When Is It Wrong to Judge?
1. It is wrong to judge someone before you know all the facts in the case.
The Apostle John wrote, “Our law does not judge a man unless it first hears from him and knows what he is doing” (John 7:51). In other words, the believer should never judge on a whim, an impression, a rumor. The facts are necessary, and the believer should be quick to hear and slow to speak.
2. It is wrong to judge when judging is based on a person’s convictions and/or preferences.
Romans 14 makes it clear that personal decisions can direct activities in areas where the Scriptures are silent. For instance, the Bible doesn’t specifically address credit cards, dating practices, plastic surgery, watching television, using electric guitars in church, ad infinitum.
If our judgment of another believer is based on differences of opinion regarding issues such as these, to name a few, it becomes judgmentalism.
And don’t ignore the fact that this kind of judgmentalism can travel in both directions. Those who condemn others for allowing certain things in their lives are not right; neither are those who scoff at believers who choose stricter guidelines by which to govern their choices.
Judging preferences isn’t the same as judging a biblical violation because they are simply different opinions or personal choices. And in these matters of preference and personal conviction, we must not be judgmental.
It’s a difficult lesson to learn that God often blesses people we disagree with.
3. It is wrong to judge someone by attacking his motives.
Paul wrote, “Therefore do not go on passing judgment before the time, but wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men’s hearts” (1 Corinthians 4:5).
This text certainly instructs us to leave off judgment that relates to motives. It implies that only the Lord is capable of judging motives and intentions, since He alone can see the heart. Therefore, we should confine our judgment to observable actions and leave hidden motives for the Lord to evaluate at the coming judgment.
We must be careful to give people the benefit of the doubt. If all we have to rely on is our perception of another person’s motives, our judgments will be skewed.
One of the reasons the Bible requires two or more witnesses to agree on charges brought against another believer is because one person can too easily misread or misinterpret the motives of someone else. One person alone can rush to judgment. Thus, taking the time to gather additional counsel will often slow the process enough to carefully arrive at the truth.
In the meantime, we would do well to remember something Jewish rabbis taught centuries ago—what they considered to be the six greatest works a person could do:
- study the Scriptures
- visit the sick
- show kindness to strangers
- teach children the Scriptures
- think the best of people
Giving someone the benefit of the doubt may be the first step in avoiding the pitfall of rendering wrong judgment.
4. It is wrong to judge when the act of judging becomes a display of self-righteousness.
Jesus said in Matthew 7:1, “Do not judge lest you be judged.”
We’re back to that verse again!
Jesus can’t be prohibiting all the other forms of judgment we have just seen validated in Scripture—there were several occasions we were commanded to judge. What we need to understand is that the Lord is referring to a type of judgmentalism typical of the religious leaders. The Lord was speaking to Pharisees (Jewish leaders) who were well known for their censorious, pietistic, critical attitudes of judgmentalism which loved to expose and embarrass the sinner. They enjoyed pouncing on the sinner without ever proposing a solution. To them, and anyone with their attitude, our Lord warned in that same verse, “For in the way you judge, you will be judged” (Matthew 7:2).
In other words, self-righteous, condemning judgment builds its own gallows—especially when self-righteous individuals refuse to deal with their own sinful behavior.
Jesus illustrated this principle when men brought before Him a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. These proud judges with private sinful lives had come not only to condemn the adulterer but to corner the Savior. After seemingly ignoring these men and their captured prey, our Lord stooped down and began to write in the dirt. Then John records, “But when they persisted in asking Him, He straightened up and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7).
Then once again He wrote—twice we read that the Lord wrote on the ground.
There are some who speculate that Jesus was scribbling in the sand because he was embarrassed to be stuck in such a dilemma. Others have speculated that Jesus stooped down and wrote in the sand because He didn’t know what to say. The actual answer to this strange behavior from our Lord is revealed in the text itself. This is the only event in the New Testament where Jesus is shown to be writing something.
What’s even more revealing is that the usual Greek verb for writing isn’t used. Instead, the word that is used means “to write down a record against”: kategraphen (John Armstrong, The Compromised Church, Crossway Books, 1998, p. 175). The same word appears in the Septuagint in Job 13:26: “For you write [kategraphen] bitter things against me.”
In the stillness of that temple court, Jesus is revealing the hypocrisy of judging others while at the same time hiding a prodigal heart. What did Jesus record in the sand? He was writing a record against these men—a record of sins they had hidden in the dark shadows of their private lives.
Peter Marshall once imagined that Jesus Christ saw “into their very hearts, and that moving finger [wrote] Idolater… Liar… Drunkard… Murderer… Adulterer…. [T]he thud of stone after stone falling on the pavement” was heard as “one by one, they [crept] away… slinking into the shadows, shuffling off into the crowded streets to lose themselves in the multitudes” (Catherine Marshall. A Man Called Peter: The Story of Peter Marshall, 339).
John chronicles that very thing: “And when they heard it, they began to go out one by one, beginning with the older ones, and He was left alone, and the woman where she was, in the center of the court” (John 8:9).
What happened next has often been misinterpreted as tolerance toward sin. John writes, “Straightening up, Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?’ And she said, ‘No one, Lord.’ And Jesus said, ‘I do not condemn you either. Go. From now on sin no more” ’ (John 8:10-11).
Imagine this scene: the temple courtyard is now deserted because of the disappearance of her accusers. Jesus alone has the right to cast the first stone, but He looks at her and basically says He isn’t going to do that. Isn’t this the opposite action of discipline? Did Jesus overlook her sin? Wouldn’t His failure to stone her be proof enough that we should never judge or condemn someone in sin? Not quite.
There are two very important things you should understand about Christ’s response:
1. Jesus Christ did not dismiss her sin; He told her to stop sinning.
The human judges only wanted one thing: they longed to condemn. Jesus, the Righteous Judge, wanted one thing as well: He longed to forgive. Any true church involved in rebuking, challenging, and judging sinful behavior longs to do the same thing —forgive—if that person turns from sin.
Our Lord told her to go and stop sinning. He confronted her lifestyle of immorality. He did not say, “The coast is clear…go on back to that man you were with…just try to remember to lock the door the next time.” Hardly! He said, “Go, and stop sinning.” In other words, the Lord said to her, “Your actions are wrong. Stop living the sinful life of an adulterous woman.”
2. Jesus Christ not only forgave her past, He issued a challenge for her future.
This was no easy forgiveness. This wasn’t tolerance of sinful immorality. Jesus confronted the woman with a choice that day: either go back to her old ways or live in the light of God’s grace as a forgiven woman. She was challenged by God incarnate to live an entirely new way of life.
We have every reason to believe that she did. Her humble response to Christ implied as much. I can’t imagine she ever forgot that afternoon of grace and challenge that came from the lips of the Lord.
Stephen Davey is senior pastor of Colonial Baptist Church and president of Shepherds Theological Seminary, as well as principal Bible teacher on the “Wisdom for the Heart” broadcast. After earning his MDiv from Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary and ThM from Dallas Theological Seminary, Stephen and his wife, Marsha, moved from Dallas to Cary, NC and started Colonial Baptist Church. In 2003, Stephen and the elders of Colonial founded Shepherds Theological Seminary, now fully accredited.