Appearance Is Everything?

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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 that this agency doesn’t realize they are dealing with a Christian organization. Then it occurred to me that this is precisely the impression many unbelievers get from the state of evangelical Christianity today: appearance is everything. Truth and reality often take a back seat to image.

That mentality has long been a plague on the church, but in recent years it has reached epidemic proportions. Sadly enough, Christian leaders are often the most image-conscious of all. Whole churches are built on the philosophy that image is everything, while truth must be downplayed so that the church can appear in more appealing dress.

For example, in order to appear as genial and nonthreatening as possible, many churches forgo 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 pervasive at the individual level. Far too many Christians live as if a pretense of righteousness were as good as the real thing.

That is precisely the error committed by most of the Pharisees of Jesus’ day. They lived as though external compliance with the law fulfilled all the demands of divine righteousness while they harbored iniquity in their hearts or indulged in gross sin secretly.

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 fundamental moral requirements. The Pharisees’ teaching placed so much emphasis on external appearance that it was commonly believed that evil thoughts were not really sinful as long as they did not become acts. The Pharisees and their followers became utterly preoccupied with appearing righteous. 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.

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, is no less damning than sin that manifests itself in the worst forms of ungodly behavior (Matt. 5:21–30). As Christians, we must never think of secret sins as somehow less wicked or more respectable than the sins everyone sees . 

First published in Tabletalk Magazine, an outreach of Ligonier. For permissions, view our Copyright Policy.