“Christians are hypocrites” is a long-standing criticism of the Christian faith. It is often given as one of the main reasons that non-Christians are not interested in Christianity. The feeling is that if Christians can’t even live up to their own ideals, then why should anyone else take it seriously?
Of course, I agree that many Christians are hypocrites. Some are hypocrites through-and-through: Christians in name only. Others are genuine Christians who practice hypocrisy for a time before getting back to following Jesus again.
But what is hypocrisy? What makes a Christian hypocritical?
Hypocrisy is about double-mindedness. It’s trying to be two contrary things at the same time. It’s about claiming to believe one thing but living out something else. Very often it serves self-interest. Hypocrisy looks like applying your moral principles to others but failing to apply them to yourself (Matthew 7:5). It looks like trying to live by God’s way and the world’s way at the same time (James 1:6-9; Luke 16:13). It looks like claiming to follow Jesus’ way of love, but secretly hating various followers of Jesus (1 John 4:20). It looks like calling Jesus Lord and refusing to obey him (Luke 6:46). It looks like outwardly expressing devotion to God but having insincere intentions in your heart (Mark 7:6).
Hypocrites often aren’t even aware of their double-mindedness. Very often they will be lying to themselves about their integrity as much as to anyone else. That’s the frightening thing about sin – we often deceive ourselves and even misunderstand our own motives (Galatians 6:3; Hebrews 3:13).
Sin doesn’t make you a hypocrite
Christians are not hypocrites because they fall into sin. We need to be clear on this. The Bible teaches that all Christians will keep on sinning until Jesus returns: ‘If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us’ (1 John 1:8).
In other words, a Christian would be a hypocrite if they claimed to live an entirely good, moral life. Christians sinning is not contrary to our creed. In an odd and unfortunate way, sinning is an unavoidable part of the Christian life. We are hypocrites if we pretend otherwise.
However, this is not a good thing. Jesus came into the world to take away our sins (1 John 3:3-5). His sacrifice brought atonement for sin and a place to turn for forgiveness and mercy (1 John 2:1-2). Yes – Christians expect to only be sinless when Jesus returns (1 John 3:1-2) but everyone who really believes this actively purifies their life now (1 John 3:3).
Thus, Christians have a complicated relationship to sin. Jesus has atoned for our sin. He has empowered us to live righteous lives imperfectly whilst we wait for the resurrection when we will be able to live righteous lives perfectly. In the meantime, we will find ourselves sinning and in need of regular renewal.
Outsiders often wrongly assume that Christianity is basically a moral code. Thus, sin seems to make Christians into hypocrites: moral-code-keepers with moral failings are hypocrites. We need to take the opportunity to explain the gospel to them: “Christians aren’t perfect moral people; we are forgiven people. We are people who are growing to be more obedient to God as he helps and changes us, but we still often struggle with sin in the meantime. Weakness and failure are part of my life as a Christian. I bet you find yourself acting contrary to your moral beliefs sometimes too…”. That can be a good way to start a conversation about the forgiveness on offer in Jesus.
But when is a Christian a hypocrite?
I’m certainly not claiming that Christians are never hypocrites! I’m just pointing out that noticing that Christians sin isn’t a sufficient reason to make that conclusion. Christians believe that they sin!
There are two main ways in which Christians can be hypocrites.
First, we might live as if sin doesn’t matter. That is, we might be insincere about our commitment to follow the way of Jesus. I previously wrote that whilst ‘perfectionism’ is unbiblical, at its best it expresses a very godly desire. Real Christians want to live righteous lives. Hypocrites treat sin as if it’s not a big deal. The only truly Christian attitude to sin is to fight against it (Galatians 5:17).
The main way that a Christian might be a hypocrite follows from the first one. A hypocritical Christian is someone who refuses to repent of their sins.
Repentance is the basic experience of the Christian life. It’s the only response that makes any sense once sin has been identified. See it for what it is. Label it for what it is. Confess it to God. Confess it to whoever you sinned against and apologise to them. Resolve to not repeat it. Call on God to help you not to repeat it. And praise God for the fact that in Christ his mercy toward us is fresh every day.
Sinlessness isn’t the opposite of Christian hypocrisy. Regular repentance is the opposite of Christian hypocrisy. Only this practice engages with the uncomfortable reality of sin seriously and applies the gospel to it. In our morally confused and hurting world a church that knows how to repent of sin and find renewed relationships with God and one another is a surprisingly attractive place.