Balanced Judgment

“Judge not; remember that!” How often have you heard that retort when you have tried to warn against some heretical doctrine or when you have mentioned the need to talk to someone about his or her sin! What makes the statement so stinging is that the one who makes it is using the whip of Scripture to scourge you (cf. Matthew 7:1ff.). But on the other hand, what makes its use such an anomaly is that the lash is being used for the very purpose that Jesus forbids!

Consider Matthew 7 in the light of John 7:24: “Don’t judge according to what appears on the surface; make a right judgment.” Obviously, the juxtaposition of the two passages indicates that not all judging is forbidden, but that one must strike the right balance in this matter.

Clearly, Matthew 7 doesn’t forbid making “right” or correct judgments. Indeed, properly understood, one can see that is precisely what it encourages. Jesus had healed a man on the Sabbath, thereby bringing the wrath of the legalists down on His head. He then explained that the judgment they had made about Him in this matter was all wrong. Reasoning from circumcision on the Sabbath, He went on to explain exactly why His action was proper. Their judgment was wrong. The judgment they made was built upon their man-made rules, not on the proper use of the Scriptures (vv. 21-23). So, in Matthew 7, judgment isn’t forbidden—just the wrong kind of judgment.

Jesus warns people here about judging others when they, themselves, have the very same problems in their own lives but do nothing about them. He says they will be judged by the same standards they use to judge others (v. 2). And continuing, He calls such persons hypocrites if they don’t first recognize and reckon with those sins (cf. His words about the log and the speck).

Note also two other things concerning Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 7. First, after one removes the log from his own eye he is able to see clearly enough to remove the speck for another’s eye (v. 5). It is not wrong to do so—if done as Jesus indicates. Second, the very first command from Jesus’ mouth after His discussion of judging requires judgment of others. According to verse 6, you must determine who is a “dog” or “pig.” Matthew 7 is a warning about wrong judging; it does not condemn all judging.

The unbalanced view of judging that many hold and the facile quoting of Matthew 7 in an improper manner have had the baneful effect of stifling the growth of discernment. Discernment (which, as the word indicates, is a “judging between” things and persons) is a very important element in Christian living. It is inculcated throughout the book of Proverbs, was sought by Solomon, given to him by God and commended to whose who failed to attain to it (Hebrews 5:11-14). The writer to the Hebrews makes it clear that many had become “dull of hearing” because they were “inexperienced in the righteous Word.” They were still craving milk instead of meat. Solid food, the diet of mature Christians, he says, is for “those whose perceptual faculties have been trained by practice to distinguish good from evil” (v. 14). That is discernment. That is judging (which means “dividing, separating”)—of the right sort; judging by using the Scriptures as the Standard for judgment.

It takes biblical balance to judge. The task is commanded in a hundred or so ways, so it is impossible to escape it. Every believer, in growing to maturity, learns how to judge rightly between good and evil. He learns how to distinguish genuine believers from dogs and hogs—at least in a functional way. Proverbs 18:13, 15, and 17 weigh heavily in all his judgments. He is careful not to believe a negative assessment of others apart from adequate testimony to back it up. He observes 2 Corinthians 13:1 and 1 Timothy 5:19 to the hilt. But he does judge.

One of the problems you will encounter in looking at the question of judging is the sin of judging motives. The heart, by which people make their decisions, is not yet accessible to you and me. It is God alone Who can weigh another’s heart. We are told that “man looks on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). That is a balance of tasks that we must learn and never lose sight of. In response to Jeremiah’s question (Jeremiah 17:9) God is called the “Heart-Knower” (Acts 1:24; cf. also Jeremiah 17:10).

When one’s actions are judged according to what another thinks are his motives, the judgment is not only unlawful but, more often than not, it is entirely wrong. You and I must operate only on the basis of a person’s words or actions, what we see and hear. And then, only tentatively. We can never be absolutely sure of his motives, intentions, purposes, or goals even when he tells us what they are. Thankfully, God has left the realm of the heart to Himself; you and I should stay away from it! The difficulty of judging another person’s motives ought to be apparent to anyone who has ever tried to judge his own. The heart can be deceptive—even self-deceptive. So we see that a balance is needed between obeying commands to judge rightly and not to judge wrongly—between judging another’s actions and words and judging his heart’s intentions. One of the evidences of immaturity is unbiblical, surface judgment.

There is a balance to be maintained between the human and the divine (what is God’s part and what is ours in judging). This balance seems to come up in one way or another in everything we do as believers. This is true because God is our Environment (Psalm 139). He is always there, always knowing, always active. He providentially participates in all that we do. His Spirit dwells within us and activates both our desires to serve and the service we render (Philippians 2:13). His Word directs us in all things necessary for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3-4). Human thought and action, therefore, must always be related to divine thought and action (cf. Isaiah 55:8).

Judging is an unavoidable part of our lives (even those who rant against it do it). Therefore we must learn to judge God’s way. That means acquiring and maintaining the delicate, biblical balance at all times.

Jay E Adams

Institute for Nouthetic Studies

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Simpsonville, SC 29681

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