Criticism Censorious And Sensible

Criticism Censorious And Sensible

Lewis Johnson, Jr.

Is it right to judge and be critical of others? This study from the pen of Dr. S. Lewis Johnson, Jr., of Dallas, Texas, provides invaluable counsel from God’s Word on this important subject.

Scripture Reading: Matthew 7:1-6

Forbear to judge, for we are sinners all.
Close up his eyes, and draw the curtain close;
And let us all to meditation.”

—Shakespeare, King Henry VI

“Judge not your neighbor till you’ve been in his place.”

—Rabbie Hillell, Mishna: Abot, 2.4.

“Why all the souls that were were forfeit once;
And He that might the vantage best have took,
Found out the remedy. How would you be,
If He, which is the top of judgment, should
But judge you as you are?”

—Shakespeare, Measure for Measure

“Judge not the preacher, for he is thy Judge;
If thou mislike him, thou conceiv’st him not:
God calleth preaching folly: do not grudge
To pick out treasurers from an earthern pot:
The worst speaks something good; if we all want sense,
God takes a text, and preacheth patience.”

George Herbert, The Temple.


There are not many texts in the Bible that are more familiar than, “Judge not, that ye be not judged” (Matt. 7:1), the opening verse of our passage. It is a text that is often cited by those who stand outside the Christian faith, and it is often misunderstood by them. It is taken to mean that one must always think the best of other people. And it is also taken to mean that any judgment of others is forbidden by the Word of God. As we shall see, this is a serious error, and, under certain circumstances, this misunderstanding of the Word of God may open the door to heresy and false doctrine that might mean the destruction of the testimony of the local church.

Of course, I do not want to be understood as suggesting that believers ought to increase the fervency of their criticism of the brethren. We do enough of that already, and I fully concur with the sentiment expressed by Paul in another context, translated by Moffatt as, “Let us stop criticising one another” (cf. Rom. 14:13). There was a brother who once said to another believer as they were discussing spiritual gifts, “I think God has given me the gift of criticism. What do you think I should do with it?” The other gently replied, “I doubt that you have that gift. As far as I know there is no such gift, but, if you should have it, I would go out and bury it at once!”

As a matter of fact there are several kinds of criticism mentioned here by the Lord. He asks His disciples to avoid spiteful criticism (vv. 1-2), but to exercise self-criticism (vv. 3-5). And then He concludes with some words that point the lesson of responsibility for spiritual discernment, or sensible criticism (v. 6).

We Must Avoid Spiteful Criticism

The request (7:1). The opening prohibition in verse one has been rendered, due to the construction of the original text, “Stop, judging.” There is no indication in the context, however, that this type of judgment was taking place, and therefore, it is better to render it as the Authorized Version has done.

The Lord Jesus is not suggesting that we should abandon the use of the critical faculty of our minds, given us by God. What he has in mind is the “habit of censorous and carping criticism.”1 In other words, it is not Scriptural criticism, but censorious, spiteful criticism. What is in the mind of the Lord is that which He expressed in the Fourth Gospel in this way, “Judge not according to the appearance, but JUDGE RIGHTEOUS JUDGMENT” (John 7:24).

Tolstoy construed the exhortation to mean, “Pull down your law courts!” But it is private judging that the Lord has in mind, not public judgment. “This is a warning to ‘gently scan your brother man’: not because (as Burns says) ‘to step aside is human’, but because we all stand exposed to the divine judgment, and we must not expect mercy from God if we are not ready to be merciful to our fellows,” so Hunter says.2

The reasons (7:2). The reasons for avoiding judging of the brethren follow. There are other reasons besides the ones mentioned, but the ones mentioned are telling. “Criticism is a bludgeon,” King claims, “it is also a boomerang — it has a nasty habit of coming back and hurting the person who throws it at others.”3 We see this in the Lord’s counsel.

1. First, there is the boomerang from God. The expression in verse one, “that ye be not judged,” probably has reference to Him. It is He who shall judge us for our carping criticism of others” (cf. Psa. 18:25-26). Again, the principle is found in one of Paul’s utterances concerning self-judgment at the Lord’s Supper. “For if we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged (cf. 1 Cor. 11:31).

2. Second, the boomerang from men. The words of verse two are thought by the majority of commentators to refer to judgment by our fellow-men, or fellow-believers (cf. Rom. 2:1). There is a mutual reciprocity in judgment; if we are consorious and critical of others, that is the way we shall be treated by them (cf. 6:14-15). “Do you remember Ishmael, in Genesis xvi. 12,” King asks, “whose ‘hand (was) against every man’, and with this inevitable consequence, ‘every man’s hand against him’. Do you remember Adoni-bezek, in Judges 1:6-7, whose enemies ‘cut off his thumbs and his great toes’, and why so? Because, on his own confession, he had treated seventy other kings in exactly the same way. Do you remember Haman, in Esther vii. 10 —‘they hanged Haman on the gallows that he had prepared for Modecai.’ As Shakespeare would say, he was ‘hoist with his own petard’.”4

3. Third, our judgement is fallible. That is suggested by the adverb “clearly” in verse five. The hypocrite is blinded by the failure to exercise self-judgment. And then, of course, it is rare that we know all that is involved in matters requiring or affording opportunity for judgment. There are two sides to most questions, and we rarely have heard both of them. It is sadly possible for all of us to be as blind to our own faults as David was to his guilt and sin, as Nathan told him a story that illustrated his crime. As David listened his anger against the perpetrator of the crime was “greatly kindled,” and he cried out, “As the Lord liveth, the man who hath done this thing shall surely die; And he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.” And then, like a thunderbolt, came Nathan’s blow to the heart and conscience of the king, “Thou art the man” (cf. 2 Sam. 12:5-7). The fallibility of our judgment and understanding should warn us against carping criticism of the saints. The lesson is that of the Fifth Beatitude, “Blessed are the merciful; for they shall obtain mercy” (5:7).

We Must Exercise Self-Criticism

For our good (7:3). At this point the Lord introduces what has been called the Parable of the Mote and the Beam, or “The Sawdust and the Plank.”5 Moffatt refers to the Splinter and the Plank. Lying back of these suggestions is the fact that the word translated “mote” is a Greek word that means a twig, or splinter, and the word translated “beam” means a beam. The picture is very humorous. Imagine a man with a plank protruding from his eye trying to extract a splinter from the eye of someone else! I am sure the illustration drew a chuckle from the audience. The lesson is plain: Apply one’s criticism to oneself before others. Only then will we be able to see.

For others’ good (7:5). It is possible to be critical in an approved sense. The words, “then shalt thou see clearly to cast the mote out of thy brother’s eye,” certainly suggest this. The words of Galatians 6:1 point to this, “Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, YE WHO ARE SPIRITUAL (they have removed the plank!) restore such an one IN THE SPIRIT OF MEEKNESS (that is fitting for those who may be judged themselves), CONSIDERING THYSELF (does this equal removing the beam?), lest thou also be tempted” (cf. Psa. 51:10-12, then 13).

We Must Employ Sensible Criticism

The command (7:6a-b). “The sixth verse is very curious,” King comments, and then continues, “Whatever it teaches, it certainly does make the necessity for Christian folk to discriminate between people, to discern character, and that involves a certain reasonable criticism.”6

But what is meant by “dogs” and “swine”? When we remember that these were two typical unclean animals, it becomes evident that the Lord uses the terms to refer to those who do not appreciate holy things.

Unbelievers are referred to, it would seem. The “dog” is found elsewhere of unbelievers, such as in Revelation 22:15, where we read, “without are dogs,” and in Philippians 3:2, where the apostle writes, “beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the concision.” The context of the latter passage definitely suggests that unbelievers are in view. In 2 Peter 2:22 we have a reference to a sow, and there, too, the reference is to an unbeliever.

Then what is the point of the exhortation? It is plain: The disciples are to be uncritical, but not undiscriminating. Specifically, the point is this: Do not set a table filled with the beautiful and holy truths of God before people who have no love of the truth. “But the natural man,” Paul has said, “receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness unto him, neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (cf. 1 Cor. 2:14). The Lord Jesus preaches discrimination in the work of evangelism. This is a lesson rarely, if ever, taught in evangelism, for the common teaching leads one to believe that it is always proper to share “The Four Spiritual Laws.” Our Lord did not teach this, and He did not practice it. When He stood before Herod, Herod was “exceedingly glad; for he was desirous to see him for a long time, because he had heard many things of him; and he hoped to have seen some miracle done by him” (Luke 23:8). One might have thought that this was a great opportunity for evangelism, since Herod was so delighted to see Jesus. Evidently our Lord did not think so, for He did not whip out any gospel materials at all. In fact, although Herod asked Him questions “in many words,” Jesus “answered him NOTHING” (v. 10). In Herod’s case, having rejected light previously given to him, the Lord did not give him further light. His heart had become hardened. Herod was a “dog.”

This difficulty meets the preacher in every age. There are people to whom it is impossible to impart truth. Something has to happen to men before they can be taught, and that something is the enlightening ministry of the Holy Spirit. And if men fail to respond to the convicting ministry of the Spirit, retributive judgment follows. They, then, cannot respond to truth (cf. Mark 4:12; Matt. 13:13-15).The holy things of God are not for them, and the believer must exercise judgment in discussing spiritual things with them. As Bishop Gore used to say, “We are not to shriek the highest truths of religion at the street corner.” The pearls are for the responsive.

Incidentally, this admonition was used by the early church in relation to the Lord’s Supper. They were very careful about whom they admitted to the Eucharist. In some of the earliest rituals the Lord’s Supper began with, “Holy things are for holy people.” Theodoret cites what he thought was an unwritten saying of Jesus, “My mysteries are for myself and for my people.” In other words, there was a fencing of the Table against all but genuine Christians. In the Didache, the first book of church order, it is written, “Let no one eat or drink of your Eucharist except those baptized into the name of the Lord; for, as regards this, the Lord has said, ‘Give not that which is holy unto dogs.’” One can see that the text was used as a basis for the exclusiveness of the partaking of the elements at the Lord’s Table.

The cause (7:6c-d). This prohibition against indiscriminate broadcasting of truth is supported by the claim that it often leads to increasing antagonism on the part of those who are unprepared for the truth. It has sometimes been said, “want of common sense does great harm to religion,” and our Lord’s words here would seem to support this (cf. 10:13; Luke 10:6).

Gutzke’s comments illustrate the truths very aptly, “Only a person who has lived on farm can understand the reference to swine. Pigs get very hungry; rapacious is the word for it. When they want to be fed, they let you know. They squeal and push and shove and squeal some more. When you throw in the food, they care nothing about Emily Post manners.

“If the pigs were to come to you and you spread pearls before them, they would think that these gems were gravel and would trample them underfoot. Pearls wouldn’t mean anything to them as pearls. ‘They woud turn again and rend you,’ means they would still be hungry and bite at you. They would come after you for more food.”7


First, it is helpful to remember, as Oswald Chambers put it a long time ago, that “The only person who can criticize human beings is the Holy Spirit.” In the final analysis, judgment is ordinarily best left to Him. Our judgment is more fruitfully turned in upon ourselves, and, when carried out under the Spirit’s guidance, leads to developing holiness of life and fruitfulness in divine service. This, in turn, leads to fellowship with God and helpfulness to the saints. “If I have let God remove the beam from my own outlook by His mighty grace,” Chambers also said, “I will carry with me the implicit sunlight confident that what God has done for me He can easily do for you, because you have only a splinter, I HAD A LOG OF WOOD!” Well said!

Second, this is not to disparage, however, the necessity for discriminating judgment with reference to doctrine and life. The perils of heresy and failure to exercise church discipline have led to the death of many an assembly, and the elders, as well as the saints over whom they have the oversight, must be eternally vigilant in detecting the “dogs” and the “swine” and in slaying them with the sword of the Spirit, the Word of God.

1 Tasker, p. 79.

2 Hunter, p. 82.

3 King., p. 97.

4 Ibid.

5 Hogg and Watson, p. 84.

6 King, p. 101.

7 Gutzke, p. 61.