Competitive Gospel

Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice. (Philippians 1:15-18)

I have often wondered about the verses above. I wonder exactly what it was that Paul was referring to, and why he would apparently affirm those who preach the gospel with ulterior motives? Paul always did have detractors. He spoke often of those who contradicted the message of grace in Christ, seeking to reinstitute the law as the basis for Christian faith. There was a sort of rivalry between him and those who preached “a different gospel” (2 Corinthians 11:4), and Paul often warned of those who would “nullify the grace of God” (Galatians 2:21) by encouraging believers to trust in their own righteousness. Paul was an evangelist, first and foremost, and for him the gospel itself was at stake in these matters.

Throughout my ministry, I have had a particular interest in evangelism. Like Paul, it has been at the forefront of how I understand the calling God has placed on my life. I served as a mission developer in my own congregation, and over the years, I have helped to support a number of new church plants. I have come to recognize that God has given me a heart and passion for making known the gospel.

But I have to say, I never really questioned whether there was any hidden motive underlying my interest in evangelism — beyond wanting to serve as a faithful follower and ambassador for Christ.

So when I read what Paul writes about those who “preach Christ from envy and rivalry,” it gives me pause. I wonder if there is not a bit of my own competitive human nature that has driven this aspect of my ministry, and the desire I have to do evangelism. Knowing the way I am, I realize it is not simply that I want to preach the gospel, but that I want to do it “right.” That is to say, I want to proclaim Christ in a way that has biblical and theological integrity.

Unfortunately, I have too often been on the receiving end of badly done evangelism. Whether it be those who used a carrot or a stick, I have often experienced the “sales pitch” of people who have tried to sell me Jesus. I never wanted to do that to others. I never wanted to give in to the temptation of preaching a human-centered view of faith, as if trust in Christ were a human work by which human beings save themselves. I believe that the gospel is something that comes from outside of ourselves — something that we do not control — wherein the Holy Spirit uses God’s Word to lay hold of our hearts. “By grace you have been saved through faith,and this is not your own doing…” (Ephesians 2:8). That verse has always been at the center of how I understand the gospel.

But I must admit, there have been times that I have felt that those with a more synergistic view of salvation have a much easier job. There are many evangelists who unabashedly teach that salvation is in our human hands, and that “being saved” is the result of our own human work or decision. Apparently, that strategy “works.” All around me I see people who try to make the gospel more attractive in ways that appeal to human will and desire, who often seem to be much more “effective” in their evangelism.

I can’t help but think that some of my own evangelistic fervor has been to prove that evangelism could be done in a way that focuses on Christ alone, and his gracious act of salvation, rather than giving credit for our salvation to our human cooperation or acceptance. Does this mean that my preaching the gospel has been out of envy and rivalry, and not of good will — as Paul said of his opponents? Or does it mean that I simply want Christ proclaimed, as clearly and purely as I can?

Maybe, in the end, it doesn’t matter. As Paul said, the important thing is that “in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice” (Philippians 1:18). Maybe this is where the gospel speaks to us as the evangelists, as Christ releases us from our bondage to motives and rivalries, and works in us despite our weaknesses and failings. He gives us the opportunity to serve in his name, regardless of our covetous and competitive nature, and assures us that even what we may do for the wrong reasons, he is able to use for his glory. Knowing in the end that “it is not about me but all about him,” was the message of Christ from the beginning. Though we may be people who fall short in motive and intention, the promise is that Christ is at work in us nevertheless. And in that, I rejoice

– Pastor Steven E. King