Yes, We Must Discern and We Must Judge

“How many times have you heard it said that we must never judge?”

I just read again what is most likely the most misused and abused passage in all of Scripture. And I also just read two obvious correctives to such lousy interpretations and understandings that immediately follow from it. I refer of course to Matthew 7. Verses 1-5 – especially v. 1 – are the ones routinely massacred, even by so many Christians. They are certainly quite well-known:

Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.

How many times have you heard it said – even by rather clueless Christians – that we must never judge? Yet if you press these folks and say that folks ARE to make distinctions between what is true and false, right and wrong, they will reply, ‘Oh, but that is different.’

Um, no it is not different. You cannot judge without being discerning and making distinctions. Whenever you discern, test and evaluate you are of necessity making a judgment. They go together – it is a package deal. Christians and non-Christians alike thus judge every single day – whether they are making a choice between a cappuccino and a flat white, or between one person and another for a marriage partner.

Judgment and discernment go together. And the very next verse in Matthew 7 makes this clear. Jesus goes on to say this in v. 6: “Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you.” Deciding who is a dog or a pig, and deciding what is holy, are all matters of judgment and discernment. – can’t be avoided.

But it does not stop there. Just a few verses later we get even more commands by Jesus to judge and discern. Verses 15-20 say this:

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.

No one reading all of Matthew 7 can ever come away with the nonsensical notion that the Christian is not to judge. Quite the opposite: while the Christian is not to engage in HYPOCRITICAL judging (which is exactly the point of verses 1-5), the believer IS to constantly judge, discern, assess, test, and weigh things up. This is commanded throughout Scripture.

All sensible (and discriminating) expositors of Scripture of course understand this. They will not fall for the ‘do not judge’ silliness. Let me draw upon a few of them here. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, in his Studies on the Sermon on the Mount, says this:

If our Lord had finished His teaching with those first five verses, it would undoubtedly have led to a false position. Men and women would be so careful to avoid the terrible danger of judging in that wrong sense that they would exercise no discrimination, no judgment whatsoever. There would be no such thing as discipline in the Church, and the whole of the Christian life would be chaotic. There would be no such thing as exposing heresy and pronouncing judgment with regard to it. Because everybody would be so afraid of judging the heretic, they would turn a blind eye to the heresy; and error would come into the Church more than it has done. So our Lord goes on to make this further statement here, and we cannot fail, once more, to be impressed by the wonderful balance of scriptural teaching, its amazing perfection…. (Book Two, pp. 183-184)

Daniel Doriani in his expository commentary on Matthew is worth quoting at length in this regard:

When Jesus says, “Do not judge” (KJV: “Judge not”), he does not mean that we must never criticize anything. There is nothing wrong with saying that a certain movie is a waste of time, or that certain apples taste bad. Jesus does not forbid evaluation of others. He forbids the condemnation of others. The grammatical form of Jesus’ command (a present imperative) implies that disciples should refrain from continual judgment, from a censorious spirit. Occasional outbursts of judgmentalism are of course not acceptable, but it is especially dangerous to fall into the habit of criticizing anything and everything.

Still, people cite the saying “Judge not” as if Jesus never wanted anyone to disapprove of anything. But if we want to understand Jesus, rather than using His words for our purposes, we must remember that Jesus actually endorses judgment at times. He says, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment” (John 7:24 ESV).

Let me summarize the biblical teaching this way: Jesus prohibits a critical spirit, but does not forbid all use of the critical faculty. To follow Jesus, we must therefore discover why he says, “Judge not,” in Matthew 7, but says, “Judge with right judgment,” in John 7.

Notice first that Jesus tells His disciples to make judgments in the very chapter that says “Judge not.” Later in Matthew 7, Jesus says, “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them (vv. 15-16). That is, disciples must discern – must judge – who is a false prophet and who is a true one.

Later in Matthew, Jesus says, “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over (Matt. 18:15). To obey this commandment, we need to determine – to judge – that our brother has indeed sinned. If the sin is serious (another judgment!), then we must speak to the problem and ascertain if the sinning party listened and heeded or not.

Second, Jesus Himself made judgments, including negative judgments….

Daily life also forces us to make assessments. There is always an issue in the news that divides the public, so that people ask their pastors and teachers for their judgment: cloning, gay “marriage,” the justice of a certain war, the latest celebrity trial, the latest expose of a televangelist. Christian leaders must evaluate – pass judgment – on these things. Do we favour or oppose gay marriage. Is the prosperity gospel a minor error or a heresy?

Responsible adults must make judgments or assessments daily. Whenever a father corrects a child, or whenever a teacher grades a test, judging takes place. These forms of assessment, or judgment, are inescapable…. (pp. 271-273)

Or as R. Kent Hughes comments:

Christians have an obligation to exercise critical judgment. What Christ means when he says “Judge not” is that we are to refrain from hypercritical, condemning judgment. There is a universe of difference between being discerningly critical and hypercritical. A discerning spirit is constructive. A hypercritical spirit is destructive. The person with a destructive, overcritical spirit revels in criticism for its own sake. He expects to find fault…. (p. 229)

And speaking of judging in the context of false teachers, John Stott says this in his The Message of the Sermon on the Mount:

So, ‘Beware!’ Jesus warns. We must be on our guard, pray for discernment, use our critical faculties and never relax our vigilance. We must not be dazzled by a person’s outward clothing – his charm, learning, doctorates, and ecclesiastical honours. We must not be so naive as to suppose that because he is a PhD or a DD or a professor or a bishop he must be a true and orthodox ambassador of Christ. We must look beneath the appearance to the reality. What lives under the fleece: a sheep or a wolf?…

This warning of Jesus gives us no encouragement, however, either to become suspicious of everybody or to take up as our hobby the disreputable sport known as ‘heresy hunting’. Rather it is a solemn reminder that there are false teachers in the church and that we are to be on our guard. Truth matters. For it is God’s truth and it builds up God’s church, whereas error is devilish and destructive. If we care for God’s truth and for God’s church, we must take Christ’s warning seriously. He and his apostles place the responsibility for the church’s doctrinal purity partly upon the shoulders of Christian leaders (whether bishops or other chief pastors), but also and especially upon each congregation. The local church has more power than it often realizes or uses in deciding which teachers it will listen to. Jesus Christ’s ‘Beware of false prophets’ is addressed to us all. If the church had heeded his warning and applied his tests, it would not be in the parlous state of theological and moral confusion in which it finds itself today. (pp. 200, 203)

As stated, discernment and judgment are inseparably linked. Yes, as Jesus made clear, we must avoid hypocritical censoriousness. But as all of Scripture makes clear, we must never seek to avoid committing ourselves to moral and theological evaluation, assessment, discernment and judgment.

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