Deep within the Christian debate over sin lies a conflict between two recurring themes in the Bible: judgment and mercy.
On the one hand, Jesus says, “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven,” (Luke 6:37), and on the other hand, Paul writes, “As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear” (1 Timothy 5:20).
This isn’t to say that the Bible contradicts itself on the matter of sin. The Bible is complex, and reading it requires guidance from the Holy Spirit, with an understanding that the revolutionary ideas of Christianity come from the Bible in its entirety; an important note when isolating Bible verses on sin.
This theological debate over judgment and mercy typically consists of two camps. Progressive leaning Christians tend to lean towards the idea that critiquing sinners is wrong because only God can judge, while conservative leaning Christians tend to believe sinners must be ruthlessly exposed for their wrongdoings so that the truth prevails. Not everyone falls under these two approaches to sin; however the constant bickering between these conflicting ideologies is evident — and the truth is likely somewhere in the middle.
Now, to understand the Biblical context of judgment, one must distinguish its two drastically different aspects. Wrongful judgment is hostile, inconsistent criticism that leads to hypocrisy. Righteous judgment is a criticism that roots in love and logic, or what the Bible often refers to as a rebuke.
These two aspects are evident in the many exchanges between Jesus and the Pharisees, where Christ rightfully rebukes the Jewish intellectuals for being hypocritical in their judgments.
It is common for Jesus to be taken out of context, especially in his dialogue with the Pharisees, in order to push the idea that any sort of judgment is contrary to the teachings of the Bible. This, of course, is terribly misguided.
The Catholic Church clearly states that proper judgment is necessary when it lays out the role of its social teachings. Paragraph 2423 of the Catechism reads, “The Church’s social teaching proposes principles for reflection; it provides criteria for judgment; it gives guidelines for action.”
Mercy, to the contrary, has an entirely different vibe. Universally, mercy is seen as an essential good, and rightfully so. What’s tricky about mercy is not its perception, but its enactment. It is far easier to rebuke those who have wronged than it is to forgive.
Where mercy gets even more difficult is the human desire for it. Is one craving mercy because it helps them put behind and overcome their weaknesses, or so that they can personally cope with the guilt that results from a sinful lifestyle? When people treat mercy as something that is strictly for personal convenience, they end up abusing it, then abandoning its true value.
This isn’t to say anyone should refuse to forgive, or reject forgiveness, as Jesus says, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him” (Luke 17:3-4).
Although, notice how Jesus explains the need to not just forgive, but to rebuke. If one forgives but does not rebuke, they fail to set a foundation of truth that helps sinners overcome their ignorance and move towards Jesus.
Christians should never be afraid to critique, for Proverbs 27:5 says “Better is open rebuke than hidden love,” and Revelations 3:19 states, “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent.”
However, to judge, or rebuke, without mercy, is to do so without love. Christians are called to love first, which is not the case when one says, “you’re wrong, now do what I say instead.”
Love doesn’t start with judgment, and it doesn’t stop with mercy. The truth is, love needs both.
A loving approach to sin is first to forgive the sinner, then to listen and attempt to understand them so that there can be a proper, loving judgment that can help the sinner overcome their weaknesses.
This, of course, is easier said than done. But through a deep self-reflection in prayer, a holier approach to sin will emerge.