My last post dealt with Jesus’ use of hyperbole in some of his sayings in the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:20-49). In preaching through this sermon recently, I’ve been struck by how our Lord sometimes makes an absolute statement but then he or a biblical author qualifies it in some way.
First, Christ arrests his hearers’ attention and unsettles their consciences with a radical demand. Then he sets them on a path to identify his basic point and figure out the nuances of application. This is akin to the interpretive process one has to go through with the generalizations of the book of Proverbs.
Such is the case with a saying of Jesus that is probably one of the most quoted biblical lines in America. It’s best known from the King James Version of Matthew 7:1: “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” In the Sermon on the Plain it reads, “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned” (Luke 6:37a).
What “Judge Not” Does Not Mean
Jesus’ command cannot be prohibiting all moral judgment of people’s actions. A few verses later he encourages the observation and assessment of people’s “fruit,” i.e., conduct (vv. 43-45). He also expects his disciples to help fellow disciples remove relatively small inappropriate behaviors from their lives (vv. 41-42).
Likewise, in laying out the steps of church discipline, our Lord tells us to confront sin in one another’s lives (Matt. 18:15-20). In this vein, the Epistles contain statements like this: “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness” (Gal. 6:1). So even though “Judge not” sounds absolute, it isn’t. There is a kind of judgment that is not only allowed but actually required.
What “Judge Not” Does Mean
What, then, is Jesus saying when he commands, “Judge not”? It seems he is prohibiting what we call judgmentalism: a censorious attitude, a critical spirit, a faultfinding mindset, a harsh posture toward people. Positively stated, he is urging us to demonstrate a gracious spirit.
The rest of Scripture, coupled with common sense, explains more precisely what this looks like. Following are a dozen specific applications. I don’t claim that these are original with me. My wife says I stole a couple of them from her, but that may be a little judgmental. At any rate, I hope you find these points helpful as you strive to interact with others in a gracious way. They have certainly convicted me!
Don’t assume your own moral superiority.
This was one of the problems of the man described in Luke 18:11-12: “The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’” You may, in fact, be more mature or obedient than another person. But always keep in mind that anything good in your life is the product of grace (1 Cor. 4:7; 15:10). A boastful and condescending spirit is not just offensive to people—it is stealing glory from God.
Don’t jump to conclusions.
Be sure you have all the facts before you develop a viewpoint. Distinguish between objective fact and subjective opinion. “Whatever is true . . . think about these things” (Phil. 4:8).
Don’t concentrate on people’s weaknesses and failures.
Instead . . .
Look for and celebrate evidences of grace in people’s lives.
“Whatever is commendable . . . think about these things” (Phil. 4:8). Though he often had to deal with problems in his readers’ lives, Paul typically began his epistles by praising God and commending believers for specific aspects of spiritual growth (e.g., 1 Thess. 1:2-10). What is your default mentality: faultfinding or grace-finding?
Give people the benefit of the doubt, and strive to believe the best about them.
“Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 13:7). The standard of the courts is the right approach to life generally: a person is considered innocent until proven guilty, and guilt is established only when there is evidence beyond reasonable doubt.
Don’t assume people’s motives.
Here we face a tension. On the one hand, Jesus teaches that people’s words and actions generally expose their hearts (Luke 6:43-45). And we dare not be naive about human nature, given all that the Bible teaches about our depravity (e.g., Eph. 4:17ff). On the other hand, we aren’t omniscient, nor are our interpretations infallible. People’s words and actions can be misconstrued. How much more non-verbals and personality quirks. So don’t presume to know what has motivated someone to make a particular decision. Give people ample opportunity to explain themselves, and listen with humility. This is a key way in which you can practice the Golden Rule: “As you wish that others would do to you, do so to them” (Luke 6:31).
Consider a person’s background.
We may not realize the degree to which our background shapes our actions as well as our perceptions of others’ actions. In this regard, if you knew how far a person has come and what obstacles they have had to overcome in order to become what they are today, perhaps your approach to them would be more merciful (cf. Luke 6:36). Take the time to get to know them.
Give people time to grow.
Cultivate a long-term perspective, remembering that sanctification is progressive (Phil. 3:12-14; 2 Pet. 3:18). How long has it taken you to arrive at whatever maturity you have? And even now you probably disappoint yourself on a regular basis!
Deal thoroughly with your own failures before you deal with the failures of others.
Jesus added this to his teaching on judgmentalism (Luke 6:41-42): “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? 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.” And remember the second half of Galatians 6:1, “Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.”
Moderate your handling of an issue based on whether it is a matter of biblical requirement or a genuinely disputable matter.
A. W. Tozer’s counsel is especially relevant to disputable matters: “Be hard on yourself and easy on others. Carry your own cross but never lay one on the back of another” (Man: The Dwelling Place of God, 41). Paul provides extensive teaching on this topic in Romans 14:1–15:13. Here both the permissive and the restrictive are warned against judgmentalism. In this regard, today’s “legalism police” can be just as judgmental as the alleged legalists they critique.
Be slow to share your opinions about other people.
Don’t stoke judgmentalism in others by unnecessarily expressing a negative perspective on someone. What is your motive for speaking? Why do they need to know? What is the edifying value? “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent” (Prov. 20:19).
Stay hopeful because of the power of the Gospel, and pray for its ongoing work.
God is mighty to save from the power of sin as well as its penalty (Rom. 6:1-14). Here again Paul’s epistles provide an example—pray with confidence and fervency that both you and your fellow Christians would experience more of the gospel’s transformation (e.g., Phil. 1:9-11)
This article was originally published on Theology in 3-D.