In the first two installments of this series I discussed the essential beliefs, values, and world-and-life view encapsulated by the Christian faith and the positive features of denominationalism, respectively.
In this article I will address the role that I see sin and hypocrisy playing in the problem of Christian disunity, specifically in terms of how the church is viewed by nonbelievers.
Sometimes the lack of unity in the body of Christ is tied to believers acting in sinful ways. At times, Christians struggle to “get along” with each other. People outside the church view these family conflicts, so to speak, with disparagement. But this strong negative reaction may actually be based upon a deep misunderstanding about the nature of Christianity itself.
Not Merely Bad Habits
Nonbelievers are often deeply put off by the bad behavior of some Christians. When believers struggle to meet the moral ideals set forth in Scripture, they’re often considered by nonbelievers to be phonies and hypocrites. Yet while hypocrisy is always regrettable and never to be condoned within a Christian context, I think this charge may be rooted in a superficial understanding of the nature of sin.
Non-Christians often think of sin as merely a bad deed or habit. So when a nonbeliever sees a person of faith struggling to live up to the moral rules, he concludes that the believer is inauthentic. Yet according to the Bible, sin is a much deeper, more fundamental problem than merely bad actions or patterns of behavior.
Scripture describes sin as a debilitating force that permeates the very core of every human being (Psalm 51:5, 58:3; Proverbs 20:9). In fact, humans are not sinners simply because they happen to sin but because they inherited a sin nature from their progenitor, Adam (Romans 5:12, 18–19). This inherited sin nature resides at the very heart (inner being) of mankind (Jeremiah 17:19; Matthew 15:19), and thus affects the entire person—including mind, will, affections and body (Ephesians 2:3, 4:17–19). The result is that all people personally sin and are, therefore, morally accountable to God (Romans 3:23).
Forgiven, But Not yet Perfect
Upon regeneration (spiritual rebirth, John 3:3), the Holy Spirit implants a new righteous nature in the justified-by-faith sinner. However, a person’s original nature remains even after conversion, thus Christians still sin (1 John 1:8–10). Conversion is the beginning—not the end—of a long transformation process called sanctification (being set apart to do God’s will).
Biblically speaking, moral and ethical perfection is not instantaneous, nor even attainable, in this life (1 Kings 8:46; 1 John 1:8). So a certain level of immaturity and imperfection, including some hypocrisy (though always regrettable) can be expected of believers (James 3:2).
Christians spend a lifetime struggling to gain freedom not from sin’s penalty (which Christ accomplished through his death and resurrection) but from its power over their attitudes, intentions, and actions. The ultimate transformation, which is glorification into the expressed image of Christ, awaits believers only in the eternal age to come.
The upshot of this is that historic Christianity teaches that human beings are broken people because of their rebellion against God. Yet through redemption this brokenness is being slowly mended. Nevertheless, the collective community of believers (the church) sometimes shows evidence of sin’s deep scars. In response, nonbelievers can sometimes show great disdain for the hypocrisy of believers.
Upon honest inspection, however, the nonbeliever will undoubtedly discover the common ground of human moral corruption and come to accept that hypocrisy is evidence of man’s total depravity. Individual believers, and the church as a whole, would do well to constantly confess sins. Yet the ultimate resolution to the problem of human sin is the acceptance of God’s grace to provide perfect redemption through Christ.