Sin, Repentance and Judging Others

by Doy Moyer

Some discussions just seem odd to me. One such oddity goes along these lines (and it seems to happen over and over, especially on social media, so this is not a reference to one particular discussion):

Person A: "People who engage in this activity are in sin and need to repent." (What the specific sin is differs from case to case, and it is irrelevant for this point.)

Person B responds: "We shouldn't judge others because we are all sinners who need forgiveness."

By this response, person B sweeps away the point made by person A because we all sin and we don't want to be judgmental of others. Now it is true that we all need forgiveness, and it is doubtful that many will deny this; no one is claiming perfection here. However, that does not negate the fact that we still need to call attention to sin and the need to repent. Recognizing that we are all guilty of sin is not a reason to think, "Therefore we should never tell anyone else that they ought to repent."

Consider the case of Isaiah, who, overwhelmed by God's glory, confessed his own sinfulness and the sinfulness of those around him. Upon receiving forgiveness, he was then ready to go preach to stubborn people who wouldn't listen to the message of repentance (Isaiah 6). The point is that Isaiah did not refrain from preaching about sin and repentance based upon the fact that he himself needed forgiveness.

How do we know we are all sinners who need to repent unless someone first tells us about sin and God's will for repentance (II Peter 3:9; Acts 17:30-31)? Shall we just assume everyone knows this before they are told? If we are all sinners who need to repent, then someone told us at some point, and this assumes an understanding of sin and repentance. Shall we not give others this same message at the risk of sounding too judgmental? Shall our fear of sounding judgmental overcome our need to love others enough to present God's message to them? Are we showing real love if we ignore the sin, fail to point people toward repentance, and just embrace their situation no matter what? Is that the godly thing to do? Jesus didn't die in order to silence the message of repentance. His death provides the hope that is attached to the message, and we need to be preaching it with clarity.

The gospel is about grace and forgiveness, but knowing about that grace only works when we first understand why we need grace and forgiveness. If we don't know about the sin, we won't know about our need to repent. If we don't know of our need to repent, we won't know we need grace and mercy. Again, how can someone say, "We shouldn't judge" based on the fact that we are all sinners, unless that person first knows the problem of sin? If not careful, the "we shouldn't judge" mantra can become a mask that veils the fullness of the gospel.

We are not being self-righteously judgmental by expressing what God has said about sin and repentance; we are being true to His word. Our message is not, "You need to repent and I never have to." We are all indeed in the same boat. We can show the problem of sin while recognizing our own guilt and need for God. We can do this with humility and grace. We can speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). Calling out sin and the need to repent is not automatically unloving and self-righteous, and we must not assume that one who calls attention to sin is being some kind of prudish, holier-than-thou hypocrite. (We could point out that Person B is, in fact, judging person A for the perceived sin of being judgmental, with the implication that he ought to repent and quit being judgmental. Is that ironically unloving and judgmental?)

Paul knew of his own sins, but that didn't stop him from rebuking Peter (Galatians 2). Peter surely was aware of his own weaknesses, but that didn't stop him from rebuking Simon (Acts 8). Both Paul and Peter repented of sins, but they still told others what was necessary.

Show love. Show grace. Show kindness. But don't, for a moment, think that these are in contradiction to calling out sin for what it is and pointing people to God's message of repentance. Yet while doing this, let's never stop short of sharing the answer to the problem — the blood of Jesus through which we find grace and forgiveness. Repentance is not an end in itself; salvation is the goal. Our purpose in calling out sin and showing the need to repent is not to condemn, but to point the way to that relationship with Christ in which there is "no condemnation" (Romans 8:1-2).

"Therefore repent and return, so that your sins may be wiped away, in order that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord…" (Acts 3:19).