I received this very good question the other day following a sermon on John 8, “Jesus and the Woman Caught in Adultery.” What is the difference between judging people and judgement? They were referring to the fact that we are admonished not to judge people and also the popular belief that we cannot make judgements about people’s behaviors and choices. Here is my answer.
The very concept of judgement (and justice) infers that there is a right and a wrong – a standard against which our behaviors need to be measured. In John 8, a group of Pharisees and religious teachers were using a very severe law handed down through Moses (capital punishment for a woman’s adultery) to trap Jesus into contradicting or denouncing the Mosaic Law. Jesus refused to cooperate with their manipulative question because it had to do with their jealousy of him, not is idea of justice. It is a reminder that laws and standards are lived out not in a vacuum but in life and must take into account the spirit as well as the letter of a law.
When Jesus sent his critics packing he was still left with a woman who had done something wrong – who had committed a sin. That sin was adultery. In fact, the purpose of the law was to remind her and all of her nation that choices have consequences, and that some choices lead to sin – i.e., living contrary to God’s will and vision for us. At the end he asks where her accusers are. By that he is asking, “Where are the guys who want to kill you?” She says they are gone. He responds, “Then neither do I condemn you …” But his answer doesn’t end there although popularly it does and we seem to see this as condoning her adultery or saying it’s no big deal. No, his response is … “go and leave your life of sin.” There is a judgement expressed here, a judgement that clearly implies her responsibility while receiving mercy where the law required death to stop doing the thing that makes her guilty before God.
Which brings us to the next step in this discussion. The passage that comes into view here are words from Jesus in Matthew 7.1-2.“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. This verse goes directly to our sinful tendency to judge or measure others against a standard that often we do not even live up. To presume spiritual or moral superiority in one area of life while ignoring sinfulness in another part. That’s why verses 3 and following continue: “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.”
Judgement has to do with being accountable to a standard that is beyond ourselves. In the case of God’s Word, to understand that we live under God’s sovereignty and authority. Because we acknowledge that we are accountable to the perfect Judge, we are mindful of our imperfect ability to perform the same function. We are careful about exacting judgment towards others and particularly careful about assuming that our judgment equates with God’s justice. And we would never assume that others are guiltier than we of violating the standards of a Holy God.
God indeed judges us as he should (and has the right to do). But the Judge of All the Universe knows the powerlessness of the guilty and includes in his justice the provision to receive mercy. Our judging of others almost never focuses on transformation but retribution–nor is it about forgiveness but pronouncement of guilt.
Sometimes people throw the “you shouldn’t judge me” comment in our face because they don’t want to be accountable to anyone but themselves. But whether anyone of us desires it or not, we are not masters of our soul; God is. We cannot escape accountability. And if we acknowledge it, we are more willing to confess, “I am a forgiven sinner.”