Legalism: The Trap of Hypocrisy

This is part of our series on the Call to Obedience.  In the last several posts, I have discussed legalism, and the traps of brinksmanship, rigorism, and hopelessness.  Today, I will write about the fourth trap: hypocrisy.

While the previous three traps of legalism are powerful, the last is just as common if not more so, and certainly as deadly.  This is because, while we often are drawn or pushed into legalism’s fangs when confronted with our own sins, legalism holds special appeal to us when we are confronted with the sins of others.

“Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?  Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye?  You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” – Matt 7:3-5

Yet, even when God blesses us by removing that log, we often choose not to help our brother remove the speck, but to condemn the person for having allowed it to get into his eye.  Instead becoming a disciple-maker, approaching our brothers and sisters in Christ with the grace and love expressed in 2 Timothy 3:16 (use of Scripture for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training) and Matthew 18 (confronting sin in a godly way to win them back), we become an accuser.  We join the Pharisee who, standing by himself, prayed thus: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” – Luke 18:11-12

Jesus had a warning for those of us who would do so, saying “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled…” – Luke 18:14b.

The literal meaning of the Greek word hypokrisis is quite benign.  It means “a reply, an answer.”  But in the first century, “it was a custom for Greek and Roman actors to speak in large masks with mechanical devices for augmenting the force of the voice; hence the word became used metaphorically of ‘a dissembler, a hypocrite’” (Vines).  Hence, our word “hypocrite” means to speak or act under pretense, to try to build a false image of who we are and what we believe, to play-act Christianity.

Christ condemns hypocrisy throughout the Gospels, most often associating it with religious leaders.

“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do.  For they preach, but do not practice.  They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.  They do all their deeds to be seen by others.  For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others.” – Matthew 23:2-7

Note that Jesus is not saying in this passage that the scribes and Pharisees are not saying the right things.  On the contrary, he says they sit on Moses’ seat, meaning that they have the knowledge and are in authority.  Of all the people in Jesus’ time, the scribes and the Pharisees were the ones most intimately knowledgeable of God’s Law.

But one can know what and even teach or preach what is right, yet do something completely different.  And what one does, especially when alone and/or under pressure, is a much more honest indication of what one believes than what that person says, teaches, or preaches.

While brinksmanship blasphemes God’s wisdom, rigorism blasphemes God’s power, and hopelessness blasphemes God’s sufficiency and love, hypocrisy joins with its legalist brothers and blasphemes all three.  The hypocrite walks alongside the brinksman, confident in human ability to discern which laws to obey and to what extent.  The hypocrite works alongside the rigorist, building a straw house of false holiness.  And though the hypocrite would never admit this publicly – what often drives us to hypocrisy is a denial of God’s sufficiency and love both of ourselves and our fellow Christians.

Hypocrisy can be difficult to detect, as all of us are quite adept at maintaining our stage masks – presenting a false but believable face in public.  However, one of the “tells” of hypocrisy is revealed in the above passage from Matthew.  Hypocrisy often manifests itself in a focus on the actions of others.  It is far easier to tie burdens for others to carry than to lift a finger to move those burdens ourselves.

Whenever we find ourselves focusing a significant amount of our attention on the actions of others, we should consider that we are in danger of, if not immersion in, hypocrisy.  This is not to say that we are not to hold our fellow Christ-followers accountable.  Proverbs 27:17, Matthew 18:15, and Luke 17:3 are only a few of the verses that speak of our responsibility to do so.  However, in those times of addressing the sins of others, we should be doing so without hypocrisy ourselves.  Anupokritos (literally “without hypocrisy”) is translated in the ESV as “genuineness” (c.f. Romans 12:9) or “sincerity (c.f. James 3:17), and it would be wise that when we are called to confront a fellow Christian who is in sin, we should be genuinely asking for God’s wisdom in revealing our own sins, and then sincerely confessing those to God (Romans 1:9) and to one another (James 5:16).

The traps of legalism are enticing, effective either in drawing us into this heresy or propelling us into the competing heresy of “cheap grace.”  So, what is a Christ-follower to do?  The answer: Obedience, which we will discuss in the next weeks.  Click here for the beginning of that section.

In the meantime, I would be happy to hear your thoughts and questions!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: