by itself. People who drink Mountain Dew are awesome simply by their association with the drink. The first slogan for Mountain Dew was, “It’ll tickle yore innards!” And, when I want an innard-tickler, I go to Mountain Dew because I know that it will give me what I want. But I learned something about Mountain Dew in the midst of drinking what I estimate to be well over 100,000 ounces of soda during college. It’s absolutely awful for you. Admittedly, though, Mountain Dew delivers what it offers. There is a reward to drinking Mountain Dew. It’s delicious! But the reward of Mountain Dew is short-lived and ultimately not worth the cost. The taste in gone in a few moments, and the energy crashes in an hour – maybe two. And, oh, the calories! “What goes through the lips stays on the hips!” There’s not a person in the world that believes soda is good for you. But we still drink it because it tastes good. The reward of seeking the satisfaction of my taste buds through Mountain Dew is exactly what I sought: satisfied taste buds and nothing more. If I stepped back, every time I wanted Mountain Dew, and thought about the short-term reward versus the long-term cost, I may never drink another sip of Mountain Dew again. But I still drink it. I don’t think about the short-term reward versus the long-term cost. I think about what I want right here, right now. I think about what can satisfy my current desires.

In the same way, the reward of seeking outward righteousness through giving, prayer, and fasting is exactly what is sought: outward righteousness – nothing more. In other words, the only thing that seeking outward righteousness can attain for a man is outward righteousness. Jesus likened it to cleaning the outside of the cup but not the inside. Admittedly, though, there is a reward. Jesus didn’t hide from this. “Truly, I say to you, they have their reward in full.” Vainglory and self-righteousness have their reward, but this kind of reward is short-lived and is ultimately not worth the cost.

Jesus goes on in Matthew 6 to tell his listeners that a man’s heart is where his treasure is and that the eye is the lamp of the body and that a man cannot serve two masters. In all of these things, Jesus is expounding on the foundation he has just set. “Truly, I say to you, they have their reward in full.” If a man treasures the things of this world, his treasure in this world will be his reward. If a man keeps his sight set on the things of this world, the object of his focus will be his reward. If a man is mastered by something of this world, the thing that masters him will be his reward.

The treasures of this world deliver what they offer. If you want them, you can have them. But, when you are faced with the temptation to seek those things, hear the warning that Jesus asserts three times in Matthew 6 that, if you seek those things, you will have your reward in full.

There may not be a lesser reward than the reward lust offers. So many men, myself included, fight the temptations of lust as a regular battle in their lives. Lust offers a quick thrill, an easy pleasure, a cheap reward. Lust has caused many men to travel down a road that ruins their marriages and families. But for what? A moment of pleasure?

Some of us choose the reward of entertainment. Statistics show that most Christian adults claim that they would read their Bible more if they had more time. Statistics also show that most Christian adults make time to watch over two hours of television every day. How we use our time is an incredible indicator of the reward we are seeking.

Others chase comfort and security. Comfort is a reward. But to take up your cross, and to be ready to die on it, is not a comfortable calling. Are we choosing comfort over evangelism? Would we rather hit the snooze button than wake up earlier and read the Word?

Some chase material rewards: the best job, the nicest car, the biggest house. To an extent, money can buy happiness. If you want happiness, buy a jet ski; there has never been an unhappy person on a jet ski. Material things in this life offer a reward. 

Sometimes, the rewards of this world will satisfy us for the entirety of our lives. But the span of our lives compared to the span of eternity makes even those rewards look so small.

To clarify, there’s nothing wrong with pleasure, there’s nothing wrong with being comfortable, there’s nothing wrong with riches. All of these are good things. But all of these are also rewards that the world dangles in front of us as tempting replacements for the rewards God has for us. The question is not whether we have those things; the question is whether we seek those things. Do you want the rewards of this world? If you want comfort and entertainment and riches, you can have them. But for the people who are seeking those things with their lives, hear the words of Jesus, “Truly I say to you, they have their rewards in full.”

There’s another phrase that Jesus uses three times in Matthew 6. We’ve seen that he said, “Truly, I say to you, they have their reward in full,” three times. The hypocrites gave, prayed, and fasted for their own outward righteousness, and, in doing so, they have their reward in full. But Jesus then provides correction for their action. Jesus says to give, pray, and fast in secret, and all three times Jesus says, “your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.”

It would be easy to flatten Jesus’ words here to mean that all of our obedience should be done in secret, but this would directly contradict what he said in the previous chapter: “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works,” (Matthew 5:16). The key to understanding the tension held between these two chapters is found in the refrain of this verse. “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” God intends for the world to see the good works of Christians in order that they might glorify God. In chapter 6, we see the hypocrites showing off good works in order to glorify themselves. The point of this text is that obedience to God is never meant to gratify our selfish desires, but that’s exactly what the hypocrites here are doing.

Rather than seeking the reward of outward righteousness, Jesus exhorts his listeners to seek an even greater reward. Hebrews 11 says that God is the rewarder of those who seek Him. That chapter speaks of Old Testament believers – Abel, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and others – who knew of a greater reward than the rewards that could be attained in this lifetime. It says they died having not yet received the promise of God. Is God a liar? No! Because of their faith in God, these believers knew that the promised reward of God was not an earthly reward. He has prepared for them a city! We know this promise in even more detail today, for we know that God gave his son Jesus Christ to die on a cross so that whoever believes in Him would have eternal life!

So when Jesus says, “and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you,” we understand that reward to be our heavenly reward. Giving in secret, praying in secret, and fasting in secret are all things that are done out of a heart that has faith in Christ. If we are truly seeking God, then it doesn’t matter to us whether someone sees our acts of giving. If we are truly seeking God, then it doesn’t matter to us whether someone sees us praying. If we are truly seeking God, then it doesn’t matter to us whether people know that we’re fasting. We let go of selfish desires in our obedience to God because we know that we have a greater reward.

Even though I know in my mind that water is better for me than Mountain Dew, I often still drink Mountain Dew. Even though I know that water will ultimately provide a greater reward, I find myself often chasing the cheap satisfaction of Mountain Dew.

In the same way, even though we know that Christ has a greater reward for us, we often still operate in selfish ways. We can know that God’s ways are better than ours all day long but still love ourselves more. Christ looks at what we love. Do we seek approval from God, or do we seek approval from those around us? Do we love our comfort, or we do love following Christ? Are we satisfied by lust, or are we satisfied by God? Do we love him and his glory, or do we love ourselves and our own glory? When we love ourselves, we take the good things of God, and we use them for our own benefit. We use our money selfishly. We try to look good when we pray. We do spiritual things so that the people around us will think of us more highly. If we continue in these things, we’re chasing a cheap reward that will ultimately serve as our reward in full. It will always be easier to be selfish. Selfishness tastes good, doesn’t it? It will always be tempting to want to look good in front of others. It is in the nature of temptation to be tempting; we would never sin if we didn’t like sin. But our flesh and the Spirit of God are at war within believers, and we are called to crucify the desires of the flesh!

True righteousness and salvation cannot be found through seeking outward righteousness. Our righteous acts are filthy rags in the effort to attain salvation. We come to Christ knowing that He is righteous and we are unrighteous. He is worthy and we are unworthy. He became sin in order that we might become His righteousness. Only by trusting that our unrighteousness was placed on Christ can we attain salvation by having Christ’s righteousness given to us by faith. Our acts of righteousness are a fruit of our trust and faith in him, rather than an attempt to attain our own righteousness. Our outward righteousness should only come as a product of our inner righteousness wrought by the Spirit of God in our hearts. 

If you want the glory that comes from men, you can have it, but, if you seek it, it will be your reward in full. If you want the treasures of this world, you can have them, but, if you seek them, they will be your reward in full. So what are your goals? What are your plans? What are the things you want most? If your answers to those questions are things that will pass away with this world, then they aren’t worth seeking. The rewards of this world are a lesser reward. 

I don’t know about you, but I want a greater reward!