FIRST-PERSON: Judging versus judgmentalism

WAKE FOREST, N.C. -- Throughout my ministry, I have heard few verses quoted from the Bible as regularly as Matthew 7:1, which says, "Do not judge, so that you won't be judged." Even when I speak to those who know very little of the Bible's content or redemptive story, they are able to recite this verse.

In fact, I've noticed that many use this verse to prevent anyone from critiquing their actions. Like Captain America's shield or Wonder Woman's bracelets, this verse is used to block any incoming critique.

Matthew 7:1, however, is often misunderstood and misapplied. Jesus does not mean that we should never judge someone's behavior. He called out the Pharisees for being hypocrites (Matthew 6:2,5,16). He called some people dogs and pigs for mistreating things that are holy (Matthew 7:6). And He labels others as false teachers (Matthew 7:15). It is clear that Jesus judged others. However, He always judged righteously and correctly. He was never judgmental.

Jesus is speaking in Matthew 7 against an attitude of arrogant and self-righteous judgmentalism. He says it's foolish to criticize the splinter in your brother's eye when you have a beam of wood sticking out of your own eye (Matthew 7:3-5). We are using a standard against another that we do not meet nor want others to apply to us. We are being judgmental when we become, as Scottish theologian Sinclair Ferguson says, more sensitive to the sin in others than the sin in our own hearts.

How then can those of us who have been redeemed from all of our sins by the precious blood of Christ Jesus make righteous and correct judgments without wrongly being judgmental? Here are 10 practical principles we can draw from Scripture.

First, check your motives. Ask yourself, why am I thinking this thought? Have I checked my heart knowing that ultimately only God knows the motives and intentions of the heart (Proverbs 16:2; 1 Corinthians 4:3-5)?

Second, examine your own walk with the Lord. Ask, am I walking in the Spirit, characterized by a gentle spirit that is careful to monitor my own sin (Galatians 6:1-2)? Am I sensitive to the sin of others but desensitized to my own sin?

Third, before acting, seek the wisdom of God's Word and godly counsel. God has given us His Word and His spirit-filled people to give us discernment (Proverbs 10:13, 10:14, 11:14; 15:22). However, be careful that you don't let the search for godly counsel become an excuse to gossip.

Fourth, practice the Golden Rule. Think about how you would want to be treated if you were on the receiving end of correction (Matthew 7:12). Think about how you would want someone to pray for, love and be merciful to you.

Fifth, be careful not to make a snap decision or quick judgment. Take the time to get the facts and listen before taking action (Proverbs 18:13).

Sixth, pray for the one who appears to be caught in sin before correcting them. Prayer is a necessary starting point (James 5:15-16). We are not the Holy Spirit. Only God's Spirit has the power to change someone.

Seventh, don't forget the example of Jesus and how He ministered to sinners. Jesus was condemned and ridiculed for the way He cared for and loved sinners, tax collectors, pagans and the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53-8:11). This does not mean we don't call sin "sin," but we should always be quick to love and care for all people because this is what God, in Jesus, has done for us.

Eighth, speak the truth, but do it in love. There is a time when we need to speak against false teaching (Matthew 7:15-20) and exercise discipline for sin (Matthew 18:15-20). As Charles Spurgeon says, "After we are ourselves sanctified, we are bound to be eyes to the blind, and correctors of unholy living; but not till then." When time comes that we need to speak, our goal should be to do so with Christ-exalting love (Ephesians 4:15), not with self-exalting pride.

Ninth, keep in mind that some things are right and wrong, but some things are just different. Be careful not to confuse what is moral with what is simply a cultural or a personality difference (Romans 14:1-6, 13-23).

Tenth, never forget that ultimately everyone must give an account to the Lord, not to us. God sees all our actions. Only He is the judge. We would be careful to not put ourselves in the place of God (Romans 14:7-12; 2 Corinthians 5:10).

All of this can be summarized by simply remembering what God, the only righteous judge, has done for you and me in the Gospel. When Christ should have given you and me what we deserve for our sin, He loved us, paying the penalty for our sins at the cross. Instead of looking down His nose at you and me, He had compassion on us because we were sheep without a shepherd (Matthew 9:26).

Ferguson says it perfectly, "The heart that has tasted the Lord's grace and forgiveness will always be restrained in its judgment of others. It has seen itself deserving judgment and condemnation before the Lord and yet, instead of experiencing his burning anger, has tasted his infinite mercy." If you and I can remember the mercy we have received from our Lord Jesus, then we will be far from judgmentalism.

Danny Akin is president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. This article is adapted from his upcoming commentary on the Sermon on the Mount in the Christ Centered Exposition Commentary series from LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.
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