Farewell to Self

The difficulty with hypocrisy is that, by definition, it is hard to spot. The Pharisee appeared like an angel of light. Sometimes it is just a subtle change of key that gives the game away. C. S. Lewis described the “characteristic notes” of the thought of the first Protestants as relief and buoyancy. Why?

All the initiative has been on God’s side; all has been free, un- bounded grace. His own puny and ridiculous efforts would be as helpless to retain the joy as they would have been to achieve it in the first place. Fortunately they need not. Bliss is not for sale, cannot be earned. “Works” have no “merit”, though of course faith, inevitably, even unconsciously, flows out into works of love at once. He is not saved because he does works of love: he does works of love because he is saved. It is faith alone that has saved him: faith bestowed by sheer gift. From this buoyant humility, this farewell to the self with all its good resolutions, anxiety, scruples, and motive-scratchings, all the Protestant doctrines originally sprang.

Without that mood or note of buoyant humility, those Protestant doctrines might be superficially confessed, but they cannot be truly enjoyed.

The story of the Reformation in Britain shows exactly this. Only a generation after Luther, it had become all too simple for Englishmen to identify as Protestant while having no understand- ing or experience of God’s saving grace. Just about everyone went to church, and so it was all too easy to be nominally evangelical. Eager to combat this nominalism, many thought the answer was to encourage personal holiness. What happened was a trend for sermons on the Ten Commandments. That, of course, is no bad thing, but in many places it eclipsed the original Reformation focus on justification. Instead of proclaiming the free, saving grace of God, preachers majored on the holy living that is the necessary response to the gospel. Where William Tyndale had once heard “merry, glad and joyful tidings, that maketh a man’s heart glad and maketh him sing, dance, and leap for joy,” many now remained uncertain over whether or how God would forgive them. As a result, they acted like young Luther the monk, as though their salvation depended on their holiness of life. Not knowing Christ’s free grace, they knew nothing of Tyndale’s buoyant humility, only a morbid introspection as they wondered whether their own hearts felt good enough.

Into the breach stepped Pritans like Richard Sibbes. Instead of simply laying moral burdens on people, Sibbes preached Christ as the gracious Savior of sinners. For the solution to sin, he saw, “is not the attempt to live without sin, but the gospel of God’s free grace.” Only when a person enjoys Christ as a Savior do they stop sinning from the heart and start loving him truly. Perhaps his most famous sermon series was The Bruised Reed, an exposition of Matthew 12:20 (“a bruised reed he will not break, / and a smoldering wick he will not quench”). In it, he clearly had an eye on ministers who were crushing the weak with burdens and called them to minister more like Christ, “blowing the oxygen of the gospel onto the smouldering wick of sputtering Christian lives.”

The Bruised Reed ends with a reference to Luther (by whom, Sibbes says, God “kindled that fire which all the world shall never be able to quench”). The implication was that, even among card- carrying Protestants, the real spirit of the Reformation could be lost, and all of Luther’s early doubts and concerns could sneak in through the back door of a zealous Christian moralism that had lost sight of God’s grace. In order to maintain the Reformation’s gospel heartbeat, Sibbes and Puritans like him taught and proclaimed “the gracious nature and office of Christ; the right conceit of which is the spring of all service to Christ, and comfort from him.”

What Sibbes recognized was that “the gracious nature and office of Christ” is the only remedy for a sinful, pharisaical heart. Alternative gospels according to which Jesus is merely a king, merely an enabler, or merely a passport to prosperity (either now or in eternity) can never have the same effect as one that centers on Jesus as the all-sufficient Savior. Cross-lite gospels, like that of the Pharisee in Luke 18, fail to diagnose the depth of our problem. As a result, they can bring none of the “relief,” “buoyant humility,” or “farewell to self ” the first Protestants enjoyed. If we evangelicals are to replace the scourge of self-reliance with those glad notes, it can only be through a hearty embracing of the humbling, happifying truth that sinners like the tax collector are justified by faith alone. That is, as John Calvin put it, “the main hinge on which religion turns. . . . For unless you first of all grasp what your relationship to God is, and the nature of his judgment concerning you, you have neither a foundation on which to establish your salvation nor one on which to build piety toward God.”

Faith and Hypocrisy

It is the nature of hypocrisy to be devoid of substance. Hypocrisy, therefore, is a disposition absolutely opposed to faith, which is the foundation of Christian integrity. Martin Luther described faith as a living, busy, active, mighty thing. . . . Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that a man would stake his life on it a thousand times. This confidence in God’s grace and knowledge of it makes men glad and bold and happy in dealing with God and all His creatures.

Hypocrisy places confidence in self, and so never knows the gladness and boldness of faith’s confidence in God’s grace. It will speak about good works, but without really understanding what they are. Wrapped up in itself, it lacks the instinct to love. Faith, on the other hand, not only justifies: it is happy in God, making it “impossible for it not to do good works incessantly. It does not ask whether there are good works to do, but before the question rises, it has already done them, and is always at the doing of them.”

This is why the gospel of Christ and his redemption is the only true antidote to hypocrisy, for “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17). And to be clear, this must mean hearing of the grace of Christ, without which we do not really know God. John Calvin explained,

“Thus, surely, we shall more closely approach the nature of faith; for it is after we have learned that our salvation rests with God that we are attracted to seek him. This fact is confirmed for us when he declares that our salvation is his care and concern. Accordingly, we need the promise of grace, which can testify to us that the Father is merciful; since we can approach him in no other way, and upon grace alone the heart of man can rest.”

If Christians are to have integrity as people of the gospel, the message of the cross and the justification offered through Christ’s blood alone cannot be treated as a message beyond which anyone graduates. It must be our humbling and happifying meat and drink. It must continually ring in our ears and sound on our lips, tearing down our self-confidence and giving us instead faith’s bold gladness in God. 

Content taken from Evangelical Pharisees: The Gospel as Cure for the Church’s Hypocrisy by Michael Reeves, ©2023. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.