Our culture can smell a Pharisee from miles away. No one likes hypocrites—especially the religious type.

But that’s just one flavor of hypocrisy. What’s at the root of hypocrisy?

It’s trying to behave righteously without being righteous. The dirty secret of the Bible is that righteousness is a gift from God, not an achievement of ours.

In Matthew 23:25-28, Jesus compared the hypocritical religious leaders to (1) dirty dishes that look clean on the outside and (2) whitewashed graves full of rotting bodies. What was his point? Was he telling the Pharisees to chill out, be more accepting, and talk less about God’s Law, judgment, and holiness? Not at all—he actually told people to obey their teachings (see Matthew 23:3)! So what did he mean by these comparisons?

One glance at the Ten Commandments reminds us that we are imperfect people. We all sin—most people admit that. But we follow that admission with, “Sure, I’m a sinner, but God knows my heart. He’ll forgive me.” Have those words ever left your lips?

The fatal error of the Pharisees was that they focused on the external, because they assumed their hearts were clean. Unlike Judaism in the 1st century, we don’t always have too many legalistic rules—our culture has already pushed pretty hard against that. But that doesn’t make us immune from hypocrisy. In God’s eyes, we are hypocrites when we assume our hearts are pure and that only our actions need tweaking.

Jesus was never about tweaking actions. In John 3, one Pharisee, Nicodemus, visited Jesus for an evening chat, knowing Jesus was a great teacher from God. How would we expect Jesus to greet him? “You want to follow God? Excellent. You’re at the right place. How can I help you?” No—instead, Jesus skipped hello and spoke directly to the heart: “I tell you the truth, unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God” (John 3:3).

John Piper once compared this encounter to visiting a doctor for an ankle sore and being told you need your whole leg amputated. It makes you want to yell, “Really, Jesus? This man showed up to listen to you, and he actually believes in God! Why are you saying his entire life is no good?”

But Jesus didn’t pull any punches when it came to the human heart. In another conversation with the Pharisees, he said, “It is what comes from inside that defiles you. For from within, out of a person’s heart, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit, lustful desires, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness. All these vile things come from within; they are what defile you” (Mark 7:20-23).

Jesus’ point was this: whether you’re religious or not, all your sins come from the desires of your heart. Without Christ, we are not good-hearted people who happens to sin—we’re cold, dead, God-hating sinners at the heart level.

And since sin is a heart disease, doing righteous deeds—going to church, praying, performing random acts of kindness—doesn’t solve the root issue. Neither does plucking off individual sinful fruits from the tree of our lives. The whole sinful tree must be uprooted, because sin is who we are. We must be made righteous in order to act righteous. But how?

That’s where God’s Law ends and the Gospel begins. Jesus, the only righteous one, took on our position. On the cross, Jesus suffered and died the full weight of God’s judgment. Once that was finished, God raised Jesus from the dead, so he could transfer believers from sin and punishment to righteousness and life. If we believe in Christ, God makes us righteous as a gift (see Romans 6:23)! And if God labels you “righteous,” nothing else matters!

But in order to grab hold of that righteousness, we must change our minds and realize that we’re inescapably sinful by default. That’s what the word repent means. So Jesus told the Pharisees, “First wash the inside of the cup and the dish, and then the outside will become clean, too” (Matthew 23:26). In other words, address the heart issue—admit you are not clean and you can’t save yourself. Ask for God’s mercy, and through Christ’s death and resurrection, God will declare you (a sinner!) forgiven and righteous forever! And if that happens, then, as Jesus said, your outward actions will follow (Matthew 7:18). Righteous fruit can only grow from a righteous tree, and only God can plant it. The Gospel is the seed.

Hypocrites give us all a bad taste in our mouths. How much more must God be grieved when we assume our hearts are pure apart from our standing in Christ! The Pharisees made that mistake and are still suffering for it in Hell. But we don’t have to make that mistake.

Image credit: Tom Woodward (CC 2.0)

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