Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.A. Theology
MY FATHER DECIDED TO quit going to church “cold turkey” just about a year after I had accepted Christ as my Savior and received water baptism.* I was fourteen and was considering becoming a pastor. My father’s choice was based on his opinion that church leaders wanted more of his time and money, and the congregation was “full of a bunch of hypocrites.” This was in the early 70s and I did not have any means of going to church without my family. Today, many churches focus on youth, and provide transportation for young Christians who do not have the means of getting to services. One of the most common reasons that people give for rejecting Christianity is hypocrisy. But this allegation alone does not make it so, nor does it address the nuances of believers who say one thing but do another. Incidentally, I was one of those hypocritical Christians for decades. My “secret life” was full of sinful behavior and active addiction. But God used my hypocrisy for His glory (see Rom. 8:28). Coming to a decision to repent and get clean and sober, I began to seek sanctification and growth as a Christian. This led me to discover the ministry God was preparing for me all along.
The man said, “God wants me to tell you something.” That got my attention. He continued: “Everything you have been through since your birth until this very moment has been ordained by Him to mold you into the person He has called you to be.”
Hypocrite. What a horrible thing to be called. The first time I heard that word leveled at me was from the mouth of my youngest brother. We were sharing a house, along with our mother, when he confronted me. “I don’t want you living here. I hate you and I think you’re a hypocrite.” Sadly, he was right. Looking back over the previous thirty years, I saw nothing but hypocrisy. I was teaching Bible study at two county prisons while high on oxycodone I kept stealing from family members. Early in recovery from alcohol I was chairing AA meetings while high on marijuana. My life was full of lies and denial. My heart was conflicted. Yet I continued to live a dual existence. The Holy Spirit would not leave me alone! I felt convicted and would often cry out to God, apologizing, asking Him to “fix me.” To make my hypocrisy “go away.” But that’s not how it works! We are free moral agents, with freedom to choose. When we walk in the flesh, we feed fleshly appetites. Our self-will runs riot and we live a life of excess and abuse. God cannot choose for us; we are free to decide. And the choice is simple: A or B. God or Satan. Good or evil. Freedom or bondage. Hypocrisy or authenticity.
Truly, man cannot serve two masters. First, it is insanely ridiculous to think that we can be devoted simultaneously to two different responsibilities, ideals, or people. Legally, or perhaps “secularly,” it would seem possible to serve more than one interest. However, human nature does not allow us to have equal loyalty toward two things that are the complete opposites of each other. The conflicting pursuits are painfully obvious. Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other” (Matt, 6:24, ESV). The apostle John writes, “Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning… No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God” (1 John 3:8a, 9). Paul warned about loosing the light of the gospel. He said, “Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Cor. 4:1-2).
Christians are not immune to sinning. John was talking about the practice of sin in 1 John 3:8. My own hypocrisy brought me to the point where I confronted my premeditated habitual practice of sin. I realized how this was no different than planning on drinking or getting high (a relapse) and not reaching out to someone before I used my drug of choice. A conscious decision! As I wrestled with this behavior in my life, I commented to my cat that perhaps I should have the letter H tattooed on my forehead; then, when someone asked what it meant I could tell them that I am a hypocrite. (My cat meowed and walked away.) Shortly after coming to this realization, I watched The Passion of the Christ. It was my third attempt, and this time I made it through the torture scene, all the way to the end. Today, when I think about sinning on purpose (watching pornography, for example), I remember those scenes from The Passion, and what the last twelve hours of Jesus’ life on Earth was like. To say He suffered does not begin to describe it. There are no words. This though helps me to not abuse the grace of God. Some days it still requires a conscious effort (at least for now) to say no to temptation, but I am spurred on by a desire to grow in sanctification and to serve God. I choose to walk in the light and to avoid living in the darkness—that place where sin thrives; where I holed up during my active addiction.
What We Can Learn
We can we learn from those who struggle with habitual sin. First John 5:18 says, “We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, but he who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him.” What does John mean by “does not keep on sinning?” Surely he is not suggesting Christians no longer sin. Paul clearly notes the struggle he faced. He said, “I know that all God’s commands are spiritual, but I’m not. Isn’t this also your experience? Yes. I’m full of myself—after all, I’ve spent a long time in sin’s prison. What I don’t understand about myself is that I decide one way, but then I act another, doing things I absolutely despise… I obviously need help! I realize that I don’t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can’t do it” (Rom. 7:14-19, MSG). But John and Paul tell us there is a way out. John writes, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him… everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith” (1 John 5:1, 4, ESV). Paul says, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin” (Rom. 7:24-25).
In the same manner that Jesus was “born of God” (see Luke 1:35), we are spiritually reborn and are alive in Christ through His atoning death and resurrection. It is because of our status as children of God, renewed in Christ, that we now possess the power to say no to habitual sin. We have been justified by faith (see Rom. 5:1), acquitted of our trespasses because Jesus paid the sin penalty for us. We have been reconciled with the Father through the Son (see Rom. 5:11). Regarding John’s comment (1 John 5:18) that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, Matthew Henry notes two distinct categories of people mentioned in the verse: (i) those who belong to God, and (ii) those who belong to the wicked one. Whoever is not of God falls under the power of Satan, and they do works that support his cause. Those who belong to God have been led to the Father by the Son, and they favor and love both. In fact, believers are “…in union with [the Father and the Son] by the indwelling and working of the Holy Spirit” (1).
What then is the proper definition of a hypocritical Christian? Sarah Stonestreet says, “A concept like hypocrisy requires a standard of morality or moral conduct with which a person generally agrees, but fails to act accordingly. Every person has some kind of standard by which they make moral judgments… Christians have a clearly defined moral standard which is found in the very nature of God and revealed in his word. Our standard is God’s own perfect goodness” (2). Hypocrisy has no place in the life of a true Christian. Jesus warned, “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (Matt. 7:3-5). Stonestreet says, “Whether or not Christianity is objectively true does not rise and fall on the subjective experiences of human beings.” Admittedly, there are many hypocrites in the Christian church, as there are in any of the world’s religions. When someone who professes to be a Christian continues to violate the principles or doctrines of Christianity, or acts in a manner that is not an exemplar of Jesus Christ, it prompts skepticism about the story of God’s unconditional love and grace.
Love is the very foundation of Christianity. The apostle John writes, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him” (1 John 4:7-8). As I related in my blog article “Love: The First Great Commandment” (Nov. 8, 2021), we are to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and (secondly) we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. Admittedly, it is not easy to love an enemy. In the same manner, it can be hard to love a hypocrite. In fact, most Christians consider a hypocritical believer to be an enemy of the gospel. One of my former pastors once said to the congregation, “The number one attraction to the gospel is Christians. Unfortunately, the number one detractor to the gospel is Christians.” This was why my father decided we were no longer going to church. The number one reason most people avoid God or religion today is duplicity of believers. Wallace writes, “A common objection to Christianity often sounds something like this: “Christians do not practice what they preach. They say one thing but do another. If the Christian God exists, He doesn’t seem to be powerful enough to transform His followers… I don’t believe the Christian God exists” (3).
Jesus had harsh words regarding this matter: “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 6:1). He told the Pharisees, those great religious leaders of the Jewish faith, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (Matt. 23:23). He called them “…blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel” (23:24). Jesus also said hypocrites are “…those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God” (Luke 16:15). Paul wrote of hypocrites, “They profess to know God, but they deny him by their works. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work” (Titus 1:16). Of course, no one is perfect. Christians are capable of acting in ways contrary to their beliefs. The difference is a matter of repetition and attitude. James writes, “…confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (James 5:16). John says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
I once heard the expression “Creasters” and asked what it means. It is a colloquial expression for believers who only go to church on Christmas and Easter. As tongue-in-cheek as this expression is, “nominal” Christians run afoul in a more troublesome manner. To be a nominal Christian is to be one in name only. Jesus said to the disciples, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness'” (Matt. 7:21-23). To best understand this verse, consider the context. Jesus was concluding His Sermon on the Mount, adding a final warning about true faith. Jesus predicts that false Christians will claim to know Him, using all the right words, and may even make a great impression, but they will not belong to the Lord. A person can seem like a Christian in the eyes of others, but if their heart does not belong to Christ then in God’s eyes they are not “of Him” and will be sent away from His presence. Only those who do the Father’s will and who are known of God will enter heaven.
Something has gone terribly wrong. One third of the world call themselves Christians, but a significant proportion of them are missing. Many of them are missing from our churches. Many others are present, but are missing out on the joy of truly knowing and following Christ.
Not all nominal Christians are evildoers, intent on leading the elect astray. Some truly believe they are Christians because their parents are (or think they are) Christians; they went to church regularly growing up; maybe they attended a Christian parochial school or are enrolled at a Christian university. They “believe in God” and celebrate Christmas, but have not made a deliberate personal choice to accept the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus as the Messiah. They have not accepted Him as their Savior and Lord. An increasing number of Christians in the Western world fit this category. The term “cultural Christianity” has become popular. From the website gotquestions.org, cultural Christianity “…is religion that superficially identifies itself as ‘Christianity’ but does not truly adhere to the faith. A ‘cultural Christian’ is a nominal believer—he wears the label ‘Christian,’ but the label has more to do with his family background and upbringing than any personal conviction that Jesus is Lord. Cultural Christianity is more social than spiritual. A cultural Christian identifies with certain aspects of Christianity, such as the good works of Jesus, but rejects the spiritual aspects required to be a biblically defined Christian” (4). Cultural Christians remain silent regarding controversial topics such as abortion or homosexuality, and they do not share the Christian faith with others.
When my father decided we were no longer going to attend church as a family, he did not say he stopped believing in Jesus Christ as the Messiah, nor was he per se rejecting biblical principles. What occurred in the family, however, was a gradual drifting away from those beliefs. We suffered in many ways over the years because of that decision. Solomon said to fathers, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Prov. 22:6). Raising and training a child within the context of this proverb means that it must be grounded in the Word of God. Paul writes, “…from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:15-17). Teaching children the truths of Scripture will provide them with a solid foundation for their faith in Jesus Christ, thoroughly equipping them to do good works; and preparing them to give an answer to everyone who asks the reason for their hope (see 1 Pet. 3:15). This is vital to preparing our young adults to withstand the onslaught of secularism, pluralism, and moral relativism they will encounter in secular academia when they leave the home for higher education.
It is critical that Christians grow in their faith, becoming committed and authentic believers in Christ. In today’s post-Christian culture, atheists tend to focus on the mistakes and the disingenuous behavior of Christians in the workplace and the marketplace. I recall screaming at “some idiot” who ran a stop sign several years ago. On the front of my car was a plaque that said Jesus First! (Not cool!) I have been candid in many recent posts about my hypocritical lifestyle in the past, even during times I professed to be a Christian and during my active addiction. The burden became so great that I had no choice but to address it. Christ said, “Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin” (Luke 17:1-2). Certainly, this applies to those who steer others away from the gospel by their hypocrisy! We are in no wise perfect as Christians, but we must strive daily to match our outward behavior to our Christian worldview and to live a life that points to Jesus.
(1) Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1997), 1254.
(2) Sarah Stonestreet, “The Church is Full of Hypocrites!” Breakpoint: Colson Center (Nov. 8, 2021). URL: https://breakpoint.org/the-church-is-full-of-hypocrites/
(3) J. Warner Wallace, “Does Christian Hypocrisy Falsify Christianity?” Breakpoint: Colson Center (Oct. 4, 2018). URL: https://breakpoint.org/does-christian-hypocrisy-falsify-christianity/
(4) “What is Cultural Christianity?” Got Questions (July 14, 2021). URL: https://www.gotquestions.org/cultural-Christianity.html
* Water baptism is meant as an outward sign or public confession of one’s faith in Christ alone for salvation.