The most appealing beliefs about Christianity are front and center: it’s a religion of love, forgiveness, grace, and peace. People in general love the Golden Rule. People love the idea of doing good unto others. Love your neighbor as yourself. People also like the idea of extending forgiveness to others and usually no one has any problem with being forgiven. No one disagrees with this.
What people find most appalling about Christianity is not with the message; it’s with the Christians. It’s with Christianity’s messengers—with failing and floundering pastors. It’s with Christianity’s followers—church goers. Christians love to talk about grace, peace, love, and forgiveness, but when it comes to practicing these things: we’re a mess.
As one unchurched person said in an anonymous interview, “The principles are wonderful, but when it comes down to the application, Christians are no better than anyone else!” And that’s true, isn’t it!? We are usually no better at keeping the moral law than our neighbors. Sometimes we’re worse!
Ask yourself, are the words “love” “grace” and “forgiveness” the first words that come to mind when you see how Christians are behaving online and offline, on reality TV and in normal life? I’ll bet, a survey of public perception would show that “judgmental and argumentative” rank higher than “loving and forgiving” on the list. Some of the Barna group studies in the recent past have highlighted this.
It’s an unfortunate fact that Christians today—that we—are perceived in this way by outsiders, and former insiders. This is tragic. But often, we do act in this way. Christians are often hypocrites. We’ll say one thing and do another. We confess wonderful things and yet, we do not do what we ought.
In Galatians 2:11-14, the apostle Peter was eating just like a Gentile. “Pass the filet mignon please.” “Hey Peter, do you want red or white wine?” “I’ll take the red, please.” Everything was fine and dandy but then when some Jewish Christians come along he changes his diet and starts eating like a Jew again. Why would he do that? Was it out of custom, I mean, was Peter just being culturally mindful and aware—not wanting to bring unnecessary offence by becoming all things to all men in order that he might win some?
Well, no. It wasn’t out of custom. Peter acted like this out of fear. Fear for what they would think about him. Fear for the social ramifications. Fear motivated him. He “feared the circumcision party” (Gal. 2:12). That’s either a reference to Jewish Christians, or to Judaizers. Either way here in this passage we see that the pillars of the church were acting just like the Judaizers—they were denying the gospel by their actions!
One definition of a hypocrite is "someone who pretends to be what they are not, especially in the areas of religion and morality.” But that’s not exactly the kind of hypocrisy we see right here. The kind of hypocrisy we see here is “someone who acts in a way different from what they really believe.”
It’s not that Peter doesn’t believe—he does believe. But he’s doing something that is out of step with his true beliefs. We confess the gospel, but we live like pagans or like cheats and liars—dirty rotten scoundrels. That’s the kind of hypocrisy we see here.
What does this episode teach us? It teaches us that even after Peter became a Christian—after the ascension of Jesus—after the same Peter who denied Jesus three times (even before a little child) and was later affirmed and recommissioned three times by Jesus to go “feed my sheep”—this Peter still sinned. Rome’s great Pope, Peter, was a sinner. If Peter was capable of making a blunder like this, the rest of us are going to make some big blunders too.
In this life, no Christian ever reaches a point when he or she is completely without sin. We are still sinners. We all like to think of sin as something that's out there. But it's in here; inside of the walls of the church. And it's even inside here; within the walls of my own crooked heart. It's not just out there. We have to take the log out of our own eye first before we can look out at the world.
We have sinned. And we keep sinning. As unattractive as Christ’s church can be, as ugly as his bride can be—we have to recognize that I’m no supermodel either. We can try to point fingers to the celebrity pastors that befall us, we can try to excuse ourselves by dodging—but our sin will find us out.
The church will find us just as ugly as we find her. The church is unattractive, but so am I. There are hypocrites in the church, but we’re all hypocrites too. We just sin differently than others. Our pet sin looks different, but we have a pet nonetheless. May we learn to hate our sin more than we hate the sins of others.
If you don’t believe be right now, tell me. When has the church ever been flawless? We find right after Christ ascended into heaven that there was controversy. The apostles didn’t always get along. Paul and Mark parted ways in Acts. Peter sinned, then Paul rebuked him. Sexual immorality abounded in the church of Corinth. The church is messy. But we’re part of that church—we’re messy too. We have to point our finger at ourselves.
And this is why theologians speak of Christians being simultaneously justified and sinful (simul iustus et peccator). We are considered perfect in God’s sight, and yet, we still sin every day. We're not as good as we think; we're not even close. Sorry but we have a long way to go. Our neighbors know that too. They see right through our masks, our church attendance, and our high brows. They know we aren't exceptional at parenting. They know we are reckless in our tempers, that we say nasty things on social media, that we curse our neighbors through gossip and slander.
Christians are hypocrites. The principles of Christianity—love, forgiveness, grace, peace—are great, but Christians apply these things terribly. There is one major flaw in this accusation though. There is something people often misunderstand about Christianity and Christians.
You see, we define a Christian not as someone who has no sin. That’s how the culture often perceives us—you church-going people thing you have life all together and perfect. Well no, actually that’s not at all what we believe to be true about ourselves. Come to church with us and you’ll soon find this out.
We define a Christian not as someone who is without sin, but rather as someone to whom God does not count sin. Imputation makes all the difference between a Christian and a non-Christian. That my sin was exchanged for Christ’s righteousness, and his righteousness for my sin. That makes the difference.
But I think this is something that we struggle with accepting. That Christians are horrible sinners; that Christians are hypocrites. We get all defensive when people say nasty things about us, but in truth, we’re more rotten than they say.
Last year, news broke out about one of the Duggar’s from 19 Kids and Counting—Josh Duggar. A few things came out against him, and some Christians defended him. They said he was a changed man and he doesn’t struggle with those sins anymore.
But then more scandal came out—he was having an affair using the website Ashley Madison. So in an article entitled “Josh Duggar’s Ashley Madison Problem” in The New Yorker, one writer, an ex-Christian, made a fantastic point: that Christians would do better to stick to Christianity's greatest message: not that people are mended but that people are broken and are in need of mending.
He’s right! Christianity is not a religion for good people. It’s a religion for broken and bad people. But often we contradict this because we want to broadcast our goodness to the rest of the world. Look at how good we are—look at how Christian principles make great parents and great kids. Look at me.
When we do this, we are just going back to the law—to flexing our holiness muscles again—and we don’t take comfort in the message of the gospel. We try to seek solace in a lie, when the truth is that we haven’t been to the gym in months and we're not fit, we're fat. We forget the comfort and truth of the gospel.
If anything, we should be surprised that so little has been said about all of us. In Christ’s church, there’s a lot of dirt under the rug. And there’s a lot of bad stuff that happens in secular institutions. We’re all bad. “There is none righteous,” says St. Paul, “no not one.”
So a Christian’s first instinct should be to admit that we don’t always practice what we preach. Sometimes, we pull a Peter. As much as we like to think we’re Paul in Galatians 2—we’re not. We’re hypocritical Peter leading everyone else astray. Our moral goodness sucks; and that’s why we need Jesus. Like what Russell Moore said in response to Donald Trump a few months back. Donald Trump said this of Moore:
“Russell Moore is truly a terrible representative of Evangelicals and all the good they stand for. A nasty guy with no heart!”
- (@realDonaldTrump, 9 May 2016)
In an interview on MSNBC, not long after this was said of him, Russell Moore responded to this accusation by saying:
“He says that I am a...a nasty guy no heart. Uh, that’s true. I am a nasty guy with no heart, which is why I need the forgiveness of sins and redemption through the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
- Russell Moore
Finally, someone who represents Christianity correctly on live television. That’s the gospel that everybody needs! That’s the gospel that I need, and that I can get behind. Cover me in that gospel and the worst hypocrite suddenly becomes the greatest and holiest man who ever lived.