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How We Are Called to ‘Judge Not Lest We be Judged’

Penny Noyes

Updated Aug 31, 2021
How We Are Called to ‘Judge Not Lest We be Judged’

“Judge not lest you be judged” is a quote from Luke 6:37 in the OJB translation of the Bible. The English Standard Version translates Luke 6:37, “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven.”

A similar statement is in Matthew 7:1, “Judge not, that you be not judged.” “Judge not, and you will not be judged” is quoted by many people and perceived to mean the same thing as “Don’t judge me and I won’t judge you.”

However, Matthew 7:1 and Luke 6:37 contain a holy command and a warning from Jesus to Christians so they have mercy and integrity, are free from hypocrisy, and hold other believers accountable.

In contrast, “Don’t judge me and I won’t judge you” is a permissive standard that ignores every Christian’s call to personal holiness. Christians are called to be holy as Jesus is holy (1 Peter 1:15-16). In Luke 6:36-42, Jesus challenges us to first judge ourselves before we judge others.

In a blunt call to personal holiness and accountability, Jesus commands in Matthew 7:5, “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.”

When we see our sin, we will realize God’s great mercy and forgiveness to us and extend it to other believers just God has shown mercy to us even when we take the speck out of their eye.

What Does it Mean to ‘Judge Not Lest You Be Judged’?

This is a tricky phrase to understand because it seems to be lenient of sin, and the opposite of what Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 6:2, “Or do you not know that the Lord’s people will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases?”

Since Christians are expected to judge “trivial cases,” “Do not judge” must not be understood as ruling out any ethical evaluation at all rather it is defined by the parallel “Do not condemn” (The Zondervan NIV Bible Commentary).

Our modern culture defines judging as being judgmental and ignores the context of God’s law, but a biblical definition starts with seeing God as the lawgiver and our ultimate judge.

An honest judge is required to understand the law, apply the law equally, and personally uphold the law before judging others.

Understanding how we are to “judge not” yet still judge trivial cases is illustrated in the Book of James, which captures the difference between judging others with slander, which breaks God’s law, and being a judge when he writes,

Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you — who are you to judge your neighbor? (James 4:12-13).

James 4:3 points out that wrong motives can infiltrate relationships between believers and lead to the type of ungodly judging and slander that Jesus is telling us not to do in Luke 6:37. “Jesus is speaking against being judgmental, that is, judging motives and the inner man, which only God can know. Jesus calls us to have the same kind of mercy God has towards us.”

Just as we are not to be judgmental and slander brothers and sisters in Christ, Luke 6:37 tells us that we are not to condemn them because God has been merciful to us by not condemning us.

Paul explains why we should not condemn because, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:1-2).

It is not our responsibility to condemn because on the last day, condemnation will come for those who reject Christ. In John 12:48, Jesus warns that the very word he spoke will condemn those who heard his word and did not keep it.

We live in a society where judging is rampant — yet everyone seems to live by the “don’t judge me and I won’t judge you” mantra. As humans, we easily fall into the trap of judging people by their actions, their looks, their style of hair, and their clothes.

Jesus is clearly telling us “do not judge.” To apply this command, we need to make sure that we are not judging and slandering other believers based on outward appearance because only God knows their hearts.

We also need to apply Jesus’ command to not condemn. As believers, we have been freed from condemnation through Christ’s sacrifice. If Jesus does not condemn them, neither should we.

The statement, “For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you” follows the command not to judge in both Luke 6:38 and Matthew 7:1 and reminds us that God is just even as he is merciful. God detests differing weight and dishonest scales (Proverbs 20:23).

After the command not to judge, Jesus talks of fairness, of measure for measure, of reward and punishment. In God’s mercy, justice still prevails, “Mercy and justice are and always have been in tension. And justice is an appropriate topic among Jesus’ followers; Luke 6:37-38 makes that clear. Without justice and fairness, grace denigrates into permissiveness, just as justice without grace hardens into cruelty” (Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching).

According to the teaching of some rabbis in Jesus’ time, “God had two measures that he used to judge people. One was a measure of justice and the other was a measure of mercy. Which measure do you want God to use with you? Then you should use that same measure with others.”

When Did Jesus Say, ‘Judge Not, Lest You Be Judged’?

The phrase “Judge not, that you not be judged” is found in two of Jesus’s sermons recorded Matthew and Luke. Matthew 7:1 is found in the Sermon on the Mount that begins in Matthew 5.

Luke includes it in the Sermon on the Plain that begins in Luke 6:17; it is addressed to both Jews and people from Tyre and Sidon. These sermons contain wisdom and practical instruction on how to live a blessed life.

Luke 6:36 prefaces “Judge not, that you not be judged” with, “Be merciful even as your Father is merciful.” Understanding God’s mercy affects how we show mercy in our relationships with others and if we judge, condemn, forgive, and give to others.

God modeled how to show mercy by giving his one and only son to die for our sins so that we would have eternal life (John 3:16), in the same way, we are to show mercy by giving generously to others.

How Can We Obey the Command ‘Judge Not Lest You Be Judged’?

Two thousand years ago, Jesus was appalled by hypocritical behavior of the religious elite. After commanding his followers “Judge not, that you not be judged,” he continued in Matthew 7:3-5,

“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.’”

Today, his command to get the plank out of our own eye challenges Christians to not be hypocritical. To do this we first have to realize the mercy that God has shown to us so that we are able to show his mercy to others.

Next, we need to understand that we have a responsibility to not be judgmental even as we are called to judge other believers. The only way that we can do this is to follow Christ’s command and make sure we judge ourselves.

Are we living lives of integrity? Are we holding ourselves to the standard of behavior that non-Christians would expect of Christ-followers? Are we excusing mean, selfish, ungodly behavior because we’re “not perfect just forgiven?”

If someone identifies a speck in our eye, are we humbly asking Christ to remove it and not justifying our unrighteous behavior?

Only vigilance in actively seeking and destroying the planks in our lives will allow us to fully experience the gift of seeing clearly and give us the perspective to then help others in humility to experience the blessings that God has for them.

Intrinsic in Luke 6:37 is a warning, “judge and you will be judged.” The natural response that any of us have to someone pointing out sin in our lives is to justify it and attack the credibility of the person who has pointed it out.

As brothers and sisters in Christ, this is an especially slippery slope, because God has called us to hold fellow Christians to a holy standard. The risk of pointing out the speck in someone else’s eye means that another Christian will feel justified in judging us.

A humble heart and an understanding of God’s holiness and amazing sacrifice will allow us to receive assistance when another believer identifies a speck in our eye.

For further reading:

What Did Jesus Really Mean by ‘Judge Not, That You Be Not Judged’?

Responding like Jesus When People Judge You

Prayers for Mercy and Repentance

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Si Photography

Penny Noyes, M.Ed. is the author of Embracing Change - Learning to Trust God from the Women of the Bible and two books about Hezekiah. You can follow Penny on her blog and on Instagram @pennynoyes.