“Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.” Luke 12:1
We’ve all heard it before: “I don’t go to church because Christians are just a bunch of hypocrites.” If you’re like me, I immediately have two reactions when I hear that. On the one hand, my sensible mind responds with an eye roll because the people that say things like this have usually been burned by some past religious experience for which all believers must now pay the price. But, on the other hand, my heart sinks a little because… honestly, yeah, I do feel like a hypocrite sometimes. In fact, it has been my general pastoral experience that many Christians often feel hypocritical. So, are we? Is this a fair statement? Are Christians “just a bunch of hypocrites?”
Well first, let’s acknowledge Jesus’ warning in Luke 12:1. Jesus would not warn his disciples to beware of hypocrisy if it wasn’t a very real and viable danger. Hypocrisy, according to Jesus, is the putrid fruit of self-righteousness. Jesus strongly confronted the cold, dead, self-righteous religiosity of the Pharisees throughout the Gospels. In short, Jesus told his disciples “Don’t be like those guys.” They appear holy, they appear zealous, they appear as if they “have it all together,” but they are rotten to the core. And, yes, it is possible for true believers to develop such a disposition (at least in part). Jesus warns us to avoid this. Self-righteousness is useless if we are declared righteous in Christ Jesus (cf. Rom 8:1).
But what about the ones who are not self-righteous? What about the ones who are deeply aware of their indwelling sin and struggle to make sense of it all? What about those who mourn over their failures and sin, the ones who don’t have it all together, the ones who feel a tension between their confession and their reality? What about the ones who read about the standard but never quite feel like they’re able to obtain it?
By the Apostle’s own words (cf. Rom 6-8), even Paul felt such a tension. In Romans 7:24 his struggle crescendos with the cry, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from the body of death?!” Biblical Christianity never claims sinless perfection this side of eternity. In fact, sound theology leads us to the exact opposite conclusion: While we have been declared righteous through faith in Christ Jesus (cf. Rom 5:1), we will not be made completely righteous until the end (cf. Rom 8:30). Therefore, we don’t claim to be sinless. We don’t claim to be “better than” anyone else. We don’t claim to be “holier than thou.” We only claim to be forgiven! If our only boast is the cross of Christ, then the charge of hypocrisy loses all merit. That is why Paul doesn’t conclude with self-deprecation: “Man, I’m such a hypocrite.” No, he says, “There is therefore now no condemnation (Read: Hypocrisy) for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1).
Hypocrisy is the putrid fruit of self-righteousness. It blossoms when we plant within ourselves the mistaken belief that we have obtained a higher level of moral and spiritual maturity than that of others (cf. Gal 6:1-5). Hypocrisy thrives when our standard is no longer vertical, but horizontal. I understand that we can feel hypocritical at times. How can someone who claims to have experienced the love of Christ continue to… (fill in whatever blank you wish here)…? But this is the experience of every believer as the Holy Spirit convicts us and conforms us to Christ. No, this isn’t hypocrisy at all! This is evidence of the authenticity of the believer. This is the experience of the child of God learning the delicate dance of grace, the gentle balance between resting in Christ and working out our own salvation. Hypocrites usually don’t feel hypocritical. No, they feel self-gratification, entitlement, achievement, and pride. So, if you “feel like a hypocrite,” well, that probably means you’re not one.
Soli Deo Gloria!
Pastor Matthew S. Rickett