1 Corinthians 4:5
Great Texts of the Bible
Judging Prematurely

Judge nothing before the time.—1 Corinthians 4:5.

1. The time of which the Apostle speaks is, of course, the Advent of the Lord. “Judge nothing,” he says, “before the time, until the Lord come.” He is thinking of his own character and work, which certain Corinthian teachers have been endeavouring to asperse. And what he declares is that in questions pertaining to his personal sincerity he admitted the authority of no earthly tribunal, he did not even rely on the verdict of conscience, he made his appeal to Christ. It was for Christ’s approval that he worked here; it was Christ’s vindication that he expected hereafter. When the end came, so he implies, the Corinthians would know what manner of man he had been—pure in motive, upright in conduct, faithful in witness. Meanwhile, if anything in his conduct and methods seemed perplexing, they were to avoid all harsh and uncharitable opinions, possess their souls in patience, and wait for the full and final explanation—“when the Lord comes.”

2. Now, what is the exact force and import of the precept? Is it meant that we are to form and express no judgment whatever upon human conduct, upon anything that we see and hear of in the world around us? This cannot possibly be meant, and for more reasons than one.

(1) The first reason is that, if we think at all, many judgments, of the mind if not of the lips, are inevitable. What is the process that is going on with every human being, every day from morning to night? Is it not something of this kind? Observation is perpetually collecting facts and bringing them under the notice of reason. Reason sits at home, at the centre of the soul, holding in her hands a twofold rule of law—the law of truth and the law of right. As observation comes in from its excursions, laden with its stock of news, and penetrates thus laden into the chamber of reason, reason judges each particular: by the law of right, if it be a question of conduct; by the law of truth, if it be a question of faith or opinion. In a very great number of cases the laws of truth and right, as held by the individual reason, are very imperfect laws indeed; still reason does the best she can with them, and goes on sitting in her own court, judging and revising judgments from morning until night. Probably two-thirds of the sentences we utter, when closely examined, turn out to be judgments of some kind; and if our mental or moral natures are healthy, judgments of some kind issue from us as naturally as flour does from a working corn-mill.

How can it be otherwise? God has given to every man a law or sense of right. As a consequence, every action done by others produces upon us a certain impression, which, when we put it into words, is a judgment. When we hear of a monstrous fraud, of a great act of profligacy, or of a great act of cruelty, we are affected in one way; when we hear of some self-sacrificing or generous deed, of some conspicuous instance of devotion to duty, we are affected in another: we condemn or we approve as the case may be. Woe to us, if we do not thus condemn or approve; for this would mean that our moral nature was drugged or dead.

In our day men sometimes think it good-natured to treat truth and falsehood as at bottom much the same thing; but this cannot be done for long with impunity. In the first age of Christianity it was not so. “Ye have an unction from the Holy One,” wrote St. John to the first Christians, “and ye know all things. I have not written unto you because ye know not the truth, but because ye know it, and that no lie is of the truth. Who is a liar but he that denieth that Jesus is the Christ? He is antichrist, that denieth the Father and the Son.” This direct language of St. John would jar upon the ear of a generation which thinks that something is to be said for every falsehood, and something to be urged against every truth; but it is the natural language of those to whom religious truth is a real thing, and not a passing sentiment or fancy. The law of truth within us necessarily leads to our forming judgments no less than does the law of right.1 [Note: H. P. Liddon.]

One great evil of sin is that it takes away our right to be indignant when other people sin, and so in time our standard of thought is lowered to their scale.1 [Note: Phillips Brooks, Life, 79.]

(2) In the second place, Scripture stimulates and trains the judicial faculty within us, making its activity keener and wider than would have been possible without it. The servants of God in the Bible are intended to rouse us to admire and imitate them; and what is this but a judgment of one kind? The sinners in the Bible, from Cain to Judas Iscariot, are intended to create in us moral repulsion, not for their persons, but for their crimes; and what is this but an inward and emphatic judgment of another kind?

Then came the maxim that the indignation expressed by Him against hypocrisy was no precedent for us, inasmuch as He spoke as a Divine person. I contended that it was human, and that if a man did not feel something of the same spirit under similar circumstances, if his blood could not boil with indignation, nor the syllable of withering justice rise to his lips, he could not even conceive His spirit. Mr. E—agreed to this, to my surprise, and told an anecdote. “Could you not have felt indignation for that, Robertson?” My blood was at the moment running fire—not at his story, however, and I remembered that I had once in my life stood before my fellow-creature with words that scathed and blasted; once in my life I felt a terrible might: I knew, and rejoiced to know, that I was inflicting the sentence of a coward’s and a liar’s hell.2 [Note: Robertson, in Life and Letters of the Rev. F. W. Robertson, 212.]

3. The words of St. Paul, then, do not forbid us to form judgments and act on them, they simply convey a warning against premature judgments, an admonition in regard to those hasty and ill-considered verdicts we are apt to pronounce both on people and on facts, while in reality the elements for a sound and safe verdict are not in our hands. There are many facts, enterprises, events, and problems in regard to which it is of the very greatest importance to remember the rule of the text, “Judge nothing before the time.” They are all those matters into which there enters the element of ignorance, uncertainty, and change. They are those matters in which the fact must be reckoned with that you may be changed, or that they may be changed, or that surroundings may be changed, or that the amount of light may be changed, so that data that are hidden now may be known hereafter, to the altering of human estimates, the overturning of human views.

Let this be lead unto thy feet, that slow

Thy steps may be (as of one tired) to give,

When not convinced by sight, a yes or no.

For sunk is he ’mid fools in lowest place,

Who no distinction makes, and to the same

Conclusion doth arrive in either case.

Since popular opinion is inclined

Erroneous judgments oftentimes to frame,

Self-love comes in, the intellect to blind.1 [Note: Dante, Paradiso, xiii., tr. by Wright.]

(1) Judge nothing before the time, in view of possible changes in yourself. We all change. We change steadily, we change necessarily, in the process of the years. We change in structure, change in intellect, change in spirit. Our perceptions, our tastes, our needs, all of them alter. And therefore what seems worthless at one stage of our history becomes valuable at another, not because the thing is different in itself, but because we are different who have come to prize it.

Here is a lesson for youth. There are few things to which the youthful are so prone as the practice of judging—judging men, judging methods, judging facts, judging books; and they are continually judging before the time. Youth is often very dogmatic, even when Christianized. It is apt to be contemptuous towards what does not come up to its youthful standard, depreciatory towards what does not square with its youthful tastes. Take the views of youth in regard to qualities of character. Certain of these qualities get scant justice from the young—patience, for instance. How little do the young think of patience in comparison with self-reliance, fortitude, boldness of initiative, brilliance of attack. They are all for action, all for aggressiveness, all, too, for the men in whom action, and aggressiveness are the predominant features. But in setting slight store by patience, assigning it a lesser function, relegating it to a lower place, they are judging before the time.

Or pass from qualities of character to modes of presenting truth, and the attitude towards these. The young are often enamoured of the showy—the showy in religious testimony, the showy in religious teaching. What draws them and holds them is often the element of novelty, the ingenious in thought, the rhetorical in language, the exciting in appeal. And yet, in looking down on the quiet and homely—plain, sober truth, plainly and soberly preached—they are judging before the time.

When Dr. Wayland was president of Brown University, and professor of moral science, his eldest son, who was a senior, in reciting to him one day, drew from his father, by a question, the expression of a certain opinion. “The esteemed author of this book,” said the young man, holding up his father’s text-book on moral science which the class was using, “holds a different opinion.” “The author of that book, my son,” said Dr. Wayland quietly, “knows more now than he did ten years ago.” The teacher of any science who does not know more now than he did ten years ago, who never finds occasion to modify and qualify and reshape his utterances, is probably a cheap and poor sort of teacher.1 [Note: Washington Gladden, Where does the Sky Begin, 66.]

(2) But again, judge nothing before the time, in view of possible changes in the matters to be judged. These changes may be real and great. There are, for instance, the changes that are incident to a natural progress, from the partial to the perfect, from the provisional to the final, from the rudimentary stage to the developed, from the dust and confusion of the beginning to the faultlessness of the ending. Hence the commonplace, so often quoted and so often exemplified, that the public should not see half-done work.

I know a place of worship, the interior of which exhibits an amount of comfort, completeness, and beauty beyond the aspect of most, and certainly in advance of its own original condition. Yet in the first confusion, when old arrangements were disturbed, levels altered, and pews removed, one visitor after another entered the church, and the verdict of each was unfavourable: “The work should never have been begun. The building should never have been touched. The result will be failure and disfigurement.” So the grumblers went on, till, to avoid a general panic, as well as to secure peace for the actual work, those in charge had to lock the door. The fault-finding was all premature, as the fault-finders themselves acknowledged. Things fell into place and order and harmony; panel matched with panel, colour blended with colour, and the satisfactoriness of the final result justified the disorder and inconvenience of the temporary means.1 [Note: W. A. Gray.]

When an artist has projected a great picture, when he has completed all his studies, conceived his plan, and decided upon his methods, he proceeds to make his preliminary sketches. He roughly draws his various figures, in such postures and with such general expression as he means them to have in the canvas where he will finally place them. They are roughly done at first, and, taken by themselves, suggest no adequate notion of what the general composition will be. Perhaps he even paints each sketch with some elaboration. But even then it would be impossible to make a fair estimate of any of these carefully studied figures, or pronounce upon their colouring; because in the mind of the artist every one of these details has a definite relation to every other, and neither face nor figure, outline nor colouring, can be understood, except as it is thought of in connection with all the rest. So the real value of all these separate particulars cannot be estimated alone. But when the artist begins to draw them in together, when he groups these sketches on one surface, when he blends the colours, and combines them in relation to the lights and shadows of the picture, then one may begin to see, and not till then, all that the studies contained. They can be interpreted only by their final combination, their place in the finished picture.2 [Note: J. C. Adams.]

(3) Judge nothing before the time, in view of possible changes in surrounding circumstances. Changes may yet reveal the use of the object in question—evince the need of it, prove the value of it, and make you thankful it was ever provided. Till then, however puzzling the thing may be, be patient, be watchful, and do not judge unfavourably before the time.

There are certain religious definitions, certain theological formulas, the meaning and value of which are by no means very clear at first. They are so dry, so abstract, so rigid, so formal in character, so antiquated in phrase, that they seem at times a simple clog on the memory, mere dead-weight on the mind. “How useless such lore!” you say. “Surely the time might be better occupied, the faculties might be better exercised, than in memorizing and storing such arid material as this!” But in speaking thus, you may be judging before the time. Truth summed up and expressed in fixed and formal dogma may lie in the mind and the memory, unappealed to and unused, so long as there is nothing to disturb. But let circumstances change. Let the sky be dark with the clouds of religious doubt, let the air be agitated with the winds of religious controversy, let the pathway be blocked with the drifts of religious error, and then comes the use of such statements as these, making the road plain, keeping the road open, for those who can put them to use, while those who have no such provision are left to wander amidst the mists and the quagmires of fanaticism, fickleness, and doctrinal mistake.1 [Note: W. A. Gray.]

To summer travellers in Norway, ignorant of the implements of the country, there is a frequent cause of curiosity in certain cumbrous constructions of wood, disposed at intervals by the side of the public roads. There they lie, baking and peeling in the hot summer sunshine, never used, yet never removed. What is the meaning of them? They are lumber on the road. They are eyesores to the tourists. They scare the horses. Surely the best thing to do with them is to break them up into posts for the fences, or faggots for the fire. That is perhaps your impression, as you look at them on a bright July day. But if you visited Norway amidst the snows of the winter or spring, you would be thankful that these homely contrivances are in readiness. They are simply wooden snow-ploughs of unusual shape and size, kept on the spot for the use of the peasants who maintain the road. To say on a summer day that they are useless is plainly to judge before the time.2 [Note: Ibid.]

(4) Judge nothing before the time, in view of possible changes in the amount of light, with the consequent unveiling of facts at present concealed, data and evidence at present hid.

The supreme Court of the United States, just after the inauguration of President Buchanan, decided (over the case of Dred Scott) that slaves were property and not persons. This decision Lincoln, after succeeding Buchanan, challenged. At New York on 27th February 1860, he said: “Perhaps you will say, the Supreme Court has decided the disputed constitutional question in your favour. Not quite so. But waiving the lawyer’s distinction between dictum and decision, the court has decided the question for you in a sort of way. The court has substantially said, it is your constitutional right to take slaves into the Federal Territories, and to hold them there as property. When I say the decision was made in a sort of way, I mean that it was made in a divided court, by a bare majority of the judges, and they not quite agreeing with one another in the reasons for making it; that it is so made that its avowed supporters disagree with one another about its meaning, and that it was mainly based upon a mistaken statement of fact—the statement in the opinion that ‘the right of property in a slave is distinctly and expressly affirmed in the Constitution.’ ”1 [Note: The History of North America, xv. 106.]

4. Hitherto we have spoken of matters that may often be settled in time; we revert under this head to the standpoint of St. Paul, and speak of matters that for the most part must be left to eternity. Here a wide field opens up, suggesting at least four different cautions.

(1) Judge no one’s character before the time. As a rule, you have not the evidence. The outer life which man sees may be different from the inner life which God sees, and may lie beyond your analysis, because beyond your ken. You see your neighbour’s failures, but not his aspirations; his stumbles into what is wrong, but not his struggles after what is right; his occasional sins, but not his fierce and lifelong temptations. God and God alone strikes the balance; let God and God alone be the arbiter. Judge not till the last great day, when He admits you to participation in His knowledge, and asks you to assent to His award.

Sometimes, under the most unpromising appearances, there is a fund of hidden good. We all of us have known people with a manner so rude as to be almost brutal, whom we have afterwards discovered to have very tender hearts. And persons are to be found who have a reputation for stinginess, but who really save up their money that they may give it to the poor without letting the world know what they do. In the same way we have met people whose conversation strikes us as uniformly frivolous, or at least as wanting in seriousness, and yet it may be that this is the effect of a profoundly serious, but shy, reserved nature, bent on concealing from any human eye the severe self-scrutinizing, self-repressing life within.2 [Note: H. P. Liddon.]

While we are coldly discussing a man’s career, sneering at his mistakes, blaming his rashness, and labelling his opinions—“Evangelical and narrow,” or “Latitudinarian and Pantheistic,” or “Anglican and supercilious”—that man, in his solitude, is perhaps shedding hot tears because his sacrifice is a hard one, because strength and patience are failing him to speak the difficult word, and do the difficult deed.1 [Note: George Eliot, Janet’s Repentance.]

(2) Judge no one’s work before the time—least of all, if that work be spiritual. Much of the truest and finest spiritual work that goes on is of a kind that defies tabulation. It refuses to be set down in statistics, or grouped in anecdotes, or presented in any tangible or calculable form whatsoever. The balance of the sanctuary is a rarer and more delicate instrument than the balance of the shop, though the balance of the shop too often takes its place. You cannot weigh the fruits of the Tree of Life as a shopman weighs apples and oranges over his counter, nor can you count the number of conversions as a shopman counts the coins in his till. The mistake of many, both without the Church and within it, lies in forgetting this, and importing the commercial principle of so much visible return for so much visible outlay—a principle which is degrading to the work, discouraging to the worker, and presumptuous and dictatorial towards God.

The publication of the papers (afterwards published under the title of Unto this Last) in the Cornhill Magazine raised a storm of indignant protest; even a theological heresy-hunt could not have been more fast and furious. The essays were declared to be “one of the most melancholy spectacles, intellectually speaking, that we have ever witnessed.” “The series of papers in the Cornhill Magazine,” wrote another critic, “throughout which Mr. Ruskin laboured hard to destroy his reputation, were to our mind almost painful. It is no pleasure to see genius mistaking its power, and rendering itself ridiculous.” The papers were described by the Saturday Review as “eruptions of windy hysterics,” “absolute nonsense,” “utter imbecility,” “intolerable twaddle”; the author was “a perfect paragon of blubbering”; his “whines and snivels” were contemptible; the world was not going to be “preached to death by a mad governess.” The last passage of the book in particular filled the Saturday reviewer with indignant disgust. Let us hear the passage, for the author considered it one of the best he ever wrote, and it has reached many a mind and touched many a heart. He had been pleading for wiser consumption, for fairer distribution, for a more thoughtful direction of labour, for a simpler mode of life, and then continued thus:—

“And if, on due and honest thought over these things, it seems that the kind of existence to which men are now summoned by every plea of pity and claim of right, may, for some time at least, not be a luxurious one;—consider whether, even supposing it guiltless, luxury would be desired by any of us, if we saw clearly at our sides the suffering which accompanies it in the world. Luxury is indeed possible in the future—innocent and exquisite; luxury for all, and by the help of all; but luxury at present can only be enjoyed by the ignorant; the cruelest man living could not sit at his feast, unless he sat blindfold. Raise the veil boldly; face the light; and if, as yet, the light of the eye can only be seen through tears, and the light of the body through sackcloth, go thou forth weeping, bearing precious seed, until the time come, and the kingdom, when Christ’s gift of bread, and bequest of peace, shall be “Unto this last as unto thee”; and when, for earth’s severed multitudes of the wicked and the weary, there shall be holier reconciliation than that of the narrow home, and calm economy, where the Wicked cease—not from trouble, but from troubling—and the Weary are at rest.”1 [Note: E. T. Cook, The Life of Ruskin, ii. 6.]

(3) Judge no one’s discipline before the time. Do not judge your own. Perhaps you think that discipline harsh. Perhaps you think it singularly unsuitable. You are tempted to imagine that your spiritual character would have been better nurtured and your spiritual interests better served had God taken another method with you—assigning you a different burden, leading you a different way. Not so. You may be sure that the burden fits your shoulders, that the path fits your feet, as they fit those of no one else. Wherefore be obedient, be patient, be hopeful. What you know not now you shall know hereafter, if not in this life, certainly in the day that makes all things clear.

We judge others according to results; how else?—not knowing the process by which results are arrived at.2 [Note: George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss.]

(4) Judge no one’s destiny before the time; you know not the determining elements. They are often hidden from you in life, and some who have passed as opponents of religion have, Nicodemus-like, been its secret friends. And in death the data may be hidden too. I speak with caution, even with trembling, remembering the danger of abuse; but I say that while the possibility of a late repentance permits no one to presume in his own case, it permits no one to despair in the case of others.

have not much sympathy with those who have great suspiciousness about false religion. I have not much sympathy with strong, positive [condemnatory] affirmations about people’s religion, where there is nothing decidedly bad. I have not much sympathy with those who are not disposed to admit and to hope that there may be reality where there is the appearance of some little good thing toward the Lord God of Israel.1 [Note: “Rabbi” Duncan, in Memoir of John Duncan, 425.]

The tragedy of our lives is not created entirely from within. “Character,” says Novalis, in one of his questionable aphorisms—“character is destiny.” But not the whole of our destiny. Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, was speculative and irresolute, and we have a great tragedy in consequence. But if his father had lived to a good old age, and his uncle had died an early death, we can conceive Hamlet’s having married Ophelia, and got through life with a reputation of sanity, notwithstanding many soliloquies, and some moody sarcasms towards the fair daughter of Polonius, to say nothing of the frankest incivility to his father-in-law.2 [Note: George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss.]

A sailor, who had long been the object of a mother’s prayers, but had nevertheless lived a godless and a thoughtless life, was swept overboard in a storm. While he struggled in the waves a vision of his past rose before him, vivid, concentrated, intense, together with what seemed a last opportunity of making his peace with God. That vision he improved. That opportunity he embraced. Then and there he repented. Then and there he gave himself to Christ. “When my soul fainted within me, I remembered the Lord: and my prayer came in unto him, into his holy temple.” And his first thought after the transaction was this: “I shall die a Christian, and my mother will never know of the change.” But she did know; for he lived to tell her, and to testify to others besides, by the consistency of his Christian walk and faithfulness of his Christian service.3 [Note: W. A. Gray.]

Judging Prematurely


Adams (J. C.), The Leisure of God, 143.

Church (R. W.), Village Sermons, i. 8.

Colenso (J. W.), Natal Sermons, i. 72.

Dale (R. W.), Weekday Sermons, 38.

Gray (W. A.), Laws and Landmarks of the Spiritual Life, 41.

Horne (W.), Religious Life and Thought, 86.

Hort (F. J. A.), Village Sermons in Outline, 217.

Howatt (J. R.), The Children’s Angel, 67.

Johnson (H.), From Love to Praise, 165.

Knight (J. J.), Sermons in Brief, 46.

Kuegele (F.), Country Sermons, New Ser., ii. 19.

Liddon (H. P.), Advent in St. Paul’s, 551.

Lightfoot (J. B.), Sermons in St. Paul’s Cathedral, 193.

Lilley (A. L.), The Soul of St. Paul, 179.

Neale (J. M.), Sermons in Sackville College Chapel, ii. 177.

Parker (J.), Studies in Texts, i. 173.

Sauter (B.), The Sunday Epistles, 30.

Skrine (J. H.), The Heart’s Counsel, 8.

Stevenson (J. F.), God and a Future Life, 55.

Whitworth (W. A.), Christian Thought on Present Day Questions, 200.

Christian World Pulpit, xliv. 257 (Harries); lxxiv. 410 (Henson).

Church of England Pulpit, li. 93 (Udny); lix. 112 (Jackson).

Churchman’s Pulpit: Third Sunday in Advent: i. 482 (Crosse), 483 (Mulchahey), 485 (Farquhar), 488 (Shipman), 490 (Johnson).

Contemporary Pulpit, 2nd Ser., ii. 193 (Church).

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