In the Authorized Popular Culture Version of the Scriptures, also known as the Buddy Jesus Bible, Matthew 7 begins, “You’re not allowed to tell me anything I do is wrong. Jesus said so. And if you do, you’re a hypocrite.” That’s why a lot of folks who mostly wouldn’t give the Bible the time of day are nevertheless fond of this passage. I trust it won’t surprise you when I tell you that’s not what Jesus is talking about here. In truth, there’s a fair bit of judgment, in one form or another, in the rest of the Sermon on the Mount. In this passage, verse 5 makes it clear that we aren’t just supposed to ignore the sin in a brother’s life; but how to fit all this together has troubled many people.
To understand this, it helps once again to see how this fits into the greater structure of the Sermon on the Mount. Our text this morning stands parallel to a longer passage in the center of Matthew 5, in that both these passages deal with law and judgment, and both are concerned to correct misuses of God’s law. Their purpose is to teach us how we ought to use his law, and his word more generally.
In Matthew 5, Jesus takes aim at an approach to the law that says, “How can we interpret the law so that it doesn’t stop us doing what we want to do?” The Pharisees had effectively been doing that by focusing on superficial obedience, which they could then define and interpret to suit themselves and their purposes. Jesus corrects that by driving down to the true meaning and purpose of the law; to make it vivid, he goes case by case, bringing home the real force and significance of the commandments against murder and adultery, and the laws about divorce and the taking of oaths.
Here, he’s taking on the tendency to treat the law as a tool to be used on others—to control their behavior, to manipulate their actions, to punish them, or simply to beat them up and demonstrate their moral inferiority to oneself. It’s a much briefer section, since there’s no need to discuss this case by case, but it’s a complex argument for all that, and we do well to read it carefully.
First, a principle I’ve noted before, that God doesn’t give us his commandments for us to tell others what to do, but for us to know what we’re supposed to do. We see this with special clarity in Paul’s words to husbands and wives. He doesn’t say, “Husbands, expect this from your wives and make your wives do this,” or, “Wives, you should be getting this from your husbands”; he says, “Wives, you do this,” and “Husbands, you do this,” and each of you let God worry about the other one. So it is here.
We read God’s word to ourselves, and for ourselves; to understand it, we stand under it, and we look at our own lives in its light. We apply it to ourselves and let the Holy Spirit speak through it to convict us of our sin. This is hard; it requires us to humble ourselves to admit and accept that we’re being convicted, rather than denying that conviction, working to make excuses for ourselves, or proudly defying it. We have to admit, not just intellectually but down deep in our souls, that we need to be convicted and corrected. But that humility isn’t just a byproduct—it’s part of the point. The conviction of the Holy Spirit, humbly accepted, moves us to repentance; and when we’re humbly repentant and aware of our own need for grace, then we can correct one another as Christ calls us to—not as something we have the right to do, but as an expression of love.
You see, we don’t have the right to use the word of God as judges, pronouncing others guilty and handing down sentences. We’ve talked about this before, that judgment comes down from above, from a position of moral superiority; that’s why in a courtroom, the judge sits well above the floor and looks down on everyone else. It’s a symbol, and a powerful one. We don’t stand above anyone—we’re sinners saved by grace, that’s all, and that’s everything. There are certainly many people who’ve done worse than we have, but even so, our need for grace is no less than theirs. We aren’t qualified to pass judgment on anyone, and we don’t have the right. Only God is, and only he does.
That said, this doesn’t mean we aren’t allowed to call sin sin; in fact, we’re supposed to. We just need to remember that the judge isn’t the only person in the courtroom. Often during any trial, the most important person there is the witness on the stand, telling the court what they have seen and heard; and that’s our role. We witness to what God has done for us, and also to what he’s taught us about himself and ourselves and the world. Part of that is declaring the holiness of God, and our own sinfulness; part of that is straightforwardly naming sin as sin, without beating around the bush or trying to redefine it for our own comfort. But if we do so humbly and graciously, not because we want to cause hurt but because we want to bless others, that isn’t judging or being judgmental. It is, rather, warning others of the standards by which God judges, and will judge.
That’s uncomfortable, if you’re not self-righteous about it—and it’s a service the self-righteous cannot perform, because their spirit negates the service. In Jesus’ parable, the log in the eye draws our attention for the sheer ridiculousness of the image, and rightly so; but we shouldn’t miss the reality that a speck in the eye is a painful problem that can cause a fair bit of damage. Helping to remove such a thing is a good work, if you can see clearly to do it. If your vision is obscured or distorted—by the log of self-righteousness, for instance—then you’re only likely to do harm; that’s the reason for Jesus’ injunction. Challenging a fellow believer about an area of sin in their life should be a work of healing, restoration, and reconciliation, and it is, if we do it humbly and graciously, in an attitude of service. It’s only when our heart isn’t right that it’s a problem.
You’ll note that I said, “a fellow believer”; so did Jesus. He could have said, “the speck in another’s eye,” but he didn’t—he specified “your brother.” He expands this in verse 6, which is pretty harsh in its language; pigs were the very worst animals to a Jewish audience, and dogs were maybe a half-step above pigs, if that. What is holy, and what are your pearls? The word of God is holy, and the kingdom of God is the pearl of great price (though that parable doesn’t come until chapter 13). To your brother or sister in Christ, you go and you help them remove the speck from their eye, because they know the value and the power of the word of God and the promise of his kingdom. But outside the church? Maybe so, maybe no.
Obviously, this doesn’t mean we never talk to anyone about their sin if they aren’t a Christian. If we did that, a lot of folks would never hear the gospel because they would never see the need. It does mean this, however: we should try to do so only with people whom the Holy Spirit is preparing to be receptive. That’s a matter of spiritual discernment, learning to follow God’s leading, which comes only by much prayer; even the wisest and most godly will sometimes get it wrong, but they’ll tell you it’s better to get it wrong sometimes than to never speak. This isn’t a call to be hyper-cautious, but it is a command to be thoughtful, because there are a lot of people out there who are closed of ear, mind, and heart. If we try to convict them of their sin, they aren’t going to listen: they’re going to trample the message underfoot, and probably attack us for our trouble.
If that happens, one thing they’ll probably do is accuse us of being judgmental. Our culture likes to do that, because it’s committed itself to the proposition that what I want to do is who I am, and so if you tell me it’s wrong to do what I want to do, you’re telling me it’s wrong for me to be who I am, and that’s judging me. With that, we’ve come full circle on this sermon; and we’ve come as well to the paradoxical title I’ve given it. We cannot truly judge another from our knees, for that’s the posture not of arrogant judgment, but of humble service. We also cannot turn away from serving another because we fear to be accused of judging them, and we know that some people will do that. It’s a risk. It’s one we need to take, because as the last verse of James tells us, “Whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.”