As out of context readings of the Bible go, ‘judge not’ is a common favourite. Many people like to quote it out of context because they think it provides a knock-down argument for why you can never tell them anything they do is wrong (even when Jesus says so directly). It’s normally parroted out like a Big Lebowski-esque ‘well, that’s just, like, your opinion, man’.
The verses in context read like this:
“Judge not, that you be not judged. 2 For with the judgement you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. 3 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? 4 Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye’, when there is the log in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.
Let’s note a few important points.
First, the Bible makes clear that judgement belongs to God alone. For example:
Let the heavens declare His righteousness, for God himself is Judge. (Psalm 50:6)
For the Lord is our Judge, the Lord is our Lawgiver, the Lord is our King; He will save us. (Isaiah 33:22)
There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. (James 4:12)
‘Judge not’ is, therefore, in line with these same verses.
However, it is important to notice v1 is speaking of judging somebody as guilty before God in a judicial sense. For example, I cannot personally pronounce anyone guilty of murder, because I am not a judge. Nonetheless, I am able to point to the law and highlight that murder is wrong. There is a difference between pronouncing judicial sentence and pointing out what the law clearly says.
Second, God alone is able to judge because he alone makes the law which flows from the good nature that he alone possesses. Many wish to argue that ‘judge not’ means, in effect, you can’t tell me that something is a sin. This view errs. Whilst a Christian cannot condemn an individual in themselves, they can point to the law set by the one who is able to condemn. The very concept of sin is determined by God. When a Christian says something is sinful, that does not include an ellipsis which should be read as ‘and I condemn you for it’. It is a simple statement that God, the law-giver, determines it is wrong in his Word. The believer is not judging you, they are looking to God’s Word and assessing your behaviour in light of it.
Ultimately, what makes something sinful is that God says it is so (and this in line with his holy and perfect character). Whilst Christians cannot condemn anyone for their sin – neither having the power within themselves to do so and being sinners themselves – this does not preclude them from calling sin, sin. For example, a convicted murderer can still look at another person who has committed murder and rightly say ‘murder is wrong’. They can do so with no superiority, being guilty of the same crime, but they can still judge murder to be illegal. Likewise, a Christian may not be superior to anyone else – ‘for all have sinned’ is a great leveller after all. Nonetheless, it doesn’t stop them pointing out that sin is still sin as determined by God.
Third, v2 is clear that ‘with the judgement you pronounce you will be judged’. That is, if you judge another’s behaviour as sinful, you need to be sure it is not something you are unrepentantly indulging in yourself. That this is the main point is made clear in vv3-5, where specks and logs are metaphors for sin. How can you help your brother or sister with their particular sin-speck when you have a log-worth in your own?
Nonetheless, those who want to insist ‘judge not’ necessarily means we cannot judge sin quickly ignore the statement in v5: ‘and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye’. Notice Jesus does not say, ‘you hypocrite, you shouldn’t attempt to help your brother remove his speck’. Rather, Jesus says you must make sure there are no logs in your own eye for then you will be able to help your brother remove his speck. The inference here is not that we must never judge sin, nor help one another put sin away, but that we must not be hypocritical as we do so.
The question that follows is how do we point out that sin is sin when we ourselves are sinners? The Christian message is that all of us are sinners and yet God welcomes repentant sinners, cancelling their condemnation and calling them righteous. This view permits us to call sin what it is without being a hypocrite. Being a repentant sinner is neither a claim to superiority nor to perfection. It is a claim that sin is wrong, I want to turn from my sin and, though I will still fail, I want to put away the unashamed and continual practice of it because I love Jesus more than my sin. It is to say, with John Newton, ‘I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be, I am not what I hope to be in another world; but still I am not what I once used to be, and by the grace of God I am what I am’.
What Matthew 7 teaches us is that the person who is not repenting of their own sins has no right to call anybody else to repent of them. But the Bible does call us to share the gospel, which inevitably means calling sinners to repentance. There is nothing hypocritical about one repentant sinner calling another to repentance. In order to do that, we have to judge sin for what it is. That doesn’t mean we have any right to be superior about our standing, it simply means sin remains sin and, as we seek to repent of our own, we call others to repent of theirs and find the salvation that is found in Christ alone.