Do not judge, in order that you are not judged (Matt 7:1)
If there is any verse in Scripture that virtually everyone knows, even those who have never read the Bible, who have never been to Sunday School, it is Matthew 7:1. I suppose that most who quote this verse could not tell you where it found. It is very popularly held that by these words Jesus intended to say, “No one is qualified to make moral judgments.” A closer reading of the verse, in its context, shows us that such an interpretation of Jesus’ words is highly unlikely. We can also come to a better understanding of what the verse means if we compare it with parallels in the Luke and Mark (the other synoptic gospels).
Before we even consider the verse in context, however, we have a right to ask whether a proposed interpretation is even plausible. Is it plausible that Jesus should have advocated moral relativism? Even one who is not well read in Scripture might wonder about the plausibility of such a claim. Jesus was, after all, a preacher and a prophet. Are the prophets of Scripture known for their moral relativism? Even if one knows nothing about cars, if someone says that his car has the power to fly to the moon, one would be rightly skeptical about such a claim. After all, were Jesus saying, “Don’t make moral judgments” that would itself be a moral judgment. Such a reading makes Jesus’ teaching incoherent from the start.
This verse occurs in the Sermon on the Mount, which begins in Matthew 5:1, “Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him” (ESV). This is the discourse in which one finds the “Beatitudes,” i.e., the series of pronouncements of blessing upon believers in various states, e.g., “blessed are the pure in heart for the shall see God” (Matt 5:8). In the immediate context Jesus is speaking about not being anxious, about trusting the Lord for daily provision (Matt 6:25–34). v.34 says, ““Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (ESV). The connection is not immediately apparent but when we look at the text more closely one begins to appear. In the last clause in v. 34 the text says, “sufficient for the day is its evil (κακία).” It is fair to render it generically as “trouble” but in light of the exhortation not to worry, “evil” makes more sense. If we take it as “evil,” then “sufficient for the day is its evil” is part of a general exhortation not to be anxious about tomorrow because today have enough evil. This context should inform our understanding of Matthew 7:1. “Judge not (Μὴ κρίνετε), in order (ἵνα) that you be not judged.” Just as we pay attention to today and leave, as it were, tomorrow to the Lord so we pay attention to ourselves, particularly to our own sins, and leave the sins of others, as it were, to them. The purpose of not judging is to avoid bringing judgment upon one’s self. Jesus does not say that making moral judgments is a bad thing but he does say that it is a dangerous thing.
This reading is supported by the verses (vv.3–5) that follow:
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.
The conjunction “for” (γὰρ) signals that verse 2 is intended to explain vs. 1. Should we judge, whatever standard, whatever measure we use will become the standard or the measure by which we ourselves are measured. Jesus’ intent is to intensify the problem. We might paraphrase vv. 1–2 this way: “If you want to judge, fine but watch out because you might regret it.”
The parallels in Mark 4:23–24 indicates this. In the latter part of vs. 24 Mark adds, “and still more will be added to you.” In the parallel in Luke 6:37–38 we find the same tenor. The warning not to judge (μὴ κρίνετε) is parallel to “condemn not” (μὴ καταδικάζετε). We can get the sense of this parallelism by contrast that Jesus employs: “forgive, and you will be forgiven.” The contrast here is between condemnation and forgiveness. In other words, what is in view here is not the act of making a moral judgment but the act of refusing to forgive, as if one is without sin. In Luke 6:38 Jesus continues: “give and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.” In other words, if we are gracious we will receive grace. The judgment in view here is the sin of being judgmental, of placing one’s self in the seat of God, of determining what is not ours to determine.
Calvin could be a little hard on people but grace had an effect on him. He recognized that in this passage Christ is preaching the law to us, to teach us our sins.
These words of Christ do not contain an absolute prohibition from judging, but are intended to cure a disease, which appears to be natural to us all. We see how all flatter themselves, and every man passes a severe censure on others. This vice is attended by some strange enjoyment: for there is hardly any person who is not tickled with the desire of inquiring into other people’s faults. All acknowledge, indeed, that it is an intolerable evil, that those who overlook their own vices are so inveterate against their brethren. The Heathens, too, in ancient times, condemned it in many proverbs. Yet it has existed in all ages, and exists, too, in the present day. Nay, it is accompanied by another and a worse plague: for the greater part of men think that, when they condemn others, they acquire a greater liberty of sinning.
This depraved eagerness for biting, censuring, and slandering, is restrained by Christ, when he says, Judge not. It is not necessary that believers should become blind, and perceive nothing, but only that they should refrain from an undue eagerness to judge: for otherwise the proper bounds of rigour will be exceeded by every man who desires to pass sentence on his brethren. There is a similar expression in the Apostle James, Be not many masters, (James 3:1:) for he does not discourage or withdraw believers from discharging the office of teachers, but forbids them to desire the honour from motives of ambition. To judge, therefore, means here, to be influenced by curiosity in inquiring into the actions of others. This disease, in the first place, draws continually along with it the injustice of condemning any trivial fault, as if it had been a very heinous crime; and next breaks out into the insolent presumption of looking disdainfully at every action, and passing an unfavourable judgment on it, even when it might be viewed in a good light.
We now see, that the design of Christ was to guard us against indulging excessive eagerness, or peevishness, or malignity, or even curiosity, in judging our neighbours. He who judges according to the word and law of the Lord, and forms his judgment by the rule of charity, always begins with subjecting himself to examination, and preserves a proper medium and order in his judgments. Hence it is evident, that this passage is altogether misapplied by those persons who would desire to make that moderation, which Christ recommends, a pretence for setting aside all distinction between good and evil. We are not only permitted, but are even bound, to condemn all sins; unless we choose to rebel against God himself,—nay, to repeal his laws, to reverse his decisions, and to overturn his judgment-seat. It is his will that we should proclaim the sentence which he pronounces on the actions of men: only we must preserve such modesty towards each other, as to make it manifest that he is the only Lawgiver and Judge, (Isa. 33:22) (John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke, trans. William Pringle (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 1.345–47).
It is comforting to know that we are not the first to have to respond to moral relativists who abuse Jesus’ words to further their own agenda.
Finally, we can be sure that Jesus is not counseling moral relativism. In v. 6 he says: “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.” This is a maxim, in which Jesus invokes familiar images. Dogs were regarded as unclean. Of course swine (pigs) were ritually unclean. There is an intentional contrast between that which is valuable, pearls, and that which is not: dogs and swine. It’s a typically colorful, colloquial image. Of the essence of this imagery is the making of judgments. One must discern or judge who or what is, in this image, a pig or a dog or unclean. One must further judge when one if giving to the unclean something that is inappropriate to them. This passage positively reeks of judgment or the sort forbidden by moral relativism.
In truth, the relativist abuse of Matthew 7:1 is utterly unconvincing. It is sloppy. It is a classic example of taking a verse out of its immediate and broader context, of ignoring the intent of the speaker (Jesus) and the authorial intent of the gospel writers in the service of an agenda that none of them shared.