“Tolerate! Tolerate! Tolerate!” This is the demand of the postmodern world today. Much of the church world echoes this demand with words such as, “Do not judge, just love the brother.” How common is it for the false church not to embrace the world’s demands, put a “Christian perspective” on them, and then claim them as the demands of God. In this way Satan uses the church to promote worldly thinking. As with most things, it is usually quite easy to reject the world’s blatant lies, but it requires discernment to recognize the false church’s sly deceptions. It is regarding this intent that it is wise and timely to consider the topic of judging. It is especially pertinent to consider judging in these three ways. First, why must we judge? Second, how must we judge? Thirdly, what must we judge?
Why must we judge? Before answering this question, it is first necessary to see if there is any place for judging at all in the Christian’s life. Is it proper in any way for a Christian to judge? At first glance it appears as if Matthew 7:1 tells us that Christians must never judge when scripture says, “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” However, we know from our lives that it is impractical and unreasonable to make the claim that Christians may never judge. After all, every time we go shopping we make a judgment about the brands of food, clothing, or electronic devices that we should buy. In fact, every time we make a decision we are making a judgment. If then it is impossible for us never to judge, what does Matthew 7:1 mean when it calls Christians not to judge? This chapter answers this question in verse 5, which clearly demonstrates that the text is speaking about the manner in which we judge but is not forbidding all forms of judgment. John Calvin in his commentary on Matthew 7 states, “These words of Christ do not contain an absolute prohibition for judging, but are intended to cure a disease, which appears to be natural to us all.” (345) In the next paragraph, Calvin again states, “It is not necessary that believers should become blind, and perceive nothing…” (346)
Although we now see that God does not forbid judging, the question still remains whether Christians have the calling to judge. Scripture, the Reformed confessions, and our forefathers plainly demonstrate that it is necessary for the Christian to judge in especially two regards. First and most importantly, every Christian is called to make a judgment about the church. Articles 28 and 29 of the Belgic Confession teach that all Christians are called to judge whether a church is true or false by examining the three marks of a true church and then joining themselves to a true church. Although this type of judgment is very important in the lives of all Christians, even those who are Protestant Reformed, it is not my intent to focus on this aspect of judging. Rather, my intent is to expound on the second aspect of judging, the calling that all Christians have to make judgments in regard to people. It is important to note that judging in this context is not synonymous with condemning, as many people take it to mean. Rather, judging is used more broadly to refer to both positive and negative judgments.
Why are Christians called to make judgments regarding people? First, it is a necessity for an antithetical walk. Genesis 3:15 says, “And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, between thy seed and her seed.” Psalm 139: 21–22 teach us to hate those who hate God. We can judge whether or a not a person loves God by observing his obedience to God’s commandments. In John 14:24 Jesus teaches, “He that loveth me not keepeth not my sayings: and the word which ye hear is not mine, but the Father’s which sent me.” In order for us to live an antithetical life, we are called to make judgments about people.
Second, it is necessary for Christians to make judgments about people within the church, so that we hold one another accountable. Proverbs 27: 17 teaches us that iron sharpens iron. Ecclesiates 4: 9–10 states, “Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up.” This is our motivation for judging others within the church, namely, building one another up. Never must we use our calling to judge as an excuse for our gossiping and backbiting. Christians are called to judge each other in order to hold each other accountable. This is necessary so that Christian discipline can be administered within the church. Matthew 18 calls the church to proper church discipline. In order for church discipline to be carried out, judgments must be made about people.
Finally, it is necessary for Christians to make judgments about people because the word that they bring goes forth as a two-edged sword (Heb. 4:12) and never returns to God void (Isa. 55:11). When we make a judgment about a person, especially one close to us, we often worry about what the person’s reaction will be to our judgment of them. When we see a friend or family member walking in sin, we hesitate to point out his sin because we are afraid that he will get angry with us. However, we must remember that when we bring God’s word, it always accomplishes God’s will. It either will harden the sinner in his sinful, disobedient ways, or it will bring the sinner to repentance before God.
Seeing that Christians are called to judge, the next matter for consideration is to determine the proper manner in which to judge. We will do this by first looking negatively at ways which we ought not to judge. Then we will examine positively how we ought to properly judge.
In his sermon on the mount, Jesus taught us how we should not judge. In Matthew 7: 1–5 Jesus strongly reprimands hypocritical judging. In verse 5 he states, “Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam that is in thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.” In order to judge in a non-hypocritical way, it is necessary that we first examine ourselves so that we can clearly cast out all pervasive sins from our lives and live a new and holy life. Hypocritical judging is an enormous temptation for all of God’s people. It is so easy for us to spot sins in others’ lives while we overlook our own sins.
The proper way to judge is laid out for us in Matthew 18, which speaks of judging within the church, but can be applied to every area of our lives. Notice the motivation that the text gives for pointing out a sin in a person’s life. Jesus gives the parable of the shepherd who left the ninety-nine sheep in order to search for the missing one. This is always the goal: repentance. We do not judge others in order to make ourselves feel better about ourselves. Rather, we judge them so that we can bring the word of God to them and turn them from their sinful ways. In all of our judging that we do, we must remember the words of Philippians 2:3, which tell us to esteem others higher than ourselves.
Not only does Matthew 18 teach us the proper motivation that ought to be behind all of our judging, but it also teaches us the correct manner in which we are called to judge. We are not called to make a judgment about a person and then keep our judgment to ourselves. Neither are we called to make a judgment and then use our judgment to gossip about that person or group of people. Rather we are called to speak out our biblically-based judgments. In some cases, as described in Matthew 18, this is to be an individual conversation that might eventually get taken to the church. In other cases we are called to speak out against sin and sinners in a public way. We see this demonstrated for us in many of the Old Testament major and minor prophets. Many of them were called to speak judgments to the children of Israel. However, in this regard we need to be careful. Although we are called to leave no man without excuse, Matthew 7:6 warns us not to cast our pearls before swine.
Since now we see that it is indeed necessary for Christians to judge, and that there is a proper way in which to judge, it is necessary to examine last what exactly we judge about person. What ought to be the object of our judgment? Within Christianity and the church world, this is the biggest gray and controversial area. Do we judge only actions, or are we called to judge person themselves? A popular phrase among Christians today is “hate the sin, love the sinner.” When this phrase gets applied to judging, it quite often is said that we can judge the actions of a person, but we may not judge the sinner himself. If we would judge the sinner, we are accused of making ourselves self-righteous and taking on a holier than thou attitude.
We are called to judge actions. If we are called to hold one another accountable, we need to make a judgment about their actions. Second, we are called to judge people themselves. There are differences in the ways in which we judge people. When we make a judgment about the actions of a person, we are necessarily making a judgment about the person himself. Imagine reading a poorly written book, and when you finish the book, you decide to contact the author. In your message to the author, you make it clear that you thought the book was poorly written. In this way you make it known to the author that at the time the book was written, he was a bad author. You make a judgment about him as an author at that moment. So too,when we judge the actions of a person, we are making a judgment about that person at that particular moment. As stated earlier, judgment is necessary in order to walk antithetically. Walking antithetically means walking separate from sinners. Psalm 1:1 states, “Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.” This means that we must make a judgment about people. We do not judge a person’s eternal state as if to condemn him to hell. Instead, we simply judge that at this moment in time, he does not reveal himself to be a child of God. This is a judgment of the person himself.
However, there is another way in which we judge people. This second type of judging is done only through the church. In this judging we make a temporal judgment about the man’s destiny. This is done only regarding those who have been excommunicated from the church. In the Form for Excommunication we read:
Therefore we, the ministers and rulers of the church of God, being here assembled in the name and authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, declare before you all, that for the aforesaid reasons we have excommunicated, and by these do excommunicate N. from the church of God, and from fellowship with Christ, and the holy sacraments, and from all the spiritual blessings and benefits which God promiseth to and bestows upon His church, so long as he obstinately and impenitently persists in his sins, and is therefore to be accounted by you as a heathen man and a publican, according to the command of Christ (Matt. 18), who saith that whatsoever His ministers bind on earth shall be bound in heaven.
The fact that this judgment about the eternal state of this person is only a temporal judgment is evidenced by the Reformed church’s seeing a need to include the Form for Readmitting Excommunicated Persons. This forms states, “whereby he giveth to understand that when any person is cut off from his church, he is not deprived of all hope of salvation, but can again be loosed from the bonds of condemnation.” The judgments that the church makes are not unchangeable. God can soften the hearts of the hardest sinners and bring him back into the church. What a joy for the church! Even though for a time a person may need to be put out of the church, God can bring him back in true sorrow for sins.
This is always our joy in judgment. Although the world and the false church hate judgments, for the true believer judgments are a means of salvation. It is through judging one another that we grow up into Christ. The ungodly hate judgments because they desire to continue on blissfully in their sins. For the elect children of God, judgments always bring us back to God in the way of repentance. Give thanks to God for this gift which He has given to his church!
Calvin, John. Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, vol. 1. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1979), 345–47. Calvin’s Commentaries.
Belgic Confession in Confessions and the Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches. Grandville: Protestant Reformed Churches in America, 2005. 60-64.
Form for Excommunication in The Confessions and the Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches. Grandville: Protestant Reformed Churches in America, 2005. 276–78.
Form for Readmitting Excommunicated Persons in ibid., 280–82.