Thou shalt not judge

The problem

Josh McDowell has stated that in our day, Matthew 7:1 “Do not judge…” has replaced John 3:16 “For God so loved the world…” as the most widely recognized and quoted verse.

I believe this to be the case and I think the primary reason for it, at least in our culture, is the postmodern attitude our culture has taken when it comes to truth in general and moral truth in particular1. As alarming as this is, though, what I find more alarming is how this shift in focus has affected most professing believers and how this shift has made us largely ineffective in changing the culture around us.

Origins

To begin with this topic, however, we must first understand what man was created to do. In Genesis 2:15-23 we see several things including:

  • Adam was placed into the garden to work and keep it
  • Adam was given free reign over the garden to “eat of every tree in the garden”
  • Adam was told not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil
  • it was not good for Adam to be alone
  • Adam was given the authority to name the animals God had made
  • upon creating Eve, the first thing Adam did was name her

In order to do the things the man was responsible for he required the ability to judge a variety of things Good, evil, what to eat, where to work, what to name, etc. In short, the man was created with a sense of judgement which was also required for him to accomplish the work he was given.

All humans since Adam have been given (to greater or lesser extent) the ability and responsibility to judge the world around them. Not merely amoral2 things but immoral things as well. In fact, the whole of Scripture calls us to account for our lapses in judgement.

In light of being created as judging creatures we can return to the original question of judging as raised by contemporary Christians.

Is it wrong to judge?

Matthew 7:1 would seem to indicate it is at first blush, but a more careful examination will reveal that the judgement being cautioned against here is not merely the distinction of right and wrong, it is the practice of condemnation. As 20th century readers, we forget that our own justice system is divided into at least two parts3 when it comes to courtroom trials. There’s the initial portion of the trial in which guilt or innocence is established and, if guilty, there is the sentencing portion where the judge (or jury in some cases) decides what the guilty party ought to pay in order to make up for their crime.

It’s the second portion that we are told in Matthew not to presume to take up and to proceed with caution when we go to judge a person’s actions as right or wrong lest we apply a harsher standard to them than we would want applied to us. Interestingly enough, the rest of Matthew 7 is often either ignored or overlooked but it is precisely the rest of Matthew 7 that puts the “do not judge” from Matthew 7:1 into perspective.

What about forgiveness?

Unfortunately, many people think that judgement excludes forgiveness. What many fail to realize is that forgiveness entails judgement, something the Pharisees understood all too well in Mk 2:7 and Lk 5:21. When we forgive we make several assumptions, including:

  • An offence or moral wrongdoing has occurred which requires judgement
  • We are in the position of judgement
  • We have the ability to sentence the offender in some capacity

Without these premises being true, our forgiveness is as meaningless as the rantings of a madman. However, this also means that even the act of forgiveness is an act of judgement. It is merely an act of judgement wherein we rescind the sentence or penalty.

In other words, we see an offence, we deem it to be wrong, and if we are the party that was offended, we release the person from their punishment as far as we have authority.

In this view of judgement being combined with forgiveness we neither sacrifice moral responsibility or a loving and forgiving attitude towards others. Both of which we are commanded to do at the same time.

Conclusion

We should not be afraid to judge and even admit to others that this is what we are doing when we deem an action right or wrong.

As long as we remember our place when it comes to the scope of our authority, namely that we do not posess the power to condemn anyone to eternal hellfire. And if we remember the commands of Christ to freely forgive as we have been freely forgiven. We will be able to truly love eachother in truth and love without sacrificing or softening either one in the process.

Justice and forgiveness are not mutually exclusive, they go hand in hand.

  1. A condition known as moral relativism. []
  2. non-moral, things that have no moral significance []
  3. There are more or less depending on the laws and specific case, but these two portions of the establishment of guilt and the establishment of the penalty are common to most courts in most countries. []
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