Be On Guard Against Hypocrisy

This post was originally published on the Ministry Training Strategy blog.

“Practice what you preach” has become such a cliché that we forget how true and important it is. As ministry apprentices our schedules are full—even overflowing. We can get into the habit of merely trying to survive, to make it through this week and this year without totally embarrassing ourselves.

Paul writes to the young pastor Timothy: “Watch your life and doctrine closely” (1 Timothy 4:16).

We’re good at keeping a close watch on our teaching. We read and study and labour over the Scriptures, nailing down the finest points of doctrine. Even with the noblest intentions, all our diligence may set us on the road to shipwrecking our faith.

How close a watch are you keeping on your life? Are you living out the gospel you proclaim? It’s easy to get up and speak to my youth group about the need for repentance, but I must also do the hard work of coming before God daily to search my heart and ask for forgiveness.

In my Bible study group we’ve been looking at Jesus’ letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2–3. I was particularly convicted by the message Jesus gave to the church in Ephesus:

“I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.” (Revelation 2:2–5)

This church had all the right ideas. They recognised false teaching when it came into their midst, and didn’t stand for it. They even endured the test of persecution, never denouncing the gospel under pressure. And yet they had left behind their first love: Jesus himself.

Do we do the same? In all our theological debates, rigorous preparation, and commentary-checking, have we lost the love in our hearts for Jesus Christ? When we forget his love for us and the rest of the church, we will naturally drift away from good works. Our hearts grow cold, and we neglect to “admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all” (1 Thessalonians 5:14).

We become hypocrites, exhorting the flock but failing to daily die for them.

As you consider both your doctrine and your life, and seek to grow into the image of Christ, you need to pray for God’s help. I’ve found it helpful to reflect on and pray these words from Puritan writer Richard Baxter:

“Be particularly thankful, O my soul! That God hath made any use of thee for the service of his church on earth. My God, my soul for this doth magnify thee, and my spirit rejoiceth in the review of thy great undeserved mercy. O what am I, whom thou tookest up from the dunghill, or low obscurity, that I should love myself in the constant relish of thy sweet and sacred truth, and with such encouraging success communicate it to others!…O my God, let not my own heart be barren, while I labour in thy husbandry to bring others unto holy fruit! Let me not be a stranger to the life and power of that saving truth, which I have done so much to communicate to others! O let not my own words and writings condemn me, as void of that divine and heavenly nature and life, which I have said so much of to the world!” (Richard Baxter, Dying Thoughts, Banner of Truth, 2004, pp. 9-10)

Clearly, Baxter was deeply humble—the kind of humility that I pray God will grant me as the years progress. Rather than being puffed up at all he has achieved, Baxter is thankful and awed that God would use him in his pastoring and writing.

I encourage you to pray Baxter’s words to God. Ask him to humble your soul, bringing you great thankfulness for the privilege of ministry work. Then pray earnestly—and daily if you need to—that God would keep you from hypocrisy as you labour in the work he has set before you. May our life adorn our doctrine, so that more and more people will see the glory of Jesus Christ reflect in us.

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