James rebukes Christians for becoming “judges with evil thoughts” (James 2:4). He tells them in the end, “Speak and act as those who will be judged by the law of freedom. For judgment is without mercy to the one who hasn’t shown mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment” (2:12-13).
So James tells them in the end, don’t judge but realize that you will be judged. So don’t judge, but show mercy. So what does James mean by judging? Isn’t James “judging” his readers when he calls them adulteresses in James 4:4?
What does Jesus mean when he says, “Do not judge, so that you won’t be judged” (Matthew 7:1). Contrary to popular culture and a straightforward reading of this verse, Jesus can’t mean flat out, don’t judge, if by judging one means, telling someone they are wrong, are in sin, or are unwise. That is not what Jesus means. Why not?
The answer in one word, context. Jesus follows this command with all kinds of statements that necessitate some form of judgment. Listen to what Jesus says after he gives this command:
For with the judgment you use, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye but don’t notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and look, there’s a log in your eye? Hypocrite! First take the log out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. Don’t give what is holy to dogs or toss your pearls before pigs, or they will trample them with their feet, turn, and tear you to pieces.
Jesus tells them we will be judged with the measure we use. The assumption there is that we will judge people. Jesus tells us to take a speck out of our brother’s eye. To tell someone they have a speck, or to conclude that someone has a speck in their eye, is a “judgment “call. Jesus calls people “hypocrites.” That’s a judgment. Jesus tells us not to give what is holy to the “dogs” or “pigs.” You have to judge (discern) who is a dog/pig and give what is holy and your pearls to them.
Second, Jesus tells his disciples to judge later on in Matthew. He says in Matthew 18:15-17,
If your brother sins against you, go and rebuke him in private. If he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he won’t listen, take one or two more with you, so that by the testimony of two or three witnesses every fact may be established. If he pays no attention to them, tell the church. But if he doesn’t pay attention even to the church, let him be like an unbeliever and a tax collector to you.
Here the judgments are: declare someone is sinning, call them to repent from sin, and if they don’t pay attention or are “won” back, then make the judgment call of treating them “be like an unbeliever and a tax collector.” Jesus is not contradicting what he said in Matthew 7:1.
Third, Paul also teaches us to judge. He writes,
But now I am writing you not to associate with anyone who claims to be a believer who is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or verbally abusive, a drunkard or a swindler. Do not even eat with such a person. For what business is it of mine to judge outsiders? Don’t you judge those who are inside? But God judges outsiders. Put away the evil person from among yourselves (1 Cor. 5:11-13).
Christians must judge if a professing believer is “sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or verbally abusive, a drunkard or a swindler.” Paul even asks, “Don’t you judge those who are inside?” with the clear assumption that they do and that it’s ok. Then Paul tells them to judge (discern) them as “evil” and to be put away from among them.
So what does Jesus mean when he says, “Don’t judge”? And why does James tell us that “becoming judges with evil thoughts” is bad? Jesus means, (1) don’t judge with the wrong measure (Matthew 7:2) and don’t judge without first looking at the evil sin in your own life (v. 4). So it’s not a blanket statement, “Don’t judge” but in context, “don’t judge with a standard different than God’s and don’t do it with a self-righteous attitude that doesn’t deal seriously with the sin in one’s own life first.”
What does James warn us against? He warns us against judging people on outward appearance. He warns us against judging for our own selfish ends and approval. He warns also, like Jesus to not judge as if we aren’t judged by the right measure (the law of freedom) (James 2:12). And James tells us, even further, we aren’t judges, but those who will be judged so show mercy.
The measure we are to use (Matthew 7:2) is the law of freedom (James 1:25; 2:13). What is the law of freedom? In James, it is the “word of truth” which gives us new birth, is implanted in us from the outside, and is able to save us.” It is the law of God that frees us from sin on the basis of the new covenant work of Christ on the cross that puts God’s law in our hearts and gives us his powerful Holy Spirit. There is law, but it’s a law that forgives and frees us from sin. This is the law we are judged by. So in the end this law deters from sin and justifies us in the coming judgment through Christ. It is this law, this measure, with which we judge others. It is this mercy, in this law of freedom, which pushes us to show mercy.
So do we judge or do we show mercy? Well, both, sort of. James says we aren’t ultimately judges but people who show mercy. Why? Because we’ve been showed mercy by the law of freedom. Ultimately, we are not judges but channels of new covenant gospel mercy. But in order to channel this mercy, we must make judgments removing specks in eyes, discerning who are dogs and pigs, confronting sin, putting people out of the church, calling people worldly adulteresses or foolish. But we judge to show mercy. We do these things not as an end in themselves, but we understand that these are the necessary means to show sinners mercy. Mercy and grace forgive sin, but they do so by confronting sin, calling forth repentance and faith, and channeling the mercy and grace through genuine repentant faith in the gospel, the law of freedom. That must always be our intention when judging. When it’s not, or when it’s in a different attitude or spirit, then it’s sinful, abhorrent, and hypocritical. It does not match someone who was shown mercy. Someone who’s been free by the law of freedom judges others to free them. Someone who’d been shown mercy makes it their ultimate aim, even through judging, to show mercy.
 The question is asked with the negative particle “ou” which indicates a positive answer.