The Wrong Motivation

It matters why we're reading and studying God's Word.

Hermeneutics of Convenience (3)

“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’” Matthew 7.21-23

Jesus said these people who claimed to have done many good works in the Lord’s name were actually practicing a form of lawlessness.

Lawlessness? How could that be?

To practice lawlessness is to act in a manner not motivated by love for God and neighbor, since love is the fulfilling of the Law, as is plainly revealed in the books of Moses and throughout the rest of the Scriptures (cf. Matt. 22.34-40; 24.12). It is obviously possible to do many things in the name of the Lord which might seem to be good works, even mighty works. But if these are performed apart from love for God and neighbor, out of mere self-interest, such “good works” cannot please Him. Instead, they will be only lawless, loveless works, motivated by nothing more than self-interest.

All such works, undertaken to gratify self, as a means for boasting about or parading one’s goodness, bring only condemnation from the Lord. They represent another form of a hermeneutics of convenience, in which the plain teaching of Scripture is interpreted and applied not for love of God and neighbor, but for mere self-interest, as a way of gaining respectability and esteem in the eyes of others.

What were they thinking?
How do they reason who undertake such works? What are they thinking?

Since love for God and neighbor, and boasting in the Lord, are not the set of their interpretive saw, then they must see in good works an opportunity to attach some merit to themselves and to attract the praise of men. The key for them becomes whatever makes them feel self-satisfied or look good.

That is, knowing that Scripture teaches that doing good works is commendable (though by and for God only), such people undertake good works, sometimes at great sacrifice and with impressive results, however, not for God’s praise and the honor of Christ (though doubtless these are mentioned), but for their own honor and to be admired by men. Their key to opening Scripture with respect to good works is to do works in a way which makes them look good.

They take up the teaching of Scripture, not according to its purposes, but for their own self-vaunting ends. In so doing they rob God of His glory, Who alone does good works in and through people (Phil. 2.12, 13). When it is convenient to give them something to boast about, and to draw attention to themselves, they will do good works. When they do good works, they make sure others know about them. But in doing good works to gain respectability for themselves, they wrest the Scriptural teaching off its intended course, and twist and bend it away from its designed end.

Some of the best thinkers in Christendom have fallen prey to this desire for respectability in their interpretation of God’s Word. The Apostle Paul called out Peter on this failing in Antioch, as he reports in Galatians 2. John Frame argues that even some Christian academics do this, twisting Scripture and bending their teaching in ways that dodge or re-interpret the plain meaning of the text to curry favor with secular scholars. Frame explains, “the quest for respectability, a frequent quest in the history of Christian thought, is often motivated by ungodly pride” (“Inerrancy: A Place to Stand,” JETS, March 2014).

Certainly preachers and theological popularizes are guilty of this, too, who bend their teaching to the whims of men or the spirit of the age, and thus gain attention for themselves as “relevant” or “compassionate” or “thoughtful.”

So also many people who do good works at various levels and in various arenas of the Church, of which they talk boastfully, without actually seeming to boast. Their “testimonies” about how God “used them” show both the reality of God’s goodness and their own ungodly desire to look good to their peers.

Such dealing with Scripture for mere personal benefit rather than the honor and glory of God, reveals lack of true knowledge of Christ, and provokes His condemnation. Doing good works to look good to others is actually a form of lawlessness, and Jesus condemns it. Good works undertaken as a convenient way of gaining attention and vaunting ourselves are just another form of Scripture-twisting that might have appeal to men, but that earns the condemnation of God.

When it comes to interpreting the Bible, the only respect we should be seeking is that which is due God’s Word, the plain meaning it sets forth, and the simple obedience it requires.

For reflection
1.  Why did Jesus say that these people who had done such good works were really workers of lawlessness?

2.  How might you be able to tell when love for yourself was beginning to supplant love for God and your neighbor?

3.  What does it mean to rob God of His glory in the works we do in His name?

Next steps – Conversation: Does this mean we can never give a testimony concerning how God has worked in or through our lives? And if we do so, how can we avoid our good work ending up as a lawless deed instead? Talk with some friends about these questions.

T. M. Moore

To learn more about understanding and using the Bible, enroll in the course, Introduction to Biblical Theology. It’s free and online, and you can study at your own pace or with friends. To learn more and to register, click here. This week’s study is Part 6 of a series on The Word of God, and is available as a free download by clicking here.

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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in Essex Junction, VT. 

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