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Book Review – Who Are You To Judge?

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Who Are You To Judge? by Dave Swavely is a book that deals primarily with legalism. It defines judging and legalism in a biblical manner, and discusses two often-overlooked biblical commands: Do not pass judgment before the time and do not exceed what is written. Swavely teaches that learning to identify and avoid these problems will help promote peace and joy in the body of Christ, and release believers to serve God in the freedom of His grace.

All Christians have, at one time or another, borne the brunt of inappropriate judging and the burden of legalism. All Christians have, in all likelihood, been guilty of inappropriate judging and burdening others with legalism. Here are some examples of legalistic, judgmental statements as provided by the author:

  • “There is no way someone can drive a car that expensive and be a godly man.”
  • “A church that does not serve weekly communion is dishonoring the Lord.”
  • “Rock music is the devil’s music and is never appropriate for a Christian.”
  • “God is sickened by the singing of simplistic praise choruses that repeat the same works over and over.”
  • “Birth control robs God of His sovereignty and rebelliously refuses His blessings.”
  • “Any woman who works a full-time job is neglecting her children.”
  • “Smoking is a sin because it destroys the temple of God.”
  • “She’s a member of our church, but I don’t think she’s a true Christian.”

Swavely defines the sin of judging as follows: “The sin of judging is negatively evaluating someone’s conduct or spiritual state on the basis of nonbiblical standards or suspected motives.” Said more colloquially, to judge others is to decide that they are doing wrong because they do something the Bible doesn’t talk about or because you think you can guess what is in their heart. This is what the Apostle Paul has in mind when he discusses judging, particularly in 1 Corinthians (see, for example, 1 Corinthians 4:5). Similarly, legalism is “creating moral standards beyond what the Scripture has revealed.”

Through eight chapters and two case studies, the book exposes legalism and points in particular to two grave dangers: first, legalism leads to spiritual pride and arrogance. This causes people to become puffed up because of their attention to extrabiblical traditions. Second, legalism leads to division in the church as Christians allow themselves to become fractured by man-made rules. The book includes two case studies, the first dealing with entertainment and the popular arts and the second with public education. In both Swavely attempts to sort out what is legalistic and what is biblical and arrives at what may be surprising conclusions. The final chapter turns to an examination of the relationship between legalism and the gospel. Swavely differentiates between legalism applied to sanctification and legalism applied to justification and shows how legalism diminishes our understanding of the gospel. “Those who are legalistic in regard to sanctification are often, to one degree or another, legalistic in regard to salvation as well — whether they realize it or not. This is illustrated in a rather obvious fashion by movements such as Mormonism, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Roman Catholicism, whose theology of ‘salvation by faith plus works’ is accompanied by all kinds of extrabiblical rules and requirements.” An appendix discusses the ultimate human judgment and asks whether it is permissible for one human to judge that another is an unbeliever.

While I do not agree with all that Swavely writes, and can scarcely believe that there is anyone who would see eye-to-eye with him in all the matters he discusses, this is a valuable and challening book. It certainly challenged me to examine my own heart and to ensure that I meditate upon where I have allowed legalism to enter my life. I am glad to recommend this book to you and trust that you will benefit from it as I have.

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