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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 8:10-11)
In John 8, Jesus is put to the test by a group of Jewish religious leaders. A number of teachers of the law and Pharisees drag before Jesus a woman caught in adultery and ask Jesus whether or not she should be stoned, as the law of Moses commands. This is most certainly a trap set for Jesus, as you will notice the adulterous man is nowhere to be found. The trap is this: if Jesus upholds the law, all of the outcasts who have been drawn to him will desert him, but if he lets her go, then he will be guilty of breaking God’s law and discredit himself as a man of God.
Jesus, in his usual brilliant way, escapes the trap by telling the crowd, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7). Upon hearing this, the crowd disperses, and Jesus speaks to the woman, saying “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" She replies “No one, sir,” she said. “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin” (John 8:10-11).
Jesus’ dilemma in this passage is a common dilemma for churches and for Christians, for the two options appear at first glance to be in contradiction. You can either uphold morality, and trample on people as a result, or you can be compassionate, and trample on God’s law. How can you show both justice and mercy? How can you neither encourage sin nor condemn the sinner?
Jesus first answers this dilemma with the gathered crowd. He honors God’s law by implying that yes, she should be stoned. But then he tells them that the one without sin should throw the first stone. It is as if he is telling them that if they are going to get serious about upholding the law, then they need to realize that they are ALL guilty of sin, not just the woman who stands before them.
After the crowd has left, Jesus addresses the woman in a way that gives us a template for how we can uphold God’s law while also showing compassion to sinful people. He says “I do not condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin.” Notice what Jesus does NOT say. He does not say “Go now and leave your life of sin, and then I will not condemn you.” Nor does he say “I do not condemn you” and leave it there. He begins with grace, and then calls her to obedience.
As a church and as Christians, we HAVE to get this right. There are many churches who, out of their desire to uphold morality and stand for God, emphasize the need for holiness and obedience to God’s law. But by leading with the law, they end up shutting the door in the face of men and women who need God but feel judged by the church. Other churches, however, out of their desire to love and welcome everyone, preach a message that “God does not condemn you.” But by leaving out God’s call to obedience and holiness, they preach “peace, peace, when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:14), communicating the false message that everyone is acceptable to God just because they are so special, and that sin is no big deal.
The gospel is that we all, like the woman caught in adultery, are guilty before God’s law and deserving of death. And the only one who is without sin – Jesus – has the right to punish us eternally for our rebellion. But Jesus took the punishment we deserved through His death on the cross, and now offers grace – “Neither do I condemn you” – to all who will receive it by faith. And then, AFTER grace, comes the call to obey – not in order to earn our salvation, but BECUASE we have been saved. The motivation to obey God is not fear of punishment or to earn reward, but gratitude and a trust in the one who loved us enough to die in our place.
So, what kind of church will we be? And what kind of Christian will you be? One where everyone is welcome as they are? Or one that upholds the law? By God’s grace, we will be the third kind: a gospel-centered church where everyone is welcome as they are, and where all will be encouraged and challenged to leave their life of sin and to be transformed into the image of Christ. God does not condemn you. Now go and leave your life of sin.
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