"Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you." (Matthew 7:1–2)
If you have spent any time on social media over the past few years, you may have noticed that John 3:16 has been dethroned as the most-quoted verse in the Bible. That title now belongs to Matthew 7:1, where Jesus says, “Judge not, that you be not judged.” Because non-Christians are fond of throwing these words of Jesus in the face of critical believers, there tends to be a lot of effort by Christians to explain how these words don’t mean what they seem. I think we can basically take them at face value.
Jesus is trying to protect us from creating a world of ruthless judgment—the kind of world where the best construction is never applied to a person, circumstance, or sin. This happens when we do not believe that mercy triumphs over judgment—when we doubt that grace and forgiveness are more powerful than sin and retribution. As we contribute to this atmosphere of judgment, we help create a world we cannot survive in—a world too dangerous for sinners to inhabit. With every measure of judgment we dish out, our peril increases. No sinner will escape it.
Judgment is the enemy of faith because faith is delivered and sustained through grace. As we judge and demand payment from one another, we fashion a world not only skeptical of forgiveness, grace, and mercy but also downright opposed to it. Jesus is telling us what happens when forgetful sinners demand justice. Judge not lest you construct a machine out to destroy the very essence of the kingdom of God. That essence is faith, grace, mercy, and forgiveness.
Forgiveness involves the absorption of a wrong. It is to release someone of a debt genuinely owed. For this reason, forgiveness can actually feel wrong. It seems like you’re letting someone get away with something you shouldn’t. The words I forgive you sound like keys unlocking the door of a prison cell justice says should remain locked forever. They should sound like that. That is what those words are. But they open more than one cell door.
The late Corrie Ten Boom and her sister spent ten months in a Nazi concentration camp for hiding Jews during World War II. Her sister died there fifteen days before Corrie’s release. Her book The Hiding Place is one of the most otherworldly examples of forgiveness I have ever read. In it, she describes her struggle to forgive those responsible for the horrific and inhumane injustices inflicted upon her and her family. When describing this radical forgiveness, she writes, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free, only to discover that prisoner was you.”(1)
Corrie Ten Boom discovered that forgiveness and freedom live together. One cannot exist where the other does not. It is no accident that in Jesus' parable about forgiveness and judgment, it's the "Unforgiving Servant" who ends up in a cell (Matthew 18:21-34). That is where all unforgiveness takes us in the end. Jesus means for us to be free, and to be free we must be forgiven, and to remain free, we must forgive.
I fear the reputation of Christianity is not one of radical forgiveness. I think it is more likely just the opposite—one of radical judgment. This is a result of forgetting just how much we have been forgiven. We too often concern ourselves with lesser things. The scandalous grace of God is seldom proclaimed from our pulpits. It is the message that in the person and work of Jesus, God has forgiven and justified the ungodly. All debts have been forgiven. All cell doors have been unlocked. When we don’t hear this on a regular basis, we forget our absolution and go back to participating in the ruthless judgment of a world trying to justify itself. But all is not lost. God is sending out preachers. He is calling us to come to his table, and as the bread and wine hit our tongues, he is reminding us that mercy is mightier than judgment and freedom is rooted in forgiveness.
When Jesus teaches us to pray, he includes, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). He ties all forgiveness together. God forgives us, and we forgive others. We forgive others, and God forgives us. This is the radical new life God wants us to live in—a life not yet free of sin, but one where judgment is stomped out by mercy.