A: One of the biggest misunderstandings about Christianity is that it is a religion about “externals.” In reality, the Scriptures are much less concerned about what we do than who we are. It’s easy to flip through the pages of the Bible and point to passages that refer to our external conduct and say, “See! Christianity is all about what we do!”
It cannot be denied that the Bible talks about our conduct. However, we shouldn’t miss that who we are has a real and significant impact on what we do. The primary focus of New Testament Christianity is on becoming a child of God through the completed work of Christ – being born again into the family of God by grace through faith.
It is good and right for those who have experienced the transformative grace of God in their lives to begin living in accordance with this truth. The two are intimately tied together, but the order is very important. We do not – and cannot – become children of God by acting the right way. But, children of God ought to behave in accordance with the will of their Father!
You may be asking yourself, what does this have to do with the above question? The fact is that in the passages cited, Jesus is addressing this common misconception that God is simply interested in our external acts of righteousness … but have we not read, For all of us have become like one who is unclean, And all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment; And all of us wither like a leaf, And our iniquities, like the wind, take us away (Isaiah 64:6, NASB)?
The Pharisees had perfected the act of putting on a show of righteousness while they were still living outside of the will of God. Jesus confronts this reality directly saying in Matthew 15, "You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you: 'THIS PEOPLE HONORS ME WITH THEIR LIPS, BUT THEIR HEART IS FAR AWAY FROM ME. BUT IN VAIN DO THEY WORSHIP ME, TEACHING AS DOCTRINES THE PRECEPTS OF MEN.'" (Matthew 15:7-9, NASB)
God isn’t interested in our self-righteous acts of piety. He is interested in our hearts being rightly inclined towards Him. If our prayer, giving, service and worship are actually for God, then we should have no problem doing it all in secret so that only God is aware. After all, we should be seeking His will and His favor, not the favor of spectators.
It comes down to our motivations. Is our motivation in praying, giving, serving and worshipping to please the Lord and to do right in His eyes out of devotion to Him? Or, are we seeking the approval and rewards of the approval of man? Jesus points out the wrong motives of the Pharisees in Matthew 23:
"But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men; for they broaden their phylacteries and lengthen the tassels of their garments. They love the place of honor at banquets and the chief seats in the synagogues, and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called Rabbi by men. (Matthew 23:5-7, NASB)
Notice that Jesus says they do their deeds to be noticed by men. It’s not that their deeds are seen by men that is the problem … it’s that they do their deeds in order to be seen by men that is drawing such severe rebuke by Jesus (notice the “woes” that follow!).
Jesus’ word of correction is to stop focusing on the externals (“being noticed by men”) and fix their motivation for doing such works:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee, first clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may become clean also. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness. So you, too, outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” (Matthew 23:25-28, NASB)
If our motives are right before God, it won’t be a problem if our deeds are noticed by men or if they are done in secret, because God sees all things and judges justly.
If we misunderstand the focus of Scriptures on the internal reality of our hearts being either properly or improperly oriented towards God (and the effect this orientation has on our external actions, making even “righteous deeds” done with impure motives like filthy rags before a holy God) then we may find a contradiction with other passages like the following (also from Jesus in Matthew 5):
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. (Matthew 5:16, NASB, emphasis added)
The Apostle Peter declares a similar truth:
Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may because of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation. (1 Peter 2:12, NASB, emphasis added)
To those who seek to gain praise from men, the Lord says do your deeds in secret. To those who seek to gain praise for the Lord, He says do your deeds before men that they may glorify your Father in heaven! The motivations behind our actions are the most important aspect, as God is interested in our hearts because He knows that if we are rightly oriented towards Him we will act rightly in the world (see 2 Corinthians 5:12).
To sum up: Christians should be obedient to the leading of the Holy Spirit in all things, and in all things should seek to glorify God. Our motivation should always be to receive praise from our Lord and Master. If we act to be seen by men, we’ve received our reward in full. If we never shine in the darkness by letting our generosity be seen, then we are hiding our light under a basket. In all things, seek to follow the lead of the Spirit – against such things there is no law (Galatians 5:16-26)!