“My heart I offer to you, O Lord, promptly and sincerely.” —John Calvin

Hypocrisy and Sincerity

Of all the spiritual dangers to which Christ alerted His disciples, few of them outweigh His warnings concerning hypocrisy. And our Lord left little room for confusion about what He meant. One need only read the Sermon on the Mount, where Christ calls out the dangers of hypocrisy when it invades prayer, fasting, giving to the poor, or practices of righteousness (Matt. 6:1–6, 16). He is even more explicit in the Seven Woes, where He hammers the hypocrisy of the Pharisees who “preach, but do not practice”; do their religious deeds “to be seen”; love seats and titles of honor; are blind to worldlines, justice, and mercy; strain out gnats while swallowing camels; and appear clean without but are unclean within (Matt. 23:1–36). This is the spiritual hazard that Christ described as “leaven,” which spreads invisibly and thoroughly (Luke 12:1).

By talking about hypocrisy, Christ was invoking a familiar and graphic image to illustrate when you and I pretend to be something that we are not. The root of the word hypocrite refers to an actor. In ancient Greece, actors wore masks to indicate what parts they were playing. Those in the audience would see the facial shell, which hid the real person underneath. This illustrates the concept of hypocrisy—what others see makes a pleasant impression, but it is false. Our religious mask betrays what is truly underneath. The thin veneer of our religious hypocrisy hides the cheap material within. It is a lie.

The opposite of hypocrisy is sincerity. Sincerity has no mask, whether it is on stage or not. It is bona fide. What we see and hear is real, not feigned nor fake. This is the genius of John Calvin’s motto: “My heart I offer to you, O Lord, promptly and sincerely.” This is what God wants us to offer Him—what we are and what we have without hesitating or pretending. He wants a sincere heart (Eph. 6:5), a sincere mind (2 Peter 3:1), a sincere faith (1 Tim. 1:5; 2 Tim. 1:5), a sincere brotherly love (Rom. 12:9–10), a sincere wisdom (James 3:17), and a sincere devotion (2 Cor. 11:3).

However, it is one thing to see the danger of hypocrisy and the appeal of sincerity. It is another thing to approach these things practically. How do we recognize our hypocrisy and then subdue it? How do we become more sincere? How do we avoid being fake or false and at the same time try to be more genuine? These seem like vague ideas. Perhaps a helpful way to get at such vital questions is to begin by asking, Where do hypocrisy and sincerity come from?

Duplicity and Simplicity

For our boast is this, the testimony of our conscience, that we behaved in the world with simplicity and godly sincerity, not by earthly wisdom but by the grace of God, and supremely so toward you. (2 Cor.1:12)

In one of John Newton’s letters he discusses Paul’s phrase “with simplicity and godly sincerity” (2 Cor 1:12). Newton says sincerity primarily directs our conduct as it appears in the sight of men, while our simplicity primarily respects the frame of our spirit as it appears in the sight of God.1 Sincerity is what others see; simplicity is what God sees. Clearly Paul is not using simplicity—as we might—to refer to being ignorant or lacking sophistication. Instead, he is talking about what is uncomplicated or undivided. The simple man or woman has a singular focus. Their path is clear and they will not deviate from it. Their sincerity flows from the simplicity of their character.

The opposite of simplicity is duplicity. A person of duplicity is unsure of himself because his is vexed with conflicting motives and goals. He is caught between what he is trying to project and what he really is. He is two-faced because he is double-minded. The artificial persona on the outside reflects the duplicitous person on the inside. As Newton says, “They are not simple, and therefore they cannot be sincere.”2 Our task, then, is to apply ourselves to heart-work, and here is where our Lord’s teaching is so helpful.

A Divided Heart and a Pure Heart

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. (Matt. 5:8)

Paul’s point in 2 Corinthians is strikingly similar to what our Lord teaches in the phrase “Blessed are the pure in heart” (Matt. 5:8). It is important to note that our Lord does not mean a heart that is washed clean. Here He uses “pure” to signify what is undivided or without mixture—a similar idea is what is printed on bottled water: “100% pure spring water.” It is water without contaminants. So also, a pure heart lacks the contaminants of idolatry. It is not divided in its interests and it does not have mixed motives. It is unified by a singular devotion.

The simple man or woman has a singular focus.

This is what David meant when he prayed, “Unite my heart” (Ps. 86:11). He longed for a heart free from all that would distract him from fearing God. Asaph prayed similarly: “Whom have I in heaven but you? There is nothing on earth that I desire besides you” (Ps. 73:25). Elijah appealed to the same desire when he asked, “How long will you go limping between two different opinions?” (1 Kings 18:21). Joshua meant the same when he said, “Choose this day whom you will serve” (Josh. 24:15). In each case, God’s people are being called to put aside their divided loyalties and to follow God with a pure heart.

The larger point is that a duplicitous heart is divided in its interests and seeks to serve two masters. But the heart of godly simplicity is united in its desire and seeks only one thing. Christ told Martha that she was distracted by many things, whereas He commended Mary who had chosen the one thing necessary. As J.C. Ryle wrote, “The right heart is honest, and single, and true. . . . There is nothing about it of falsehood, hypocrisy, or part-acting. It is not double or divided.”3 The simple heart puts its hand to the plow and does not look back.

The key, then, to putting hypocrisy to death and fanning sincerity into flame is to orient our hearts toward godly simplicity—toward a pure, undivided, and singular commitment to God. Such a heart has one leading aim; one deliberate, unreserved desire; one great devotion to which everything else is subordinate. A heart ruled by a simplicity of love for God is not tempted to insincerity. It will have no rivals. Such a Christian feels no need to be evasive or to disguise his actions. He does not need to conceal his character, because his motives are of one piece and one design—whether in public or in private. He is not afraid of being found out.4 He is what he appears to be.

Godly simplicity naturally comes when we truly grasp the truth of the gospel—when we know our own unworthiness and are desperate for God’s grace; when we grasp the power of Christ’s death and resurrection to redeem us from sin’s condemnation and power; when we rest in our adoption and full acceptance before God; when we sense our ongoing need of His grace in order to resist temptation and to walk in obedience; when we know the regular cycles of repentance and faith. These are the sorts of thoughts that will make us simple-hearted as we seek God’s face. These are the truths that will liberate us to serve Him sincerely.5 And they will cause us to look to our Savior with eyes of faith and hearts full of loving gratitude.

In so doing, we look to One whose heart is perfectly ruled by one simple and righteous end. When the moment came for Christ to save us from the curse of our sin, He did not hesitate or halt between two opinions. He was not divided in His heart about delivering Himself up to the cruelties of those who would torture and crucify Him. He was not torn between two opinions about whether to pour out His life unto death.6 He did all this for us, but not just for us.

He was obedient unto a death on the cross because His true love was to do the will of the One who sent Him, His Father in heaven. His singular devotion and the self-sacrifice of His life was perfect, due to the simplicity of His heart. No love was ever so pure or so strong as this love. And this is the love at work in our hearts so that we might love God and neighbor as Christ has loved us. Simply put, this is what enables us to say, more and more genuinely, “My heart I offer to you, O Lord, promptly and sincerely.”

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on March 10, 2021.

  1. In this article I am borrowing language from Newton’s letter. John Newton, “On Simplicity and Godly Sincerity,” in The Works of John Newton, vol. 1 (1839; repr., Edinburgh, Scotland: Banner of Truth, 2015), 209–13. ↩︎
  2. Newton, 212. ↩︎
  3. J.C. Ryle, “The Heart,” in Old Paths (1878; repr., Edinburgh, Scotland: Banner of Truth, 1999), 350–51. ↩︎
  4. Newton, 213. ↩︎
  5. Newton, 210. ↩︎
  6. Newton, 210. ↩︎

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