The four-chapter gospel—Creation, Fall, Redemption, Restoration—is the story that frames our lives as Christians. From it we derive purpose, hope, and the individual calling God has placed on our lives.
Sadly, that story seems utterly unbelievable to many who reject it for reasons both intellectual and emotional, depriving themselves of both Christ’s salvation and the opportunity to, as Hugh Whelchel says, “Use our work to glorify him, serve the common good, and further his kingdom.”
We can’t induce belief through our evangelism alone, but we should at least clear up misconceptions where possible. These can play a significant role in either preventing belief or derailing it, as shown in a discussion of hypocrisy in the social scientific work The Nonreligious: Understanding Secular People & Societies.
The Hypocrisy Dealbreaker
At one point the authors address why some religious people abandon their faith. A sense of incredulity toward core religious tenets is described as one of the main causes, along with various others (personal suffering, exposure to other cultures and religions, the general existence of suffering in the world, etc.).
One cause of apostasy that caught my eye is “malfeasance of religious associates,” better known as “hypocrisy.” The authors have this to say:
Most religious people, at one time or another, come into contact with less-than-moral people who should not, given their outward religiosity and ostensibly moral orientation, lack such integrity….Such malfeasance on the part of religious leaders or coreligionists can often spur shock, resentment, and disappointment—which can, in some instances, result in apostasy. In fact, in their study of apostates, when Brinkerhoff and Mackie asked individuals what was the initial source of their doubts about religion, a significant proportion (38 percent) cited hypocrisy of fellow church members.
Thirty-eight percent. That’s a lot of people shaken by “hypocrisy” and driven to doubt and departure by believers behaving badly. Is this response justified?
A Christian View of Humanity’s Moral Status
Sin is always terrible to behold, especially in people we trust and respect. In those who make exaggerated claims to goodness and virtue, sin becomes downright obnoxious. To people in this latter category (especially the Pharisees of his day), Jesus gives a stinging rebuke:
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness (Matt. 23:27-28).
It is indeed objectionable when professing believers make much of their own righteousness despite evident sin. However, it should not be concluded that all those who claim to be Christian yet still sin—sometimes grievously—undermine Christianity itself. The Bible is filled with sincere, God-fearing individuals who have sinned and ask God for forgiveness (see Ps. 51 and 130 for just two examples). 1 John 2:1 could not be clearer:
My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.
Christians are still sinners. We ask the Holy Spirit to work in us and align our hearts and minds with God, but we will never be totally free from sin in this life. This state of affairs is different from the hypocrisy Jesus condemns.
The idea that people who profess to be Christians can never sin reflects a serious misunderstanding of the Christian view of humanity’s moral status. In this view, humankind is not divided into “the good people” (Christians) and “the bad people” (non-Christians). Christians are merely the bad people who ask Jesus to absolve them of their badness.
While the death and resurrection of Jesus means our sins no longer count against us, Christians are still capable of sinning. That’s why we pray for the Holy Spirit to incline us more and more toward God’s ways. We will still sin along the way, but that is no threat to the truth of Christianity – it just shows that we are all moral failures in need of grace, as the Bible teaches.
The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful
It is incumbent on us to address this and all other distortions of the gospel that hinder people from adopting its story as their own. We have a duty to our children, to teach them that Christians are not “the good people” and everyone else “the bad people.” Christians are the bad people who seek, through God’s power, to be made good.
If we make clear that the four-chapter gospel is the story of bad people being made good again—them and the whole wide world too—then all who hear it will have cause to believe it is a story for them, a story of hope and renewal for all creation.