Perhaps the most frequently quoted words of Jesus are found in Matthew 7:1:  “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.”  It seems that even people who have never read the Bible at least know this verse.  The reason, of course, is that it is a useful retort to anyone who ventures to make a moral judgment about a person or situation.  But is Jesus’ point here that all moral judgments are inappropriate?  Let us take a look at the context:

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged.  For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.  Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? …  You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Matt. 7:1-5)


Notice that Jesus is not saying that it always wrong to judge.  For one thing, this would itself be hypocritical, since it is a moral judgment on his part!  Secondly, as we see in his elaboration and illustration, Jesus’ real point is not the act of judging per se but rather how one judges.  He is condemning the use of an unjust standard that unfairly favors oneself.  And he is warning us that whatever standard we apply to others will be applied to us (a system, by the way, which we ask God to employ each time we pray the Lord’s Prayer:  “…forgive our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”).


Biblically speaking, there are two kinds of judgment; one is bad and the other is good.  There is judgment in the sense of prideful condemnation, where we regard someone else as beyond redemption and maintain a false sense of our own moral superiority.  This is the kind of moral judgment that Jesus addresses in the above passage and in other passages in which he harshly critiques the Pharisees for their hypocrisy.  For example, consider the “six woes” Jesus pronounces upon them in Luke 11.  While I would not recommend pronouncing woes on people, this does suggest that there is a proper sense of moral judgment.


This proper sense of judgment is moral discernment.  This is a kind of judgment which, in fact, Jesus commands us to display (cf. Lk. 7:43; Jn. 7:24).  This is also the sort of judgment that Paul makes when he recommends excommunication of the immoral man in the Corinthian church.  There Paul actually says, “I have already passed judgment on the one who did this” (1 Cor. 5:3).  Therefore, unless we dare to accuse Paul of sin here (not to mention Jesus himself in Luke 11 and elsewhere), we must recognize the appropriateness of morally judging people, so long as it does not involve prideful condemnation or an unfairly applied standard.


Also, it is crucial to keep in mind the purpose of good moral judgments.  In the 1 Corinthians 5 passage Paul does not regard guilty man as unredeemable but rather he asserts the wrongness of his actions in hopes that he will repent.  Similarly, the judgments of Jesus, as harsh as they are at times, are always aimed at prompting repentance.  Proper Christian judgment always has a view to redemption rather than to cynically writing off people as unredeemable.  May God help us to know the difference and live accordingly!


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