Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from Chapter 2 of Eric J. Bargerhuff's new book, The Most Misused Verses in the Bible: Surprising Ways God's Word is Misunderstood (Bethany House Publishers, 2012).
“Do not judge, or you too will be judged.”
—Matthew 7:1 niv 1984
It is a phrase that has been used countlesss times during contentious conversations or in defensive moments when someone is confronted about their behavior: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.” These famous words from Jesus are recited by many but profoundly misunderstood. One could easily argue that Matthew 7:1 is by far the most frequently misapplied verse in the entire Bible, used and abused by both Christians and non-Christians alike.
Those who mishandle this verse often use it as a “shield for sin,” a barrier to keep others at bay, allowing them to justify living as they please without any regard for moral boundaries or accountability. Their objections sound like this: “Aren’t we all sinners? What gives us the right to make moral judgments about someone else? Isn’t that God’s job?”
However, when we take a closer look at the context of Matthew 7 and the teachings of the rest of Scripture, it is clear that this verse cannot be used to substantiate unrestrained moral freedom, autonomy, and independence. This was not Jesus’ intent. He was not advocating a hands-off approach to moral accountability, refusing to allow anyone to make moral judgments in any sense.
Quite the opposite, Jesus was explicitly rebuking the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, who were quick to see the sins of others but were blind and unwilling to hold themselves accountable to the same standard they were imposing on everyone else. We’ll unpack this further in a moment.
But first, let’s zero in on Matthew 7:1. It is found in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the place in the Bible where Jesus teaches what it means to live faithfully as a committed follower of Christ, one who pursues holiness out of reverence for God. Jesus is proclaiming a high moral standard that is consistent with what it means to live as a citizen of the kingdom of God.
In other words, those who repent and place their faith and trust in Jesus alone for their salvation become “children of God,” are adopted into God’s family, and become members of the spiritual kingdom he has established on earth. Believers who live in this kingdom are called to live differently, and Jesus is explaining what that looks like in a very practical sense. His words are not hard to understand as he sets up a strong moral ethic that reflects what it means to love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself. It is here that Jesus addresses the issue of hypocrisy. For he says:
Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. Matthew 7:1-5 niv 1984)
I can’t but wonder if Jesus was looking right at the Pharisees when he said this. Many times throughout the Gospels, Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for their blatant hypocrisy and impossible man-made standards. They were notorious for condemning the shortcomings of others when all the while they were the ones who stood condemned because they were doing the very same things.
How ridiculous. Jesus said that judgment always reciprocates. In other words, the measuring stick they used to measure the lives of others will be the same measuring stick held up against their lives by God himself. Consider this: It is one thing to be judged by your fellowman, but quite another to be judged by God himself. The hypocritical Pharisees were in danger of the latter.
Notice that Jesus says the hypocrite will be the one with the bigger problem. Why? Because their sin was not merely comparable to a speck of dust; it was more like a wooden plank (quite a difference). And they refused to take it out.
What this means is that the greater judgment is reserved for the one who has purposefully overlooked his own mammoth sin while pointing out the smaller sins of others. Jesus emphatically says this must change, so he gives two commands: Stop judging others in a hypocritical fashion, and get the sin out of your own life.
Yet let’s be clear. Jesus is not suggesting that we have no right to make moral judgments about human behavior, and he is certainly not suggesting we have no right to hold others accountable. He doesn’t condemn mutual accountability and moral responsibility and the need to address sin in the church—he addresses hypocrisy.
But it makes little sense to approach a Christian brother or sister about their specific sin (even if you should rightly do so) if you are committing the very same sin and are unwilling to address it or break free from it.
For example, you hear another believer cursing and in humility you gently and lovingly correct him in private, but not a moment later you get on the phone with a friend and share some juicy gossip about someone in church. Do you correct someone else’s tongue, but are not willing to correct and restrain your own?
Or imagine a father concerned about how his teenage daughter dresses when she goes to the mall (he wants her to have a sense of propriety, and he understands the struggle males can have in this area). Does he have the right to be concerned? Yes, of course. As a responsible father and mature adult, he has every right to draw up moral boundaries for his children that are in keeping with the principles of Scripture (in this case modesty).
Right after his daughter leaves for the mall, imagine this same father alone in the house. He immediately turns on his computer and begins surfing the Internet for pornography. One minute he is addressing his daughter’s need for appropriate modesty (and rightly so) and the next minute he is reveling in immodesty and sexual fantasy with his own eyes and heart. This, my friends, is hypocrisy, and Jesus condemns this sort of behavior. A father should not set up a standard for his daughter that he is unwilling to follow.
Unfortunately, much damage has been brought to the reputation of the church by Christians who say one thing and do another. This is not to say we can ever be perfect, but it is of utmost importance that we live lives of consistency and integrity in order to safeguard the name of Christ, whom we represent, as well as the reputation of his church.
The truth of the matter is we should all be grieved about sin in our lives. And when we see it, we should address it, confessing it and forsaking it out of reverence for God. It is only when we are consistently doing this ourselves that we are qualified and able to address the sins in the lives of our brothers and sisters in the church, which we must do as well.
The Bible makes it clear that it is our duty to spur one another on to live lives that please God. First, our lives should give evidence that we have truly repented of our sin and received Christ by faith. Then from time to time, as necessary, we are also called to mutually correct, rebuke, and encourage one another in love.
Again, no one will reach perfection in this life, but togetherwe are to wage war against and forsake the sin that results from living in our fallen flesh. We are to “take off the old life,” so to speak, and “put on the new,” growing in holiness out of reverence for God. But the reality is we can’t accomplish this without the help of the indwelling Holy Spirit and the mutual encouragement and accountability of our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. We can’t do this alone; we need each other!
This then, is why the apostles called us to help one another in our struggle with sin. For example, James says:
My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins. (James 5:19-20 niv 1984)
Paul said something similar in the book of Galatians:
Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. Galatians 6:1-2 niv 1984)
Notice that both James and Paul assume two things. First, there will be times when fellow believers will wander off the straight and narrow path. Second, they assume that other Christians, out of love, will seek to come alongside that brother or sister in an effort to bring him or her back from the error of their ways and save them from the destructive power of sin (see Jesus’ method for doing this in Matthew Matthew 18:15-17).
Since we have been commissioned to proclaim a message of repentance and faith to those outside the church who need to hear the good news, certainly we need to proclaim the same message of repentance and faith to those inside the church.
Therefore, Jesus does not forbid all moral judgment or accountability. Rather, he forbids harsh, prideful, and hypocritical judgment that condemns others outright without first evaluating one’s own spiritual condition and commitment to forsake sin.
It is my contention that the popular misuse of “do not judge” reveals just how far the discipline of sound biblical study has slipped in recent years. More than that, it sheds light on the state of our culture, a culture that seeks to avoid accountability and responsibility for personal actions.
This current trend and mentality runs counter to the teachings of Scripture. For the collective teaching of the Bible insists that those who are created in the image of God are morally responsible to God and to one another. So to use “do not judge” as a means of dismissing oneself from moral responsibility would be to interpret it in a way that pits it against the rest of Scripture.
We should remember that2 Timothy 3:16-17 or inspired by the Holy Spirit, and as such it is without error and never contradicts itself (because God never contradicts himself). Therefore, it is always wise to interpret a given passage of Scripture by comparing it with the principles and teachings found elsewhere in Scripture. This provides a healthy check and balance and helps us avoid misinterpretations, logical inconsistencies, and inappropriate applications.
Eric J. Bargerhuff, Ph.D., author of The Most Misused Verses in the Bible, is a Bible scholar who has served in pastoral ministry in churches in Ohio, Illinois, and Florida. He received his doctorate in biblical and systematic theology from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Eric and his family live in Palm Harbor, Fla.
The Most Misused Verses in the Bible by Eric Bargerhuff, PhD
Copyright © 2012; ISBN 9780764209369
Published by Bethany House Publishers
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.
Publication Date: June 18, 2012