Discernment and Judgement, Fidelity and Humility before God - A Study of Matthew 7

*disclaimer – I know this is probably off-topic for RedState, but I have a prior diary on discernment, and this article builds on top of the previous one. Besides, I figured some here would appreciate it.*

Everywhere I go online, I find what I believe to be wild misunderstandings and unhealthy doctrine on the concept of Biblical Judgement. This article is an attempt to define at the very least my beliefs, if not the true and proper interpretation of scripture. It is my belief that what follows here is the interpretation of scripture that is most consistent with the character and truth of Christ’s person and teachings.

Before we dive in, let me just say that if anyone thinks they might be uncomfortable with this topic, please stop reading, hit the “back” button and go get a cup of coffee and move on. This subject is neither easy nor painless. I’m going to drill home some ideas that may be difficult for some to cope with.

That being said, lets dive in, shall we? If you don’t have your bible available, I will be linking the passages on BibleGateway as well as quoting them.

First, we have to look at Matthew 7. Jesus is in the middle of His sermon on the mount, probably the most powerful sermon ever given in history. In this sermon, He lays out with frightening clarity the path His faithful should follow, and gives focus and perspective to the laws of Moses, which He says He came to fulfill, not to destroy.

Judging Others

1 “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. 2 For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

3 “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? 4 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? 5 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.

6 “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces.

First, lets examine the initial admonition here. Jesus used a word here, (Strong’s 2919, transliterated “krino”) that means by implication to try, condemn, and punish. This implication comes from the historical and cultural context and Jesus’ use of the word. The leaders of the Jewish faith at the time, the Pharisees and scribes, had developed since Moses’ time elaborate laws concerning the cleanliness of a person’s soul. They had tied this cleanliness to the idea of being sinless before God and thus were passing judgement on the eternal souls of their brethren. Jesus here is making a point to condemn the practice of judging the state of another’s soul, pointing to the sinful nature of all humanity as an outward indicator of our lack of authority.

He does make two very interesting and seemingly contradictory points here, though, that bear some examination. At the end of the second idea here, He mentions that it is possible to remove (even temporarily) the sin from our own lives and thus gain the clarity necessary to help pull others out of their sinful lives. In order to do this, it would of course be necessary to exercise judgement, correct? Then in verse 6 He mentions that we should exercise judgement in those with whom we associate, saying that if we give our best to those who cannot appreciate or understand it, they will, in fits of ignorant rage, trample the gems of truth and love we’ve given them and then tear us to pieces. Now, in order to determine with whom we should and should not associate, it is important to judge, is it not? Lets move on in this chapter and see if Jesus makes another point that might clarify.

Ask, Seek, Knock

7 “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.

9 “Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 11 If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! 12 So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.
Matt 7:7-12 (NIV)

I’m not skipping anything here, because every word of this chapter is incredibly important, and it is vital to keep this in its biblical context. The first two verses here see Jesus explaining the Grace of His mission here on Earth. It is an invitation open to all, but that will be granted only to those who earnestly seek it. This concept is so fundamental to the Plan of Salvation as to be its very cornerstone. The Grace of Christ’s sacrifice is an invitation, open to all, but requiring effort on our part to seek it out and recognize it.

Next, Jesus points to the natural distinction between goodness and evil. His example here points to more than the well-known Golden Rule, but a greater mystery which is a foundational principle of creation. It has been called Natural Law, God’s Law and many others, but what Jesus is very eloquently illuminating here is the integral, self-evident nature of right and wrong in creation. Because all of creation was realized and set in motion by God, and God is the standard for all perfection, it follows that He could not create anything but perfection. This is the simplest, most basic definition of “good” that can be found. When His creation, through the gift of free will He granted us, chooses other than this perfection, it is “evil,” in the most fundamental sense. Jesus uses examples here that are meant to make the reader go, “Well duh, yeah, everyone knows that!” Why? How? How is it that these examples Jesus uses are so universal? The laser-specific point here is that good and evil are clearly defined because they are fundamental concepts of creation. These concepts are defined exactly the same for every living thing on Earth, precisely because they are not relative to us, but relative to God. Moral relativism is the willing ignorance of this fundamental, self-evident order. It might be best to pause, take a deep breath and perhaps get a soda here. This isn’t the half of it.

The Narrow and Wide Gates

13 “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.
Matt 7:13-14 (NIV)

Jesus here reiterates that it will take constant effort to walk the path that leads to the kingdom of heaven. He uses the imagery of a wide path for the lost and very narrow path for the faithful, then ends by saying that very few will actually make their way to the kingdom, in the end. This piece is really neat, because Jesus is referring both to the old and the new here. Prior to His sacrifice at the Cross, the way to salvation was incredibly difficult, and I cannot imagine many actually made it to the end of life in such a condition as to be acceptable before God. The laws and strictures of Judaism are nothing if not exacting in that they cover virtually every iniquity we human beings could imagine. Now, after the Cross, we have a new path that involves confessing our sins and laying them on his Grace. Jesus is saying here that neither path is “easy.” In order to confess, we have to first acknowledge and accept responsibility for our sins, and by doing so take up a cross right beside Him. This in and of itself is painful. At that moment, the weight of your sins will seem to want to all but crush the life from you as you realize your utter and complete unworthiness of His love and acceptance. But something truly miraculous happens next: Jesus reaches out His hand and accepts your burden, takes the cross and gives His life on it for you. Time and time again He will do this, and it is the gift that merely needs to be accepted. The catch here is that acceptance comes with some attendant pain as well. The Joy afterwards at the true spiritual freedom is incomparable to anything you will ever otherwise experience.

Also, don’t make the mistake of accepting this grace just once and then going about your sinful way, going through the motions of faith. Faith too often in today’s Church gets boiled down to its simplest, least troublesome meaning: belief. Is mere belief all it takes to secure the grace of God through His Son? Lets look at one of the most popular passages of the Bible and see if we can make heads or tails of it. (Yes, we’ll be returning to Matthew 7)

16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
John 3:16 (NIV)

The Greek word used for “believe” here, transliterated as “pisteuwn” (Strong’s 4100), has a number of meanings, the first being its literal translation “belief,” or to think something is true. It has secondary meanings, however, in that it also means to entrust with one’s well-being and commit to in a sense of fidelity. So hang on, we’ve heard all our lives, being protestants, that man cannot be saved by works, only through the cleansing power of Christ’s sacrifice. How is it that confession, which is an action only we can take, would be a necessary component of salvation? Jesus in the passage above and surrounding scripture hands us a responsibility, ladies and gentlemen. In order to receive the grace of God, we are called to “believe” in all the forms and meanings of that word. So what about all this confession stuff?

8 If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.
1 John 1:8-10 (NIV)

It is my belief and practice, based in part on this scripture and on common sense, that just because I publically gave my life to Christ and was baptized by immersion, that does not mean I am not eternally clean. I am human. I sin. I transgress the natural law of God on a daily basis and require the cleansing, burden-lifting hand of Christ constantly. My soul has not transformed somehow into a stain-resistant super-textile fabric, and I am no more incapable of sin than I was prior to my conversion. I do now, however, have a loving Savior who will pick me up and take the cross from my shoulders, if only I confess to Him.

There is more to this than I have delved into here and much, much more scripture supporting it, but the point is made. Let’s move on to the next section of Matthew 7.

A Tree and Its Fruit

15 “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. 16 By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.

21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’
Matt 7:15-23 (NIV)

So earlier Christ admonished us not to judge, but now He’s saying we should discern false prophets. In this case, He gives us a method and in doing so gives the example that should guide all Christian discernment. We are to judge others by the fruits of their lives, the results, their words and actions. Twice here He says, “By their fruit you will recognize them.” The word used in the greek here, transliterated as “epignwsesqe” (don’t ask me to pronounce it) means to know based on a mark of some sort, and implies becoming fully acquainted, to perceive well. So Christ is saying here that if someone’s life bears rotten, hateful, unhealthy fruit, we can conclude that they are riddled with sin and that we should avoid giving our trust to them, calling them wolves in sheep’s clothing. This is a reference back to the admonition before not to give our best to dogs or cast our pearls before swine, since we’ll just end up with trampled pearls and injuries. Nowhere here does He say not to associate with sinners or that we should condemn and punish them. In fact, two chapters later He calls Matthew into His service and dines with tax collectors and other sinners. The Pharisees see this and ask His disciples why he dines with sinners:

The Calling of Matthew

9 As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.

10 While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and “sinners” came and ate with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?”

12 On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Matt 9:9-13 (NIV)

Jesus’ response here is one I can imagine as being both literal and slyly sarcastic. As we examined earlier, the Grace of the cross is contingent on our willingness to surrender our sinless self-image, acknowledge and confess our sins and accept His grace, placing the burden of those sins on His shoulders. Jesus seems to be saying that He did not come to save those who would not surrender and be humbled before Him, but those that would honestly confess and come to Him in a spirit of need. This leads us to the last part of the quote above.

Jesus says that not everyone who claims him will enter the kingdom of heaven. This verse flies right into the face of the traditional interpretation of the word “believe” throughout John chapter 3 and the (in my opinion, false) doctrine of “once saved, always saved.” Jesus is plainly, inescapably saying here that some will do great works in His name, driving out demons, prophesying and performing great miracles, but will not have been able to face the taint of sin in themselves, thus denying themselves the Grace at the Cross. This is an incredibly difficult fact to accept and is against a great deal of popular doctrine in today’s politically and emotionally correct Church. Jesus has, in the space of a few sentences, acknowledged that the path is narrow and difficult and now is saying that even those who lead people to the path may not find the gate at its end themselves.

The Wise and Foolish Builders

24 “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. 26 But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”

28 When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, 29 because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.
Matt 7:24-29 (NIV)

But take heart! Those who hear Jesus and can accept the gift He’s given them, putting into practice the life of confessory humility before God gains a stability and permanence that can not otherwise be found, both in this life and the hereafter. Without the weight of sins, acknowledged or otherwise, on your soul, the word “freedom” gains new wings. A sort of strength of spirit and sharpening of the mind occurs, simultaneously with a thirst for the Word of the Lord. The imagery used in this passage also features natural disasters “judging” the quality of each man’s structure. In todays parlance we’d call these things “acts of God,” again driving home the idea that it is not up to us to judge the eternal soul, the spiritual house a man has built. It is God’s authority alone.

The last two verses here give witness to this authority, as the people listening sit in wonder that Jesus’ authority flows from a source other than tradition, as with their scribes and Pharisees. Jesus’ authority comes from God the Father Himself, as the author of creation itself. Perhaps a topic for another time will be the inviolable, perfect sovereignty of God.

-Evan Weeks