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  • « Let No Man Flatter Himself | Main | Images of the Savior (17 – His Healing of the Centurion's Servant) »

    Muddled Motives

    The Bible teaches that we should do good things rather than bad things, and that we should do them from good motives like loving God or loving other people. The Bible condemns bad motives (selfish pride, envy, lust, etc.) along with bad actions (boasting, murder, adultery, etc.).

    But good motives and bad motives frequently produce the same good actions. Selfish pride can produce upright behavior; envy can help you provide well for your family; lust can produce chivalry. These actions are all condoned by the Bible, but the motives behind them are strongly condemned.

    So what do you do when you are aware of both good and bad motives at work in you to produce the same good action? This is a real dilemma, because it happens most of the time a Christian does anything at all. You truly love your wife and want to treat her to a special evening, and you really want others to see this trophy on your arm at the most expensive restaurant in town... so do you still take her there? If you do, your ego is fed, which is bad. But your wife feels loved, which is good.


    Unfortunately, it gets worse. We can't simply change our motives. Our motives are the reasons why we do absolutely everything we do. I can't just stop being a selfish jerk of a pharisee, even though I know it's wrong, because selfishness is something fundamental about who I am. The only reason I would want to stop being selfish would be if I were unselfish. But I'm not, I'm selfish.

    Here's an illustration that I fully expect to be controversial, but please try to see it for what it is—an imperfect illustration. It's kind of like you're a factory robot, plugged into one electrical socket when you should be plugged into another. You can't pull your cord from the one and plug it into the other, because the cord supplies the energy to make your arm work in the first place. It takes an external operator to make that change. In the same way, the Holy Spirit must make the change of motives take place in your heart—and you can't make him do it. Left alone, you wouldn't even ask him to.

    Good news—you're not left alone. You can't produce a new heart for yourself, but you don't have to. The fact that you're wrestling through these issues is a good indication that the Holy Spirit is working in you to change your motives from bad to good. God has promised to give his people new hearts (Ezek. 11.19-20; 36.26-27), which is something that happens to all believers.

    But even the wisest, most mature believers still struggle with muddled motives. The Apostle Paul saw two forces at war within himself: the new self vs. the old self (Eph. 4.17-24; Col. 3.5-10); the spirit vs. the flesh (Gal. 5.16-25); the law of the mind vs. the law of sin (Rom. 7.14-25). He despaired of ever becoming perfect in this life, and you should too.

    What? Despair of becoming perfect? That's right. We're not here to become perfect. We're here to get a little better, and to trust Jesus along the way. If we were perfect, we wouldn't have constant need of Christ. You can actually be thankful for your imperfection, because it's God's way of making you dependent on him, and you will see more of his grace.

    It's inescapable: you're going to have bad motives mixed in with your good ones, for probably every action you undertake, for the rest of your life. Every Christian is in the same boat. But your hope isn't in escaping bad motives, it's in escaping the condemnation for bad motives. And that you have done, if you believe in Jesus Christ.

    Jesus lived an impossible human life. He only ever did good things. And he only ever did them from good motives. Not one time was an action of his tainted by evil desires, for his whole life. Even when he was facing torture and a completely unjust death at the hands of evil men, he had only goodness in his heart. Perfect love toward God his Father. Perfect grace toward the humanity that would reject and kill him. Perfect righteousness in thought, word and deed. He deserved no condemnation: only heavenly approbation.

    If you believe in Jesus, this is yours. The condemnation you deserve every second of every day by bumbling about life with bad motives, he took. The peace and wholeness that you long for, but could never achieve, he gives. So you and I continue to stumble, and sin, and try not to sin (but still do)… and there is no condemnation for those of us who are in Christ Jesus by faith (Rom. 8.1).

    Posted by Eric Costa on April 16, 2007 07:16 PM


    I agree that we can't be perfect in this earth and we need to trust in Jesus Christ everytime.

    But I've question based on these verses,
    Ephesians 1:3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places,

    2 Pet 1:3 His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence

    What do these two verses mean? Does that mean that God has showered to us everything but we couldn't make it or We could make it by his grace?

    I also agree that we can't be perfect in this earth and we need to trust in Jesus Christ everytime.

    Quoting from the article: "We're here to get a little better, and to trust Jesus along the way".

    Ok with the second part of the phrase, but what about the first?

    Where is it said in the bible that we are to get just a little better? (as opposed to a lot better).

    What about Hebrews 12:14?
    "Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord".

    It is as if you don't trust the exceeding greateness of God's power, with which He is at work within us (Ephesians 1:19-20).


    This is how I see it; We are by nature utterly helpless and constantly in rebellion against God, but God has called us by His Grace Alone to be His own people in Christ.

    On our own we wouldn't be able to make it, but thank be to God that He gave His only son for the remission of sins.

    Only by God's grace we are saved. Only by God's grace 'we can make it' :D

    The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever. Because of our sinful nature, things that we do are always tainted by bad motives.

    What we can do is to pray that God would enable us by His Grace so that His glory could be seen in our brokenness. No preacher would say "If you are perfect then you can praise Him ha..ha..ha", If we were perfect "...we wouldn't have constant need of Christ..." Because we are broken, we need Him, by His grace alone, yes, "we can make it"

    I hope this would answer your question. If there is any portion of this msg which is not biblical, please notify me immediately.

    God Bless,

    Theo K

    I get language like "we're here to get a little better" from Steve Brown. Mature Christians I know would never feel like they've come all that far along the path of holiness. It's slow going, and the further you get the further it seems you have to go.

    "It is as if you don't trust the exceeding greateness of God's power" … Of course I don't! At least not as well as I should. If I perfectly trusted God's power at work in me, I would never struggle with muddled motives. The point of the post is that we do struggle, and as with all sin it can be attributed to a lack of faith (Rom. 14:23). We can grow in our faith as we increasingly turn to Christ for relief from troubled consciences, but the earthly outcome is likely to be greater peace rather than substantially greater holiness. We must learn to live with ourselves as sinners (albeit saved ones).


    I am struck by this in these verses from Colossians:

    Col 1:27 To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.
    Col 1:28 Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ.
    Col 1:29 For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.

    Those words especially:


    This is not easy to reconcile when we are seeking some "self-perfection".

    The struggle I believe is as you have pointed already that this is with the realization Paul developed at Romans 7:

    Rom 7:19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.
    Rom 7:20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.
    Rom 7:21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.
    Rom 7:22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being,
    Rom 7:23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.
    Rom 7:24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?
    Rom 7:25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.

    Maturity in Christ, what is this?

    It's realizing then the struggle that is against God, a struggle that my flesh daily has with His Life offered as I cross the bridge, daily death, daily bread, being a partaker daily even in sight of my own wretchedness!

    My eyes are on HIM!

    I now can be thankful to God Almighty for the gifts of Christ and the Holy Ghost and the Holy Christian Church while I live the rest of my life on earth longing to pass to this Life brought to light through the Gospel.

    1Co 15:53 For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality.
    1Co 15:54 When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: "Death is swallowed up in victory."
    1Co 15:55 "O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?"
    1Co 15:56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.
    1Co 15:57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
    1Co 15:58 Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.

    These things are not meant to be experience alone!

    Thank you for your words, full of Life and encouragement.


    I agree with that, Grace Alone, Faith Alone, Jesus Christ Alone.

    Just like what Martin Luther said in his end days, "We are beggars in this earthly life."

    Matt. 5:4
    Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.

    This is something that I've been in need of. Whenever I wish to be obedient to God, I wonder to myself, Am I truly desiring to be obedient to God? Why am I really doing this? Some other motives come in and say, I am doing this because such and such. And when this happens, I then am unwilling to do what I wanted to do, because I cannot be certain about my motives. Oh, it is easy to take upon yourself some righteous semblance! But away with formalism! Away with self-righteousness!

    I still do sinful things that I know I ought not do. And when I do these things, it makes me question the assurance of my salvation. So, I fall into despair, and I am never so certain about where I am heading. Is it wrong that I fear eternal punishment? I know of a man who granted me some comfort by his words. Some of you might know him. He suffered with what he called "anfechtung." I'm wondering if I was experiecing the same thing, as I have had terrors, thinking that God had forsaken me, that He was angry with me. Yet, this man of whom I'm sure we all know said these words:

    "For inasmuch as the saints are always aware of their sins and implore God for the merciful gift of his righteousness, they are for this reason also always reckoned righteous by God."

    Oh, how those who are truly righteous are aware of their sinfulness, but hypocrites assume that they righteous, without sin. Again:

    "For whoever hates sin is already outside sin and belongs to the elect," and, "Therefore, if a man is overwhelmed by the fear that he is not one of the elect or if he is assailed and troubled by his election, let him give thanks for such fear and let him rejoice over his anxienty."

    Now why rejoice over one's own anxienty? Because, never is a man so anxious about where he is destined, unless he is of the elect. So that all of you might know who I am speaking of, it is Martin Luther who granted me this comfort when I was in utter despair and constant fear. But by the grace of God, through these things I was given the will to pray continously to God, asking that He save me from my sins.

    I still struggle each day, and my fear isn't as great as it was before, being given comfort, for God is the God of comfort and peace, a compassionate and loving God is He, as Moses says. If one man dwells too much on predestination, and if he begins to question his own life, he is then lead to see himself as who he truly is, and that apart from the grace of God he is lost. Yet, Christ said, concerning the disciples question, "Who then can be saved?" - "With man this is impossible. But with God all things are possible."

    Soli Deo gloria!

    Dear Eric,

    It depends on the point of view. If you are comparing the level of holiness of say, Apostle Paul with the infinite holiness of God, then you could say that the change that took place in his life was negligible. But I do not think that this is the only way to see things. I believe that when people are encountered by Christ they are no longer the same. And this is revealed more and more as, by the grace of God, their life is progressively sanctified, never reaching perfection, but imperfectly being transformed to the image of our Saviour.

    So, to say that we get just a little better is in a sense true, but it can be a misleading statement and in a way misrepresent the amazing grace that is at work within every genuine believer.

    Finally, one of the strongest arguments that in my view ‘prove’ that Christianity is true is that Christ indeed changes lives. I think that this is true both biblically and experientially.

    Does this make any sense, or am I off the mark?

    Dear Eric,

    I am not sure of my motive when writing this comment (Jer. 17:9). :-) It may be to hear myself talk, to see my name on the comments list, or it may be to encourage you.

    I am hoping to encourage you (but there are probably other motives here). You have some good biblical wisdom here that we should all ponder, and ask the Spirit because we are united to Jesus Christ, to continue to mature us in his love, so that we are motivated most of the time by Christ's love (knowing that we will not do this perfectly, and for that there is forgiveness and "no condemnation in Christ" as you pointed out).

    Thanks for this wisdom. Your points are related to a book by Dick Keyes on cynicism that you might be interested in reading. Keyes makes the wise observation that cynics are those who are actually prideful and suspiciously superior to others because rather than faith, hope, and love, the cynic thinks he or shes "sees through others" motives.

    This is in no way to suggest that you are a cynic (or one anymore than myself - -I told you this was to encourage you!), but the book points out that we oftentimes are more concerned with figuring out other's motives, rather than asking God for help with our own.

    I think your post was helpful with pointing us to the tendencies of our own sinful hearts, and to continue to serve the Lord with "fear and trembling" as we walk by faith and not by sight.

    Thanks again for your insightful post.

    In Christ,
    Pastor Biggs

    Rick Dillinger

    You said it, man.

    Theo K

    I agree. We make progress, and the grace of God is tremendous toward us. I'm just thinking on a scale of 1-10, God's holiness being 10, we might make it from 1 to 1.5 in this life.

    Pastor Biggs

    Thanks for the book suggestion. I'd lie if I said I felt no pride because of my "ability to discern" the motives of others. Hopefully I put myself squarely in focus of the "accusations" of this post. It takes a lot of God's grace to get me to analyze myself the way I analyze others.

    You make an excellent point in that we will never achieve absolute purity in our motives, and that we should not despair over our imperfections.

    I was initially disturbed by this comment: We can grow in our faith as we increasingly turn to Christ for relief from troubled consciences, but the earthly outcome is likely to be greater peace rather than substantially greater holiness. We must learn to live with ourselves as sinners (albeit saved ones).

    Your later comment comparing our progress with God's absolute holiness tells me I may have overreacted to your use of the word "substantial".

    I still think it worth saying that our turning to Christ should be proactively seeking his power to obey, not just reactively seeking a cleansed conscience. We are being saved from sin's power as well as from its penalty. As Paul asks in Romans 6:2, "How can we who died to sin still live in it?" We should desire, and expect, holiness as well as peace.

    As you point out in your post, the Spirit is at work in our hearts. We should expect to see the fruit of that work in both our motives and in our behavior. Perfect obedience awaits our final glorification, but like Paul in Philippians 3, we must press on toward the goal.


    Thanks for the excellent reminder of the need for personal humility before God.

    Yet, I can understand if Christians might have a hesitation about a full endorsement of what you said here because it may appear that your assertions might somehow short shrift the grace of God who indeed works in us. But I do not think this is what you are doing. Rather, you are bringing us from the skies back to earth since it is us humans greatest tendency to think highly of ourselves ... your counsel reminds us to be humble and realize that all we have is of grace.

    But the Scripture does seem to indicate that we can and often do obey God and even do so with the right motives, but all good motives as having their source in God alone. You are right ...often we won't have good motives, but when we do, we know that it is God working in us to think thoughts after Christ, taking every thought captive and be obedient to him. By God's grace much sin can be overcome.

    Don't you ever get into situations where you actually find yourself doing real good but realize that it isn't you who is doing it. In fact, you are on the sidelines somewhere but you have become, rather, an instrument in our Lord's hand to further good on earth, in spite of yourself? The Holy Spirit does take over and enable us to obey, even with right motives sometimes. But those motives are God working in us, and not we ourselves producing them. Paul says he can do all things through Christ who strengthens him. So it is wise to keep in mind that, of ourselves, our motives are always mixed at best, or bad more commonly ... but having been saved in Christ who now works out his kingdom on earth through the body, the church.

    Sanctification is when we no longer are looking to ourselves to check our spiritual tempature but are focused on Christ. IN our union with Christ much good takes place both in our motives and in reality. We just need to remember that ANY good that comes about must be ascribed to Christ alone.

    We are not yet glorified and thus will commit sin, and your reminder that such makes us continue to flee to Christ is good advice.


    Dear brothers in Christ, thank you all for this fruitful interaction.

    And I am really grateful to God for how He is using this ministry to share with the world the precious truth of His Word.

    Soli Deo Gloria!

    Whatever the motive, I want to post these verses of Scripture commending you brothers of this Reformation Theology blog as your lives are reflecting them WHICH GIVES US HOPE TO ENDURE THROUGH AS WE SOJOURN TOO THIS SIDE OF GLORY AS YOU DO!:

    2Th 1:1 Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:
    2Th 1:2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
    2Th 1:3 We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing.

    For whatever motive it is of yours, undoubtedly you will agree with Paul the Apostle here that we need more men living in concert in every nation on earth as these men were with that Thessalonian Church, ever increasing in His faith and love?

    This is matchless and necessary as this same Apostle wrote these things to Timothy:

    2Ti 3:1 But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty.
    2Ti 3:2 For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy,
    2Ti 3:3 heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good,
    2Ti 3:4 treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God,
    2Ti 3:5 having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people.
    2Ti 3:6 For among them are those who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions,
    2Ti 3:7 always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth.





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