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Judge Not…

A Message by R.C. Sproul

Beloved for the way in which it highlights Jesus' care for those on the margins of society and for its care in telling the story of our Savior's life and ministry, the gospel of Luke has always been treasured by the Christian church. Dr. Sproul's expositional study of this inspired account of Jesus looks at the significant events of His life and His teachings while unfolding the meaning of both for us today.

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Further Study On This Topic

  1. devotional

    Avoiding Improper Judgments

  2. article

    The Judgment of Charity

  3. devotional

    Passing Judgment on Ourselves

Avoiding Improper Judgments

Today’s passage from the gospel of Matthew opens with probably the most misused text in our day. More often than not, any ethical evaluation the church makes is countered with “judge not,” as if Jesus tells His people not to make any judgments whatsoever. This misinterpretation of our Lord’s teaching in Matthew 7:1–6 is employed by unbelievers and professing Christians alike, and it contributes to the moral and doctrinal anarchy evident in our culture.

However, Christ is most certainly not forbidding His people from issuing judgments altogether. In fact, Jesus in this same gospel orders us to discriminate between good and evil. We must differentiate those receptive to us from the dogs and the swine in order to obey Jesus and hold back what is sacred from those who are proud to hate our Lord (v. 6). We cannot approach those who have honest questions about the Gospel like we do those who seek instruction in order to use it against Christ and His church. Our Lord’s directions for church discipline (18:15–20) call us to evaluate others. Exercising discernment and making sound judgments is part of Christian discipleship.

Jesus is actually warning us to be fair and humble when we make our evaluations. Human beings are naturally prone to focus on the failings of others and ignore their own heinous sins. Consider David’s reaction to Nathan after he slept with Bathsheba and had Uriah murdered (2 Sam. 11:1–12:15a). The king did more evil than the man in Nathan’s parable, but David wanted to chase after the speck in that man’s eye, so blinded was he by the plank of his own sin. Today, church leaders who have gossiped might come down mercilessly on someone who has occasionally used lewd language. This latter sin is real and inexcusable, but we have done wrong when we who judge do not hold ourselves to the same standard by which we judge others (Matt. 7:2).

John Chrysostom says, “Jesus does not forbid judging but commands that one first remove the plank from one’s own eye” (Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew, 23.2). We must be harsher on ourselves than we are on others. Let us make sure our consciences are clear before we judge our brothers and sisters.  

The Judgment of Charity

R.C. Sproul

Every time I read the Gospels, I am struck by how Jesus seems to have found Himself in the middle of controversy wherever He went. I am also struck by how Jesus handled each controversy differently. He did not follow the example of Leo "The Lip" DeRosier, the former manager of the New York Giants and treat every person He encountered in the same manner. Although He expected everyone to play by the same rules, He shepherded people according to their specific needs.

The Old Testament depicts the Good Shepherd as One who carries both a staff and a rod, for His responsibility is both to guide His sheep and to protect them from ravenous wolves (Ps. 23:4). In the Gospels, we see Jesus exercise His protective rod most often against the scribes and Pharisees. When Jesus dealt with these men, He asked no quarter and gave none. When He pronounced the judgment of God on them publicly, He used the oracle of woe that was used by the Old Testament prophets: "Woe unto you Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte [convert], and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves" (Matt. 23:15).

Jesus dealt with many of the religious leaders of His day so forcefully because of their hard-hearted hypocrisy. Other people who were cognizant of their sin and ashamed of it—these He addressed with love and encouragement. Consider the woman at the well (John 4). Jesus sat and talked with a Samaritan woman, which was unheard of for a Jewish rabbi in those days because of common biases against women and Samaritans. He patiently drew a confession of sin out of her and revealed His Messianic office to her. Jesus treated her as a bruised reed and smoldering wick, tenderly confronting but not crushing her (Matt. 12:15–21).

Among many other things, I think Christ's example teaches us how we are to deal with those with whom we disagree. Sometimes we must be forceful and sometimes we must be gentle—forceful with the wolves and gentle with Jesus' lambs.

There are disagreements we have with our brothers, but also disagreements we have with those who claim to be our brothers but who may, in fact, be wolves in sheep's clothing. Such wolves always represent a clear danger to the safety, health, and well-being of Christ's sheep. No quarter can be given to wolves, but we are called to exercise gentleness toward those whose disagreements with us do not touch the heart of Christian orthodoxy.

To know the difference between when to be gentle and when to be forceful is one of the most difficult matters for mature Christians to discern. I don't have a formula that is easily applied, but I do know that we are always called to deal with the disputes and disagreements we have on the basis of charity, that is, love.

Charity and Its Fruits by Jonathan Edwards is the deepest exposition of 1 Corinthians 13 that I know of. I've read it at least half-a-dozen times, probably more. In this work, Edwards writes:

A truly humble man, is inflexible in nothing but in the cause of his Lord and master, which is the cause of truth and virtue. In this he is inflexible because God and conscience require it; but in things of lesser moment, and which do not involve his principles as a follower of Christ, and in things that only concern his own private interests, he is apt to yield to others.

The humility of which Edwards is speaking here is a humility that must be brought to every disagreement that erupts among believers. It is a humility that brings to the fore what in church history many have called the judgment of charity. The judgment of charity works something like this: When we disagree with one another, I believe that we are called as Christians to assume the motives of the person with whom we disagree are pure motives. This is the approach we are to have with those with whom we have an honest difference in biblical interpretation but who love the Bible and aren't trying to change what it teaches. Such people are unwilling to compromise the essential truths of the Christian faith.

Now, the judgment of charity assumes in a Christian dispute that the brother or sister with whom we are disagreeing is disagreeing honestly and with personal integrity. Here I think of my friend John MacArthur. If I disagree about something with John—I don't care what it is—and we go to the mat and talk about it, John will change his position—no matter the cost— if I can persuade him that the Bible teaches my view and not his. That's because what he wants more than anything else is to be faithful to the Word of God.

That's what I mean by the judgment of charity. We don't impugn people's motives and don't assume the worst of them when we disagree with them. We make a distinction between best-case and worst-case analysis. The problem we all have as sinners on this side of glory is that we tend to reserve best-case analysis to our own motives and give worst-case analysis to our brother's and sister's motives. That's just the opposite of the spirit we're called to have in terms of biblical humility.

Passing Judgment on Ourselves

As Paul draws near the conclusion of his discussion of Christian freedom in Romans 14:1-15:7, he gives some encouraging words to those who are strong in the faith and have a sound understanding of what is acceptable in God's sight, but must at times not revel in this freedom before others. True, the Apostle says, we must keep to ourselves our convictions regarding matters of moral indifference if publicizing them would inflict undue harm on the consciences of immature believers (14:22a). However, even as we do so, we enjoy a special blessing for understanding our freedom properly. That is Paul's point when he says in today's passage that "blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves" (v. 22b).

The Apostle seems to be reflecting on the difference between the mature Christian conscience and the immature Christian conscience. Immature believers will often condemn themselves for wanting to do things that they are actually free to do, but from which they refrain because they mistakenly believe these things to be sin. For example, a believer with an immature conscience might believe that it is a sin for him to watch a movie of any kind. Now, since the Lord has not spoken to the issue of watching movies directly, the Christian who holds such a conviction is wrong that watching any movie is sinful. Of course, Paul's call in Philippians 4:8 for us to think on what is honorable, lovely, pure, and praiseworthy has something to say about the kinds of movies we watch (though even here there is room for differing applications of the principle), but there is nothing in Scripture that forbids us from watching movies at home or in the theater. The person who believes otherwise will be racked with guilt if he watches or wants to watch a movie. To be full of guilt is certainly not a state of blessedness. But the individual who is more mature in the faith and does not feel guilt when he sees a movie, because he knows movies are not in themselves forbidden, is blessed indeed. He understands his freedom, and he can enjoy it.

With John Calvin, we must emphasize that Paul is speaking in Romans 14:22b about the person who understands the Word of God and allows it to form His conscience. Plenty of people suppress their knowledge of the Lord to the point that they sear their consciences and feel no guilt when they do what Scripture explicitly reveals to be wrong. All we can do for such people is continue to preach the gospel and call them to faith and repentance.

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