Judgment through Grace: When Helping in the Christian Community Hurts
Once, when sharing his testimony, my dear brother in Christ shared how our pastor picked him up every Sunday for church in high school. Back then, he had little interest in theology or being in relationship with Christ, and went to avoid his parents’ nagging. He would get in the car every Sunday smelling like weed, and this pastor would still drive him every Sunday, asking him how he was, acting like he didn’t know what was happening. Without this sort of grace, my brother in Christ would not have felt the overwhelming sense of gratitude that he did, and would have not met God at this church.
Although this may seem irresponsible of the pastor, talking to someone about their sin looks different across a wide range of dispositions. This could be in terms of word choice, tone, or even if there should be confrontation at all. Judgment in the church is necessary within a Christian community. The word judgment in Greek, krisis, refers to the Day of Judgment, implies condemning and also thinking or determining. If we do not judge, we cannot discern what is good or bad, and worse, we cannot forgive, for forgiveness assumes a negative judgment succeeded by mercy. Jesus tells us to “watch after false prophets,” and that we have the ability to “recognize them…by their fruit.” 1 We must hold each other accountable and build each other up in the eyes of God lovingly and boldly, and sometimes this love means making hard confrontation. Failing to judge means failing to love.
However, we must also differentiate between judgment and condemnation. Judgment is wrong when it is either conveyed as or is motivated by jealousy, bitterness, spite, selfish ambition, or other sin. We often memorize John 3:16 in Sunday school, but skip over the verse that directly follows: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” 2 Although the ESV version translates this verse as “the world might be saved,” the Greek Bible does not have that uncertainty: God sends his Son so that the world will be saved through him. God is more interested in saving us than condemning us. In the same chapter, a Pharisee named Nicodemus visits Jesus to discuss His teachings. Since he is afraid, even ashamed, of being seen with Christ, he ventures off to meet Him in the night. Even though Nicodemus’ faith is shaky, Jesus welcomes him. 3 Although his faith was weak in the beginning, Nicodemus later proclaims Christ publicly when He is crucified. 4 Since our relationship with Christ is a process of growth because it is a relationship, rather an end product.
A Christian community should be a place where people can feel comfortable but not comfortable, judged but not judged. Instead of worrying if someone is a stumbling block to us, let us be accountable with our decisions first. 5 Jesus recognizes the human tendency to judge based on our own hearts, and it is much harder to empathize when we are not pure ourselves, since “to the pure everything is pure.” 6 Before we make a critical comment or undeserved praise to someone, consider the Gospel and let it interweave in our reflection. Letting Jesus operate like that not only in our conversations, but more importantly, in our private lives, allows us to approach our relationships with humility and compassion.
When considering what is implied in the word “judgment” today, the way we choose our words should be intentional and mindful of people’s sensitivities. We must approach every brother and sister differently, because some types of confrontation are more helpful in recognizing sin than others. There is no set equation for accountability, but we do need to feel compassion all the time for the brokenness in ourselves, each other, and our relationships, the way Jesus was “moved with compassion when He saw the crowds.” 7 Compassion in Luke 10:33 literally means “to suffer with someone.” If we feel someone’s pain that leads them to the deeply ingrained sins in their life, it will lead us closer to the agape love that Christ says is our responsibility to all of our neighbors. 8 Jesus came down to this world and met us where we were. When we look at our relationships, instead of being frustrated at how our brothers and sisters act, we must close the distance and meet them where they are.
That being said, sometimes in Christian community, there is confusion regarding judgment or grace when considering sin, sometimes leading us to serious disagreement with one another. However, judgment and grace are not mutually exclusive, but operate in the same place. With Christ, it is not either/or, since judgment and grace are dependent on each other. Even in the New Testament, which focuses a lot on grace, we see the wrath of God on the cross where Jesus was crucified and our debts were paid. As people who often live according to flesh and sin, we need God’s judgment so that his word may be fulfilled. However, God gave us salvation, and through grace we are redeemed. Because we are judged, we are given grace. Grace cannot exist in the absence of judgment.
God is the true Sovereign. God is the true Judge. How incredibly humiliated will we feel on the Day of Judgment, after we have judged each other so harshly based on pride and human standards, when we have been looking through a telescope and God has been looking at the whole landscape. The Pharisees were condemned because they held onto the traditions of man more than to the righteousness of God. 9 It is wrong to take our personal convictions and set them as standards. 10 To condemn other people—to bring each other down or to point fingers—means we are assuming the throne that is God’s, for the Bible explicitly states, “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?” 11 God’s commandment was for us to love our neighbor, not judge him. Let us focus on how we speak to one another, and approach one another humbly.
We should find comfort that God will judge all sin in righteousness. 12 Instead of judging and then condemning our neighbor, let’s take our judgment to the feet of the Lord, and wrestle with what it means to love others righteously and compassionately. Let us judge out of concern for other people, rather than based off of a criterion of right and wrong, even if our people continue to do things we don’t agree with or continue to sin. When I try to change my own behavior, even something trivial like biting my nails, it’s incredibly hard to undo. It is almost impossible to change other people without robbing them of their agency. The only way someone can truly change to be more Christlike is through Christ. Faith bears fruit, for Jesus says, “Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” 13 Our job isn’t to control or condemn people. Rather, it is our responsibility to keep each other accountable by pointing people to Christ, the true vine, so our hearts will be softened. Our resolution is not to change people, but to change each other’s intentions so their change would be out of an obedience to God, rather than a desire to please friends and family. We have a responsibility to lean more on Scripture than on our opinions, and to lean more on Christ than on ourselves. 14
We must be vigilant and wary in the ways we hold people accountable, for fellowshipping in Christian community can sometimes lead to performance-based faith. When Jesus says, “‘He who delivers me unto you has the greater sin,’” it can be inferred that though some sin has a greater degree of culpability, all sin defies God. 15 Sin is not just against people, but against God, and therefore is a crime against Him. We are against the doctrine of Christ when we sin, and that is terribly scary. When David repents in the Psalms, he laments, “Against You and You only have I sinned.” 16 Doing, looking, and saying the right thing zeroes in on the shallower side of being Christlike, and counts for nothing in the eyes of God when we want to please other people. Abiding by the rules in order to be a good Christian is a dangerous and deceptive game to play, for there is no such thing as a good or bad Christian, but there is only Christian or non-Christian. While it is important to realize the way sin separates us from Christ and the importance of sanctification, we must be wary of placing importance on the trajectory of our actions, since Christ knows our true intentions. Furthermore, the question we need to ask about behavior is not about what is permissible (“Is this sinning?”), but whether it is beneficial (“Will this bring me to closer to God?”). 17 Jesus hates sin but loves the people of this world: the prostitutes, the debilitated, and the tax collectors, to name a few. 18 When we look at the life of Jesus, we have to constantly ask ourselves whether we are being true witnesses and servants, or merely adopting a “holier-than-thou” doctrine, like the Pharisees.
Humbling ourselves before Christ allows us to admit that we are at fault and shortsighted towards our brothers and sisters. When we allow ourselves to trust God, we also allow Him to work through us in each other’s lives. Recognizing the difference between our role and God’s role enables us to trust God in His judgment, while leaving us to discern between what is righteous and what is not. Above all, we are called to love. 19 This allows us to keep each other accountable with compassion.
- Matthew 7:15-16 ↩
- John 3:17 ↩
- John 3:1-21 ↩
- John 19:39-42 ↩
- Matthew 7:5, John 8:1-8 ↩
- Titus 1:15 ↩
- Matthew 9:36 ↩
- Luke 10:25-37, Matthew 5:43-48 ↩
- Mark 7:6-9 ↩
- Romans 14, Corinthians 8 ↩
- James 4:12 ↩
- 1 Corinthians 4:15 ↩
- John 15:5-6 ↩
- Romans 14 ↩
- John 19:11 ↩
- Psalm 51:4 ↩
- Romans 6:12 ↩
- John 8:1-11, John 5, Luke 19:1-10 ↩
- Matthew 22:36-40 ↩