I have been reflecting on John 8:1-11, the story of the woman caught in adultery and brought to Jesus for his judgment. I won’t comment much here on the legitimacy of this passage in terms of whether it originated from the hand of John, except to say that although it may be a later interpolation by copyists, it retains the ring of truth and is consistent with the nature of Jesus recorded throughout the rest of John’s Gospel.
My main interest in this passage centres around Jesus’ final words to the woman:
“Neither do I condemn you; now go and sin no more.” (John 8:11)
Have you ever considered the seemingly strange juxtaposition of these two phrases: “neither do I condemn you” and “go and sin no more”? The latter seems to contradict the former. The first statement is a clear assurance by Jesus that he does not condemn the woman for her adultery. But then in the next breath he is effectively saying to her, “but what you are doing is a sin against God and you must stop immediately!” How is this not condemning her? If we went around saying this to people today, we would be accused of hate speech and howled down for our condemnatory attitude!
It is helpful to define what Jesus precisely means by “condemn”, and also what he doesn’t mean. Under the old covenant, adultery was punishable by death. The Pharisees knew this and wanted to see if Jesus would recommend the stipulated capital punishment in this woman’s case. The way that the incident is set up by the religious leaders shows that this was not really about the woman at all, but an attempt to trap Jesus and condemn him:
“‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. 5 In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?’ 6 They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.” (John 8:4-6)
What was the exact nature of this trap? If Jesus recommended mercy, he would be contradicting God’s Law and the religious leaders would have a basis for condemning him. If he agreed with the death penalty, he would lose favour with the common people who saw him as a merciful redeemer. Either way, the Pharisees would win! It was a brilliant trap.
Jesus’ response in not recommending the death penalty for the woman places him in great danger. In contradicting the Law of Moses, he is opening himself to serious charges that could result in his own condemnation and death. By not condemning the woman to death, he is effectively condemning himself and writing his own death sentence. And, of course, this is exactly what eventually happened.
This incident served to solidify the determination of the religious leaders to kill Jesus. They had previously begun to plot his death after the healing of the man by the pool in Bethesda (John 5:1-18), but now that Jesus was directly contradicting the Mosaic Laws, they were left in no doubt that Jesus had to go. In fact, this trap appears to have been intended to convince any Pharisees and Sadducees who remained doubtful about the need to kill Jesus that he did, indeed, deserve to die. And it worked. From this point in the Gospels, the deadly rhetoric against Jesus intensified and the plans of the religious leaders became more certain. It no longer became a question of ‘if’ but ‘when’, because Jesus now seemed to be teaching against the very laws of God.
But how could Jesus possibly overturn the prescribed penalty for adultery? How could he contradict the Laws of God, handed down through Moses?
The answer, of course, is the cross. Jesus was not overturning the death penalty, because he would soon die on the cross for the sins of the whole world. In forgiving this woman, Jesus was offering to die in her place, taking her sins upon himself so that she could go free. Jesus did not overturn the Mosaic Law, he fulfilled it.
This incident has been included in John’s Gospel for good reason. More than any of the miracles or teachings of Jesus, this story of a death-row pardon is the most powerful and prophetic depiction of the message of salvation in all four Gospels. An undeserving sinner is saved from certain death, and the One who saves her, does so at the cost of his own certain death. In fact, it was the certainty of his impending death that was the sole basis of Jesus’ forgiveness of the woman. Thus, in setting the woman free from the prescribed Mosaic penalty, Jesus was not merely risking his own death, he was foreshadowing and guaranteeing it. What amazing grace.
There is another important element to this story. Jesus’ withholding of condemnation was an act of undeserved grace, but it also demanded a response. “Neither do I condemn you; now go and sin no more”. This is how it must always be. A true encounter with the grace of Jesus must always result in a changed life. There is an inference here that this was not the woman’s first act of adultery. Jesus is therefore demanding that the woman repent and turn from her sinful way of life. A true encounter with the grace of Jesus must result in a transformed life. Repentance is an essential element of a true salvation encounter with the grace of Jesus. Grace must transform us, or else it has not been truly and deeply received.
But getting back to our original question, how is pointing out a person’s sin and telling them to stop sinning not an act of condemnation? The answer is that Jesus was judging the woman’s actions, but not condemning her as a person. There is a difference. Jesus found her guilty of sin and commanded her to repent, but instead of condemning her to her rightful punishment, he forgave her. There is an important message here. Grace is not blind. It does not close its eyes and pretend there is no problem. Grace is not extended because the seriousness of sin has been minimised, but because it has been paid for by Someone else.
What does this infer for the church’s mission today? Surely, we must do as Jesus did. On the one hand, we must extend the offer of grace to all, without condemnation. This means treating people with the same kindness that Jesus extended to this woman. When others sought to shame her and reject her, Jesus did not. He was compassionate. We see this throughout the whole ministry of Jesus, as he went into the homes of tax collectors and sinners, eating with them and befriending them, while the rest of society shunned them (Luke 15:1-2). We are called to do the same. We are called to reach out to the wayward and lost in genuine friendship and love, offering the forgiveness of the Saviour.
On the other hand, we must not minimise the seriousness of sin and God’s call to repentance. We must stand rock-solid upon God’s unchanging standards. In a world which increasingly minimises and denies sin, God’s people must resist the tide of relativism and withstand the pressure to compromise. Sin is still sin, and God is still calling people to turn from it. But we must be careful how we convey this message. There is a fine line we must walk. Our moral stance must not result in hatred or condemnation of those caught up in sin, for we remain forever conscious of our own sinfulness and unworthiness. But neither do we offer grace superficially, pretending that there is no problem and that all is well with the world. The immensity of God’s grace is only truly grasped when people perceive the depth of their own problem.
The woman in this story was not excused a mere parking ticket. She was not rescued from a mere slap on the wrist. She was saved from a death penalty that she, and all of us, thoroughly deserve, because we have all turned our backs on our Creator and defied the moral law-giver of the universe.
It is to people like you and me that Jesus says, “Neither do I condemn you; now go and sin no more.” This continues to be Jesus’ message, and it must remain ours as well.