In pretense or in truth: why Jesus plus nothing still equals everything.

I love the apostle Paul’s testimony in Philippians 1, where he expressly says that his imprisonment actually worked to advance the gospel, rather than hinder it. (Phil 1:12) He reports the “whole imperial guard” has become aware of this message and, more than that, a motley crew of preachers have begun fearlessly proclaiming the word. (Phil 1:13–14) The inference being that these brothers were either personally or tangentially influenced by Paul’s faithful testimony, deriving a bevy of inspiration from his own predicament.

The apostle confesses, however, that these preachers aren’t the most polished bunch. They’re not only a tad unorthodox but are also improperly motivated. “Some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of good will,” Paul notes. (Phil 1:15) There were some who were evidently taking the message of the gospel and utilizing it to further their own ends. To garner fame and name recognition. They weren’t preaching Christ sincerely but “out of selfish ambition.” (Phil 1:16) In fact, another way to translate the “selfish ambition” of these preachers is to describe them as “electioneers.” An accurate picture of this bunch is that of a politician on the campaign trail, who proclaims all manner promises not out of sincerity but only to win popular favor.

Conversely, there were those who preached Christ “out of good will” and “love.” (Phil 1:15–16) These brothers were genuinely captivated by the good news of Christ crucified and went about carrying forth Paul’s assignment of defending the gospel. Rather than seeking their own attention, their own glory, they delighted in contributing to the apostolic mission of preaching Jesus of Nazareth as “the Christ.” All of which leads the apostle to make a joyous albeit curious confession:

What does it matter? Only that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is proclaimed, and in this I rejoice. Yes, and I will continue to rejoice. (Phil 1:18)

How are we to understand this verse? As it stands, Paul appears to say that ministerial motivation matters less than the message itself, which is a somewhat off-putting prospect. Whether the preacher is envious or contentious or moved by selfish gain as he stands behind the pulpit isn’t as serious as whether or not he’s preaching Christ from that pulpit. That’s a rather audacious claim. And, to be sure, it can be taken too far, especially in a day like ours when ministers of the gospel are falling like flies into tragic sins. There is a catalog of “ex-preachers” whose ministries have been derailed by their own “electioneering.” But for Paul, there was still reason to rejoice — yes, even as he sat in chains unable to do anything about it. The apostle of grace was forced to sit in a cell and watch as a few good men carried on the faithful exposition of Christ crucified, and as a few more bastardized that same missive for their own nefarious profit. 

There’s a sense in which I think we think selfishly driven preachers conduct their ministries with neon signs that flash “disingenuous.” That’s rarely the case, however. We aren’t always aware of “wolves in sheep’s clothing” in the moment. Such is why the New Testament epistles churn with the church’s need for spiritual discernment. It is often only in the crater of impropriety that we ever learn of a preacher’s true motives. The dust might still be settling on some such minister’s odious scandal when the traces of “envy and rivalry” begin to manifest.

It is in these moments when the Christian is suddenly fraught with confusion. What is one to do with the news of so-and-so’s “fall from grace”? Should one trash all their books and unsubscribe from their podcast? Does so-and-so deserve to be canceled? These are, to be sure, loaded questions that don’t always have easy answers. I know of many who were influenced for the better by the early ministerial efforts of Mark Driscoll. With what we know now about Driscoll and the legacy of Mars Hill Church, should all that be jettisoned? What about Billy Graham’s grandson, TullianTchividjian, and his very public disgrace? Should I throw away Jesus + Nothing = Everything? Does that mean One Way Love isn’t true? What about the devastating stories that have come out regarding Ravi Zacharias? How should those color the way we view his years of faithful ministry? 

To be clear, I’m not writing these things just for “shock and awe.” I’m not meaning to jerk you around by dropping names. These thoughts are prescient for me since I was made aware of former podcast guest Byron Yawn’s pitiable transgressions. Trying to make sense of that news has left me in a bit of fog, especially when I consider the zeal with which Byron proclaimed the message of Christ’s sufficiency and sovereignty. There are, perhaps, others you might immediately think of, too — ministers you never anticipated falling away who are now selling insurance instead of preaching grace.

What does all that mean? Does that discount what they did and said for the cause of Christ? I would say decidedly not. Why? Because Christ was preached. “Whether from false motives or true, Christ is proclaimed, and in this I rejoice,” says Paul. (Phil 1:18) These are words to which we can cling whenever we hear of ministers falling away from the truth. Jesus plus nothing still equals everything. We cannot and must not let the moral failings of certain individuals prompt us to relinquish the timeless truth of Scripture and embrace a semi-Pelagian-savlation. We are so prone to that response in the aftermath of pastoral scandal. But Christ’s truth doesn’t change, even if those tendering it do. The hope of grace still lives on. “The Church,” Peter Wehner wrote recently in The Atlantic, “is not the hope of the world; its purpose is to be a witness to the hope of the world, even if that witness is often imperfect.”

The gospel’s mainstay is not the morality of its messenger. “Our lives are emphatically not the Gospel,” writes 1517’s Chad Bird. Indeed, the efficacy, utility, and veracity of the message of Jesus Christ is not tethered to the one bearing it. Which, mind you, isn’t a statement that is supposed to get preachers off the hook of moral or ethical obligation. Rather, it’s to say that notwithstanding the soundness of a preacher’s life, the “sound doctrine” of God still persists, because Christ persists. “There ought to be consistency between life and doctrine,” writes Derek Rishmawy, “but there is often not, and so the Scriptures warn us of this, giving us reason to cling to the gospel beyond the preacher, the message beyond the vehicle by which we have heard it.” You and I can be uplifted in the reminder that the truth of Christ crucified transcends the fallenness of mankind, including the fallenness of Christ’s messengers. The gospel is unable to be confined or hampered by chains or scandals. God’s purposes always prevail. His grace remains solid all the way through.