By John Angell James, 1859


With what frequency and impressive solemnity is this subject referred to in Scripture, especially in the book of Job. The complicated sorrows of the suffering patriarch were bitterly aggravated by the suspicions, accusations, and reproaches of his sadly mistaken friends. Adopting the false principle that character is manifested by providential dealings—they interpreted his afflictive condition as a punishment for his sins, and a revelation of his hypocrisy. Hence the application to him of such language as the following–

"The hypocrite's hope shall perish."—Job 8:13

"A hypocrite shall not come before him."—Job 13:16

"The congregation of hypocrites shall be desolate."—Job 15:34

"The joy of the hypocrite is but for a moment."—Job 20:5

"What is the hope of a hypocrite, though he has gained, when God takes away his soul."—Job 27:8.

These passages contain a dreadful truth—but they did not apply to Job!

A hypocrite is the most odious of all characters on earth, and a character that has always been found upon earth. There are hypocrites in all departments of human action, in politics, in friendship, in business, in morals, and alas in Christianity also. "Wherever there is genuine coin, it will be likely to be counterfeited; and the fact of a counterfeit is always a tribute to the intrinsic worth of the coin—for who would be at the pains to counterfeit what is worthless?"

It is the greatest madness in the world, as well as wickedness in the world—to be a hypocrite in religious profession. The worldling hates him for being a Christian even in appearance; God hates him doubly, because he is a Christian only in appearance. He has thus the detestation of both, and no comfort in himself. "Yet, if you will not be good as you seem," says Bishop Hall, "I hold it better to seem bad as you are. An openly wicked man does much hurt with notorious sins—but a hypocrite does at last more harm by seeming good. I would rather be an open wicked man than a hypocrite—but I would rather be no man, than either of them." The same good Prelate, in a sermon which he preached before the King's court—a sermon which has more of awful denunciation against sin, and threatenings against sinners, and descriptions of eternal torment, than the plainest Methodist preacher would now like to deliver—has the following quaint remarks, "He who has only the form of godliness is a hypocrite—he who has not even a form is an atheist. I know not whether I should sever these two—both are human devils—a hypocrite is a masked devil; an atheist is a devil unmasked. Which of them, without repentance, shall be deeper in the hell they shall both hereafter feel, I determine not." (This is but a specimen, and a slight one too, of the language which even in those corrupt days was addressed by Episcopal lips to Courtly ears. In reading the sermons which in those days were delivered both by the serious Episcopal preachers, as well as by Nonconformists, I am astonished at their plainness, their earnestness, and their fearlessness. Who can read their discourses, without feeling how much the modern pulpit is inferior, in intense earnestness, to the preachers of those times. It may be they erred on the side of coarse descriptions of the consequences of sin, and the punishment of sinners—but we err as much on the side of a false refinement, and are almost afraid to mention hell to polite ears.)

Hypocrisy, in its generic sense, means pretending to true religion, while there is none—keeping up the semblance without the reality. But there are TWO CLASSES OF HYPOCRITES—or, at any rate, two degrees of hypocrisy.

1. Those who, though they profess to be religious, know they are not, and who have assumed the profession for some worldly advantage they expect to gain by it, either in the way of profit or applause. They are intentional deceivers, and are conscious of the deception they are practicing. These are, in the fullest sense of the word, hypocrites. It is to these our Lord alludes, with so much indignation, in his ministry. This is the most disgusting and loathsome species of hypocrisy.

2. The other kind are the formal, refined, and unintentional hypocrites; that is, the men who have but the semblance of true religion, yet ignorantly mistake it for the substance. "Now both these agree in this, that they are deceivers, for deceit is the formal constituent element of hypocrisy—but their difference lies in this, that the one purposely deceives others—the other unintentionally deceives himself; the one resolvedly goes towards hell—the other sets out for heaven, but carelessly mistakes the way; one is a mere shadow—the other is a rotten substance."

The first is a much rarer character than the other. It is only now and then we meet with hypocrisy in its intentional and grosser form—but on every hand crowds are to be found who are self-deceived. Our cities, towns, and villages, are, to a considerable extent, peopled with them; and they abound even in our churches. Self-deception was not unknown in our Lord's time, and under his ministry. Even when a cross stood in the way of a Christian profession, and in order to become a professor a man must take it up and bear it onward, under these circumstances self-deception was frequent. "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?' Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!'" Matthew 7:21-23. This is really one of the most alarming passages of Holy Writ, as showing how far people may go in self-deception, and how perseveringly they may continue in it—even to death, and through it, up to the very judgment seat of Christ!

When persecution raged, and it might have been supposed no one could impose upon himself by a mere form of godliness without the power, and nothing short of real conversion by divine grace could lead anyone to take up the Christian name—even then, this modified hypocrisy prevailed, and unsound profession was common. How much more common might it be supposed to be now, when we sit under our vine and fig tree, none daring to harm us—when it adds to, rather than detracts from, our respectability—when it calls for so little self-denial and self-sacrifice. I am truly alarmed and terrified at the thought of this state of things, when multitudes are going down to the pit with a lie in their right hand—floating to perdition on the stream of delusion!

Hypocrites may have, and really have, their hopes—even the grosser class of them. They misunderstand the holy and righteous character of God, and endeavor to persuade themselves he is too merciful to destroy any of his creatures. They misapprehend the nature of sin in general, and have light views of their own. They find out all extenuating circumstances of their sins, and persuade themselves that there is a kind of necessity for their seeming to be religious, combined with an impossibility of their being actually so. Then in order to defend themselves from the accusations of their conscience, they will be often bribing and endeavoring to pacify it with some specious outward performances. When this will not do, they will contrive to shelter themselves under the pretext that there is a little hypocrisy in those who are considered real Christians, since none of them quite live up to their profession.

If this is insufficient, they will found their hopes upon the principles of infidelity, and believe that all true religion is a sham, and that they shall do as well in the next world, after serving themselves by a pretended religion in this world—as those who are sincere. Especially will they lay hold of the failings of strict professors, and bolster up their expectations by saying, If these do much in the way of sin, they may do much more, and get to heaven at last. Hypocrites will often keep up their hope by comparing themselves with others who are openly vicious, and apparently worse than they are; and think themselves religious, not from any goodness of their own—but from the badness of others. "They raise a structure of reputed holiness, and therefore of hope—upon the deplorable ruins of other men's character. This was the chief ground of the Pharisee's hope—he was not as other men, an adulterer, covetous, swearer, or the like. There are many paths to perdition in the broad way, some of which are more cleanly and some more foul, yet they all lead to the same end. And they shall as certainly arrive at hell, who tread the cleanlier paths of a refined hypocrisy, as those who track through the mire and dirt of the grossest abominations."

But how shall we account for the false hope of the other class of hypocrites, the unintentional ones? In much the same way as in the preceding case, with some additional causes. Ignorance of the nature of true religion; setting up false standards of personal godliness, such as church relationship, and an orthodox creed; depending upon the opinions of others concerning their state, rather than the testimony of their own conscience; mistaking a mere excitement of the emotions for real conversion; relying upon a public profession as an evidence of the possession of divine grace in the soul; comparing themselves with the great bulk of professors, and concluding that they are as good, and shall do as well, as they; and especially the neglect of close, anxious, serious, and deep examination of their own state.

Self-deception begins in ignorance, and is continued by the lack of self-examination. A man must dive into his own heart, if he would know his state; he must take the candle of the Lord, which is the word of God, and go down into the depths of his own soul, and search every corner—just as he would his cellar, in which he feared was concealed a thief, a murderer, or a kindling fire. No wonder so many are deceiving themselves, when they are so fearfully neglectful of this duty of "testing their own selves." It were almost to be desired that in addition to the silent admonition of Scripture, and the earnest exhortations from the pulpit, the sound would break in thunder from the skies, "Examine yourselves, whether you be in the faith," and that the voice of the archangel, and the trumpet of God, which are to usher in the day of judgment, would awaken the slumbering multitude with those words—"Be not deceived, God is not mocked!" Ordinary methods lamentably fail. Under the most searching ministry, the most alarming sermons, and the most discriminating marks of sincerity laid down—a fatal delusion sends multitudes to perdition.

But this hope of the hypocrite shall perish. It sometimes dies out in life, and the deceived man sinks down into a comfortless creature, without a beam of joy, or a feeling of peace. It was never more than a dim spark—and now in some great affliction, or sudden calamity, that expires, and leaves him in rayless night. He finds out his delusion and sees that his were but the groundless expectations of an unconverted man. The world fails him, and his hope has vanished under the ruins of his fortune. He realizes now the force of Bildad's cutting interrogation—"Can papyrus reeds grow where there is no marsh? Can bulrushes flourish where there is no water? While they are still flowering, not ready to be cut, they begin to wither. Such is the fate of all who forget God. The hope of the hypocrite comes to nothing. Everything they count on will collapse. They are leaning on a spiderweb. They cling to their home for security, but it won't last. They try to hold it fast, but it will not endure." Job 8:11-15. Or under some heart-searching sermon, or awakening book, his false hopes fall from around him—and the dreadful secret of his unchanged heart, is revealed to him.

Many carry on the delusion to their death-bed. The last enemy often comes to shatter with dreadful power the vain confidences of hypocritical professors. All his fond expectations then upbraid him to his face; Satan, his greatest flatterer, shall then laugh him to scorn; death shall confute all his confidences, and the dawning lights of eternity convince him that his hopes of heaven were groundless and irrational.

Many, however are not awakened even by the harsh voice of the king of terrors, from the dream of a false profession. They pass through the dark valley, with the delusive light of a lamp of their own kindling—but which, the next moment, is quenched in the darkness of eternal night. The hope of the hypocrite then perishes—in the day when God takes away his soul.

Few things are more tormenting to a man than the feelings of a disappointment, and it is the climax of all misery, the most venomous of all—poison of the spirit, when to these are added the torments of self-reproach. How dreadful will be the disappointment and remorse of the hypocrite, when death, which closes his eyes to all the scenes of earth, shall open them to those of the bottomless pit!

Oh, think of a man who has been long away from his pleasant home, his wife and children, enduring all kinds of hardships, of bad weather, rough roads, uncomfortable inns, great fear of dangers, and much unkind treatment—but who solaces himself all the while with sweet thoughts of his arrival at his own house, and the bosom of his family—but who, as soon as he reaches the threshold of his dwelling, is seized, put in chains, and immured for life in a dark dungeon—what horror, and surprise, and overwhelming disappointment seize and hold him! But what is this to the horror and surprise of him who, when he expects to arise from the bed of death, to the felicities of heaven, sinks from it to the miseries of hell. In the case of the traveler just mentioned, if he be a Christian, he carries to his dungeon the hope of immortality, and knows that however bitter his disappointment, and however long his confinement, he shall rise at last from that dismal state, to a glorious eternity, made more glorious at length, by contrast with his previous one.

But the hope of the hypocrite makes his eternity more miserable, by its contrast with the expectations he had until then indulged. How terrible is the language of Dr. South, "Former happiness is the greatest ingredient of present misery. It would be some relief to a condemned sinner, if with the loss of his hope, he could lose his memory too—but alas, when he shall lie down in sorrow and torment, this will recall to his mind all that peace, comfort, and tranquility, that his false hopes formerly fed him with. No voice will be heard in hell so loud and frequent as this sad and doleful one. 'My hopes deceived me, my confidence deluded me.' Nothing so comfortable as hope crowned with fruition; nothing so tormenting as hopes snapped off with disappointment and frustration. And were it lawful to wish an enemy completely miserable, I would wish that he might have strong hopes—which he never obtains. Now from what has been determined, I think we may truly conclude, that of the two, the despairing reprobate is happier than the hoping reprobate. They both indeed, fall equally low—but then he who hopes has the greater fall, because he falls from the highest place. He who despairs goes to hell—but then he goes there with expectation; though he is condemned, he is not surprised; he has inured his heart to the flames, and has made those terrors familiar to him, by the continual horrors of his meditation; so that when he dies, he passes but from one hell to another, and his actual condemnation is not the beginning—but the carrying on of his former torment. In short, to express the wretchedness of the hypocrite's hope, I shall only add this—certainly that must needs be exceeding dismal, in comparison of which despair is desirable."

These are awful words, and should send an alarm to every heart, and exert an awakening power ever every conscience. Under any circumstances that will be a solemn moment, when God takes away our soul, even though he take it to heaven.

"In vain our fancy strives to paint,
The moment after death!"

What a conviction will that be, when the disembodied spirit says, "I am in eternity." Oh, the felicity, the rapture, of being able to add, "I am safe, I am in heaven!" It would seem as if the soul would sink under the far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory which will then come upon it, surround it, absorb it. But oh, the dreadful reverse! The indescribable, overwhelming astonishment, consternation, and horror of the hypocrite, who wakes up amid the scenes of the bottomless pit—it is not for language to set forth nor imagination to conceive the torment that will in a moment come over the miserable soul, whose first words in eternity will be, "I am lost, lost, lost, forever—I am in hell." It is not only happiness that will then expire—but hope. The wretched spirit will look through the vista of millions of ages, and see no glimmering spark of this to relieve its present sense of unutterable woe. It will then fully realize the terrible import of the words of Milton:

"Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
And rest can never dwell; hope never comes,
That comes to all—but torture without end."

May these words have their due effect upon us all. May they lead us to ask in deep solemnity, "Is mine the hope of the hypocrite? A hope that will thus 'make me ashamed,' or is it 'a good hope through grace'? Am I one of the many victims of self-deception, or am I an Israelite indeed? Is my profession a lie or a truth?" Oh, consider, it is eternity that is at stake upon this question. It is heaven or hell that depends upon it. What a motive to examination; close, anxious, honest examination; how earnest, prayerful, solicitous we should be; not to persuade ourselves that we are true Christians—but to see if we are. Let us all, under the influence of these thoughts, carry to God the prayer of the Psalmist, "Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me, and know my thoughts—and see if there be any wicked way in me—and lead me in the way everlasting."