While I was surfing through some Whatsapp statuses, I saw a statement from a friend’s status that caught my attention: “No one fornicates more than those who post bible verses and gospel videos every morning.”
While it is possible that the original poster actually knows someone who posts bible verses and gospel videos every morning and still fornicates, this post encapsulates the tendency of some to misuse those instances by assuming that people who are devoted to God are somehow hypocrites.
I get that there are certain people with a veneer of spirituality who are indeed hypocrites (that’s a topic for another day). Still, there is a certain suspicion with which people treat anyone who is striving to be obedient to God. There is a world of difference between “some people fornicate and still post bible verses …” and “no one fornicates more than those who post bible verses …” It’s a difference in tone that reveals an underlying problem.
People wait anxiously to hear that people devoted to God have done something bad as a confirmation of their bias that such a life is impossible and those who seem to be living it are hypocrites.
In a bid to justify their own sinfulness and disobedience, I have seen the tendency of many to look for holes in the holiness of others. They believe that such holes prove that anyone who is unlike them is somehow pretending and that all of us are somehow sinful and disobedient. The only difference, this view implies, is that some people are willing to be authentic with their sinfulness while others, the spiritual ones, are a bunch of pretenders. Said differently, godliness, to them, is inauthenticity.
I was first introduced to this mindset in student fellowship. After a bible study on a topic with some difficult moral implication, you often hear statements like “let’s be realistic” and its variants. There is this idea that the moral imperatives of the Scriptures are unrealistic. There is a bifurcation that sees the scriptures as belonging to a spiritual “pie in the sky” world that’s different from the “real world” where we live in.
In such settings, the scriptures become nothing but a therapeutic device, and all sorts of disobedience and sinfulness are justified as authenticity. People who want to equate the spiritual world and the real world are then seen as mere hypocrites. Everyone is on the lookout to discover the weaknesses of such people or see them sin so that they can expose their “hypocrisy.”
Are (true) Christians hypocrites?
The old life and the new, transformation is a thing
The first thing to say is that the bible does teach that when people come to Christ, they experience a transformation that divides their life’s history into two: the old life and the new life, the old creation and the new.
In John 15:18-27, Jesus divided the life of the apostles into two: when they were in the world and when they no longer belong to the world (John 15:19). The point of divide was when he chose them out of the world.
The apostles were a certain type of people with certain experiences when they were in the world; now that they no longer belong to the world, they are different people with different experiences.
Peter also points to this bifurcation in his first epistle. He describes the lives of believers before their salvation as “the past.” This was the time when they were living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing, and detestable idolatry (1 Peter 4:3). From the moment of faith, they are now different people, detached from that old, reckless, and wild life.
Paul uses the language of the old and new creation to describe this change. The life of a man before union with Christ is the old creation, and the life after union with Christ is the new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). When someone is united to Christ through faith, there is a remarkable change that can only be described as the onset of a new creation.
In Romans 6, Paul teases this out in more detail. When a man becomes united with Christ, he is now dead to sin and alive to righteousness (Romans 6:18). The believer moves from the dominion of sin and death to a dominion of the Spirit that produces righteousness. There is a significant transformation as former slaves of sin become slaves of righteousness.
This transformation was one of the important aspects of the promised restoration of Israel. God promised that he would restore Israel by making a new covenant. An important part of that new covenant is the radical transformation that will take place in the lives of the covenant people.
“I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws” (Ezekiel 36:25-27).
God promised to do a “heart surgery” in the new covenant that would turn his covenant people from a disobedient lot – with impurities and idols – to an obedient lot – following his decrees and keeping his laws. There would be a decisive break with sin in pursuit of righteousness because God would give a new heart and a new spirit, replacing the heart of stone with a heart of flesh.
In chapter 11, God promised to give an undivided heart and new spirit that would see his people detach from their vile images and detestable idols and, instead, follow God’s decrees and keep his law.
Those who have truly experienced this regeneration cannot be the same; there is a remarkable transformation in their lives. From that moment on, there is a bifurcation that marks a huge difference between their old lives and the new. Now they are slaves of righteousness, pursuing holiness, keeping God’s decrees and laws. The life of idolatry, disobedience, and sinfulness is now behind.
When you see people thus regenerated, they are not hypocrites. They are not normal, I admit. But the reason is that they are now new creatures, regenerated by God’s Spirit (new spirit, heart), chosen out of the world to belong to Christ. They can no longer live the reckless and vile lives they once lived because a remarkable transformation has occurred. They are not normal, not because they are abnormal but because they are supernormal – there is supernatural power at work in them.
Change of priorities
One way this transformation manifests itself is in the complete change of priorities. Now seated at the right hand of God in Christ, these regenerated people set their minds on things above (Colossians 3:1-4). They are no longer worldlings whose goals, priorities, and life pursuits are bound up with this passing world.
As Jesus commanded, they are laying treasures in heaven (Mathew 6:19-21). Instead of obsessing over material things and treating them as ultimate, they focus on being rich towards God (Luke 12:21); they serve God, not mammon (Mathew 6:24).
They seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, which is why they are not anxious for anything (Mathew 6:33-34). Their lives do not consist in the abundance of possessions (Luke 12:15); they are instead rich in good deeds (1 Timothy 6:18). Since their treasures are in heaven, nothing of this earth moves them. Their union with Christ is the most important thing about their lives.
Again, these people can live like this because there is supernatural power in them, transforming and conforming them to Christ’s image. They are not hypocrites or pretenders; they are conduits for the supernatural works of the Spirit.
A normal Christian life
One of the roots of our problems is that we think the people above are a special type of Christian. We think there are normal Christians and then “extremists” – who want to live all of life for Christ.
But this is a false dichotomy. The only distinction we should be making is between false and true Christians because every true Christian is regenerated (John 3:3). The decisive transformation that leads to a decisive break with the old and the beginning of the new is the experience of every genuine Christian.
The change from slavery to sin to slavery to righteousness is a common experience of every true believer. The continuous conformity to the image of Christ, commitment to living all of life for Christ, and the pursuit of new priorities are part of the normal Christian life. None of the above is a feature of some “extreme” class of Christians.
If you are not experiencing this transformation, the problem is not that those experiencing it are hypocrites; the problem is that you are not a Christian. If there is no decisive break with the old creation, a coming out of the world, an end to slavery to sin, beginning of slavery to righteousness, a change in priorities, then you don’t have the life of Christ in you. Instead of calling those who are experiencing the above “hypocrites” and “inauthentic bunch,” you should repent and put your faith in Christ so that you can be saved.
Anyone who has been born of God does not make a practice of sinning. Instead, they walk in righteousness (1 John 3:7-10). Anyone who lives in sin is not born of God.
Anyone who does not have the Spirit of God does not belong to Christ (Romans 8:10). And when the Spirit of God is present, it produces a remarkably different fruit from the fruit of the flesh (Galatians 5:19-25). Therefore, if there is no fruit of the Spirit, the Spirit is absent, and you do not belong to Christ.
Similarly, those who have experienced regeneration love the law of God (Psalms 119:97). Like their Savior, they delight to do the will of God. They love righteousness and hate wickedness (Hebrews 10:5-7; 1:9).
The life of the Spirit is a normal Christian life. No Christian lives a life dominated by the flesh, enslaved to sin, with worldly priorities. It’s impossible. Again, the problem is not that some people are “extreme” Christians; the problem is that you probably are not a Christian.
Transformation is not sinlessness
Another reason for this mindset is that we want to equate transformation with sinlessness. We somehow assume that someone who is “holy holy” cannot sin, and if she does, she is a hypocrite, and all her holiness before that time is inauthenticity.
While John says that those born of God cannot make a practice of sinning (1 John 3:9), he also says that we are liars if we claim to be sinless (1 John 1:8-10).
True Christians will still sin while in this life, but they will never live in sin – sin will not rule over their lives. True believers hate sin; they are not in bed with it. When they do sin, they confess (1 John 1:9) and repent with godly sorrow (Luke 22:62, 2 Corinthians 7:10). They don’t make a practice of sinning; their new nature recoils from sin.
When a true Christian sins, it is not a sign of hypocrisy but that the flesh and Spirit still strive (Galatians 5:16-18). If someone is claiming to be a saint and is living an unrepentant life with an unabashed love for sin, then such a person is not a Christian, and using him as an example of Christian hypocrisy is wrong. That is the hypocrisy of false Christians. True believers never love sin or live a life of unrepentant sinning.
This distinction is so important. When a Christian, devoted to God in obedience, sins, he is not a hypocrite because of that one act of sin. Transformation is not the same as sinlessness. One act of sin (in contrast to a life of continuous practice of sin) does not invalidate the fact that such a person is truly regenerate and the Spirit of God is present in her – a fact that will be quickly evident in how she repents of that sin. She is not a rebel against God who has been living an inauthentic life; she’s a regenerated child of God who still experiences the ongoing battle between the flesh and the Spirit. Her sins do not define her; it is her ongoing, perpetual, and ubiquitous commitment to love, obey, and honor God that defines her.
Why we have a problem with holiness
When Isaiah saw the thrice-holy God, his sin overwhelmed him. Having pronounced woe on Israel, he pronounced woe on himself (Isaiah 6:1-7). It was the same with Peter. He fell before Jesus and asked him to depart from him, for he was a sinful man (Luke 5:8). John the revelator fell at the glorified Christ’s feet like a dead man (Revelation 1:17). Even the demons were afraid to stand in Christ’s presence (Mathew 8:29).
We have a problem with holiness because it exposes our sins. God’s law brings conviction, but when that law is exemplified in a living being, we are overwhelmed. The religious establishment of his day hated him because Christ, by his life, exposed their hypocrisy.
As sinful beings, we hate to be confronted with our sin. That’s why Stephen was stoned (Acts 7).
Christ is the only one who is perfectly holy. Before him, we see the depth of our sinfulness. However, Christ’s followers are being conformed to his image (2 Corinthians 3:18), and they reflect, albeit imperfectly, the purity and holiness of their Lord.
We see an example of this in Peter’s admonition to believers in 1 Peter 4. When these believers came out of the world, their former allies began to heap abuse on them for not pursuing the same flood of dissipation as they did (verse 4). The new life was a rebuke to them.
When men behold this holiness, it exposes their sinfulness. This is why we attempt to discard it by calling it extremism or hypocrisy. We try to find holes in such holiness so we can comfort ourselves in our sins. There is a hidden assumption that doing this – finding holes in the holiness of true believers – somehow makes our sinfulness normal and, if normal, acceptable. Maybe, after all, we are the real hypocrites.
Instead of going through this rabbit hole, we should be repenting of our sins. When God uses other peoples’ lives to convict us of sin, we should be repenting in dust and ashes and crying to God for forgiveness.
I began my journey to becoming a Christian when I saw the lives of two brothers in my hostel. Before that time, Christianity was just a sociocultural thing for me, something you hold to as a moral minimum for a decent life in a decent society. But the lives of these brothers revealed a love for God that was unexplainable to me. I began to think that there must be something else to this Christianity beyond the moral minimum for a socially acceptable life.
My point is that, instead of trying to plug holes in the holiness of genuine believers around us, we should see it as part of the means the Spirit is using to bring us to faith and repentance and exposing our hypocrisy.
Hypocrisy and inauthenticity
Again, none of the above is to say that hypocrisy is not a thing. Jesus called out the Jewish religious leaders for their hypocrisy. They lay heavy burdens on others but do not do what they teach others to do (Mathew 23:1-4). They are like the one who leaves the log of wood in his eyes to remove the speck of dust in another’s (Mathew 7:5). That’s hypocrisy.
They also do everything to please people. They appear righteous to look good before people (Mathew 23:5-7). There is no true and genuine holiness; they are only faking holiness before people to earn praise. That’s hypocrisy.
A hypocrite is not someone who lives a holy life but commits sin sometimes. A hypocrite lives a showy life for the praise and honor of people, and he preaches standards that he has no intention of keeping.
If the Christian’s standard is the law of God, then there will be times when he falls short. The difference between a Christian and a hypocrite is that the former is committed to keeping those standards, and he does keep them over and over and over again (though with occasional faults). Hypocrites are those who “tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them” (Mathew 23:4).
Similarly, the true Christian is not living for the praise and applause of men. His praise is from God (Romans 2:29). He seeks the approval of God, not men (Galatians 1:10). Unlike the hypocrite, his good deeds flow out of his new nature; he does not need to simulate it to earn applause and respect (see Mathew 6:1-19).
Once again, hypocrisy is preaching standards you don’t intend to keep and acting holy for men’s praise and applause. Such hypocrites are not the same as genuine regenerated believers who are pursuing conformity to Christ. Lumping them up is a disservice to the Spirit of God, who is working in the latter.
Proclaiming the gospel
One of the implications of all these is that believers must stop all those “preach the gospel with your life and if necessary, use words” business.
For one thing, people, as we have seen, can misconstrue your “life” and make the wrong conclusions. They can interpret your life in two ways that are dishonoring to the gospel.
First, they can see you as a hypocrite who is only pretending to be righteous. They will waylay you, looking for any sin at all to justify their own sinfulness.
Secondly, they may look at your life and conclude that they have to be like you to be saved. That’s equally fatal.
Of course, this should not stop us from living out the gospel. However, it should make us understand the place of the proclamation of the gospel in words. We can’t just hope that people will correctly interpret and exegete our lives.
Instead, we should tell them the gospel of Jesus Christ. We should tell them that Christ lived, died, and rose again to forgive people of their sin and credit his righteousness to them so they can be free from the condemnation and wrath of God and the dominion of sin, Satan, death, and law. We should tell them that sinners can be reconciled to God and adopted as his children, heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ because of Christ’s forgiveness and imputed righteousness.
However, such proclamation does not make consistent Christian living optional. Paul told the Corinthians to follow him as he followed Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1) and imitate him (1 Corinthians 4:16). He gave the Philippians and Thessalonians similar admonitions (Philippians 3:17; 2 Thessalonians 3:7). The author of Hebrews wants us to imitate those who, by faith and patience, inherit the promises (Hebrews 6:12) and to imitate the faith of our spiritual leaders (Hebrews 13:7).
We should not erect a wall of division between preaching and life. Instead, we should continue to proclaim the gospel and live lives that reveal the power of the gospel – the power that saves both from the guilt and the power of sin.
The standards issues
Is it possible for genuine believers to mistakenly hold to standards that God does not require of new covenant believers? Yes! Some believe that Christians should not eat pork, Christian women should not wear makeup or trousers, that new covenant Christians should keep the OT’s Sabbath laws, among others.
Holding on to a wrong standard due to faulty hermeneutics or theology does not mean someone is a hypocrite. As we have seen, a hypocrite is someone who lays on others burdens he is not willing to take up or appear holy for the praise and approbation of men.
Inferring wrong standards from faulty theology is not hypocrisy. What those people need are theological discussions to correct their errors. Paul believed that the weak Christians of Romans 14 (who insist on vegetarianism and the observance of days) are God’s servants (verse 4) who do what they do “to the Lord” (verse 6) and will give an account of themselves to God, not men (verses 10-12).
Believers with a genuine desire to please and honor God can misread scriptures and impose standards they should not. But that does not take anything away from the genuineness of their passion and desire for God’s glory. Are they mistaken? Yes. Are they hypocrites? Not necessarily. In those cases, our commitment should be helping one another to grow in the knowledge of God (2 Peter 3:18) so that zeal and knowledge can align.
And when they drop those standards because of a change in convictions, they are not hypocrites; they are only growing in the knowledge of God, as we all should.
We are either pursuing Christ, or we are not. We are either seeking to grow in our conformity to the image of Christ, or we are not.
The faith that unites us to Christ, from which union we receive justification, adoption, reconciliation, redemption, etc., is a product of the regeneration that God’s Spirit produces in us through the word of God (1 John 5:1, 4, James 1:18, John 3:3). Apart from producing faith and repentance, regeneration produces a nature that is dead to sin and alive to righteousness.
The Christian life is marked by a decisive and continuous break with sin and pursuit of righteousness because the Spirit of God resides in us with all his supernatural power, bearing fruit in and through us.
Christians are not hypocrites waiting to be unmasked; we are not inauthentic people faking a life of holiness and devotion to God. When you see us go all the way for our Lord and Savior, we are only living out, by his grace, the life he has produced in us. We will fall sometimes and fail sometimes, but we will never go away from the road of godliness (those who fall away show themselves to be false believers – 1 John 2:18). There may be bumps on the road sometimes, but there is no other road we want to take.
It’s not hypocrisy; it’s the Spirit of God in us.