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Tolerance, high standards, and amazing grace

December 15, 2009 by Eric Stillman 0 comments

But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him. But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground. At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she said. “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” (John 8:1-11)

I love this story. I shared some thoughts about this passage in my sermon on grace a few weeks ago, and I want to revisit John 8 today, especially the words Jesus says to the woman caught in adultery. Most people remember this story for his words to the Pharisees – “If any of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” With those powerful words, Jesus forever leveled the playing field, so to speak, by putting saints and sinners alike in the same boat – sinners in need of forgiveness, unqualified to condemn another.

I’m most struck, however, by what Jesus says to the woman. Not just what he says, but the order in which he says them. First, he says, in essence, “I do not condemn you.” Second, he says, “Go and leave your life of sin.” I’m struck by this because I see in those two statements a reflection of the varying attitudes of many Christians and churches. Many churches and people hold up the first part as the ideal: “I do not condemn you.” These are churches who proclaim “all are welcome here; come as you are,” comparing themselves all the while to those mean, un-Christlike churches that are so focused on sin and expectations of conformity to what they perceive as Biblical living. These churches are good at creating environments where all feel welcome to seek after God without fear of condemnation or judgment. Other churches and people like the second part – “go and sin no more.” These are churches who see the value in holiness, believing strongly that God’s Word is truth and that conformity to that truth is where we experience eternal life. Churches like these are good at taking seriously the message of the Bible and challenging people to higher standards of living.

Still other churches and people would proclaim the same things that Jesus did, yet in the reverse order: “Go and sin no more, and I will not condemn you.” In other words, “Get your act together and you are welcome here and acceptable to God.” This is how many people see religion: God accepts those who live according to His standards, while those who do not are outcasts, unloved, rejected.

Jesus, however, does not fit any of those molds. He begins with grace – you are accepted as you are, not because of anything you have done or haven’t done, but because I love you. He forgives this woman without her even asking him to. And then he moves on to obedience – “go now and leave your live of sin.” He does not stop at acceptance, but challenges her to live a life of holiness. The way of Jesus is not just acceptance and tolerance; nor is it simply expectations and standards. It is grace, followed by obedience. It is not “Obey, and you will be loved, ” but “You are loved; now obey.” God loves you just as you are, but loves you too much to let you stay the way you are. He wants you to be just like Jesus.

Grace, followed by holiness, is the gospel. Our salvation is an undeserved gift given by an unobligated giver. We did nothing to earn it, but have been given eternal life freely by Jesus, if we would only accept it by turning from our sins to faith in Him. And then, once we have accepted His gift of salvation, nothing can separate us from His love. His grace will keep us with Him until the day we die. But He will also spend the rest of our lives sanctifying us, calling us to a higher standard, to die to our sins and to live for Him, to allow Him to transform us into the image of Jesus.

And this gospel is to be the model by which we live out all of our relationships – marriage, parenting, friendships, and in the church. We begin with grace, loving and accepting not because someone has earned it, but because we ourselves have been shown grace when we did not deserve it. Grace declares “I am on your side; I am for you, not against you, and I will not reject you.” As it says in Romans 15:7, “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.” And with that foundation of grace, unconditional love, we call others to a higher standard, to put away their sin and to live for Jesus. As it says in Hebrews 10:24, “Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.” Our relationships are to be marked not by simple tolerance (enabling others to remain in their sin), nor by brute law and expectations (measure up to this standard or you’re rejected), but grace followed by obedience.

May we treat those in our life as Jesus treated the woman in John 8 – “Neither do I condemn you. Now go and leave your life of sin.”

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