We all use these terms a lot, but I wonder, how many of us have ever stopped to consider what they mean and what, if any, is the difference between them? I have and, as it turns out, I think there is a difference — a big difference!
In considering the difference between hypocrite and hypocritical, I started by looking at the definition of the word.
1 : a person who puts on a false appearance of virtue or religion
2 : a person who acts in contradiction to his or her stated beliefs or feelings
So, if a hypocrite is a person who says they believe one way but acts another, then was does hypocritical mean? Well, if you look up the definition of that word, it says it means the same thing as hypocrite. If this were true, then why do we have to nearly identical words for the same thing? No, hypocritical means something different from hypocrite — it must.
Luckily, I have done enough studying of language to realize that it evolves over time. What’s more, in our politically charged world, the meaning of words is often changed intentionally, so as to erase the past. So I consulted my copy of Noah Websters 1828 Dictionary of the American Language. Guess what I found:
Stemming or coming from hypocrisy.
That is not the same thing as hypocrite. But what does it mean to come from hypocrisy? I found the answer to this in an often miss-quoted, because it is a miss-understood section of Scripture:
Matthew 7:3-5 New American Standard Bible (NASB)
3 Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? 4 Or how [a]can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and behold, the log is in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.
Luke 6:42 New American Standard Bible (NASB)
42 Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye.
In both of these passages, Jesus is not telling us not to judge, but to learn to judge correctly. This requires us to see ourselves clearly. Do we support the things we say through the things we do, or are we hypocrites? Do we ‘walk the walk,’ or just ‘talk the talk?’ The answer makes all the difference in the world.
You see, all of us act like a hypocrite from time to time. It is part of being human. But, whether on their own or after it is pointed out to us, those who can recognize this fact in themselves and correct it are merely being hypocritical. However, those who can’t or refuse to see their hypocrisy — those who have made it a habit or practice — they are true hypocrites and there is no truth in them. Not only do they lie to the world, they lie to themselves. So the hypocrite will acknowledge and accept responsibility for and correct their own hypocrisy, the true hypocrite can’t even see it in themselves. They are too arrogant, too filled with pride to see the wrong in their own actions.
This distinction is important. One does not forgive or tolerate anyone who lives a life of deception and lies, and this is what hypocrisy is. Notice: I am not speaking to what a person claims to believe. That is an entirely different subject. I am speaking to whether or not a person lives according to the beliefs they profess. If a person claims to believe something but refuses to live according to those beliefs, that is not only hypocrisy, it is also a lie. Lying is lawlessness — period! Therefore, hypocrisy is lawlessness, whereas being hypocritical is merely the breaking of a law. If a person breaks a law, but acknowledges it, accepts it and corrects themselves so as not to do it again, they are said to have atoned for it. They made things right. But the hypocrite does not do this. The hypocrite makes a life based on breaking the laws. Therefore, it is possible to forgive those who merely act hypocritically, whereas it is not possible to forgive the true hypocrite as forgiveness requires repentance first, and the hypocrite has yet to recognize their own hypocrisy, let alone repent for it. To forgive or even tolerate the hypocrite is lawlessness, itself (by accepting lawlessness, we join with and become lawless, ourselves).
So, if we do something contrary to what we say we believe, but we recognize, accept responsibility for and correct our action in that regard, we merely act hypocritically. It does not make us a hypocrite, and we are to be forgiven. However, if we refuse to see our hypocrisy, or we make it a practice to act hypocritically, then we most certainly are a hypocrite, and we are not yet eligible for forgiveness. This is because we are still in the process of living lawlessly. We have neither acknowledged our sin, nor repented for it. Therefore, we cannot be forgiven. What’s more, this principle applies throughout life: both according to Scripture, as well to Natural law.