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The Rev. David W. Hall (PhD, Whitefield Theological Seminary) is married to Ann, and they are parents of three grown children. He has served as the Senior Pastor of Midway Presbyterian Church (PCA) since 2003. After completion of his undergraduate studies, Pastor Hall studied at Swiss L’Abri and then enrolled at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri, graduating in 1980. In addition to pastoring, David Hall is the author or editor of over 20 books and numerous essays.

Column: First Truths from the First Gospel by David Hall

Spirituality That is Not Showy

February 3, 2015 •

Read Matthew 6:1-8, 16-18

Jesus began his instruction in the Sermon on the Mount by describing the essential elements of Christian character, and then proceeded to indicate by his metaphors of salt and light the influence for good that Christians will exert in the community if they exhibit this character. He then described Christian righteousness which (a) must exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees and (b) that accepts the full implications of God’s law without dodging or setting artificial limits. Christian righteousness must be allowed to penetrate to our heart, mind, and motives, and to master us even in those hidden secret places. Jesus now moves from a Christian’s outward character to focus on his inner righteousness in those secret regions.

Chapter six has an emphasis on inner integrity of faith, the habit of practicing it even when others do not see us. It also has a repeated emphasis on the Fatherhood of God. That is mentioned 12 times in this chapter and only three times in the previous chapter 5, which is much longer. This chapter focuses on the believer depending and submitting to his or her Heavenly Father. Christ begins in this chapter to focus on the secret, inner life of his true disciples. The true disciple of Christ will not be outwardly religious to seek peer approval or public human recognition but rather will serve God single-mindedly to seek God the Father’s approval or pleasure. Whereas in chapter 5 Jesus contrasts real spirituality with what the Scribes and Pharisees taught, in chapter 6 he contrasts real spirituality with what these hypocrites practiced.

There is a perennial connection between pharisaism, hypocrisy, and mere formalism. The connection between these vices is not only present in antiquity; indeed, many evangelicals fall into these in our times. “Formalism grows into a self-righteousness, because its value depends on the sum of the good works done, set over against the shortcomings and sins that need an offset. Formalism seeks to furnish a surplus of . . . acts . . . The larger the surplus the greater the righteousness.”[1] Some well meaning Christians fall into this, often when they want everyone else to do what they do. Formalism also tends to “ostentation and self-righteous parade.” Here’s a good test: Would you do a particular deed, religious or otherwise, if few or none applauded?

Please understand as we study the rest of this that Christ is not opposed to public religion. What he is opposed to is showing spirituality in a manner that heaps praise on the individual. Many folks wrongly say, “My Christianity is entirely private and I never talk about it or let it show in public. Jesus, you know was against public demonstrations of religion.” That could not be more false. Jesus did not advocate a privatized religion or one that is secret. He does not attack public displays of our faith in God. He knew that such public expressions of our faith were natural, spontaneous, desired and not to be prohibited. That is what we’re called to do, in fact. Salt and Light are intended to have external effect. Jesus himself blesses no private religion that is unobservable. For Jesus, there can be no closet Christianity in that sense. What he does, however, roundly attack—and this distinction is essential—is showy public religion that is done so that people will recognize certain pretentious pseudo-religious spiritual hot-doggery. In this chapter, Jesus only opposes a religious mode that seeks to draw attention to the practitioner. A good rule of thumb, observed by commentators ranging from A. B. Bruce to John Stott, is: “we are to show when tempted to hide and hide when tempted to show our religion.” As we look at chapter 6, don’t expect Jesus to sanction an unrecognizable brand of discipleship, but rather his criticism of any type of spiritual expression that is designed to bring glory or repute to a person.

The principle is stated in verse 1. After that, we’ll look at three examples of Jesus’ principle. The main principle describes:

The Principle of Unpretentious Spirituality

Jesus begins chapter 6 with a word of caution. He says to pay attention, be on guard against, or be careful to avoid a particular behavior. The Greek word signals a cry to beware of danger. After we’ve seen the law (5:17-48) we’re warned not to be proud and think we can trumpet our own praise. The behavior that we are to avoid is doing acts of righteousness before people. That is, we must be warned not to perform our religious duties of so-called righteous living, in the open view of other persons with the final purpose being for them to notice our spirituality or devotion. Jesus warns here (and elsewhere) against the heart’s capability for self-deception. It is another way of asking whose approval are we seeking? Be careful not to parade your good deeds.

The Christian is never to do even acts of obedience purely for the purpose of being recognized as a righteous person. There is a difference between doing something God commands and doing something God commands so that a neighbor will take note of or recognize that we are such a wonderful, meek, or suffering Christian. It is this latter that is forbidden by Christ.

He goes on to say that if we do religious acts to be seen by others—if our true motivation is to impress others with our self-made rigor and/or religiosity then the only reward we’ll receive is fleeting human acknowledgment instead of blessed divine approbation. If a hypocrite does spiritual things primarily to be noticed, or even if part of our motive is to be praised as a good religious person, then that person will have no reward from the Father.

Jesus then supports this principle with three illustrations from typical piety of the day. Jewish adherents believed that giving alms, praying, and fasting were pillars of religion. Each of these, having external aspects, could be driven by wrong motives. In each example, Jesus (1) denounces the ostentatious piety; (2) affirms that these practitioners have their limited but fleeting reward; and (3) describes true piety.

We will explore each of these. But for now ask an honest question: How much of your spirituality is showy?

Jesus’ never was.

[1] J. B. Shearer, The Sermon on the Mount: A Study (1906; rpr Greenville, SC: GPTS Press, 1994), 93.


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