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The Hidden Cancer In Our Churches

By Michael Reeves

The Hidden Cancer

Photo by Ioann-Mark Kuznietsov on Unsplash

It is usually easy to spot brazen sins (such as murder, adultery, and theft), but hypocrisy by its very nature is a pretense, making it hard to detect. Hypocrisy does not want to be identified for what it is. It poses and deceives to avoid discovery. “The hypocrite is very often an exceedingly neat imitation of the Christian,” said Charles Spurgeon. “To the common observer he is so good a counterfeit that he entirely escapes suspicion.” Like leaven or yeast in dough, hypocrisy is transformative in its power but almost completely imperceptible. Like unmarked, whitewashed tombs, hypocrites may be full of dead people’s bones, but outwardly they appear beautiful (Matt. 23:27).

Yet while hypocrisy may be a hidden and quiet problem, it is not a slight one. An outright hypocrite is “a child of hell” (Matt. 23:15), and Dante showed great perception when he placed hypocrites in the eighth circle of hell in his Inferno. For hypocrisy, as we shall see, is a denial of the gospel, a sin that for all its subtlety is more essentially hellish than the sins of the flesh the hypocrite so swiftly condemns.

A Problem with the Gospel

A pharisaical or hypocritical spirit leaves such an obvious moral trail—from pride to people pleasing, tribalism, empire building, and lovelessness—that it is easy to diagnose it simply as a moral problem. Yet what the Pharisees show us is that Pharisaism is not just the crankiness that comes with a hardening of the spiritual arteries. First and foremost, it is a theological issue. The Pharisees were as they were and acted as they did because they denied the gospel.

Treating the Sickness

In the Gospels, Jesus spelled out three basic theological mistakes the Pharisees made:

1. Their approach to Scripture

2. Their understanding of salvation

3. Their disregard of regeneration

That is, they were mistaken in their understanding of the three essential r’s of the gospel: revelation, redemption, and regeneration. These are:

1. The Father’s revelation in the Bible

2. The Son’s redemption in the gospel

3. The Spirit’s regeneration of our hearts

As Luther saw, true reformation of the church takes more than a moral bath. It requires the gospel. Without the gospel, our attempts at reform will be superficial.

Without that reformation of hearts and lives through the gospel itself, we may find, as Jonathan Edwards found in Northampton, that the people are a “sober, and orderly, and good sort of people” and yet that they remain “dry bones.”

Taken from The Hidden Cancer in Our Churches by Michael Reeves, adapted from the ESV Study Bible. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187,

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