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“Judge Not…” — and the Lutheran Reformation

The Reformer on “Judging”

God-pleasing Judging:
“You must understand this in such a way that it does not take away the right of the man in the public ministry of preaching to judge matters of doctrine as well as of life. Indeed, it is incumbent on him in his office to rebuke publicly whatever does not square with true doctrine, for the very purpose of preventing sects from coming in and taking hold. When he sees that a life is wrong, he must likewise denounce it and resist it. He is put there to oversee this, and he will have to give account of it (Heb. 13:17). In fact, whenever any Christian sees his neighbor doing wrong, he has the duty of admonishing and restraining him, which is impossible without judging and passing judgment…” 

(Luther’s Works, Vol. 21, p. 213)

Judging Incorrectly:
“What is needed here is the virtue called tolerance and the forgiveness of sins, by which one person bears with another, pardons him, and forgives him, as St. Paul teaches in beautiful words (Rom. 15:1): ‘We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves.’ This is the same thing that Christ says here: ‘Judge not’…We love to beautify and decorate ourselves and to see what is good in us…(but) If we notice the least little pimple on him, we fill our eyes with it and so magnify it that on its account we see nothing good (in our neighbor)…we can learn from this warning and get used to tolerating, concealing, and adorning our neighbor’s transgressions.”
(LW, loc. cit., p. 213ff.)


This Reformation month our on-going series treating Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount arrives at the “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Matthew 7:1ff) section, prompting some thoughts.

Every year at this time orthodox Lutherans celebrate notable stands taken by Dr. Martin Luther (1483-1546). On October 31, 1517, he posted the 95 Theses for debate on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, challenging the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church on the subject of indulgences. Some four years later, on April 18, 1521, at the Council convened at the city of Worms, Germany by the young Emperor Charles V, Luther—under threat of his life!—made his famous “Here-I-stand-I-cannot-do-otherwise-God-help-me-Amen” speech, refusing to recant his many Bible-based writings.

It is not too far-fetched to suggest that the Lutheran Reformation may not have occurred had Luther lived in today’s religious climate—or at least, if he had bought into that climate. At any rate, a lowly German monk’s challenge of the “mighty” Roman Catholic Church establishment would likely have been passed off as intolerant judgmentalism.

In connection with this, a conservative religious magazine has pointed out: “A sociologist at Boston University has discovered that the American middle class has added an 11th commandment to its culture: ‘Thou shalt not judge.’ He says Americans shy away from mentioning moral absolutes because they are afraid of appearing judgmental. …Even Christians are being influenced by the nation’s new moral code: relativism and tolerance. …In the moral relativism that pervades our society…it is considered intolerant to make moral judgments.”

These good words follow: “Christians, however, can not let the fear of being considered intolerant stop them from making judgments based on God’s Word. If they do that, the judgment made is not theirs but God’s. At some point such judgments have to be made—if we care about our fellow man and his world.”

Because of the “11th commandment,” not only is one “Christian” church or denomination passed off as good as another, but approval is also given to Christ-less religions. “There are many ways to heaven.” “We’re all sooner or later going to end up in the same place anyhow.” By the same token, anyone who claims that moral absolutes exist, who claims to have and know absolute Truth, is likely labeled as an intolerant, narrow-minded bigot.

Someone has pointed out that the ultimate response in our “tolerant” society is the dismissive “Whatever.” For example, one may believe that practicing the homosexual lifestyle is a sin and another may not so consider it; discussion is dismissed with “Whatever.” You may believe that abortion is murder and I may not—“Whatever!” (Other moral examples could be mentioned.) It’s the same in the area of doctrine. “You can believe there is a heaven and a hell; you can believe there isn’t, or that there’s a third place called purgatory—Whatever! You may believe in creation and I in evolution, you may believe Christ rose bodily from the dead and I may not—Whatever!” On and on the list goes. “What’s true and truth for you or for me may be at odds, but what difference does it make?”

In a society which wants the ten commandments to be just the ten suggestion (but adds an 11th one binding on all), we are still convinced that there is absolute truth. And yes, we believe that truth is on our side—that is, on the side of the Bible and its clear, authoritative, and not-to-be-compromised teachings. As Jesus told His disciples: “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:31f).

Consider a few other Bible examples where the duty to judge is laid on Christ’s disciples. Romans chapter 13 says that civil magistrates have the responsibility to judge evildoers. Matthew chapter 18 tells how individual Christians and Christian congregations are to deal with openly impenitent sinners. How can these injunctions be carried out without judging—not a person’s heart, but his actions!? The apostle exhorts: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). How can that injunction be carried out without judging the teaching, the doctrines, of other teachers, other churches, other religions? Later in Matthew chapter 7 Jesus says, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits.” How can that directive be carried out if our ability to exercise critical judgment is cauterized or neutralized? In the same chapter of Matthew (v. 6) Jesus warns against giving what is holy to “dogs” and casting pearls before “swine” (speaking metaphorically, of course). Shall we accuse Jesus of being intolerant and judgmental when He suggests that there are people who want to drag the pearl of great price—God’s gospel—through the mud?

In a culture and society with a watered-down moral code and in a religious atmosphere where people want a “tolerant” God and a “tolerant church” with no “negative” doctrines about sin, sin-guilt, and ultimate judgment, God help us by His Holy Spirit to stand firm on Bible truth with the Reformer, saying: “Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me! Amen!”