The Necessity (and Limitations) of Human Judgment

Ask a non-believer their favorite Bible verse, and they might just say, “Judge not lest you be judged” (probably not giving a reference…it’s Matthew 7:1, by the way). It comes from a context to which we’ll return to in a moment. But let’s first join Jesus in making a concession about judgment - that on one level it is inevitable, unavoidable, and at times necessary. Therefore, Jesus, as the victim of hasty and inaccurate judgment of His actions in healing a man on the Sabbath, clarifies to us: “Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with right judgment” (John 7:24). Now what does He mean by right judgment? Well, apparently not all judgment is wrong, but at the same time, much of it is. So how do we know the difference?

Let’s face it. We make a series of judgments each day. If you need to switch lanes on the interstate, you have to make a judgment about the right time and location for your vehicle to move into the adjacent lane. But if you do so hastily or lazily, you run the risk of a collision. Your judgment is only beneficial if it is done rightly. Now let’s stay on the road for a moment and say you’re now off the interstate and at a four-way-stop on a community road. You are the first car to pull up to the stop, so you know the right judgment according to the law is that you have the right to proceed after you have stopped completely. However, another car is accelerating toward the intersection from your left with no intention to stop at all. You do not know this individual. But as they speed through the intersection without even a brake light, you know that this particular action of theirs is a violation of law. You make a judgment that their behavior, in this case at least, is wrong. It is unlawful and on some level immoral because of the danger in which it places other drivers. You have not judged the soul of that person. But you have judged the action as wrong. Now why was it wrong? Maybe there’s multiple answers to this question, but the simplest one is this: the action violated a standard of truth - a traffic law that every citizen who drives is bound to follow. You have just judged on multiple levels, and you were right to do so.

In a similar way, Jesus tells us to at least inspect each other by our fruits to see what is true and what is false (Matthew 7:15-20). To inspect fruit properly, though, you cannot just look at its outward appearance. You also rely on your other senses. A more thorough judgment of the fruit involves touching it, smelling it, and ultimately tasting it. The problems with the Jewish leaders’s judging of Jesus in the Gospel of John were multiple:

1) They used appearance as their guide (often relying on inadequate or false testimony), leaving them with just a surface assessment.

2) Their conclusions were based on false presuppositions (in this case that healing was a violation of Sabbath).

3) They not only judged the action but concluded unfounded generalizations about the character (or the soul) of Jesus. This was their reason for statements like, “You have a demon!” (John 7:20; 8:48), which we as the reader and believer know is completely off-base. 

These same methods of “judgment” reared their ugly heads again at Jesus’s trial before the Sanhedrin near the end of each Gospel. This was shoddy justice work on an epic scale. And it doesn’t just remain in kangaroo courtrooms. We find it happening in our communities daily. On the streets. On the train. At the office. Even in our churches, dare we say?

Paul certainly saw a need to reupholster the unraveling of “right judgment” in Corinth when he wrote the first epistle to them. In a manner similar to their concept of marital sexuality, their thinking on matters of judgment was rather backwards. On the one hand, the fruit inspection and subsequent disciplining of each other that should have been taking place was non-existent. The evidence is at least two-fold:

1) A member of Christ’s body is in an active and open sexual relationship with his step-mother (1 Corinthians 5:1-5). So, possibly in the name of “not being judgmental,” they have not even inspected the fruit of their fellow members of the body and taken any action in regards to the situation. Since no one in Corinth wants to practice right judgment, Paul says that he’ll make the judgment in the name of the Lord Jesus from where he’s at (5:3-4). I trust that Paul, in keeping with the teaching of Jesus from John 7:24, had enough reliable sources (including the Spirit Himself) to know the reality of the situation. 

2) Disputes (maybe having to do with property rights, family responsibility, or personal injury…there’s nothing new under the sun) among fellow members of the body of Christ are not being handled “in-house.” Instead, they are taking these matters in lawsuits before secular courts (6:1-8). Why? Because there is no culture of careful and righteous judgment among the church. They are instead seeking judgment from those who don’t even have the mind of Christ.

On the other hand, the judging that is going on among Christians is a distorted hierarchy-building-scheme of assessing oneself in comparison to others (4:7-8) - often according to spiritual gifts (Chapters 12-14), level of knowledge (Chapter 8), or even name-dropping of their own personal gospel preacher and baptizer (1:11-17). This form of self-evaluation leaves one either puffed-up (8:1) or feeling woefully inadequate (12:15-16), neither of which is an accurate judgment.

In fact, self-judging sounds good in theory (“judge yourself before you judge others”). That seems to echo what Jesus teaches in Matthew 7 about the standard by which you judge others needing to be the same measuring stick which you hold up to your own life. This is how you will be able to remove a beam from your own eye, right? The problem, though, is that sometimes I am the last one to see the beam in my own eye. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 4:4“I am conscious of nothing against myself.” We are blinded to true self-evaluation. But listen to what comes next in the text: “…Yet I am not by this acquitted; but the one who examines me is the Lord."  

If you allow the Spirit-led teaching of 1 Corinthians 4 to serve as a commentary on Matthew 7, we find that I will never be able to remove all the beams from my own eyes so that I can see clearly. Only God can. This is part of the inner work of the Spirit, bringing me to conviction on levels I would otherwise never reach (John 16:7-11). I need God’s judgment. For He is capable of what I am not - an inner searching and enlightening of even my subconscious self (Psalm 139; 1 Thessalonians 5:23). Jesus says His words will judge us in the end (John 12:48), but if we allow them to, those words will already be at work in “bringing to light the things hidden in darkness and disclosing the motives of men’s hearts” (1 Corinthians 4:5). They will be the sharp, two-edged sword that can “judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:16). In order to be able to “judge with right judgment,” I must allow the words of Christ and the finishing work of the Spirit bring to light the beams in my own eyes so that I can see clearly the specks in others. This is where the Pharisees failed. This is where the Corinthians were failing. And this is where we often fail as well and never reach the point where we are even capable of careful fruit inspection of fellow Christians without some self-seeking motive. 

Corinth gives us a picture of what happens when healthy judgment is largely absent from the Christian community. The results are disastrous. The Pharisees give us a picture of what happens when mere human judgment runs rampant and puts innocent people on crosses. The results are monstrous.

So what do we conclude? Thankfully, Paul clarifies the role of judgment in his message to the Corinthian Christians:

“For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside.” (1 Corinthians 5:12-13)


Here are some closing scenarios for your consideration based on these principles:

1) When it comes to judging yourself: Know the value of self-evaluation, but know your own limits. Know that you are not condemned in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1), but do not fall for the temptation to self-justify or think you have no beams left…no rough edges that the Spirit of God still needs to chisel. Allow the words of Christ to judge and convict, bringing the darkness still in your heart to light. Inner judgment is to be welcomed by a Christian, not dreaded.

2) When it comes to judging fellow Christians: We are by no means to see our Christian life as full time CSI-detective-work upon other Christians. But if I do see action that is not fitting with a fellow Christian’s confession of Jesus as Lord to which he/she holds, then I have an obligation to confront the individual in truth and love. We must use Matthew 18 as our guide-book for how to confront and discipline if necessary. We are fellow fruit inspectors. Just make sure you do a thorough test of the fruit and not jump to any premature conclusions. We must do this for the spiritual health of each individual…and for the health of the body of Christ as a whole. After all, “a little leaven leavens the whole lump” (1 Corinthians 5:6). So be the loving watchman God calls you to be (Ezekiel 3).  

3) When it comes to judging non-Christians: Understand the limitations of human judgment. On matters of truth that have been revealed by God, we do judge actions to be right or wrong. Even with non-Christians, we can see fruit for what it is. But we do not judge the entire character of individuals. Remember that they may not realize the full extent of the moral standard yet. Our first job is to help them fall in love with God before they can conform to the law based on His character. And we certainly are not in the business of determining the eternal destination of those individuals. I thank God that He has not given that responsibility to me or to any other mere humans, even to the apostles. Even with all their authority, they realized that Jesus and His words would be the ultimate judge.

“Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God.” (1 Corinthians 4:5)


To His Glory,

Caleb Cochran

Photo credit: Gamma Man via / CC BY