The last thing a pastor wants to feel like is a hypocrite. Yet for so many of us, it seems inevitable.
When was the last time you stepped out of the pulpit feeling like you preached to yourself more than your church? What sin were you calling your church—and yourself—to repent of? What glorious promise were you calling your church—and yourself—to trust?
It’s easy to walk out of the pulpit after one of those Sundays thinking you’re a total hypocrite, because you are not practicing what you preached.
Perhaps you’ve wondered: Must you apply what you preach before you preach it? Are you only qualified to preach what you have already put into practice? Or, if you recognize no one is perfect, how much of your sermon must you already be living out to be considered qualified to preach it?
A biblical example of “hypocritical” preachers
Consider Moses preaching the sermons of Deuteronomy. He had already disqualified himself from entering the land. What right does he have to preach about obeying in the land, inheriting the land and staying faithful to Yahweh? Isn’t that hypocritical?
Yet Moses was unapologetic about what he said. He fully expected his words to be received with the utmost authority. The issue had less to do with his experience and more to do with the divine source of his words.
What about Ezra?
Ezra 7:10 is a proof text for arguing the preacher must apply what he has preached before he preaches it: “For Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the LORD, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel.”
The order of “study, do, teach” provides a helpful framework for the preacher. But we have a series here, not necessarily a sequence. This verse tells us three things Ezra set his heart to in a list that is coordinate.
There is no denying the progressive nature of the list. It works in order of priority. But to use this passage to argue that Ezra didn’t teach until he applied what he learned overstates what text says.
In fact, you can argue from Romans 1:18 that you can’t even study the Bible unless you are already living it. If you suppress the truth in unrighteousness, you will suppress the truth in exegesis.
Two wrong ways to address your hypocrisy
So far, all I have tried to do is show the Bible doesn’t expect preachers to wait until they have applied something perfectly to teach it. Now I’d like to move toward the experience of the preacher.
First, there is the lame preacher.
He tries to avoid feeling hypocritical. He superficially and dispassionately puts some principles into practice, just so he doesn’t feel like a hypocrite on Sunday morning.
Second, there is the burdened preacher.
He is overwhelmed with feelings of hypocrisy. Always faced with his sin, he never feels like he belongs in a pulpit.
Both of these preachers share the same sin: pride. They look for sufficiency in themselves. The only difference is one thinks he is sufficient, and the other knows he isn’t.
Neither of these preachers is fit to preach the Gospel because neither of them is looking to Jesus. He is the one who was never a hypocrite, and through faith in him we find the solution to our hypocrisy. His righteousness is given to us so we stand justified before God.
It is with that confidence we pursue deep, passionate sanctification, on the one hand, and show ourselves a little patience in that pursuit, on the other.
The right kind of hypocritical preacher
Psalm 51 is David’s prayer of repentance after committing adultery and then murder. Not exactly the least consequential of sins. Not exactly something you’d look over in pastoral search committee meeting.
Yet in verse 13 he says this: “Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.”
When you look to Jesus to wash you (51:7), to blot your iniquities (51:9), to recreate you (51:10) and to restore your joy in God’s salvation (51:12), then you can confidently—and not hypocritically—call your congregation to turn from their sins.
Instead of remarking, “What right does he have to preach that,” your people will recognize the transformation that is taking place in you—as incomplete as it is—and return to God.