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Appearance Is Everything?

Monday, April 30, 2012

by John MacArthur

An advertising agency wrote seeking our ministry's business: "Let's face it: appearance is everything. Let us help you enhance your image."

My first thought was This agency must not realize they are dealing with a Christian organization.

But then it occurred to me that this is precisely the impression many unbelievers must get from the state of evangelical Christianity today: Appearance is everything. Truth and reality often take a back seat to image.

This sort of mentality has long been a plague on the church, but in recent years it has reached epidemic proportions. Sadly enough, Christian leaders are frequently the most image-conscious of all. And whole churches are being built on the philosophy that image is everything, while truth is something that must be downplayed or camouflaged so that the church can appear in more appealing dress.

In order to achieve a friendly, non-confrontive image, many churches forego the practice of church discipline altogether, lest the all-important image be tarnished. Sin in the body is tolerable as long as the carefully polished veneer remains in place.

Worst of all, this attitude is all too pervasive at the individual level. Many modern Christians live their lives as if a pretense of righteousness were as good as the real thing.

That is precisely the error committed by the Pharisees of Jesus' day. They had externalized the demands of the law. And many of them lived as if external obedience to the law fulfilled all the demands of divine righteousness.

Again and again Christ rebuked the Pharisees for their fastidious observance of the external, ceremonial law—married with a wanton neglect of the law's moral requirements. The Pharisees' teaching had placed so much emphasis on external appearance that it was commonly believed evil thoughts were not really sinful, as long as they did not become acts. The Pharisees and their followers became utterly preoccupied with appearing to be righteous. Yet they were all too willing to tolerate the grossest sins of the heart. That is why Jesus likened them to whitewashed tombs, spotless on the outside, but filled with corruption and defilement on the inside.

The notion that morality is merely external underlies all forms of hypocrisy. It is the very error Jesus decried in His exposition of the moral law in the Sermon on the Mount. The central lesson He underscored was this: External appearance is not what matters most. The proper focus of the moral law is the heart, not merely external behavior.

Jesus' exposition of the law is a devastating blow against the lie that image is everything. Our Lord taught repeatedly that sin bottled up on the inside, concealed from everyone else's view, carries the very same guilt as sin that manifests itself in the worst forms of ungodly behavior. Those who hate others are as guilty as those who act out their hatred; and those who indulge in private lusts are as culpable as wanton adulterers (Matt. 5:21-30).

So Christians are not to think of secret sins as somehow less serious and more respectable than the sins everyone sees. Here are three reasons secret sin is especially abhorrent:


1. The heart is open and laid bare before God.

Scripture tells us that nothing is hidden from the Lord’s sight, “but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do” (Heb. 4:13). No sin—not even a whispered curse or a fleeting evil thought—is hidden from the view of God. In fact, if we realized that God himself is the only audience for such secret sins, we might be less inclined to write them off so lightly.

The Bible declares that God will one day judge the secrets of every heart (Rom. 2:16). He "will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil" (Eccl. 12:14).

Not only that, secret sins will not remain secret. "The Lord [will] bring to light the things hidden in the darkness" (1 Cor. 4:5). Jesus said, "There is nothing covered up that will not be revealed, and hidden that will not be known. Accordingly, whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in the inner rooms shall be proclaimed upon the housetops" (Luke 12:2-3). Those who think they can evade shame by sinning in secret will discover one day that open disclosure of their secrets before the very throne of God is the worst shame of all.

It is folly to think we can mitigate our sin by keeping it secret. It is double folly to tell ourselves that we are better than others because we sin in private rather than in public. And it is the very height of folly to convince ourselves that we can get away with sin by covering it up. "He who conceals his transgressions will not prosper" (Prov. 28:13).

All sin is an assault against our holy God, whether it is done in public or in secret. And God, who beholds even the innermost secrets of the heart, sees our sin clearly, no matter how well we think we have covered it.


2. The heart is the root of all sin.

When Jesus said hatred carries the same kind of guilt as murder, and lust is the very essence of adultery, He was not suggesting that there is no difference in degree between sin that takes place in the mind and sin that is acted out. Scripture does not teach that all sins are of equal enormity. That some sins are worse than others is both patently obvious and thoroughly biblical. Scripture plainly teaches this, for example, when it tells us the sin of Judas was greater than the sin of Pilate (John 19:11).

But in His Sermon on the Mount Jesus was pointing out that anger arises from the same moral defect as murder; and the one who lusts suffers from the same character flaw as the adulterer. Furthermore, those who engage in thought-sins are guilty of violating the same moral precepts as those who commit acts of murder and adultery.

In other words, secret sins of the heart are morally tantamount to the worst kind of evil deeds—even if they are sins of a lesser degree. The lustful person has no right to feel morally superior to a wanton fornicator. The fact that she indulges in lust is proof she is capable of immoral acts as well. The fact that he hates his brother shows that he has murder lurking in his heart. All sin, regardless of degree or extent, springs forth from the same wicked intentions and desires of the heart.

Christ was teaching us to view our own secret sins with the same moral revulsion we feel for wanton acts of public sin.


3. The heart is the true measure of the person.

The Lord isn’t fooled by façades or disguises—He “sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart" (1 Sam. 16:7). No amount of posturing or performance can conceal the true nature of a heart given over to secret sin.

In fact, those who sin secretly actually intensify their guilt, because they add the sin of hypocrisy to their offense. Hypocrisy is a grave sin in its own right. It also produces an especially debilitating kind of guilt, because by definition hypocrisy entails the concealing of sin. And the only remedy for any kind of sin involves uncovering our guilt through sincere confession.

Hypocrisy therefore permeates the soul with a predisposition against genuine repentance. That is why Jesus referred to hypocrisy as "the leaven of the Pharisees" (Luke 12:1).

Hypocrisy also works directly against the conscience. There's no way to be hypocritical without some searing of the conscience. Therefore hypocrisy inevitably makes way for the most vile, soul-coloring, character-damaging secret sins. Thus hypocrisy compounds itself, just like leaven.

Beware that sort of leaven. An ungodly culture tells us that appearances are everything. Don't buy that lie.

The truth is that our secret life is the real litmus test of our character: "As he thinks within himself, so he is" (Prov. 23:7). Do you want to know who you really are? Take a hard look at your private life—especially your innermost thoughts. Gaze into the mirror of God's Word, and allow it to disclose and correct the real thoughts and motives of your heart.

John MacArthur


#1  Posted by Rudi Jensen  |  Monday, April 30, 2012at 1:40 AM

Oh, what a difficult topic you picked there John MacArthur!

Jesus teaches about the difference between following the rules to the letter (as the Pharisees) and acting in true love with true understanding and a true heart.

Yes, it’s all about the condition of the heart. You can even (mis)use the letter to kill your brother! The Bible talks about Spirit and Truth together.

#2  Posted by John P. Nesbella  |  Monday, April 30, 2012at 4:43 AM

It is such a joy seeing the work of God in our lives, primarily the on-going work of repentance as He separates us from sin. As the Holy Spirit puts to death the sin that remains in me, one tool that He uses from His Word in conforming me to the image of Christ is the example of Christ himself. Not as much His deeds unto men (although that is important and I would never intend to take anything away from that) but more importantly His self-emptying. The Lord has taught me that Christ likeness first and foremost must be seen in His perfect submission to the Father. It was His perfect love, solely coming to do the will of His Father, His only desire being the Father's glory. The Lord Jesus had no thought of Himself at all, His self image His reputation were non-existent. He emptied Himself for the will of another.

I am reminded of II Cor 5:15 "and He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, BUT for Him who died and rose again on their behalf."

It is the love for Christ that must rule my life, His will and His glory; lest I be rendered useless for the proclamation of the gospel.

God bless all of you!

#3  Posted by Daniel Wilson  |  Monday, April 30, 2012at 5:43 AM

That's why we must put pray and confessing our sins as well forgiving others whom sinned against us in practice daily.. like a daily chore.. Thanks for that. Amen..

#4  Posted by Sydnee Clark  |  Monday, April 30, 2012at 6:35 AM

It's great to know that Jesus died for us, and that it is done! The price has been paid! Cause I know that if Jesus did not die for this world, than we have not a single piece of hope! Glory goes All to Him! <3

Sometimes I think about when everybody will be standing up at the throne of the king, how great and scary it's going to be! Happy because we finally get to see our Saviors face, and scary because........Every single one of our sins are going to be laid out! Nothing will be hidden on that day!

But thank Jesus for His blood! Amen!

#5  Posted by Ben Hogan  |  Monday, April 30, 2012at 6:50 AM

You know... it all comes down to whether or not people really believe that God is ultimately going to hold us accountable for even every careless word we speak (Matt. 12:36).

Luke says in 6:45 that out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.

If people have a real conviction of the serious holiness of God then they will have a proper view of their own depravity and realize their need for His Word. I mean, their dependence on it every single day. It takes God in us to even be able to please God at all (Philippians 2:12-13)!

Coming to this realization helps us to remember that, indeed, nothing is done in secret before God and that no matter who sees what here and now...we are responsible for everything we do and say to God.

Like almost anything, if there is no understanding and firm belief in the sovereignty and holiness of God, then we will have no firm conviction of the necessity of being obedient to Him. It seriously can be traced to that.

If God is not sovereign then he is no God at all. But He is! When we recognize His sovereignty we instantly have a right perspective of Him in relation to us, which is, consequently, indicative of a saving faith.

A saving faith is by the Holy Spirit and if the Holy Spirit is in us, then we will be convicted of even our "invisible" sins.

Great post, John! Keep up the good work, GTY team! It was such a special time for me to meet Steve, Lance and especially John in Maryland a week ago. Thank you for your precious time in coming! It is valued tremendously.

Ben Hogan

#6  Posted by Jordan Bushey  |  Monday, April 30, 2012at 7:50 AM

You are correct, Johnny Mac!

It baffles me when I see supposed Christians who go to church every Sunday then live like athiests for the other 6 days of the week. We are all hypocrites to some extent, but the ones who make such an effort to appear righteous when they know how truly depraved they are need to check themselves and start living morally externally AND internally.

#7  Posted by Darrel Robertson  |  Monday, April 30, 2012at 8:22 AM

This is one of Satan's biggest traps ,"Appearance!", once one falls to this kind of thinking your whipped....Satan loves it when people cast him as a devilish figure with a red evil looking body and horns, but yet comes in to the flock with sheep's clothing and then gets a foot hold of the loose tongues in the congregation. Yes many of the most evil people on this planet have the appearance of a sheep or dove, but inwardly can bite with the most deadliest venom. Sure it is good to have a healthy looking appearance dress nicely and speak with kindness , but that is when we need spiritual discernment in our lives to weed out the fakes from the phonies...it has been said that ...."You don't love someone for their looks, or their clothes, or for their fancy car, but because they sing a song only you can hear.” ....and for us who are filled with Gods precious Holy Spirit lets hope and pray it is HIS song we only hear.

#8  Posted by Je Ko  |  Monday, April 30, 2012at 9:40 AM

Thank you again pastor John!

I was finally able to come to faith and repent when I understood what it meant to have serious hatred for sin. But when I realized that my repentance itself was so fickle, I was baffled... until I heard your explanation of the passage Matthew 5:8. The passage totally nailed it for me. Purity in devotion, purity in motivation, purity in effort that bears much discipline.. are all directed by the truths as described in the Bible. The more I learned, the more constant "I need to repent of my repentance" became my prayer. Oh, it's a constant struggle. But I thank God for teachers that show me the way of sanctification from the Word.

By the way, I used to pray that the length of my life would be deducted and given to you. Now I realize that that kind of prayer is foolish, because God already has numbered our days - and also given me responsibilities. Then I prayed that I would be a man like you. But after more learning, I want to be like Jesus Christ... as taught and shown by godly men (like pastor John). When I listen to pastor John's sermons, I don't see or hear pastor John, but God's word. Thank you for hiding behind God's word and allowing the church to see God's word and His glory for ourselves. Thank you Grace to You for making these great resources available. Thank you all the supporters of GTY. I hope to have fellowship with you all when we all get to heaven someday.

#9  Posted by Heath Holland  |  Monday, April 30, 2012at 10:08 AM

The beauty is when people see the outward appearance through the inward heart. I'm thankful for GTY & John - because my perception is solely based on the core of the material.

John, I appreciate you letting your "yes be yes" and you don't pull any punches. That's the kind of expository preaching we all need!

Change comes through convictions

#10  Posted by Rudi Jensen  |  Monday, April 30, 2012at 11:11 AM

#7 Darrel Robertson

Good point.

We are sinners saved by grace. And we can all identify ourselves with Peter, the apostle with a foot-shaped mouth and a long record of getting to really know what true love is by the dynamic work of God, testing, reproving, encouraging, rebuking, shaping...

#11  Posted by Corey Fleig  |  Monday, April 30, 2012at 11:17 AM

Speaking of appearances, I saw a TV broadcast of Dudley Rutherford, who wrote a book titled "God has an App for that". Now, I understand the art of pithy sayings, but I still object.

Am I being too harsh? Isn't it important to have a holy dread of God and keep the rhetoric under control?

Is this a cultural issue, or a Biblical one, cuz I see it as a Biblical one.

I'm not getting this one.

#12  Posted by Terrence Sinanan  |  Monday, April 30, 2012at 2:04 PM

John, thank you for such a heart searching blog.

What a statement.....God is the only audience of our secret sins.

Thank you John for your great expositiory preaching and teaching.

#13  Posted by Seth Elder  |  Monday, April 30, 2012at 2:41 PM

Does this mean that we should not focus on the building, but the people? I'm asking because I see lots of churches taking care of their million dollar plus facilities, but meanwhile, I wonder how many of their congregation has to rely on some sort of government assistance (i.e.- WIC, Food Stamps, Government Bill Assistance Programs, etc.) to pay their bills. Should the Church be more focused on feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and doing good works more than the appearance of their fancy meeting halls and campuses? I understand a lot of churches don't focus on church discipline, but how many of the churches that are doing church discipline, are focusing to much on unnecessary (and I do mean unnecessary) things instead of on ministering to those who are in need? I'm not trying to be contentious, but I would like to know what you all think about this. Please respond with some feedback on this. Thank you and God bless the Grace to You ministry team. Thank you so much for helping me out through the preaching you offer on the web and radio. I have grown so much since I started listening and reading to John MacArthur's sermons on the radio, and reading the blog post posted on here as well.

#14  Posted by Daniel Wilson  |  Monday, April 30, 2012at 5:38 PM

Deals with the heart motives.. no sugercoating the sermons.. Amen to blog note.. Amen..

#15  Posted by Jason Johnston  |  Monday, April 30, 2012at 6:06 PM

Thank you for this blog,it's very convicting. I struggle so much with my thought life that sometimes I want to run my head through a brick wall. I don't feel like a hypocrite but I suppose that doesn't mean I'm not? What a worn out wretch of a man I am,I fail every test of character that comes my way and I'm ashamed to even ask God for forgivness but I do, after mustering up the faith that He still loves me because of Christ.

I've thought about talking to someone but my own pastor,as nice as he is,has a completely incorrect view of being born again. so it's hard to get deep when the guy in charge thinks that if you believe you're going to heaven you are. Just fill out the decision card! You're born again! I do pray for him,but I feel like my sin cancels out my prayers sometimes. Thank God so much for GTY and guys like DR MacArthur and DR Piper at Desiring God,if it wasn't for these 2 websites this sheep would be starved to death. God Bless you guys.

#16  Posted by Bryan Borth  |  Monday, April 30, 2012at 9:12 PM

Not real big on blogs, but I think this is one I'm about to enjoy!

I appreciate the statement, "Take a hard look at your private life—especially your innermost thoughts." That's really when I knew I was in trouble, always someone (God) was watching me!!! Pay close attention to the websites you visit, might be revealing. Was to me, sometime back!

The "secret place" is the devils playhouse!!! Thanks be to the Holy Spirit and it's convicting power!!!

Thanks so much to John MacArthur and the staff for all the great stuff!!!

I would like to see some comments on Seth Elders comments.

#17  Posted by Jennifer Barr  |  Tuesday, May 01, 2012at 3:50 AM

Thank you so much John for that 'secret' Life changing commentary.

It has truely made me ashamed of my inner most thoughts that seem to make me feel better/exalted about myself when in fact they are fithy rags before my Lord.

Ignorance is bliss as we feel so self assured that our 'secret' sins have gone unnoticed by our Lord, when in fact He taking account of ii all...

We are so blessed to have this ministry at our finger tips each and every day...you do not sugar coat anything...so that the Word of God pierces right to our very soul.

Praying for the Lord to guide me each and every day until I'm home...

#18  Posted by Joel Deichman  |  Tuesday, May 01, 2012at 7:00 AM

I am grateful that you don't compromise the message but will this company cause you to make a change in appearance - should we expect a white suit and aviator glasses and maybe facial hair like Phil Johnson?

I think one of the best compliments I ever got was when I worked at a large furniture store years ago and one of the female employees came up to me and asked if I was a Christian because I seemed so different than the other guys who worked there. Staying in God's Word helps me in my walk and in how people can perceive me.....

#19  Posted by Angela Owens  |  Tuesday, May 01, 2012at 10:59 PM

First, I'd like to say THANK YOU teacher Mac Arthur for being a humble and willing vessel in the hand of God. God has so richly nourished my soul by way of God's teachings through you. You are truly deserving of God's blessings for being a good shepherd. Tragically, there are so few in this world.

The quality that most exemplifies godliness and righteousness is unpretentiousness. There isn't one account in the bible when Jesus appeared or desired to appear pretentious. To the contrary, Jesus clearly didn't care who took offense to God's truth. Anytime someone hides who they are, or behaves in a self-righteous manner, they're being deceptive (untruthful). Being untruthful to God, self, others, goes against all that God is. Hiding from the truth is what alienates us from God and others, and is the source of loneliness and inner turmoil. The first account of hiding from the truth is found in Genesis 3:10, when Adam and Eve tried to hide their disobedience and shame from God, and as we all know, that didn't go over real big with God. Jonah is another example of the consequences of hiding from God. Jonah 1:1-17. Hiding the truth about ourselves from God and others is truly the root of all evil, and God's greatest heartache, since God has no choice but to turn His back on those who run and hide from Him. Loving and embracing the truth is loving and embracing God, and is the test that determines our true paternity. Anyone who's offended by or tries to hide the truth is the enemy of God, as Matthew 7:20 says, "Therefore by their fruits you will know them."

#21  Posted by Rebecca Schwem  |  Wednesday, May 02, 2012at 8:46 PM

Oh my, I love how Pastor John spoke to how hypocrisy intensifies our guilt. And this little gem of a statement, " The truth is that our secret life is the real litmus test of our character", I just might want to use on a bumper sticker! Maybe I'll settle for writing it on my bathroom mirror?

I am so thankful that Pastor John reveals the ugly like he does. I haven't come this far in my Christian walk to be content with a fake anything.

Actually, that is what I love about this blog being under the leadership of John MacArthur. I hate my sin. I crave the truth and it is so comforting to be anywhere that truth abounds. Truth is normal here. I can relax here. Elsewhere, not so much.

Oh, Lord, check my heart. Psalm 26:2

#22  Posted by Helen Harmon  |  Monday, May 07, 2012at 10:29 AM

I 've been reading Romans, and we will be judged for everything. I agree Churches spend money on new parking lot when they had a good one to start with like concrete when the asphalt was fine just to let you know there is no judgment from myself, it is that where I live the people need help, food and help with bills are more important than keeping up with the Jones's. If I could I would fill a truck with food and give it away to those that needed it. I've been there and now how it feels, so God looks on the heart as you say he does. My Husband & I have always told our children "what goes in your eyes and ears will go down into your heart and come out of your mouth". The heart is the the true window to our soul I believe,

I try to be a good example to those around me but I tell everyone that man will fail you the only one that does not fail you is Jesus so please don't look no me because I fall down and make mistakes but look To God Because he NEVER fails us.