The Gospel for the Rest of Us: How to Stop Being Judgmental

Sermon by Gabe Fluhrer on February 12, 2017

James 4:11-12

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Again if you’re a visitor, so good to have you with us here this evening. We are glad you’re here. At the end of the service, I’ll be down here at the front and Ralph will be at the back. We would love to meet you. We are studying through the New Testament book of James here in our evening services and you’ll find our passage this evening on page 1013 in the pew Bibles; 1013, James 4:11-12. Let us pray before we read God’s Word together.


O Lamb of God, we come just as we are tonight, full of sin and shame, full of guilt, maybe even despair. What we need is something supernatural, something we can’t muster up, something nobody else can give us except You, the Lamb of God slain from the foundation of the world. And that is grace to him who speaks and those who hear. So we ask for it and we ask gladly knowing that You love to answer this prayer, in Jesus’ name. Amen.


James 4, beginning at verse 11. This is God’s holy, inspired, and therefore inerrant Word:


“Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks evil against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There are only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?”


The grass withers, the flowers fall, but the Word of the living God shall stand forever and ever, amen.


We moved to Mississippi about a year-and-a-half ago and after being here just a short time we really can’t imagine living anywhere else, but one of the things we miss about where we used to live in Raleigh, North Carolina, is that our family lived about five to ten minutes from my older brother and his family. And so it was not uncommon on weekends that we’d get together and cook and spend some time. He’s not just my big brother; he’s one of my best friends. And on one of those occasions, it was my birthday and there was this butcher shop in Raleigh that had the answer. And the answer was these beef tips that had a marinade in them that you could never buy; you just could buy the beef tips. So we bought like five pounds of them! And we went back to my brother’s house and Callie made this amazing chocolate cake she makes and there were about fifteen or so people and we’re sitting there eating and I’m on about my third helping of the beef tips. And I was getting up to go get some more beef tips and cake and I kind of paused and hesitated because at that point I realized I’d probably crossed that threshold of politeness into being rude and eating way too much, and my brother just looked up at me and said, “Go ahead, dude. This is a judgment-free zone.” And that was kind of his phrase, “This is a judgment free zone,” when we’d have one of those gatherings.


And as I’ve thought about it since that time, wouldn’t it be great if that’s what people said about our churches. “You know, First Pres, that’s a judgment-free zone.” Some of us find that. Some of y’all may have found that in something like AA. I think that’s why those ministries do such good for so many. They feel like it’s a judgment-free zone. And as we launch into this subject this evening, let’s be clear about a couple of things. Today, if somebody says, “Don’t you dare judge me!” that’s not what James is talking about. That spirit today is more like, “If you ever say anything against what I’m doing, if you don’t celebrate everything I do, then you’re judging me and Jesus said don’t ever judge.” “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” That is like the favorite Bible verse today. But we have to remember that Jesus said that in the gospel of Matthew but He also said in John 7:24, “Do not judge by appearances but judge with righteous judgment.” So either Jesus, the Son of God, contradicted Himself or He uses the term, “judgment,” in two different senses. It’s the latter.


And so Jesus and James are not condemning any judgment against sin or doing what they call us to do in holding each other accountable. What James and what Jesus condemn is the spirit of self-righteous judgment that makes Christianity unattractive and Christians obnoxious. That spirit of self-righteous, judgmentalism. That’s what James is talking about tonight. And all of us, if we’re honest, struggle with that. And so he wants to help us. Last time we saw that genuine faith, which is just the two-word theme of this whole letter, genuine faith, that’s James’ main concern, was the result of God’s amazing grace and that resulted in a life of humble repentance.


And tonight we’re going to begin a series of three kinds of vignettes, episodes, and there are two themes that bind these three episodes. The greatness of God and the weakness of man. And James, tonight, is going to teach us how a spirit of humility ought to mark out our lives not just in this area but in the three areas that he’s going to address in subsequent weeks. And the main point of what he’s saying is this. James teaches us how to stop being judgmental by reminding us who the real Judge is. He teaches us how to stop being judgmental by reminding us who the real Judge is. And we’ll see that in the first place in verse 11 – what a judgmental spirit does. And then in verse 12 – who the real Judge is. So what a judgmental spirit does, verse 11, and who the real Judge is verse 12.


What a Judgmental Spirit Does


Look back with me there at verse 11. “Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks evil against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge.” One little phrase, one little word rather, sticks out in these verses we just read. Did you see it? “Brothers.” James is talking to fellow believers. He’s assuming the vast majority of the people he’s talking to are Christians. But if you’ve been a Christian any length of time at all, you know that there’s this thing called indwelling sin, this sin that clings tightly to us, the old man, the old self. And one of the marks of the old self is this self-righteous, judgmental spirit. And that results in speaking evil of another Christian. Here’s how one commentator defines what James is talking about when he means speaking evil. “It’s harsh criticism or condemnation of another Christian.”


Here’s how we do that! We do that whenever we are assuming the worst about somebody else, whenever we judge somebody immediately and assume the worst about that person and quickly categorize him or her. We are really good at that in conservative, reformed circles. We love labels. We love to categorize people very quickly, but them in a box and leave them there, and put a label on them. I saw it happen to friends, had it happen to me. And when we are in that position, James says what’s really happening when we judge that way, we speak evil against one another, we’re judging the law. We need to take in the full measure of that. What does he mean by the law here? What does he have in mind? Probably Leviticus 19:18 which Jesus tells us is one of the two great commandments. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” That’s probably what James has in mind here. So the judgmental person is saying to God, when he judges another person, “Your law doesn’t matter. I hear what You’re saying, God, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ but see, I don’t agree with that.” Now we would never come directly out and say that, but that’s the spirit that we’re carrying to God’s law.



There’s a word for that in technical, theological language. It’s called antinomianism. It means the view that we don’t need to obey God’s law once we are saved, that it has no function in the life of a believer. And the spirit of antinomianism is what James is condemning here. It sits over the law and says, “I know better than God.” Now again, we may never come right out and say that, but what James is doing here, as we’ve seen him do, again and again, is dealing with our hearts. And he’s saying to us when we judge our neighbor we are doing the opposite of what the law says. We are not loving our neighbor; we are judging him or her. And here’s the kicker. We are judging that other person – have you ever done this? – in a way that we would never judge ourselves. Isn’t that the fascinating thing about this kind of judgmental spirit? That we’re always harder on other people than we are on ourselves. And that’s what James is against here.


Who Are You to Judge Your Neighbor?

And that’s why James ends that section here in verse 12 with this kind of punctuation. “Who are you to judge your neighbor?” That’s the question everybody has to ask here tonight, all of us. Who do we think we are when we judge somebody like this? Do you see what he’s saying? You’ve judged your neighbor falsely and you’ve sat in judgment over God’s law. And then at that point, when you step back and unpack that, we’ve put ourselves in a ridiculous position. We’ve said, “I know better than God and I know how to judge His law and I know how to judge my neighbor.” Don’t we have some kind of nerve when we do this?


The Source of Judgmentalism

Now, where does this come from? Where does this kind of judgmental spirit come from? Remember, James has been dealing with this sin of pride. Pride is the poison root from which the trunk of self-righteousness grows. Pride. Pure and simple. Pride always leads to a self-righteous spirit because self-righteous people always become judgmental people. Why? Because self-righteous people think that they’re actually the doers of the law. They think, “I’m right. You’re wrong. Everybody else is wrong. I’ve got it.” And it leads to a subtle and sometimes overt way of thinking about other people and it kind of comes up in our minds this way, “Why can’t they get it together?” I see this all the time, not only in my own heart but all over the place. “It’s not that hard people! Just read your Bible and pray!” How’s that working out for you? That’s just not enough. We’ve got to go deeper here with James. This pride that leads to self-righteousness affects all of us.


Let me give you a personal story about that. I was walking down to work one day in Philadelphia and I saw an African American guy dressed in a hoodie and jeans. I’m not proud to admit this, but it’s just the best example I could think of. I’ve been wrestling with this all week. And the first thing, of course, I did was thought, “Am I safe?” Why did I do that? It turns out the guy actually worked in the ministry I worked for and went to Tenth Pres which is a PCA church! Why did I do that? Because I was being judgmental, initially and immediately. Now we do this all the time. It doesn’t have to be that. It can be anything else where we look at somebody, anybody – another Christian, somebody we know – and we immediately categorize them and pass judgment. And so much to disinfect my own heart, I do it without even noticing. That’s why James needs to search us out here.


Who the Real Judge Is


And this is how he does it. How does he deal with our proud, self-righteous, judgmental spirits? That’s the second point! He points us to who the real Judge is. Look at verse 12. “There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?” James’ statement that there is only one lawgiver and judge really summarizes the Biblical teaching about God’s attribute of justice. It’s not one of the more popular attributes of God to talk about today. And according to the Bible, from start to finish, God as the Creator – and when we mean God here, we mean Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Holy Trinity – God is the ultimate Judge from start to finish that is on every page of the Bible. And that’s offensive today. And that is something that we don’t like to talk about. And really I think one of the reasons it can be so offensive to so many people is because so many people have the idea that God is a judge like we are. In other words, that God is kind of a cranky, self-righteous, irritable God who just lashes out with wrath and envy all the time. And so they say, “Who would want to follow a God like that? Such a judgmental God!”


Think about it this way! Everybody in here wants the universe to be the kind of place that James is talking about. In other words, we all want there to be final justice. Stated another way, nobody in this room wants to think that Hitler ends up in the same place as Billy Graham, right? Everybody wants this universe to have final justice. And the only way you get that, the only way you get final justice, the only way you get justice now and justice in the future is if you begin with the Biblical concept of God as the ultimate lawgiver and Judge. That’s the only way we’re going to get there. Everything else has been tried. We’ll come back to that at the end.


What the Real Judge Is Like

So James doesn’t just tell us who this Judge is; he also tells us who He’s like. He says He’s powerful. He is able to save and to destroy. And here he’s just echoing the words of his half-brother, Jesus. Jesus said this in Matthew 10:28, “Fear him who can destroy both body and soul in hell.” Why does James say this to us? Because he wants to remind us only God has the final word in our lives. Every judgment you and I make on this earth is tainted by sin, partial, and open to reconsideration. Only God has the final word. He has that power to save and to destroy. We do not. And that’s why James wants to urge us to be cautious when we pass judgment. That’s what Jesus’ point was there in that John text. He wants to make sure that when we do have to pass judgment – and remember, Jesus will tell us to do that. He will say things like, “Let that person become unto you like a heathen or a tax collector” speaking about church discipline. He calls us to make judgments. Here’s the crucial difference. There are steps involved and nobody in here has the private right of judgment. He says that’s the job of the elders of the church because of the fact that God alone is the true lawgiver and Judge and He alone has maximum power.

And so, then, what this ought to do is humble us and show us the way out of a self-righteous, judgmental spirit. What’s the cure? How do we deal with this? Here’s the only thing we can say. The only cure for a self-righteous, judgmental spirit is to recognize that Jesus is the Judge. What did He say to us? “The Father has committed all judgment into the hands of the Son.” Matthew 25, at that time He says, “The nations will be gathered before the Son of Man and he will sit on his throne in judgment.” Jesus is the Judge.


And how does that cure our judgmentalism? First, again, we all want the universe to be a place where justice wins and we all want it that way except with us. Isn’t that true? We want the universe to be just for everybody else but we imagine that in our case God will still grade on a curve. And what we need to recognize is that as we see that God is the Judge and Jesus is God the Judge, it ought to point out to us our awful predicament because God really is that strict in His justice. All of us in here, apart from the work of Jesus on the cross, will never get graded on a curve. God is not the kindly old grandfather who says, “Hey, no big deal. Just a little peccadillo.” He is perfectly just! His courtroom has no extensions. His judgment is always right and when we stand before Him, as Paul says in Romans 3, our mouths will be closed. There’s no court of appeals in heavens, friends.


Jesus is Both Judge and Savior

So how does this cure us from being judgmental? Because Jesus is the only God in human history who is both the Judge and the Savior. He’s the Judge and the Savior. In every other religion, God is either a judge or a savior. See, he’s either a judge – and here’s the way that works – you save yourself by doing enough good works to pass muster in the judgment. But he’s not a savior. And what that will do will be to crush you because you’ll never know if you’ve done enough to pass the strict justice requirements of that god. Or, on the other hand, he’s not a judge; he’s just a savior. And this is the view of so many churches today. “Everybody’s fine. God’s not a judge. He loves everybody. Everybody’s going to be saved. We’re all going to end up in the same place.” And again, I’m just going to keep coming back to that. Nobody lives like that. Nobody lives as though everybody’s fine, otherwise, we wouldn’t get mad at the Holocaust. No, we want there to be ultimate justice and judgment.


But at the cross, God is both Judge and Savior in Jesus. And it’s only when you know Jesus as Judge and judged in your place, that you will begin to stop being judgmental, and so will I. It’s only when we come to Jesus on the cross as the Judge, judged in our place, for our judgmentalism, that we’ll stop being self-righteous and judgmental. Only the cross has the power to humble us and kill this spirit within us. Nothing else will. We can try hard, we can do better, try harder, earn more. We’ll never get there. We’ve got to start here. And that’s what we need to do. Let me give you four things I’ve been meditating on this week on how to stop being judgmental, tomorrow, tonight.


The Cross Frees us From Self-righteousness

The first thing we’ve got to do is submit to the ultimate Judge. That’s what Jesus is calling us to do tonight. What does that look like? It means that you start off accepting His verdict about you and me. Guilty. Guilty. Guilty. It means we acknowledge that God would be totally just to condemn us all to hell apart from Jesus and would do us no wrong if He did that. That’s where we’ve got to start. But when you realize your guilt and when you realize that Jesus is the Judge judged in your place, something amazing happens when you put your faith in Him. You become acquitted, not guilty, not because of what you’ve done or because your record is now cleaned up on your own, but because Jesus’ record is given to you in the heavenly courtroom. And you move from the courtroom to the family room because of the work of Jesus on the cross. Friends, when we taste that kind of forgiveness it changes everything. And true Gospel forgiveness and self-righteousness can never coexist. They are mortal enemies. One or the other will win out in our lives. We’ll either be self-righteous or we’ll be people who have forgiven much and so begin to be gracious and then forgiven much to others. The cross frees us from self-righteousness. That’s the first thing!


Our Tendency to Self-righteousness

The second thing is to recognize our tendency to self-righteousness. Why do we judge others so harshly and take it so easy on ourselves? Isn’t the root of that, ironically, insecurity? Think about the proudest person you know. For me, he stares back at me in the mirror every morning. Think about the proudest person you know. What does that person have but a serious lack of security? Aren’t when we’re proud we’re radically insecure so we make up for it in other ways and we become proud? And really we have nothing to be proud of, the Gospel tells us. All our righteousness apart from Christ are filthy rags. We’re all undone in the same boat together. And you see, only the righteousness of Jesus given to us as we believe and trust in Him, only His righteousness provides the kind of security that destroys pride. And if you’re anything like me, you need to walk out of church humbled because there’s so much pride left in your heart. There’s so much of the earning mentality left in me. And when I start doing that, I start becoming proud. And God’s at work to destroy that.


Assume the Worst About Yourself and the Best About Others

Third thing. Assume the worst about yourself and the best about others. That’s one of the ways we stop being judgmental. Assume the worst about yourself and the best about others. Our Westminster Shorter Catechism is just wonderful on this point. “The duties enjoined to the ninth commandment” – don’t be put off by that language. It’s basically saying, “What does the ninth commandment tell us what to do in real life?” The Larger Catechism is one of the most practical Christian things you could ever read. And here’s what part of the answer is. I think it’s just beautiful how it describes what we’re supposed to do with relationships to our neighbors. “We should have a charitable esteem of our neighbors, loving, desiring, and rejoicing in their good name, sorrowing for and covering over their infirmities.” What if that’s what we did this week? Instead of judging, covering over their infirmities, sorrowing for them. Charitable esteem – that means a loving view of our neighbors. Assume the worst about ourselves and the best about others because we normally get that backward. We assume the best about ourselves and the worst about others.


Stop Passing Judgment

And the last thing is this, that we so often lack. When we’re tempted to pass judgment, let’s stop and listen carefully, well, and long and hard before we pass judgment. We listen carefully, well, and long and hard. You know, there’s so much to be gained from listening. I need lessons in listening. That was probably one of the greatest things I learned doing my doctoral studies up at Westminster. When you’re around really, really smart people and you realize you’re not one of them you tend to start listening. That’s what God did for me. And you begin to listen. And as you listen to people’s positions and unpack them carefully, it will save all of us a lot of heartaches. And if there is an error, and you do have to do the kind of righteous judging Jesus talks about, it can be done in humility, with grace, with carefulness and with gentleness with a right understanding of the person’s position.


Maybe you feel like something I read about in a book recently? Maybe you might characterize yourself as a “done?” That was the category that the author’s Josh Packard and Ashley Hope came up with in their book, Church Refugees. They studied a group of people who had left the church. They were done with the church; dones are what they are called. And do you know the number one reason that they found – they had all these questions; you know, typical sociological study, just a bunch of questions. Here’s the thing that came back. The people who left said, “We felt judged, either covertly or overtly by Christians.” Here’s what the authors found. “Judgment inherently lacks many of the religious elements or correspondents hold as a core part of their belief system. Forgiveness, grace, humility, and love are absent in a moment of judgment and those are the theological tenants held most closely by our respondents.”


Now whether or not those ought to be the number one theological tenants held by the respondents, what does stand out is that we read that and we can see that in our own lives. Right? All of us. We’ve done this. The authors continued. Here’s something that’s surprising. “Dones are not looking for unconditional affirmations for each and everything and everyone.” Let me stop there. They’re saying these are not people who are saying, “Don’t you dare ever judge me.” That’s not what they’re saying. Instead, what they really wanted was “a shared understanding that we’re all broken and in need of forgiveness and grace.” That goes right back to the cross, doesn’t it? When we’ve been humbled by the cross, we have that shared commitment and understanding as a community of believers that none of us are better than anybody else.


Last thing! Upon leaving the church, “when the dones pursue community, they often do so with their Christian identity firmly intact but not with the people who attend their old churches. They are done with the church but not with God.” Done with the church, not with God. You see, it’s not that a done wants to be done with God or even that they don’t want their beliefs challenged or that they want to be done with the church. What matters to them, according to this study and what matters, I think, to everybody here tonight, is exactly what James has been working out for us these past few chapters. What they want, what everybody in here wants is a community of cross-shaped people; a community where the cross and the forgiveness and the grace that flows from Jesus to all of us mark us out as a humble, non-judgmental in the sense that James is talking about, people. That’s what matters.


And in the day and age of dones, what matters then is real, Biblical community. And real, Biblical community only happens when that community is cross-shaped, gathered around the Judge – or rather we are those who are judged in the Judge, who then frees us from the spirit of self-righteous judgment. That’s the kind of community that we need to be. A community of those who realize that we are judged in the Judge, on the cross, and therefore are freed from judgmentalism. So let’s be a different kind of done tonight – one that might attract these dones that this study talked about. Let us be done with judgmentalism in the wrong sense. Done with self. Done with anything less than more of Jesus, more of His grace, more of His cross, more of His love, more of His mercy. More of the Judge judged in our place so that, rejoicing, we know we never need to fear again the only Judge who really matters. That’s freedom. It’s available and Jesus wants to give it to you. Will you take it? Let’s pray!


Thank You, Lord, thank You, thank You, for judging us in Jesus, for being our God who is a Judge and a Savior. Father, free us from this, this week. Help me, help all of us, to stop being judges over Your law and those who delight in Your law and living under it with humility and grace and forgiveness flowing out from us in a way that makes Jesus beautiful and believable. We pray in His name, amen.

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