Jesus calls us sinners, and why that's part of the Good News

In Matthew 9:13, Jesus says, "Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Jesus also refers to people as sinners in Mark 2:17, Mark 14:41, Luke 5:32, Luke 6:32 & 33 & 34, Luke 13:2, Luke 15:7, Luke 15:10.  There are numerous other passages where Jesus doesn't call people "sinners," but clearly implies their actions are sinful because they are not in step with the heart of God.

So what is Jesus doing in these passages?  He's judging people. 

Now let's pause for a second.  Hopefully I have a diverse audience reading this.  Some of what I say next won't be scandalous to you, and maybe some of it should be.  Others will think my words are scandalous, but I implore you to hear me out to see just what I'm saying.  

My goal in the following is to explain why judging is part of the good news, and how I have benefited greatly from someone judging me.

It is very common to hear people say, "Leave judging up to God.  Christians shouldn't be judgmental. We just need to love."  I would say that is true in some ways, but there is more to say.  "Love" is rarely unpacked, so I hope to unpack it in a different way that shows how judging can be loving.

In John 3:17, Jesus says, "For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him."  But then in John 9:39 Jesus says, "For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.”

Separated by just a few chapters, Jesus says both that he did not come to condemn and that he was sent to judge.  Huh?  There is a difference between the two words and the ideas behind them.

Whenever John uses the word "world" it does NOT refer to lots of people.  "For God so loved the world..." is an amazing passage because it refers to the QUALITY of people, not the quantity.  The "world" is not neutral in the Gospel of John, and he uses it to mean sinful humanity.  "For God so loved [sinful humanity] that he gave is only begotten son...."  I encourage you to read through John with this view of "world" in mind, but here are just two verses and then we'll move on:
"He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him." (John 1:10)
"The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify about it that its works are evil." (John 7:7)

Jesus cannot condemn the world because it already stood condemned.  You can't go to a prison, stand before a cell, and say to an incarcerated man, "I'm sending you to prison!"  I mean, of course you can say that, but you will get some very bewildered looks from the inmates.  Jesus can't come to the world to condemn what is already condemned, but he does come to judge it, and thus ultimately to save it.

In fact, without Jesus judging the world he would never have come to save the world.

What it boils down to is two types of judging. Let's call the two types "Haughty judgement" and "Loving judgement."  

Haughty judgement is what I think most people think of when they speak of "judgmental people."  This is when you take note of what you believe to be immoral or wrong behavior, but then you go further to dislike that person.  People with haughty judgements are ones that cast people aside, who want the riff-raff removed so they can get on with their life, and who are disgusted by those who "can't get their life together."

A loving judgement is when you take note of what you believe to be immoral or wrong behavior, but then you go further to come alongside the person and bring them up to something more.  You recognize those who are making a mess of their life and you go in with them to make something beautiful out of it.  

This is what Jesus does!!  He doesn't say, "Well, that world is full of messed up people who have rejected me. Good riddance to the whole messy lot!"  And he doesn't say, "I'm not going to judge them, that would be wrong.  I'm going to tend to my little community here in the Trinity and act as if I'm okay and they're okay."  NO!  He sees we need help and he enters the muck and mire with us!  

Jesus judges the world, but not haughtily.  No, as Philippians chapter two makes plain, he gave up his throne and his prominence in order to be crucified on a cross.  He became low so that we could be brought up.  This is what loving judgement looks like.

So should Christians follow in Jesus' footsteps with judging?

Yes, ONLY if it is loving judgement.  Haughty judgement is what makes us like a Pharisee and makes people hate the Church.  The Lord hates haughty eyes (Proverbs 6:16-17).

Loving judgement is actually a no brainer.  It's actually recognized as good by everyone, whether they know it or not.  Imagine someone who is getting deep into heroin.  They are using more and more, their marriage is on the rocks, and their job is in jeopardy.  Is it loving to say, "I don't want to be judgmental.  They seem to really like heroin, so I'm just going to work on me."  NO!  Of course not!  The loving thing is go to them and tell them they have a problem, and then you walk alongside of them until they rise up to overcome heroin.  

Sin is not just technical jargon for breaking a rule, which seems to be how many (even in the church) view it today.  It's as if sin is some number of tally marks on a heavenly piece of paper.  If this was what sin is, then maybe we shouldn't bother people about it.  No, sin is what makes us less human and more like animals.  It twists us and distorts us.  Sin twists our desires away from God, and when twisted desires conceive "they gives birth to sin, and when sin is full grown, it gives birth to death.” (James 1:15)  Jesus came to put the image bearers right again so that our desires could become healthy and good.

C.S. Lewis paints this view so poignantly in The Great Divorce, Till We have Faces, That Hideous Strength, and his other writings.  The issue there is that sin has so twisted and corrupted the person, that they would actually choose hell over heaven, and they are miserable.  But it also reveals a greater truth of what holiness is.  

I believe we often view holiness as a dull experience of not doing certain things and emptying ourselves of desires.  Perhaps the problem is that holiness has been made out to sound like we are becoming less by not doing this, not drinking that, and not hanging with them.   But true holiness is actually about becoming more of something - your true self in Christ.  Holiness is letting go of sin so you stop bending in on yourself, and thus become nothing.  In fact, a call to holiness is a call to more of you, not less.  In The Great Divorce, those in hell cannot even bend a single blade of grass in heaven because they are of no substance.  Sin has wasted them away, making them empty and hollow.  But those in heaven are weighty and majestic because they have become what they were always meant to be in Jesus Christ.

Loving judgement in essence says to someone, "You are not an animal, controlled by your passions and feelings.  You are meant for more than that, and by the power of Christ you are meant to rule yourself.  I want to walk with you in this no matter the cost."  This is a loving call for someone to not eradicate their desires, but to have them sanctified.  Isn't that a loving thing to do?

In undergrad I had a very close professor say something to me that I did not believe and did not want to hear.  He told me I was arrogant and that no matter what he said or did he did not think I would ever change.  It was one of those times where you remember exactly where each person was standing, the time of day, and exactly what was said.  The words hurt me deeply because I didn't think they were true, or course.  How dare he!  But he was absolutely right.  In fact, he cared for me enough to judge my attitudes of pride, arrogance, and self-righteousness, which set me on a course of profound change.  I believe I am a better Christ follower today for many reasons, but that moment with my professor was a crossroads moment.  He loved me by revealing his judgment of me.  That loving act allowed me to see my sinfulness so that I could begin putting it away, and begin putting on Christ-like attitudes.

We all make judgements about what is right and wrong.  Some of you are judging whether it was wrong of me to put these words out there.  The question is really what lies in our heart about the people we judge.  Do we just want to get rid of those who think differently than us or who have made a wreck of their lives, and so judge haughtily?  Or do we have a compassionate heart to help them out of the pit, and thus judge lovingly?

Jesus Christ so loved us that he judged us as sinners, took on our flesh and blood, and shattered the shackles of our sin.  Now all of us sinners can be saved by grace into something greater and truer than we could ever imagine.  Jesus came and rightly identified us as sinners, but through him we can now be called sons and daughters of the living God.  Amen.