“Judge not, that you be not judged” (Matt 7:1). Our Lord’s words are commonly twisted today as if he is telling his followers to never make any judgments. Of course, it is conveniently ignored that a few verses later Jesus declares, “Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs” (Matt 7:6). And in the same discourse, Jesus calls his disciples to judge both teaching and conduct:
Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits (Matt 7:15-20).
The entire Sermon on the Mount requires moral judgments to be made by the followers of king Jesus. Elsewhere, Paul urges the followers of Christ, “Test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thess 5:21-22). The word translated test in this verse means “to prove, verify, examine prior to approval, judge, evaluate, discern” (Ceslas Spicq, the Theological Lexicon of the New Testament [TLNT]).
The abuse of this verse is nothing new. Andrew Fuller (1754-1815) provided an excellent explanation of the problem in his day as he commented on Matthew 7:1-6,
This prohibition, like many others in our Lord’s discourse, if interpreted in its utmost latitude, would go to censure what is elsewhere commended. If we judge not truth and error, good and evil, we cannot embrace the one and avoid the other; neither can we discharge the duties of our station in the world, or in the church, without forming some judgment of those about us. Paul and Silas are supposed to have judged Lydia to be faithful, ere they entered her house; and Peter did not scruple to tell the sorcerer that he “perceived him to be in the gall of bitterness, and in the bonds of iniquity.” We are not only allowed, but directed, even in this discourse, to judge of men, as of trees, by their fruit, ver. 16–20.
It is part of our duty as ministers to declare from God’s word that they who live after the flesh will die; and that they who are carried away by strong delusions and the belief of a lie are in the utmost danger of damnation. They may be displeased with us for thinking so hardly of them, and may allege this passage as a reproof to our presumption. The judgment which Christ forbids is that which arises not from good-will and a faithful discharge of duty, but from a censorious spirit, which takes pleasure in thinking and speaking evil of those about us, puts the worst construction upon actions of doubtful motive, and is severe in detecting smaller faults in another, while blinded to far greater ones in ourselves (The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller: Memoirs, Sermons, Etc., vol. 1, J. Belcher, Ed., Sprinkle Publications, 585).
Fuller offers a clear headed explanation of what Jesus is forbidding when he tells his followers to “judge not” (Matt 7:1). I have summarized Fuller’s points in updated language below, and then I offer a positive corollary that reflects the biblical necessity for disciples of Christ to exercise Christ-exalting judgment.
The judgment Christ forbids is that which arises from a self-referential and hypercritical spirit.
The judgment Christ commends is that which arises from a faithful knowledge of the truth of God’s word and never loses sight of the gospel.
The judgment Christ forbids is that which takes pleasure in looking down at others as inferiors.
The judgment Christ commends is that which flows from a broken heart over one’s own sin and never loses sight of the fact we are all fellow sinners in need of grace.
The judgment Christ forbids is that which presumes to be able to judge the motives of others.
The judgment Christ commends is that which deals with actions and deeds because only God is capable of judging the motives of the heart.
The judgment Christ forbids is that which hypocritically ignores glaring personal faults while nitpicking lesser faults in others.
The judgment Christ commends is that which freely acknowledges one’s own faults and gives others the benefit of the doubt regarding theirs.