The Log and the Speck
Preached by Pastor Jason Abbott
D. A. Carson has noted that the most quoted Bible verse by non-Christians is (in some form) Matthew 7:1-2. There Jesus teaches his followers:
Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.
I’ve spoken with nonbelieving friends and had this passage roughly quoted to me. Typically what they mean to say in quoting it is something along the line of: “Jesus tells you not to judge others. So you should stop sharing your views on…” whatever the controversial topic we’re discussing at the moment is.
Yet, as you’ve likely heard me say before and will likely hear me say again, a text without any context is usually a pretext to say whatever you want to say. Consequently, rather than being a passage that tells believers they shouldn’t judge, this is a passage telling believers how they should judge. The rest of the passage makes this super clear:
Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye (Matthew 7:3-5).
Plainly Jesus isn’t telling his followers they shouldn’t judge what’s right from what’s wrong. Instead, he’s telling them that judgment must always begin with what’s right and wrong in them. Christian judgment or Christian discernment (with respect to others) must emerge graciously and humbly out of the knowledge of our own sinfulness.
In today’s passage from Galatians, Paul expands a bit on Christian judgment. As he teaches the Galatian churches about living as a discerning and loving people, we also learn two things concerning how we must live in this way.
We learn, in short, that Christians then and now must deal with (1) the log and, then, (2) the speck. We’ll further unpack each of these two phrases in its turn. However, let’s first read today’s text and, then, pray for our study of it.
1 Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. 2 Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. 3 For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. 4 But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor.5 For each will have to bear his own load.
As his followers, Jesus tells us here to keep judgments in their proper order. So we will. First, let’s see how this passage discusses:
1. The log work (vv. 1b, 3-5)
In other words, where in this passage do we see the Holy Spirit urging us, through Paul, to humbly judge our own lives—meekly contemplate our own sins? Well, most of this passage urges us in that direction because, I believe, God knows we’re prone to forsake this first judgment in order to move to the second judgment, the judgment of others.
This natural human tendency is evidenced from the beginning of the Bible. Just think about Adam and Eve following their sin in Eden. When God seeks them, both Adam and Eve attempt to focus God’s attention upon the sins of another rather than owning their own wrong doings. We’re quick to judge the sins of others and slow to recognize our own sins.
Adam and Eve, however, are awfully far away. They’re an easy illustration. Much closer (and much harder!) is to consider how we do this naturally ourselves. Have you noticed that even in “owning” our sins, we frequently judge others?!
How often do your apologies sound something like this after an argument?
- I’m sorry I yelled at you, but you wouldn’t listen. (It’s whose fault?)
Or, like this:
- I’m sorry that you were offended. (Who has the problem?)
Friends, at the very moment that we believe we don’t have log work to do, we have log work to do—we must constantly be willing to pluck out the ugly log in our own eye since it (our sin) constantly threatens to cloud our judgment.
This is why Paul, just after teaching about restoring someone who’s sinned, quickly moves to warn us that we too are equally capable of falling into such sin. He’s doing a little sin prevention work here:
Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted (v. 1b).
Then, just after Paul exhorts believers to help one another in tough times, there’s still more sin prevention work to be done. So he writes:
For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself (v. 3).
Notice that, in each of these instances, Paul just told believers to help others (first, to restore one caught in sin and, second, to help those who are struggling). And, then, note that following each encouragement to help, he pushes his readers to be humble by highlighting their weaknesses.
To you and me, this seems a strange way to encourage believers to do good. But not to God, since he knows how easily human hearts tend toward arrogance and judgment. Ask yourself these questions for a moment:
- In what areas am I most likely to judge other people harshly?
- Is it at the point of a particular personal strength or weakness?
- At what point am I most likely to become arrogant and puffed up?
- Is it where I’m doing better than others or worse than others?
Paul understood the arrogance of our hearts; and, God knows it better still! Consequently, at each point that he tells us we’ve something to offer those in need, he also (wisely!) reminds us that we are no better than those people whom we help. Look at how he brings this log work to a conclusion here. Paul writes:
But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor. For each will have to bear his own load (vv. 4-5).
Here’s where the argument comes to a climax on how first we must judge. God (speaking through Paul) tells us—even as Jesus does in Matthew’s Gospel—that we must always primarily test or judge or evaluate our works, our service, before we ever begin doing so with others.
Why? Because, God does not judge us by or against others! He judges us!
Look, back in 2008 I was able to qualify for and run in the Boston Marathon. When I remember it, my heart is immediately filled with a good deal of arrogance and judgment because I inevitably begin to value my running against other runners who couldn’t qualify for Boston, or against all the runners I beat that day.
What I don’t do, when I think about the 2008 Boston Marathon, is judge me. Just me! What I don’t initially do is evaluate whether I used my training time well. What I don’t naturally do first is judge whether I used my God given talents to run as well as I possibly could have run that day.
Instead, I naturally and primarily boast about my performance by judging it against the performances of others—especially those whom I deem inferior!
This is precisely the kind of judgment which Paul warns believers against—that we wouldn’t boast according to the failures of our friends and neighbors. Rather, God would have us first judge ourselves, by his perfect and holy standard, and, only then, turn humbly to help others.
We must first and foremost be a people who are well aware of our own sins, of our own failures before God. Only then will we be able to judge the speck of sin in our brother’s or sister’s eye—with humility and in love!
Now, before we move onto our final point, it’s important to pause a moment and consider the paradox that is the gospel.
To some, no doubt, Paul’s encouraging words here sound more like abuse. Yet, we must keep two things in mind when we read his words to the Galatians.
First, this isn’t likely a congregation who struggled with low self-esteem. After all, they warmed quickly to a philosophy that said you earn your salvation. They apparently thought they were pretty special, pretty capable, pretty awesome! Thus, when Paul says things like:
…if anyone thinks he’s something…he deceives himself (v. 3)
He is likely backing them away from the ledge of their own self-reliance. They need it. They need a wakeup call. They aren’t as great as they think they are. And this is one important aspect of the Good News:
It reminds us, when we think we’re something, that we’re actually nothing. The Gospel must constantly humble those who believe it. The Good News tells us we’re far less capable than we’re prone to believe.
Now, that sounds like very, very bad news. And, it is very, very bad news. But that’s not all the news. The second thing we must keep in mind here is that, when the Galatians are reminded they’re nothing, they’re simultaneously reminded that, nevertheless, they are enormously loved and immensely valuable before God. And this is the other important aspect of the Good News:
It reminds us, when we think we’re nothing, that we’re actually something. The Gospel must constantly exalt those who believe it. The Good News tells us we’re far more loved and valuable than we could’ve ever imagined.
And this Gospel paradox must substantially transform the way we live.
Look, if someone’s wronged me, if they’ve slandered my semi-good name, I’m compelled (if I believe the Good News) to seek to be reconciled with them rather than to proudly and harshly exact punishment upon them. Why? Because: the God of the universe didn’t proudly and harshly exact punishment upon me when I sinned against him. Instead, in the person of Jesus, he bore my punishment for me!
And this humbles me when I’m prone to be proud and harsh.
On the other hand, if I screw-up royally and hurt those whom I love terribly, I am able to admit my sins and seek forgiveness for all the bad things I’ve done without being crushed by my failures. Why? Because: the God of the universe doesn’t love me because I’m perfect or successful. Instead, when I was his enemy, he loved me and (despite all my future failures!) continues to love me in the person of Jesus.
And this lifts me up when I’m prone to be crushed.
Friends, this is the paradox of the Good News. And it is beautiful news! Well, we must move now briefly to our second kind of work:
2. The speck work (vv. 1a, 2)
Let me just read the part of our passage that discusses this gentle judgment. Paul tells us:
Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness…. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ (vv. 1a, 2).
The key, to doing this speck work judgment well, is found in the phrase: “fulfill the law of Christ” (v. 2). What does “fulfill the law of Christ” (v. 2) mean? It must mean, at least, a couple things:
- It must mean we “bear one another’s burdens” (v. 2) since that’s what Paul says that it means. However, I wonder if this is just the application of a larger law of Christ—the law of Gospel.
See, when we truly understand the Gospel—that Jesus loved us and saved us while we were still hating and rebelling against him—then we have a new law, namely, to go and do likewise. Sure we help brothers and sisters who are in need, but we also help enemies who are in need. We bear their burdens as well; we seek to restore them to right relationship with God as well.
- – It must also mean that we allow others to help us bear our burdens (v. 2) since it takes two to tango. In other words, it cannot mean individualism. We must walk together.
See, truly understanding the Gospel means we aren’t too proud to get help. When people aren’t willing to do this, to get help, it concerns me as their pastor since it hints that they’re “turning to a different gospel” (1:6)—a gospel of works, one of self-justification.
Brothers and sisters—be willing to allow others to help carry your burden—don’t go back to justification by works. Confess your sins to a gentle companion! Share your needs with a loving sister or brother! Humble yourself and ask for help! In so doing, you will also be fulfilling the law of Christ.