Is it OK to Judge?

The Gospel Saves Podcast, Season 2, Episode 4


Tolerance is a highly-prized virtue in American culture. As a nation composed of people from diverse backgrounds, we are encouraged to appreciate the values and ideals of others who are different from ourselves. 

But in the process of time, the meaning of tolerance has subtly shifted. Tolerance used to mean I try to get along with people even though I don’t agree with their views. It now means I must accept and embrace the views of others even if I disagree. If I voice a contrary opinion, I am called intolerant. 

To take it a step further, critics of Christianity are quick to quote Jesus’s words in Matthew 7:1, “Judge not that you be not judged.” If I hold an unpopular view that contradicts the beliefs of  the prevailing culture, I am guilty of intolerance. AND, if I am a Christian who holds such a view, I am guilty of judging others, a sin condemned by Jesus. In reality, the love of tolerance isn’t really about tolerance at all; it’s a tool to manufacture consensus by silencing those who do not agree.

Upon closer examination, however, Jesus does not forbid judgment in Matthew 7:1; rather, Jesus urges caution when forming judgments: “for with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.”

When it comes to deciding who gets into heaven and who goes to hell, Jesus Christ is the only one qualified to judge.

Later in Matthew chapter 7, Jesus warns, 

“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’” (verses 21-23).

Those who believe in Jesus should pay close attention to their lives. Simply believing in Jesus is not enough. Jesus expects us to obey God’s commands by forsaking sin and embracing righteousness. He tells us He will decide who is welcomed into heaven and who will be cast into hell. 

Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:9-10, 

“Therefore we make it our aim, whether present or absent, to be well-pleasing to Him. [10] For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.”

As Paul says, we will one day have to stand before the judgment seat of Christ to give an account of our lives. And, once again, what we do — how we live — will fall under the scrutiny of the Lord. If we have believed in Jesus and chosen to live well, a reward awaits. If not, then we will be punished. However, Jesus — and Jesus alone — is the only one qualified to make such determinations.

Jesus is our judge because He is both God and man.

Scripture teaches that Jesus was obedient to God to the point of death, He was tempted in all ways and yet was without sin. Because He was without sin, death could not hold Him. Therefore, God raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand, placing Him in a position to judge the world:  Paul said to the Athenians, 

“(God) has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead” (Acts 17:31).

The combination of His humanity and His divine nature makes Jesus uniquely qualified to judge the world. He understands weakness, temptation, and frailty while also perfectly understanding divine righteousness, holiness, and justice.

So when it comes to matters of heaven and hell, of deciding who will be saved and who will be condemned, Jesus Christ — and Jesus Christ alone — is the only one capable of making those determinations.

However, the Bible does distinguish between condemnation and discernment.

Discernment means the capacity to separate good from evil, to determine what is right and what is wrong. Discernment is implied a few verses later in Matthew 7 when Jesus exhorts us to, 

“Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.”

There is a right way AND a wrong way to live our lives, two paths that are very different in character and outcome. Jesus urges us to find the way which leads to life.

But part of finding that path means we have to discern — or to judge — the broad path that leads to destruction. And, unfortunately, part of separating the two paths involves evaluating how many people are traveling each path. The way to destruction is broad and its gate is broad because “many…go in by it.” 

If I choose to not follow the crowd by searching for the way that leads to life, I will, by virtue of my choice, make a judgment. But it is judgment in the form of discernment and not condemnation. So to say Jesus outlaws judgment in every form ignores the need for discernment implied by Matthew 7:13-14.

The need for discernment is also implied in Matthew 7:15-20. Jesus warns us about false teachers: 

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them.”

Although the word judgment never appears, it is implied. How else am I to determine what is true and what is false — separating the good fruit from the bad fruit — without using some form of judgment? Jesus expects us to discern right from wrong and to embrace what is true and reject what is false. So those who say, “Jesus tells us not to judge other people,” are ignoring warnings like this one. Jesus makes it clear we are to judge — evaluate, assess, analyze — what others teach.

He also teaches the need for discernment in Matthew 18:17. 

When a brother or sister sins against us, Jesus tells us to confront our offender in private. If the brother or sister refuses to accept responsibility for their actions, we should make a second attempt at reconciliation with witnesses present. If they still refuse to resolve the issue, Jesus says, 

“…tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.”

How can the church keep the commands of Jesus by treating a hard-hearted brother or sister “like a heathen and a tax collector,” without a measure of judgment?

To be clear, I do not believe Jesus tells us to condemn such a one to hell. Such a judgment falls under the purview of Jesus alone. However, He is once again implying discernment. We should determine what is right and not go along with those who refuse to do what’s right.

If we choose to follow Jesus, we will have to use judgment in the form of discernment.

But if that’s true, then what does Jesus mean by, “Judge not that you be not judged?”

Notice what He says in verse 2, “For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you” (verse 2). Earlier in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus extols the virtues of mercy.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (5:7)

And, “if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (6:14-15).

If I want God to be merciful to me, I must be merciful to others.

That principle is echoed in this teaching. As we look at the lives of others, we must always bear in mind our own debts to God. If I seek God’s mercy and not His justice, then I must take great care to show the same to others. If I am harsh, unreasonable, or hypocritical in my judgment of others, then I can expect the same from God one day. “For with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.”

Sometimes we see the faults of others and we want to help them. Jesus urges us to get our own lives in order first.

“And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove the speck from your eye’; and look, a plank is in your own eye? Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (verses 3-5).

We cannot fix another person’s life if we have not fixed our own. And if our own sins are too big, we could do real damage in attempting to help someone else.  

But let’s not overlook the last sentence. That sin we see in others does need to be removed. And Jesus says once our own lives are in order, we are in a position to help. As someone else has said, “Clean up YOUR room before you try to fix the world.” Paul says something similar in Galatians 6:1, 

“Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted.”

Sometimes other people are caught in sin. If we are discerning, we will see that sin. But before we help, we should confront our own failings. “For with what judgment we judge, we will be judged.”

So in saying, “Judge not that you be not judged,” Jesus does not prohibit judgment in all forms. We must avoid condemning people to hell – only Jesus has the authority to make such judgments. However, to follow the teachings of Jesus, we must use discernment, judging the difference between right and wrong. When we use discernment with others, Jesus urges us to be cautious and self-aware.

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Wade Stanley Written by:

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