Does Matthew 7:1-5 Forbid All Judging?

Matthew 7:1-5 (NKJV)keep-calm-and-stop-judging-people “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you. 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.”

If you had asked forty years ago for people to tell you what their favorite bible verse was, I’m fairly certain that the most common answer would have been John 3:16, even if they couldn’t recite it from memory. You saw it on T-shirts, license plates, even banners at football games. But today, I’m fairly certain that if you asked the same question, the most popular answer would be Matthew 7:1.

Even if they can’t tell you what the Ten Commandments are, or what the golden rule is, or whether Matthew is located in the Old or New Testament, it seems as though everyone has “Judge not, that you be not judged” memorized, and usually it is brought out whenever anyone points out an obvious sin. For instance, these days, whenever you point out that the bible calls certain sexual behaviors “sins,” it won’t be long before someone is using Matthew 7:1 in such a way that the words of Christ in this verse are actually being used against the words of Christ elsewhere, and scripture is actually being used to silence scripture.

Now we would be wrong to think that this use of Matthew 7:1 is something new. JC Ryle, writing at the end of the 19th century, said of Matthew 7:1 – It is frequently abused and misapplied, by the enemies of true religion. It is possible to press the words of the Bible so far that they yield not medicine, but poison. – JC Ryle

The terrible shame in all of this, is that there is such “good medicine” to use Ryle’s Phrase in this portion of scripture, if we will just read them correctly. There is teaching here, which we all desperately need. So what I hope to do here is to try to open up what these verses don’t mean and then what they do mean, and then apply them.

What Matthew 7:1-5 Does NOT Mean

First, Matthew 7:1-5 is not a moratorium on all judgment. A judgment free life is impossible. For instance, when you come to a halt at a stop sign, you will have to judge the moment at which it is safe to either enter the intersection or turn left or right. You exercise judgment whenever you are faced with a choice. We judge between products, we judge between candidates, we judge between applicants for a job. Often the right judgment is a matter of life and death. Can you imagine the military without judgment?

“Sir, I think those new guys in the bloodstained Afghan National Army uniforms with the weird bulges under their clothes might be Taliban!”, “You keep your opinions to your self, soldier, we don’t judge people around here!”

Common sense should tell us that Jesus clearly isn’t telling his followers to be credulous, undiscerning, gullible and frankly dangerous.

Also, judgment in the realm of the government and the church is not ruled out by these verses. Scripture tells us in Romans 13 that civil authorities are created by God and that the primary role of government is to execute wrath on evil doers. They do this by detection, trial and punishment and scripture warns us that if resist the lawful exercise of their authority, you bring judgment on yourself. The Bible also tells the church in Matthew 18 and 1 Cor. 5 that they must exercise discipline against members of the church who refuse to repent of sins by excommunicating them. Paul tells the Corinthian church that their calling is to judge those who are part of the body and both Jesus and Paul specifically say to cast out those who will not listen to the judgment of the church. (Matt. 18:16-17, 1 Cor. 5:7-13)

Jesus also cannot be teaching that we are never to make moral and religious judgments as individual Christians. You don’t have to go any further in the bible than Matthew 7 to prove that, and I have occasionally found that when people use Matthew 7:1 incorrectly, you can actually follow up by simply asking “That’s a wonderful verse, do you know where that’s from?” and then take them to Matthew 7, and ask, “Do you think Jesus is saying there that you should NEVER judge people?” Usually the answer you’ll get is yes, and if you do, then you should point out that in Matthew 7:6 and then in Matthew 7:15-20 Jesus explicitly commands believers to judge people and that he uses some fairly strong language.

First in Matthew 7:6 in determining whether to preach the gospel to unbelievers on the character of the people hearing it. Jesus says if you assess them to be dogs and swine who are likely to ignore what you say, and attack you, don’t preach to them,

Then in Matthew 7:15-20, Jesus gives instruction on how to JUDGE whether someone is a false prophet and therefore a ravenous wolf or a bad tree destined for hell. Most of the rest of the chapter is taken up with pointing out that most people think they are going to heaven but are really on their way to divine judgment and hell.

What Matthew 7:1-5 DOES Mean

So if it’s not all judgment that Jesus is condemning, what is He condemning here? The answer is, the wrong kind of judgment using the wrong standards.  Matthew 7 is all about that. It teaches us not to judge men according to our standards or the world’s standards, or even what men profess to be, or what they think they are, but to judge them according to their works using God’s standard. Jesus makes this clear in John 7:24 when he commands, “Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment.”

If we take a look at the context of these verses, it may help to pinpoint the nature of the wrong judgment that Jesus is condemning.

The group that set the standard of righteousness in Jewish society in Christ’s day and were well known as the leading  judgers-of-others were the Pharisees.  But Jesus had earlier said that standard of righteousness for his disciples was not to be like that of the Pharisees, he had already declared in Matthew 5:20 “For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” The kind of righteousness the Pharisees had was not real righteousness before God, it was self-righteousness. Luke 18:19 describes their righteousness this way, “They trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others” What the disciples needed to enter heaven was Christ’s perfect righteousness, and that is something we only get by faith. But as believers in Him, Jesus is now teaching them not to act in the self-righteous, judgmental way that the Pharisees did.

As AW Pink put it,

“That which pre-eminently characterized the Pharisees was the very high regard which they had for themselves and the utter contempt in which they held all who belonged not to their sect.”

And the person they judged the MOST harshly, was Jesus Himself.

The Pharisees thought they could see plenty of sins in others, but what they couldn’t see where their own sins. To illustrate their problem, Jesus used the example of a speck and a plank. Have you ever thought of how appropriate it is that Jesus, who was raised in a Carpenter’s workshop, and who no doubt had experienced the pain of getting a particle of wood in His eye, would use this example? Now when you have a splinter like that, you often need the help of someone else to get it out, but in this example the person who has detected the speck in someone else’s eye has a plank, a dokos in the Greek – the main beam holding up the roof of a building, In their own eye! The primary concern of someone in that situation should have been removing the BEAM in their own eye BEFORE searching for SPECKS in other peoples! Their own sin so blinded them that they could not see at all, much less function as an optometrist. Jesus had talked about the Good and Bad Eye in Matthew 6:22-23, and the beam-filled eyes of the Pharisees were bad, so bad that Jesus called them “blind.” You wouldn’t go to a blind optometrist would you?

Well what are some of the BAD ways of Judging the Pharisees practiced and that believers should avoid? Here are 4 of the most important:

1) Believers should not judge HYPOCRITICALLY: That’s the major application in these verses. You are guilty of this when you yourself have all sorts of sins you aren’t dealing with, perhaps even the same kinds of sins that you are condemning in others. For instance, one of the things that sticks in the craw of the world is when the church winks at and practices fornication, and pornography and adultery, and says that they can indulge in those things because they are covered by (cheap) grace, and then condemns Homosexuality. Or if we condemn the sins of others and then gossip about them, that too is hypocrisy. 

As Spurgeon said, “Sin we may rebuke, but not if we indulge it. We may protest against evil, but not if we willfully practice it. The Pharisees were great at censuring, but slow at amending. Our Lord will not have his kingdom made up of hypocritical theorists, he calls for practical obedience to the rules of holiness.”

2) Believers should not judge HASTILY, RASHLY, or PRESUMPTUOUSLY: We must NOT presume to know what is in the heart of any person, and judge them accordingly, only God can know that. We must also not rush to judgment based on a first report or rumor or gossip. The scripture standard for judgment is not ONE PERSON who tells you, “I heard from so and so that he…” rather the scripture standard is 2 or 3 witnesses. Paul says in 1 Tim 5:19 “Do not receive an accusation against an elder except from two or three witnesses” yet I can’t tell you how often I meet Christians who not only happily receive an accusation but proceed to condemn a pastor based on gossip. That ought not to be.

3)  Believers should not judge unjustly or unfairly, and unmercifully: So often, when it comes to judgment, we have already made up our minds about the person – often because we simply do not like them. So we ignore everything that might clear them and listen only to that which would condemn them. We don’t apply any mercy at all, but put the worst construction on everything. We take their words out of context, quote them selectively, and even listen to the testimony of people we would otherwise never trust. That happens all the time on the internet, especially if we have a political problem with them, or they stand against something we believe. Check your sources, don’t fire off condemnations.  Keep in mind this sin is exactly what the Sanhedrin was guilty of in their trial of Jesus. They hated Him so much they even broke their own rules to condemn Him!

4) Believers should not judge according to the WRONG standard: The only rule for our life, faith, and practice is the word of God, not our preferences or traditions. You may not like something, but unless God condemns it in His Word, you may not condemn it as sinful. There are plenty of Christians who condemn any dancing, smoking, gum-chewing, movie-watching, gun-owning, drinking, hunting, meat-eating, or not following their man-made religious traditions. I have personally been condemned by professing Christians for all of the above (except dancing!), and yet none of them are condemned in the word of God! And please note, abuse does not forbid use. Yes, being drunk is condemned, but not merely drinking otherwise the Old Testament saints, Christ, the Apostles, and the early Church would all have been condemned as well.

Remember that the Pharisees condemned Jesus and the Apostles, for breaking their traditions, not the LAWS of God:

 Matt. 15:2 “Why do Your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.”

Some final applications:

1) Remember when you are tempted to judge the sins you see in your brothers, that it is usually a very small matter compared to the sinfulness God sees in you. Had it not been for the grace of God and Christ’s blood washing away your sins, those sins of yours would have sunk you lower than the grave.

2) Remember when you do condemn others unjustly, you are inviting God to call you to account and judge you by the same standard on the last day. And while believers cannot LOSE their salvation by their unjust judgment, we will still have to answer to God for every unjust act and when we do that, we are inviting God’s chastening in this life.

3)  We should not overlook the point that the speck is to be removed. Don’t let this become an excuse to let sin, which Jesus compares to which leaven work its way through the church, and don’t think God will be happy if you call good what he calls evil and let manifest sin flourish.

The loving parent is the one who exercises godly discipline, not the one who allows his children to get away with murder. But get your own house in order first, then you can see clearly to help others. And remember, there is nothing more disagreeable than Reformed theological newbies whose lives are a mess running around judging everybody else. If you have no practical piety and your household is in disorder, you are not at the point where you should be sitting in judgment of pastors, theologians, or even laymen.

4) Finally, when it comes to the church, nothing is a better safeguard against this spirit of censorious judgment than love and respect: We cannot hope to avoid the sins of wrong judgment if we do not love our fellow believers. We must therefore pray and seek that strong love for the brethren that will lead us to fair judgment:

1 Peter 4: 8 And above all things have fervent love for one another, for “love will cover a multitude of sins.”

About Andrew Webb

I was converted out of paganism and the occult in 1993 and while I was initially Charismatic/Arminian in my theology, I became Reformed and Presbyterian through bible study and the influence of ministries like RC Sproul's. After teaching in local bible studies, and taking seminary courses part time, I began to feel called to the ministry in 1997. I was Ordained as an RE at Christ Covenant PCA in Hatboro, PA in 2000 and as a TE by Central Carolina Presbytery in 2001 when I was called to be the Organizing Pastor/Church Planter for Providence PCA Mission, Cross Creek PCA's church plant in Fayetteville, NC (home to Ft. Bragg and Pope Airforce Base). In 2005 when the Providence PCA Particularized I was blessed to be called by the congregation to be their Pastor
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1 Response to Does Matthew 7:1-5 Forbid All Judging?

  1. Larry Gray says:

    A true example of so-called “Christian” rationalization (for pointing out the sins of others, just don’t do it in a “mean” way)

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