DOCTRINE: The Sermon on the Mount: Judgment Without Mercy

by David Flatt

Synopsis: In contrast with the cruelty of the callout culture, David focuses on the proper approach Christians should take toward those who are living in sin.

Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye (Matt. 7:1-5).

To this point in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has been direct and forthright in rebuking the self-righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. Most of what Jesus said in chapters 5 and 6 related to their hypocrisy. Some listening to Jesus may very well have been quite pleased to hear someone rebuke the religious leaders of the day. In this context, Jesus seems to bring a sense of balance to His previous rebukes. Teachers and preachers would be wise to note this important dynamic.

Sometimes when delivering and listening to sermons which rightfully rebuke self-righteousness, we can easily forget how we are to present and listen to such teaching. We are to present and listen to teaching with a view to ourselves. When we get to thinking, "I really let 'em have it today!" or "She really needs to hear that!" we have gone wrong. If any were thinking like this in Jesus' audience, He quickly refocuses attention to where it should have been all along: on themselves (Jas. 1:21-25).

On a personal note, most of the explanations of this text I have heard over the years go something like this: "Jesus said judge not lest ye be judged, but that does not mean we cannot judge others." Does this sound familiar? Why is this so often the approach taken to explain this text? Instead of mainly focusing on what this text does not say, why not focus on what this text does say? Do we think Jesus needs to be corrected in what He said, or some kind of asterisk needs to be placed next to this teaching? Certainly not.

Judge Not, Lest You Be Judged

Why are we so easily able to see the faults of others more clearly than our own? While I do not have an exact answer to this question, I do know it is true. Deflecting negative attention away from ourselves and toward others helps us acquire and maintain power. Such deflection is also how we deceive ourselves into thinking we are morally superior to others.

As was stated in the introductory article to this series, many have mistaken the purpose of God's kingdom in the world. Many have been misguided, malicious, and even murderous in their attempts to advance the kingdom. In this sermon, Jesus declares we are not to pass self-righteous, hypocritical judgment against others.

The purpose of kingdom work is not to pass judgment against the world. God passed judgment against the prince of this world, and also those who collude with him, through the cross of the Messiah and by the Spirit (John 16:7-11). As a representation of this judgment, the cross is a sign pointing to the final judgment (Acts 17:30-31). Therefore, passing judgment against the world is not our place. Nevertheless, disciples have often tried to usurp God's judgment seat.

On one occasion, James and John were deeply offended by the Samaritan's rejection of Jesus. In their self-righteous, vengeful anger, they asked Jesus if they should call down fire from heaven to destroy the Samaritans (Luke 9:54). He sharply rebuked them, saying, "Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of. For the Son of man is not come to destroy men's lives, but to save them" (Luke 9:55-56).

Like James and John, we may not realize whose spirit we reflect by similar self-righteous indignation. It seems to be far too easy for us to call for entire nations and civilizations to be "wiped off the map," or boldly assert how someone who made a bad decision "got what they deserved." When someone finally comes to their senses and reaches out for help, we may reject the request because "you made your bed…now lie in it." Or, after someone offers an apology, we will question his sincerity.

Our kingdom work is about salvation—not condemnation. Those living in sin already have a Judge. They do not need another. Our attitude toward people in sin is never to be shaped by what we think they deserve, but by what they most desperately need. Those in sin need someone to help them and save them. As royal priests in God's kingdom, we are to be ministers of God's mercy.

Our ministry is to be shaped by our struggles with sin and personal challenges to repent. Yes, those dying in sin need help. Administering help is sensitive work. As far as Jesus was concerned, there is no better training we can receive in helping others than by first dealing with our sin. The humility required to engage those in sin properly must stem from a keen awareness of our past and present struggles with sin. Those who think they have out-grown sin have only been deceived by their egos. Rather than helping, they will only harm everyone within their reach.

Certainly, the encounter with James and John proves this point. By rejecting Jesus, the Samaritans stood condemned. In such a condition, they did not need to be obliterated. This would not serve their salvation well. What they needed was mercy. They needed self-giving, redemptive love to persuade them to receive Jesus.

In that context, Jesus was not willing to condemn the Samaritans. He made sure the disciples knew to take the gospel to them (Acts 1:8). Phillip preached the gospel to the Samaritans. Surprisingly, some of them obeyed Jesus (Acts 8:5-12). In time, John would go with Peter to Samaria. They would give the Spirit to Samaritans who had been baptized in the name of the Lord, Jesus the Messiah (Acts 8:14-16). Both John going to the Samaritans and their obedience demonstrates the transformative power of living by the principle of "judge not lest ye be judged."

Helping Those in Sin

This teaching of Jesus provides direction on how we are to understand ourselves in the world and His kingdom. We are not morally superior to anyone. Like Jesus catching the Pharisees in hypocrisy in John chapter eight, we are not without sin. When we forget this, we will impede the progress of the kingdom, hurt other people, and bring condemnation upon ourselves.

Additionally, this teaching gives us a strong sense of how we are to confront sin in our lives and the lives of others. Both logs and motes matter. Both harm vision. Extracting both is sensitive work. If we are not careful, we can cause blindness.

The apostle Paul came to understand the sensitive nature of confronting sin. Paul had a constant awareness of his sin. Whether dealing with his past or present struggles, he knew first-hand of the humility required to confront sin. At the same time, this humility did not silence him in the face of sin. Humility gave voice to how he patiently reproved, rebuked, and exhorted. He was not interested in being viewed as the smartest in the room, winning an argument, or having a good one-liner. He did not take pleasure in a confrontation, or view a crisis as an opportunity to elevate his reputation. Rather, he lovingly poured out his heart's desire to save those ensnared by the devil. Why? He was once ensnared himself. He knew what was required to break the powerful hold of pride.

Note Paul's instructions to the saints of Galatia: "Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ" (Gal. 6:1-2). His instructions are not directed to the person caught in a transgression, but rather to those seeking to recover someone caught in a transgression. As far as Paul was concerned, the approach a restorer made toward someone in sin would make a major difference in the outcome of the confrontation.

Restorers are to approach others in sin with a spirit of gentleness. Kicking someone when they are down is not a gentle action. Bringing further humiliation and embarrassment on someone is not a gentle action. Such actions will only bring greater damage to the situation. Our first step toward engaging someone in sin must be to do no harm. If we lack gentleness and humility, we will make restoration more difficult for people than it already is. Paul warns restorers against using this kind of occasion as an exercise in egotism. Instead of being unreasonable and overbearing, by love, we are to help bear the burdens that are crushing someone in sin.

Additionally, consider what Paul told Timothy regarding how we are to engage others in sin: "The Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will" (2 Tim. 2:24-26).

Identifying sin is often a simple process. The destructive nature of sin can bring painful consequences to the lives and relationships of people fairly quickly. Many live with a constant sense of emptiness. What is not so simple is persuading someone living in sin of their need to repent.

Persuasion requires more than finger-pointing. Persuasion is not the ability of a novice, but a skill carefully-honed over time. Restoration through gentle persuasion is accomplished through an awareness of the perilous condition of people in sin. They are being held captive by the devil, the deceiver. The only hope they have in this situation comes by acknowledging the truth they have been deceived from recognizing. They need a servant of the Lord to come and reason with them.


The tight grip of pride can cause people to be defensive and resistant to a helping hand. Similarly, guilt can prevent people from seeking restoration with God and those whom they have hurt. Guilt can deceive people into thinking they do not deserve restoration. It can rob people of every shred of self-worth. Regardless of the situation, kind persuasion, gentleness, and understanding toward people held captive by the devil are the only means to lead them to repentance. If Jesus teaches us anything, He teaches us that only redemptive love can rescue people in sin. Therefore, we must be ministers of God's redemptive love.

Being the judge of the world appeals to our pride. We must resist this temptation. Nothing good will come from it. Often, when we have been wronged we demand "justice," but when we wrong someone else, we want mercy. Often, the "justice" we demand is not justice at all but merciless vengeance. That is what James and John wanted. They did not care about the eternity of the Samaritans. There was no love in their selfish request.

If God treated us in such a merciless fashion, we would all be in trouble. Not one of us deserves His mercy. Of course, this is the very nature of mercy: giving pardon to the undeserving. This is what Paul explained when he wrote, "But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus" (Eph. 2:4-6).

Later in this discourse, Jesus will command His audience to treat others in the same fashion they would want to be treated. We would be wise to ask ourselves an important question: how would we want to be treated if we were in sin? Would we want someone to kick us or publicly humiliate us? Would we want someone to use our bad choices as a means to advance their public image within the church? Or, would we want someone to act with love and understanding and try to help us? At this point, the answer should be quite obvious.

Author Bio: David and his family have labored with the Thayer Street congregation in Akron, Ohio since 2008. He can be reached at