Church and state and God’s wrath

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:1-5).

Americans sometimes speak as if we invented the separation between church and state. That separation already exists in the Bible. Early Israel—under Moses, Joshua, and the judges, including Samuel—was a theocracy; God was ruler over Israel. But already in his farewell sermon (the book of Deuteronomy), Moses guided by the Holy Spirit anticipated the time when Israel would be ruled by a king. The ultimate king is, of course, Jesus, but the kings of Israel and Judah were pictures of Jesus, preparing the way for his coming as surely as priests and prophets prepared the way of the Lord.

Only Jesus is permitted to hold the two positions of priest and king. Saul and Uzziah were both punished by God when they attempted to do tasks assigned to the priests. Likewise in the New Testament, God’s work is done by church leaders and by human governments, but the work they do is carefully distinguished.

Church leaders proclaim the commands of God largely to diagnose sin, to call for repentance, and to offer forgiveness to sinners. Preachers must speak of the wrath of God, but they do not exercise the wrath of God. Human governments pass laws that regulate behavior to protect citizens from sinners. Governments enforce penalties for murder, robbery, false witness, and other sins, declaring them crimes against the state and punishing people convicted of such crimes.

When the church tries to punish sinners, it steps on the government’s feet. Aside from excluding obviously unrepentant sinners from the blessings of the church, Christian leaders can do little with churchly power to overturn evil in the world. We call upon Christians to do good works, to imitate Christ, but we do not convey God’s wrath when Christians fail. Instead, we continue to call for repentance and continue to promise forgiveness through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

When the government tries to forgive sinners, it steps on the church’s feet. Governors and Presidents have power to pardon criminals, but a governmental pardon is not forgiveness. Forgiveness comes from the cross of Christ through the work of the Church.

Christians have a dual citizenship. We are loyal to human government and take part in its actions. We also belong to the kingdom of God, and our first loyalty is to Jesus. When the government opposes God’s ways, we follow God’s ways, as Daniel did in Babylon and as Peter and John did in Jerusalem. But—even though Christians are called to reach out to their neighbors with the good news of forgiveness through Christ—it is right and not sinful for Christians to report a crime to the police. It is right and not sinful for Christians to testify truthfully in court about crimes they have witnessed. Christians may serve as police officers, jurors, judges, and even executioners. When these actions bring punishment to sinners, the wrath of God is being exercised. The final wrath of God will be expressed on the Day of the Lord, but his wrath works through human government today to limit sin and evil in the world and to protect all people from sin and evil.

Faith in Christ spares sinners from the wrath of God on the Day of the Lord. Faith in Christ does not spare sinners from the wrath of God exercised by human government. Prison officials do not witness to prisoners, but they permit Christians to enter the prisons and witness to prisoners. If a criminal comes to faith in prison, that criminal is a forgiven sinner spared God’s wrath on the Last Day, but that prisoner must continue to serve his or her sentence in the world under the authority of human government.

Human governments consist of sinful humans. They sometimes make mistakes and do what is wrong. In a democracy, Christians are free to vote for the leaders they expect to make the fewest mistakes. They are free to send messages to their leaders, advising them to do what those Christians, informed by the Bible, believe to be right for the government to do. Christians even have freedom to gather together and protest wrong decisions made by the government. Christians remain subject to human government, which represents the authority of God. We owe our leaders honor and respect, even when we feel that they are mistaken—even sinful—in what they say and do.

Church leaders describe the wrath of God to warn sinners of the coming Day of the Lord, the punishment that will be dealt to sinners. But we do so to call for repentance. Rather than constantly preaching fire and brimstone and the wrath of God, Christians should be known for pointing to the cross, showing how Christ consumed the wrath of God to spare us the punishment we deserve. Christian leaders should be known for proclaiming the love and mercy and grace of God, not only his wrath.

Church leaders often call believers to discipleship or to holiness. We remind people why we were made—to love God and to love our neighbors—and we encourage one another to do good works. But the commandments of God do not cause sinners to do good works. The commandments do not create discipleship or holiness. The commandments describe what Christians should do, but the forgiveness of God gives Christians power to do good things. The commandments describe the perfection of Jesus, but the forgiveness of God transforms us into the image of Christ, changing sinners into saints. Knowledge of the wrath of God does not, by itself, redeem sinners; knowledge of the wrath of God moves sinners to repentance, opening their minds and hearts to hear and believe the good news of redemption through Christ.

In this way the Bible distinguishes between the functions of God’s wrath under human governments and in the Christian Church. J.

The wrath of God

“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18).

About a month ago, my friend and fellow blogger InsanityBytes and I had a conversation at her place (See, there’s this thing called biology) about the wrath of God. IB was speaking against “Christian wrath-mongers,” those who emphasize the wrath of God to such an extent that they scarcely leave room for his love and mercy and forgiveness. In particular she has been disturbed by another blogger who persistently describes the cross of Christ in terms that smack of violence, hatred, and abuse. While I agree with her that the third blogger has badly misstated his description of our redemption at the cross, I also found it necessary to reply to her suggestion that the wrath of God is not real, that it does not exist.

Now, had IB said, “The wrath of God no longer exists for Christians because it was consumed at Christ’s sacrifice on the cross,” I would have joyfully agreed with her. To negate the wrath of God in its entirety is to drain the cross of its power. Granted, other descriptions of the cross still have power: that Christ paid the debt of sinners, that he offered a ransom to reclaim sinners from the enemy, that he fought the enemy (the devil, evil, sin, and death) and won. Any single description of redemption is incomplete. To remove God’s wrath from the equation, though, is not a valid option, since the Bible clearly teaches about God’s wrath.

I promised to study the Bible and report upon the wrath of God. I found that—depending upon which English translation of the Bible one uses—the word “wrath” appears roughly 200 times in the Bible. “Anger” and “angry” show up another 275 times, and “fury” is mentioned 70 times. The Hebrew and Greek words translated as wrath, anger, and fury are correctly translated; the various words all have the meaning of “anger, fury, indignation, ire, wrath.” While they are sometimes used to describe the anger and wrath of humans—and, in some cases, even warn against those qualities—by far the larger number of instances attribute wrath to God. Often that wrath is reserved for the Day of the Lord (Judgment Day), but frequently God’s wrath is a response to sin happening in the present world. Sin makes God angry.

When I sin, I hurt myself. When I sin, I harm my neighbor. When I sin, I damage God’s creation. When I sin, I defy God and declare independence, as if I could rule my own life. For all these reasons, God is right to be angry at sin.

Someone might counter that God’s nature is love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness—and God never changes; he is the same yesterday, today, and forever. All that is true. But God is also holy and good, and a holy and good God must respond to sin because of his love for all that he made. When my sin harms my neighbor, God is angry; when my neighbor’s sin harms me, God is angry. A holy God cannot let sin and evil go without atonement; evil must be countered and not merely ignored.

Because Christians are holy people, we also should be angry about sin. For a Christian to shrug and say, “Oh, well, another mass shooting; another child abducted; another fatal overdose; another person abused. There’s so many problems, it just doesn’t matter any more”—that would be cold hearted, unholy, and not like God. Sin should offend us. Evil should anger us. Like God, we should feel righteous wrath toward those who do wrong in this world.

But the Bible does warn Christians against anger and wrath. Wrath is included in lists of sins that God does not accept. Jesus equates anger—anger that causes us to shout insults—with murder. How do we reconcile these teachings with righteous wrath?

The Bible advises us, “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil” (Ephesians 4:26-27). Anger can be a powerful temptation to sin. God cannot be tempted and never sins; his wrath is always righteous. Our wrath can push us into sin, which is why we need to handle wrath with care. When anger is selfish, when it comes from inconvenience to us and not from rejection of evil, such anger is sinful. Jesus calls that kind of anger murder. God’s wrath toward sin is never murderous anger; it is always holy, righteous, and just.

When the Israelites at Mount Sinai had Aaron build them a gold calf to worship, God was angry. “And the Lord said to Moses, ‘I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you.’” (Exodus 32:9-10). Moses interceded for the people, and God relented from his wrath. The intercession of Moses is a picture of Christ’s intercession; what Moses did was only possible because of what Christ would do. “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God” (Romans 5:6-9).

God’s eternal and unchanging nature is love. In love he responds to sin and evil with anger; but in love he also finds a way to rescue sinners from his anger. On the cross, Christ faced the wrath of God, consuming it fully so no wrath is left for sinners who trust in Christ.

(To be continued) J.

Authority

“And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes” (Matthew 7:28-29).

The scribes and Pharisees, writers of the Talmud, constantly quoted one another to establish authority for their positions. No one wanted to take a stand on something that never had been said before. No teacher would dare to proclaim, “I say to you,” without first having the backing of other great teachers in the form of quotations supporting what the current speaker said.

As the Son of God, Jesus had authority to say, “Moses said… but I say to you….” He did not fear using that authority. Such straight-forward teaching amazed the people that heard Jesus teach. They were astounded to hear him speak, without quoting any other teacher, and to listen as he said, “This is what the Bible really means.” Knowing Jesus as we do, his authority does not startle us as it startled his disciples then.

Jesus went beyond contradicting the teachers of God’s Law. He also contradicted the sinful human heart in all its religious manifestations. We want to find in ourselves a goodness that will win God’s approval for us. We seek goodness in ourselves that can help us find our way to God. Jesus preaches the Law in all its severity to show us that we cannot work our way to God by means of the Law. At the very same time, Jesus also describes the gift, the blessing, the way God forgives our sins and opens his kingdom to us through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus.

It is both tragic and comic to hear religious leaders—both Christian and non-Christian—pledge allegiance to the moral standards preached by Jesus. These leaders cannot see that these standards are unobtainable to humans who already have sinned; nor do they comprehend that Jesus offers a better way. Some seek loopholes in his teaching to make us seem good enough for God. Others claim that, so long as we sincerely strive to meet his standards, God will accept us as we are. Neither loopholes nor compromises exist in Jesus’ teaching. He speaks only the Law—which tells us we are deeply in trouble and need help—and the Gospel—which tells us how we have been helped by Jesus.

Jesus is unlike other teachers. He teaches both Law and Gospel, using the Law to show us why we need the Gospel. Unlike teachers who appeal to us to be good, Jesus tells us to be perfect. Other teachers encourage us to live up to God’s moral code. They promise rewards to follow our efforts, and perhaps forgiveness when we try our best and still fall short. Jesus presents instead a message of blessing. He calls the kingdom of heaven a gift given to those who do not deserve it. This gift is given to the people who know that they do not deserve it. Anyone trying to earn this gift is trapped in sand. Anyone who knows Jesus—truly knows him as the one who rescues us, not merely the one who teaches us how to live—stands on the rock. Jesus teaches with authority. He has authority to forgive sins, to rescue sinners, and to give blessings. This authority of Jesus is amazing and wonderful. J.

I never knew you

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that Day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and cast out demons in your name and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness’” (Matthew 7:21-23).

Jesus’ words seem harsh and frightening, warning that it is possible to call Jesus Lord, to do miracles in his name, and still not be known by him! How then can we be sure that he knows us and will claim us as his people on the Last Day?

Jesus wants us to do the will of is Father. His Father’s will is not just the Law—not just that we do not hate, do not lust, do not swear oaths, do not resist an evil person, love our enemies, give to the needy, pray, fast, forgive, and do not worry. Yes, that is the Father’s will for our lives; he created us so we would live that way. But if perfect obedience to this Law is the only way to earn a place in heaven, we are in desperate trouble. Our righteousness is not good enough; we are not perfect like God.

The Father’s will is to change us, to make us perfect. His will; is to give us the kingdom (Luke 12:32)—he gives the kingdom as a gift, a blessing, not a reward for good deeds. Those who come to Jesus on the Last Day boasting of the things they have done for him will show that they did not truly know him. Even if they call him “Lord” and worked miracles in his name, so long as they boast of their accomplishments, they demonstrate that they never knew Jesus. They failed to know him because they looked at themselves and at the things they did. Their treasures are on earth, in their own good works; their treasures are not in heaven, in the righteousness of Jesus. Because they did not know Jesus—because they did not seek God’s kingdom and righteousness in Jesus—Jesus will say that he never knew them.

Not only do we call Jesus Lord; we also believe his promises. We seek his kingdom and his righteousness, not in our good deeds, but in his blessings. We build our lives on him, not on ourselves. Because our lives are built on him, we do not need to fear that, on the Last Day, Jesus might say to us, “Go away—I never knew you.” J.

Wolves in sheep’s clothing

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:15-20).

Jesus blends two metaphors—the wolf in sheep’s clothing and the tree identified by its fruit. Both metaphors warn us of false prophets. Certainly we must judge other people! We must use good judgment to determine who is telling us the truth about God and salvation and who is misrepresenting the truth. (Some Christians would substitute the word “discernment” for judgment in this context.) When we judge, we do not consider only outward appearances, which can deceive us. When we judge, we look at the results of a life—its fruit. Thus we see whether the person we are judging—the person who claims to be leading us on the paths of Jesus Christ—is faithful to Christ.

Many false religious leaders have fallen victim to temptation. Their sins are known, and we can avoid their false teachings. What should happen, though, if a teacher contradicts God’s Word and yet appears to be moral and upright? Must we accept them as genuine even if their message differs from the Bible? In Deuteronomy, two kinds of false prophets are rejected (and executed): those whose words do not come to pass, and those who preach in the name of false gods—even if their words do come to pass. Jesus teaches nothing different. False teachers may be able to exhibit the outward appearance of virtue, but if their words do not match the words of Jesus, their fruit will be bad. We do not need to wait for the fruit to ripen before we judge it; we already know that the fruit will be bad when we see that the tree is bad.

We judge teachers by their fruits to know which teachers to follow, but we do not judge ourselves this way. We know our hidden sins too well to be convinced by our fruits that we are holy enough for God. When we try to measure our faith and our salvation by our good deeds, we always see ourselves falling short. Instead of measuring ourselves by what we do, we trust what God says about us: we are forgiven, our sins are washed away, and we are clothed in Christ’s righteousness. The promise of Baptism says that we have been washed clean and adopted into God’s family. From this forgiveness and adoption, good fruit follows. Others may see our saintly fruit and know that we belong to God’s kingdom, but we continually place our confidence in the promises of God and not in our own fruits.

But anyone who teaches a religion of Law, a message consisting only of ethics and morals and doing the right thing, is teaching an incomplete religion, a false religion. Anyone who omits the Gospel promise of forgiveness through Jesus is a bad tree, a wolf in disguise. We judge them by their own teachings, for we already know that no one but Jesus can fulfill the Law perfectly. Those who affirm God’s Law and also share the promise of forgiveness through Jesus are presenting the true message of the Gospel. They are good trees, and they will bear good fruit. We will recognize them by that fruit. J.

The narrow gate

“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:13-14).

Robert Frost wrote about taking the road less traveled; “and that has made all the difference,” he assures us. Jesus also seems to recommend the road less traveled rather than following the crowd. The majority of people are entering the wide gate and are following the road that leads to destruction.

What is this wide gate and this easy road? Some might think this describes worldly living, being concerned about what to eat and drink and wear, having treasures and hearts on earth rather than in heaven. Based on this interpretation, they might say that the narrow gate is the moral life, the ethical way, the paths traced by Jesus in his commands as Jesus explains God’s Law.

But even the ethical way is not good enough for God. Our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees. We must be perfect. Earthly treasures include the good works that we do on earth. Heavenly treasures consist only of God’s blessings—his gifts—which he gives to us through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus.

All the religions of the world know that it is wrong to kill, wrong even to hate. All the religions of the world oppose lust and revenge and injustice. All the religions of the world recommend a relationship with the divine, one based on prayer and fasting and other good works. All the religions of the world warn their followers not to impress the people living here on earth, but to pursue instead a single-minded love for the One who is in heaven.

All the religions of the world tell us to be more concerned with God than we are with ourselves and with the things of this world. But the religions of the world are still trapped in this world. They tell us how to live in this world, offering a promise that if we live right in the present world we earn rewards for the future.

This urge to earn rewards for the future is the log in our eye, the log which blinds us. We want to live up to God’s standards and earn his favor. Even though this is a holy desire, it also becomes the broad way that leads to destruction. The secret of the kingdom tells us that Jesus is the narrow gate. We enter his kingdom, not by our efforts to obey him and imitate his goodness, but by his gift, his blessing, the things Jesus has done for us.

God himself mourns that so few people find this gate, that so many follow the broad way of trying to be good enough for God—a road that leads, not to perfection, but to destruction. God speaks to the sinners of the world through his apostles and his prophets. He sends the members of his Church to share the good news that we are rescued from evil and reconciled to God through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus told his followers to make disciples of all nations, to share the Gospel with all creation; he said that repentance of sins and forgiveness must be proclaimed in all nations, beginning in Jerusalem. The Bible was written so we would believe in Jesus; and believing, we have life in his name.

Many people who claim to be sharing the teachings of Christ speak only about the rules and commands, neglecting to share the promises and blessings. Jesus wants us to know the rules so we understand why we need a Savior. Because we are rescued, forgiven, and blessed by God, he expects us to use his power to do what is right. The road to the kingdom of God still does not include our obedience. Jesus is the way. Jesus is the gate. Only through Jesus are we rescued and brought into God’s kingdom. J.

The Golden Rule

“So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12).

The Golden Rule is one of the basic principles of God’s Law—so basic, in fact, that it is found (in one form or another) in every religion on earth. Even most atheists and agnostics favor this rule (with a few exceptions such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Ayn Rand). Most people agree with Jesus that we should treat each other the way we want to be treated. We love our neighbors when we care as much about them as we do about ourselves, when we are as concerned about their wants and needs as we are concerned about our own wants and needs.

Because this maxim is so basic, we sometimes treat it as a stand-alone saying. Bible verses always have a context; they draw meaning from the verses that precede them and the verses that follow them. But this saying appears to be misplaced. It stands between a promise of gifts from the Father and an admonition to choose the narrow gate. Did Jesus want to connect this verse to either of those teachings, did it slip into this place by accident, or did Matthew jumble the teachings of Jesus, throwing together a few pithy sayings near the end of the Sermon on the Mount?

The Bible is God’s Word. Nothing written in the Bible was placed there by accident. The organization of thoughts presented in the Bible matters to God, so it matters also to God’s people. Jesus was making an important point about the Law and the Prophets. He spoke the Golden Rule at just the right time in his sermon.

Jesus had shown the strict demands of God’s Law, the Law which tells us to be perfect. His promise that God answers prayers was spoken in a context of promised forgiveness and rescue, a promise tied to the blessings of the kingdom of God. Jesus now appears to be saying, “The Law is simple. Just treat other people the way you want to be treated. It doesn’t get any more complicated than that.” The Golden Rule is not the narrow gate to heaven. The Golden Rule is the wide gate, known to everyone. Seen as the road to heaven, this commandment is on a path that is completely wrong. It summarizes the Law and the Prophets, because everything God expects us to do is included in this simple command. Jesus did not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets; he came to fulfill them. He came to do for us those things he wants us to do. The sinless life of Jesus is God’s answer to our prayers as we ask God for his kingdom and his righteousness.

We cannot rescue ourselves by obeying God’s commands. Not one of us is perfect; only Jesus is perfect. Jesus credits us with his righteousness. He does everything that he wants us to do. In this way he answers our prayers. He forgives our sins. He adopts us into God’s family. He calls us “sons of God.” This blessing, this gift, is given to us, but not because we deserve it for our efforts to be like him. It is given because Jesus loves us and because he has paid to claim us for himself and his kingdom.

Now that we are rescued, Jesus still wants us to obey his commands. He wants us to love God and to love one another, because love is the nature of God. We were made to be loved and to love. Jesus still wants us to do for others what we would have them do for us. He expects this from us. Although this commandment is not the gate to God’s kingdom, we live according to the Golden Rule. Our proper treatment of our neighbors is a result of being forgiven, being adopted, and being called sons of God. J.

Dogs and pigs

“Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you” (Matthew 7:6).

After telling us not to judge, Jesus adds a statement that calls for judgment. What is our holy treasure, our pearls? Who are the dogs and the pigs? What is Jesus warning us not to do?

Our greatest treasure is the Gospel, the good news of God’s love and forgiveness, given to sinners through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. God wants us to share this good news with everyone we know. He wants the whole world to know what he has done, so everyone can take advantage of his blessings. When Jesus tells us not to judge, he warns us not to live by the rules only and not to force others to do the same.

But when Jesus speaks about dogs and pigs, he is warning us against the opposite extreme. We are not truthful when we tell a sinner, “God loves you just the way you are.” A more accurate statement would be, “Jesus loves you in spite of the way you are, and for that reason he is going to change you.” When we speak only of God’s love to sinners who are resisting God’s rules for their lives, they might reach the conclusion that God does not care what they do. In the end, they will reject God’s promises along with his commands. If they do not understand the high cost of their sins again God, they cannot comprehend the meaning of the suffering and death of Jesus on the cross. He paid the price for all sins. Some sinners, though, reject his forgiveness and turn away from him because they do not realize how desperately they need God’s gifts.

Jesus gave us a thorough look at God’s high standards. As he tells us the rules—do not hate, do not lust, and so on—he describes to us our need to be rescued. He diagnoses the fatal illness from which he can cure us through his life and death and resurrection. We see the beauty of his promises, how precious they are, when we first see the diagnosis of our desperate need, our inability to rise to the required level of righteousness and perfection on our own. Without this understanding of our need, we too would be dogs and pigs.

We do not ignore the dogs and the pigs. We gently and respectfully share God’s rules with them, working to help them gain an understanding of the treasure they need, the good news of the Gospel. We do not withhold this good news from any sinner who realizes his or her need and wants to be rescued. Such a sinner is a repentant sinner, not a dog or a pig. Like us, they can comprehend the depth of the riches of God’s love in Jesus Christ.

But, to the sinner who prefers his or her sin to the Savior, we must be careful not to share our sacred treasure. The sinner who does not repent is a sinner who cannot be absolved of sin. Even though Jesus paid for the sins of the whole world, some people reject his grace and gain no benefit from his promises. If we keep speaking of God’s love and forgiveness to a sinner who does not love God and does not want to be forgiven, we waste our breath and we invite their attacks upon us. Jesus does not forbid every kind of judgment. He wants us to judge who has repented and should be told of Christ’s forgiveness and who refuses to repent and should only be warned of the penalty for sin. J.

The log in your eye

“Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is a log in your own eye? 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” (Matthew 7:3-5).

Jesus has a sense of humor. He intends for us to laugh at the image of the hypocrite who wants to remove a speck from his brother’s eye without noticing the log in his own eye. With vivid exaggeration, Jesus depicts what happens when someone lives by the Law alone and judges other people according to God’s Law.

The Law is natural in men and women. God placed his Law in our hearts. Each of us has a conscience that tells us the difference between right and wrong. Most religions—and most moral people who have no religion—agree on the basics of what is right and what is wrong. The moral teachings of Jesus win approval from most of the world, but most of the world is blind to two things. First, we sinners are unable to live perfectly by the high standards of Jesus; therefore, his commands condemn us rather than rescuing us. Second, our rescue from condemnation comes through the blessings of God and not through our efforts to obey his commands.

The log in the hypocrite’s eye is refusing to repent of sins and refusing to seek forgiveness through the work of Jesus. The scribes and Pharisees made this mistake. Many people who call themselves Christians make the same mistake. They try to use God’s Law to correct the sins of other people, but they are too blind to realize that the same Law condemns them, warning them that they need a Savior. As long as these people persist trying to improve the lives of other people by the power of the Law, they will be unable to help anyone. Their blindness to God’s plan of salvation sticks like a log out of both their eyes.

God removes the log, not through his commands, but through the promises of the Gospel. When God removes the logs from our eyes, he turns them into a cross where Jesus is crucified. On that cross, the payment for all sins is accomplished. Jesus takes the log from our eyes when he carries our sins to the cross, paying in full to provide us forgiveness. This Gospel promise is the source of our cure, our rescue, and our life.

Jesus has taken away our sins. He has removed the logs from our eyes. We can see clearly now. Seeing clearly, we are able to help other people to see. Equipped with both the commands and the promises of Jesus, we can help our brothers to remove specks for their eyes. “Judge not” does not mean “remain silent about every sin.” “Judge not” means “do not deal with other people only on the basis of God’s Law.” When we are blind to the blessings of God and his forgiveness, we cannot help anyone. When Jesus has removed all impediments to our sight, then we can help. We warn people about their sins, but we also share Christ’s forgiveness with them in the same way we have been forgiven. J.

Judge not

“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).

Some people use these words to escape any criticism from others. Even if they are doing something wrong or believing something contrary to the Bible, they still claim to be free from judgment because of these words of Jesus.

But Jesus did not say “judge not” to silence Christians and their rebukes of sin. Jesus tells us to “watch out for false prophets,” saying, “by their fruit you will recognize them.” Elsewhere in the Bible Christians are told to encourage, exhort, and correct one another by the teachings of Scripture. If someone is doing something that God says is wrong, Jesus calls upon his people to respond. If someone believes something that God says is untrue, Christians are told to respond with the truth. In neither case should we ignore the problem.

When Jesus tells his people not to judge, he makes a distinction between present behavior and eternal existence. Jesus gave us a set of rules, describing the lives he wants us to live. Jesus said do not hate, do not lust, do not swear oaths, do not resist an evil person, love your enemies, give to the needy, pray, forgive, fast, do not be anxious. Jesus does not want us to use these commandments as weapons against one another. We all have sinned; we all have broken these commandments. We all need a Savior. Yes, we should use these commands to encourage one another to do right. We should use these commands to explain to one another why we all need a Savior. Jesus forbids us to use these commands to distinguish genuine faith from hypocrisy. He does not want us to use these rules to decide who is saved and who is lost. If we try to judge other people according to these teachings, we will end with the realization that all of us are lost according to these standards.

To remind us that his Law condemns all of us as sinners, Jesus threatens to judge us by these standards if we use them to judge others. Measuring our lives by these standards, we see how badly we have fallen short of God’s plan for our lives. We desperately need his gift, his blessings, his promise to rescue us. This is true for each of us; therefore, it is true of our fellow Christians.

Christians frequently fall into the trap of the Pharisees, thinking that obedience to God’s Law makes us better than other people. We persuade ourselves that our obedience makes us good enough to inherit a place in heaven. Anyone who judges by the Law, without the blessing of the Gospel, will see failure and condemnation in every life, aside from the life of Jesus. When Jesus says “judge not,” he means this: Do not use the Law alone to measure a life, but see it through the Gospel promise. See that those who trust in Jesus are those forgiven by Jesus, credited with his goodness and therefore counted worthy of heaven. Measure your fellow Christians this way, and also measure yourself this way. Trust the promises of God—not the commandments—to rescue you from evil and to shape your life. J.