How often have we heard this charge that Christians are hypocrites? In an effort to find common ground, build bridges, and identify with non-Christians we are tempted to say, “I know what you mean but...”
However, I don’t believe I do know what people mean when they say this.
I consider myself fortunate to know many Christians across denominations and from different cultures who are not hypocrites but humble, caring people who live a life of sacrifice and service within the church and in the wider community. I do wonder why my Christian friends seem invisible to those who see nothing but hypocrisy in the Church. The Bible has a lot to teach us about this problem.
Wheat and Weeds
We start with a parable, one of Jesus’ stories designed to illustrate an important truth. In the parable of the weeds (Matthew 13:25-30) Jesus tells of a man who sowed good seed in his field, but when his men were sleeping an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat. When the plants grew they saw the weeds and asked the landowner if they should pull them up.
The weed in this parable is darnel, a poisonous rye grass that looks like wheat whose roots intertwine with those of the wheat. If they pulled the weeds they risked pulling up the wheat too. The farmer said, “Let both grow together until the harvest and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, ‘Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”
When people say that Christians are hypocrites are they sure they are looking at Christians? And what are people expecting to see in a Christian?
It is popularly believed that Christians are those people among us who have determined they have a talent for virtue and consequently decide to join all the other virtuous folk who call themselves Christian. They gladly give up sinning, which they never really got on with anyway, because they were too timid to really sin. They buy a suit and a Bible and start going to church because that’s where all the other saintly people gather to talk about all those wicked people who aren’t as good as them. There they climb the religious greasy pole to heaven, competing for that coveted place nearest the throne.
But I know what you’re really like! cries the world – hypocrites!
Being a Christian is not about having a flair for virtue, but about having a need for a Saviour. Far from being proud of their virtue, Christians are people who have finally realised that they have nothing to offer God but their sin and that they need saving, principally from themselves and their own sinful nature. They have finally faced up to a dilemma described by the New Testament leader Paul; the problem of sin.
“The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissentions, factions and envy, drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal.5:19-20)
He then goes on to describe the fruit of the Spirit:
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” (Gal.5:22)
People instinctively yearn for those things in the second list but all too commonly find something of the first list defining their lives. No, we are not all drunken, sexually promiscuous etc. but again Paul sums up the nature of the dilemma when he writes his letter to Roman believers:
“I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate to do.”
Like everyone else he chooses the second list but struggles with his choice because the first list better defines his life experience. He writes:
“If I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good”
By choosing consciously the second list and bitterly regretting that his life is more like the first list he is agreeing with the biblical principle of right and wrong. So what is going on? How should he understand what is happening? How can he see and even appreciate what is good but so often fall short of what is required if he is to live a good life? He explains it like this:
“As it is, it is no longer I myself who did it, but it is sin living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do – this I keep doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.”
This sounds a bit like saying ‘the devil made me do it’ but that is not what Paul is saying here. He is conscious that his life doesn’t reflect what he would like it to be because sin is so integral to his nature that he cannot help himself. If we are to be right with God then we must all come to this point. To confess our sin is not simply to admit to this infringement or that but to confess I am controlled by sin.
This is not a convenient excuse but a terrible realisation.
Imagine a drowning person and a quick-acting passer by who jumps in to save that person. There is a definite helplessness about a drowning person and if a “saviour” were to jump in only to find that the drowning person is capable of swimming to the shore then that person is not “saved” and the well-meaning passer-by is not a saviour. You are that drowning person, says Paul:
“Now I find this law at work; when I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members.” (Ro.7:14-23)
You can strike out for the shore as much as you like but you are never going to make it because the current is far too strong; the law of sin is too powerful. When Paul writes about a “law” of sin he is writing not about legislation that you may choose to obey or not, but about a defining principle in his life that acts in opposition to the law of God and holds him prisoner.
It is not that every item in the first list defines me but that I cannot deny my attitude of disobedience and my struggle to live completely the virtues of the second list. The frustration Paul describes is the common experience. In these circumstances the only hope we have is if someone intervenes on our behalf and liberates us, saves us.
Every religion apart from Christianity has a self-help element to it. Paul clearly shows what everyone knows deep inside; “what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate to do.” We don’t need a self-help manual, a fresh resolve to do better, to turn to religious observations, or a determination to clean up our lives.
It has been said that if the world had needed education, God would have sent a teacher. If the world had needed an army, God would have sent a general. If the world had needed more money, God would have sent a banker. But since the world needed a Saviour, God sent Jesus. The Christian faith is the only one with a Saviour. You see, if what Paul describes in Romans 7 describes you and me then the only thing we can do is, like Paul, cry for help:
“What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Ro.7:14-25)
This is how we become a Christian; this is what a Christian is. Not someone who has chosen God and a life of virtue but someone who has fled to God from their life of sin. We recognise the depth of our sin and the grip that our sinful nature has upon our lives and we turn to him in repentance. We trust him to save us completely from sin and death because we cannot save ourselves. This means that we stop trusting in ourselves.
For many, the obstacle to faith is not a reluctance to be good but a refusal to stop depending on our own goodness.
Sometimes the greatest thing we must repent of is that spirit of independence. Jesus’ greatest sorrow was kept for those who depended on themselves:
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing” (Mt.23:37)
A Christian then is someone who has recognised their sin and turned to God to save them. Far from being hypocritical, this is a sign of great integrity as someone at last confesses their need of a Saviour. Of course, Christians are still human and not perfect but in God’s strength they can grow daily to be more like the Saviour who rescued them. As the old saying goes, I am not what I ought to be, nor what I want be, but by God’s grace I am not what I was.
Paul describes us very well:
“God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Eph.2: 1-10 )
This means for the Christian:
We are all sinners saved by grace, experts in sinning novices in virtue. When we share our faith we are not judging people but, as one speaker put it, a Christian is one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.